Most know of Sicily; fewer know about Sicily – it is the Mediterranean’s largest island, and Italy’s largest region. From 1000 BCE and for a thousand years thereafter, it was at “the center of the western world,” the Heathrow of present day. Everyone who was anyone passed through or by.
It’s been on our travel list for quite awhile, but for some reason we haven’t gotten around to it until now. The island is a treasure of physical beauty and human achievement. The indigenous Sicani and the Siculi soon had company: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Hohenstaufen, and the Catalan Spaniards all liked what they saw and decided to stay. And all thought the place was worth fighting about; and fought they did, quite a lot actually.
The latest invaders are British, French, German and a smattering American holidaymakers – it seems everyone always outstays their welcome.
I worry that a reader will sense the writer to be a bitter older man, not happy with his lot, and a bit spoiled for time and money. I might be spoiled for time and money, but am not at all bitter or unhappy – quite the reverse. You must accept that this post is merely my very personal “note to self.” It’s just a reminder for me and my wife of what transpired, what we saw, how we felt. So read it with this personal caveat in mind.
If you have been reading my past entries, you will have probably noticed that my travel posts are getting crankier; and for this current one I apologize in advance. I have always had a romantic ideal of luxury travel, which I can now finally afford and for which I happily pay.
But true luxury involves a delicate recipe of professionalism, charm, warmth, aesthetic and beauty. The off touted “attention to detail” is a wrong-headed approach; luxury is something holistic; not to be deconstructed into process maps or otherwise “manufactured.” Luxury, by its very nature, cannot be “scaled up,” a “luxury chain” is an oxymoron. A purveyor of luxury must carefully calibrate change over time; have an equal respect for the past and the promise of the future. Further, there is not just one concept of professionalism, charm, warmth, aesthetics and beauty; the true answer rests on a knife’s edge – this is not a business pursuit for the fainthearted. If his primary goal is to become richer than his guests, an hotelier’s establishment will never become one of the great and enduring destinations.
On the whole, Sicily was a disappointment – maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I want too much as I age? Should I just have calmed down and appreciated these exquisite accomplishments of antiquity, in spite of the island's current disorganization and disrepair; accepted less if you will?
Palermo was the paradigm of this problem. Here is a city founded by the Phoenicians in the 7th century BCE, conquered by the Romans, dominated by Arabs, re-conquered for Christianity by the Normans –the Swabians, Spaniards, and the Sicilian Vespers all made their mark. The history and grandeur should shroud Palermo with majesty. But this is not the case; Palermo is tired and dirty, backward, chaotic; sad – its peoples’ faces tell the story. Other than the wonderful patrimony of the ancients and the glorious and rich landscapes; a certain soul was lacking. I hope this wasn't just a reflection back to my own.
The wines were simple; a surprise and delight; the food, be it mostly hotel fare, was disappointing. But this is our travel strategy; sight see at a hard pace and for the full day, then unwind with dinner at the hotel property we have chosen. We don't chase the food scene on these types of trips.
Anyway, taste and freshness and spice were missing; perhaps this is what I missed throughout the entire stay.
Anyway, taste and freshness and spice were missing; perhaps this is what I missed throughout the entire stay.
Below are the trials and tribulations of our 16 day trip.
THE EAST COAST: June 2 – 7, 2013
Sunday, June 2, 2013
We unpacked quickly and had a late supper on the terrace. The food was uninspired, and was made more so by the live music in the adjacent bar; a group of partying Texans were enjoying their last night to the fullest, dancing to disco tunes from the Seventies.
It was then off to bed.
Monday, June 03, 2013
We awoke to a beautiful morning and had breakfast on the hotel’s terrace. We were waiting to feast on some wonderful breads, pastry and fruit; but the fare didn’t hold up to our fantasies.
The hotel’s shuttle took us up the winding hillside to Taormina, dropping us at their sister property, Grand Hotel Timeo. This hotel is adjacent to an ancient Greek theatre, adapted by the Romans in the 2nd Century CE. The ruins are somewhat poisoned by the modern lighting and seating for the current arts venue; but the backdrop of Mount Etna on this perfectly clear day made up for it.
We continued our tour of Taormina down Corso Umberto I, which forms the spine of this town, from Porta Messina, gently climbing to Porta Catania. The thoroughfare is lined with a mix of architecture, much Norman, with an Arab touch here and there. Many of the piazzas and palazzos are well kept; there is a quirky remnant “Naumachie”, used by the Romans to simulate naval battles. We stopped for drinks at Café Wunderbar; in their day, a haunt of Greta Garbo and Tennessee Williams. All the shops seemed nice and upscale, not too much of tatty tee-shirt places.
We rewarded ourselves with lunch on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Timeo, overlooking the sea, Etna and the beautiful Communal Gardens. The food and service didn't match up to the exquisite scenery. Still, we checked some rooms here for a possible future visit – the property itself was that appealing.
Dinner was at Villa Sant’Andrea again; and disappointing, again.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
The day was another lovely one, especially compared to dreary London. After breakfast, we travelled 75 miles south to Siracusa, about an hour and a quarter’s drive.
Our first stop was to the northern part of the city to visit the archeological sites. The Greek theatre dates to the 3rd century BCE, cut out of bedrock to take full dramatic advantage of the slope. Like in Taormina, this beautiful piece of antiquity has been marred by the modernity of its current use. Nearby was the massive
We then headed south to the city’s island of Ortygia, rich in Greek history from the 8th century BCE; quoted in Virgil’s Aeneid. Crossing the bridge to the Temple of Apollo, we arrived at the Plaza Domo. The site of the current cathedral has been a place of worship from the 6th century BCE, first dedicated to Athena. Over its tumultuous history it has seen Christian, Arab, and then Norman Christian devotions. The façade was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake and rebuilt in its current Baroque style – quite fantastic. We stopped for a quick pizza in the square – not so fantastic.
It was then a walk back to the car and a quick relocation north again to see the Catacombs of San Giovanni, which are buried beneath the Basilica di San Giovanni Evangelista. These tombs, unlike Rome’s soft tufa, are carved out of hard limestone. Because of this, the burial site is very large; with some crypts accommodating over 20 bodies; the largest catacomb outside of Rome. After the tour we were back to the car for the drive back to Taormina; we arrived to the hotel about six exhausted.
Dinner was on the terrace; out of boredom we starting naming the staff. The rather puffed up maître d’hôtel was dubbed “peacock,” his burly assistant, “Brutus.” Food and service remained mediocre; afterward we were quickly off to sleep.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
After breakfast on another fine day we were off to Noto, further south than Siracusa. Ancient Noto was completely destroyed by the 1693 earthquake; rebuilt in the early 18th century on a site six miles away, and in the Baroque style. The city’s axis is the wide Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which runs through three piazzas, each with its own church. The highlight was clearly the mellow golden hued Cathedral di San Nicolo. We
Next stop before our return to Taormina was the town of Acirale to see its finely proportioned Piazza Domo and its Basilica dei Santi Pietro e Paolo. Unfortunately the church was closed by the time we arrived.
We got back to Sant’Andrea about five, and settled onto the terrace with a bottle of wonderful Italian sparkling wine, a 2005 Ca’del Bosco Franciacorta, Dosage Zero (60% chardonnay, 23% pinot bianco and 17% pinot nero) – highly recommended.
We went to dinner at Grand Hotel Timeo. The food was nothing special, but the view remained breathtaking. We met a couple on the shuttle back to the hotel; a French man and his Italian wife, now living in Surrey, in the UK. We discussed the food, they were happy to find someone who also thought the culinary scene was definitely lacking.
Not yet ready to go to sleep, we encamped at the terrace bar for a nightcap. There we met the piano player and all around entertainment provider, Carmelo. Carmelo was doing his best to impersonate Elton John in both dress and demeanor; but not succeeding very well. Friendly enough, he inquired about us. Not getting Judith’s name at all after a few tries; he referred to her as Juliet; Carmelo also discovered I was from the Big Apple.
Thus our musical embarrassment was sealed; a chorus of “Hey Jude” and a medley of “New York-New York” dedicated to us quickly followed. Shortly thereafter, we skulked quietly off to bed.
Thursday, June 06, 2013
We opened the curtains to an overcast day. We were off early to Ragusa, the third city, after Siracusa and Noto, making up the Baroque triangle of southeast Sicily. Ragusa is further inland, so about a two hour drive. This city also suffered major damage in the 1693 quake, but the old town, Ragusa Ibla, was largely rebuilt in place.
Parking in Plaza Republica, we climbed the narrow stairs to Chiesa Purggatorio and made our way to Palazzo Domo and Domo San Giorgio, with its blue lantern neo-Classical dome; imposing set of stairs and wonderful pink-hued façade. We covered the balance of the old area, ending in the small but pretty Giardino Ibleo and its San Giacomo church. Before leaving, we backtracked to the Palazzo Nicastro. On our return journey we stopped for fuel and also for a surprisingly okay Panini at a highway Autogrille; arriving back to the hotel about five.
Dinner was on the terrace again; the food a bit better. I had beef Carpaccio, a tuna steak cooked rare, and some fresh fruit for dessert; bed followed quickly.
PALERMO & WEST COAST: June 7 – 12, 2013
Friday, June 07, 2013
We left mid morning for our next stop; Palermo, on the north central coast, about a 2 ¾ hour’s drive. The last ten miles of road to the hotel were a shock; we could have been cruising through Damascus during a recent skirmish between Assad and the insurgency – complete chaos.
We pulled into Grand Hotel Villa Igiea and processed our check-in. The clerk escorted us to our suite, #115. It was a disaster; old, dark and festering, with a large bath so unacceptable it wouldn’t pass muster even in a youth hostel. We eventually moved to #309; a renovated suite but nothing very special, and unpacked. The hotel is in the port area, housed in an aging villa estate; everything upon inspection was in a various state of dilapidated decay. We made a dinner reservation for eight. Its five- star status is a stretch!
A bit after four we took a taxi into town, asking the driver to take us to the intersection of Palermo’s two main downtown thoroughfares: Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. At one time this central octagonal corner was adorned with four elegant 18th Century Baroque façades; now it is a dirty, noisy and claustrophobic junction. Close by was Piazza Bellinia, which is home to La Martorana, a 12th century chapel that is a marvel of glorious gold leafed Byzantine mosaics; a wedding was just finishing and it provided a certain sense of peace and elegance. Next door, San Cataldo Church paid homage to the Norman period, but with distinctive Moorish qualities. We walked back to Plaza Settimo, kicking through litter, and met the hotel’s shuttle.
Although we had booked, the terrace restaurant had no record of our reservation. Reluctantly we were seated at an inferior, cramped table. Unremarkable food and a lazy service followed; the 2010 Planeta Cometa the only highlight. I never got the port I had ordered. Walking back to our room, there was a room service tray blocking the hall – the last straw for me. I called the front desk and asked for the general manager – I was promised a call at 9:00 tomorrow morning; we’ll see. We were then off to a restless sleep.
Saturday, June 08, 2013
We were up to a nice day; had breakfast and were disappointed to not receive a call from the hotel’s general manager. Intent not to spend the day sulking, I sent a terse and stinging email; only to have the phone ring as we were walking out the door.
Alessio, the duty manager, was on the other end; he had misunderstood the telephone message and was waiting downstairs for me. Not to waste the day on this, I said I’d catch up with him in the late afternoon about our problems. We were out to tackle a full itinerary of urban sightseeing.
A taxi took us to the old harbor district and its nearby Baroque oratory masterpieces. Oratories were technically structures other than a parish churches, set aside by ecclesiastical authority for prayer and the celebration of Mass. In Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita and again in del Rosario di San Domenico, both dated to the 17th century, Giacomo Serpotta had executed exquisite stuccoes. The San Domenico church stands nearby.
We then headed west up Via Vittorio Emanuele, stopping at Palermo’s Cathedral, a late 12th century edifice in the Sicilian-Norman style, with notable additions of a 15th century Catalan Gothic south porch and a neo-classical dome dating from the 18th century. This smörgåsbord of design somehow works into an esthetically pleasing whole. Further up was the expansive Palazzo Dei Normanni Cappella Palatina, the
There was just so much to see; we took in the 12th century Church of St. John the Hermit and the Chiesa del Gesù before stopping for lunch on the relatively quiet (for Palermo) Via Principe di Belmonte and the Antico Caffé Spinnato, one of the city’s oldest cafés.
After lunch we saw one more of Serpotta’s late stucco masterpieces, Oratorio di San Lorenzo, described as a “cave of white coral.” Finally, we visited Gallaeria d’Arte Moderna, housing a major collection of 19th and 20th century Italian and Sicilian works. Michele Catti and Michele Cortegiani were standouts.
Returning to the hotel, we met with the manager, Alessio, who offered apologies and an upgrade to a very large suite. We graciously declined; all we needed at this point was to pack and unpack an extra time. Still, we were treated well at dinner; and had a good meal with courses of cod carpaccio, spaghetti with lobster, and a main course of fillet of local fish, dentice. Dessert was crème brûlée with wild strawberries; and yes, I got also my port. We were quickly to sleep.
Sunday, June 09, 2013
After breakfast, we were off on another trip on another sunny morning. Our first stop was Segesta, about an hour west along the coast. The road was pleasant; winding its way through lush agricultural land, in spite of such a dry island; acres of yellow rapeseed fields rolled along side us.
We were then back to the car and off to Erice, on the northwestern coast, just above Trapani. The navigation computed the shortest route, so the last 10 miles or so we travelled up a treacherously narrow road; should have actually taken SP 3, which we did on the way down. The town occupies a triangular plateau at more than 2,400 feet elevation. The mysteries and myths here are truly ancient; it is spoken of by Virgil; Hercules has been said to have visited. The Elimo-Punic Walls date to 8th century BCE. Unfortunately, the Norman church of Matrice that we had come to view was closed for renovation, but we still got to walk the atmospheric streets.
Our lunch was at Monte San Giuliano, no English spoken, and no English menu. We decided on ravioli con aglio, seppie con il nero, pomodoro, peperoncino and ricotta. The unknown was the “aglio,” which upon our dish’s arrival we discovered to be cuttlefish, or squid; with a black ink sauce. It wasn’t bad, but very heavy. It was and hour and a half back to Palermo.
We declined Alessio’s invitation to a tasting menu, paired with a special wine selection and served in a private dining room. So dinner was again on the terrace and we just chose something light off the menu – saying it was “okay” is being too kind to the meal. Still the staff seemed to be on eggshells, not that it much improved service – I still spent the night pouring my wine. However, by this time I had given up all hope. I mellowed out to the reality and dropped into the comforting stupor of lowered expectations.
Monday, June 10, 2013
The weather is one thing you can count on; another sunny day of 80˚F. It was to Selinunte today, 75 miles south mostly on Autostrada 29. The old town of Selinus was founded in mid 7th century BCE, and destroyed twice by the Cathaginians, in 409 and the 250 BCE.
The large site stretches across the broad confines of the town’s borders in antiquity. On the eastern side, two temples sit in sullen piles of columns and capitals, but one, re-erected in 1957 and dated to 5th century BCE, is a fine Doric example. We joined a series of dirty and ill-maintained golf cart trains, captained by semi-serious drivers, and moved with other visitors along a bumpy dust clouded trail to the western Acropoli and fortifications.
We thus got back to the car looking like chalk powdered ghosts, and brushed ourselves off as best we could. We got back to Villa Igiea mid-afternoon; had lunch near the pool, and later, dinner on the terrace. No miracle presented itself regarding food or service.
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
There was a brief shower overnight, the morning was overcast and we had another brief rain at breakfast. Close to noon, the sky was bright once more, but cooler.
We took a short 16 mile trip south to the hill town of Monreale, with its spectacular views down the Conca d’Oro Valley. The domo of Santa Maria La Nuova, quintessentially Norman, was built in 1172 under the
After, we had a quick cappuccino at Baby O’Bar in Piazza Gugliemo II, overlooking the church.
We were back to the hotel by late afternoon, had some wine and gelato near the pool; dinner on the terrace. Nothing improved; a German couple sitting next to us finally moved their long finished dinner plates to a side table and helped themselves to their wine.
We’re glad to be leaving the not-so-Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, and Palermo, domani.
AGRIGENTO & SOUTH COAST: June 12 – 17, 2013
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
We were up, checked out and had an easy two hour drive to Agrigento, through more beautiful countryside, wide expanses of yellow rapeseed fields. Along the route, locals were busy harvesting and baling hay on the sloping hillsides.
Hotel Villa Athena is a small property of 27 rooms, contained within the Valle Dei Templi Archeological Park. The hotel is set within almond, orange and olive trees, palms, flowering cactus and rows of lavender
We checked into a nice suite on the top floor in the old villa, #205. The two rooms are nice, although there is an odd and out of place Jacuzzi in the living room. Still, it is airy and bright and south facing, with windows on three sides. The large private terrace is fantastic, with unobstructed views south to the massive Tempio della Concordia. There is a large circular sun bed, with an adjustable canopy and soft mattress – the best hotel terrace we’ve encountered.
After unpacking, we took a swim, dried off and went back to our private terrace and had a delightful few hours of sun and reading. Dinner was outside, not wonderful, but a good improvement over Palermo.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
We were up early to a delightful day, and set out walking to the Valle Dei Templi, poorly named since the vast site sits not in a valley, but high on a plateau looking down to the south and the Mediterranean.
It was just a short walk from the hotel; it took some time to get our bearings. We strolled up the slight hill of Via Sacra to the majestic Tempio della Concordia, visible from our terrace. Scholars date the structure to 430 BCE, and it is well preserved only because it was transformed into a Christian church in the 6th century CE, and not razed to the ground. It is not known to which god the temple was dedicated, the name comes from a Latin inscription found nearby.
Next along was the Tempio di Hera Lacinia, dedicated to Juno, protectress of matrimony and childbirth. Backtracking, we re-crossed the entrance and visited Tempio di Zeus, Tempio di Castore e Polluce (Castor and Pollux) and Tempio di Eracle. This whole area was sacked by the Carthaginians in 406 BCE and much restored by the Romans the 1st century BCE.
We had a late lunch on the hotel’s terrace, and enjoyed the balance of the afternoon’s sun on our terrace – very tranquil. Dinner was outside; nothing special, but the local wine, a 2009 Bianca di Valguarnera was fantastic.
We had a restful sleep.
Friday, June 14, 2013
We thought we might have to move rooms, but things worked out so we can stay put. After some sun, we set off to Villa Romana del Casale, about 1 ½ hours east and into central Sicily.
Villa Romana del Casale was a country villa, built toward the end of the 3rd century BCE, perhaps by Maximian. It represents the McMansion of its day, 37,000 square feet and surrounded by other like size
The site is remarkable because of its well preserved mosaic floors; featuring mythological scenes, hunts, circus games, and incidents from daily life. The most famous room is Sala delle Dieci Ragazze in Bikini; ten young ladies pictured in underwear, commonly worn at the time for gymnastics.
I found the whole place unrewarding. It was dirty, poorly signed; with a grumpy and sullen staff. The elevated walkways are too narrow, and tours clog them, creating cues with people pushing their way through. The mosaics themselves aren’t well cared for; dust and even some litter spoiling your view of these intricate masterpieces.
We were back to Villa Athena for a late lunch, a nice plate of spaghetti, with a fresh local white wine from Maria Costanza. For dinner, our steaks were overcooked and too tough, but the view remained spectacular.
Saturday & Sunday, June 15 - 16, 2013
It was breakfast, sun on our private terrace’s oval sun bed, swimming, more sun, lunch with a wonderfully fresh 2012 Regaleali Bianco; more sun, reading, some writing; and dinner of swordfish and grilled vegetables.
The final dinner was some pasta, lamb, the mandatory cannoli consumption; a hearty 2008 Planeta Santa Cecila to wash things smoothly down.
Perhaps we have finally discovered Sicily’s purpose on earth – just doing nothing, but doing it well.
Monday, June 17, 2013
It was one more lovely morning. We had breakfast, passed on some touring advice about Palermo to fellow travelers seated next to us, and then up for some final basking under the Sicilian sun; Judith had a quick swim.
We had lunch and then left for Catania Airport by 2:00 pm; arriving at Hertz’s return after a two hour drive. The airport continued in the Sicilian tradition of service we had come to expect; bad signage, no seating; a business lounge with only a dozen seats, all full; no snacks, just water, no wine or alcoholic beverages. People arriving were so shocked; they just started to laugh uncontrollably.
The British Airways flight left about an hour late, arriving into Gatwick at eleven. Masood was waiting for us and had us to our flat at 12:30 am; more weary than when travelling back from the States. We crashed to bed, finally our own bed.