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10 Days in Sicily

Shannon

100+ Posts
#1
Trip Description: In Fall 2000 I went to Sicily by myself and it was an intense experience. Sicily is a land of extremes; from beautiful seaside villages to rolling hills filled with vineyards and Greek ruins to medieval cities cut into the sides of mountains to truly bizarre, Blade Runner cities. There is so much history there, it reeks. I don’t think people realize how many cultures have had control of Sicily and left their mark there - the Greeks, Phoenicians, Arabs, Normans ... in Venice, it’s always been the Venetians! (Well, except for that Austrian occupation, but that doesn’t count.)

Anyway, I had 10 days and I covered a lot of ground, maybe too much ground but I am happy that I did it that way because I saw some amazing things, though it would have been really easy and would have made me really happy to just lay on the beach in Taormina the whole time.

Part 1 - Taormina

So ... here we go. Taormina was first. I flew into Catania and caught a cab to Taormina. The cab trip was my first experience on a Sicilian highway and he went faster than the airplane from Rome did.

I stayed at the Hotel President Splendid, a cheap, funky, awesome place to stay. The room was very small but it had a little balcony with a view of the sea! I loved it. I asked for a glass of wine to bring up to my room and the guy gave me a magnum bottle maybe 1/3 full for about $2.00. So I drank that and unpacked and went out to explore the town.

But I went the wrong way and I was kind of jetlagged so I stopped and had a pizza at some tourist place and went back early to the hotel, crashed and woke up at 3 AM and got some of my fill of Italian TV - Wonder Woman dubbed in Italian (!!!) plus a lot of other weirdness that I loved. I watched the sun rise over the ocean which, being a California girl, is a real treat. Passed out for a while and then got up to really explore Taormina.

Taormina is so beautiful, I could stay there for a month. The town is built on a steep hill, and walking up the hill through lovely streets filled with flowers, I found a path leading up a mountain, so I took it. I didn’t realize what I was getting into, but was it ever worth it. It was kind of like climbing Half Dome, but with stairs. The path had statues of the seven Stations of the Cross leading all the way up the mountain and at the top of the mountain there was a church.

So I am going up and up and up, and looking down I can see the whole town and the sea, and the Teatro Greco, an ancient Greek theater carved into a hill. It was breathtaking, stunning, and at the top there was a bar (woo hoo!) so I sat and had wine and looked at Mt. Etna smoke and wrote first postcard to Mom (Cara Mom, drinking wine and watching Mt. Etna smoke. I love it here already, love Shannon.) Walking down the mountain, I saw all the fanciful hotels with really cool pools; I still love my hotel, but some of those places look VERY romantic.

Back in town, I went to lunch at a place called Gamberro Rosso, at an outside table, it was all foreigners eating there, including a really obnoxious group of American women. My first Sicilian lunch - salad, fritto misto, wine, very nice, cute waiter with a Hawaiian shirt that kept "checking his package."

After lunch I found a really nice wine shop, the proprietor, when he found out I love wine, showed me all his special wines, and he was very passionate and I bought the most expensive Sicilian wine, called Duca Enrico, and it was not that expensive, plus a bottle of Sicilian dessert wine that I brought home. The wine shop is right near the clock tower in the middle of town and it is called Di Culoso Pancrazia so if you want some really good wine on your ultra romantic trip to Taormina, go in there and get some Duca Enrico.

I stopped at the Wunderbar - a famous bar that Elizabeth Taylor loved - and like so many places in Italy, I can’t figure out why people think a glass of wine for $4.50 is expensive? It was so hot that I had to sit in the shade, the square was very quiet, and jasmine petals were dropping on me.

Later, took the funicular thing down to the ocean, looked around, and on the way up I am standing next to these two British people, and there is something about them that is really annoying me. I thought, wherever I go, these two are going to end up sitting next to me. Sure enough, sitting on the traffic-less Corso Umberto, at a cool bar watching the passagiata, they sit down right next to me. I am not speaking and I am writing in my journal and this is what I wrote about them: They talk of death, of marble slabs, of toxemia; not of the warm breeze and the tasty fishes they might eat later.

Then something amazing happened. We became friends. After two different guys asked to join me (being constantly hit on is something I am going to have to get used to) the British girl says to the British boy, maybe I should be alone like her. So, somehow we start talking. Alex is a classical pianist, and Clea is a cellist, and I bring them up to date on what is going on in British pop music. I guessed both their ages (I am psychic that way and they were both in their late 20s and really a lot of fun.)

We went to a restaurant for dinner that had a Sicilian band complete with Accordion player with hair like Elvis. I don’t even remember what we ate, but the band loved us, and Alex surprised them with his amazing voice. It was one of those really incredible, fun dinners where everyone is having a great time because they are on vacation.

Back at the hotel, an old man (oh, excuse me, older gentleman) wanted to do my portrait in pastels "for hobby, not for money." It really looks like me, if you turn it upside down.

Back in my room, my first view of Orion this year, millions of stars, listening to the Doves (very important new British band - now Clea and Alex know.)

Next day, plans for exploring Mt. Etna with Clea and Alex were dropped for new plan of lying on the beach with Clea and Alex. The sea, so warm and salty, so many cute guys running around in Speedos.

Later, I head back up the hill because I must leave tomorrow and I have to see the Teatro Greco before I go. The guy lets me in for free (because he’s going to hit on me later). The Teatro Greco is amazing. I am trying to imagine what it was like 2000 years ago, filled with people, looking out over the sea and Mt. Etna, watching Antigone. Most of what’s left is Roman and they had gladiators there, so then I tried to imagine what that was like, and so Russell Crowe was there with me, which isn’t such a bad thing. On my way out, the ticket guy strikes up a conversation and I ask him where the locals eat. He tells me, and then asks me to meet him at some cafe later. They don’t miss an opportunity, those Sicilians.

So, I meet Alex and Clea at the bar where we first met, and I had promised to take Clea for a drink at the Wunderbar (Clea is broke and very vocal about it, but I really want her to be able to experience the Wunderbar.) We sat at a table by the sea and everyone, us, all the people in the square, just exuded happiness ... then we head to this locals restaurant - it is called Trattoria San Pancrazio, and we had a great dinner with pasta and fish and lots of wine. There is a big group of Sicilians next to us with a baby boy, and Clea is oohing and ahhing and the father takes the baby and puts him into Clea’s arms. When does that ever happen here? She held the baby for a really long time and the baby played with Clea’s beautiful blond hair and the parents just carried on. After dinner the waiter brought us the most delicious dessert wine - called Vino Alla Mandola, white wine infused with almond flavor.

It was Saturday night, and we went out to find a karaoke bar (for them, NOT for me) but the karaoke didn’t start till midnight, so we went to another bar and sat outside with a lot of rich Italians. Sat on my balcony until 5AM listening to music and some weird stuff goes on in Taormina late at night. Think "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone." No, I did NOT throw my keys.

Clea and Alex wanted me to stay one more day - and I wish now that I did, but left, in the AM, for Siracusa.
 

Shannon

100+ Posts
#2
Part 2 - Siracusa

So, just had two days and three nights in Taormina, which I loved, but time to move on, so I pick up a car and head out.

First I check out of the hotel, and for some reason the front desk guy asks for my passport (they’d already taken it and given it back once, as usual.) I wanted to buy some of this really special dessert wine, Vino Alla Mandorla, and the lady that runs the place sold me a couple of bottles but she was pretty sneaky, she just refilled some used bottles and put screwcaps on them that were impossible to get off without injury.

I took off in my little car for Siracusa. Okay, this is how you drive in Sicily: Accelerate. Honk. Run red lights. Do not stop and let people in front of you. Do not stop for pedestrians. It is truly pazzo. I did pretty well but I am a good driver. I drove along the sea through a whole bunch of little towns and then through Catania. I wish I had stopped, Catania, along the sea, looks like a cool city.

I got all the way through Catania when I realized that the guy back in Taormina had forgotten to give me back my passport, or I had forgotten to get it back, whatever. I was almost all the way to Siracusa so I just kept going and got to my hotel, the Grand Hotel Villa Politi. Thank god for the desk girl, Paola, she spoke nearly perfect English, and I told her my dilemma. She called the hotel in Taormina and yes they had my passport, and they would express mail it to the Villa Politi. So if I can stay until Tuesday (it is Sunday) my passport would arrive. Umm, OK - Italian Express mail? I am unsure, but she says it will arrive no problem, so I end up staying two nights instead of one.

When you don’t have your passport, it kind of affects your mood, still I went out to explore Siracusa. I walk down to Ortygia, the ancient island part of Syracuse, which was pretty far from my hotel, and by the time I got there I was tired, starving and stressed from driving and being without my passport. On Ortygia, since it was Sunday, nothing was open except for a couple of tourist bars and they were out of food. So I’d have to hold out until evening to eat. I walked around and looked at the baroque buildings and sat in the Piazza Archimede, which has a very beautiful fountain. Exhausted, I headed back to the hotel in a taxi.

The Villa Politi is a nice hotel. The landscape around it is really unusual. There are all these white rocks cut way down, like canyons, and there are lots of plants and trees at the bottom of the canyons. The rock is very unusual. I can’t figure out if this is the way the landscape always was or are these ancient quarries that were used in building all the old theaters? The hotel has a big verandah with wicker chairs and beautiful grounds, but my room was kind of boring, and the hotel isn’t really close to anything.

I peered into the hotel dining room but it was sooo bright in there. I’d seen a restaurant on the sea on my walk to Ortygia, so I went there. Ristorante Jonico... They sat me at an outside table right on the ocean, and I had a really wonderful meal there. I had a pasta with anchovies and bread crumbs and a whole fish with some orange sauce. Then, just because I didn’t want to leave I ordered some cheese. It was really beautiful there and I started to relax... went home and completely crashed out.

But THEN! The next morning Paola calls and wakes me up. The hotel in Taormina is sending my passport on a bus. I have to go and find the bus in an hour. The bus is gray and says SAT is all the information I am given. It is suppose to be in a big parking lot full of buses, near Ortygia. So I wait, and wait; there are lots of buses, but not my bus. After an hour I go back to the hotel and Paola gets hold of the bus driver on his cell phone (something I could have done if I wasn’t so stupid - ALWAYS carry a phone card in case of emergencies) and he is in a different lot, but leaving for the archeological zone (think Central Park,) so I have to go find the bus in this big park full of buses.

So I am already kind of freaking out, and driving to the archeological park when out of nowhere, it starts to pour rain. BIG rain, BIG thunder. The streets are flooding and I am driving in Siracusa which is already crazy without rain. I am driving around the park and I see it - my bus! Because of the rain they are not parked, they are just driving around with all the tourists inside. I pull my car up right next to it and ask the driver "Do you have my passport?" He says, "yes, I do," like it is really no big problem! He gets out of the bus and gives it to me and I was so happy that I gave him a big kiss, maybe that was inappropriate but I didn’t care.

I went back to the Villa Politi and had a couple of much needed proseccos and sat out on the verandah and listened to the thunder. It stopped raining, so I went back to Ortygia, drove in this time. It is a very interesting place, but there is something strange about it - the energy is trippy. I stopped in a pizzeria but they didn’t have any pizza so I had a salad with tuna on it and they had no wine by the glass or half bottle, so I ordered a whole bottle and put most of it in my backpack, the waiter didn’t care.

Then I went back to the archaeological park to see the Greek theater there, the oldest one in Sicily, and very impressive. Because of the rain I had the place to myself, except for a couple trying to find places to make out and a guard.

Back at the Villa Politi, tired from my adventures, I sat on the verandah and listened to a bunch of Americans from a tour. All they talked about were their flights over and how they would fly back, and how this was the only hotel where they got a bathtub. Yuck.

I decided to eat dinner in the bright and stuffy hotel restaurant. I am so glad I did, it was awesome. I had veal strips with balsamic vinegar and wonderful potatoes - truly it was one of the best dinners I had in all of Sicily, even better than Ristorante Jonico. I was sitting by myself at this big table in a room full of tour groups, they all ate the same thing. I don’t think I could ever do the tour thing.

The next morning, I hit the road again. I had planned on stopping a night in Agrigento, but because I had to stay the extra night in Siracusa, I had to get all the way to Erice. The desk girl told me it would take four hours - it took eight. It was quite an adventure ... took a smaller highway instead of the autostrada, and you’ll be driving along and all of a sudden you are in a city, and you have to find your way back to the highway. I got lost in Ragusa for a long time. The old part of Ragusa, Ragusa Ibla, fascinated me - a medieval town cut into the side of a mountain. Next time I go to Sicily, I will spend time there. But I had to keep going. The landscape near Ragusa - plains heading down to the sea.

Then I got to Gela - Blade Runner Sicily. Mammoth cement cylinders spewing flames, just outside the city. In the city, garbage everywhere, the smell of desperation. Perhaps there are nice areas in Gela, but I didn’t see them.

I finally got to Agrigento in the late afternoon, and sadly, I did not feel comfortable leaving my stuff in the car and going up, I only saw a couple of ruins from a parking lot. I was going to go up but this man came and wanted to be my guide; he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I fled.

Then the landscape got very beautiful, rolling hills, lots of vineyards, I see some men harvesting grapes by hand. I am driving fast, now, trying to get to Erice but there were still people passing me. Finally, happily, I arrive in Erice ...
 

Shannon

100+ Posts
#3
Part 3 - Fending them off in Erice

My room in the Hotel Elimo in Erice is simple and basic. Nothing fantastic, but OK. After the fairly plush Villa Politi with its white-coated waiters serving me prosecco, it is a bit of a let-down, but there are only three hotels in Erice so they don’t really have to go that extra mile.

I am very tired from my long drive, one bad thing about traveling alone is that you have to do it all yourself. I have a dinner in yet another pizza restaurant that has no pizza, then go back and crash. It is very cold at night, so cold I get a blanket out of the closet in the middle of the night.

The next morning I go out to explore Erice. It is a medieval town on the top of a mountain, with a castle cut into the side and woods and greenery all around. The castle is built on top of an ancient shrine to Venus. The older guy who takes the "tip" (admission) tells me to climb into a little (only big enough for me) door to see the shrine to Venus. Those drawings couldn’t have been that old – they looked more like circa 1970 – but I am sure it was a shrine, once. The guide then climbs into the tiny space with me and rubs up against me! Then he asks me out and I tell him I have a boyfriend. Not a deterrent.

Once I get past him, the castle and ruins are amazing. I decide to drive down the mountain to the city of Trapani, to get gas and to eat something. Stupid me, my gas is almost gone when I get to the bottom of the mountain, and I arrive right at 1 PM, right when every gas station is shutting down for siesta.

So I park and start to explore Trapani. It reminds me of Ortygia – very baroque and with an underlying sense of the sinister. It is hot and I think I am a) the only tourist and b) the only single woman walking around. I feel like it is 1950 and I am out after Labor Day with white gloves on. Every man from 9 to 90 stares, whistles, gestures. It is a bit uncomfortable.

I happen upon a restaurant I have heard of, Ai Lumi, so I stop in to have lunch. It is good – a plate of vegetable antipasto and rolls of meat called Involtini that were very Arabic tasting. I am very happy in Ai Lumi and spend several hours in the dark, cool restaurant eating and drinking wine and writing in my journal, I am safe for the moment! "For the moment" being the key words.

Then I left, got gas and started back up the mountain. I am about half way up when I look in my rear view mirror and there is a guy in a red sports car, right on my ass. The road from Trapani to Erice is a zig-zagged, steep road with hairpin turns and this guy is one inch behind me. He is making faces and gestures at me so I think he is wanting to pass me, really bad. WRONG! He wants to pass AT me. I pull over, he pulls over. I show him my "wedding ring" which is my grandmother’s engagement ring that I transferred to my left hand a few days before. He doesn’t seem to mind that I am "married" and points to a driveway across the road, wants me to follow him there. But I am married, NO, I say, but he won’t pull away to let me out, so finally I nod. As if! He takes off down the driveway and I take off up the mountain.

Three minutes later he is behind me again, even closer than before, and the faces and gestures are more pronounced. Now I am getting really freaked – is this guy going to follow me into the parking lot at the foot of Erice? But a few minutes before the parking lot he is gone.

I go back to my hotel and sit there for a while, recovering, but it is pissing me off that I am letting this guy stop me from enjoying himself, so I walk up to the square and sit down at a café to write in my journal. A quick minute goes by and there he is, striding into the square, walks directly over and sits right down. But now I am in a café, there are people all around, so I am not so freaked now. He spends about twenty minutes trying to get me to take him back to my hotel (even though my "husband" is there waiting) and after I say no eighty times he finally gives up and leaves. Whew.

I go back to the hotel, grab a bottle of red wine and my camera, go back to the castle, get past the old man tip taker, find a perch on the side of the castle with a view of the golden island and the blue sea, and just sit and drink wine and listen to dogs bark way down below. It is very beautiful and very peaceful and I am completely alone and very happy. The sun starts to set a little so I think the castle will be closing, I leave but the old man sees me. He tells me if I give him a kiss he will give me a tour of the "secret castle." No thanks, hombre.

The sunset is going to be beautiful so I find a secret spot in front of an old stone wall – behind me, and across the street, is a café with some old men drinking. Nobody can see me and I have another beautiful view and I can see the street, too. A family walks down the street, mom and dad and two little boys. One of the little boys points out towards the sea and yells "Trapani!" then runs over and hugs his brother. There is a little cemetery right down the hill, and one of the old men from the café comes over to the hill, pretty close to me, urinates down the side of the hill, makes the sign of the cross towards the cemetery, and blows a kiss down the hill. I wonder who it is he loves that is buried there. I am happy I got to see this little slice of life.

I go out for dinner, feeling very good and relaxed from the sunset and the wine. There aren’t too many restaurants in Erice, and I didn’t make a note of the name of the restaurant, but it was on the main street across from a bakery. Dining alone can be great or dismal, depending on your choice and where they seat you – there is nothing worse than being smack in the middle of a bunch of big tables full of people. I prefer to be in a corner, where I can enjoy my meal not standing out too much and where I can observe.

On this evening, I am obliged with a table close to the kitchen door, kind of off the main dining room, which is fine by me. There appears to be a scientific conference of some kind because all the tables are filled with scientist looking dudes with their badges still on. It seems I am going to eat in peace but NO…. the waiter and the chef, hidden in the back, are screaming – SCREAMING – at each other. I hear many plates and pans being knocked around. Through my whole first course, pasta with tuna, they scream at each other. Then I get my second course, beef with marsala sauce. The chef appears in the doorway, sees me, and the screaming stops.

For the rest of my meal (and I am not getting out of there for a while) he stands in the doorway, whistling a tune and cleaning glassware in the most phallic way imaginable. Every time the waiter walks by he flirts with me – then it seems it will be a duel between the chef and the waiter for the "bella Americana." Well, in a room full of scientists, there weren’t many options, but I was starting to get just a little sick of the attention. I ask for the check, I get a dessert. It was cassata and magnificent. (In fact the whole meal was pretty stellar.) I asked for the check again, and got a crème de menthe. They aren’t going to let me go. Asked again, got some kind of herbal liqueur. OK – I said "I REALLY WANT TO PAY YOU NOW." So he finally brings the check "with a reduction."

I left Erice the next day, a day early. That quiet little town exhausted me. I woke up to a woman’s scream in the hall. "NORMAN! I am REALLY PISSED OFF! NORMAN!" Americans at their finest.

Before I left I walked around once more. The wind was howling and brisk, hard to believe it is blistering hot on the plain down below. I take my favorite picture of this leg of the trip – a tiny, skinny faced kitten peered out from a crack in one of the stone walls then disappeared. With quite a bit of coaxing, I finally got the cat to stick its head out again, and the picture turned out great.

But I was more than ready to put Erice behind me, and off I went.
 

Shannon

100+ Posts
#4
Part 4 - Last Days

Driving down the mountain from Erice, I have two days and two nights left and no plan. I know I want to stay near the Palermo airport the last night so I can make my short trip to Venice so I just head in that direction.

I stop in San Vito, a cute beach tourist town, and since it is late September it is pretty quiet. I stop in front of a jewelry store, see a bracelet I want, so I go in. Inside there is a desk with three guys sitting there and the whole desk is covered with a pile of jewelry like the one in the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. They look at me, I look at them. I leave, they go back to talking about whatever houses they had robbed the day before. It was very weird.

I get back in my car, drive through Castellmare del Golfo (sp?) and then on to a tiny beach village. The beach was attracting me, I wanted to lie on the beach, so I decided to stay. Stopped at hotel #1, nobody there, the maid tells me to come back in an hour. Stopped at hotel #2, they are completo. So I go to eat in the square. I really like the town, it is so tiny, and everyone knows each other, but they leave me alone. The postman rides a scooter. It is very hot and I eat big noodles with clams and a salad and drink some wonderful white wine – the lunch costs something obscene like $8. After lunch I go back to hotel #1 and they are completo – in this tiny town?

I only have one more option and I really want it to work out, so I step into this strange pensione with fishing nets all over the floor (and they were being used – that was obvious.) A lovely young woman tells me yes, they have a room, for L. 50.000. YES! I say. She asks, don’t I want to see it first? I say OK and she shows me the room which has a cot and a candle and a view of the sea. YES! I say. I change into my suit and walk down a cliff to the sea, it is very beautiful there, very quiet and a bit cloudy so not too hot. You can feel that the season is shifting from summer to fall. I stay there for the rest of the afternoon, then it starts to look like rain, so I go back to get ready for dinner.

It rains. Then it stops, and I make my way to a restaurant around the corner from my room with a cot. I sat outside on a terrace, overlooking the sea. The place is filled with tourists, American and German, and six or seven cats are waiting to fight it out for scraps. The lone waiter is running and breaking things because he is so swamped – I chill out with my wine and prepare to spend many hours there – what else am I going to do? The dinner was just OK – nothing like the fat noodles with clams earlier in the day, but the air was intoxicating, it smelled like wet cement, and there was a murmur of foreign voices all around me. I was pretty danged happy there, I have to say, hard to believe that only 24 hours earlier I was in the restaurant with the screaming chef and the scientists, in Erice.

The next day is my last. I know I want to see the Temple and Theater at Segesta and then find someplace to stay near the airport, so I head towards Segesta. I get there, park, look way, way up the mountain to the theater, then check out the Temple. It is perfect, and I get some great photos with no people in them.

Then I walk up the mountain. It is a tough walk and my heel breaks, and when I get to the top I see a shuttle bus driving up! Those Greek babes must have been pretty fit. Or did they get carried by slaves? These are the things I am wondering as I walk up that huge hill. I still feel good for walking it, and it is totally worth it. The theater is being renovated so I can’t go in, but I can see plenty, also there were a lot of really cute workman eating their lunch. We were so high up that felt I was looking at the entire island. I checked Segesta out completely and then had a lunch of substandard pizza (like a Stouffers thing) in the snack bar. The waiter was super cute, and he gave me "the look" without being obnoxious – but I had to go. Things always happen at the wrong time.

On to find my last lodging for the night. I find a big, very modern place near the airport and they have a pool – perfect. My room has acrylic furniture and German MTV – super-perfect! It is an ultra cool sendoff.

I go down to the pool and try to put my thoughts together about this trip. I feel my trip has been: successful, scary, riveting, lonely, tearful (good and bad tears), beautiful, full of music, 2 new friends, and I am proud that I did it alone. You try driving here! And the following day I am going to Venice for four days to see friends and to "be home" before coming home.

My last night in Sicily I eat in the hotel restaurant where there are lots of German tourists. I have a decent meal and then go to the bar where a combo with a sax and a keyboard play. They are pretty good, playing "How Deep is Your Love" by the Bee Gees and that sort of thing. On their break the sax player swaggers over to me and says "You like Coltrane?" This is his pick up line, but actually I love Coltrane, so we talk about music for a while then I go upstairs. The news says there is aqua alta in Venice, and I have a broken heel, but I don’t care, because I am going home to Venice.
 

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