A tour guide's personal experiences in Italy
Ciao a tutti!
This past April I spent several glorious days in Tuscany with the witty and wonderful people on my Tastes and Traditions of Tuscany tour. For ten days we ate foods fit for the gods and tasted the exquisite wines of Montalcino (Bunello), Montepulciano (Vino Nobile), and Chianti (Chianti classic). When the last glass was emptied and the final crostini ingested, I hopped aboard the train heading south along the Tyrrhenian Sea toward Sicily.
I was traveling to Sicily to do some scouting to make final decisions for my September tour. My goal was to preview new accommodations, meet some of the people I would be working with during the tour and get a better understanding of the public transportation situation throughout the island.
My first stop was Palermo where I met Vittoria and Francesco at their medieval palazzo, Torre dei Frederico. My “room” was an entire apartment furnished with elegant 18th and 19th century pieces and the tile-paved lobby was complete with palm trees and a vintage racecar. When I was too tired to go out to dinner after I arrived and was going to settle for a glass of wine and bed, my hosts insisted I select slices of torta from their kitchen to take to my room. Vittoria is a quintessential Italian businesswoman, big hearted but a strict taskmaster to her staff. The breakfasts were served family style in the formal dining room and I enjoyed chatting with travelers from a variety of countries. Vittoria is really looking forward to meeting our group in September.
While in Palermo I met with the accomplished guide and author, Jacqueline Alio, who will lead our group through the streets of her city and educate us about its complicated history. She was born in California to Sicilian parents and the whole family returned to Palermo permanently in 1985. She has seen many changes during the last 30 years, the most significant being the diminished influence in Sicily of the Mafioso. She says the whole personality and spirit of her city has changed for the better. Bravo!
From Palermo I took the bus to Sciacca, a historic seaport on the southern coast, appealing to very few tourists, Sciacca is known for its ceramics, thermal baths and the panoramic piazza Scandaliato. The charm of the bright, ceramic tile covered façade of the B&B I had booked turned into a dull and lackluster interior but my room had a tiny balcony with a nice view of the picturesque lane outside. I have never been comfortable eating alone in restaurants but this night I found a neighborhood trattoria down a narrow viale and was treated to a tasty meal served by the very gracious owner who made me feel welcome and comfortable.
Boarding another public bus I headed for Agrigento. The B & B where I stayed is owned and run by Francesco, who is assisted by his well cared-for cats. He has turned the building once owned by his ancestors into the most charming and beautiful place I think I have ever rested my travel weary self. There are three or more terraces overlooking the temples and the sea all dripping with gorgeous, colorful geraniums, palms and cacti. Inside, the furnishings have been tastefully chosen and under ones’ feet are lovely blue, white and yellow tiles. A cherry on the top of this delicious lodging is a baby grand piano often played by Francesco himself. I can’t wait for my group to have the experience of staying here while we explore the Valley of the Temples and the streets of this medieval town.
The journey to the next town, Ragusa was somewhat difficult. In southeast Sicily there are numerous bus companies, each with its own geographical service area. A rider must transfer at least once to reach most destinations. This coupled with limited or no service on weekends and confusing information about where, when and how to find the correct bus or buy tickets, can make for a frustrating and challenging journey. Knowing the language was a big help and eventually I was able to find my way after a few quirky experiences but it is not the best or most efficient method to see this part of Sicily. We will have a rental vehicle at this point in the tour.
Ragusa was one of the towns destroyed by the earthquake in 1693 that devastated southeastern Sicily. Many of these towns were rebuilt on “safer” ground in the then modern architectural style of Sicilian Baroque. When the city fathers chose a new location to rebuild the town of Ragusa, many of the residents of the first location balked and rebuilt their town in the original place. The result was two towns with the same name less than a kilometer apart connected by a long, steep staircase. Today the city has been combined into one municipality with the two sections given the names of Ragusa Ibla and Ragusa Superiore. My B&B was very basic and my room was in the attic with a tiny balcony and no view. Manuele, was a gracious host and more than made up for the disappointing accommodations when he volunteered to leave a thermos of hot espresso coffee and another of hot milk by my door before he went to bed so I would have coffee ready to drink first thing in the morning. He also offered to drive me to the bus terminal in his car when I was departing so I would not have to walk the considerable distance. Grazie Manuele. (FYI: Ragusa today owes some of its renewed vitality as the location of the filming of the Italian TV series featuring Commissario Montalbano.)
My last stop in Sicily for this trip was the upscale but charming town of Taormina, high above the Mediterranean Sea and in the shadow of Mt Etna. I revisited the beautiful Greek theater and meandered the narrow streets filled with shops and restaurants. The next day it was time to leave Sicily and head back north to Rome and then home. The taxi driver who took me to the train station told me it was the very same station used in the filming of the movie, “The Godfather.” I have to say it was the most picturesque station I have ever seen, situated by the sea and full of 19th century charm.
Of course a cheap and much faster method to reach Rome would have been a short flight from the Catania airport but I love to ride on trains and this route along the sea is especially appealing to me. The train cars that make the trip between Sicily and the mainland of Italy are actually loaded onto a ferry for the crossing of the Straits of Messina. On my trip to the island this loading took at least two hours! Thankfully, for the return trip the loading was swift and we were across and on our way north in no time.
After a night in Rome I was on my return flight and on another ferry to my home on Vashon Island, reminiscing about my experiences on that other island an ocean away and looking forward to sharing its beauty and diversity to my tour group in just a few months.