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By this Author: zzlangerhans

Magical Islands: Malta


View Sicily and Malta on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Malta was one of those countries that used to be on my travel bubble. If I ever made it there, fine. If I didn't, I wasn't going to lose any sleep about it. However, it always seemed like an interesting place and the idea for the Sicily road trip originally started as a laid-back week just in Malta. It wasn't until I started looking into a brief detour to Sicily that the trip morphed into what it ultimately became.

Given its central Mediterranean location, it was inevitable that Malta was colonized and conquered by virtually every major civilization that dominated the region over the millennia. Malta's last controlling force was the British Empire, which set the stage for the island's sovereignty when the Empire crumbled in the 20th century. Maltese culture, language, and architecture are a strange hybrid of Latinate, Arabic, and Northern European elements.

Arriving into Malta's Grand Harbor is a breathtaking experience. The ferry passes between two massive medieval forts at the mouth and then traverses the entire length of the harbor with Valletta's elevated old town on the right and the peninsular Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua on the left. The view probably hasn't changed much in the last five hundred years, so one can imagine the awe that a Renaissance era sailor must have felt entering this formidable island stronghold.

We had decided not to bring our car, mainly because I didn't feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road. I know many people switch sides without any concern, but I have a tendency to let my thoughts wander while driving and I couldn't shake the fear of driving head on into another car while absentmindedly reverting to the right side of the road. I was curious to see how we could handle transportation with the three kids using just buses and taxis. When we got off the ferry in Valletta, I was surprised to see the disembarking passengers quickly melt away leaving our family alone at the terminal exit. There were no taxis in sight, and my Italian SIM wasn't functional in Malta. Fortunately there was one last passenger awaiting a ride, and the driver of the car who came to pick her up called us a taxi. Despite an extremely short ride to our Airbnb, our fare was quite high. That was when I realized we probably wouldn't have the option of using taxis to get between different destinations on the island.

The Airbnb was a gorgeous modernized three level apartment in an ancient building in the Floriani neighborhood, at the edge of the old town. Our very kind and friendly hostess settled us in, and we immediately packed up the kids for a walk into the old town. From the elevated promenade we could see the Three Cities across the harbor and the elevator that brought people up from the Valletta waterfront.
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In the old town we encountered two large Easter processions close to St. John's Co-Cathedral. The parades were anchored by enormous religious floats that men carried on their shoulders. Watching them strain and sweat under the wooden beams was enough to make my own shoulders hurt.

We didn't have any luck at the two neighboring bistros I had targeted in the old town. One was closed and the other was booked solid. We tried a couple of others close by that were also booked and decided we would have to downscale our ambitions a little. Close to the center of the old town we found a busy corner with several pub-style restaurants with outdoor tables, and I chose the most promising after reviewing its menu. There weren't any free tables outside so we sat at the only table inside. The waitress brought over the menus, which didn't look familiar at all. I'd accidentally walked inside the wrong restaurant. I ran across the alley to the first place but they didn't have any tables open, so rather than uproot everyone I decided to bite the bullet and order. Surprisingly, dinner turned out to be our second best restaurant meal of the trip after Al Saraceno in Taormina. Sometimes the best meals are the result of careful planning, and sometimes they're the result of dumb luck.
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The next day we broke out our bus map and took a short walk to the Floriani C stop on Triq Sant' Anna, the main drag of the Valletta peninsula. We had an uncomfortably long wait for our bus, to the extent that we started to wonder if it would actually come at all. Eventually one showed up as I was researching where the other bus lines would take us. It took about half an hour to reach Ta' Qali park, where there was a Saturday farmers market we wanted to check out. I was monitoring our progress on Google Maps, and at one point it seemed that the driver was going to bypass Ta' Qali completely and proceed to Mdina. The driver suddenly seemed to realize the same thing because he abruptly pulled the bus over and turned and looked back at me. He seemed to be giving me some instructions using a combination of Maltese and hand gestures, but the only interpretation I could come up with was that he wanted me to help him back up the bus which seemed improbable. After a minute of this, an older man went to the doors which the driver then opened, and he actually went behind the bus and directed him back onto a side street so he could make a U-turn back to Ta' Qali. That was my first time both for being on a bus whose driver forgot the route and for being on a bus that made a U-turn.

The market wasn't anything close to what we had seen in Catania and Palermo, but we were able to put together a meal of chicken and rigatoni from the one cooked food vendor that was there.
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I had no idea where the closest bus stop was but we could see the medieval town of Mdina in the distance so I figured we could walk there if we had to. There was also something called Ta' Qali Crafts Village on the way, which I figured would be an interesting place to break from walking and see some local artisans. The walk ended up feeling much longer than we'd expected, perhaps because it was by far the warmest day we'd experienced so far on the trip.
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The crafts village didn't turn out to be that exciting as it consisted mainly of showrooms, and we didn't stick around for long. We felt way too overheated to keep walking to Mdina, and one of the gallery owners directed us to a bus stop. Once again we had a ferocious wait for a bus, which appeared to be coming on an hourly schedule. Eventually we got picked up and taken to Mdina, which was very pretty and well-preserved but also extremely touristy. The absence of any sign of native life inside the walls was reminiscent of La Cité de Carcassonne. We did enjoy the view northeast from the highest section of the walls as the kids slurped ice cream from one of the innumerable gelaterias in the medieval city.
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On leaving Mdina, we saw one of the Hop-On Hop-Off doubledecker tourist buses outside and decided that might be a better way to see the rest of the island than the infrequent regular buses. It was quite expensive, and the driver had a hard time believing I wanted to buy the tickets so late in the day. Nevertheless, I had no regrets as we pulled away from Mdina and we had excellent views of the walled city from the upper deck of the bus. Another highlight of our drive-by tour was Santa Marija Assunta church in Mgarr.
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We decided to hop off the bus in Bugibba, which seemed like an energetic spot towards the northern end of the island. However, we soon realized that virtually all of the activity on the street consisted of lobster-red teenaged tourists from England pre-drinking for the evening's mating rituals. I split a beer with Ian (well, maybe he had a tenth of it) and we sought an exit strategy. We'd missed the last tourist bus so I used the wifi at McDonald's to chart a public bus route with Google Maps. This time the bus came mercifully quickly and we found ourselves back at the main bus station just outside Valletta old town.
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We had better luck getting into one of our chosen restaurants this time round, probably because we hit the restaurant row on Old Bakery Street just as they were beginning to open. Top choice Rubino turned us away but after some internal debate Capistrano gave us a table. They asked us if we could be out by 8:30 which was two hours away, and I told them we'd be thrilled to get out much quicker than that if they could make it happen.
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Soon after we ordered, a couple of women with Scandinavian accents came in with a little girl who was about six. They didn't have a reservation either, and the maître d' really didn't want to seat them. While they argued, the little girl came over and started watching Cleo's iPad over her shoulder. Eventually the staff relented and the Scandinavian women were guided to a staircase leading to another dining room downstairs. The little girl didn't want to go, so we told the women she was welcome to stay with us until their food came. She watched cartoons on the iPad with Cleo until our food arrived, and then watched on her own while Cleo was eating. Ironically, the food wasn't as good as our randomly chosen pub grub from the night before. We got through the entire dinner and were given our check without any reappearance from the Scandinavian women from the downstairs dining room. Eventually Mei Ling had to bring the little girl back to her family. I can't imagine leaving Cleo out of our sight for close to forty minutes with strangers. Perhaps that's an individual thing, or maybe it's cultural. I guess we'll have an opportunity to find out when we spend three weeks in Scandinavia this summer.

Sunday morning we walked down to the waterfront to catch the double decker tourist bus to the weekly Marsaxlokk fish market. I led us to the official Valletta waterfront area but we couldn't find the bus stop. All the businesses were closed and there was no one around to ask. Eventually we figured out that the stop was a good distance eastward and not in the commercial waterfront area at all. Once we got close to the stop we saw a bus there with a lot of people standing next to it and ran full tilt so as not to miss it. Just as we arrived a second bus pulled up with some people already on it and everyone immediately pushed their way onto the new bus. We didn't even come close to getting on before the bus filled up. It seemed the first bus was having some kind of mechanical problem. Neither bus moved for a few minutes and then they told all the newcomers to get off the second bus. Foreseeing what was about to happen, we jumped onto the first bus as soon as the door opened and I took the older kids to the upper deck. Whatever problem the bus had was now solved, and soon we departed. Amidst all the confusion no one asked us to buy tickets, but I didn't feel badly because the previous day we had paid an entire day's fare for just one leg of the route.

My research had prepared me for the Marsaxlokk market to be touristy, but it was still a disappointment. There was very little in the way of seafood to be seen, and very large amounts of tourist schlock. However, the waterside area was still very pretty with the old buildings lining the promenade and the brightly-colored boats anchored in the harbor.
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After a seafood lunch at one of the harborside restaurants, we walked back to the promenade and allowed ourselves to be convinced to take a boat tour to St. Peter's Pool despite gathering storm clouds. The motorboat was just large enough for ourselves and one other family. It was a pleasant ride out of the harbor although it started getting very windy as we rounded Delimara Point.
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There was a decent number of people enjoying themselves at the natural semicircular pool, and our driver idled the boat so we could watch a couple of them take the plunge off the fifteen foot overhang.
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On the way back it started raining fairly briskly and the waves kicked up as well, so it was quite a cold and uncomfortable return that seemed much longer than the outward leg. Fortunately the real downpour didn't start until we were back on land so we were able to make it into a cafe without getting completely soaked, and we waited out the rain over hot chocolate.

The area of Malta we were most curious about and hadn't yet visited was Vittoriosa, the central of the Three Cities. Vittoriosa, also known as Birgu, is an impressively fortified peninsula with its own extensive history as an independent city. The public bus dropped us off in the main square and we made our way down to the yacht marina on the western shore. At the tip of the peninsula is the Fort Saint Angelo which is only connected to the rest of Vittoriosa by a narrow bridge that crosses another tiny marina. Inside here was a restaurant that one could park one's boat immediately outside and a noble-appearing archway connecting the fort to the mainland.
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Just inland from the marina is the beautiful St. Lawrence's Church with its distinctive red domes.
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We spent an hour or so exploring the nearly-deserted interior of the small city. We found this much more to our liking than Mdina, despite the absence of gelaterias on every street corner. The narrow streets were lined with weathered, ancient buildings that showed interesting signs of their modern inhabitants.
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We had to time dinner carefully to catch the hourly bus back to the Valletta main station, and eventually settled on another pub called Cafe Du Brazil in the central square near the bus stop. Despite its somewhat gritty appearance, they provided a very satisfying dinner which included a delicious braised rabbit. We finished our last meal in Malta somewhat mystified as to how these very downscale-appearing pubs acquitted themselves so well in the kitchen. We never did discover what the connection was with Brazil, as there wasn't anything remotely Brazilian on the menu.

We took a slightly different route back to the Airbnb from the bus station and encountered the magnificently illuminated Church of St. Publius.
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Our ferry departure was at 6:30 in the morning, so we had arranged in advance to be picked up at 5:00 by the same driver who had brought us there from the port. Unfortunately, 5:15 came and went with no sign of the driver and I didn't have any way to call in him. I sent an e-mail, which naturally went unanswered, so we threw the kids in the strollers and I put Spenser on my back and we began the long walk to the ferry terminal. Fortunately we'd left our large bag in the car in Pozzallo, but it was still a painful effort to schlep the strollers, backpacks, and suitcase almost a mile to the terminal. We'd given ourselves plenty of time, so we weren't in any real danger of missing the ferry, but by the time we got ourselves up to the deck we were exhausted.

I was looking forward to a relaxing ride back to Pozzallo with groggy kids, but as soon as the ferry left its mooring it was clear that wasn't going to happen. The enormous boat immediately began to pitch from side to side to a degree I'd never experienced on a ferry. I looked outside and saw huge swells and troughs everywhere. Within five minutes the first people started to reach for their motion sickness bags. I kept a watchful eye on Spenser in his stroller. He seemed nonchalant at first, but then started crying and almost immediately threw up his breakfast. I cleaned him up and then Mei Ling took him in her arms and he fell asleep. Within half an hour it seemed like half the passengers were heaving into their bags. Mei Ling was sick as well by this point. I hoped the older kids would be OK, since they'd never had any motion sickness problems, but even Ian finally lost it after about an hour. Only Cleo and I got through the ride unscathed. I guess she'll be the one joining me on fishing trips when she gets a little older.

We ended our visit to Malta with mixed feelings. It's certainly a unique place, thanks to its long history and mix of influences, but it falls short of many other parts of Europe when it comes to atmosphere. Except for Vittoriosa, much of what we saw had a plasticky, artificial veneer that seemed geared towards package tourists. Of course, we never made it to the smaller island of Gozo that contains many of Malta's most famous natural attractions. It's also likely that the main island keeps many secrets that we simply didn't have enough time or mobility to discover. However, given the amount of Europe and the rest of the world that we still have to explore, I don't foresee us returning.

We retrieved our car and loaded up our still-queasy crew. It was only eight in the morning and we had to be in Agrigento by lunchtime.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:04 Archived in Malta Tagged malta valletta mdina marsaxlokk birgu vittoriosa bugibba Comments (1)

Magical Islands: Siracusa


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One of the most difficult decisions in our short itinerary was what to do about Siracusa. Because of the limited ferry schedule, the two nights I wanted in Siracusa would have only left one day to explore Malta which would definitely have not been enough. In the end, I decided that we would likely be returning to Sicily but Malta was much more questionable. Better to allocate more time to Malta so we wouldn't feel like we'd missed too much there. Because that only left us with one evening and one morning in Siracusa, I decided we would stay on the island of Ortigia and not make any attempt to see the mainland half of the city.

I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but our Booking.com B&B in Ortigia was even smaller than the one in Taormina. The door from the street opened directly into the first bedroom, and there was a smaller bedroom in the back. Instant zero to 100% occupancy. We immediately plunged into an enticingly narrow alley which led us through charming small squares and more alleys to Piazza Archimede and Giulio Moschetti's epic Fontana di Diana.
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We were now in the heart of Ortigia. From Piazza Archimede the touristy but charming Via Roma coursed southward and we followed it to Piazza Minerva, a white flagstone-paved pedestrian street lined with cafes and stately buildings. Piazza Minerva took us to Piazza Duomo, where the setting sun was throwing an orange glow onto the upper part of the Siracusa Cathedral.
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South of the cathedral, we encountered the seaside promenade Lungomare Alfeo where people were gathering to watch the sunset. Rather than battle for an unreserved table at a highly-recommended restaurant, we took an educated guess at which of the waterside restaurants looked best and did fairly well with our choice. On the way back home, we stopped at the gelateria at the corner of Piazza Minerva and Via Roma for cake, cappucino, and a cold glass of Zibibbo.
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The next morning we were laser-focused on Ortigia's daily produce and fish market, which my research indicated was one of the best in Sicily. The first place we saw was a food truck selling horsemeat sandwiches and we sat down without hesitation. I purchased more amazing strawberries and we had them with the sandwiches and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
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Before tackling the crowded market, we passed by some stalls where local fishermen were selling such oddities as skate, eels, and slipper lobster. At one stall a couple of guys were extracting sea urchin roe from the shells, but at ten bucks for a shot glass of roe we decided to pass.
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The Ortigia market wasn't as large as the ones in Palermo and Catania, but it was the most artisanal we had seen. The cheese and sausage vendors seemed to have every variety imaginable, and every fruit and vegetable looked like it had been individually polished. It was also one of the more crowded markets we had seen, mainly with tourists.
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We didn't have to leave town until two, so we still had plenty of time to explore the island. We plunged back into the network of alleys we'd discovered the previous evening and did our best to make our way down to the southern tip of the island without using any of the wider streets.
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We emerged from the alleys at the base of the small peninsula at the southern end of Ortigia. At the very tip of the peninsula is Castello Maniace, a well-preserved medieval fort that we had just enough time to explore.
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We made one last stop at the Ortigia market before retrieving the car. I'd spotted an absolutely amazing deli on the main market street that morning but we'd just finished eating. Now that we'd burned off some calories walking around, it seemed like a good idea to get some sandwiches to eat on the drive down to the Malta ferry at Pozzallo. My only regret is that there wasn't an option for a panini with everything.
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Another day in Siracusa would have definitely been welcome, but as always I was amazed at how much we were able to see and do in less than twenty-four hours. We had given ourselves plenty of time to get to Pozzallo and there wasn't any traffic, so I had time to drop everyone off at the check-in for the ferry before returning a short distance up the road to the paid parking. I followed the signs up an incline and immediately encountered a guy in a yellow safety vest who waved me into a spot on an ungated dirt lot close by. I got out and the guy immediately came over gesturing and making sounds that sounded like Italian but were mostly incoherent. It was clear he wanted money, and eventually he wrote down a figure that didn't seem too unreasonable. I was about to pull out my wallet, but I suddenly remembered the parking scam for the Erice funicular that I'd read about. I asked the guy if he would give me a receipt, and he pulled out some slips of colored paper and waved them in front of me. I could see they were completely blank, which was enough for me to take a closer look at the surroundings. At one end of the dirt lot, I saw a gated lot that was clearly marked "Ferry Parking" in Italian, so I walked towards it with the vest guy following and gesticulating next to me the whole time. He peeled off as soon as I walked into the lot and I quickly found an office with a woman sitting inside. I asked her if the vest guy worked for her and she shook her head. "That parking isn't safe. He should not be there." I walked back to my car, half expecting the vest guy to attack me, but he was nowhere in sight. I drove the car into the real lot, paid 18 Euros for three days, and got my real receipt. Having foiled my first scam attempt in Sicily, I walked down the hill and joined Mei Ling and the kids just as they started allowing people to board the ferry. We were all about to experience a brand new country.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:51 Archived in Italy Tagged siracusa syracuse ortigia Comments (0)

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)

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