by Fred Steinberg, Adjunct Faculty in Marketing, Management & Finance
Sicily was added to our travel bucket list just some three years ago after many friends and relatives came back with almost universal raves for the big island off the bottom of the boot in Southern Italy. After listening to their travel tales, I realized there were 10 factors to take into account when visiting -- five broad attractions but five broad warnings.
Natural Beauty – Miles of ocean coastline with quaint harbors and lovely beaches, snow-capped mountains highlighted by Mt. Etna’s active volcano and some of the loveliest public gardens in all Europe.
Historic Ruins – A wide variety of classic Greco-Roman and Arabic ruins, many located in city neighborhoods throughout the island, most of which are viewable but many still under excavation.
Hotels – A wide variety of unique boutique properties, many converted from historic residences, local museums and monasteries, which easily rival many of the paradores in Spain and Portugal.
Food – Home of the best pizza, bread, granita and arguably the best pastas in Italy, plus a wide variety of excellent, inexpensive wines. It’s no surprise that Sicily is often referred to as “God’s Kitchen.”
...And a faint hint of the Casa Nostra.
Internal Airlines – Best to stick with large international carriers such as Alitalia, Delta, Air France, United-Continental and Lufthansa when flying to and from Sicily. Locally based and regional carriers operate on “Italian time,” – Read: Late, very late and “domani.”
Trains - Internal trains make the internal airlines seem ruthlessly efficient. And routes mostly circle the coasts and stop every few minutes – sometimes at a station. El Duce and his supporters boasted rapturously of his making the trains run on time, but I doubt they ever visited Sicily.
Drivers - On the highways you could swear (and you often do) that you have entered the Monaco Grand Pre track. Speed limits, where they exist, seem to be postings of the minimum local drivers are allowed to go.
Driving - If you have the guts, stamina and nervous system to do it yourself, you can experience the worst traffic jams in Europe in Palermo, Taormina and Messina. Or you can venture out on the highways, joining the Grand Prix (see above) and dodge frequent accident pileups, highway construction which seems to proceed at glacial speed, rock slides from unstable mountains, motorists who will stop in the middle of the highway to shout at and argue with other drivers who have done the same and occasionally being engulfed in ash from a still active volcano.
Crowds - Let me simply say that the crowds at local tourist locations, such as the historic center city of Taormina, make New Year’s Eve in Times Square seem like midnight in Pierre, South Dakota.
Natural Beauty - With over 900 miles of coastline, Sicily provides no shortage of outstanding beaches and ports. For fishing ports, Mazarg del Vallo, Liceta and Seglitti are the most productive and interesting while the most popular for tourists include Ragusa, Riposto, Cefalu, Syracusa and Palermo. The latter two were highlights for us. The one mile walk along the Palermo port passes docks for ships large and small (including some spectacular yachts) and leads to the beautiful Orto Botanico, the botanic and zoological gardens administered by the University of Palermo.
In Syracusa, a UNESCO World Heritage site considered the most beautiful of Sicilian cities, the Greek Theater, built in the 5th Century BC, and later rebuilt by the Romans’, is considered one of the best preserved ancient theaters of its type in the world. The Isola di Ortigia peninsula is another Syracusa highlight. Jutting out some one mile into the Caribbean’s Straits of Messina, which separate Sicily from mainland Italy, the Ortigia area features the Doric Temple of Apollo and the lovely Montalto and Archimedes Plazas, which date back to the 14th Century.
The one hour walk around the Isola peninsula is breathtaking, from the beautiful beach areas to the Maniace Castle at the tip of the Isola. On the land side of the walk you can view many baroque and restored medieval sites and structures. Particularly attractive is Castle Minerva, now an archeological museum. Its crypt-laden catacombs are fascinating and can be easily viewed both individually from ground level and from a suspended walkway.
In Catania we discovered the very lovely and idyllic Botanical Gardens, administered by the Botanical Department of the University of Catania. The facility is divided into two main sections – the General Garden, featuring over 100 varieties of palms, succulent plants and trees which have the ability to survive in arid environments, and giant Cereus and Opuntia trees. The Sicilian Garden is reserved for the cultivation of local plants and trees. And of course, no one should miss Mt. Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe. But while many chose to go to villages at the base of the mountain, the best views are from higher spots in Taormina, 20 miles to the North, or Catania, 15 miles to the South.
Historic Ruins – To find examples of Greco-Roman and occasional Arabic ruins you likely will need only walk a few blocks from your hotel in most any city neighborhood. They will not be on the scale of the most famous and extensive such as the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo, the Necropolis in Pantalica or the UNESCO Heritage Site of the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, but each is unique and interesting in its own way.
Our favorites were the Greek Theaters in Syracusa and Taormina and a special find in Catania. The Greek Theater in Syracusa, part of the historic cities Archaeological Site, features remains of the ancient city as far back as the 8th Century BC. The Theater is particularly well preserved. The Amphitheater in Taormina is considered among the best examples of Greek theaters in Europe and is still used for concerts, plays and other events.
In Catania we were attracted by write-ups of the city’s Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolo, on UNESCO’s World heritage List, which now houses the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania. Viewing is only by daily tours (English tours are available). Rebuilt after the giant earthquake of 1693, the Monastery was completed in the 18th Century and features two-three story cloisters connected by a bridge which now serves as a study hall. The building features giant marble columns, remnants of the original kitchen and dining halls, monk’s cells, the former Abbot’s apartment, the former chapel, now a movie theater, and the novice’s quarters and gardens. Most unique is the school’s library, housed in the lowest level, which survived the great earthquake relatively intact. The stacks, catalog system, study halls and administrative areas are uniquely built into and around the original catacomb facilities to preserve their history.
Hotels - Sicily has no shortage of unique and historic hotels including the 19th Century Grand Timeo, overlooking the Greek Theater in Taormina and known for its Literary Terrace, the multi-terraced La Moresca Maison de Charme, beautifully restored in authentic Sicilian Art Nouveau style from a former estate in Regusa, and the Baglio Oneto Resort and Winery, a series of buildings based on old feudal dwellings of the 18th Century in Marsala.
But our medium-priced favorites were the Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa, located on a quiet cul de sac just off the center city in Palermo. The hotel combines an authentically restored 16th century church, adjacent convent and cloisters and features a dramatic two-story staircase. In Catania we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the UNA Palace, restored on a historic Century old property in classic Sicilian style, located in the artistic and commercial district just a 10 minute walk to the center city Duomo (cathedral) Square. Its dramatic three-story lobby features a cocktail terrace and a grand staircase. But the outstanding feature of the hotel for us was the Etna Roof Terrace with its excellent view of Mt. Etna. For just 12 EU you can have cocktails and canapes as the sun sets and view Mt. Etna spewing lava and ash just 15 miles away. After dark, you can watch a wonderful ballet performance as local bats soar and dive for their evening insect meal.
Food – Sicily (God’s Kitchen) features Italian pizza lover’s best national version. It’s the thick crust, deep dish version that started the pizza craze in the US. Arancini,( fried rice balls) stuffed with meat and tomato sauce, make for an excellent if somewhat heavy appetizer. Our favorite was the lighter stuffed mushrooms. And each region seems to have its bread specialty – from the Ciabatta (a broad, flat, crusty, white loaf) to the Pane Nero (light, yellow inside) and the Polenta Popeta (dark, sourdough with heavy crust). Sicilians are very proud of their local breads.
For entrées, Sicily features a wide variety of local pastas, with swordfish being the seafood of choice. Stuffed eggplant is also popular and prepared with various ingredients. Other dishes feature local sardines, tuna and cod. For desert, cannoli, stuffed with ricotta, mascarpone and cream and granita, a cross between Italian ice and sorbet and native to Catania, are most popular.
We had our best Sicilian meal at Casa del Brodo on Corso Vitt Emanuele, just around the corner from our hotel in Palermo. We started with a very inexpensive but excellent local Prosecco which accompanied a 12 item antipasto buffet (nine euros), entrees of pasta with sword fish and stuffed eggplant, followed by a small three-flavor sampling of granita. Our total bill for two was just under 80 euros – which leads to...
A Faint Hint of the Cosa Nostra
We were seated at a table for two quite near to a large round table with eight chairs. Young and middle aged men arrived individually as waiters brought out platters of olives, pickles, cheese, stuffed mushrooms and bread, accompanied by bottles of Champaigne.
The men were uniformly dressed in fashionable white shirts, slacks and loafers and sported large watches, rings and necklaces. As each arrived, there were rounds of cheek-kissing and after about 20 minutes, seven seats were filled. Then an older, shorter and similarly attired man arrived. At that point all stood up, the owner-chef and his wife came out and all effusively greeted the last arrival with a round of cheek kissing that would pale a 1940 Hollywood romantic comedy. And we were delighted that we had experienced our hint of the Cosa Nostra on our second night in Palermo.
The warnings we had received were generally right on. We had booked our flight from Rome to Palermo on Iberia Airlines but when the web booking responded, we found ourselves on a code share, operated by Vueling Air, an Italian low-cost inter European carrier.
Deciding to be cautious, given the usual crowds at Rome’s huge Fiumicino Airport, we arrived over two hours early and were glad we did when it took us some two hours of waiting to check in, get through security and find our way to our gate. Then we waited...and waited...and waited.
An hour after our six pm scheduled departure, we were loaded on a bus, in three shifts of about 50, for the 10 minute drive to the plane. Total time for bussing was about an hour. Then we waited...and waited...and waited on the plane.
Forty minutes later it was announced that mechanical difficulties prevented our plane from flying but another plane awaited us. Incorrectly thinking that we would be bussed directly to the new plane, we were taken back to the terminal and after the bus brought three shifts of passengers, we were marched 15 minutes to another wing of the terminal where the bus loading procedure was restarted.
Now four hours after scheduled departure time we were subject to the following rather unreal announcement in a British accent. “This is your new captain and I’m sorry this will be my only announcement as I do not speak Italian. Your previous crew’s flying time for the week had expired so we are a volunteer crew and we hope you appreciate that. And while I have flown to various Italian cities before, I have never flown to Palermo, but my co-pilot has. Our flying time is one hour and we hope you enjoy the flight.” The Italian couple sitting next to me asked what he said. Hoping to avoid them asking to get off the plane, I responded: “No entiendo, solamente hablo espanol.” Four hours late, we took off for Palermo.
It did not take us long to experience another “warning.” As it was 11 PM when we exited the Palermo airport, we decided to not wait for the downtown shuttle bus although it would cost only 14 EU for the two of us. Instead we went to the taxi kiosk and were told it would be about a 45 minute ride for 60 EU to our hotel. Our driver Marco was no doubt practicing for Le Mans.
He quickly entered the relatively empty downtown expressway, and at speeds often exceeding 150 km. per hr., seemed to delight in getting behind each of the few cars on the road, flashing his lights, honking his horn and shouting until the car in front got into an adjacent lane. As we terrifyingly tried to figure out how to tighten our loose seat belts, Marcos kept turning around to talk to us as he explained he wanted to improve his English. He made it to our hotel in 25 minutes, no doubt a performance putting him into the Guinness Book of Records.
If driving with Marco had not put us off our original plan to later drive a rental car for the 175 mile direct trip to Catania on superhighway A-19, we found out by talking to the travel desk at the hotel that a landslide from an adjacent mountain had closed the A-19 and repairs were expected to take up to a month. That would result in a detour that would turn the usual three hour trip into more like five hours. So we opted instead for the scheduled five hour train ride which hugged to coast. And while not exactly a levitation bullet train, nor an example of modern rolling stock, even with many stops, some planned, some not, the train was only 30 minutes late getting to Catania.
Yes, being July, there was heavy tourist traffic at the Greek theaters and in the more popular museums, principal Duomos and central city squares. But in other than Syracusa, where the historic district was so packed that we opted to cut our planned full day there to five hours, the crowds were never intrusive.
So we have put another trip to Sicily on our “to do” travel list when we hope to explore other parts of this first rate travel destination.