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By this Author: zzlangerhans

Magical Islands: Sicily's Baroque southeast


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After Taormina, the logical next stop would have been Siracusa, just an hour and a half down the coastal highway. However, the Siracusa market is open every day except Sunday and the Modica market is only on Thursdays, which meant that we had to drive all the way to Sicily's southeastern tip. Markets are a very big deal for us. Thankfully there wasn't any traffic and the roads were on low ground so we made it to Ragusa in time for a late lunch. Ragusa is one of four towns in the area renowned for their beauty and Baroque architecture. What is Baroque? I wish I could explain it. As best as I can understand it, it's an architectural style best defined by its era (immediately post-Renaissance) and its ornamental flair. In fact, the word "baroque" has come to mean excessively ornamental or extravagant in style in popular parlance. Having seen examples of Baroque architecture throughout southern and central Europe I have a difficult time describing it, but I know it when I see it.

Ragusa's Duomo di San Giorgio is a beautiful Baroque church and brings considerable gravitas to the main square of the old town. Between our illegal parking spot, the intermittent drizzle, and the long staircase up to the front door of the cathedral we decided to confine our exploration to the main square and an excellent gelateria that inhabited it.
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Before leaving Ragusa we drove across the ravine to the upper town Ragusa Superiore for the classic view of the old town.
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The nearby town of Chiaramonte Gulfi is nicknamed the "balcony of Sicily" for its lofty position on an isolated hilltop and the sweeping views supposedly available from many locations around town. Soon after we arrived at the center of town the skies really began to open up. During one downpour we took refuge in the town's main church where we got to enjoy a choir practice.

We braved the rain and explored a few more streets but never found anything close to a view. Eventually we gave up and retreated to our car, with dampened clothes but undampened spirits. It was the only rainout of our trip, so we had little to complain about. We proceeded to Modica, where we had an Airbnb for the night. On Via San Benedetto da Norcia, the elevated road that took us to our residential mini-suburb, there was an overlook with amazing views of the old town.
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The Airbnb was an entertaining place run by an elderly couple who didn't speak a word of English. It was one of the few times that my efforts to learn a few words of Italian paid off. The apartment was filled with fragile tchotchkes and assorted bric-a-brac so we had to incarcerate the kids in the main bedroom the whole time we were indoors. That was motivation enough to get ourselves moving quickly, but there was only time for dinner on the main drag of the old town (unsurprisingly named Corso Umberto I).

In the morning we were excited to see the Thursday market, which had the annoying habit of moving back and forth between the widely disparate locations of Modica Alta and the Sacro Cruore suburb. I had researched the expected location of that morning's market and all my inquiries pointed to Sacro Cruore, but twenty minutes of driving around the area revealed nothing. Eventually a solitary vendor informed me the market was actually in Modica Alta that day, so we reversed course and entered that rat's nest of tiny residential streets. We did find the market, but it was largely focused on clothes and other dry goods and there was very little produce to be seen. It was quite disappointing, because we had structured our itinerary around the weekly markets in Taormina and Modica and it turned out we shouldn't have bothered. Due to some blocked streets, it was also a mighty struggle to get out of the neighborhood. We still hadn't seen the old town of Modica, so we drove back down to Modica Bassa and stopped in front of the main church, Duomo di San Giorgio. Was it the same Duomo di San Giorgio we had seen in Ragusa, being trucked back and forth between the two cities every day? Probably not, but given the similarity of the facades I wouldn't have been surprised. There wasn't anywhere to park, so Mei Ling and I took turns exploring the immediate surroundings.
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We had a mediocre lunch at the far end of Corso Umberto I, and then headed to Noto. Noto's historic center proved to be much more walkable and impressive than anything we had seen in Ragusa and Modica. It seemed like there was another gorgeous church or palace everywhere we looked.
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Cleo, Ian, and I climbed the narrow, winding staircase up to the bell tower of Chiesa di Montevergine for views of Noto's cathedral and the rooftops of the old town.
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We took a brief tour of the Nicolaci Palace and then stopped at the famous Caffe Sicilia for gelato. It was nice to be outside on the main street of the beautiful old town, but I couldn't detect any difference between Caffe Sicilia's gelato and any of the versions we'd had previously. Perhaps I'm not cut out to be a gelato connoisseur. I recorded one last stroll down Corso Vittorio Emanuele with my video sunglasses and then we got back on the road to Siracusa.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:17 Archived in Italy Tagged ragusa noto modica Comments (0)

Magical Islands: Taormina


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Taormina is a beautiful but disorientingly three-dimensional city. Add in the fact that the entire center of town is off limits to non-residential cars and you have a very confusing place to drive in. We were completely dependent on our GPS to get us around, and often places that seemed like they should be close turned out to be much further away than they appeared on a map. We arrived at our B&B much earlier than we had projected on our Booking.com reservation, and there was no answer at the door or at the phone number I had. Eventually I ran into the B&B owner's parents who lived a few doors down and they got in touch with him so he could help us get settled. The B&B turned out to be a one-man operation with three one-bedroom apartments stacked on top of each other, and we were bringing it up from 0 to 67% occupancy. We hadn't eaten aside from snacking at the market that morning so getting lunch was a top priority. We drove up a winding road towards the top of the hill on whose side Taormina is set and eventually found ourselves at Al Saraceno.

Al Saraceno was one of those rare finds, a restaurant that brings it in both atmosphere and food quality. The view from the rooftop patio was breathtaking, with expansive views over the coastline, the hillside, and majestic snowcapped Etna reigning over it all. The lunch proved to be our best restaurant meal of the trip. The standout dish was a salad in which squid had been cut into crunchy ribbons that resembled pasta.
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Directly above Al Saraceno are the ruins of the Castello di Taormina, which are closed to the public. At the top of the next hill over is the tiny and beautiful town of Castelmola. We followed the road we had just taken away from Taormina and soon arrived at Piazza Sant'Antonio, the entrance of Castelmola. We could see the Castello di Taormina well below us atop the hill we had just left, and behind that the old town of Taormina.
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It only took about ten minutes to circle the upper part of the town and find ourselves in central Piazza Chiesa Madre. The small square was a black and white checkerboard in the shadow of the Parrocchia San Nicolo' Di Bari church. We stopped for refreshments in the famous Bar Turrisi, a five story cafe whose phallic decor thankfully went unnoticed by the kids.
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We had too much stuff with us to climb the steep staircases up to the upper floors of the cafe, but I took Spenser up to the roof for better views of the medieval town and the coastline behind it.
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We drove back to Taormina and I made a futile attempt at street parking, then got diverted to the road out of town and nearly ended up back at the coastal highway before finding myself by pure dumb luck at the Porta Catania parking garage, where I should have parked in the first place. It's inexpensive and very convenient to the old town. We had a very enjoyable stroll down Corso Umberto to the main square, Piazza IX Aprile.
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Piazza IX Aprile was definitely the center of activity in Taormina. The square was bordered by beautiful churches to the north and east, and to the south was a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. The open square was a perfect place for street performers, and today there was a talented group of hip hop dancers in front of the Church of Saint Augustine. Once they sat down for a break, some much younger girls moved in to show off their moves and Ian couldn't resist joining them.
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We spent another very pleasant hour exploring the western half of the old town, where the buildings spill down the hillside a little and a little network of streets joins the east-west promenade of Corso Umberto. One particularly beautiful street was Via Iallia Bassia, an outdoor staircase lined with old stone walls, fruit trees, and sidewalk cafes.
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We made it to Teatro Antico di Taormina just before it closed. The 2300 year old Greek theater is still frequently used for performances. The gaps in the backdrop provide a natural window out to the countryside. The theater is probably one of the most photographed spots in all of Sicily.
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Down at the foot of the old town is the breathtaking Giardini della Villa Comunale, an amazingly large and beautiful public garden for such a small town. Besides the plants and pathways, the garden contains numerous statues, fountains, and quirky buildings.
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We walked through town one more time on the way to dinner, and then made our way back to the B&B.
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In the morning our host prepared a great pancake breakfast which we complemented with what was left of our purchases from Mercato Fera 'o Luni. We clambered a short distance up outdoor staircases to the weekly market which was by far the weakest we had seen thus far in Sicily. We got some toys for the kids and enjoyed one last view of Castelmola directly above us.
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On the way back down to the parking garage we stopped to take in the atmosphere around the fountain at Piazza Duomo one last time. The kids got a few rides on the carousel at the garage while I retrieved our luggage from the B&B, and we were off once again. It was hard to believe how much we'd seen in less than twenty-four hours in Taormina. We concluded that the town deserved every bit of the heavy tourist traffic it enjoyed.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 18:32 Archived in Italy Tagged taormina catelmola Comments (0)

Magical Islands: Catania


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A relative metropolis between the touristic idylls of Taormina and Siracusa, Catania tends to get short shrift from travelers. Most visitors to Sicily skip it entirely or make a quick stop to visit the Piazza del Duomo, but for us it was always a high priority destination. Larger cities usually have the busiest markets, the most crowded streets, and the best-kept secrets. I'd read enough about Catania's markets that even if we found nothing else there worth seeing, we wouldn't have wasted our two day stay.

Monday morning we left our Airbnb and walked a few blocks to Via Etnea, the main north-south street of Catania. Just that short walk took us through a beautiful square and a crafts market.
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We soon arrived at Piazza del Duomo, which was filled with activity and surrounded by beautiful buildings. The Fontana dell'Amenano at the southeast corner separates the Piazza from La Pescheria fish market a few steps down.
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La Pescheria was a bustling fish market, although it was probably a little short of the full complement of vendors on a Monday. The market was larger than it initially appeared, continuing underneath and behind the buildings that formed the southern perimeter of the square. Some highlights were beefy red tuna, golden cross-sections of swordfish, wriggly snails, and transparent baby sardines that the Sicilians eat raw with a squeeze of lemon.
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Behind the market we found the only street food stall that day, where they were offering succulent artichokes that had been grilled and deep-fried. We bought a couple and ate them in the tiny park across the street.
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It was still early for lunch so we walked back through the rear half of the fish market. On the adjacent streets of Via Pardo and Via Zappalà-Gemelli we found produce vendors and a line of butchers.
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By this time, the restaurant we'd been eyeing for lunch had opened so we got ourselves a table on the patio with a prime view of the market. The food didn't exactly blow us away but the atmosphere couldn't be beat.
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We walked north up Via Erasmo Merletta, parallel to Via Etnea, and almost immediately ran into the lovely campus of Università Degli Studi Di Catania. We were on a steep slope here, so each street to the west was higher by a floor. This gave the campus a very interesting three dimensional feel.
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We found our way back to Via Etnea and kept heading north with our eyes on the legendary volcano that gave the street its name. The busy boulevard was lined with cafes and boutiques.
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Eventually we reached the beautiful Giardino Bellini, whose immaculately manicured greenery rose up the same east-west incline we had explored earlier at the university campus. The kids were all awake at this point and got to shake off the cobwebs of their afternoon naps in the park's busy playground.
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It was only mid-afternoon when we were done with the park and there wasn't anything left to do in Catania until dinner, so we decided to drive up the coast to Aci Castello instead. I'd planned Aci Castello as a stopover on the way to Taormina the next day, but getting it done that day instead meant we would be getting to Taormina a lot earlier and would open up our whole schedule.

The drive to Aci Castello was only six miles but the coastal road was jam-packed and glacially slow. The tiny seaside town was a charming hive of narrow streets. The castle was a remarkable, improbable wedge of stone built into a lava outcropping on the water's edge. Intentionally or not, the front of the castle looked like an enormous boat driving into the land. The levels above contained a beautiful cactus garden and terraces with views of the town and coastline.
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We walked for a short time through the largely-deserted old town near the castle and then stopped in a restaurant to get pizza for the kids and Nero d'Avola for ourselves.
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Back in Catania, we had a pleasant dinner at Me cumpari Turiddu, a hip restaurant downtown with good beer and decent if unmemorable food.
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Tuesday morning we packed up the car and then walked a couple of blocks north to Fera 'o Luni market in and around Piazza Carlo Alberto. The market was so large that at first we had some trouble finding the meat and produce section. Then we suddenly came upon an enormous mound of gigantic, deep red strawberries and I knew that we were home. I bought a kilo and they were the best we had tasted up to that point. After a few minutes walking through the extensive food market, I decided Fera 'o Luni was even better than Ballarò in Palermo.
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There weren't many seafood vendors, which was unsurprising considering that La Pescheria market was just a ten minute walk away. The kids found the one shellfish stall to be very entertaining.
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It was a good thing we had arrived early because the market soon became too crowded to move comfortably with the strollers. We spent an hour enjoying the atmosphere in the side streets around the market, and then headed back to the car. Our goal was to be in Taormina for lunch.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 09:36 Archived in Italy Tagged catania aci_castello la_pescheria Comments (0)

Magical Islands: Enna and Sicily's interior


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After departing the coastal highway, we arrived at Castelbuono fairly quickly. I had planned a quick stop to see the Castello dei Ventimiglia and perhaps have lunch in the adjacent piazza, but our impromptu meal in Cefalù had rendered the lunch issue moot. Instead, we took a quick look at the exterior of the foreboding castle and then walked down the charming main street of the old town to Piazza Margherita. In the narrow, winding streets around the center we found rows of immaculate Sicilian townhouses, fountains, and statues. The mountains of the Parca delle Madonie surrounded us in every direction. We found a salumeria on the way back to the car where the proprietor cheerfully encouraged us to try a dozen samples of cured ham before we relented and bought a whole sausage.
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Leaving Castelbuono, I was optimistic we still had time to make the detour to Gangi and still arrive in Enna in time for dinner. Gangi is one of those classic ancient Sicilian villages in which houses spill down a hillside almost like lava flowing from a volcano. In 2014, the town was voted the most beautiful in Sicily in a television contest. However, soon after leaving Castelbuono we ran into a new problem. As we crossed the edge of the Parco delle Madonie the road became very tortuous with a seemingly neverending series of hairpin turns. Spenser began crying loudly and persistently in the back. The previous day he had cried and thrown up once on the way back down to the coast from Caccamo, but we chalked it up to an excess of ice cream. This time his crying kept getting louder and more insistent so we finally pulled the car over to check on him, and as soon as we stopped he threw up all over himself. It was clear at this point that Spenser was carsick. I was surprised since he'd never had a problem on our other road trips and the other two kids had never been carsick, but there was no denying it now and we still had at least an hour and a half of mountainous driving to Enna ahead of us. I immediately decided to scratch our plan to visit Gangi, and the small town became the first casualty of our itinerary.

We cleaned Spenser up as best we could and I set a new course directly for Enna, slowing the car to a crawl every time we came to a sharp turn. I expected Spenser to begin his wailing again at any moment, but after a short time he fell asleep and didn't complain for the rest of the trip. There was a surprising traffic jam as we entered the old town, and then we drove twice around central Piazza Vittorio Emanuele unable to locate our hotel. Eventually we pulled over and I jumped out to hunt for the hotel on foot. Palermo and Cefalù had been chilly at night, but mountaintop Enna was windy and freezing cold. I finally found Una Casa al Belvedere set back from the square on a small plaza that overlooked the valley below. It was one of those hotels that occupies part of a larger building, so I had to get buzzed in and take an elevator to reception. Our room was modern, pretty, and comfortable justifying the high rating on Booking.com. Once I'd brought everyone up, it was tough to drag ourselves back out to the windy streets but getting dinner was non-negotiable. We found a decent-enough place and managed to fill our stomachs before crashing for the night.

The next morning I pulled the curtain aside and was greeted with one of the most amazing views I have ever encountered from a hotel room. The hotel was perched right on the edge of the mountainside and we could see the entire landscape of northwestern Sicily all the way to Mount Etna. I could see the jumble of another old town atop a mountain just to our north and concluded this must be Calascibetta, a town I was already planning to visit.
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It was Palm Sunday, and apparently there was an Easter procession somewhere in the lower part of town. The receptionist pointed out the route on a map, but it sounded confusing and we decided we would probably just run into the procession at some point. Instead, we decided to walk to the Castello di Lombardia at the far end of the old town and absorb some local atmosphere. The streets were almost deserted, either because everyone was at the Easter procession or because it was a cold Sunday morning.
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The Castello was impressively large from the outside, but we'd gotten our fill of castles the other day at Caccamo and opted not to join the tourists inside. Instead we made our way back through town towards the car. On the way we ran into a small Easter procession outside of a church, although it probably wasn't the one we'd been advised to see. The kids had a little competition to collect the most olive branches, which the white-cloaked congregants were passing out as a symbol of peace.
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We drove down to the lower part of town to see the Torre di Federico II, an octagonal stone tower that is a remnant of Enna's original defense fortifications. By the time we arrived, the kids had fallen asleep so I went on my own which was fortuitous as it turned out to be closed. The tower was still an interesting sight from the outside, perched in solitary splendor atop a hill at the center of a public park.
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Before leaving Enna, we had an undistinguished lunch at a hotel restaurant in the old town and then made the short drive to Calascibetta. I had no particular destination in mind for the tiny hilltop town, so I arbitrarily chose the medieval church Chiesa Madre which was mentioned in the Lonely Planet. We parked in the central square and worked our way upward through a series of staircases and alleys flanked by ancient limestone walls. Eventually we reached the stately facade of the old church, where we found amazing views over the lowlands to Mt. Etna. The volcano's icy peak seemed to float in the sky above the countryside.
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We had a good amount of driving in Sicily's interior planned for the rest of the day, so I did everything I could think of to stave off Spenser's motion sickness. We hadn't given him any milk or dairy that morning, we stripped him down to his T-shirt, and for a coup de grace I slipped him half a tablet of orally-disintegrating Zofran as nausea prophylaxis. I'm not sure if our interventions had any effect, or we were just luckier with the roads, but he didn't have any problems that day. We had an uneventful drive to Piazza Armerina, where we spent about an hour looking at the mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale. As I've mentioned many time in the past in my blog, we usually don't go out of our way to see museums, ruins and relics. In the case of Villa Romana, the Lonely Planet had spoken of the site so glowingly that I didn't want to feel like we'd missed something unforgettable. As it turned out, I could have given Villa Romana a miss without any regrets. The mosaics were housed in an unattractive shed and could only be viewed from overhead walkways. Google Images would provide the same experience from the comfort of one's home. Oddly enough Cleo and Ian seemed to really enjoy them, especially the girls in bikinis, and repeatedly requested to be boosted over the railings for better views.

We had to peel out of Villa Romana to make it to Caltagirone before sunset. At one point, I allowed our GPS to divert us from the main road onto a narrow, pothole-filled shortcut that I'm fairly sure didn't save us any time. However, the new route did take us through some countryside that was so amazing that at one point we had to pull over for photos. By pure coincidence, Mei Ling's outfit complemented the scenery perfectly.
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Our only destination in Caltagirone was the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, a 142-step flight of outdoor stairs that extends from the main square all the way up to the church at the crest of the town. Gazing down the staircase was satisfyingly vertiginous, but it was the beautiful road through silent town homes and churches that made me regret not having allowed ourselves more time to explore Caltagirone.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 17:34 Archived in Italy Tagged sicily enna villa_romana_del_casale caltagirone castelbuono calascibetta piazza_armerina Comments (0)

Magical Islands: Caccamo and Cefalù


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Thanks to the location of the rental agency, we didn't have to drive through central Palermo to get on the road. The only difficult moment was at a five-way intersection on the outskirts of Palermo where there were no signs or signals and no apparent rules for right of way. There were just three competing streams of traffic inching forward in a continuous game of chicken where right of way belonged to the driver with less concern for the welfare of his vehicle. Once we made it through that ring of fire, we arrived at Caccamo in less than an hour.

Caccamo probably wouldn't have made it to our itinerary if it wasn't just a short detour from the route to Cefalù, but we had plenty of time and the castle ended up being a good place for our first experience of small-town Sicily. The 11th century Castello di Caccamo looms above the town atop a rocky cliff. After paying our entrance fees, we ascended a shallow, grassy staircase that circumscribed the castle within the ramparts. There were few visitors and the castle had a windy, desolate character. There were views of the classic brown multilevel Sicilian houses spilling down the hillside as well as the surrounding hills extending as far as the Mediterranean. The castle itself had a surprising number of levels accessible by steep staircases and we climbed all the way to the top, although the high ramparts on the upper levels obscured the views.
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We had ice cream after getting back down and then had an uneventful drive to Cefalù. After checking in to our Airbnb we found our way to the charming old town where we had an unremarkable dinner at Le Chat Noir.
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In the morning we packed up the car and drove to the Saturday market near Hotel Al Pescatore, on the opposite side of the promontory from the old town. I had designed our itinerary to coincide with as many of these weekly markets as possible. Cefalù's market, while smaller than the markets in Palermo, provided a good selection of produce that had clearly been grown or manufactured by the person who was selling it. We bought cheese, sausage, nuts, and fruit and ate enough while walking around the market that we didn't need to worry about breakfast.
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The decision I had been agonizing about in Cefalù was whether to attempt an ascent of the Rocca di Cefalù, the enormous rock outcropping that occupies the center of the promontory on which the town sits. I'd found all kinds of conflicting information online that described the ascent as taking anywhere from forty-five minutes to three hours, and equal inconsistency regarding its difficulty. I put off the decision until we were done with the market, and then concluded that as we were all healthy, well-fed, and well-rested that there was no reason not to at least initiate the climb. I also reminded myself that we'd completed several challenging physical endeavors with the kids including Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo and Ehrenberg Castle in Austria and these were some of the best memories from our travels. We drove back to the old town, and after some difficulty we found a parking spot some distance from our target. On the way to Salita Saraceni, the road where the ascent begins, we passed a beautiful fish market with boxes of gleaming pesce sciabola, or scabbard fish.
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The Rocca di Cefalù is visually quite intimidating. I'm still not sure what to call these outcroppings that are ubiquitous on the Sicilian coastline. They're not quite large enough to be called mountains, but their hulking presence above sea level towns makes them too imposing to be called hills. "Rock" probably works as well as anything.
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As it turned out, we made the right decision to hike up the rock. I backpacked Spenser and we let the older kids climb on their own. The first part of the walk was a staircase, but after about 15 minutes the stairs gave way to a narrow dirt path with rock footholds that was quite steep in some places. About halfway up Cleo began complaining vociferously that she wanted to be carried, although she obviously wasn't in any real distress, so we alternately had to cajole and threaten her to get her the rest of the way up on her own power. The climb took us about an hour in total, but able-bodied folk without children could probably have managed it in about half the time. As soon as we reached the top, Cleo immediately forgot her overwhelming fatigue and began scampering around the castle ruins so that I had to struggle to keep up with her. The views of the town and the coastline were spectacular.
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Going down was actually harder than the ascent, since we had to continuously brace ourselves against slipping on the dirt path in our sandals. At the bottom, we found the old town in full swing at midday. We made our way to the square in front of the Duomo di Cefalù and got the kids pizza at one of the numerous cafes.
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At this point I was eager to get on the road again and we had numerous lunch options on the way inland to Enna. However, just south of the square we passed a tapas restaurant with outdoor tables that seemed too good to ignore. We ordered some octopus, arancini, and Nero d'Avola wine and ate with a view of the cathedral.
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Before leaving town we stopped briefly at Lavatoio Medievale Fiume Cefalino, a perfectly preserved medieval wash-house fed by a subterranean river.
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We got back to the car and found our way back to the highway. We were getting a late start on the inland portion of our road trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:39 Archived in Italy Tagged sicily cefalu rocca_di_cefalu Comments (2)

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