This post is a bit of a weird combination of destinations. Our time in Sicily was separated by a two-week stint in Malta, and then we did a couple of quick stops on mainland Italy before embarking on a 2,200 km (1,367 miles) trek to Spain (that will be the next post), so I apologize if it seems a bit disjointed.
We averaged about $197/day Canadian ($145 USD / €141 ) for 9 nights (5 nights in Sicily / overnight ferry from Palermo to Naples / 3 nights in Montefiascone, Italy). We weighed the pros and cons of driving from Sicily to Naples against the cost of the ferry, which was $275 CAD, and figured that with the cost of gas, road tolls, and at least one hotel, driving would have been more cost-effective, except the ferry meant we would have fewer Italian highways to negotiate, which was worth the extra cost!
The Caronte & Tourist ferry company runs the route between Villa San Giovanni (mainland Italy) and Messina, Sicily seven days a week, with departures running roughly every 20 minutes. They have a straightforward app which we highly recommend downloading. Through the app you purchase an open ticket (no specific travel date or departure time), then about an hour before you’re ready to depart, check-in through the app to receive a QR code for boarding. There is a countdown clock on the app indicating how long the QR code will stay active, but don’t worry if you miss the window for boarding due to traffic or some other unforeseen circumstance, just go back into the app to generate a new QR code. If you don’t want to use the app, you can also purchase a ticket online, however you must then physically check-in at the C&T office near the ferry port to obtain a boarding QR code; the app was easy peasy!
Five million people live on the island of Sicily, one of five autonomous regions in Italy. Thanks to the volcanic ash Mount Etna has been spewing for millenia (and continues to spew), the land is fertile and has been intensively cultivated with durum wheat, olives, almonds, hazelnuts, grape vines and citrus crops. It will come as no surprise that the ancient Greeks and Romans have both left their mark on the island, with some spectacular examples from both cultures still standing. Arab occupation, beginning in the 9th century CE, saw the introduction of several land reforms, not the least of which was to encourage more smallholdings which successfully chipped away at the latifundia (massive Roman era estates) which were still in operation.
The Arab Emirate of Sicily lasted from 831 to 1091 CE when the island was conquered by the Normans who, although Christians themselves, fostered a multi-ethnic society and the Kingdom of Sicily flourished. The Normans lost their hold on the island when their last direct descendant was a girl who got married off to the Germans. The Normans, and the subsequent German rulers, had a rather antagonist relationship with the papacy as both aristocracies insisted on keeping a regiment of Saracen (Muslim) soldiers in positions of power within their courts. In 1266, the papacy saw their chance to rectify this affront by supporting the French in their successful battle for control of Sicily. The Sicilians were not so supportive and in less than 20 years, with Spain’s assistance, sent the French packing back to the mainland. Over the next 500 years, in the most simplistic terms, Sicily was an independent Kingdom more or less under Spanish control. The desire for actual independence had been simmering in the native Sicilian population for years, and much of the early 1800s witnessed pockets of rebellion before a merger with the Kingdom of Italy occurred in 1861. Despite the merger, the Italian government failed to establish strong governance on the island, paving the way for the Cosa Nostra (mafia) to impose their concept of law and order, which, though weakened through decades of government and law enforcement efforts, is still a presence on the island.
After arriving in Messina, Sicily, we whipped down the eastern coast to the resort town of Santa Maria del Focallo, our base for a few days of exploring before popping over to Malta. Enroute we stopped in the bustling city of Catania. I have to say I was a bit taken aback by this city; gritty is the first word that comes to mind. There is definitely interesting architecture surrounding the Piazza Duomo, and I appreciate that we only saw one teeny tiny aspect of the city, but honestly, nothing about it made me want to come back (you had to constantly watch where you were walking to avoid dog poop on the sidewalks). Much of Catania was devastated by an earthquake in 1693 so there is a bit of a “sameness” to the buildings owing to most being reconstructed in the Baroque style popular at the time. What was unique was the Fountain of the Elephant.
Some people believe a herd of dwarf elephants once lived at the base of Mount Etna. Another legend speaks of an 8th century magician who forged a living elephant from Mount Enta’s lava. Whatever the reason, for centuries u liotru, the elephant, has been a good luck charm against Mount Etna’s eruptions. The Porta Garibaldi, a triumphal arch built in 1768 to celebrate the marriage of King Ferdinand I to Maria Carolina d’Asburgo-Lorena, was rather eye-catching too – so, okay, maybe not everything looked the same.
Our Airbnb in Santa Maria del Focallo was ideally situated to visit a few of the smaller, lesser known cities in Sicily as well as being only a ten minute drive to the port of Pozallo where we caught the ferry to Malta. The unit was a 5-minute walk to the beach, and because it was off-season (October) many of the residences had locked-up for the season, making the area very quiet. I think the bed in this unit was the most comfortable mattress I’ve slept on in recent memory. The living room furniture, however, consisted of two wicker chairs that were not ideal for watching TV in the evening and, frankly, probably belonged on the patio, which would have been a lovely place to sit were it not for the damn mosquitoes!
Roughly 30 minutes northeast of Santa Maria del Focallo is the city of Noto. It is another Baroque city rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake, yet had so much more charm than Catania – its buildings shimmered in the sunlight, and there were few tourists. We also had a delicious meal at Abbunnanzia a Noto (tucked down a side street a few blocks off the beaten path) – Trofei con pesto di pistacchi gamberi (pasta with pesto, shrimp and pistachios) – buonissimo!
Thirty minutes northwest of Santa Maria del Focallo is the city of Modica. The cioccolato di Modica (chocolate of Modica) has been given PGI (protected geographical indication) status in recognition of the traditional chocolate making method employed in the region. The technique, likely introduced by the Spanish during the middle ages, calls for cold pressing the chocolate, which does not allow for the sugars to fully dissolve, and no additional cocoa butter is used during the process which gives the finished product a granular, crunchy texture. It was quite different and didn’t really tickle the taste buds for either of us.
After returning to Sicily following two weeks in Malta we headed north, stopping first at the Villa Romana del Casale (3 km from the town of Piazza Armerina). The original owner of this 4th century CE latifundia remains a mystery, although he was clearly well to do. The villa was buried during a landslide in the 12th century and the land was reclaimed for agriculture. Despite pieces of mosaics and some columns being unearthed in the early 19th century, serious archaeological excavation didn’t begin until 1929, with the work continuing today. WOW!
Protected by the mud and earth from the landslide, the villa’s individual rooms, with their mosaic flooring, have been preserved in pristine condition (colourful frescos also remain on several of the walls). Raised walkways throughout the villa allow visitors a bird’s eye view of the incredible workmanship in these pieces of art – the hallway with a piece dubbed the Great Hunt is 59 m / 194 ft in length!
The rooms in the villa provide a tiny glimpse into a lifestyle from the past – I thought it was fascinating that one of the rooms has been repurposed into what they surmise was a gymnasium with new flooring simply laid over an old geometric pattern.
The villa is somewhat remote and I suspect you could arrange a visit if you were staying in Catania (about 1.5 hours away) but once again I was happy we had our own wheels, enabling us to get there on our own schedule. The entry fee is €10/pp ($13.50 CAD) – I’d have paid twice that – every square inch of flooring is covered in mosaic tile, even in the latrine, it is absolutely stunning!
From the Roman villa we drove nearly 1.5 hours west to the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. The “Valley” of the Temples is a bit of a misnomer – these Greek temples from the 5th century BCE are situated on a plateau! But what’s in a name?
Originally plastered white with red and black decorations, what remains today are sandstone ruins in varying degrees of decay. The Temple of Concordia is the best preserved of the eight temples, likely because it was turned into a Christian church in the 6th century CE, the walls of which you can see between the columns.
The temples are spread out along a 2.5 km path that is not a circular route so once you reach the end, you’ll be retracing your steps back to the entry gate. Prepare for blistering heat if you’re visiting in the summer as there is virtually no shade along the path – it was a pleasant afternoon walk in early November. Entry to this site was €10/pp ($13.50 CAD).
We’d planned to see a few more of the ruins dotting the northwest corner of Sicily only to fall in love with the solitude of our Airbnb in Santa Margherita di Belice and found ourselves quite content to read on the patio, soaking in the breathtaking view of the rolling countryside. Ahhhhh.
Video of the view:
From Santa Margherita di Belice we headed to Palmero to catch the overnight ferry to Naples, with one more stop for ancient ruins. Not quite as old as the temples in Agrigento, the Greek temple of Segesta (4th century BCE), stands alone on a plateau.
This temple was never finished (it is roofless, the columns have not been fluted) leading some to believe it was built as a show piece for visiting dignitaries, then abandoned. Whatever the reason for its condition, it is a striking structure. The archeological park also contains the ruins of some of Segesta’s public buildings (circa 2nd century BCE), including a Hellenstic theatre.
I am drawn to ancient theatres, it’s something about their lines that I find particularly elegant and enthralling. Entry to the Segesta site is €10/pp ($13.50 CAD) which includes busing between the temple and the ruins 1.5 km (just under a mile) up on Mount Barbaro. We took the bus ride up, then walked down which afforded us several spectacular vantage points to view the temple below.
The unique language that evolved in Sicily includes bits of Greek, Italian, Arabic, French, Catalan and Spanish. It is recognized as a distinct language, not a dialect of Italian. However, it is no longer taught in schools, as Italian has been the official language in the region since 1861. Notwithstanding its lack of official status, Sicilian continues to be spoken by most inhabitants with wide variances in dialect depending on the city and region, so as a tourist trying to learn a few words in Sicilian probably won’t be useful – stick with some basic Italian and you may need to pull out Google Translate as English is not widely understood.
- Buon Giorno (Bwohn johr-noh) – Good Morning;
- Buona Sera – (Bwoh-na se-ra) – Literally means Good Evening, though it seemed to be used mid-afternoon onward;
- Ciao (Chow) – informal form of Goodbye;
- Si (See) – Yes;
- No – No;
- Per favore (Pehr fah-voh-reh) – Please;
- Grazie (Grah-tsee-eh) – Thank you;
- Grazie mille (Graht-see-eh Meel-leh) – Thank you very much;
- Prego (Preh-goh) – You’re Welcome (you’ll often hear this when entering restaurants or stores);
- Molto buono (Mol-toh Bwohno) – Very good/tasty;
- Buonissimo (Bwoh-issimo) – Extremely good/tasty;
- Parla Inglese? (Parh-la een-glay-zeh) – Do you speak English;
- Non capisco (Non kah-pee-skoh) – I don’t understand;
- Scusi (Skooh–zee) – Excuse me for attention;
- Permesso (Pehr-mehs-soh) – Excuse me to pass by;
- Mi dispiace (Mee dees-pyah-cheh) – I’m sorry.
Ferry from Palermo to Naples
I have seen references to the disorganization of the Italians but now having spent an extended period of time in the country, I have a new appreciation for what is meant by this adage:
Heaven is where the cooks are French, the police are British, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian, and everything is organized by the Swiss.
Hell is where the cooks are British, the police are German, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything is organized by the Italians.
Everything about this ferry trip was vague. We had an online confirmation of the booking but nothing that said it was a ticket so we made sure we arrived at the Palermo port in the early afternoon in order to stop by the GNV office and confirm a few details. At the GNV office we were issued tickets, then told we had to return between 5 pm and 7 pm to actually check-in, with the actual boarding occurring between 7 pm and 9 pm (departure was at 9 pm so I’m not sure how you could wait until 9 pm to check-in and then still expect to be on board for a 9 pm departure). There was no obvious place to line up for boarding. The fellow manning the kiosk at the terminal entrance just asked if we wanted Genoa or Napoli, then waved us on saying “over there.” Once our boarding passes were checked, we were again waved forward to a haphazard collection of cars waiting beside a ship. When the “all clear” was given to finally drive on to the ferry, it was a free-for-all – at least we didn’t have to back into the ferry hold like we did on our trip from Dubrovnik. Disembarking was no less disorganized. The crossing is approximately 11 hours and you must be out of your cabin before the ferry reaches port. If you paid for late check-out you could stay in your cabin until 15 minutes before docking. We did not have a late check-out but could not find anyone who could/would tell us what time we had to be out of our cabin. They did assure us there would be an announcement although we couldn’t pin them down on whether that was 20 minutes before docking, 1 hour, 2 hours. Despite our frustration with the lack of clarity, the crossing was fine – the bunks in our cabin were comfortable, we had an ensuite bathroom and were awake early enough that we were out of our cabin well in advance of docking – I never did hear any announcement advising passengers that docking was imminent. We were not the least bit surprised to find that driving off the ship was again a free-for-all, the hold opened and all cars started jockeying for position on the single-lane exit ramp.
Most people have probably heard of Pompeii, the Roman city buried under ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the ruins of which are about 25 km (15 miles) south of Naples. You may not be familiar with Herculaneum, which is only 8 km (5 miles) southeast of Naples and another victim of Mount Vesuvius’s destruction.
Herculaneum was buried under 15 m (50 ft) of mud (3 m / 9 ft of ash covered Pompeii) which has made it much more difficult to excavate. Interestingly, the intense heat of the mud flows combined with the ground’s humidity has led to a far better level of preservation at Herculaneum.
Following the eruption, the superheated mud filled buildings and quickly solidified, preventing roofs from collapsing under the weight of the ash and volcanic rock, all of which together formed an airtight seal on the city. It’s generally the grand public buildings one finds at archeological sites; walking through Herculaneum you get a feel for everyday life.
There are villas with brightly coloured fresco walls, taverns where you could belly up to the bar and order food, bakeries, grocery stores, wine vendors; it is a remarkable place to visit, with excavation ongoing.
For years it was assumed that the city had been evacuated before the eruption as no hardened ash body casts (like you’ll see in Pompeii) were found. In 1980, hundreds of skeletons were unearthed in the warehouses lining what had been the ocean shoreline 2000 years ago. The supposition is that people fled to the docks hoping they could escape by boat, only to be overtaken by the boiling mud – chilling.
To fully understand Herculaneum you should have a guide, be it a paid professional or an audio guide some explanation on the buildings is essential. We downloaded the ITGuides for Herculaneum app (both Apple and Android versions are available for $5.76 CAD). It included an interactive map, with accompanying audio (sometimes several audio clips per location, so be aware of that, it took us a few stops before we figured that out) and we could both listen to the commentary through bluetooth earbuds. Audio guides are available at the ticket office for an additional €10/pp ($13.50 CAD) on top of the entrance fee of €13/pp ($18 CAD).
We (well, really Howard because I refuse to drive in Europe) didn’t want a long day of driving on Italian motorways immediately after the overnight ferry (the bunks were comfortable but it’s not exactly the most restful way to sleep). Our visit to Herculaneum also factored into “our” energy level so we opted to book an Airbnb in Montefiascone (3.5 hours from Herculaneum). Other than the rules on heat (apparently the municipality restricts the number of hours in a day homeowners are allowed to actually turn on their heat, putting us at the mercy of the Airbnb owners who lived above us and controlled the thermostat), the unit was perfect; very modern. Staying in Montefiascone also allowed us a chance to recharge before several long days of driving to the northern coast of Spain, although we did still find time to visit one more fortified town perched on a hill – Orvieto, about 30 minutes north of Montefiascone.
An important Etruscan city (circa 6th century BCE), its importance continued through the middle ages when it was one of two cities outside Rome to have a papal palace, which of course necessitated fortifications in the form of the Albornoz Fortress. Orvieto also has a labyrinth of caves and tunnels beneath its city streets which we had hoped to visit but one of the downsides of travelling off-season is that tours are often not run with any regularity. This was one of those – the English version was only offered in the late afternoon and we’d arrive in Orvieto about 10am. Maybe another trip.