04/04/2017 - 04/19/2017
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.