Italy

Sicily

taoromina 1

Taormina center

taormina beaches

Beaches of Taormina – It’s not sand you see

club Morgana

 

 

 

 

Beautiful Sicily!  I was surprised and pleased.  Wasn’t sure what to expect beyond what we had read about things to do and see.  It was one of those vacation spots that was picked on a whim and a bit of research.  It is not the very clean and colorful architecture seen in other parts of Europe, it is rather dim and rusty, but so very old and full of history. The Baroque style cathedrals will have you astonished and amazed and there are plenty of them…anywhere you visit in Sicily. The food is amazing and you must try some of the famous Sicilian dishes and desserts such as the grandita and arancini (Sicilian rice balls).  You may need to try a few places to find your favorite, but it’s worth it.

I suppose it is possible to get around Sicily easily by taking a bus or flying but we rented a car, and it was very convenient.  Driving in Sicily and finding your way is very easy.  We hardly used the map we’d bought.  The roads and signs are well marked.  I call this trip ‘The Adventures of E2.”  Some very passionate Italians offered their feedback on our trip itinerary – I can just see them waving their hands as if we were two mad girls trying to cover Sicily in eight days.  They warned us that Sicily requires 2-3 weeks.  Well, yea maybe a European style vacation.  I did have three weeks but like a true American traveler, I packed three countries in one trip.  In any case, Sicily can be thoroughly enjoyed in 2-3 weeks but in our eight days, we got to see most of it and loved it.

Started the trip in the Amalfi coast of Italy and after three days flew to Taormino, the party destination of Sicily.  But wait… in July the nightlife picks up on the weekends only but if you go in August, it’s every night.  We loved Taormina but didn’t experience the full-blown Taormina party nights.

Taormino, is a charming city.  The There is no driving within most parts of the enclosed old town and it’s not needed. The main square, Greek Theater, and shops and restaurants are all within a mile or two radius of each other.   You can even walk down to the beach, Isola Bella (it’s a hike and takes a long time), take a bus, or the cable car that goes up and down the hill, though we never actually saw it working.   Taormina’s beaches are rocky and rough, not a beach to enjoy for swimming or sunbathing, but the rest of the town is worth seeing.

We also drove to the Castelmola village but the castle itself was closed for construction.  I climbed the gate and took a peek anyway, nothing in there worth seeing but nice to visit this hill above the city for the view.  A hot tourist spot in Castelmola is bar di Turrisi.  We weren’t sure why it was popular and when I saw the menu, I thought how strange.  Why is there a shape of a penis on the menu?! Well, come to find out, this café is well-known for exactly that and the decorations, even the beer tap, was in the shape of a penis.   The café is very conveniently located in the square where the cathedral is also located.  As a matter of fact, if you sit on the 3rd floor balcony, you can sip your coffee or etc. overlooking the cathedral and the restaurants below.  Try the grandita here, it was one of the best we had in Sicily.

Bar Turrisi leaflet

Bar Turrisi

bar de turisti

We had an amazing dinner at Osteria Nero D’Avola.  This restaurant was recommended by a chef in New York City and when we stopped by earlier in the day to see the menu, we met the chef.  He invited us to the restaurant for dinner and the dishes did not disappoint.  You must try the panna cotta.  Yum!

We visited one of (if not the only) the nightclubs, as recommended by a PR agent whom we met while walking around the old square.  He insisted we must visit the Morgana as it is somewhat happening on a Thursday night and it’s the only place to go. ‘Not everyone can get in’, he said.  It was a cute lounge/bar with music from all decades.  With a stylish crowd and good drinks, all in all, it was a fun place and we can now claim we had a night out in Sicily.  We were also given a tour of a very famous restaurant that overlooks the Greek Theater, by the owner.  This place is hustling and bustling on the weekends and especially in the month of August.  It is the place to be and although we were invited to attend a party that was to be held there the next evening, sadly we had picked the wrong days to spend in Taormina.  Next time!

After two days in Taormina, we headed for to Ragusa.  We bypassed visiting a big tourist attraction, Mount Etna, the volcano, and some of the more popular cities, like Siracusa, but we just did not have the time and we did not want to make stops along the where we would have to leave our luggage in the car as we visited these areas along our route.  Ragusa is a beautiful old city, rich with history.  I recommend staying in or near the old town.  This part of the city, like most parts of Sicily, was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1693, but the locals had an option to keep and resurrect what was left of the old city or destroy it completely and rebuild.  Although a new city was also built around the old city, but the nobles, San Giorgians, decided to also salvage what was left of the old town.  I’m glad they did. This picturesque area glows at nights and it’s beautiful by day as well.  This area houses the famous San Giorgio XIV cathedral.  There is a nearby garden, a few shops, and some restaurants and cafes.  But if you plan on dining here in the evening, either make reservations or get there early.  Not many choices here but there are locals and tourists trying to enjoy the evening in the old town.  We, however, stayed in the new section of the town, across from the San Giovanni Battista Cathedral, at a very traditional five star hotel.  I could almost picture the bourgeois of the early 19th century staying at this hotel.  It had that kind of a feel and decor.  Our room was called Violetta, and yes, it was purple.  If you are driving, staying in the new city may be more convenient.

ragusa old town

Old Town Ragusa

ragusa1

Ragusa – new town border

 

We took a couple of side trips from Ragusa.  One day to the nearby beaches, highly recommend, and one day to the small city of Modica.  Some would argue that this city has more of the history and architecture that Syracusa is famous for, but since we didn’t make it to Syracusa, I have no opinion on the comparison.  Modica is a small and charming town.  Takes a couple of hours to cover the sight seeing on foot.  There is a famous Sicilian chocolate that is made in Modica, this is a good souvenir option.  🙂

We also visited the town of Scili, another charming and old Sicilian town, where the elderly lounged around the main square and cathedrals and gossiped about the new tourists in town, as they eyed us head to toe and whispered in each other’s ears.  Ha!  There are about three main sights to see here and if you stop in any of them, you can buy a pass to get you into all of them.  Not that it’s expensive by any means, but you can save yourself a couple of Euros and see these small but interesting points of interest.  Seeing Scili will take not more than a couple of hours.  What you will find interesting is that in just one corner of this small city, you can find at least three church/cathedrals.  Of course Sicily is a very old Catholic country but good Lord, how many people lived here in 1600-1700s that so many cathedrals were needed to accomodate ?!

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Beaches – Sicily

Sicili

Sicili

 

We hit the road after a couple of days and headed for Agrigento, about a two hour drive from Ragusa.  The city of Corleone is near or along this path.  Most people assume that the movie, the God Father, was filmed here (naturally because of the name), but that is not true. The movie was actually filmed in a city on the eastern coast of Sicily, in the town of Savoca, not too far from Taormina but headed north.

If you have not yet visited Greece, you may find Agrigento of interest.  It is one of the cities in Sicily that has some Greek temples, very well intact.  Since I’ve been to Greece, and the price to visit these temples in Sicily was a bit high, I opted to relax at a nearby cafe while my friend visited the area.  You can walk part of it, the ruins, for free, but to walk to the two temples, you must pay.  This was not one of my favorite or must see places in Sicily and in retrospect, should’ve skipped it.  We did enjoy some time at a beach bar watching the World Cup: Netherlands vs. Argentina.

We departed Agrigento and headed to the capital of Sicily, Palermo.  We spent three days here and stayed pretty central.  We stayed at a 18th century plaza owned by a Duchess (Bureta28).  I must say that it was a big two room apartment and offered a lot of conveniences such as washer and a kitchen.  It was too much for two people who were only staying for three days.   Although the place was ok, the furniture and beds especially were old and due for a major update.  We never met the Duchess but she was sure to play mother to us on our emails exchanges in inquiring about the address, etc. Perhaps she thought we were two careless teenagers traveling for the first time in a foreign land.  The Duchess balked at me on Trip Advisor when I provided a review of  her ‘apartment.’  She argued that the furniture is antique… well I couldn’t reply, but there’s a difference between antique and old/uncomfortable beds, forget the rest of the furniture.  The Duchess btw only accepts cash… how convenient for her, not so much for us.  Moving on… I loved Palermo, so much to see.

Greek Temple

Greek temple

Be sure to visit Monreal, a small city within the city.  The most elaborate (this became the word for this trip and all the Baroque style cathedrals), cathedral is n Monreal, you can’t take your eyes of the gold interior.  It is free to visit but pay a little extra and visit the observation deck and the interior rooms on the side.  It’s worth it.  The main center of Palermo offers many beautiful cathedrals, the biggest is in the center of the town and was built on top of a masque, the Palermo Cathedral.  Some of the walls and structures of the Moorish masque can be seen from the exterior walls.

Fountain of Shame - Palermo

Fountain of Shame

Palermo Cathedral

Moorish walls of the Cathedral in Palermo

palermo 3

Streets of Palermo

baroque churches

Baroque churches of Sicily

There’s not much nightlife in this area of Palermo and you have to travel to the outskirts and go where the locals go but there is a street nearby that has  bars and coffeeshops and this is where you can enjoy an evening sitting outside and watching the locals and street crazies while having a American named drinks, like the b52… but you can’t say fifty-two because the waitress may not understand.  You need to learn what fifty-two is in Italian, 🙂 or just order another drink.  I think I ordered the B52 because I had not seen it on a menu in at least a decade.

Visit the Fountain of Shame (Fontana Pretoria) and read about the history.  The one place that did not make it to my must see list is the over-priced cathedral in the royal building – not worth  it and it’s nothing unique.  We didn’t get the chance to tour the royal building rooms, which we had preferred to do.  Check the days and times of the tours so that you don’t miss out, like we did.

I also recommend a day trip to the city of Cefalu from Palermo.  Small city with beautiful narrow streets full of shops and cafes.  Enjoy the beach.  It’s beautiful – see the featured image.

Sicily offers great food, history, and beaches.  It does take about 2-3 weeks to fully enjoy ALL of Sicily and maybe even take a side trip to Malta, but you can still cover a lot ground in eight days as we did.  Go explore Sicily.. you won’t regret it!

 

Colesium Taormina

Coliseum in Taormina

hotel in taormina

Our hotel in Taormina

palermo fish market

Sword fish

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Try this ice cream sandwich in Palermo

palermo 1

Local fresh street seafood restaurant

hotel in ragusa

Our hotel in Ragusa

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Italy in 12 days – Part II

Italy in 12 days – Part II.

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Italy in 12 days – Part II

A great moment in life!

Traveling through Tuscany

We took a day trip to Siena, a lovely and charming city with narrow streets that come to mind when you think Europe.  Bakeries, Cheese and meat shops along the narrow streets have that inviting aroma that you can’t escape.  There are a few sites to visit here and it’s so small that you can’t really miss them. Just follow the packs.  To get to the center of the town, you should take a bus from the train station but half a day will probably be enough to see this small town, if you are rushing to see everything.  If you want to stop and smell the flowers, by all means, take your time.

Pizza!!! - Siena

We took another half day trip to Chianti, the part of Tuscany so well-known for its wine.  Unfortunately, it was mid October and a rainy day.  We had to the take the bus from Florence and the drive through the green hills and small towns was beautiful.  There wasn’t much going on the little square in the middle of the town but we stopped in for some wine tasting, coffee, and browsed through the streets.  We even walked up a hill to get a nice view of the city and the region.

Chianti

why does this happen every where I go!! – Verona

where lovers leave a note in the house of Juliet

I always wanted to rent a cottage or farm-house in Tuscany and just relax for a couple of weeks.  Kind of like that movie, Under the Tuscan Sun.  Maybe I’ll do that one and write a book as well, who knows!

Leaving Florence and Tuscany

On our way to Rome, we stopped in Verona. Loved it.  There was a farmer’s market with fresh fruit and vegetables and souvenirs in the middle of the town and was surrounded by a beautiful buildings.  We visited the castle by the river, ate some gelato and went to Juliet’s house.  In case you don’t know, Romeo & Juliet was basically a work of fiction and so is Juliet’s house in Verona.  Knowing this, we opted to take some pictures in the small courtyard and not pay for the tour of the house and balcony that wasn’t real.  But many did because they wanted a picture in the ‘famous’, yet fake, balcony.

One of our many gelato days back in Venice

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Get out in the train station and follow the people.  Don’t worry if you don’t have a map.  They are all going to the same place.

holding it up

Rome

We walked everywhere. The one thing you don’t realize often when traveling as tourists is how in close proximity all the sites in these cities are.  You can take the buses and subway, but you can easily cover Rome on foot and see all the sights and more.  So you get lost a few times, but you never go too far.  Rome is full of rich history, we even came across an area that they had just discovered ruins underneath a street.  They were still excavating not too far from the Coliseum.

the vatican

Scratch my foot! Old day pedicures

Do some shopping!! You can find all the brand name stores around the Spanish steps and you can find some better deals than you would in the States.  Since a lot of the brand names are European and/or from Italy.  The one complaint I had about our stay in Rome was actually the Ritz Hotel were we stayed.  The first room was so small and hideous – it looked like some bad print fabric threw up all over it – but it could either house us or our luggage.  It was supposedly a four star hotel.  We asked for a room change, the second one wasn’t much better and nothing in it worked but hey, we could fit.  The breakfast was as equally horrible.  We wrote a complaint regarding a few items and experiences we had there to the management, but obviously no one cared.

To the good stuff – aside from the obvious sites, which you can read about in every travel guide, stop by at a castle near the Vatican – Castle Sant ‘Angelo–  across from the bridge.  It once served as a prison and a residence to a papal.  We didn’t tour the inside but walked the grounds.  By this point we were so exhausted and cash poor that we would stop people coming out and ask them if it was worth paying for to see.  I guess it wasn’t.  History says this was a castle where all illegal and forbidden acts took place.  There is an underground passage way from the castle to the Vatican by which the clergy used to travel to come to the castle for anything that pleased their appetite.   Oh if the walls could talk!!!!!!!!!!!!

Note of caution.. do as others do when passing by one of the shrines built for the popes in the Vatican.  We were nearly thrown out of the Vatican for stopping and leaning on the railing by one of the shrines/tombs to take a picture.  Apparently it’s not allowed..take your picture quickly as you are walking by..lol.  That was awesome.. I had a great laugh thanks to my cuz!

The Vatican is quite the site.  This was my second time visiting and I’m always in awe of the fortunes spent to build!  You almost do not want to pay to visit it but how can you not.  It is magnificent and over-the-top.  The Sistine Chapel, is as I recall it from the first time…. a work of wonder but bigger and more fascinating in imagination.  Silence is enforced while you are in the chapel, which adds to the mystery of the place.

We also had to charm and negotiate our way to the subway on our last night in Rome.  The banks were closed, we had only enough cash to pay the shuttle service the next day to take us to the airport at 5 am and the only place that we HAD to take public transportation was for one stop to get to our hotel as a freeway and gated forest private area separated most of Rome from we were staying.  Walking was not an option.  We begged and pleaded and flirted with the subway conductor.  I had no faith as I was holding on to six shopping bags from Gucci, etc. How could we convince this guy – who didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Italian – that we had no cash and we had to get to our hotel.  It worked.. again to my cuz’s persistence.  He reluctantly open the door for us as he was still shaking his head no and saying that it was not allowed.  Oh the Italians…

Pompeii, The Forgotten City

According to history, this town was turned into ashes and buried.  You can still see some of the ‘mummified’ bodies of the 20k people the died that day.  During our stay in Rome, we took the train south for a day trip to Pompeii.  You probably need a full day here as this lost city is so fascinating and bigger than you think.  It was raining and we had no rain coat nor an umbrella.  Of course these ruins of homes had no ceilings for us to take shelter underneath, however, the guards felt sorry for us and invited us to sit in their little hut and even gave us espresso to sip on.  We sat and chatted with these five or six guards and at the end they gave us an umbrella to carry around with us.   They were so nice!!! Again, I gotta give a shout out to Italian men…..  We ran through the ruins near dark to find them again and return the umbrella.. and I can’t recall if we succeeded.  We were soaking wet most of the day, but had so much fun.  Highly recommend it.

A ruin of one of the homes of the wealthier class

One of the mummified bodies

Italy is so rich in history and places to see and over the past decade or so, the Italian government seems to have made great strides in making the country feel more safe.  The first time I visited, I was more aware and surrounded by beggars and gypsies.  I had to be more careful and hold on tight to my purse.  I didn’t feel the same this time and was rarely approached by beggars for money near the tourist attractions, maybe I looked less rich..lol.  Of course one should always always be aware of their surroundings and proceed cautiously when traveling. I’ve traveled a great deal and I’ve been very fortunate in not having had any of my belongings stolen, but I am always aware yet comfortable when I travel.  And I felt even less threatened this time in Italy.

Twelve days wasn’t enough to see everything we wanted to see but it was a great trip and the fact that we didn’t plan most of it, made it even more exciting.

make a wish and toss a coin, you'll come back. I did come back.

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Italy in 12 days – part I

Made plans to start in Milan and work our way south without too much planning and fly home from Rome.  For the most part, the lack of planning was great.  This was mid October 2010.  Our only goal was to have gelato in every city that we traveled through or stopped in.  Sometimes we had more than one gelato a day and no regrets!

Milan in two days

Not much to see in Milan but it’s a nice and clean city and city of fashion.  Great shopping here.  Didn’t see the models catwalk on the streets as I heard I would.  Maybe it was the time of the year.  Milan doesn’t offer much in terms of sight-seeing but worth a visit.  Must check out the Duamo of course.  Gorgeous cathedral and fun square to hang out in.  There’s also a very expensive Galleria of shops where you can spend a pretty penny.  Did great gloves and boot shopping.  When I recently traveled to Spain, I must say Italy wins for shopping, fashion, and quality hands down.

We did visit the Opera house and  the room that houses the original The Last Supper of Leonardo Da Vinci in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.  Unless you have a burning desire to see this painting, I’m not sure it was worth the $25 ticket.  We were ushered into the room and allowed to stare at it for about 10 minutes.  No pictures of course.

We took the train from Milan to Venice.   I do recommend against purchasing the multi-day travel packages for the train unless you are traveling long distances.  It was more expensive than if we had paid for each individual trip separately and we didn’t use it for the full 7 days.  So plan carefully and do your calculations.  We also didn’t know that we were excluded from certain sections on certain trains and got ticketed on one of our trips.  The penalty was another $20-30 bucks and the train police was quiet unpleasant.  Avoid them at all cost.

Venice – one the most adventurous parts of the trip

With Gondola driver

Probably my least favorite city in Italy.  Most over-rated.  It’s expensive and dirty.  San Marco Basilica and square of course are beautiful but …  We showed up to Venice without any hotel reservations.  DON’T DO THIS..  LOL, especially if you are arriving on a weekend.  We arrived on a Friday night at 11 with our two big suitcases.   Everyone we asked for a room, laughed at us.  A man, pretending to be a hotel agent, in the train station played his part well and told us he found us a room for rent in a house with an elderly couple.  When we arrived – into the parts of Venice that tourists don’t get to see, for good reason – we realized that the room was being shared with another traveling student and it was filled with smoke and stench.  The elderly couple was ill and were renting the room for extra money.. but the smell of smoke, dirt, and medication was so nauseating that we were willing to sleep in the train station.

On top of the San Marco Basilica

We took our chance and started to walk the strip, stopping in every hotel and asking for a room.  One hotel staff actually took the time to call around for us because he felt bad for us.  We eventually found one but he could only give us one night.  It wasn’t a great hotel but the guy at the desk took a liking to us after showing us an attitude at first.  I still remember that the hotel smelled like cabbage to me.  We didn’t like the first room they gave us and luckily (sort of) they had another one in the halls behind the kitchen and cafe.  It had a window to the garden so it smelled better.  We managed to stay a second night but the manager wanted to charge us more because it was a Saturday night.  Thanks to the charms of my cousin… she woke up early Sunday am before the manager got in and while our buddy who worked the night shift at the desk was still there, and she got him to reduce the charges for us and we checked out before the manager got in.  We learned our lesson and went to an internet cafe and booked a hotel on tripadvisor for our next destination, Florence.

BTW, the service in Italy is awful.  Most, but not all of course, are rude and unpleasant.  I mostly found this with the female servers and shop keepers of course.. since we were two ladies traveling.  I had to throw my attitude back at them many times and this seemed to work.

Love Florence!

My favorite city in Italy.  This was my second visit to Italy and Florence is still my favorite place.  The history and the charm of Tuscany can’t be beat. We spend about 3-4 days here and took a side trip to Siena and the Chianti region.

We covered most of what Florence had to offer but three days is not enough if you really want to go to every museum and enjoy Florence.  We climbed the 414 steps to the top of the Giotto’s Bell Tower for a spectacular view of the city, enjoyed the fascinating Duamo, visited the Uffizi museum and took in the sights at the Ponte Vecchio (bridge).  We feasted on gelato, cappuccino and pastries.  If you’ve ever traveled to Italy (up to early 2000’s) you know that what we call pizza, is not really Italian.  I realized on this trip that the American pizza has taken over the tourist industry there.  Around all the touristy areas, we found restaurants that had included the American style pizza on their menus and guess what most people were ordering.. geeeez!  It’s Italy folks.. eat some traditional dishes.   We did.. soooo much of it.

Duamo in Florence

You will also quickly learn that each museum hosts one famous piece of art that is a must see.  Therefore, as tourists, you must visit every museum and see the additional *(&*^*&^&^%& zillion pieces of art that 80% seem to be of Jesus and some portraits of people whom you don’t care about.  Each museum also charges a nice euro fee that equals about $20-30 each.  We had become so exhausted from walking and the zillion museums that we would speed walk past most of the art to get to the piece we wanted to see. Spend five minutes in front of it and nod and walk. Fun, no? It is….

climbing to the top!

Me on Ponte Vecchio

We stayed at a very charming hotel near the Duamo, Hotel Centrale.  It was a three star hotel, that we found while in the internet cafe in Venice and wasn’t so sure about it.  But we loved it so much  and it was so reasonably priced that we continued to extend our stay there each night from 2-4.  The room was huge, clean, and have a remodeled bathroom with marble tiles all around it.  The staff was friendly, the breakfast was also great and the use of the internet was free.  The only reason this hotel was a three star is because it didn’t offer all the amenities, such as room service but in quality it was much better than some of the four star hotels we stayed at during our trip.  So read the reviews on Tripadvisor seriously.  That is how I select hotels and I do provide reviews as well.

More of our trip including Siena, Chianti, Verona, Pisa, Rome, and Pompeii coming up later this week.

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