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Sicily: Palermo, Caltanisetta, Siracusa, Taormina

I was in Sicily from April 28 through May 8, 2014. I went with my friend Eric, who lives in Philadelphia; we have each been to Italy multiple times before (separately, and four times together), but never to Sicily. I'm posting this in pieces, so if any one has any questions that I can help with and haven't addressed yet, please ask.

First, the itinerary:
April 27: Train from NYC to Philadelphia; fly US Airways from PHL to FCO
April 28: Fly Alitalia from FCO to Palermo
April 29 Palermo
April 30: Pick up car, drive to Monreale, then to agriturismo near Caltanisetta
May 1: Agrigento; overnight agriturismo
May 2: Villa Romana, drive to Siracusa
May 3: Siracusa
May 4: Ragusa and Noto; overnight Siracusa
May 5: Taormina
May 6: Taormina
May 7: Drive to Catania airport and return car; fly to Rome and stay in Rome Airport Hilton
May 8: Fly Alitalia FCO to PHL

The flights were determined by several factors. There are no nonstops at this time of year to Sicily from anywhere in the US, and the flights are expensive. Eric had already gotten a mileage ticket from PHL to FCO, and it turned out it was half the miles to do this vs. using miles from NYC to FCO. And the mileage tickets from NYC all the way to Sicily had convoluted routings. So, I took the Amtrak train from New York and we met in the PHL airport. I wouldn't recommend this unless you are familiar with the process, but I take that train all the time and know the stations well (including locations of elevators), so it was easy. Of course, the train wasn't free ($39 from NYC to PHL and $53 from PHL to NYC).

Next, we bought separate tickets from FCO to PMO, and from CTA to FCO. We were aware of the pitfalls of this, so we had to stay in Rome the night before our flight back to the US. Also, we had a bit less than 3 hours to change planes in FCO on the way in, and we were worried about this. We ended up buying two tickets from FCO to PMO; one with the 3 hour connection, and one 7 hours later, just in case. Each ticket was about €75, so I just figured the cost of our Rome to Palermo segment as €150 and accepted that. In the end, we made the connection with plenty of time. Alitalia didn't charge extra for our checked bags (Easyjet and Ryanair would have).

I don't regret doing all this, as I did save a lot of money. Flights with a decent schedule from NYC to PMO and CTA to NYC were going to cost about $1330. My mileage ticket had fees of $64, my flights between Rome and Sicily were €210, and my trains between New York and Philadelphia were $92 (so grand total roughly $450, plus 55,000 miles).

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Phones: In FCO terminal 1 just after security, there are shops for all the Italian mobile companies, and as I said we had extra time. My friend did extensive research, and determined that he wanted the TIM Welcome package. This is €30 for a SIM card, 200 minutes of domestic or international calls, 2 GB of data (4G speed where available) and €5 of credit for texts or more calls. It is good only for 30 days and is not renewable (the SIM stays good, but you have to buy a different package to get more service once you've used up the €5 credit). However, the TIM shop in FCO did not have nano-SIMs, which Eric needed; he ended up getting his in Palermo without difficulty. I have a "dumb phone" that takes a standard mini-SIM and so don't need data. I paid €20 for a SIM and €15 of credit. As for the codice fiscale question: at the store in FCO, they wanted my codice fiscale. At the store in Palermo, they didn't.

Our phones had great service everywhere, and it was very handy to have data. We didn't use much (I think it was less than 100 MB), but it was a great convenience.

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Accommodations: we were pleased with all our accommodation choices, which is good because Eric did a lot of research (he's pickier about this than I am, so I let him handle it). We wanted separate rooms, strongly preferred en-suite bathroom facilities, and wanted to be centrally located. In addition, after Palermo we were driving, so we needed to accommodate the car.

In Palermo we stayed at Bed And Breakfast La Bella Vita: http://www.bblabellavita.it/?lang=en. This is a small place (only four rooms). What a find! Each room is large and has a balcony, the bathrooms are large (with a really nice stall shower), the owners really want to make sure you have a good stay, and it's really cheap (only €55 per room for night for singles; rates vary slightly by season). The neighborhood is perfect; it's between the old city (a bit gritty to stay in) and the fanciest area (a bit too fancy for my taste, with lots of famous designer's stores - Gucci, Prada, etc). There are lots of nearby restaurants, and it's only about a 10 minute walk to the port. And the hotel itself is on a traffic-free street, so it's quiet and sitting on the balcony is very pleasant, even though you're in the middle of the city. We paid an extra €35 to be picked up at the airport, and it would have only been €45 for round trip airport service (in both cases, cheaper than a cab). This had the added benefit of delightful conversation with the owners on the way in. The WiFi worked well. I would DEFINITELY stay here again.

EDIT: For about one-quarter of the toilets in Sicily, you cannot flush toilet paper, but must deposit it in a small basket (like in Turkey or Brazil or Russia, among other places). I never did figure out the rhyme or reason to predicting which toilets this would affect (it wasn't consistent in a city or neighborhood, for instance). At this B&B, you cannot flush toilet paper (the only one of our four Sicily accommodations where this was the case).

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In rural central Sicily we stayed at an agriturismo in Caltanisetta province, Azienda Agricola Silvia Sillitti: http://www.sillitti.it/3_agrifarm.htm. This was a beautiful place, with rolling hills in every direction; it's what I picture "rural Tuscany" looking like, at a fraction of the price and with no crowds. There's a pool and both covered and uncovered terraces, so it's a great place to just relax, and its central location means that much of the island is only 1-2 hours away by car. A car is an absolute necessity to stay here, unless you just want to rest on site (she will pick you up at a nearby bus station, but then you wouldn't be able to go anywhere else). The only negative - no WiFi (but again, cell phone reception for both voice and data was fine).

Silvia herself really made the place memorable. She speaks good English and was a perfect hostess. We had a two bedroom, two bath unit with a kitchenette (burners and small fridge, but no oven) for €40 per night per person. Breakfast was included, and we paid €25 per person each night for her to make dinner (we didn't fancy driving rural roads in the dark). She took great pride in her dishes, made whenever possible with organic products including her own olives and beans. And her guests were very varied and it was fun to socialize with them each night.

I don't drive (more on that later), but if I did, I'd stay here again in a heartbeat. Only one problem: in her directions, she had warned us that while a TomTom GPS would work, a Garmin would not. We thought this was an exaggeration - it isn't. The Garmin (even with recently updated maps) simply did not know the small roads right around her house. Getting there was quite a trial. She did suggest that we stop at a certain place at the main highway and call her to be guided to her house; we should have taken her up on the offer.

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In Siracusa we stayed at a small house found on AirB&B, listed as "Cute confortable house in Ortigia": https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/718143. We really wanted to be in Ortigia, because all our research said that this island (the oldest part of the city) was BY FAR the best place to stay (and Silvia agreed). But since demand outstrips supply, the hotels there are expensive. This place was the perfect answer. It was a very small house, with a twin bed bedroom on the ground floor along with a kitchen and bathroom, and a double bed room upstairs. The bathroom even has a washing machine, and the kitchen is fully stocked with all kinds of items. It's run by a father (Sebastiano) and son (Luca), and Luca explained that when there is no tenant, he himself sometimes stays there. That explained why it was in such good shape, and why there were such good stocks of everything - from extra blankets to glass cleaner to a DVD player to regular and decaf teabags to almost any cooking implement you could think of, if you need it, it's here. The location was as central and convenient as promised. And Sebastiano runs a gift shop just outside the door, and lives across from the giftshop, so he's really a hands-on "landlord." He was very concerned that we have a good stay, and really went the extra mile (for example, helping greatly with the car).

The only negative is erratic Internet. Sebastiano is aware of the problem and trying to work on a solution, which is complicated. It was often slow, and it's so unpredictable that Sebastiano doesn't even advertise the house as having Internet availability (so, finding any at all was a pleasant surprise). This was one time when Eric's having data on his phone came in handy.

I'd certainly stay here again. And it was, yet again, a bargain: $270 for three nights, all in.

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In Taormina we stayed at Casa Cuseni: http://www.casacuseni.com/en/. This is a villa with lovely grounds, built in 1905, that has been converted into a B&B. Taormina is perched on a hillside, and this house is located "above" the main town; this means phenomenal views from your terrace. It also means climbing back up from town to get back to your room, but we felt it was worth the tradeoff. I stayed in the Bertrand Russell Room and Eric stayed in the Greta Garbo Room next door. We shared a hall bathroom (the rooms with private bath were beyond our budget). Eric knows someone, with family in Taormina, who stays at the Hotel Splendid. But reading the reviews, it seemed merely OK, and it wasn't cheap (something like €80 per night for a single). So, we decided to splurge: €130 each per night, plus €15 per night for parking. That is, by far, the most I've ever paid for a bathroom down the hall.

However, Taormina is magic (more on that later), and the lovely grounds and atmosphere of this place were special. So, while it was not the "bargain" our other places were, we feel it was a good value. And the WiFi was not only included, but strong (good enough for Eric to do video Skype without any "skipping"). Once again we got personal service; while the owners are away during the day, Salvatore is the concierge, and he gave us great restaurant recommendations and other assistance.

I'd certainly stay here again. However, it is not suitable for anyone with any mobility impairment, as you not only have to climb up from town, but you have to climb from the main gate to the house, then climb stairs to your room, and climb a further flight to the breakfast room. Of course, if this is an issue, all of Taormina will be a challenge; the main drag is relatively level, but everything else in town is either up or down from there. Also, while you can get there without driving into Taormina's ZTL, our GPS tried to take us via the ZTL. Luckily, I saw the sign in time, and at the nearby parking lot (parcheggio Lumbi) we were able to get directions.

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In Rome we stayed at the Rome Airport Hilton: http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/italy/hilton-rome-airport-ROMAPTW/index.html. This was quite a contrast to the other places which had such a personal touch; it's a large business hotel. Eric was upset to learn that while it's connected to the terminals by internal passageways, it's quite a long walk from them (he doesn't like getting sweaty and was packing heavy; by the time we arrived, he wished we had taken a taxi!). However, they have a free shuttle to Terminal 5, which we used the next morning with no problems. This was the only room we shared, and it was fine for our purpose. We had heard that it was not as nice as other Hiltons; the only one I can compare it to is the Hilton in Short Hills, NJ, which was indeed nicer (although this one was fine). WiFi and breakfast are not included and are very expensive. However, there is a tea and coffee maker in the room. The room was €209 for the night.

The hotel runs a free shuttle into Rome every two hours (leaves hotel on even hours, returns on odd hours). We took the 6 PM shuttle into Rome which worked well for our 7:30 dinner reservation. But we would have been rushed to make the 9 PM shuttle back and did not want to wait for the 11 PM one, so we took a cab. The driver wanted to use the meter saying it would be about the same as the legally required flat €48 FCO airport rate, but I "knew this was a scam" and insisted on the flat fare. Guess what - the fare was indeed about €46. So, he got a few euro extra from my decision. However, this was at 10 PM on a Wednesday night. During the day, traffic would have made the metered fare much higher, so the flat fare is the way to go.

I'm not sure I'd stay here again. It worked well for our needs, but it wasn't much easier than taking a cab to and from the airport to a central Rome hotel.

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Car: This is a multi-part story.

1) I used to drive, but several decades of living in Manhattan mean that my skills have atrophied. I drove a bit last year on a trip to the Canadian Rockies with my sister, and did well. But that was before the start of their high season, so the roads were uncrowded and drivers were polite. I got an IDP just in case, but the plan was that Eric would do most or all of the driving. In the end, I found that I could have driven on the Autostrada without difficulty. These roads are new and extremely well designed (there are pull outs every few hundred km) and the signage is crystal-clear. But the SS (Strada Statale) and the SP (Strada Provinciale) were simply too difficult for me. At any point, they could take you right through the center of a small town, so you were suddenly going from "highway driving" to "city driving." So, I never drove in Sicily (it was easier to let Eric stay at the wheel).

2) On two of our prior four Italian trips together, we rented a car; Eric drove and I navigated. I found it so stressful I vowed I'd never rent a car in Italy again. However, our last driving trip was in 2001, before GPS. We agreed that GPS should make it much better, and in fact that was the reason we decided to go to Sicily - we had read that it was better with a car, and with Eric joining me, I could take advantage of his driving (and go back to places on the mainland, where I don't need a car, on a later, solo trip). We learned that while the Garmin was a great help, we didn't know in advance what areas it knew and what areas it didn't. I still found driving off the Autostrada stressful, as I was still having to read signs to confirm that the GPS was right. And while few places in Sicily have ZTL's, Taormina has them, so a few times I was shouting at Eric to stop and turn around.

3) We wanted a car with enough space to store all our luggage in the trunk so none of it would show when we were parked. We wanted a car with zero deductable. And we needed an automatic, as Eric doesn't drive a stick shift. Auto Europe and Gemut had high prices, but Kemwel (sister company to Auto Europe) had a MUCH better deal: $618, not including window insurance, extra driver fee of €8 per day, and a few other things. There were only two sizes of car offered, and we were very glad we got the larger one; the smaller one, indeed, would not have held all our luggage out of sight.

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4) The car was not a real automatic. It was a weird hybrid, with a stick shift but no clutch, and a way to switch it to "automatic." However, it did not drive like an automatic, but like a stick shift where someone else was doing the shifting. I can't explain it well, but Eric found it quite difficult to drive at times (particularly backing up) and he was quite upset at how different it felt. And even as the passenger, I could feel the difference too. The worst part was shifting from reverse to drive; it sometimes took lots of playing with the shift lever to get it back to first gear auto, which was no fun if we were in the way of other drivers. At least it had good pickup. Our last Italian rental was a "real" automatic, but it had very poor acceleration, which was downright dangerous trying to merge into traffic getting onto a highway.

5) Driving in Sicily did not seem appreciably harder than driving on the mainland. As I said, the Autostrada was downright civilized, and driving in cities was like Italian city driving anywhere. And Palermo didn't seem any harder than, say, Rome. Eric emphasized that it's different from US driving - you have to be much more assertive when other cars are around, and sometimes you have plazas where cars are coming at you from all directions. But he didn't find the adjustment that difficult. For this trip, we certainly couldn't have seen the places we did in the time we had without a car, and couldn't have stayed at the agriturismo at all (this was a priority of Eric's).

6) My father was fond of saying that the first part and the last part of any drive are the hard parts; the middle is easy. I quoted him constantly on this trip. EVERY drive took longer for this reason. We'd have to find our way to the highway, which was often much harder than we had initially anticipated, and where our GPS was not always reliable. Then the highway part was relatively easy. Then we had to get off the highway to finish the trip, and once on surface roads we didn't know, it was very easy to get lost even with directions and/or a GPS. So, a drive that would take 2 hours if we knew the way ended up being 2.5 to 3 hours, since we didn't know the way.

EDIT: See addendum below, for yet more about the car rental experience.

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As for the itinerary: We did a lot of research, and we both wanted a "tasting platter" of Sicily, preferring to get a sample of lots of places with the idea that we could return on another trip to places we liked. However, I didn't fully appreciate how exhausting driving every day was (once we left Palermo, we only had two days with no driving). I also didn't fully appreciate the aphorism, often cited on this forum (including by me) that two nights in a place equal only one full day. By the time we drove from Siracusa to Taormina, we were both actually glad that Mount Etna was too cloudy to go up, as this meant saving several hours of driving and more time to rest in Taormina.

I'm not sure I would change how we did it, though. In the end, I was glad we saw what we did, and I don't regret any of the stops.

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Restaurants: this is a high priority for Eric, and he did extensive research to try to find good ones. In the end, we had some great meals and a lot of good meals, along with a few disappointments. I don't have all the names handy, but here's the ones I know:

Palermo (none farther than a 10 minute walk from our hotel):
Trattoria da Pino, recommended by our hosts, was a great locals place. Very cheap with a working-class clientele, and lots of fun.
Pizzeria La Duchessa di Citarda Giada has good pizza as well as other dishes. Mostly tourists, but still cheap and good quality.
Sapori Perduti had a lovely and somewhat fancy atmosphere, but the food, while good, was disappointing for the price.
Ciuri Ciuri is a bar ("cafe" to us Americans) with delicous arancini and other local specialties - highly recommended.

Siracusa:
Ristorante La Medusa specializes in seafood - and HUGE portions. My pennette alla Norma (with eggplant, tomatoes, ricotta, and basil) was amazing; it's what we think of in America as "red sauce Italian food," only 100 times better. But the portion was American size - the only time I've ever encountered that in Italy. Then, we had each ordered the zuppa de pesce, picturing something like bouillabaisse. Instead, we got a huge plate of various kinds of seafood in the shells, as well as a whole fish AND slices of swordfish (a local Sicilian favorite). It was extremely heavy, and about twice as much as we could eat (although very tasty). Quite an experience.

Trattoria da Mariano: this was recommended by our host and was listed in one of our books. The food was OK and the price was low. But the service was abominable, as if it was their first day open. In addition, unlike almost all the other places we ate on the trip, there were no Italians eating there; the fellow at the next table who spoke fluent Italian turned out to be from Spain. One of the few places we absolutely wouldn't go back to.

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More Restaurants:

Ragusa Ibla:
Cucina e Vino - delicious pastas and wonderful stinco di maiale (pork shank), in a lovely atmosphere. One of the real highlight meals of the trip.

Taormina:
I should note that this town definitely had the best restaurants of our trip. Beforehand, we were worried that since it's "touristy" that quality would be low and prices high. Prices are indeed on the high side, but not dramatically more than elsewhere. However, overall quality was definitely higher. This is the kind of place that attracts people who don't mind spending money, but do expect something for it.

Osteria Rosso di Vino - the single best restaurant of our trip. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't remember what I had, except that it was exceptionally delicious.

Casa Gioli - again, I don't remember what I had, but it was really good. Another keeper.

Osteria Nero d'Avola: this was memorable even before we ate. As we were looking at the menu outside, the owner told us to ignore the menu and come into the kitchen, as he described and showed us the fresh produce and sea creatures (some still alive) he had gotten from the markets that day. My fish (alalaguna, apparently related to tuna) was delicious. They debone all the fish tableside, which makes for quite a show if several orders come out at once. And the salad was made with fresh citrons, which are like large lemons but with a sweet skin - wonderful.

Villa Zuccaro Pizzeria: very good pizza (I know it's hardly a Sicilian specialty, but we wanted a faster meal for our last night).

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Hi Harold. Thanks for your great trip report. I was in Sicily about the same time (April 22-May 5) and reading your report brought back some fun memories of driving there, especially the white-knuckle drive through Piazza Armerina to get to the Villa Romana.

I hope you will continue your report with information on the sights you visited. Weren't the wild flowers wonderful?!?!

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Thank you, Harold, for this great report. I really appreciate your thoroughness and candor. My husband and I have been to Sicily twice (total of five weeks) and have seen a great deal of the island all on public transportation (even Caltanisetta - we took a bus up there!). The trains and buses can be slow, and sometimes frustrations arose, but perhaps no more than you had with driving! I will definitely be marking down some of your suggestions for "next time."

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Harold, I appreciate the report. A tour of Sicily will be my next trip so I appreciate your play by play! Curious- do you think using trains.buses would have made a huge difference in your trip, one way or the other?

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Chani, Janet, and Kristen - thanks for your encouraging words! I fully intend to write my impressions of the places I visited, but I wanted to get down the "nuts and bolts" in case they can help anyone's planning.

Kristen: I don't really know about trains/buses, since we didn't take public transit except city buses within Palermo. From my very preliminary research, it seems that connections between closer places are relatively frequent and don't take too long (say, Palermo to Agrigento or to Cefalu). But between more distant places (say, Palermo to Taormina), the connections are much less frequent and take much longer than driving. There's also the issue that many of the things you want to see are outside the cities, so once you get to the town by train or bus, you have to take another bus. Examples include the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento, the Roman Villa outside Piazza Armerina, and Mt. Etna outside Catania or Taormina.

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Harold, thanks for this excellent report. I was in Sicily for a week in May 2014- 2 days in Agrigento and the rest in Ortigia. We used public transit except for the day traveling from agrigento to siracusa when I rented a car so we could stop at the Villa Romana. I don't remember white-knuckling through Piazza Armerina, Chani, but it was SLOW! We has hoped to get to Morgantina that day as well but everything associated with departure and driving just took longer than expected. Not difficult but slow.

You have given me lots of ideas for our next trip to Sicily!

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Maybe there's a way to drive to Villa Romana that doesn't go through Piazza Armerina itself. I followed the signs which took me on several very narrow 2-way streets with either sharp turns or steep inclines, or both. The rest was okay.

I flew PMO from home with a connection at FCO. Because I didn't want to spend any time in Rome, I had to fly Alitalia so that I'd have the FCO-PMO on the same ticket in case of delays getting to FCO. I ended my Sicilian visit in Catania and flew to Bologna on Meridiana, then worked my way south for another week, flying home from FCO. The price on Alitalia (TLV-PMO and FCO-TLV) was as good or better than any other combination I could have put together. Meridiana doesn't charge for the first checked bag and the price was as good or better than Easyjet and Ryanair.

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Thank you for the comprehensive trip report Harold! It's been 3 years since we were in Sicily but your comments make me want to return--especially for the food and wine! I can't stop thinking about the Pennette alla Norma you mentioned--we had some of our best meals in Ortygia.

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Thank you for your detailed trip report. We're at beginning of planning Sicily, May 2015. Your report answered many questions and gave a good perspective of driving and public transport.

I have Caltanisetta bookmarked as an option and we'd rent a car to do side trips. If so then I think we'd need to stay 1 night Palmero on arrival day to see that before moving to the agritourism.

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As promised two months ago, here's some more of my trip report.

Before we went to Palermo, we had read such ominous things about it, we were expecting Naples on crack. We found it to be more like a somewhat dilapidated Rome. We didn't find it intimidating at all, and we liked it. We enjoyed walking through the old sections, and the contrast between these and the newer sections.

Eric's priority was to see one of the street food markets, and our B&B hosts said the Capo market was the best. Since we didn't see the other two (Ballarò or Vucceria), we can't compare, but even I as a non-market person found it interesting. We enjoyed several of the churches (Oratorio del Santissima Rosario in San Domenico, and Oratorio del Santissima Rosario in San Cita) and their flamboyant sculptures. However, it was impossible to enjoy the Capella Palatina (supposed to be the highlight of Palermo) due to the tour bus crowds who visited at the same time as we did. Due to our short time in Palermo and to Eric's prioritizing of the market, we hit the Capella just at prime tourgroup time, before lunch. My pictures are lovely, but I don't remember seeing what's in the pictures - only battling my way through the throngs.

We would both like to return to Palermo to see what we missed on this trip.

Picking up the car from Hertz (rented, as I said above, through Kemwel) was not hard, and getting out of Palermo from their downtown location was not hard either. Naturally, we were worried about this, but in another parallel with Rome, it's not difficult. We once rented a car from Roma Termini, and were pleasantly surprised to find that a few turns took us right to the highway, just as promised. Well in Palermo, a few turns on local streets in the newer section of town, and you're either on the highway, or on the surface road directly to Monreale (which is what we took). That road was very clogged with traffic, but we liked the comfort of knowing we couldn't get lost.

Monreale Cathedral was stunning, and we missed the worst of the bus tours (we saw the buses going away from town as we went toward it). In addition, it's much larger than the Capella Palatina, so it can absorb groups better.

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After lunch we drove from Monreale to our agriturismo (Silvia Sillitti). As I posted above, our GPS knew most of the way, but that was the easy part on the autostrada, where we needed little help. When we really needed it, it let us down. We arrived at Silvia's about an hour after we would have if we had known where we were going (or, as I said, if we had followed her recommendation to call her and let her guide us).

The next day, we went to the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento. They were certainly impressive, although I did get "temple fatigue" seeing 5 or 6 all at once. Interestingly, I found some of the less intact temples made stronger impressions than the Temple of Concord, said to be one of the best preserved in the world.

We then had to find lunch; since it was May 1 and we hadn't made a reservation, most places were full with families. We ended up at a place (I don't remember the town) that seemed only to be open because a member of the family was having his birthday. It wasn't great food, but it was fun anyway.

Next, Silvia had recommended we go to Torre Salsa, where there is a beach that she said does not get crowded even in summer. To make a long story short, we took a wrong turn and ended up in the nature preserve area instead of the beach. The wildflowers were lovely, but the mud meant we couldn't drive anywhere near to the beach, and after tromping on the often muddy path, we had to turn back when it turned into lakes, without ever seeing the beach. When we got back to Silvia's, she explained 1) we should have taken the turnoff labeled for campers, as this goes right to the beach, and 2) if we had called her while we were lost and stumbling around, she would gladly have helped with directions. As I said above, she really enjoys being a hands-on hostess, and by the time we figured out that we could take more advantage of this, it was time to leave.

A side note. One of the other guests at Silvia's was very traumatized by driving on the SS 640, which is the main road connecting Silvia's to lots of other places (including Agrigento). We didn't find it any more difficult than any other Sicilian roads; there were lots of traffic rotaries, but these were easy, and the signage was fairly good too. It was getting from the 640 to Silvia's that was hard (these were the roads that our Garmin didn't know); once on the 640, we had no problems.

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Leaving Silvia's we drove to the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. I guess our Garmin redeemed itself here; it took us to close to the villa there without going into Piazza Armerina itself, and we then just ignored the GPS and followed signs to Villa Romana. It was easy and not slow, and if it weren't for some of the posts above, I would never have known that it could be difficult.

Again, the Villa Romana was very crowded and hard to enjoy, which particularly stung given the high entrance fee. But this time we had learned our lesson. We noted the crowds starting to thin, so we went back to the beginning and made the whole circuit of the villa again. We were both very glad we did this, as we were able to see details in the mosaics we had missed before. However, similar to the Capella Palatina, the Villa Romana had been built up so much by guidebooks, it was inevitably a bit of a let down. Or maybe it was just that Eric isn't as into mosaics as I am, and his feelings affected my reaction. I do find that traveling with others, you absorb some of their feelings about a place. I usually travel alone, and enjoy seeing things without this "contamination." Of course it cuts both ways; he probably didn't appreciate that for me, a little of a food market goes a long way, since he can spend hours in them.

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From Piazza Armerina we drove to Syracusa. Here we deliberately disobeyed our GPS, which wanted to go a more direct route on smaller highways, and took the route via the autostrada. I don't know if we saved time or actually took more time, but we both agreed the autostrada was much less stressful; no cars coming at you from unexpected directions, and no need to check signs to make sure you were still going the right way. Driving in Syracusa, particularly Ortigia (the island which is where the city started, where all the "action" is, and where we were staying) was real city driving. Luckily, our host had given very good directions on where to park and call him from, and he then helped get the car to a free spot! Ortigia has a very unusual ZTL, in that it only operates on weekends (Friday evenings, Saturday afternoon and evening, and most of Sunday). However, it is VERY clearly marked, with a green light meaning "free passage" and a red light meaning "ZTL in action," so it's hard to make a mistake.

The next day we agreed to split up (the first time we really had an opportunity to do this on the trip). Eric went - you guessed it - to the market, where he had a very enjoyable morning, and ended up buying tuna steaks that he made us that night for dinner (yum). I wanted to see the Papyrus Museum; the Syracuse region is the only place outside of the Nile valley that papyrus plants grow. Since it was on the mainland and looked to be a fair walk, I took a cab there (€10), only to discover that a month or two before, it had been relocated - to Ortigia, a few minutes walk from our house! I was quite grumpy when I discovered this, and the mainland sections I walked through to get back were indeed as run down and unappealing as books made them out to be. I could have stayed and seen the major Greek sights which were still in that area (only the Papyrus Museum has moved), but didn't. Once I got back to Ortigia, finding the museum took lots of question-asking at various stores (since it's new, lots of people had no idea where it was, and the streets near it are somewhat confusing). The museum itself was most interesting for its video, demonstrating the process by which papyrus is made. Later, however, we noted some papyrus on the walls of our house, and it was fun to look at them and have some more understanding of what's involved.

I also went to Ortigia's small aquarium. I had a very interesting experience there; this was the only time in all of Europe that I've ever had a banknote refused. There was a tiny tear in the corner of the €5 note I handed the ticket seller, and she handed it right back, saying "e rotto" ("it's broken"). This, plus the difficulty finding the museum, contributed to the feeling that the day was somehow "off." The aquarium is not worth a detour, but I needed its soothing properties. I also loved the amazing looking trees nearby; they resemble banyan trees I've seen in Hawaii.

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The next day we took a driving trip to Ragusa Ibla and to Noto. Both were very nice, although Noto had dark clouds while we were there (thankfully, it didn't actually rain). I'd love to go back to Noto when it is sunny, since that would make the golden-colored buildings "pop." We ran into a christening in the main church there. There's a gelateria in Noto that's very famous, and that we were really looking forward to. But, guess which family runs the shop - the one that was having the christening! So, it was closed that day.

We were planning to see Mt. Etna on our drive from Syracusa to Taormina. But at the alloted time, it was cloudy on top of Etna, and we weren't going to spend €80 to go up and see nothing (if we could even go up; when the weather's bad, they don't run the buses up). Unfortunately, this was something I was really looking forward to, and we didn't get another chance to go. Yet more to go back for. However, by this point in the trip we were both tired of driving, and we were glad that by skipping Etna we saved a lot of time and stress (it's a considerable detour on smaller roads, vs. going direct on the autostrada as we ended up doing).

Getting to our Taormina hotel was yet another demonstration of my father's rule about the first and last part of any drive being hard. The autostrada from Syracusa to Taormina was easy, but once off the autostrada, we almost got into a ZTL (my frantic screaming prevented this, and from that point on I was appointed the ZTL monitor). Tip for those staying at Casa Cuseni: when you see Parcheggio Lumbi, look for the tunnel next to it; this takes you to the hotel, eventually, without hitting ZTL's on the way.

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Taormina is magic. I know I said that above, but I just want to repeat it. I certainly understand why people like Tennessee Williams and Greta Garbo spent months at a time here; if I could, I sure would. Oddly enough, it reminded me of Banff in Alberta, Canada. Of course, it's quite different in every surface way, but both are resorts that have been catering to wealthy people for a very long time. As such, they aren't cheap, but they do give good value. The views in Taormina are stunning from lots of vantage points, and even the throngs of tourists off the tour buses and cruise ships at midday can't ruin it. And for the budget-minded, there's a big supermarket right on the southwest end of the "main drag" (Corso Umberto). I already wrote about the great restaurants, and in between we filled time just wandering around and soaking in the ambience (there are lovely plants growing everywhere). Our second day, we went to the Greek Theater, which again is large enough to absorb the crowds, and which has such great views that I didn't even mind them. We also saw a bit of the lovely Villa Communale gardens.

However, I will repeat my warning from above: if you have any kind of mobility impairment, think twice about going to Taormina. Then think again.

One interesting way Banff came up on the trip: I love squid, but Eric hasn't had much of it. At Osteria Nero d'Avola, the proprietor proudly showed us that still-living squid he was about to make us. So I ordered squid for my primo, and Eric tried it and wanted to know if it was good. I replied that it was only OK, and couldn't begin to compare to the two best I've had. Weirdly, these were in two cities that are MANY miles from any squid-containing body of water. Those would be Budapest, at the Trofea Grill Etterem, and Banff, at Giorgio's (my sister wanted to go back there a second night, just for the squid, which was indeed 5 star spectacular). I had squid at least one other time in Sicily (I don't remember where), and again, it wasn't as good as Budapest or Banff could deliver. I have no idea why. Sicilian fruits and vegetables were delicious (and in the market, really cheap), the meats and fish were great - I don't know why the squid didn't measure up.

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One general observation. Before our trip, both Eric and I had read extensively how Sicily was different from mainland Italy. But once we were there, we were MUCH more struck by the similarities. We kept saying to each other, "it's still Italy." Sure, Palermo feels different from Rome. But Bologna, Venice, Milan, Florence, Turin, etc all feel different from Rome, and from each other too. Italy is very regional, and having been to various regions before and been impressed by the differences, Sicily didn't strike us as any more different than the other regions. Furthermore, we both agreed that Hawaii felt more different from the mainland US, than Sicily felt from mainland Italy.

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Thank you so much for sending me your link Harold. This is very informative and it's going to be very helpful for me!! THANK YOU!!

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An addendum to the car rental section above:

7) Since many people post that the car rental offices in Italy do not ask to see your International Driver's Permit, I can say that Hertz in downtown Palermo did indeed want to see our IDP's as well as our US licenses.

8) Returning a car at Catania airport is not easy. There are two lots: one for Hertz and Europcar, and one for all others. The sign for the Hertz lot is tiny and we missed it, but there was a large billboard for the other lot. We pulled in there, and one attendant spoke just enough English to sort-of direct us to the correct one. So, if you're returning a car to Catania airport, allow enough time for this. Ironically, leaving Palermo (which we were much more concerned about) was easier.

9) When we rented the car, they offered an optional fuel package (€80 or €85, I forget the exact amount). With this, you could return the car empty and not be charged. Without the option, you had to return the car with a full tank or there would be high charges for fuel. They said that the package being "optional" meant that if we returned the car full, this charge would be removed. We decided to take it, but we assumed that we would be charged for it whether we returned the car with a full tank, an empty tank, or anything in between.

On our way back to the airport, we decided to call Hertz at Catania airport (phone number conveniently on the rental paperwork) and get confirmation, so we could decide if we should fill the tank and get the refund, or just return it half-full as it was. The employee at Hertz spoke fluent English and confirmed that the charge would indeed be refunded if we returned with a full tank. And it was. However, we also determined that the cost of a full tank of gas was roughly the cost of the package. In other words, it isn't a rip-off - if you can return the car with an empty tank. But it was good to know (and may help someone else) that this was indeed as billed - an option that could be reversed at car return.

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And an addendum for the flights: for domestic flights in Italy, it's cheaper to use Alitalia's International site with the English option than to use Alitalia's US site. You can also use Alitalia's Italian site, but that didn't have an English option; the prices on the Italian and the International sites were the same.