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Sonia celebrated her 70th birthday this year. When I asked her what she wanted to do to celebrate the milestone, she quickly chose a trip to Italy. And the rest, as they say, is history — conveniently captured for you in the accompanying pictures.
We decided to start in Sicily, make our way over to the mainland to see relatives in San Vito and Soverato, take in the famous archeological museum in Naples, and then get ourselves back to Rome for our flight home. We did our usual “plane, train, bus, and automobile” options for transportation.
We flew first to Rome, where we had ample time to clear customs, leisurely look around the airport, get some euros, have a relaxed lunch, and get checked back in thru security for our ‘commuter’ flight to Palermo. We arrived in Palermo in time for a late dinner and then caught up on sleep after our jet lag. We spent the next two days exploring parts of the city, which included multiple churches, historic buildings, the Ballaro market, notorious fountains, a puppet theater presentation, as well as a side trip to Monreale.
We saw the influence of the various cultures that had occupied Sicily over the centuries just about everywhere we looked. Not only had some of these buildings survived hundreds of years, but the workmanship they exhibited was impressive. We were prepared for wet weather from our planning research [October in Sicily]. Our last evening in Palermo, we successfully stayed mostly dry thru an evening storm, while walking back to hour hotel.
As we were leaving Palermo, we picked up our rental car, and started our driving adventure. We eventually learned when to ignore Google maps’ directions, as I exclaimed on more than once occasion —“Really Google!” [having just made the Google directed turn on to a clearly sub standard road]. For hill town driving, it was a good thing that we could fold in the side mirrors.
Our first stop was the archeological site at Segesta. We arrived a little later than planned since picking up the rental car and finding our way out of town took longer than we had planned. In Segesta, we found our way to the tourist parking lot, had a quick lunch, and took the shuttle bus to the site just in time for a mid afternoon shower. Once more, we were thankful for our wet weather gear!
It was late in the afternoon by the time we left Segesta. We had planned stops at Erice, Trapani, and Selinunte before arriving for the night in Sciacca. This was a big ‘reality check’ on our travel planning ‘time allotments’! We decided to drive directly to Sciacca and call it a day!The next morning, we revisited our ‘time allotments’ and expectations of how much sightseeing we could do in a single day. We decided to scratch Erice & Trapani, backtrack to Selinunte, drive on to Agrigento, and then on to Caltagirone, where we had booked our next night.
We encountered little traffic on the short drive back to Selinunte on Sunday morning. The site had multiple locations, so renting one of their golf carts and drivers to get from place to place was worth it. We had lunch in the car as we next drove to the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. We arrived at the first temple just as a light, but steady rain began. We did a lot of walking, but saw all of the main sights despite the rain.
We were still there at sunset. One consolation of being there so late was that I was able to get a nice ‘temple sunset’ picture. We then drove on to Caltagirone. The last hour of the trip we encountered heavy rain and a lightning storm. We made it safely, but much later than we planned. Fortunately, the hotel restaurant stayed open until 10:00 PM and we just made it. We were the only diners at that hour!
Caltagirone is a ceramics mecca, a designated UNESCO world heritage site. After a very nice breakfast buffet, the rain finally stopped, and we headed into town. Sonia had definite thoughts about what pieces of ceramics she wanted to buy. I, of course, tagged along. We certainly got our exercise, especially climbing Caltagirone’s famous staircase. 142 ceramic faced steps to the top. As an incentive, one of the ceramic shops Sonia wanted to visit, was all the way up at the top of the stairs.
While we could have spent more time browsing in Caltagirone, we disciplined ourselves [gently] to drive on to Villa Romana del Casale, which I refer to as the “bikini babes” place. The mosaics are well preserved and impressive for their intricate detail. This is another site where there is plenty to see, but we limited ourselves to several hours.
Next, we drove a couple of hours to get to our B&B in Syracuse. After two ‘one-night’ stays, we were looking forward to staying in the same place for two nights and fitting in at least half a day of a ‘vacation from our vacation’ — just sitting back and relaxing and doing nothing. Among the Syracuse highlights we toured the archeological site with the Greek theater & Roman amphitheater, the Archeological Museum, the Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime [Modonna of Tears], and the island of Ortigia, where we enjoyed a delicious evening dinner on the Piazza Duomo.
In order to get an early start to see Mt. Etna, we opted to stay in Nicolosi the night before. We arrived in the afternoon, having spent the morning in Syracuse. After settling in, we strolled thru town, shopped for wine at a local grocery store, and had a very nice dinner, before walking back to the B&B and getting to sleep.
From Nicolosi it is a short drive to Refugio Sapienza, the base point for the cable car system that takes you up Mt. Etna. The cable car goes up to 2,500 meters where you switch to a 4x4 bus, that takes you up to about 3,000 meters. At that point, we met our guide, who led us on a hike up, across, and over several craters, before returning us to the bus. We rode the bus back to the cable car station. We opted to have lunch at the canteen/gift shop there, before heading back to our car in the parking area. Fog rolled in, so they closed the cable car system and we had to take a bus back to the parking area.
From Mt. Etna, we drove to the coast, at one point following a big tour bus. It might have been a little slower, but it certainly cleared out traffic in front of us. Once we settled into our hotel in Giardini Naxos, we went out for dinner. Sonia had stayed here before and knew exactly where she wanted to eat. Once again, a great Sicilian seafood dinner! It started raining [again - October in Sicily], just as we were walking back from dinner and continued to rain all night.
There was still lingering rain and fog around Taomina in the morning, so we regretfully skipped our planned stop there. We did stop in Messina to pick up pastries and cannoli shells [including the filling — a Sicilian speciality] to take to relative, whom we were visiting next. Friday morning parking in downtown Messina was a challenge to say the least. With pastries in hand, we made our way thru the traffic and drove onto the ferry for the short 45 minute ride to the Italian mainland.
The roads on the mainland, seemed much better than those in Sicily, although directional and street signs were still few and far between. Driving on the main expressways was a pleasant change from the mostly local roads we drove on in Sicily to get to places we visited. We arrived in Soverato in the late afternoon and settled into our hotel room. Over the next several days we caught up with relatives and acquaintances and we enjoyed multiple fine meals. This was an enjoyable stop and a welcome change of pace from our sightseeing.
When we were in San Vito, Sonia especially enjoyed visiting Lina, her second Mom. Lina, now 97, was the next door neighbor of Sonia’s family in San Vito, who helped take care of Sonia, her brother, and her sister for 3 years, while Sonia’s Mom awaited them in U.S.
We apparently brought rain with us from Sicily, but enjoyed a sunny Saturday morning walk [una passeggiata] along the shoreline in Soverato. We spent most of our time indoors or in the car, so the occasional rain did not force us to change any plans.
We drove from Soverato to Sorrento mostly on the Autostrada. We’ve stayed in Sorrento before and decided to make that our base for the area. We both wanted to see the Naples National Archeological Museum and also have authentic pizza in the birthplace of pizza. After dropping our luggage at our hotel, we filled up the tank, and dropped off the rental car. I was relieved to be done with driving! We celebrated with a late afternoon snack at the Fauno Bar and did some people watching, while having a drink with a dish of Frutti di Mare.
We had another great seafood dinner at a ‘Sonia recommended’ restaurant. The next morning, we took the Circumvesuviana train into Naples and the Naples metro to the Museum. There were so many rooms and things to see. We tethered ourselves together with audio cords to let Rick Steves guide us thru his ‘highlights’ tour. We especially enjoyed the ‘secret’ room. We could have spent days taking in the museum sights!
We opted to walk back to the main train station, occasionally using Rick’s suggested path. We found many narrow streets and lots of local color. Along the way, we stopped to enjoy the Cristo Velato [Veiled Christ], an exquisite marble sculpture. Finally, we made our way to L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, considered one of the best authentic pizza places in Naples. It was featured in the Julia Roberts movie “Eat, Pray, Love”. Lots of local atmosphere. Simple, no frills, but delicious pizza!
We returned from Naples to Sorrento for the evening but were back on the Circumvesuviana train after breakfast, this time on our way to Rome. We lucked out by being able to board the next train to Rome, which left within few minutes of us boarding at the Naples train station. We had a pleasant 2 hour ride to Rome, in a nearly empty train car.
Once in Rome, we got to our hotel, checked in, cleaned up, and then walked to see the Trevi Fountain. Even in the early evening, the fountain seemed very crowded. From there, we strolled back towards our hotel diverting slightly to a restaurant for dinner. Back in our room, we carefully wrapped our ceramics for the plane ride. After breakfast, we headed to the Termini train station. We took the Leonardo Express out to the airport, checked-in, went thru security, then thru the duty free shops, and finally on to our plane headed home.
We have many, many pleasant memories of our Italian travels! Now that we’re back home, Sonia has informed me that she is ready to go back again anytime!