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EXPLORING SICILY PART I -- Palermo to Eraclea Minoa
 
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EXPLORING SICILY PART I

THE COAST ROAD

PALERMO EAST AND SOUTH TO ERICLEA MINOA

For our anniversary we traveled to Europe on the Nieuw Amsterdam, a Holland America cruise ship -- a seventeen day voyage from Fort Lauderdale landing in Barcelona. See that story by clicking CRUISE. After a wonderful sea voyage, we spent a few days in Barcelona and headed on to Sicily, flying on Ryan Air to Trapani. Ryan has great prices, but for the initiated it flies out of airports at least an hour away from any major city. Trade offs are price and convenience so if you have time constraints, another more conventional airline might be preferable. If time is not an issue, Ryan seems to me to be as good as any other airline these days, discount status or not and there are truly significant savings.

Neither of us had a clue what to expect, but in truth we were hunting great Italian food and whatever surprises Sicily had in store. The food of course was wonderful and there were lots of great surprises too. We were almost immediately struck by how civilized people were, polite, caring, generous and all with a dash of humor. The island itself is a marvelous combination of the cherished old and the sometimes tediously new, all surrounded by olive groves and glorious wheat fields. And you can never forget Sicily is an island. The sea becomes an integral part of your world view while you are there. Enjoy!

Just inside the small and easy to use Trapani Airport, we found the ticket booth for bus transfers to Palermo an hour and a half away. We had an hour to wait and sat outside excitedly taking note of everything Sicily. Six fellows nearby were having a lunch of something round and toasted out of a brown paper bag and each had a beer or two. Twenty minutes later they took their luggage and headed inside. An old fellow straight out of one of the Godfather movies walked up and down in front of the airport building. I hummed the movie's theme song. We ate a snack and were filled with anticipation, enough so that we forgot the time and almost missed our bus. We got to the stop a little late, but as we would learn folks in Sicily are very gracious; they had waited for us. We arrived in the city, dropped off a block or so from our hotel. Stassi had made these hotel arrangements as he often did on the morning of our departure from one city for the arrival that afternoon in another.

 
Quality Hotel President
Via Francesco Crispi 230
Palermo, Sicily 90139
Website: Quality Hotel President.com
The hotel faces the docks and has pleasant rooms and a rooftop restaurant where they serve a very full (not hot) buffet breakfast traditionally included in the price in almost all Italian hotels -- ham and cheeses, croissants, muffins, cereals, coffee, tea and orange juice. Planning ahead and booking on the internet will usually get you much better prices than simply arriving to find a room in Italy.
 

In the morning we left our packed luggage at the hotel and taxied to the Orto Botanico, Palermo's stellar botanical garden. It is exquisite! If you would like to see more of it through my eyes, visit my gardening website at

GreenGardeningCookingCuring.com

Orto Botanico
Via A. Lincoln, 2B, Palermo
Tel: 091-623-8241-1111
 
Website: ortobotanico.unipa.it/Benvenuto.html

 

That afternoon we hopped a bus to the Palermo airport to pick up our tiny and terrific Fiat rental car then we headed east on the north coast slow road ending the day in Cefalu, a low key resort town with packaged tourism and prices to match. It is lovely with a long beach, good restaurants and very attractive and comfortable hotels. We found ours on the spot when a fellow came up to our stopped car in the spring traffic choked road by the beach in front of the hotel. He was so earnest we decided to give it a try.

 
 

 


Cefalu is a traditionally beautiful Sicilian coastal town. It has an old city filled with chic and expensive shops, it has stylish bars and restaurants and lots of charm. If you are coming to Sicily for a week of fun in the sun, this may be the perfect place! Do be a little careful with your cash transactions until you become used to using the Euro.

 

Hotel Riva del Sol
vl. Lungomare G. Giardina, 25
90015 Cefalu (PA)
Tel: 0921-421-230
Website: http://www.rivadelsole.com/de/home/default.html
The hotel is very stylish. Our room had a balcony view over the old town and the sea, but the fellow Guiseppi who found us in traffic is its best asset.
 

Leaving Cefalu following the slow coast road west we soon passed through a quiet town where I saw a sign for bread, pane, in a salumeria shop. Not only did they have exquisite bread, but fresh mozzarella and other cheeses, pizza slices and sandwich meats. Our desires more than met, we were in heaven and excited about what lay ahead.

Back on the road, we headed for a town called Castel di Tusa. The author of our guide book recommended it and told of a landscape architecture project that sounded fabulous. It wasn't, but trying to find it was pleasant enough to keep us entertained. The sculpture park was said to be laid out along the valley of the Tusa river descending from the Nebrodi mountains. Turning to the right off the coast road to follow the river bed up into the mountains, we did see one large landscape sculpture being overcome by weeds. After that we saw no man made sculptures, but an exquisite natural mountainous landscape.

 

Castel de Tusa

 

 

The Nebrodi Mountains

 

Descending from the hills and back on the coast road we passed through the pottery town of Santo Stefano di Camastra and entirely missed its old town. Needless to say we stopped using our guidebook and did just fine. Read my review of the book on Amazon.com by clicking on the link below

www.amazon.com/The-Rough-Guide

This part of the northeast coast of Sicily is very beautiful. We were delighted with little towns and spectacular views of beaches and the sea. As we were early in the season, we found many hotels still closed, just beginning to prep for summer. Luckily a fellow we met recommended a couple of places down the road. We found Sicilians always to be exceptionally helpful.

 
 On the exquisite Thyrrhenian coast a two lane road snakes along bordered by cliffs and the sea on one side and mountains on the other. Suddenly there was a hotel and we pulled in for the night. It was not really open, but with the usual Sicilian warm welcome they made up a room for us anyway. We enjoyed the splendid view and later slept like babies; there really is something to be said for salt air and breathtaking views.
 
After a short drive further on this exceptional coastal road we stopped in Gioiosa Marea, a small beach side town with a much less packaged feel than Cefalu. Aside from the beach, for us its second best feature was the gelato shop where they are very generous with whipped cream. After filling the bottom half of a freshly baked sugar cone with it, they top it with two big scoops of gelato flavors of your choice, then pile on more cream, topping the whole thing off with a tiny decorative upside down cone.

The town's third best feature was the foccaciaria across the street from the hotel. Opening in the early evening it makes everyone's lives a little more full. This is a very pleasant town with a long white sandy beach and a town square perfect for people watching while enjoying a gelato. It's casual style and grace reminded me of childhood summers on Cape Cod.
 
Villa Ridente Club
Strada Statale 113, Contrada Ridente 1
San Giorgio di Gioiosa Marea, 98063, Sicily
Tel: 39 0941 331111
Website: www.vrclub.it
The hotel was built up a slope and had a bar/restaurant across the road and part way down the cliff accessed by a comfortable tunnel under the road. Our unit had a huge patio with patio dining furniture and a fabulous view of the sea and hills behind the hotel, a bedroom and kitchen/living/dining area.
 

Yachting Club Mare
Via A. Doria 1
Fraz. San Giorgio
98063 Gioiosa Marea, Sicily
Tel/Fax: 0941-39484
Email:[email protected]
Website: YachtingClubMare.com
Att: Veronica Musarra

This recently tastefully remodeled hotel is lovely with enough English spoken by staff to make a stay very comfortable. A delicious breakfast included in the price is served in the stylish bar overlooking the sea. Try to reserve one of the sea view rooms on the first floor where you'll have your own outside terrace for lounging. Their other seaside rooms have balconies.

 
We left Gioiosa Marea drawn on by what wonders lay ahead and we weren't disappointed. As always we took the slow coast road always keeping the sea to our left each exclaiming every few minutes while pointing to something wonderful. It is not hard to see why Sicily has been so desired for centuries. Along the way we stopped for lunch supplies at what first appeared to be a well stocked fruit and vegetable stand. While Stassi shopped I wandered a bit and found a door to what looked intriguing and it was.

Inside the shop behind the simple vegetable stand was every kind of cheese and all kinds of preserved meats, sausages and salamis, wines, the best breads and pastas, high quality cold foods and canned foods -- the list is too long. The best part here was the fellow behind the counter who took great pains to treat us like his long lost and hungry friends. With thinly sliced prosciutto filled with the softest imaginable ricotta cheese, we got acquainted. It moved on from there and felt like a festival of flavors we accidentally stumbled upon.

He is as charming and as excited about food and flavors as any chef in any country. As we got to the check out counter another older fellow showed up speaking almost perfect English. We had been talking about writing about this place with the other fellow in broken Italian and Spanish, but the older man had an even better suggestion -- I should write his story! It was all marvelous and we'll stop by there again when we next get to Sicily.
 
 
 
Ortofrutta & Salumeria di Piera Gulli
Via C. Pompea, 26 - Granatari (ME)
Sicily
Tel: 090-327-328
Email: [email protected][email protected]
Ignazio Vadala
Facebook: ezio vadala
 

I cannot count and I could never name all of the small towns we enjoyably passed through on the old coast road. One small city we do remember is Messina, the closest and of course most active crossing point from mainland Italy to Sicily, but we were headed a bit more south so we could wake up early and explore the towns along the circular road around Etna. Next time we're in Sicily, Messina will be on the list. It is very appealing and has the great energy of a port city.

I had read about Italian camping before a another trip a few years ago so we had our antennae up for places along the road. On our way south we found one called Camping Paradise just by a sign on the road and we couldn't have been happier. This was our first camping experience in Italy and it was perfect. Campgrounds there offer every option from tents to cabins and sites often come with appealing restaurants and modern laundry facilities.

 
Camping Paradise
Via Nazionale 2, SS114 Km 41
98037 Letojanni (ME) Sicily
Tel: 0942-36306
Owners: Pietro and Vera
Website: www.campingparadise.it
Email: [email protected][email protected]
We had a little bungalow where we could cook and a large outside terrace for dining. With a huge beautifully maintained pool, a restaurant/pizzeria and a beach just below the site, this was a great find. As you can see in the photograph the facilities at the Paradise were wonderful and everything was meticulously managed. We loved it! By the way that is our treasured little Fiat in the photograph.
 

Leaving the campsite the next morning we first planned to visit Taormina, Sicily's most posh resort town. We found the road to Taormina and began climbing and then did lots more climbing until I was heeling as on a sailboat to keep the car on the road with my eyes closed squealing with fear. If you have a problem with edges on precipitous drops, you know exactly what I am talking about. Taormina is very upscale, but I think enjoyable only for those with no fear of "edges." As well, the view of Etna from here makes the volcano seem as harmless as an ice cream cone. With my eyes closed we descended to the shoreline road none to soon for me and traveled on.

 
Heading toward Etna, we passed through a stretch of road with little of note and were happy to arrive at Linguaglossa. An appealing small town, its church enjoys a large plaza shared with a combination gelateria, bar, pasteleria, ristorante and pizzeria with shaded tables out front. We got treats to go, but were disappointed down the road when they came out of the bags.
 

 

Mt. Etna

 
On the journey around Etna we passed through lots of little towns. One still seems most memorable. Compared to many other towns on this route this one is decidedly modern with a relatively large non-industrial commercial zone -- warehouse facilities, truck loading bays, acres of parking spaces, professional signage, expensively constructed roads with commercial street lights and chain link fences. BUT, look at the photographs. All of man's endeavors are surrounded by black lava. It was disquieting in a profound way. And even so, there were earth movers busily working to extract pieces of this black lava landscape bit by bit for some construction project.
 
 

Normally we are pretty spontaneous travelers, but we both were anxious to see Etna from all sides road and move on. I should perhaps explain that for ten years we had a home on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean where there is a very active volcano. For each of us, being close to one is very personally meaningful. To see more just click on this link which will show you what happened one morning as we were waking:

http://www.montserrat-today.com/May%2020%20Dome%20Collapse.html

Volcanoes are terrifying in their unpredictability and in the unrecoverable devastation they can cause. But, they are as fascinating as they are frightening. With all of our volcano experiences on Montserrat, we were more than anxious to leave this area safely behind us.

 

We carried on passing through the very appealing seaside cities of Catania and Syracuse. In the latter, the old city island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. It is beautiful and has yet to be manicured which would entirely spoil its authenticity. With still a few hours of daylight we traveled further, finally stopping in the small beach side town of Fontane Bianche where we stayed the night. Fontane Bianche seemed to be a small town with tired resort hotels near or on the beach.

 
Hotel Villamare
Via Taormina, 33
Fontane Bianche 96100 Siracusa
Owners: Elisabetta and Lucia
Tel: 0931-791-700
Fax: 0931-791-631
Even by Sicily's standards it seemed expensive and we couldn't imagine who would stay there at that price unless like us, they'd run out of options. Stassi negotiated hard with the nice young man who welcomed us. We imagined that he was the owner's son, an older woman also at the living room desk in the entrance area. There was a tired garden area in the back, a relatively large restaurant and pool area and it really was a hotel even though you felt like you were upstairs in someone's private home. In the entrance area that looked like a large living room, everything was covered in fabric -- EVERYTHING -- walls and ceiling included!! For us it didn't work.
 

We carried on the next day and spotted a beautiful, but apparently abandoned villa surrounded by lush fields of fennel. We had seen several of these wonderful old buildings and I couldn't help but think what they would be with a little restoration.

 

 

We stopped by a tiny enclave of activity in Butera after many miles on a road with scenic views of the sea on one side, olive groves on the other. Here we found a castle behind a wall, Castello di Falconara, and a dirt road less than spitting distance to the long white sand beach.

On the road proper there was a hotel connected to the castle still closed for the season and on the other side of the dirt road someone's retirement dream -- hotel rooms, a large dining room, a banquet area, a pizzeria and a gelateria and pasticeria. This proved to be a very popular bus stop on the southern route.

We moved on to the port town of Licata looking for the night's accommodations, but along the way we had seen a beach side hotel that might have been open. Things were getting a little tense at the end of a very long day and having arrived in Licata, a town without charm, Stassi recommended that we return to the "might be open hotel" back in Butera. I thought that a great idea and as it turned out it was.

 
We spent three nights there lazing during the days reading books, enjoying the beach and ocean from our second floor terrace, dining on pizzas and gelatos from the all purpose eatery by the castle just two blocks away, gathering shells on the beach in the early morning. On the second day we joined the other guests in the hotel restaurant. We were stunned with the quality of food and as always happens in Italy also with the quantity. It was wonderful, start to finish. I will always remember the shrimp risotto, but then there was also the basil pesto pasta that didn't have to hide its lack of flavor behind way too much garlic. I sometimes think that our American obsession with garlic has developed as the quality of our food has declined, but it can be argued that American food is almost free by European standards. However, I still recall an old Irish saying of my Grandfather, "You get what you pay for." The meal continued with thin slices of roasted pork dressed with a delicately seasoned mushroom gravy and of course there was dessert and coffee. If the hotel seems too pricey, think about their campsite, just half a block from the beach, but do plan on joining in for at least one of these epic meals.
 
Hotel Degli Angeli
C. da Faino S.S. 115 93011
Marina di Butera CL
Tel: 0934-1930-231
Fax: 0934-1930-245
Email: [email protected]
Traveling west on route SR115 you can find the hotel down a very short road toward the beach (you can see it from the road), just after seeing the Castel di Falconara also on your left.
 

After three days of lazy luxury, we reluctantly packed up the luggage and hit the road heading toward Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. Driving into this small city from the coast road presents a very appealing image. You see the hill top Greek temples and remember Athens and you wend your way in to the old city where parks and chic shops abound. But, driving by the entrance to the Valley of the Temples seeing the tourist busses and the crowds put us off and we decided to move on after indulging in a gelato for the road.

We parked on a narrow decidedly upscale and stylish street just across from a gelato shop. While standing there deciding on our scoop flavors for the day a fellow approached us speaking English leading us into the interior of the shop where pastries come when they have gone to heaven. Fresh canolis and some other unnamed indulgences found their way into our bag. Then we made the final flavor decision and walked away with our gelatos and of course the bag of treats for later.

 
 

We followed the coast road always keeping the sea on the left as we headed west eventually ending up at Eraclea Minoa another site of Greek ruins set high on a hill above the beach below. Sicily must have appealed to the Greeks as much as it does to us for all of the settlements they built there.

Eraclea Minoa was the site of a theater, though it was small and in poor condition compared to other sites we were to see. Its setting though was truly exquisite and the absence of crowds made being there a very special experience.

 
 
Below the ruins is Cattolica Eraclea where we found the Eraclea Minoa Village, a lovely campsite where we had a view of the beach through the tall stark black trunks of beautiful pine trees along with a private deck on which to enjoy the cool of the evening.
 
 

On our second day there we went in search of a supermarket which sounded very close by when we got directions. But, as is our talent we missed the "close by" supermarket and ended up much further down the road in the hill town of Castelinghi Giocattoli where some sort of celebration was underway. We drove up a very narrow winding entrance road to the town, but confronted with cars coming right at us in the one lane, we backed down and around and tried another road up, luckily finding a supermarket before the driver got too hot under the collar. We also wanted to buy two big salad bowls since we never could resist buying beautiful heads of fresh lettuce.

We came out of the little supermarket tossed the bags in the car and were walking further into town when we bumped into a fellow who asked in English if he could help. We explained about the bowls and he said, "Yes, I have a friend, come!" We followed along walking at a good clip for several blocks and ended having to cross the main street with racing cars and cycles and scooters. This always seemed daunting to us, but in the Sicilian manner our impromptu guide stepped off the curb, without looking, and sauntered across the street. We followed like little rabbits and reaching the other side, asked how people aren't killed this way. He had a quick reply. "Everyone is known and if you run someone over, you will die." We asked what about us, were we safe too? He simply shrugged and said, "No one knows you." We finally arrived at the shop with the unlikely name of Jolly Casa. We thanked him and took his guest house card which we seem to have lost along the way.

ERACLEA MINOA VILLAGE
Via Giovanni 23 degrees North 56
CATTOLICA ERACLEA
92100 Agrigento, Sicily
Website: www.eracleaminoavillage.it
Email: [email protected]
Services at the site included a restaurant, a pizzeria, game room and a small grocery store. On the beach there are three separately owned bar/restaurants
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