Three Nights in Palermo

First, let me say that right now I’m having an absolutely wonderful time. I’m with great friends, the sun is shining, we are drinking Prosecco. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Yesterday, however, was a different experience. You know that old saying, “you ain’t seen nothing yet?” Well, that’s what came to mind when we arrived in Palermo. Remember the bad food in Ortigia? The 59 steps in Modica? The “terrifying” ride? Well, we got ‘em all in Palermo, and then some.

That scary ride I described in my last post? Well, yes, that road was indeed narrow and winding, but it wasn’t lined with trash cans, and there were no motorbikes, pedestrians or oncoming traffic on it. Palermo had all that — and more. I would still be recovering from PTSD if I’d been driving, or if Mike had been driving, one of us would probably have filed for divorce. But once again, Diane amazed us all with her calm, proficient driving.

It was MUCH worse than this. People were also flying by on scooters.

After driving down what WE would call alleys, but Italians call streets, we arrived at the “meeting point”. We succeeded in effectively blocking traffic, while we waited for Giovanni to find us. He then guided three of us (with our luggage) to the “bed and breakfast”, leaving Diane blocking traffic until he could return to guide her to a parking lot.

Entrance to Ad Hoc Rooms

Meanwhile, our three heroines were confronted with 59 steps (the exact number of steps as Modica—if my grandmother had been alive she would have called her bookie to “play” that number). Once again, I was grateful to the exercises classes at the Y, because we carried our own bags —and my two weigh about 27 pounds. But the best is yet to come. After our trek, we discovered that Sally and I were not only sharing a room, we were also sharing a bed. Fortunately king sized, but still.

I’ll confess, I was NOT happy. (Neither was Sally). For a brief period, I turned into the Ugly American, muttering, frowning and using my phone to search for alternative lodging. But the thought of carrying those bags DOWN 59 steps, and then someplace else gave us all pause.

My three traveling companions found solace in the cafe across the street, while I, knowing how drunk I would get on an empty stomach, dug into the cheese and salami we’d brought with us. Lo and behold, when I tried to join them, I discovered I couldn’t unlock the lobby’s front door. And I was alone. All alone.

The instructions SHOULD have read “push the button in the middle, wait till the light stops circling and forms an upside down horse shoe shape, grab the handle, then PULL.

After trying every single combo I could think of, except the correct one, I finally called Karen, who willingly walked up those 59 steps to rescue me. I owe her BIG time!

Our dinner that night could not be described as delicious, but the chef acknowledged the lack of culinary excellence by offering us free lemoncello. We ended a rather challenging day on a positive note, and after a good night’s sleep, everything seemed MUCH better!

Time for some photos of the GOOD stuff:

The main altar in the cathedral at Monreale

Mosaics along the walls visualize biblical stories. Check out Eve telling Adam to eat the apple so he’d get smarter, Adam and Eve modeling the latest fig leaf fashions, Abraham getting ready to kill his son and Rebecca at the well.
The view of Palermo from Monreale
The best seats in the house are, of course, in the “royal box”. We got a glimpse during our tour of Teatro Massimo, the third largest opera house in Europe.
This fountain was created in Florence and reassembled here in Palermo. Check out the expressions on the statues’ faces.

One full day left until we leave for Taormina.

Caltagirone and Enna Surprises

Ever heard of Caltagirone? Enna? Neither had I before this trip. They are two places in Italy that Sally put on our itinerary as our next stops, after leaving Modica. I’m so glad she did.

Obviously, neither place is a tourist trap. Sally chose Caltagirone because it is noted for its ceramics and it is on the way to Enna, then ultimately Palermo. The other notable thing about Caltagirone is this 142 step staircase, which prominently displays different examples of those very works of art. At the top of the steps is (what else) a church.

Check out the beautiful ceramics, after you finish checking out the 4 babes

Karen and I made the ascent, which according to my Apple Watch (and my body) was not as challenging as some of our Modica strolls. Despite that, we felt rightfully proud of ourselves.

No, we didn’t go in to the church. Too many additional steps.

En route, we stopped at Villa Romana del Cásale. Mike and I had seen the spectacular mosaics when we visited the villa on our 2017 OAT trip, so I didn’t feel the need to view them again. Instead, I hung out in the plaza, enjoying the view. If you have a deep desire to experience the villa, you can check out my 2017 post:

The day’s biggest surprise was our vacation rental. The VRBO listing indicated there was only one bathroom. Since clearly none of us travels with a plethora of beautification items, like curling irons or make up, we decided we could certainly make do, especially since our stay was only for two nights. (Oh, how very spoiled I’ve become! For several years in my youth, SIX of us shared ONE bathroom.)

The trunk of our car, not including some purses, water bottles and one bag stowed amidst the passengers in the back seat. Good thing we went with “carry on only”

We were pleasantly surprised to find that there were actually THREE bathrooms, and two of the bedrooms should have been described as suites.

Our host, Francesco, and his sister Anna greeted us with wine and homemade cannoli. That was enough to ensure that they would be our friends for life and our dinner guests for our last night in Pergusa.

A warm welcome from a fabulous host

We immediately informed Francesco that he needed to fix the inaccuracies in his VRBO description. Travelers need to know about this spectacular rental in this gorgeous location. From our wrap around deck, we can gaze at the countryside, including Lake Pergusa.

Full disclosure: the drive TO the rental was midway between harrowing and TERRIFYING. We accessed a one way, winding road, complete with potholes and steep uphill climbs. I’ve been less scared on roller coaster rides. Fortunately, Diane has nerves of steel, and once again kept her cool despite not knowing EXACTLY where the rental was located. Did we all kill that bottle of wine as soon as we arrived? Did we need more than one bottle? You betcha.

This gives you an idea of the size of the road.

Because our rental is actually in Pergusa, not Enna, we traveled down that same road to explore the city on yet another hill. May 1 is a national holiday, Italy’s Labor Day, so almost everything was closed. That was great for us—no crowds! No traffic! Available parking! There WAS one tourist bus at the Lombard Castle, but the tourists were all Italian. Guess the locals know about this little gem and have kept it secret and safe from invasion by hoards of Americans.

Some of Enna’s highlights:

Crocheted trees
A beautiful park with a statue of Hades abducting Persephone. For a fun version of the myth, see Hadestown on Broadway, or at least listen to the music
This guy—outside the castle. I have NO idea who he is, but I liked the theme.
And, of course, the castle with the watchtower, if you want to climb to get yet another spectacular view

We didn’t have enough time to tour the castle, climb the watchtower, visit the Museum of Myths, walk the Sacred Path or consume more gelato. But YOU can, if you choose to visit this beautiful mountain town.

We ended our day at a Pergusa pizza place that was clearly a favorite with the locals. We were there early, 7:30. By the time we left, after 10 PM, the place was packed.

The best part, other than the delicious pizza, was getting to know Francesco and Anna, two fascinating people.

I’d never seen a menu with so many different kinds of pizza. Mine was “Norma”, covered with roasted eggplant—delicious!

We leave for Palermo this morning. That scary route to the rental is no longer scary. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Especially with Diane doing all the driving.

Three Nights in Modica

We had just gotten the hang of Ortigia, easily finding our way around, when it was time to hit the road for Rick Steve’s recommended stop on our way to Modica.

After picking up our rental car, we headed for Noto, following (or trying to follow) Rick’s directions. How many iPhones does it take to get us to the right place? Well, with us, the correct answer is three…using a combo of google and Apple Maps. I’m recommending Diane for sainthood, because she kept her cool driving down impossibly narrow streets, while getting conflicting directions from her three passengers.

We all felt better after our fantastic lunch at Marpessa Restaurant, so we forgave Rick for being somewhat vague with his directions. The restaurant was next to Noto’s historic theater and was the starting point for the little tourist train, so of course, we had to experience both.

The exterior of the theater
That pair singing a duet looks very familiar
It wasn’t a hop on/hop off. It just circled the town. Was it worth it? In my opinion, Hell, no.

Because of our late start, and a few wrong turns, we arrived in Modica much later than expected. Our rental was billed as an elegant private retreat close to St Georgio’s cathedral in the historic center of Modica. All true, although “center” was a bit of a stretch. Equally true, but unsaid, was the fact that everything was just “steps” away… 59 steps, to be exact, UP from the cathedral (where we were instructed to park) to the little lane where our rental was located. I know, because I counted.

Like many Italian towns, Modica is built into the hillside. We were grateful for the occasional flat surface between the steps. We are on our way to the restaurant 268 steps below

Fortunately, we had all agreed to limit ourselves to one carry on, plus one personal item (backpack/small duffel/large purse, as allowed by ITA). Good thing we all are relatively fit, because although the rental agent helped with 2 of the bags, we carried the remaining 6. Guess what? Roller bags don’t work well on stairs.

Our vacation rental in Modica is absolutely beautiful. The three level patio has a hot tub, dining table and lots of chairs for lounging. And we are undoubtedly ladies who lounge. We also eat and drink wine. Lots of wine.

Our home for three nights has some rather exotic features, like my round bed, with a jacuzzi located right behind it.

No, this ISN’T the Poconos.

After frolicking in the jacuzzi, you don’t have far to go to have a different religious experience. Check out how close we are to the cathedral. You can see the dome from our patio. Not only that, but you can HEAR the bells ringing — at 8 AM, noon and 8 PM. Some church bells are lovely. These are not. They sound like someone threw multiple metal instruments into a washing machine and pressed SPIN.

This is what the dome looks like from the inside

Lorenzo, our rental agent, and new best friend, has been a regular visitor. Why? Because four reasonably intelligent, well educated and relatively successful women were unable to: unlock the front door (after returning from dinner our first night), start the dishwasher (our second night), and get the dryer part of the combo washer/dryer to actually dry our wet clothes. The clothes got HOT, but were still wet. How can that be???

It looks like we may have a trifecta of Lorenzo visits, because after heating for two days, the hot tub is actually only a warm tub. We leave for Enna tomorrow morning, so this evening is our last chance to use it.

Despite a few minor glitches, I have to say I love this place and will be sorry to leave it tomorrow. We had fun grocery shopping, cooking together (mostly done by Karen and Diane with Sally and I being a grateful and appreciative audience) and just hanging out.

What’s YOUR Travel Style?

Do you prefer organized tours or would you rather choose your own itinerary and pace? There are definite advantages to both modes of travel, and I enjoy each. I’ve discovered that the key to maximizing pleasure is to understand exactly WHY you are taking the trip. Is your goal to see as many sights as possible? Or do you hanker for a slower pace, enjoying the companionship of a few close friends?

Lucky me—I’ve been able to do both types of trips to Sicily, so I can compare and contrast. You see, in 2017, my husband and I took an Overseas Adventure Trip (OAT), spending 16 days based in Palermo, Mazara, Piazza Armerina, Ragusa, and Catania.

Currently I’m traveling with three good friends, who planned everything, and are willing to do all the driving. Not surprisingly, this trip is far less structured than the OAT trip. Although we will be based in different cities: Ortigia, Modica, Enna, Palermo and Taormina, we will be covering similar ground.

Our first two days were somewhat grueling, with an overnight flight to Rome, followed by an afternoon flight to Catania, and a 45 minute ride to our first hotel, Algila Ortigia Charme Hotel, our home for three nights.

Across the street from our hotel

They say you can’t get a bad meal in Italy. Well, Sally and I accomplished the impossible, with TWO bad meals—a dinner on our first night and lunch on the second. Breakfasts, on the other hand, were at the hotel and were fantastic!

The world’s worst pizza. Fortunately, Sally was able to see the humor of the experience

We finally wised up and avoided the places around tourist attractions. All meals henceforth were at restaurants down little side streets and THAT is where the food exceeded expectations.

Trattoria Archimede on Via Cavour
Karen and Diane on left, Sally and me on right

Also on Via Cavour was an abundance of little shops. We discovered Sebastian’s shop, in which he was selling various flavors of ‘cello. After sampling several, Diane and I, slightly drunk by then, purchased limoncello and almondcello.

Definitely worth a visit!
Of course, we had to make purchases here. A magnet for me and a mobile for Diane and Karen

Although we did see the normal Ortigia sites, over our three night stay, it was at a much slower pace than when Mike and I visited. For our OAT trip, we only spent a half a day in Ortigia, and saw the same attractions. Of course, we didn’t spend as much time being lost and confused, because we had a guide. We also didn’t sleep as late either.

I am grateful to Sally, Diane and Karen for including me on this trip—my first since Mike died. It is comforting to be among good friends while I process my loss.

Leaving Northern Ireland

On our return to the Republic of Ireland, we made one last stop in Northern Ireland, to the walled city of Derry, where we visited the Museum of Free Derry for a history lesson.

On January 30,1972, inspired by the civil rights marches and peace protests that occurred in the USA, about 15,000 Catholics staged a march to call attention to the discrimination they were experiencing. British soldiers shot indiscriminately into the crowd, killing 14 unarmed protesters. The day after what became known as Bloody Sunday, 2,000 men joined the IRA, which up until that time had not been very active.

Although attempts were made to portray the peaceful marchers as terrorists, a film crew was there, recorded what actually happened, and smuggled the film out (in their underwear!) to the Republic of Ireland where it was broadcast around the world. Despite the visual evidence to the contrary, the false narrative that some march participants were terrorists persisted until 2016, when an inquiry finally revealed the truth. The result was a long overdue apology by Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron. An excellent video in the Museum shows the huge emotional impact that historic apology had on the people of Derry. Sadly, the guilty soldiers still have not been brought to justice.

While on the Black Cab tour in Belfast, our driver showed us the size of rubber bullets that were used for crowd control. These were fired on Bloody Sunday, and contributed to the injuries many protestors suffered. Can you imagine being hit by one of these?

We couldn’t leave Derry without touring its city walls, and learning about its history, most of which I promptly forgot. Of course, the wall had the requisite cannons, strategically interspersed.

Our border crossing into the Republic of Ireland was seamless. No check points, no guards, no showing of passports, just a change of currency, back to the Euro. Ireland has sworn that it will never have a border dividing it again. Boris Johnson declared the Irish Sea will be the border, but many wonder exactly how that will work post Brexit. No one quite knows.

And now for a little perspective: the population of Northern Ireland is a wee bit under 2 million. The population of The Republic of Ireland is almost 5 million. Compare that to the population on NYC, which is over 8 million, and you can understand why much of this glorious island is comprised of rolling green hills and picturesque landscapes, perfect for raising sheep.

Typical view from my bus window.

Which brings me to the next subject: the Irish Diaspora. We all know that millions of Irish left during the potato famine, but I never knew that many lost their homes when they were evicted.

This beautiful castle was built by John Adair, who evicted 244 of his Irish tenants because he thought raising sheep would be more profitable than allowing his tenants to continue farming. By the way, the Irish became tenants on their own land, after Oliver Cromwell conquered them, and seized their property so he could use the land as payment to his soldiers.

Adair was the first of three owners of Glenveagh. The third, Henry McIlhenny, was an Irish American. His grandfather, John McIlhenny settled in Philadelphia, where he became very wealthy from his invention—the coin operated gas meter. Henry was an art aficionado, who donated his family’s extensive collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His generosity extended to Ireland, when he donated the castle and its gardens as a gift to the nation. It is now a national park.

Touring the grounds of Glenveagh with a naturalist, who demonstrated the depth of the bogs, and explained why the people sacrificed in the bogs were so well preserved.

I had originally planned to write a bit about Donegal, but that will have to wait for a future post, because I have run out of time.