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davidx Catania - A travel report by David
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Catania,  Italy - flag Italy -  Sicilia
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davidx's travel reports

Catching up – Sicily again

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I did a number of reports on places in Sicily after my first visit in 2001 – however I had no time then to get to the far west. This time Pam came as well and we reached Erice, Trapani and Segesta.

The east end of the basilica at Monreale
The east end of the basilica at Monreale
I shall do a separate report on the western places that I did not cover in my earlier reports. This is an update and general tips on Sicily and should be read alongside my earlier reports.
Everybody knows that Sicily has a marvellous spring climate and I had lovely weather in the second week of February on my last visit. Hence I was low on warm clothing and so was Pam – on my recommendation! This year the first half of March was the worst for years – NOT wam but windy and sometimes terribly wet – sometimes a downpour all day. I guess you win some - -.
Obviously we went to many of the places I visited last time. It is far from a hardship to go a second time to Monreale, Taormina, Siracusa or Agrigento and, of course, it was Pam's first visit. I had two things in my mind that I had missed last time, the stunning mosaics at the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina and the Norman hill-top village/city of Erice. Sadly the first is undergoing restoration so we dropped it. Places I should love to revisit but which would not fit into our timetable were Selinunte and Lipari.
My first general advice to anybody planning to visit Sicily for the first time has not changed much. The problem is that it is not a small island but the places you might regard as must-sees are spread right around it; Taormina to the north-east, Cefalu and Palermo to the north, Erice and Segesta to the north-west, Selinunte to the south-west, Agrigento to the south, Siracusa in the south-east and Piazza Armerina in the centre - to say nothing of the Eolian or Engadi islands. It is a shame to leave without seeing some smaller places as well such as Caltebellotta and the villages in the north-eastern mountains. Then there is Etna!!
Hence the first advice is to reclassify some of the must-sees to cannot-see-this-time unless you have over three weeks to spare -at the very least.

Favourite spots:
From Monte Peligrino, a short bus ride from Palermo
From Monte Peligrino, a short bus ride from Palermo
Having said that, I think that to return from Sicily without seeing at least Siracusa, Agrigento and Taormina would be a sort of sin.
I was more conscious than last time of the terrific contrast between the outstanding beauty of most of the countryside and the ancient buildings on one hand and the stark ugliness of the innumerable blocks of flats on the other. This was particularly striking later at Agrigento. We met some Americans at the Valley of the Temples and one said, 'How can anybody create such ugliness when there is beauty like this so near. Where do they all come from and what on earth do they all do?' Actually once you enter the city and most flats are hidden behind others, it is most interesting – even attractive. I think overall it is my favourite of the island's larger cities.
If time compels you to make choices in Agrigento, I put the east side of the Valley of the Temples at the top.

What's really great:
In the Paradise Quarries, Siracusa
In the Paradise Quarries, Siracusa
Siracusa merits at least two nights. My opinion of the island of Ortygia rose considerably this time. I still regard the Archaeological park as somewhere vey special and this time we saw other places in the Neapolis area. These included the catacombs, whose ancient history was almost matched by more recent (WW2) usage. An American in our guided tour marvelled at the number of graves carved out for young children in early Christian times. I guess we are all ignorant on many subjects but this takes the biscuit.
The papyrus museum, though not large, is interesting. I will conclude this part with a tribute to the Archaeology Museum of Siracusa. It's claims to be one of the world's great museums is completely justified. It is purpose built and meticulously arranged in three sections. We were pleasantly punch drunk – and starving - after two of these and I advise anybody to allow for a complete half day there or more than one visit.
The long distant bus stop is now near the station.

Street market, Catania
Street market, Catania
The flight from Manchester was to Catania via Milano and, recognising that Catania is a great transport centre and not having seen it the first time I went, we had booked six nights here in total in two different B&Bs. I agree with Marianne's report about it being a great transport centre and about the excellence of its markets but we rapidly developed extreme dislike for the place.
We had booked a B&B for the first and last nights and it was very good. Later we booked another cheaper one for 4 nights. Oh dear, we fled to Siracusa after two!

From our window, Piazza Stesicoro, Catania
From our window, Piazza Stesicoro, Catania
I will give details in travel tips and stick to generalities here. We chose to stay part of the time in B&Bs in the hope of meeting local people a bit more. This did happen although two out of the three B&Bs we had ordered and the one in Cefalu that we found were owned by people who lived elsewhere. One came in early to prepare the breakfast with home made cake and jams (4 different) and absolutely terrific coffee; one came in the evening to lay out a succulent breakfast and the third had an arrangement with an adjacent bar to supply breakfast. The other one we had booked for four nights in Catania has to be experienced to be believed! Sufficient to say we only stayed for two!!
It is important to realise that B&Bs in Sicily usually entail a zillion and three steps (or so) from the road without the choice of a lift (elevator as you may call it.) In the good ones the owners are pleased to help ancients like us by carrying the luggage – but not all are good!

In the Valley of the Temples
In the Valley of the Temples
I think the only safe policy for anybody with physical disadvantages is to phone the institution and check on its accessibility and the readiness or otherwise to provide help. Having said that I will adjust the balance. Although I should not have ordered accommodation at any of the B&Bs we found on the Internet, I should happily stay at two of them again.

I have nothing much to say about nightlife or hang-outs. Our hang-outs were mainly compulsary – otherwise known as bus stops – often in the most insalubrious places imaginable.

Spring in Sicily
Spring in Sicily
I will start on restaurants and food here. Neither of us went a bundle on sepia but otherwise the fish and seafood make a real treat; nor would a vegetarian find any difficulty – even with only a minimal knowledge of the language such as my own.

Something to be clear about is that any dish described as 'fresh fish' and charged by weight will be expensive. I don't say it will not be worth it but you do ned to know. There will be other choices on the menu if you want to spend less.

The number of different forms of pasta is almost unimaginable but anything described as 'a very local' pasta always seemed pretty wonderful.

Archaeological Park, Siracusa
Archaeological Park, Siracusa
We were always ready to eat by about half past seven and, unlike in Spain, nearly everybody seems open – although they take a while to fill up – depriving you of the infallible guide of seeing where locals eat. However in 14 nights I think the worst we did was no less than fairly good and most nights varied between very good and outstanding.
If I have any regret about this trip it is that I found fewer antipasta buffets than last time. They really are great!

Other recommendations:
View from our room, Cefalu
View from our room, Cefalu
We went from Agrigento to Palermo by train – which is to say we meant to. In fact there was a replacement bus as far as Roccapalumba and we picked up a trian there. Both this and the one that we used from Palermo to Cefalu completely belied the reputation of Sicily for poor rail service. I am ashamed that to say they were better than England no longer means much but they easily matched or beat most of Europe for comfort and – yes – punctuality!

Published on Sunday March 21th, 2010

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Thu, Apr 15 2010 - 05:25 AM rating by mistybleu

David, as always a really enjoyable read. I also love the picture 'view from our room' - such a mixture textures; lovely.

Thu, Apr 08 2010 - 02:11 PM rating by bootlegga

Fantastic as always!

Tue, Apr 06 2010 - 02:34 PM rating by jorgesanchez

Magistral !!!

Mon, Mar 22 2010 - 08:13 PM rating by mtlorensen

Really nice report David and I'll bet it was fun to relive the trip with Pam.

Mon, Mar 22 2010 - 02:04 AM rating by bineba

Shame about the wheather, but it sounds like you had a good time anyway.
I've been to Sicily twice now, but only for long(ish) weekends and have only been to Palermo, Taormina and Syracuse. I absolutely loved it there. I found the train service excellent and cheap. The first time we took the train from Palermo to Taormina changing in Messina and the second time from Catania to Taormina.
I've also got bad memories of Catania. we had our money stolen on the bus from the airport to the station. only the notes - they put the wallet with the coins back into my partner's jacket pocket!

Sun, Mar 21 2010 - 02:05 PM rating by porto

David, great report and advice and I can imagine that pasta will taste delicious. :)

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