Sunday, 30 September 2012

Travel problems resolved.

On Thursday our intention was to have breakfast and as soon as possible after that go and spend the day at Cefalú, about an hour away from Palermo on the train. However, as we were due to fly back to the UK on Friday, we had a few things we wanted to clarify with our hosts at the B & B Porta di Castro. 

 We wanted them to book us a table once again at the restaurant Al Vicolo, just a short walk through the back streets behind the B & B. More importantly, we needed to make sure that on Friday morning we got to the airport in time. Our plan was to ask Massimo or Alessandro, whichever we got to talk to, to book us a taxi to take us to the Stazione Centrale where we could catch an airport bus. 

Massimo, however, threw up his hands in amazement. A taxi? Why would we want to do that? Why not take the metro? This was the first we had heard of a metro. Neither of our guide books seemed to be aware of its existence. And yet there was apparently a station about 10 minutes up the road, just past the gelateria, off to the left, not far from Piazza dell’Independenza. 

 So why had our guide books, both of them, said to catch the 109 bus from the Stazione Centrale? We could have caught the metro from there and walked down the road to the B & B on that hot Monday when we arrived. It would have been shorter and simpler than the route we took. Anyway, that was all in the past. 

Massimo assured us that there was a metro all the way to the airport and that Alessandro would get us tickets ready for the next day. Not only that but he would get up early to ensure that we could have breakfast before we set off. 

It sounded all right but we felt that we wanted to check it out a little for ourselves. We did some research on the Internet and found a timetable. What we couldn’t find on the Internet was a station called Orleans, which was what Massimo said its name was. So we decided that we would investigate the station anyway and try to use the metro to go to the Stazione Centrale to catch the train to Cefalú. 

And that’s what we did, but it was not as straight forward as it sounded. Ten minutes walk up the road we found a gelateria and a sign pointing down a long ramp to the station. Yes, there it was and there was what looked like a biglietteria – ticket office. Eventually a man appeared at the window but it turned out that he didn’t sell tickets, nothing so simple. Oh no, he told us, we had to go back up there (very vague) and find a shop near the gelateria, opposite the entrance to the station, where they sold tickets. Off we went in search of the ticket seller. Near the gelateria there was no other shop and the girl selling ice creams told us she had never understood how the system worked. Great! 

 We asked a passerby who directed us across the street, where there was still no sign of a biglietteria. So we asked again and were sent off to the kiosk where we had bought bus tickets for Monreale the day before. But they only sold bus tickets and sent us back towards the station. 

At the tat shop (oops, sorry, souvenir stall) outside the Palazzo Reale, they told us to go along the road to the right of the ramp to the station to find the relevant shop. Another person indicated that we should go along the road to the left. Finally a very patient young man pointed us in exactly the correct direction: to the right but then off to the left. There we would find a shop called Re Guglielmo, opposite the station entrance. 

 A little puzzled about the mention of a station entrance (had we not found that already?) we followed his instructions and found the Re Guglielmo shop. After buying our tickets we commented to the friendly ticket seller about how “difficile” it had been. She responded by telling us, “È Palermo. Tutto è difficile!” – “It’s Palermo. Everything is difficult!” 

Turning around we saw the railway station, the MAIN entrance, not the back entrance where we had been earlier. And the name of the station was “Palazzo Reale – Orleans”. No wonder we couldn’t find it on Google!!! Hot, cross, frustrated, we went and waited for the metro to the Stazione Centrale and travelled into town in style. 

There we discovered that it cost you 80 cents to spend a penny. Hmm! We were going off Palermo. However, we also found an information office where we clarified EXACTLY which line to travel on to get to the airport on Friday morning and we got EXACT times of trains and so on. 

That done, we bought tickets for Cefalú and went to the seaside for what remained of the day. 

At Cefalú the tourist office was just where the guide book said it was. However, it was not open all day as the book said. So, while we waited for it to open, we went and had an ice cream instead of lunch, before going back to get a map. And then the day got better. 

 First we visited the cathedral, another splendid 12th century building with wonderful Arabic-looking arches and even more wonderful mosaics. 


Behind the cathedral is a huge great cliff, called La Rocca. There is a path winding up the hillside, with great information notices every so far along. Half way up you come to a kind of official gateway to the park with its old fortifications and other ancient remains. 

Just beyond the gateway a tired-looking chap keeps count of how many people go in, asking only your nationality. As we went in he denied that this was so that he could be sure no-one was trapped on La Rocca over night but when we returned, and he had difficulty finding “two English” in his list, he admitted that if anyone was left behind after he locked up he would be in trouble. 

 The walk up La Rocca was truly worth the effort, although it was a little slippery on the ancient rock paths. The views of the coast, the cathedral, the town and the beach were most impressive. 


We were amused by the warning notices with their interesting translations. 

And we were rather disappointed that what looked like a circular path on the map given by the tourist office led in fact to a dead end, so that we had to retrace our footsteps and have further conversation with the tired looking gate keeper. 

But it was a good visit. We met a fellow resident of the B&B Porta di Castro at the railway station and travelled back with him, exchanging impressions of Sicily. 

 And finally we were back at the B&B in time for a shower and then off out to Al Vicolo for a final delicious meal: more fish and seafood with white wine. 

Then it was back to the B&B to pack and weigh our suitcases, ready to face Ryanair and the journey to London. 

Another adventure almost but not quite over.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Tuesday Night and Wednesday Morning ... and Afternoon ...

Last night’s restaurant, recommended by our host at the Hotel Porta di Castro, was called Al Vicolo. You could translate it as “In the Sidestreet” or, if you were unkind, “In the Alley”. It was tucked away in the corner of a square in the middle of very rundown bit of town, just round the corner from the ruined church, in a tangle of small streets with people sitting out on chairs in the streets and kids running around. In the daytime it looked like this.

We have been given numerous warnings about looking after your belongings in Palermo’s fair city, especially when out at night. Always wear your bag across your body to avoid bag-snatching; handbag carriers should be away from the pavement edge, for the same reason; make sure pockets are fastened if possible; it goes on and on. So we were just a tad paranoid about going out to eat at Al Vicolo. When we got there, the restaurant had spread across half the small square, the darkness hid the scruffiness and what lighting there was just made it all look so much more appealing.

We were greeted by Gianni who gave Phil a printed menu as if he would choose for both of us. I managed to get another copy, but I shouldn’t have bothered. After we persuaded Gianni to speak to us in Italian rather than English, he explained to us that this was more or less the winter menu and we should ignore it, as in any case it changed from one evening to the next according to what was available. He then gave us a mouth-watering description of what was on offer tonight. Later I heard him do the same explanation in French, English and Spanish, each time seemingly fluent and certainly fast.

 For 12€ you can choose 2 dishes from antipasti, primi piatti and secondi piatti. Drinks are extra but for two of us we paid a total of 31€; that’s 24€ for food, 2€ for mineral water, 1€ for coffee (only Phil had coffee) which meant that the perfectly acceptable house wine cost us 4€ and we had 2 mezzo litro jugs!!

The starters were excellent: a mix of caponato, chick pea fritters and I’m not sure what else for Phil and sardine balls in a sweet and sour sauce with onions for me.

We followed that with a mound of small fried fish and seafood for Phil and pasta with swordfish, shrimps, mullet and courgettes for me. Very good indeed. And we managed to get back to the hotel safely afterwards. 

This morning, more food: breakfast, which included coffee, pastries, cheese and ham toasties and a plate of fruit. No wonder we didn’t need any lunch. When we protested that we only wanted one toastie we were told, “Bisogna mangiare” – “You need to eat”.

Here is a small example of the decor in the foyer of our hotel. 

Towards the end of the morning we went out to catch the number 389 bus up the hill to Monreale. We remembered just in time that you need to buy your ticket before getting on the bus and validate it in a clicker machine as you get on. However, I am firmly convinced that most of those who got on the bus had no ticket to validate. When the bus opened its doors at a bus stop people piled on through ALL the doors; very few went past the validating machine. 

This seemed to be accepted as normal, although I understand that they could have been fined if an inspector had got on. Also, when I refer to this as a bus I use the term loosely. It was more like a sardine can on wheels, clearly going for the record on how many people you can squeeze into a bus. Coming home was much the same, except that this time we had seats, as we were among the first onto the bus. We should like to take issue with the guide books as well as they failed to point out that you catch the return bus at the same stop where you got off on the outward journey. There were rather a lot of confused tourists unsure where to catch the bus!!!
Our purpose in going to Monreale was to visit the cathedral there, built by King William II in competition with the Archbishop of Palermo, who was having the cathedral there built at the same time, end of the 12th century. William won and produced a fine cathedral.

Inside it is decorated with brilliant mosaics, almost certainly by Greek and Byzantine craftsmen. There are scenes from Bible stories all around the interior but high up on the wall, with the idea that it would make the people raise their eyes towards heaven and make them aspire to go there eventually. Here in the 21st century, I overheard one lady say that she had intended to bring her binoculars but had forgotten them. 
No need for binoculars. You can see Noah’s Ark very clearly.
You can also very clearly see the Arabic influence in the mosaic floors, the patterns on the walls and in the very arches that support the amazing roof.


The guidebook said it was worth visiting the town as well but it didn’t appeal to us immediately and it was far too hot to do much more than admire the classic cars parked in the square around the cathedral.

 And, of course, the wonderful panoramic view of greater Palermo.

 Then back to our hotel for a rest, before venturing out for another gastronomic adventure this evening.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Scruffy old town!!! But so much beauty!

Yesterday, Monday, was hot! Very hot!        

We took a final walk around Ortigia before going to the Siracusa bus terminal, a bleak and bare collection of bus stops, where even the Sicilians were complaining about the lack of shade and the heat, oh the heat! “C’è un caldo!!!!!” protested one lady waiting for the bus for Palermo along with us. 

Finally it arrived. Oh, the bliss of an air conditioned bus after a hot wait. And we were off. We saw  Mount Etna, gently steaming away. We passed parched-looking fields where, presumably, crops had been harvested. We watched briefly as the vigili di fuoco worked to extinguish a fire, started to burn off stubble, I think, but which had clearly got out of hand. 

And eventually we arrived at Palermo’s bus station, not much shadier than the so-called bus station of Siracusa. We had managed to buy a street plan of Palermo before leaving Siracusa and so we had an idea of our route from the bus / train station (the latter much grander than the bus station) to our hotel. Aiming for the shortest rather than the most picturesque route, we must have gone through some of the scruffiest, messiest bits of the town. 

Mind you, even “grander” parts that we have seen today are unbelievably untidy, litter-scattered and overgrown with weeds on steps and so on. 

We even went past what looked like the remains of a church. Now, the guidebook says that there are places still bearing the scars of bombing during World War II. Was this one of them? 

 It was so hot that our bottle of water, still reasonably cool as we got off the bus was positively hot by the time we were halfway to our accommodation. 

 Our B&B, however, is quite delightful. The ever so attentive owner had decided that as we are staying for four nights, he would move us from a room to an apartment, for the same price. So we have a bedroom, in fact a choice of two bedrooms, a sitting room/kitchen and a choice of bathrooms. 

The foyer of the hotel is decorated in a rather eccentric fashion – photos on the next post, probably – and the breakfast is quite wonderful.

Our host subjected us to information overload: places to go, what to see, where to eat, even offering to make a reservation for us at a local restaurant – you know, a local restaurant for local people! We have taken him up on that for tonight so reports will follow, probably tomorrow. 
 I looked out of our balcony on to this view of our rather narrow street this morning. Narrow it may be, but it serves for drivers to get on to a kind of rat-run just around the corner, avoiding some of the main streets. And the traffic is mad as mad can be!!! 

  Having said all of this, with a fair amount of negative stuff in there, today we have visited a few Palermitano jewels. Just around the corner and up the road we have the Palazzo Reale, also called the Palazzo dei Normanni. It’s very old. Down under the bottom floor they have found remains of old Phoenician-Roman walls. The Pallazzo dates from the 12th century and it has important bits and pieces of Italian / Sicilian history and culture all over. 
We bought our tickets and went in, finding ourselves ushered into a group with a guide. Now, we have spent almost a week being shown round places by the wonderfully patient Sabrina during our Commissario Montalbano tour. So when our guide in the appartamenti reali started to get a little stressed and told everyone off, asking people please to have the “cortesia” to listen to her, it was more than a little embarrassing. One man caught my eye, straightened his shoulders and gave me a little salute behind the poor lady’s back. 

 It was only when we got back home (to our hotel, I should say)  that I read in their leaflet that visits to the appartamenti reali can ONLY be done with a guide. I suspect that few if any of the other visitors had read that leaflet either. The leaflet also said that no photos were allowed. Just as well I hadn’t read that. Also, it’s just as well I managed to keep out or our guide’s line of sight. It would have been a pity to miss the photo opportunities, especially in la sala di Ruggero, King Roger II’s beautifully ornate room. 

 From the appartamenti reali we went on to the Capella Palatina, built for Ruggero II. Stunningly and beautifully ornate, it shows a good deal of Arabic influence. The mosaic floors alone are enough but then there are archways reminiscent of the Alhambra in Spain, but with more colour. 

And finally we went into the Sala Duca di Montalto where, according to one guide book, the ballroom scene of the film “Il Gattopardo” was filmed. There we discovered the paintings of Armodio on display: an exhibition worth visiting. 

 From there to the cathedral, dedicated, I believe, to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. So, no contest between Saint Peter and Saint George, at least not that we know of so far. However, we don’t have Sabrina to inform us as we did in Modica, Scicli, Ragusa and Noto. 

In the cathedral compound is a boat on wheels, the winning float from the feast of Santa Rita some time in July. 

From the outside the cathedral of Palermo is a thing of wonder, another mix of Arabic, Norman, Spanish influences. Inside, there are lots of columns and so on but little of great note according to the guide books. 

From the cathedral we walked down Corso Vittorio Emmanuale, through the crossroads known as I Quattro Conti, where the old city is divided into four sections and where each corner of the crossroads has statues to mark it. 

We were on our way to the port where we had been advised, by our landlord (who else?), to try out Palermo’s street food at a place called “nni’ Francu u Vastiddaru, aka Frank the Breadman. Well worth the stop! Phil discovered what “arancine” (rice balls) are really supposed to taste like – delicious! 

Both of us had a pannino, mine with Francu’s special chickpea fritters and croquettes, made with mint to add extra flavour, and Phil’s the Vastiddaru special with ham, sausage, emmenthal cheeese and mushrooms. 

All good stuff! 


We needed to go back to the hotel, taking in yet more statues and such on the way, to rest and recuperate, before heading out again this evening for yet more food.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Syracusa but mostly Ortigia

Despite the worst efforts of the Modica tourist information office, on Friday we made it to Siracusa where we caught a little white shuttle bus from the bus station to the bit of the city which is the island of Ortigia. The shuttle buses are free, an amazingly good thing! 

 Once on the island we found our hotel, in fact a small apartment, slightly larger, I think, than the bijou residence where we spent a good part of the summer in Vigo. What’s more, we don’t have to sweep the floors. There may not be breakfast in the Residence Arco Antico but they do clean the rooms for you. 

 We were rather hungry on arrival so we dropped off our bags and set off in search of a recommended pizza place. We didn’t want much as we intended to eat out in style in the evening. A pizza place recommended by the Residence Arco Antico told us it was too late to eat; they were about to close. 

At lunchtime yesterday we tried again. It was like a ghost pizzeria: tables set, radio playing but not a soul in sight. We waited, looked around, called “C’è qualcuno?”, all to no avail. We are clearly not fated to eat there. 

 Friday lunchtime we consoled ourselves with an ice cream, a really good substitute for a meal, and went on our way, admiring the Piazza del Duomo in the late afternoon, a truly splendid piazza! 

Later in the evening (but still quite early by Italian standards) we ate at a restaurant called Il Porticciolo. I was about to say “the small restaurant” but in fact with its ground floor, first floor and a substantial veranda it had plenty of space. We actually arrived too early and found the staff eating their “cena” so we went for a walk around and returned a little later. It was worth going back as the food was excellent; for just under 20€ each we ate large dishes of pasta with seafood and drank nicely chilled white wine. 

To end the evening in style we went walkabout again, intending a short stroll but accidentally walking round practically the whole island. Once we got started we reached a point where it was easier to keep going than to retrace our steps. A good way to walk off your evening meal, I suppose, but rather further than we intended. Still, it gave us a good excuse for another ice cream before getting lost in “Giudecca”, the old Jewish quarter and finally making our way “home” to sleep after the day’s adventures. 
Saturday dawned fine and hot, getting hotter and hotter as the day went on. After breakfast, we visited the Saturday morning market: an impressive display of fish and local produce. It makes some of the so-called markets in some English towns look rather sad by comparison.


Then it was a round of cultural sites: 

the Tempio di Apollo or, rather, what’s left of it combined with a bit of an old church built on the site; 

the lovely statue/fountain of the goddess Artemis in Piazza Archimede, all wild horses, people riding dolphins and, naturally, lots of water (some say the central figure is Aretusa, handmaid of Artemis – see below – but she seems to be carrying arrows on her back so I’m going with the goddess of the hunt herself); 



the Caravaggio painting of the death of Santa Lucia in the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia – no photos allowed inside the church unfortunately; 

the cathedral, built on the ruins of the temple of Minerva/Athena and incorporating some of the columns from the fifth century BC; 

oh, yes, finally the Fonte Aretusa. Poor old Aretusa, one of the handmaidens of Artemis, was being pursued by the river god, Alpheus, who wanted to have his wicked way with her and so the goddess turned her into a spring, the sort of thing that was always happening back in mythological times. 

In this statue next to the basin where the spring comes out,  nymph/handmaid and river god look like rather poor synchronised swimmers in my opinion. 

In the afternoon we set out to visit the Parco Archeologico. Now, according to guide books it is really easy to find the Parco Archeologico. Buses go there and it well sign-posted, or so they say. Maybe we were wrongly advised but our bus dropped us a shortish walk away from the park. That was fine but there were no signposts on the side road where we got off, only on major roads, for car drivers obviously!! 

Anyway, we got there. Our mood of exasperation was not helped by the fact that it was VERY hot but we paid our 10€ apiece, bought some cold water and went into the park. 

Yes, it was quite impressive. We went into the cave called “l’orrecchio di Dionisio”, apparently so named by the artist Carravaggio who noted its unusual shape. 
 And we marvelled at the Greek theatre and the Roman amphitheatre. 

 Somehow though, it didn’t seem worth 10€. We have seen better preserved Greek and Roman remains. And there was very little information; in fact, apart from giving you the name of the monument concerned, no information at all. We compared it with the Roman fort up the road from our house in England where there is a huge amount of information available, probably compensating for the fact that all you get to see are a few mounds. 

 Mind you, if we hadn’t felt quite so hot and sticky we might have been more appreciative of what was there. 

 Much later, after a drink and a shower, we put on our glad rags and went out to eat. On Friday evening we had booked a table for Saturday at Sicilia in Tavola. If you don’t book, you don’t get a table and even so we couldn’t get one until 9.30. You arrive at the restaurant and they usher you back out into the street, one of those picturesque narrow streets they have around here. There you wait on seats provided until they call you. No hanging around inside observing the clutter of clearing tables and waiters rushing around. When you finally go in, all is calm and refined, works of art borrowed from the local art gallery on the walls and so on. 

We started with smoked swordfish, tastefully arranged in a star shape. 

Then came fettuccine monte i mari for me: all sorts of shellfish in pasta but with mushrooms added as well. 

Phil went for ravioli ripieni di pesce e gamberetti con triglia. These ravioli with fish and shrimp are by way of being their speciality and they serve them with bits of a variety of other fish, in Phil’s case red mullet. 

We did a certain amount of swopping and decided everything was delicious. And we had a white wine we’d not come across before, Dianthà. One to look out for. 

Today, by comparison – even without the comparison – has been very quiet: a little sortie for breakfast, a further outing later for ice cream and granita but otherwise planning and packing ready to go to Palermo. 

Tonight we eat out again. It’s such a hard life being a traveller.