Holidays and Other Excursions

Month: September 2015

Sicily – Days 7 – 14

Wednesday 23 – Wednesday 30 September 2015

This morning we transfer over to the Ashby Hotel in Taormina – close to the town centre (up a small sharp hill – Taormina is up and down a lot of hills) – which is then fairly flat through the town centre.

There is a lovely view from the pool at the back of the hotel from which we can see the hotel we were in last night and also over to the mainland.  Once we are settled in we decamp to the pool area and a couple of sunbeds – hopefully we will be here getting browner for the next week.  And at one point during the week I can see a train on the railway.

We had a good couple of days by the pool and were certainly getting browner but on the Saturday afternoon the rain set in and it was then pretty wet all the way through then to our departure.  One day we chose not to even leave the hotel – it was the only way to stay dry.  The rain a few weeks earlier had knocked out the cable car service and so we were not even able to go down to the sea level and we needed to take care not to get soaked when going out to eat!

The hotel itself has a posh restaurant as well as a casual one but, perhaps like Greece, Sicily does not do “posh” that well – leave it to the French!  Out in the town we sampled a restaurant in the open air down one of the side streets – a great opener.  Elsewhere in the town we had memorable meals at Restaurant Cinque Archi – the meat here comes from a local co-operative which they work with and it was the best meat of the fortnight – and Granduca which has good seafood and wonderful views over the sea.  Also I must mention Tiramisu which served a good meal and we ended sharing the best tiramisu ever!  There was also a good bar in the town square for a drink in the open air to do some people watching – at least one session cut short by yet more rain!

One evening was a night when there was a concert at the amphitheatre – and the local population obviously dress up for their evenings out as DJs and dresses were the order of the evening – quite unlike most of the visiting population in shorts and so on.

One drawback we suffered (and this is unusual).  My wife is always well protected against insect bites and my protection is their inevitable preference for nibbling her.  On this part of the holiday we both suffered, so Taormina bugs must be attracted to different smells than much of the rest of the world.  Used up the various creams, new stocks needed for India.  We both had bites and were applying anti-histamine cream to each other in hard to reach spots!

We had planned to take the train around the foot of Etna – but decided against for two reasons – we had seen a lot of the scenery anyway and having looked at the connections for the train services I could see that missing a connection would give us an hour wait – and that would not be much fun on holiday.

Overall verdict on Sicily – lovely; food can be very good and there are some wonderful sights to see as well as a complex history.  Having seen the sights and sampled the food and wine we are not convinced there is any need to return – perhaps if we had got brown rather than rusty (well I managed to catch up on my reading as well) we might feel differently.  And if the mafia are still around we were provided with no evidence of them.

Sicily Day 6

Tuesday 22 September 2015

This is the last day of the touring part of the holiday – we are staying on a further week in Taormina in the hope of getting a suntan and maybe seeing some further sites depending on how we are feeling.

Today however we are visiting the huge volcano – Etna – which we have seen in the distance on earlier days.  It is clear this morning and as we progress down the main road we can clearly see the top of the volcano.  It is active and the height of the mountain is slowly growing.

The photographs are here.  It is hard to convey the scale of the volcano and I hope they give some idea of the size of it.

We progress up to the station and then take the cable car to much greater height.  Then like on Lanzarote it is a coach to higher still where we are shown around the slopes of the volcano and some of the vent holes at higher levels are indicated.  I go for a walk which appears in the pictures and so we are (for once) almost the last back to the tour coach at the bottom.

Next is a real surprise.  A wine tasting had been promised but the Nicosia wine tasting is a real step beyond anything I have experienced elsewhere.  Not only do we get to sample some fine wines grown on the slopes of Etna with local grapes in some very well maintained surroundings but also the kitchen turns out a huge meal which had not been mentioned in the itinerary or the by the guide.  Marvellous anti-pasti and arancini.  This was superb and quite unexpected as I had been a touch worried over consuming alcohol with no significant food.  We later discover that the wines do not seem to be imported greatly into the UK – which is a pity.  And of course I should mention the chicken collection.

We return to Taormina itself and take a walk through the town and visit the amphitheatre – the photographs are here.  The site is of Greek origin but much of what can be seen is actually Roman who reconstructed it.  Still heavily used in the summer for concerts of all sorts – although nothing which appeals to us whilst we are here, so there is also more modern seating; none of it looks particularly comfortable.

In the evening our tour guide leads us out of the hotel (which I omitted to point out is really in Letojani) and along the front – luckily in the opposite direction to the one we took the previous evening to a very nice modern restaurant where we have another excellent meal.  Very nice.  This is the last time we shall be together so thank the guide and bid each other farewell as we walk back.

We return to the hotel for the final time to pack prior to our transfer to Taormina in the morning.


Sicily Day 5

Monday 21 September 2015

Much earlier in the year Sicily had suffered some enormous storms and as a result a section of the motorway A19 had suffered damage as the ground had suffered a landslide.  Consequently many journeys are being delayed as the alternative is a long journey around the hills.  We take a break (much needed) in Polizzi Generosa which these days has a major claim to fame as the birthplace of Domenico Dolce.  On the way we can see the distorted motorway – and that will take some time to fix.

Our target today is Villa Romana del Casale which is almost in the centre of the island.  Perhaps a brief recap the history of Sicily might be in order.  The Phoenicians had the western end of the island, whilst the Greeks had the eastern side.  The latter evenutally drove out the former.  When the Romans were in dominant form they took the island from the Greeks but later the westward spread of the muslims saw a complete change in the island which was recaptured for Christianity by the Normans (although it took them 20 years).  Subsequently the island was passed around various European countries by treaty and eventually Garibaldi landed at Marsala and this finally led to a formation of a single Italian state in the nineteenth century.

Sicily is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean and holding the island was often key to being able to trade across the sea.  During their time here the Romans were at their pomp and consequently there was a lot of money which the owner of this villa ploughed into the building – it was both an extensive but also extremely well decorated villa.  Our guide has been excellent throughout but today I wander through the villa following the approved route taking the photographs which I fancy and from which a small selection has mare it to here.  Given the mosaic work used throughout the edifice the entire property must have been owned by someone very wealthy – although there seems to be no certainty about that aspect.  For more history go to this Wikipedia link.

The villa has been dated back to about the 4th Century AD; it was abandoned in about the 12th Century following a landslide.  Excavations commenced in 1929 and finished in 1960.

Having had a look around the web there are some excellent photographs to be found on this site.

The most famous mosaics relate to the “Bikini Girls” – so not a sixties invention after all – and hunting scenes.  My own pictures do not do the enterprise justice and I am quite disappointed that I have not managed to get the light levels right.

We have another lengthy drive across to the east of the island to a hotel near to Taormina. For lunch however we go to a restaurant in Piazza Armerina which is a relatively short drive.  Another good meal.

In the afternoon we cross through a huge agricultural area and I can appreciate how the island was considered a valuable resource as it could easily provide food for armies.  Later in the drive we can see Mount Etna in the distance as we pass the southern side of the volcano before reaching the motorway and then passing the eastern side of the volcano.

Our destination (Hotel Antares) is a large tourist hotel built on a hillside with its own private little cliffside railway to provide a route between the rooms and linking the public areas top and bottom!  The town itself (at sea level) is reached by descending by yet another lift through the rocks and then a walk through a car park, under railway and roads on viaducts along to the front where we found a restaurant on the sea front and had a good meal.  Most of our fellow travellers seemed to turn up in the restaurant as we were leaving.  Also entertaining was a waiter attempting to chat up the girls at the table next to ours!



Sicily Day 4

Sunday 20 September 2015

This morning we head north again driving across the island to reach Palermo which is the capital of the island.

Our first visit is to the Mirto Palace – there is a description here which betters my own photos which can be found here.  Exquisite furnishing and decorations abound, the leather lined fumoir was probably an improvement on the current arrangements forcing people out of doors!  Wonderful collections of china of which I suspect only representative samples are on display and needless to say some glorious chandeliers.  We shall see other evidence of past wealth in Sicily on the remainder of the trip.

We move onto the Royal Palace and the stunning Palatine Chapel.  The craftsmanship is simply stunning and my photos simply do not do the place justice.  There is a Wikipedia article here.  We also visited the apartments but photos were not permitted.

Next stop is the Cathedral and we manage to gain entry only to be advised that it is lunchtime and man in charge rather sharply instructs us all to leave – the only time I believe when we see evidence of Sicilian hostility – but he is entitled to his lunch hour and we to ours.  Into town and we manage a rather large pizza!  Some of the architecture is captured.

Back on the coach and a sleep whilst our driver heads a little south to Monreale and our third church of the day – well it is Sunday!  The cathedral here is of Norman origin – and this is from the time when in 1072 the Normans had claimed the island – a war had commenced in 1061 and the island did not finally become Norman controlled until 1086 with the fall of Syracuse – 25 years against one battle in Hastings in 1066 to take control of England!  Those muslims must have been far tougher!  And the island returned to Christianity.  Monreale became the seat of Christian power.  It is less decorated than the places seen earlier in the day so was from that viewpoint not as fascinating.  Photographs can be found here.

The day is far from over as we head along the northern edge of Sicily to Cefalu and book into another hotel.  Our room has a rather unwelcome odour and a request for it to be resolved whilst we are at dinner is made.

Dinner is in the town centre in a dining room over looking the raging sea.  Whilst we are in the restaurant (Kentia) a huge storm is taking place outside – thunder, lightning and strong winds and rain.  Food is pretty good as well – although in common with the other places chosen by the tour operators we are on a set menu and our food does not quite measure up to the standards we see being delivered to other tables.

Luckily the weather abates slightly before we have to walk back up the hill to the coach; so we return to the hotel damp – but not wringing wet.

The odour has worsened and would prevent sleep so after the phone is put down on a complaint my wife goes to reception and returns after about 20 minutes and we have to move to another room in an annexe, which means crossing the road.  So cases reloaded we head out and when we reach the road my wife cannot remember where to go – so at close to midnight we are lost in the middle of the road!  Eventually she divines our destination and we get indoors and get ready for bed.

Just before we get into bed another vast downpour commences and the noise of the rain on the roof is almost deafening.  Somehow we manage to sleep.


Sicily Day 3

Saturday 19 September 2015

We head across the south west corner of the island today to reach Marsala which is a small attractive town on the western coastline.

Marsala joins a list of British influenced places producing fortified wines – Madeira, Jerez and Porto – to name but three others.  Inevitably therefore a Marsala tasting at the Pelligrini facility has been included in our tour.  The older wines are fortified in oak barrels for up to thirty years.  Younger wines are not exported but are apparently all consumed within Italy (if not just Sicily).  There are a number of wine houses around the town, although the one we visited remained family owned and was investing in new buildings and facilities – so the business must be doing well.  Too sweet for me of course – but I do partake in the tasting!

Marsala is an attractive little town although we had little time to experience the sights as we wandered around.  As in most places we ar dropped near the town gates and the coach then has to go away and return at the appointed time.  This time the party were foregathered with only one exception – the tour guide!

Photographs can be found here.

We travelled a little way along the coast to look at the extensive salt drying basins.  Historically the salt water was moved between th basins using windpower but the ancient windmills are abandoned as the water is now moved using diesel power.  As the water moves it evaporates leaving the salt behind which then is piled in huge mounds awaiting removal – these days there are conveyor belts to help the salt movements so less dependent on man power.

We take a small boat out into the almost land locked harbour to visit the island of Isola San Pantaleo or Mozia and rather than walking the length of the island in the extreme heat we slowly progress around the island on the water to enable the Carthiginian works to be appreciated.  The Whitaker foundation – from Joseph Whitaker – owns the museum which is in the centre of the island and was responsible for the initial investigation into the island.  Much has now been pieced together of the Carthiginian history – including the clear evidence of fresh water availability on the island.  A recurring feature is that Sicily was once blessed with far more fresh water than is now the case.

We move onto Erice – a hillside town a little to the north east of Trappani.  Hilltop is more accurate – we have a fairly demanding stroll up the hill, admiring the views on the way to the western part of the island (including Trappani), eventually reaching the fort at the top of the hill which then also has commanding views over the north western tip of the island and towards Palermo.  Photos for this can be found here.

We return to Marinella by a faster road and during this trip I am woken to see a train – but my camera is not to hand.

This evening we are taken to sample another aspect of Italy (and Sicily) with a meal at an “Agriturismo” restaurant.  Nothing quite as simple as a farmhouse holiday – this is a serious restaurant cooking some excellent food – and majoring on olive oil which is the key item of produce.  “Agriturismo” is extensive across Italy as a way of promoting farming and local produce.  The anti-pasti was again memorable and only the local speciality of barbecued meats was not generally well received – although we had consumed so much of the earlier courses it did not matter greatly.

Time for bed.


Sicily Day 2

Friday 18 September 2015

A longish day today as we head out of Ragusa and along the south coast of Sicily.  So a lot of dozing on the coach.  A brief stop for coffee and to stretch legs and then we head to Agrigento where, on the top of a hill is the “Valley of the Temples”, so called because the modern town looks down on the temples from above.

The temperature today is even higher and I am really feeling it for once.  We look at the Temple of Hera which is the highest and then we slowly descend to the far more complete Temple of Concordia which shows a good example of the Greek approach to architecture and their need for almost perfect symmetry.  At the far end is the temple of Hercules which like Hera suffered badly from earthquakes and time.  Photos here.

Due to the heat we retreat to the cafe and treat ourselves to a granita whilst the more intrepid head to see the Temple of Zeus.  Later of course I find I should not be consuming granita as they are largely sugar.

Lunch is at a countryside restaurant across the valley from the Temples and this includes one of the most memorable dishes consumed on the holiday – an excellent lemon risotto.  Sadly the undercooked veal/beef for the main course rather ruined the effect.

Salvatore is back in the driver’s seat and we now head further along the coast to Marinella where the heat challenged choose to retire to our rather nice hotel room (for two nights) and the others head out to see some more ruins.

In the evening we wander down the steps at the back of the hotel and out on to the main street and on to the small harbour wall at the far end of which we sat to watch the sunset.  As usual the wife had studied eating places on Trip Advisor and the recommended location was right  in front of us, so was easy to find.  A nice meal and we get to stay two nights!

Sicily Day 1

Thursday 17 September 2015

We had in fact left Gatwick on the Wednesday evening but late as the British Airways plane had not arrived on time.  Indeed we had the usual denial of any delays but the give away is when you are told that the gate information will not be provided until about 5 minutes prior to planned departure.  So why not an apology alternating with the delay rather than complete denial.  None of us are really that stupid any longer.

The stupid people are the baggage handlers who, because of the delay, must have decided to leave the luggage in the open whilst it is raining. We are not too badly affected we find on opening our cases – we identify the wet items and make use of the hair dryer to dry out the worst items.

Our tour guide for the week had met us at Catania airport and Salvatore took us down the motorway to Syracuse for our first night – which was much shorter than planned due to the delayed arrival and the time spent drying clothes on arrival.

The photos of Syracuse are to be found here.

The day is warm and sunny and first we go on a walking tour around the oldest part of the city before going to the Archealogical Park where some of the earliest Greek remains are to be found.  The Greeks dug into the side of the hills to remove the stone needed for construction and left the ground above.  However an earthquake later brought down the remaining supports; there is evidence of one support standing with walls of a farmhouse still visible.

This tour was chosen as it is packed and after our first Granita we head inland to Noto (photos here) which was destroyed by earthquake and rebuilt in baroque style in the eighteenth century.  Lunch here provides a first real taste of the Sicilian palate before reboarding the coach and wending our way (via Modica – no stop) to the hillside town of Ragusa, where the old town is famous as housing the tv version of the hq of Inspector Montalbano and some of the surrounding streets seem familiar from the programmes.

We visit the old town (it was there first but due to an earthquake the buildings are a similar age to the new town) and there are photos to be found here.

Dinner in a local restaurant – this meal is included in the tour, as indeed was one each day – was also good local food as we have our first introduction to anti-pasto.