Sicily for Easter week with friends

Another trip report so skip if you’re not interested.
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Palermo April 2019
Off to Palermo with Susan and Gary. Took the early morning flight from Perugia to Catania. Only a bit over an hour flight. Ryan Air was efficient as usual, if not the most comfortable. I had plenty of room in my seat. I had, unfortunately caught a cold which I came down with just the night before we left. Slept little because of the coughing.

We landed at about 11am and took a taxi into Catania. We had until 3:30 to catch our train. Along the way, on the roadsides, were vegetable stands with bright red strawberries among the mix, and every one had a grill, grilling meat. A slice of Catanian life. I had chosen a restaurant using TripAdvisor and we got the taxi to drop us there, even though it was too early to eat. A man was standing in the doorway and we made a reservation for lunch and he kindly kept our suitcases for us.

Catania is exactly what you think of when you think Sicily and teeming cities. Not that it was bad, but it was all, narrow streets with balconies rising 5 stories. Some with laundry, some with large barking dogs. Much ornate iron work and many very run down buildings. Narrow streets full of cars with honking horns. You had to watch your step, not only because of the rough, uneven surfaces but because there are more dogs than I’ve ever seen. You can imagine the mess!

A side street.

The Duomo down at the end.

It was Palm Sunday. Everywhere stands selling woven palm leaves. You are supposed to buy one and keep it in your house for a year for good fortune. We set off on foot and went through a large gate. At the end of the street stood an imposing dome. We decided it was as good a destination as any. Turned out to take us to the main square. Huge Duomo. We went in the church and they were having Mass. We watched a bit and left. Outside, it was noon, and one of the biggest, deepest bells I’ve ever heard began it’s slow tolling. Soon it was joined but many smaller bells. Beautiful. I love bells.

Woven palms. You are supposed to buy them and keep them all year for good fortune.

In the main square. One of the churches.

We wandered the squares around the area with schools, universities, and government buildings. We sat and had a glass of wine where we watched boy scouts and girl scouts try to sell their palms to the Carbinieri with no success.

We walked back to Ai Due Corni. It filled with Catanians having their Palm Sunday lunch. Good we reserved! There was, unfortunately a lot of horse meat there. Even a horse meat butcher just beside it. I don’t eat one of my favorite animals. But we had a good meal. Right away we had five plates of assorted antipasti. A spicy eggplant, a layered dish with roasted peppers, little sausage filled pastries, and others I don’t remember. We had two pitchers of red wine and a bottle of water. Then we ordered secondi. 3 got the calamari, one the grilled fish plate. After lunch Susan and Gary indulged in the famous canolli. I need to do this but I had the fresh strawberries. Luther had a amaro. Lovely lunch surrounded with Catanian families. And the bill? €65 euro. For all of that!

We got a taxi and went to the railway station. All the taxi drivers have been nice. We got our slow boat train. Took 3 long hours across the beautiful Sicilian center. Arriving in Palermo about 6:30 we caught a taxi to our apartment hotel. We had two one bedroom apartments in the oldest part of the city. I felt so bad by this point I was longing for medicine and bed. I barely took stock of my surroundings. Luther went for breakfast stuff and wine and snacks for his dinner.

This dog was a terror! Susan said she’d shoot herself if she lived near them.

Watching.

Some of the Easter sweets along the way.

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Monday
During the night we had terrible storms. Very high winds which woke us because the shutters on the outside were banging. Thunderstorms later. I had taken the Italian equivalent of NyQuil which did help me sleep better. But still not great. There was a 9am walking tour of Palermo booked but I felt I needed to continue to rest and I didn’t need to be walking around in the rain. So I did not go. But while they were gone the sun came out intermittently.

They returned at about 1:30. Much later than the expected 12 o’clock tour ending time. I was dressed and ready to go. We walked down the street to an open restaurant. They had grills set up outside and were roasting fish and steaming shellfish. What’s not to like. It was an excellent feed. No menu(or prices) brought a big bowl of assorted shellfish — mussels, claims, winkles, razor clams. And a plate of overcooked octopus. After that they brought a big platter with mixed grilled seafood. Whole, individually sized orate, swordfish, big prawns, cuttlefish. All quite good. Except the overcooked cuttlefish. At the end they brought lemoncello, grappa, amarro. It was good but not worth the €140 they charged for the 4 of us. Since there’s no menu there’s no price you can point to. I enjoyed myself so I didn’t mind so much. But I’m sure the locals wouldn’t pay that much.

That said, there were no locals in the place. A big table of mostly Americans that were a tour group. Extremely loud. One woman had an ear piercing voice. Her laugh was worse. And put all together we could hardly hear ourselves over them. We stopped them on their way out and found most were from Colorado. Then another couple came over. She was from New Zealand and he was Italian. They live in Abruzzo, our next door province. Nice folks.

During lunch I heard all about the tour I missed at lunch. They walked miles, with lots of steps. I could have done it but not while sick. They enjoyed it. Apparently the tour guide is a very opinionated 55 year old native of Palermo.

After that we walked to find a farmacia but it was closed. As luck would have it they arrived to re-open as we were deciding what to do. We asked for medicine for my cough and cold. Which I now have so we will see if it helps.
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Didn’t help. Ah well. I brought some things from home so will use them. We stayed in tonight. Sad news on TV about Notre Dame burning. Big loss.

Tuesday
Tour today of the 18th Century Villas of the Piana del Colli. We were met by our guide Iolanda. We took a taxi out of the main city. The place we visited is were the king and the very rich would go in summer. First place we saw was the Palazzina Cinese. Where King Ferdinando of Bourbon lived during his exil in Palermo. Strange place. Had fake Chinese gates and even fake Chinese characters painted on its walls. Inside was a huge mish-mash. One room would be Chinese, one Grecian, the next, Arabic. The queens quarters were upstairs just above the guards quarters. Handsome men at the ready to service the queen 🙂 but, from her picture she was no beauty. But duty calls! The kings bath was on the bottom floor with a handy door next to the bath where the current mistress could escape when the queen put in an appearance. But the couple still managed to have 16 children 😳.

Next we visited Villa Niscemi which belonged to the Valguarnerano Princes who inspired Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa for his characters described in the Leopard. It is set in pretty gardens with ponds full of ducks as they were thought to be good luck. The Villa is used even now to greet dignitaries who visit Palermo. Beautiful place.

Palazzina Cinese. Basement door, which I thought pretty.

Palazzina Cinese. Interior decorations.

It wasn’t really 3-D but sure was a trick-the-eye painting.

Loved these dragons. In every corner of the ceiling.

Another ceiling.

Wooden inlay doors.

Marble spiral staircase.

The kings bath. We were told the door was for his mistress to get away if the Queen was coming.

Villa Niscemi

After we returned we went just across the street from our apartment to l’Ottava Nota. Very good Michelin rated place. We had a lovely lunch. Mine was puréed fava beans with tiny crispy squid and for a secondi, scallops in a very complicated construction to include a fried artichoke which was hard to eat, a few blueberries, lingonberries, and many other things I can’t remember. The scallops were good, the rest, not so much.

It was a pretty restaurant.

We returned to rest up and nap. At six I decided I could go out with Susan and Gary to find the bar with a view we were told about by our tour guide. She must’ve gotten it wrong as we found nothing. We did stop at another place for aperol spritzes. Luther was still ailing (as was I) so he stayed in.

Wednesday
This was our street food tour day. It was my choice. It was an excellent tour. We were joined by 7 other people. Two Australians, a single woman meeting up with her mom, and an American family who live in Barcelona. Our guide, Liviana, was young and friendly and enthusiastic. I told one of my fellow tourers it felt like a friend was showing us around. We walked and tasted a variety of things, some of which I couldn’t eat. First thing was veal gristle and leavings from the abattoir floor, all organs and parts. It was fried in oil and served on its own or in a panino. My stomach just couldn’t do that today.

Then we went to a wonderful ice fruit drinks place. They had oranges, lemons and pomegranates which you could get over ice in any combination. They squeezed them to order. Refreshing.

Then we sat at a table and tried three things. A chickpea flour patty breaded and fried, a little log of mashed potato breaded and fried. It had caraway. Last was an arancina (I think that’s right) which is rice formed into a ball around a bit of sausage and…you guessed it, breaded and fried! They were all good. The arancina was seasoned with saffron which is abundant here.

Chickpea fritters

Mashed potato roll, reminded me of my Moms potato cakes.

Arancina

Inside arancina

We walked through the market with all the vegetables. Some I didn’t recognize, like this one. If you know, do tell.

Ugly lemons, but I’m sure they are good.

Tiny wild strawberries.

Foraged, wild asparagus.

We left there and went to buy bread and cheese and Sicilian olives which we carried to Taverna ta Azzurra. A real hole in the wall where we spread out the noshes we’d bought and had some local wine. It was sweet wine. I was unfamiliar with it, it was reminiscent of a sherry.

We headed down the street and stopped at a stand where a man was making another odd dish. Spleen which he served alone or in rolls. I didn’t try it. Most people did, some even liked it.

Finally we stopped at a great gelato place. Super and unusual flavors. I chose cinnamon and jasmine. The jasmine is only this time of year and you won’t find it many places. The weird thing is they served it on a brioche. He sliced the brioche and put the scoops on it and topped it with whipped cream if you wanted, and stuck the end of a cone on top! Well, it just seemed a bit much for me so I opted for mine in a cup.

Some pictures along the way. Street band. They were good!

Starbucks knockoff.

A building that may have been beautiful once.

Street Jesus.

Street art.

We walked back home. It was fun but I am still poorly so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have.

Thursday
Today, we visited Monreale the famous cathedral here with the largest mosaics in the world. 6,400 square meters! Much of it gold. It is incredible. The cathedral was begun in 1,174. So that puts it built at the same time as Notre Dame. We arrived on Giovedi Sante (Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday) and there was a mass going on. We stayed on the sides and listened to the beautiful music and the homily. The bishop spoke about the similar ages of the two cathedrals and the terrible loss to the French people and said his heart ached for them. This church’s ceilings are all wood too. A huge hazard over time I’m sure. But it made being there very poignant looking at the beautiful mosaics glowing all around and appreciating that they are there and safe, for now. Very moving.

I loved when the service was over and people were leaving. The organist could pull out all the stops (pun intended) in the recessional. He blew my socks off with a fugue of magnificent proportions. Wonderfully discordant, swelling to fill the huge space. It is an amazing organ played by a maestro. Built by the Rufatti firm of Padua between 1957 and 1967, it is the sole European organ with six keyboards with 61 keys each; 10 thousand pipes in wood and metal subdivided in three sounding bodies; the console is, among those which are movable, the largest in the world; and there some 400 commands, or stops. In 2015 the chancel was hit by lightening which knocked out the organ. It took two years to repair. Happily it is fine now and I loved hearing it.

OK here come the pictures. So, so beautiful. I couldn’t decide so there are quite a few.

Organ. Just one half. The other half is opposite.

The mosaics in the church are breathtaking. Be sure to click for a better look.

This is the Nave.

The ceiling is wood.

Much of the walls are Bible stories.

The following are some of the carved tops to the columns in the Cloister. They are all different and very intricate.

The cloister columns are also all different.

Fountain in Cloister

The day was the best yet. Beautiful blue sky, slight breezes, perfect temperature. We had a great cab driver. Very garrulous. And opinionated like they all seem to be. Susan gets them started and they are off and running.

View from Monreale of Palermo.

Friday
The death march. It is an arduous journey. We had to kill time until 1:30 before boarding the very uncomfortable, two car train. We knew what we were up against after our journey here. And we wanted regular seats. We had gone to Track 7 as advertised and at the last minute they said track change to 10. We were fartherest away and were outrun by all the teenagers and 20 somethings. We all managed to find a seat, if not the best seat. After 1.5 hours a lot of people got off so we had a bit more room. It is a long, boring ride.

Arrived in Catania at 4:30. Took a taxi to the airport. It was a little weird. There were probably ten taxis out front of the station. The person allocating the taxis talked to some, who apparently rejected us. The most ratty taxi possible was available. It was a real rattletrap. But the driver knew the roads. And when he saw a backup he veered off and we went through some very sketchy neighborhoods, and what smelled like the main fish market. Flying down these tiny twisty streets with people BBQing along the edges. It was wild. Our driver was silent until he hit a final traffic jam and got very animated. I think he had had a choice of two ways and opted for this one…and wished he’d gone the other way. It was amusing. We all shook hands with our toothless driver, who was very competent.

We checked in and did security and found a table at the only food place there. Had wine and we all, over time, had food. Then we boarded and flew the little over an hour to Perugia. Finally down to the last leg. The drive home. We fetched Lucca the wonderdog, Susan and Gary’s pup and headed to Umbertide. It was Good Friday, just after ten. The collegiata was lit up so pretty. There were candles burning in all the shop windows and doorways. We walked towards our apartment. There were lots of folks in front of Bar Mary. As we turned the corner to our street we were confronted by the Good Friday procession. Respectfully we waited for the priests, candle bearers, the dead Jesus statue, the mourning Mary, upright on her platform, all followed by the band and all the towns people. Finally able to get to our door we were home!

It was a tough trip for me. Towards the end it was much better. I won’t do best and worst. We liked our apartments and the location. Butera 28 Apartments. And the restaurant l’Ottava Nota was very good. We did enjoy sitting at a nearby bar in the evenings. A good trip, overall.

4 thoughts on “Sicily for Easter week with friends

  1. Nancy Hampton Post author

    We had visited Monreale on our last trip to Sicily. It is so beautiful I could visit again and again.

  2. Nancy Hampton Post author

    Hi Sharon, thanks for the info! Had no idea. You probably know how to use it too.
    The train we went on went through the dead center of the island. Enna and some other towns I didn’t recognize. Beautiful, if stark, scenery.

  3. Sharon Barresi Duncan

    Plant is ..greens of the long zucchini. Plus your train ride took you through my town…if you took the Catania, Messina, Palermo route.

  4. Carlo Rodriguez

    I’m glad you went to Monreale. We thought it was one of the most beautiful of the structures we visited in Sicily. We also had a good first meal (lunch/pranzo) after arriving in Sicily at Taverna del Pavone (Vicolo Pensato 18) across the piazza Vitorio Emanuelle and down Via Roma a block.

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