A Travellerspoint blog


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 whichever driver had 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 quickly that I had to struggle to keep up with her. The views of the town and the coastline were spectacular.

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.

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.

Before leaving town we stopped briefly at Lavatoio Medievale Fiume Cefalino, a perfectly preserved medieval wash-house fed by a subterranean river.

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)

Magical Islands: Palermo

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One of the special features of Palermo is that the old town is divided into four quadrants by Via Vittorio Emanuele running east-west and Via Maqueda running north-south. Historically, the quadrants led separate social and commercial lives and developed their own individual characters which persist to some extent to this day. Except for the southeastern La Kalsa, each quadrant has its own street market which opens early in the morning and closes around 1-2 PM. After much research, I'd selected Mercato di Ballarò in the southwestern Albergheria quadrant and Mercato il Capo in the northwestern Capo quadrant as our prime targets. I expected that we would see one market on each of our two mornings in Palermo and ultimately have lunch there before moving on to sightseeing in the afternoon. The best known market, in the northeastern Vucciria quadrant, has apparently become much smaller and very touristy in recent years so I eliminated it from consideration. Vucciria and the Borgo Vecchio market north of the center have an evening street food scene as well.

Our Airbnb was very close to the Quattro Canti, the intersection of the four quadrants. It was only a five minute walk to Mercato di Ballarò, so we found ourselves there by eleven despite having flown in from Rome that morning. The market was laid out along lengthwise along Via Ballarò, eventually terminating in a slightly wider square. Despite the narrow passage between the stands on either side and the numerous shoppers, scooters and motorcycles regularly zipped and rumbled by the pedestrians so that I always had to keep one eye on Cleo, who was walking on her own. We were immediately impressed by the enormous, deep red strawberries which proved to taste as delicious as they looked. There were beautiful displays of meats, seafood, and vegetables everywhere.

Most of the seafood were familiar species of fish and shellfish, but we did encounter one strange variety of eel that made me think at first that I was looking at a box of decapitated geese.

I used my iVUE Horizon Pro video sunglasses for the first time at the Mercato di Ballarò. The advantage of this method of shooting video is that I can keep my hands free and I don't look like a tool walking around with my iPhone held in front of me. The disadvantages are that the video quality isn't as good as the iPhone, the camera is angled excessively upward, and the inevitable rapid head movements cause the video to be very jumpy. I'm hoping I can overcome the last two problems with practice looking slightly downward and turning my head slowly. It's also impossible to know if the glasses are recording without taking them off to look at the indicator lights, and sometimes they aren't off when I think I've turned them off which leads to a lot of wasted space on the memory card. I've included the decidedly limited results in the blog, because they're better than nothing.

We sampled some street food, including a salad of pork skin and viscera as well as stigghiola. Stigghiola is a Sicilian specialty of grilled and chopped lamb intestine that we found to be delicious.

Before leaving the market, we had our first taste of Palermo restaurant cuisine at a small place on Via Ballarò, with serviceable if slightly undercooked seafood pasta.

We walked a few blocks west through the atmospheric Albergheria district until we reached the Palazzo dei Normanni, This palace dates back to the 9th century and was the residence of the Kings of Sicily during the period of Norman domination, and is currently the seat of Sicily's regional legislature. On the day we arrived, most of the interior of the palace was off limits which was fine with us. We decided to go inside just to see the Cappella Palatina, which is famous for its luminous mosaics.

We re-entered the old town via the massive Porta Nuova city gate and almost immediately came to the Cattedrale di Palermo. This enormous, intricate, and beautiful edifice defies attempts to encompass it in one photograph. Originally constructed beginning in the 12th century, it was modified by additions and renovations until as recently as 1801. The current structure is considered to be predominantly Norman-Arab in design but contains elements of almost every European architectural style that followed including Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque.

Across the street from the cathedral we found a tiny, colorful gelateria that was being swarmed by Palermitan high school kids. The frantic proprietor somehow found the time to squeeze us blood orange and pomegranate juices between his other clamoring customers. The blood orange was great but the pomegranate juice was filled with little bits of pith that we had to spit out.

We walked north to the 19th century neoclassical Teatro Massimo opera house, but the only performance we saw was provided by a stray dog pretending to have been decapitated.

We continued up the main avenues of Via Ruggiero Settimo and Via della Libertà, the extensions of Via Maqueda, to the Giardino Inglese park. We'll often try to hit the main central park of a European city in the afternoon. It's a great way for the kids to stretch their legs and have some fun and for the grownups to get a little relief from walking. A park is also a good place to absorb the rhythms of daily life of a city and get a general sense of the local aesthetic. At the Giardino Inglese, there was the added bonus of a small amusement park which delighted the kids.

By the time we were done with the park we were ready for dinner so we walked back south through Borgo Vecchio to see if we could find any street food. We soon found several produce stalls and fish grills in the center of the neighborhood. Our first stop was the octopus guy, who was boiling and slicing two different kinds of octopus at his stall. A little salty, but nevertheless delicious.

We finished our octopus and selected a sidewalk grill for dinner. The owner took an immediate shine to the kids and ran off with Ian and Cleo to a nearby grocery from which they emerged with big bags of Cheetos. All the kids got a chance to fan the smoke from the grill and then we had a great meal of barbecued mackerel, shrimp, and chicken.

On the way back home we passed through the Vucciria quarter where I had planned to get dinner the previous night but had my plans altered by Alitalia. We found a hopping nightlife and street food scene there was well, including another variety of stigghiola in which the pork intestine was wound around scallions before being barbecued. We filled whatever empty space was left in our stomachs and walked back to our Airbnb.

The temperature dropped into the mid 50's overnight and it wasn't much warmer indoors. Fortunately there was a space heater so Mei Ling and Spenser were able to keep warm, but I couldn't turn ours on in the other bedroom without tripping the circuit breaker so the rest of us had to huddle together under a pile of covers. Between the cold and the two kids trying to steal the covers on either side of me, I didn't sleep very well. In the morning, I was able to take a little better stock of our Palermo pied-à-terre. It was quite a beautiful apartment with detailed molding on the ceiling and a fresco in the classical style. One of the advantages of Airbnb is it allows a traveler to integrate himself into the regular city life while in a hotel one always feels like a tourist.

We were going to pick up the rental car and leave Palermo at 3:30, but we still had more than six hours to explore the city and I had a great itinerary of exciting destinations. We packed everything up and stacked the suitcases by the door and headed out into the city once again. Our Airbnb was right next door to La Martorana, a 12th century church famous for its Byzantine golden mosaics. Adjacent to La Martorana was the Norman-Arab Chiesa di San Cataldo with its distinctive three red domes.

Just north of La Martorana was the Fontana Pretoria, a Renaissance fountain that was sold and transported to Palermo by its Florentine owners in the 16th century. The beauty of the white marble fountain and the surrounding square is somewhat spoiled by the black metal fence that has been erected around it.

For the next ten minutes we strolled through the narrow, flagstone streets of the Capo district until we came upon a vendor preparing one of Palermo's most distinctive street foods, pani ca' meusa. In the back of my mind, I always thought of this fat-drenched sandwich of boiled calf spleen on a sesame bun as the "Panic Amuser". It's terrifying and hilarious at the same time. Mei Ling loved it, although I could only manage a couple of bites due to the greasiness. Here's more about Palermitan street foods.

As soon as we arrived at Mercato il Capo, we found a tiny barber shop. We were eager to get started on the market, but Ian and I both needed a haircut badly and lately we've had a tradition of getting our haircuts while traveling.

As with Mercato di Ballarò, most of the action at Mercato il Capo took place along one street, in this case Via Carini. It was a beautiful market, but a little smaller and less intense than Ballarò without much in the way of street food. We decided that if a visitor to Palermo only had time for one market, it should be Ballarò.

We still had a few hours before we had to pick up the rental car so we walked back south down the pedestrianised section of Via Maqueda to the Quattro Canti. Despite the fact that it was midday on a Friday, the street was quite crowded with locals enjoying the warm day. At the Quattro Canti, I took some extra time to marvel at the beautiful matching neoclassical facades of the four buildings at the street corners.

We dived into the Kalsa quadrant, which we hadn't explored at all to this point, and attempted to get lost by choosing the narrowest possible streets while still maintaining a general southeasterly direction. The area was satisfyingly quiet and devoid of tourists, and a little more run-down than the rest of central Palermo.

We eventually emerged from the old neighborhood just down the road from the Villa Giulia public park, which is adjacent to the botanical garden. The park was green and pleasant enough to render a paid visit to the botanical garden unnecessary. I was able to elevate Cleo just high enough to reach the oranges on a row of trees near the path, but they turned out to be too sour to eat.

On the way back, we encountered a seafood grill on the sidewalk in front of Trattoria da Salvo. We selected a whole crab and a sea bass, along with some raw clams and sea urchins. The crab ended up being over-grilled, with tough meat difficult to separate from the shell. The sea urchins were pretty enough to look at, but the roe sacs were tiny and didn't have much flavor.

Back at the Airbnb, we collected our bags and I walked out to Via Roma to flag down a cab. Nothing appeared except for a three-wheel taxi which made a sharp U-turn and pulled over eagerly. I was rather dubious about fitting everyone along with the bags and strollers but the driver dismissed my concerns and piled everything precariously into the small space behind the bench. The five of us huddled together behind the driver, who immediately took off and began zooming frantically down the narrow side streets and blind turns of Vucciria. I have no idea how he managed to avoid all the cars, motorcycles and pedestrians but it seemed to me that we were on the verge of disaster for the entire journey. The mercifully short ride was so jolting that I completely forgot I was still wearing my video sunglasses until we were almost finished with the wild part of the ride. It would probably have been the most thrilling video of the trip.

I wasn't surprised to find out from the Avis rental agent that we wouldn't be getting the promised BMW 218D but rather a Peugeot 308, which I wasn't familiar with at all. The agent recommended that I upgrade to a Mercedes 5-seater which he said was roomier, but naturally that would have meant more money. Feeling like I was getting bait-and-switched, I told him we would try our luck with the Peugeot and see if our child seats fit. I had to walk a quarter mile to the lot to pick up the car, so it would have been a huge pain in the butt to have to switch cars, but fortunately all three car seats fit across the back bench of the Peugeot and we were able to shoehorn all the bags and strollers into the trunk and behind the front seats. We broke out our GPS and set a course for Caccamo.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:56 Archived in Italy Tagged palermo Comments (0)

Magical Islands: Sicily and Malta

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Easter vacation is tough when it comes to choosing a travel destination, because it raises the question of whether it's worth the two 9-10 hour flights across the Atlantic to Europe and back for a one week trip. Most of the places we want to visit in the US are too cold for us in April, and Latin America gets repetitious (we were just in Nicaragua in January). I was thinking about Malta for a few reasons: it was probably going to be acceptably warm with lows in the 60's, there seemed to be a lot of fun things for kids, it was tiny and isolated so we probably would never get there on a longer European road trip, and it would be a new country for everyone. However, as usual when I look at Google Maps I can't keep my hand off the scroll button and my eye kept getting drawn to Malta's larger island neighbor Sicily to the north. I'd been there twice before: with my parents when I was about five, and for a couple of days in my twenties. My memories were very vague from both trips. I had planned to include Sicily on a future road trip from Rome down the Amalfi coast, but after doing a little research I realized I didn't want to wait. I started working on an ambitious itinerary that would cover all the main attractions of Sicily as well as Malta and determined that the absolute minimum time for the trip would be two weeks. We don't like taking Cleo out of school now that she's in pre-K, but eventually we decided it wouldn't upset her to miss about a week. Of course, there were no direct flights from Miami to Sicily or Malta but I found very reasonably-priced two-leg itineraries to Palermo with a connection in Rome. The rental car ended up being inexpensive as well thanks to our discovery in Munich that a larger car could accommodate three car seats across the back seat, which meant we wouldn't have to go with a costly and cumbersome minivan. I did my best to confirm that our seats would fit in the promised BMW 218D and decided we would deal with the issue at the rental agency if that turned out not to be the case.

We did a great job on our end of preparing for the trip. After forgetting a few things on our last two road trips we had made an exhaustive checklist of all the essentials which ensured everything got into the bags before we left. We had an evening departure which meant the kids would sleep most of the flight and take much of the sting out of the nine hour ordeal. I had booked flights on KLM but the check-in desk redirected us to Alitalia which was apparently the actual airline we were flying on. At Alitalia, the check-in agent sent our bags through but then found herself unable to assign us boarding passes for our flight from Rome to Palermo. She called over another agent and after much scrutiny of their computer screen the second agent informed us our second flight had been canceled due to "a strike at the airport". While Mei Ling tried to get more information from the agents I Googled the strike and found it it was actually an Alitalia strike and had nothing to do with the airport. I brought this to the agents' attention and the second agent smiled and nodded. "Yes, it's an Alitalia strike." Apparently these strikes have been a fairly regular event lately and last for part of a day. Alitalia then cancels a whole bunch of flights, screws over hundreds of their passengers, presumably rebooks them, and business continues as usual until the next strike. At that point we decided to proceed to Rome and hopefully rebook on a later flight to Palermo. If worst came to worst, we could take a ferry or drive down to Sicily and salvage most of our vacation. Rome isn't the worst place in the world to be stranded anyway.

The flight to Rome wasn't too bad, although the kids didn't sleep as much as I'd hoped and I didn't sleep at all. Once we landed, we quickly found a desk where Alitalia agents were supposed to be helping people rebook their canceled flights. After about a twenty minute wait I came to an agent with a shaved head. He looked at my itinerary and immediately passed it back to me, telling me that since I booked through KLM I would have to go to KLM check-in in the departures area. That seemed to make no sense to me. It's an Alitalia flight, I told him. He just shook his head and gave me a very insincere sympathetic look, the kind of expression that is intended to make it very clear that it is not meant sincerely. He wouldn't talk to us any more. We would have to go to KLM. I asked him if we should go to baggage claim first and get our luggage. No, he answered, your luggage will be going on to Palermo. How does our luggage get to Palermo if the flight has been canceled? For a second, his smirk was replaced by a look of confusion. Then the smirk reappeared, and he told us that yes, we should go to baggage claim. We were pleasantly surprised to find all our bags piled up next to the empty baggage carousel. We schlepped everybody and everything to the KLM check-in where as expected, they told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with domestic flights within Italy which were exclusively conducted by Alitalia. They were courteous enough to take us directly to Alitalia check-in, where a long line of displaced passengers awaited reassignment, and prevail upon the agents there to attend to us immediately.

Despite cutting to the front of the line, we still had to spend an hour sprawled in front of the check-in desk while the agent scrutinized his computer screen wordlessly aside from barking nastily at any coworkers who spoke to him. Eventually he informed us that all flights to Palermo the rest of the day were fully booked and the best he could do was ten in the morning the next day. I asked him if that was the first flight to Palermo that day and he told me there was one at eight. I asked him if there was space on that one and he said there was, with no explanation regarding why he had just told us that ten in the morning was the best he could do. It actually made a huge difference for us, because the earlier arrival meant we would be able to catch one of the morning markets in Palermo that we were desperate to experience. We booked the tickets and the agent told us that we would be comped for a night at a Holiday Inn close to the airport. During this long interaction there was only one other agent tending to the queue of refugees in a similarly slow fashion, so the line didn't move at all the entire time we were there. I felt a little guilty about cutting to the front, but when you have three exhausted little kids you accept any favors you get. Hopefully none of those folks ended up spending the whole night on that line.

We got to the Holiday Inn shuttle stop only to find out we'd have to wait an hour for the next bus, so we took a taxi instead. The Rome airport is actually in Fiumicino, about twenty miles from central Rome, and our hotel was in an isolated business park halfway between the two. Once we were settled in the hotel, we had to decide if we were going to simply use the hotel dinner voucher we'd been provided or find a restaurant. Eventually I decided that the Holiday Inn dinner was probably going to be awful and I didn't want the Alitalia fiasco to have a permanent impact on the quality of our trip, so I used the "Restaurants near me" function of TripAdvisor to pick a place to eat. I wasn't sure that Uber was reliable in Rome and I already had the European Mytaxi app installed on my phone. Mytaxi showed me a very inexpensive fare and I summoned a taxi which took about 15 minutes to arrive. When we arrived at the restaurant, the taxi driver entered his own fare into the Mytaxi app which was about three times higher than what I had been quoted. Later I determined that Mytaxi is basically a dispatch app and the fare estimate they provide has no basis in reality. At the end of the ride, the taxi driver determines the fare and he charged us for the mileage he drove to get to the hotel as well as the mileage to the restaurant.

Fortunately, our dinner at Scuderie San Carlo was quite good and the restaurant was beautiful and peaceful, which made me feel like the effort to drag ourselves from the hotel had been worthwhile.

We took a Uber back to the Holiday Inn which was less than half the price of the Mytaxi. Mei Ling used the voucher to get more food from the hotel restaurant, but the overcooked rigatoni in canned red sauce and baked chicken thighs ended up in the trash can. I felt a small sense of victory that we hadn't let Alitalia reduce us to eating garbage on the first night of our vacation.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and took the shuttle bus back to the Fiumicino airport. One cool feature in the departure area was the rectangular columns with LED screens that displayed a continuous loop of sharks and fish moving inside a large tank. Very realistic.

Overall things went much more smoothly than the previous day and we got to Palermo without any issues. As we approached the airport, I was amazed by the topography that was visible from the airplane window. I could see the two massive cliffs of Monte Gallo and Monte Pellegrino bookending the beach of Mondello. Behind were rows and rows of low mountains with towns and villages occupying most of the valleys between them.

We had arranged for our Airbnb host to pick us up at the airport for about the same price as a taxi, which meant we didn't have to worry about the driver locating our apartment in central Palermo. We unloaded our stuff into the apartment as quickly as we could. Our first market was just a short walk away.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:01 Archived in Italy Tagged italy sicily malta Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic: Trip conclusion and best of lists

I've finally come to the end of this blog about our epic family journey around the Adriatic Sea. Not only was this the best trip I've ever taken with Mei Ling (and we've taken a lot), but I'm hard pressed to think of a better month that I've ever had in my life. We had great luck with the places we chose to visit, great health with no one having so much as a sniffle, and an amazing bonding experience as a family. I often find myself reminiscing about episodes of the journey, and trying to remember exactly what we were doing on a specific day of the month. Writing this detailed blog and choosing the photos to post helped me to anchor those memories and put everything in perspective. One thing I wanted to do for people who don't have time to read the whole blog and just want the highlights is to make a couple of "best of" lists.

Best experiences
10. Predjama Castle, Slovenia
9. Bologna town center and Quadrilatero, Italy
8. Kotor, Montenegro
7. Umbrian hill towns, Italy
6. Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy
5. Rocca Calascio and Apennine towns, Italy
4. Ljubljana old town, Slovenia
3. Diocletian's Palace, Split, Croatia
2. Strolling in Venice, Italy
1. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Of course, this list doesn't include many places that we enjoyed visiting such as Rome, Istria, Bosnia, and the Croatian islands. In all these places there just wasn't any one thing that stood out as particularly enjoyable or memorable, although there isn't anywhere I wouldn't have visited if I could do it all over again.

Best meals
10. Na po ure, Zadar, Croatia
9. Teta Olga, Ploce, Croatia
8. Padua market self-catering, Italy
7. Pri Mari, Piran, Slovenia
6. Antica Osteria de la Stella, Urbino, Italy
5. Konoba Trs, Trogir, Croatia
4. Ljubljana market seafood trucks, Slovenia
3. Rooftop terrace breakfast at Il Marchese del Grillo, Sulmona, Italy
2. Il Molo, Parco Conero, Italy
1. Catalina Mlina, Kotor Bay, Montenegro

The food on the trip could have been much better, although we did have a few memorable meals over the course of the trip. I think only the top six would have stood out if we were home in Miami, and some of those only due to the setting. There were an enormous number of disappointments, even among restaurants that were recommended by the Lonely Planet and had the highest votes on TripAdvisor. Of course, real foodies will scoff at those resources but Michelin starred restaurants were not an option for us given the kids and our unwillingness to maintain a fixed itinerary. If anyone has found better methods for identifying good restaurants on the fly in Europe, I'd love to hear them. In general, I've found it to be a lot harder to find a great meal in southern Europe than in the USA or Asia despite the reputations of Mediterranean countries for fine cuisine. The best they have to offer is extremely good, but the majority of places offer mediocre quality.

Top ten tips for traveling as a family with toddlers
10. Getting lost, ruined plans, and bad meals are inevitable. Arguments about whose fault it was and bad moods will only make things worse. Much better to focus on all the things that go well and laugh about the stuff that doesn't.
9. As annoying as it is to find a wireless store in every country, an unlocked smart phone and a SIM card with a data plan make life much easier on the road. There are ways to make calls and texts in different countries without changing SIM cards, but not to use data without rapidly draining bandwidth allowance due to roaming. If anyone knows of a SIM card which allows data usage across different countries without roaming, please let me know.
8. Keep the kids occupied in the car. Simplest solution: iPads. And keep the trips short. There's no reason to be driving six hours between stops in Europe. If you can't find something interesting to see within two or three hours, you're doing something wrong.
7. Charge all the electronics to the max every night. Make sure you bring all the cords from home. If the plugs aren't compatible with the outlets where you travel, bring a power strip from home so you only need one adapter. Bring a compact recharger as well.
6. One parent is always more absent-minded than the other. The less absent-minded one should keep track of the indispensables (passports, documents, electronics) and make sure all the bags make it back to the car on every departure.
5. Travel requires both parents to make some sacrifices and compromises. This is not a time for trying to win arguments or take stands.
4. Diapers: Find the best quality at the best price as soon as you have your car and buy as many as you have room for in the trunk. Buy more well before running out.
3. Milk: Both parents should know how much milk is left at all times. Buy more before you're down to the last liter. Figure out if your kids will drink the UHT (room temperature) milk that is popular outside of the US because it will make life a lot easier if they do.
2. Ensuring the health and safety of your kids is vastly more important than anything else about your journey. Traveling isn't dangerous, but being out of your familiar environment means you might not recognize some risks. Keep a close eye on your kids and examine every place you stay for hidden hazards.
1. Already know that you enjoy the process of doing all day activities as a family before you leave, not just the idea of doing things as a family. If your spouse or kids drive you nuts at home, traveling will only make it worse.

There's probably more I could add here. We have always brought our own car seats because once they're latched in the rental car we don't have to worry about them again until we get back to the airport for the return trip. This also means we can take cabs to and from our home airport, don't have to pay outrageous car seat rental fees, and have our familiar comfortable car seats rather than roll the dice on what the rental company gives us. Of course, taking a trip where we only had the car for part of the journey would make bringing our own car seats impossible. With regards to strollers, we've tried two single strollers and one double stroller. The double stroller has the advantage that only one parent can handle all toddler transportation, but it can be very hard to manipulate through markets and crowded areas and hard to carry up stairs. Now that our daughter walks more, we've decided to take one single stroller and two carriers. Ian and Cleo can trade off riding in the stroller, and I can carry the other on my back if he/she isn't walking. For those occasions when we can't use a stroller at all, we'll have both carriers. It's important to experiment with different carriers before you travel and figure out how to set it up comfortably for you and your child. It also helps to know how long you can carry your child before your back starts to feel like it's breaking.

Of course, now that we've had this travel experience, the only thing left to do is to try and top it. Towards that end, we've booked all our flights for a 35 day round-the-world trip starting April 1 that will take us to the Bay Area and Napa, followed by Seoul, followed by Mudanjiang and Guangzhou in China, followed by Delhi and Agra in India, followed by a short road trip in the Loire Valley in France. I think if our luck is as good in terms of avoiding logistical problems and minor illnesses as it was in Europe, this trip has the potential to be even better. As long as I have time, I'll try and blog the trip as we go so that my memories will be fresher. Naturally, there's still a lot of planning to do but time-permitting I may make blogs for our other completed family trips including Mexico, Israel, Pacific Northwest, England, Iberia, and round-the-world 2012. Who knows, eventually I may keep going back in time until I get to our first trip together to Paris in summer of 2008, although that's about 25 trips ago. I think if I get to that point I can safely consider myself a travel writer.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:46 Archived in Italy Tagged italy best adriatic croatia montenegro bosnia slovenia Comments (0)

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