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Being in Sicilia (01/10/08-08/10/08)

This one will hopefully not be too long. I know the tomes of old were massive and only covered a long weekend and this was a week’s holiday but a lot of activity can be summed up so hopefully this is a less arduous read!

So, Sicilia! We (Edwin, Mark and I) flew out on Wednesday 1 October. We had to get up at 3am to get to the airport for a 6am flight. Understandably we were pretty shattered that afternoon. We landed at just after 10am to bright blue skies and rugged mountains practically standing up straight out of the sea. They are rocky and fairly barren mountains so cast a very striking view as you fly in. The airport is an hour train ride to the city. We discovered most of this time is taken up in being stopped at a station. We finally got into Palermo central at around noon and quickly found our hotel. Right outside the station is the highly Italian copper statue of Vittorio Emmanuel II on his horse and he faced straight down the Main Street which was where our hotel was located – all extremely straight forward. We went for a wander to get our bearings and found the streets are absolutely manic. All over Sicily shops shut around 1pm and don’t open again until after 4pm so it’s really busy on the paths until 1 and then the roads fill up with cars while everyone leaves work. There’s a traffic jam until around 5pm and then the streets are full of pedestrians once again. Madness!

Our wanderings eventually took us down to the water front on the first evening. There was a jogging track and places for people to gather as well as a wonderful view out to sea. It was very peaceful and picturesque.

For the next 2 days that we were in Palermo we got a ticket on the City Sightseeing bus tour. We wandered to our chosen bus stop to see some of the city on foot and then hopped on the bus (feeling mighty relieved and a lot safer) to see the city from the top deck. It’s an odd and old city. A lot of its buildings are extremely dilapidated and in various and advanced stages of disrepair but there is some stunning architecture. There are several street markets, most of which sell seafood and fruit/vege but a couple which sell clothes and so on. The main cross roads are called the Quarto Canti – the four corners. The buildings that face onto the intersection have 4 statues of Spanish kings, 4 of saints and lots of cherubs spread around the four facades. From here the roads run up to the mountains or down to the port.

We did the full tour on the red circuit twice on the Thursday as we had hopped on at the train station and missed a chunk of the talk while we got settled. This was quite good because the Italians are quite laid back about when they play the talks and sometimes you are half a street ahead or behind the narrative and have no idea what they are talking about! We did get to see a lot of the different influences from Spanish to French to Italian to Arabic on this tour. We also got to see a lot of mad moped-ists and motorcyclists as well!

The blue tour took us a little bit further out of the city centre and at its furthest we went past a former mosque and old Arabic centre. Most of the buildings are gone but those left are stunning to see. Along this route we also past a rotunda that had been given to the city by a resident who decided he didn’t want anyone building in front of his home so he’d give the city something to occupy the space rather than having housing developed there! Genius!

We dined both nights at a little restaurant just down the road from our hotel. The waiter was very good – telling us ‘in confidence’ what was freshest on the menu and what to try each night. I had swordfish on the first night which was very good. We also tried cassata which is a cake filled with a Sicilian ricotta cream. Tasty!

The Sicilians go in for a lot of sweet foods. At breakfast there were ricotta and jam filled croissants (they called them brioche) and tarts and pastries as well as the continental deli meats and cheese and rolls. We did very well for breakfast at both our hotel and B&B to say the least.

We went to Balestrate on the Friday afternoon. We had thought to spend the whole week there but couldn’t book into our B&B for the first two nights – hence staying in Palermo. I will say the places were chalk and cheese to each other. Where, in Palermo, it was chaos with busy streets and people everywhere and having to hang onto your bag, in Balestrate it was much more laid back. In Palermo a girl in our hotel was mugged our first night there. In Balestrate we didn’t ever feel that was a problem. We arrived in the town at 4pm and found our B&B really easily, despite forgetting to print out the map. Casa Ruffino was lovely. It has been in the Ruffino family for at least 3 generations and our host Giuseppe has set it up perfectly as a B&B (see the website: http://www.casaruffino.it/GB/home.html and click on the icons below the main pictures for more photos. We stayed in the room called Regina).

As we arrived during the siesta time the town was deserted. It was a bit weird after the hustle and bustle of Palermo. Anyway Giuseppe arrived to show us our room and he didn’t speak very much English. He said something to us about 10 minutes and going out so we nodded and thought ‘oh he’s going out. Well that’s fine’. We spent 15 minutes unpacking and then went to have a look at the main part of the house to find Giuseppe waiting for us and ushering us to his car. He took us along the coast to Castellamare which is a superb fishing village with a gorgeous port lined with restaurants and a Castile at the end of the port. It was all sloping alleyways and one way lanes. Giuseppe drove us further around the coast to get a photo of the town from the mountain side which was fabulous. On the way out of town we stopped at a café and Giuseppe bought Mark and me a coffee each and Mark a brioche bun stuffed (STUFFED) with gelato! Astounding!

Breakfasts were equally as interesting. Our first morning, we were the only people in the B&B and got the full force of Giuseppe’s generous hospitality. He showed us every plate on the table and insisted we try something from every plate, forking ricotta and jam onto our bread and giving us pastries to try and so on. Given we barely spoke each other’s language it was a bit of an uphill battle to understand what each other was saying and sometimes Mark was thinking Giuseppe’s saying one thing, I’m thinking he saying something different and Giuseppe’s actually saying something else altogether! The rest of the mornings there were several other couples there too, some who spoke Italian and some who didn’t but it spread the focus a bit and in the end was quite funny. For the most part we did well to make each other understood and we did try some wonderful food in the loveliest dining room! Including Guiseppes homegrown vege like tomatoes and radishes which were so good! Well worth the small effort of misundertsnaind each others languages!

Saturday we took the train to Trapani hoping to be able to get up the hill to Erice (ear-ee-chee) which is a town on the top of a mountain that looks like a rocky outcrop from sea level looking up! It was the only day it rained but it rained twice. For half and hour as we ate breakfast and for 15 minutes when we were looking for somewhere to have a late lunch! But it was quite windy so the Funivia or funicular (they translate it as cable car but it’s more like a gondola) that runs from Trapani up the mountain to Erice wasn’t operating. We had a wander around Trapani all the time thinking we must have missed the touristy area but absolutely at a loss to find it, before heading back to Castellamare for a bit of an explore. The country side on the western side of the island is mountainous for the most part and looks quite barren but smattered with vineyards and olive groves and wind turbines! And everywhere you look there are derelict houses! Oddly the homes look a bit dilapidated but the olive groves are neat as a pin! We had a great look around Castellamare having a look at the museum display in the Castile (all about the films made in Castellamare, of which Oceans 12 is one, and the tuna fishing and local festivals) and wandering until the heavens opened and we had to find a café toot sweet. We had a great lunch in a wine bar in a little alley leading to the port. After ordering Salsice Arrostto and pommes frittes I realised I had asked for something that really wasn’t at all traditional – sausages and chips. Mark had a pizza though so the side wasn’t completely let down.

Back in Balestrate we discovered Saturday night is a Massive night out in the town – everyone goes out for dinner. We were fortunate to have stopped at the main restaurant briefly (some hours after lunch mind) just for a snack and within 20 minutes (about 8pm) the place was full and there was a queue out the door! The main square (fronted by a very Greek looking church) was heaving with people too and every eating place – take away, low cost or restaurant was absolutely packed! It was great for people-watching.

Sunday we had decided to spend the day on the beach and had a picnic lunch ready and fingers crossed it was going to stay fine for the afternoon. And it was! We spent almost the whole day on the beach with several other touristy couples (only foreigners would be mad enough to be swimming when it’s only 25 degrees!) It was superb. We also decided what to do with our last two full days and to hire a car and go and see Erice properly and perhaps visit Agrigento. When we got back to the B&B Giuseppe said something to us about food and his wife and 6.30pm and we had no idea what he meant. It dawned on us that as it was Sunday perhaps none of the restaurants/cafes opened and maybe his wife was going to bring some food to the B&B so we nodded and said ‘yes thank you’ as you do and at 6.30 found ourselves being hustled once again in to his car (which he assured us now was ‘good, it’s ok’) and being taken to Trapani and Erice before dinner in Bogania on the other side of the mountain. Giuseppe and Paola, his wife, were brilliant. She spoke even less English, but a little French so we couldn’t really chat but she was very patient. They took us to Segesta to see the ancient Greecian temple on the hill – which just appears out of nowhere. It was excellent. They took us to a hill opposite where there is a lookout to take photos and enjoy the view and pointed out the ‘zone archaeologica’ and everything too! Then it was on to the castle on Erice's highest point. The drive up just went on and on and on – you just go up so, so high! It must have taken 30 minutes of winding up along the roads. At the end of it Giuseppe pulled up at a car park and told us to go for a wander up the path to the castle before driving us through some of the bigger streets (not that big) for a café (more coffee) and then down the mountain again to the town of Bogania for dinner at a wonderful restaurant where they knew the owner and waitress (who spoke English- fab). It was a lovely night if a little hard work. We had a traditional dinner of cous cous and fish broth as well as Busiata pasta and seafood. Fabulous. Finished off with a lemon sorbet with vodka in it. Then we went into Trapani for another coffee and Giuseppe proved there was a tourist area and I have no idea if it was close to where we were or not but it was exactly what we had been looking for! A lovely finish to the evening though. And we made it safely back to the B&B with no more breakdowns!

Monday we asked Giuseppe where the ticket office was for the train (having been unable to buy advance tickets at the train station) to go to the airport. He said he’d show us and once again we were in Giuseppe’s car. He took us about 5 minutes walk down the road and we were a bit confused as to why he didn’t just point it out until he said ‘café’ and off we went, once again. This time to the next village along to the east for supposedly the ‘best coffee’. And it was quite good. However things like this don’t bode well for Giuseppe and this trip was no different. On the way back an old chap backed into Giuseppe’s car so we had to wait while the Carabinierre were called and so on, missing the train to collect our hire car in the process. This wasn’t all bad news though. Giuseppe was very good and drove us the 15 minutes to the airport (which would have taken an hour on the train) and wished us well with our car (a rocking little fiat panda) and we did get to see Italians at their emotive best with the two chaps arguing over whose fault it was and the older chaps wife trying to calm things down. Giuseppe was extremely measured but the old chap just lost the plot! Street side entertainment, Sicilian style!

Having obtained our lovely little fiat panda we headed for Agrigento to see the Valle De Templi (Valley of Temples) which was astounding. The drive took just over 2 hours and took us through this lovely and changing landscape. Giuseppe had told us the roads to take (that was an easy conversation because all the direction points were in Italian) and it was extremely straight forward (well, Mark did all the driving). We passed some astounding places where you could see canyons in the mountains and big alluvial valleys with towns on the hill sides and more cut out of the mountain sides. I also noticed these odd little walled villages where the houses were packed together and looked really tiny and had crosses on the rooftops and so on which Mark calmly informed me were the cemeteries. This was made more odd by the fact some of the doors had glass in them. I still haven’t figured out why. Siculiana was the biggest one and was also a cool looking little town right before Agrigento that sat on the far side of a hill absolutely covered in the ruins of either a big farm settlement or an older town. I have quite a few photos from this drive!

The Valle was excellent. We bought our tickets and went up to the first temple on the map via the olive grove beside the main pathway up and discovered lizards and crickets the size of your hand (yuck…ok not that big but still yuck!) I have to admit to never having seen olives actually growing on the trees until now. Its slightly odd having spent so much time wandering the olive grove of One Tree Hill in Auckland…for the non-Aucklanders reading this the grove is sterile for some fully explicable reason not realised when the original owner planted them c100 years ago. However, it was strange to see the trees with olives in situ but nice all the same. The temples were awesome and the view down to the beach front was great. We could see quite a lot of the site which included a great deal of archaeology and ports and town gates and so on. We got to explore in Juno's temple too which was great. We saw one of the lighting cables on a rock shifting and then realised it was a black snake! I can admit to walking promptly in the other direction.

The site is split in half by the road so we explored the top site first before heading down to the next site and seeing a great big toppled statue of a man in the middle of it all. It was extremely good fun to wander around and speculate what the various areas were and what bits of the rubble went where. A superb visit!

Tuesday we decided to go and see Erice in the day time. We stopped on the way to visit Segesta for a better look around and found the whole area used to be a city and had been occupied for several hundred years by various groups including Greeks, Romans, and Arabs/Muslims and had medieval occupation too. We took the bus to the top of the hill first and explored the archaeological excavations and restorations (and discovered dozens of little lizards everywhere) and the Teatro Greco which is nearly fully restored, before heading down the mountainside to the Temple. It was brilliant because we could wander right through the temple and explore the area all around it. We thought we’d spend maybe 1 hour on the site before heading on and found we spent nearly 3 hours looking around!

After such a long stop we had to hot foot it to Erice. We had a superb day with brilliant blue skies overhead and really got to enjoy the landscape. From the low land near Trapani we headed up, up, up the mountainside once again. From even half way up the view was stunning. There are lots and lots of abandoned farm houses all the way up the mountain side – I counted 12 near the top alone – and plenty of ‘sheer drops’ from the road side. Mark had a ball but I suspect (probably from him muttering fairly loudly) that he would have really enjoyed driving up the mountainside in a Ferrari more than the fiat panda.

At the top we parked up and headed to the Castle for more photos passing a classic car rally parked on the side of the road which was entertaining all in itself. We then wandered through the loveliest garden and into the main town. We had finally found souvenir central and Mark got dragged into a dozen little shops selling the same aprons, tea towels and boxer shorts (featuring the classic anatomy of Michelangelo’s ‘the David’). We managed to pass possibly a dozen Saga coach loads (retired people living it up and having a ball) by turning down interesting looking narrow alleys and had a good look around. It’s a really lovely little town and is very well set up for the tourist trade it gets but the beach called and it was time to get back to Balestrate for one last dip!

After a lovely couple of hours back at the beach we settled in for our last night anticipating the adventure of getting from Casa Ruffino to the airport in one piece. Giuseppe, true to form, met us the next morning and offered to take us somewhere for ‘café’. Finally, after a week with the straight forward Italian example we dropped the polite English demurring and went for a straight out ‘no’ explaining we had to get to the airport. Lord knows what would have happened if we had said yes! We did have a good time and I was very sorry to leave the glorious blue seas and skies behind but it was nice to get home!

Travelling Mc (still travelling)

Posted by TravelMc 09:23 Archived in Italy

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