A Travellerspoint blog

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 vistas 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

We walked through town one more time on the way to dinner, and then made our way back to the B&B.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 called neonata that the Sicilians often eat raw with a squeeze of lemon.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Back in Catania, we had a pleasant dinner at Me cumpari Turiddu, a hip restaurant downtown with good beer and decent if unmemorable food.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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