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Driving in Sicilia with Friends

I just finished the 9th annual vacation with friends (11 days, varies between 10 and 14). Let me begin by saying everyone's warts are magnified in a Renault Elf.

My strategy for keeping successful trips and friendships is to surrender, most of the time. About eight months to a year ahead, my two friends let me know what area they want to visit. I make reservations for hotels (they like small towns, hate big cities, love agriturismo stays). I prefer big cities. I find wilderness and forests creepy. They are willing to search all day for the perfect beach (in between meals and historical sights); I grew up on South Beach, so...

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? That's where surrender comes in. I am absolutely willing to give up my phobias for time with them. So I search out nature preserves and beaches. We agree on food, wine, archeological sites, and art, and those take up most of our day. And I know that with them, I will see wondrous things that I would never notice on my own, even if I wanted to get close to them.

We started in Mondello, at the edge of a nature preserve in Sicilia, but it is actually a suburb of Palermo. We had to be rescued by our B&B host when we got lost - a major street had the wrong stenciled name on it. So Francesco saved us, we checked in and went to dinner at a seaside restaurant and had a great first meal together. We walked around the small harbour and the main Piazza. It was late, so we turned in soon afterward.

The rooms were three around a kitchen/dining area, which we did not use. Only once was the third room occupied, so we had an apartment to ourselves for four nights. Breakfast (fresh pastries, rolls, butter, jam, ham and cheese, coffee of any kind, juice and yogurt) was more than ample.

To my surprise, there was a bus that goes from Mondello to central Palermo, so we set out the first morning to see the things we had missed several years ago when we couldn't find a parking space. Parking has not improved since then, so with a combination of bus, taxi, and free navetta (described in my earlier "Palermo" report), we saw the Capella Palatina (top of our list). Very crowded, and the apse is roped off so the viewer cannot get a good perspective on the mosaics. We decided to skip the Royal Apartments and the special exhibition, and went to the Duomo, which we agreed is more impressive from the exterior. We took the bus back to Mondello for dinner.

The rest of our Mondello days were spent driving to small towns nearby, discovering places we had never heard of before. On our last day, we went to Segesta (a return visit) and were again mesmerized by this unfinished temple.

We then moved on to three nights in Selinunte. The scaffolding has been removed, the temples are beautiful. The town has grown up around the archeological site, so everything is close at hand - until you get into the temple grounds. The site is vast, no, really vast, so we opted for the full ride (3 stops) in the little tram, which takes you to one, two, or three stops, drops you off, and another tram comes by every 15-20 minutes. On the third pass, the tram driver asked where my friends were, and I replied that one was an engineer and had to inspect every stone. "measuring the dimensions?" The driver asked, and just then my friends reappeared, the engineer saying, "The dimensions of the stones are amazing," and we all had a great laugh. Then onto the furthest point, which we had completely to ourselves (apparently not many people buy the long version of the tram ticket). So the driver stayed with us rather than make a 15-kilometer roundtrip, and gave us tons of information and narrative about the ruins, and briefly stopped at a Byzantine church that is still mostly yet to be excavated. Then we went to the Acropolis, were dropped off, and picked up an hour later. What a beautiful, memorable day.

Posted by
11613 posts

Our final stop together, after a visit to Agrigento on the way, was at an agriturismo outside Siracusa. We spent four nights, went to Siracusa twice, visited the market, Duomo and Paolo Orsi archeological museum, which is one of the best in the world. Coins and exhibits from all the other places we had visited, including Akrai, which was our favorite. It is a little town in the hills, which has a Greek theatre, bouleteron, a necropolis, and other ruins, all on a very small scale. I think the theatre would only seat several hundred people, but it is built into a hillside, so there was probably temporary seating above the permanent curved rows.

We couldn't find the street leading to it, and a woman we stopped to ask for directions told us to follow her (and her two children in the back seat). She led us to the only street we could take (so we could not get lost), then waved us on. After several hours visiting the site, we were hungry again, and went looking for a restaurant. No luck anywhere. Just as we were about to become the first people to suffer starvation in Italy since the end of the war, we followed a sign to a huge resort in the mountains, which only served dinner (it was now 3 o'clock), but the man said he would cook for us what he was preparing for an end-of-school year party that night. We had seafood pasta and swordfish steak, wine, and great conversation, for less than €60.

We had to be at the Catania airport very early Sunday morning for my friend's flight and my bus/train ride to Acireale, so we had a long, festive goodbye outside the security area.

I miss them.

Posted by
2251 posts

Oh, Zoe; what a most special trip! Isn't it wonderful to be able to share with long time good friends? I too, have a group of 4 travel buddies and for various reasons, we can only manage to get together every two years. I enjoyed every word of your trip report. It sounds as if it was indeed a "memorable" time for you and your friends. Thanks!

Posted by
11613 posts

Thanks, Andi. I have known one friend for almost forty years.

Posted by
1300 posts

You and your friends are fortunate to have each other to travel with. It sounds as if you all know your strengths (and weaknesses?) and know how to let go of what's not important in pursuit of your common enjoyment.
My close friend and best travel buddy passed away last year but we learned a lot from each other how to make a trip a success, and I have tried to incorporate those lessons (actually, life lessons, when I reflect on it) into other adventures.
Thanks for sharing such a great trip with the rest of us.

Posted by
1018 posts

Zoe, this sounds delightful. I've been addicted to your trip reports for some time now, especially since I seem to be inadvertently following you. Last year, I spent quite a bit of time in Umbria and Rome, and now I have my sights set on Sicily. So thank you for all the detail and interesting stories.

I love my family, and have enjoyed the trips I've taken with them, but I confess that my best vacations have been with friends (sometimes and family, sometimes instead of family). You are very fortunate to have found a way to make this happen annually. I aspire to that someday...but for now, my trips are averaging three years apart as I pay college tuition in between.

Keep writing! I treasure your stories and will definitely use your tips.

Posted by
11613 posts

Thanks so much, Nelly. I just left Napoli after five days, next stops are Matera, Benevento, Roma, and a few places in the north.

I had been out of touch with my friend for many years, one day she emailed me (googled first), and a few days later we were planning a trip.

This is a unique situation, I usually prefer not to travel with anyone.

I didn't go to Italy for twelve years - financial obligations here. But I sally think it was that I forgot to throw a coin into the Trevi fountain.

Posted by
1300 posts

Hi Zoe --
I spent 3 days in Matera in May and really enjoyed it.
The walking tour of the Sassi through the TI in the Vittorio Veneto Piazza is pretty interesting and a real work out. Wear good shoes!
A friend of mine last year was able to find a small van tour to the beehive buildings area and other local towns but I didn't have any luck locating one, although there might have been something on the day that I had to leave.
Enjoy yourself!

Posted by
11613 posts

Thanks, SharYn! I've been to Matera several times, and the sassi are a workout.

Posted by
6198 posts

What a delightful report. Any time you need another travel buddy....

Posted by
681 posts

I really enjoyed reading about your travels. I travel with a sister and we know each other in and out. I also do the planning and she does the driving. It works out well.