Untours Cafe

Sicily Untour Fall, 2007

Drayton and Jim Metzler

This was only our third official Untour (Spain 2003 and Switzerland 2005), traveling with my in-laws, Ann and Bill Logan. They have been on at least 18 Untours and help us enjoy and explore Europe. Since Sicily was a newer
destination for all of us and for Untours, we thought it would be exciting to try it out. Our hostess, Kathleen, greeted us at the airport in Catania along with Andi Cancelliere, an Untour Italy team member.

In general, the weather in mid-September was excellent. The mornings were cool enough to enjoy our coffee and read our books on the patio of our house, Lilly, located on the grounds of La Perciatta, an agritourismo hotel just 20
minutes outside of Siracusa. We could eat at the hotel on the grounds for the set meals at night, but only did this once. Being a farm, it was fun taking some of our food scraps to the animals, and if the caretaker is around, have your Italian dictionary handy as he enjoys chatting about them. The days would warm up nicely so that at the end of our traveling, we could take a refreshing dip in the pool. A glass of wine while watching the sunset behind Siracusa was idyllic. Two negatives for Lilly are the bathroom facilities and the kitchen. The four of us were underwhelmed about the bathroom facilities. Also, the stove was difficult to light and to regulate the burners.

A basic grasp of Italian may be more important here than in other areas of Italy. Several times, we encountered people who spoke no English. They are typically friendly, want to be helpful, and use lots of hand gestures. Jim
worked on his Italian with tapes in the car for about 4 months and we did fine. Basic pleasantries and courtesy open many doors here.

Sicilian driving is an art not for the faint of heart. Don’t be fooled by the description of a place as a small town. Often, they are busy cities that are difficult to navigate. One tip is to try to avoid driving through smaller towns on Saturday afternoon as it is very crowded with weddings and guests. The traffic can be at a stand still and parking may be non-existent. The narrow streets and “iffy” road signs make it a challenge. If this appeals to you, go early, park centrally and stay later in the afternoon. Great for people watching but not if you want to get somewhere else. Parking is pretty limited in towns and cities at certain times. If in doubt, always look to pay for parking and display your tickets. Orientation was great about explaining this. We got scammed once near the Neapolis in Siracusa; a very friendly man saw our approach and guided us into a shaded spot after moving some barrier cones right next to the entrance to the park. He spoke English and said how happy he was to see Americans in Sicily and that we could park our car all day for 8 euros. Later, as we walked along, we passed a gluttony of free parking spaces. But hey, it was in the shade and he was diligently sitting by our car when we returned several hours later. No tip required.

One of the highlights was the Untour lunch at the home of a local artist, Nuncio Bruno. What a character! He collects primitive tools of Sicily and preserves them. He also creates miniature replicas of cities and creches. His wife is a renowned Sicilian cook who taught us to make a few dishes from scratch before cooking a full Sicilian meal for our group complete with Nero d‘Avola wine and gelato for dessert. It was spectacular!

Areas that we visited:

1. Siracusa- Our home base is a fabulous ancient city that warrants several visits since it is so close. The island portion of the city, Ortygia, is the main destination and also where we had our wonderful orientation lunch at Restaurante le Baronie. Walking through the streets, we stopped by the outdoor market with fresh seafood, vegetables, and fruits. There were also merchants for jewelry, spices, purses, and many other items. Visit the Duomo Catherdral and the sites around the Piazza Duomo. Take the passeggiata stroll by the bay down to the Porto Grande under the trees and enjoy a granite (iced drinks) while watching the ships. Eat at La Spagheteria de Scooghiu for real Italian hospitality and good food. The place is tiny but the owner and his son make you feel welcomed. Another good restaurant is Al Gambero Rosso which is located near the bridge into Ortygia. Good calamari. Ask Kathleen about stores for bulk wine purchase.

The mainland portion of Siracusa has many interesting sites as well. The Basilica Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime (Our Lady of the Tears) dominates the cityscape and is wonderful to visit. Don’t forget the crypts under the church
which we visited on a Saturday and were treated to a wedding ceremony taking place. Close by are the Catacombs of San Giovanni Evangelista which has the largest catacombs outside of Rome. A combination ticket also lets you
visit the Church of Santa Lucia (the ticket was good for several days so you don’t have to visit the same day) where we viewed the Caravaggio painting, The Burial of Santa Lucia. The crypt next to the church was closed for renovation. Near the catacombs is the Museo Archaelogico to view some of the early Greek artifacts and reconstructions of temples. It is a good preview for the Neapolis, a park area with the Greek Theatre, a cave/rock gorge called Dionysisus’ Ear and the nymphaeum or water caves. In late afternoon, it was ghastly hot and we took shelter in the caves and the quarry.

2. Noto- Only a 30 minute drive from our home and a lovely Baroque city which was rebuilt after the earthquakes of the 1620’s. Most of the areas of interest are along a single street in the upper part of the city. Grab a parking
space when you can find it! Walk through the park and enter the street via the Porta Reale. Meander into the Chiesa di San Francisco, the Duomo/Cattedrale, the Palazzo Ducezio, and the Chapel of San Carlo. For a small entrance fee, we climbed up the cupola at San Carlo for a great view of the city and surrounding countryside. Lunch at Trattoria del Carmene for eggplant parmegiana and grilled pork chop with Italian sausage. Across the street is a nice ice
cream/sweets shop with very friendly owners and a great casseta Siciliana.

3. Palazzolo Acreide and Buschemi- Again, only 30 to 40 minutes from home and a nice drive through some lovely countryside. We went to Buschemi first (beware the closed entrance into town…go to the second entrance from the main road) to visit the rural museum. This is really a guided walking tour exhibiting homes of rural laborers, shops of the blacksmith, tinker, carpenter, and shoemaker. An olive press and winemaker shop were included also. Paolo,our
guide, did not speak a syllable of English but was very friendly and patient with our broken and limited Italian. Calling ahead to catch an English speaking guide is a good idea. We returned via Palazzolo Acriede, planning on
having lunch at a restaurant. The limitations of my Italian came immediately as we got lost in the curving and twisting roads. We had no idea where the restaurant was and were delayed by lots of traffic and 2 weddings…one was halting traffic to take pictures in the middle of the road.

4. Caltagirone/Piazza Armeneria-The road to Caltagirone goes through Palazzolo Acreide and past Bushemi up to a scenic village of Vizzini. You can see where all the Formula One racers cut their teeth with all the hairpin turns.
We took a scenic route through Grammichele which is lovely countryside, but slower. We really wanted to beat some of the tour buses at Villa Romana del Casale, a 4th century BC Roman villa undergoing extensive restoration
and excavation of its many mosaic floors. Well worth the drive and the 10 euros for the explanation book (buy it before you go into the villa since there are not a lot of helpful signs or guides).

Caltagirone is the home of the ceramic artisans and La Scala, a set of 182 steps each decorated with a different ceramic scene. Many stores sell these items; we stopped in the Mostra Mercato Peruante which houses collections from many different artists. The Bar Centrale located just off the Piazza Municipo is a great place to enjoy a beer and foccacia sandwich.

5. Taormina/Mt. Etna-This was our one overnight trip. The drive up to Taormina is a great one for seeing the Ionian Sea and Catania Bay. It also gets us close to Mt. Etna, the still active volcano. Taormina is a quaint, touristy
town that we enjoyed. We didn’t get a chance to go to the beach but walked along the streets with many shops and restaurants. Park at one of the two designated parking areas and take the free bus up to the town. Get oriented at the Tourist Info center and just walk around. The Via Croce gives a panoramic view of the city and the Greek Theatre…take some water and good shoes if you decide to walk up it. Ristorante al Duomo has great food and
ambience.

Savoca is a small town (honestly!) north of Taormina where a few scenes from The Godfather were filmed. The Capuchin Monastery there holds the mummified remains of 24 of its past civic and religious leaders dressed in period clothing for viewing. This is not behind glass and at our visit, it was undergoing cleaning from vandalism.

Mt. Etna is a great drive passing through quiet forests and the winding paths of previous lava flows. Steam craters pepper the hillside. The funicular and guided tours up at the top of the mountain cost about 48 euros per person. There was no guarantee of molten lava, so we passed. On the way back to Catania, we stopped for lunch in Nicolosi at the Bar Vitale near the main roundabout. The sandwiches and arancino were very good as was the cannoli and espresso for dessert. Had a great “conversation” with the owner about car racing since he is a fan of Ferrari and we live in Indianapolis. He showed us pictures of his Le Mans race car and gave us free postcards of Mt. Etna.

6. Ragusa-We visited on a Sunday, but got to the gardens early enough to park close. Later, it was packed with people enjoying the afternoon stroll. The Tourist Info desk had a great map of the city. Walk through the park for the
panoramic scenes and visit the small Capuchin chapel and then up to the large Duomo di San Giorgio. On the way home, we passed through Modica, another medieval city which was crowded and had no parking despite 3 passes through the main area; the provided map was not too helpful.

All in all, we saw many wonderful sights and immersed ourselves in the rhythm of Sicily. We wanted to enjoy our location and didn’t travel as extensively around the island, but had plenty to see.

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