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Magical Islands: Enna and Sicily's interior


View Sicily and Malta on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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

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

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

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

Magical Islands: Caccamo and Cefalù


View Sicily and Malta on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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

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

Magical Islands: Sicily and Malta


View Sicily and Malta on zzlangerhans's travel map.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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)

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