Trip Report: My Sicily Solo Adventure/My First Rick Steves Tour


Trip Report--Sicily 2018 
Rick Steves Tour 
Journal of My Solo Adventure to Sicily May-June, 2018


Saturday/Sunday 

I arrived late at night taking the 9pm flight on Volotea from Naples. I checked my bag but most carry-ons were bigger than mine. The 55 min flight was early and uneventful. At arrivals my driver was not there, I impatiently emailed the hotel. He arrived shortly afterward. It was very dark so I couldn’t see any of the scenery. I paid the driver 40e. 

The hotel desk person greeted me warmly. The hotel is beautiful in a very old building with marble stairs. My room on the first floor (second floor in the US) is large, king bed, huge bathroom. I am so excited to have a room to myself in the same hotel for 3 nights! (Note to self: I must check the price of doing laundry as it would be wonderful to have all clean clothes for the rest of the trip.

I couldn’t get to sleep but after about 1am I finally dozed off. I woke up at 9:30! Breakfast is until 10:30 so I threw on my yoga pants and started the climb up several flights of stairs to the rooftop restaurant. How I love old buildings with marble stairs! Great way to get a little workout before breakfast. 

The rooftop view and eating area are spectacular. Reminds me of the Hotel Cesari in Rome. The church domes, the mountains in the background, the expanse of muted pink white orange buildings with clay rooftops. Further in the distance the villages ascending up the hillsides. Just drinking my espresso and eating my hard boiled eggs is a major sightseeing event! Not to mention soft music playing in the background mixed with the sounds of Italian bantering. Moments like this are why I travel. 

View from rooftop terrace, Ambasciatori Hotel, Palermo


An announcement was posted
in the lobby of the hotel every day

The Group Meeting

Meeting the group for the first time is interesting. I can’t help but wonder as I look out at the 23 strangers.....who might become a good friend? As we went around the room telling a little about ourselves, many in the group had been on multiple RS tours. Some had just come from another tour. It is common to take a month and schedule two tours back to back. How fun! 

We are introduced to Virginia, the guide who is our tour leader. Virginia explains that we will also have additional guides who are experts for specific locations. We will have the same bus and the same bus driver the whole trip. The bus is huge and really comfortable. 

The Countessa
After our get acquainted meeting, Virginia asked us to be in the lobby in a few minutes for a short stroll around Palermo. It is a very old, interesting city. As we walked down a quiet street, Virginia stopped and rang the doorbell at one of the residences. A beautiful blond woman popped out of the upper window to welcome us. Come in! We were in the residence of a Count and Countess, hundreds of years old, with priceless paintings and artifacts. The Countess gave us the history, warmly served hor d'oeuvres and wine, and told us about her life. What a great way to start our tour!

That evening we had a starlit dinner on the rooftop of our hotel. As a solo traveler, I didn’t feel the least bit out of place. The tour members were warm and interesting. I felt really good about my decision to join this tour. 

Monday 

Today was a morning walking tour around Palermo, then on the bus to Monreale which is a small town with a rich history in the hills above Palermo. On the walking tour, we went to a gorgeous church where all of interior was made of various pieces of marble. I’ve been to quite a few spectacular European churches, but this was the most elaborate. The church was a convent for second born girls of nobility. First born, married off with big wedding to wealthy man. Second born, not so much. At about 11 years old they are taken to the convent and have no contact with their families again. They spend the rest of their lives making cookies and cleaning and ironing linens, living hidden away in the convento at the mercy of Mother Superior. I kept thinking about my second born granddaughter, Sophie. 

View from Monreale

Tomorrow we leave Palermo and take the bus to Trapani. I have water, dark chocolate, and clean clothes. My group is warm and welcoming and the guide is really knowledgeable and witty. Loving the tour so far. 

Tuesday 

Schedule: 
6:00  Wake up and pack (Hate to leave my awesome room.) 
7:00  Breakfast on rooftop 
8:30  Out front of hotel with bags ready to go. Walk 3 blocks to bus. 

Lecture by Professor Virginia
Bus ride through gorgeous countryside of green rolling hills to hilltop in middle of nowhere. Archeological Park (Segesta) 

Climb hill by foot up steep dirt path to a 5th century BC (yes BC) temple and amphitheater. Amazing view way above the countryside. 

Walk down very steep hill, back on bus. It’s hot. Water on bus. Lecture by Virginia on the Phoenicians. 

Bus to large house in the country. Walk in to big room all set up for lunch. At least 25 local dishes on buffet. What a spread! 

Maria Grammatico
You want to take a what??
After lunch, I’m ready for a nap. Nope, we are led into another room and handed an apron. Cooking class by Maria Grammatico, the best pastry chef in Italy! She explains how to make almond cookies and cannolis in Italian with her helper/interpreter. I took a selfie with her and bought her book. Yes I did. 




Cooking Class and Cookie Eating
Can we nap now? Nope, short bus to adorable hill town Erice. More walking uphill. Explored and wandered. 

Bus to Trapani, seaside town where we checked into our hotel. Trapani has upscale shops and gorgeous coastline. I could come back here. My room is huge with a kitchen! Pinch me!! 

Nap time now?  No. Virginia gives us 15 minutes to put our stuff in the rooms. Then meet on the roof for hor d’oeuvres and cocktails. After happy hour Virginia led a little walking tour of Trapani. (Does this woman ever stop?) including a very informative lesson on how gelato is made and how to tell good from bad (bad gelato???). 

I’m tired. Hot. No need for dinner after heavy hor d'oeuvres, so I meandered back to the hotel. Uh oh, wrong street. Which way? Thank goodness for google maps! 

Wednesday and Thursday
  
After these two days I know I must qualify for a PhD in ancient history. 

Highlights: Dinner on the water in Trapani with Sally, the other solo of the group. We found a casual salad spot and watched the sun set over the sea. It was nice to get away from the group and just get to know each other better. 

Sunset over Trapani
We explored the island of Mozia, the oldest Phoenician settlement dating back to the 8th century BC. Our guide was a fascinating archeologist. As we were walking along the dirt path looking at ruins, he bent down and picked up a pebble that was about 1/2 inch square. It looked like someone had scribbled on it with magic marker. Casually he said it was a piece of a drinking cup from around 500 BC! 

Valley of the Temples
More ruins outside of Agrigento, a thriving democracy 2,500 years ago. Our guide, a professor, took us on a private museum tour and in depth visit of the Valley of the Temples where well preserved ancient Greek buildings stand on the hillside. It was very informative, but after a while I found a bench in the shade away from the group. 

Hotel Baglio della Luna, Agrigento
After a full day of touring, lectures, walking uphill on dirt/rocky paths in the hot sun, and riding in the bus, we finally checked into our hotel in Agrigento. What a surprise! It’s a 13th century inn with a huge garden laden with bougainvillea and lavender and a view of the Greek temples on the hill in the distance. Once again I have a big room with a marble bathroom. Who’s luckier than me? 

The Bus 

The bus is big enough that I always get a whole seat to myself. We don’t go longer than two hours without a short coffee/potty break. (Bring tissues, don’t pay any attention to male/female, just go) The scenery is really beautiful—somewhat like Tuscany with green rolling hills and colorful patchworks of farmland. We have a water fridge with self serve bottled water for 1 euro (honor system). 

"Mommy" on the bus
Occasionally Virginia makes announcements or provides interesting information. She explained all about the current Italian political turmoil and how and why Italy was without a government. She also talked about growing up in a tiny village in Italy and that they were raised to consider themselves citizens of the EU first, Italy second. (Side note: She is 36 with an infectious laugh. She thinks it’s funny that I call her Mommy.) Virginia warned everyone early on that she will leave anyone who is even 1 minute late. Yes, ma’am. 

My Buddy

All Rick Steves tours have a buddy system. You must choose a buddy who you have never met. Every place we congregate Virginia does a buddy check. It’s fun to see everyone warmly greet their buddy. My buddy is Sylvia from Kansas. Since I am known to get lost, it’s nice to know that Sylvia keeps an eye out for me. Especially since I am very sure Virginia would leave me if I went missing! 

Friday/Saturday 

Luggage in front of hotel and everyone on the bus at 8:00! Do you see your buddy? 

Virginia hands out information about our next stop and gives a brief recap about the day ahead. I need more coffee. 

It’s a long ride from Agrigento to Siracusa across the middle of Sicily. On the way we stop to explore a Roman mansion. 

Back on the bus (can we please do a buddy check? Hi Sylvia) Virginia explains that we have a special lunch planned but it will be later than we normally eat. She opens her eyes very wide, pauses dramatically, and yells, “But I have a surprise for you!” (Imagine Ricky Ricardo with an Italian accent.) Then she passes out the Italian version of Twinkies while laughing hysterically. Her eyes crinkle when she laughs. This is classic Virginia. No one could ever be in a bad mood around Virginia. Just before the bus takes off, she yells “Amuninni!” (Let's go in Sicilian) 

Who could be grumpy when Virginia is around?
I have a surprise for you!
Speaking of bad moods, one of the Rick Steves tour rules that is taken very seriously is “no grumps, no whining”. You even have to sign a contract! It sounds silly but it is wonderful to travel with people who are upbeat and positive. Lots of gratitude. 

A great way to spend an afternoon.
We stop in the countryside at an old farmhouse. The owner lady welcomes us and for the next few hours we enjoy local dishes and desserts in the yard as if we are visiting an old friend. (Wine, coffee, and sparkling and spring water are always available at every meal.) As we walk back to the bus, our hostess gives me a hug and we take a picture. 

Amuninni! 

Next stop: Siracusa 

Siracusa (Syracuse to you Americans) is on the eastern coast of the island of Sicily on the Ionian Sea. 2500 years ago it shared the “world's largest city” distinction with Athens. (Will tourists be visiting the little town of New York City in the year 4500? Hmmm) Parts of buildings built in 800-500 BC connect to “new” additions from 200 AD or Baroque restorations from the earthquake of 1692. I’m beginning to think of all structures built after 1000 AD as “modern”! 

Room with a balcony right
on the water!

Our hotel, Duomo Maria, is an old convent/hotel. I am sure to be assigned a “less desirable” room since I’ve lucked out so far. My room is in the annex, up many flights of stairs (no elevator). Ok. I’m due. No problem. The small room is sparse but clean with a big bathroom. I open the floor to ceiling window shutters—omg! I have a balcony overlooking the Ionian Sea! Hear that? That’s me squealing like a little pig! 



Saturday Highlights: 

St Lucia painting by Caravaggio 

Private Puppet show—family makes the 3 foot tall puppets and produces an hour long show in a tiny theater. 

A couple of my tour mates getting high
(so to speak) on Mt. Etna
Sunday 

The bus climbs higher and higher to Mt Etna. We get out and walk around at about 6000 feet. To the top is 11,000 feet, but I’m high enough, thank you. I walk around the crater and look down at the world below. I find a shady spot and have an espresso. It’s nice to be in a cooler climate. 

Next stop: Vineyard and wine tasting 

Best afternoon of the trip: 
I’ve been to vineyards and wine tastings in Napa. This made that seem like a campground. 


Grape stomping room
Picture a beautiful old manor house in the middle of gorgeous rolling farmland where wine has been made for hundreds of years. The sommelier, an animated young American woman with Sicilian roots, greets us with sparkling wine (not prosecco, but champagne from Italy) that is the “house wine” of the winery. (Retails in the US at $125 a bottle) Her lecture is in a room with centuries old equipment where the family used to stomp the grapes (a la Lucy and Ethel) with their feet. 

After learning about making wine, we moved to a huge room with 17th and 18th century paintings covering the walls, classical music playing, and an abundance of local dishes and various wines on the tables. The son of the owner came to welcome us and talk about his family venture. He said his family does not invite any groups except Rick Steves tours. I asked about the art (which could have been an attraction on its own!). His father is obsessed with collecting art and even has a warehouse filled with more paintings. 

Hugging your host is required in Sicily
By the way, the owner’s son was a drop dead gorgeous young Italian. Not that I noticed. 

After eating way too much, our hosts brought out coffee and chocolate, the perfect ending to a perfect experience! Wow! Rick Steves really knows how to spend an afternoon in Sicily! 

Grazie! Arrivederci! 

Back on the bus. Next stop, the beach hill town of Taormina. 

Monday 

Road to Taormina
Gorgeous view from Taormina
Taormina reminds me a bit of the Amalfi Coast. Built high on the cliffs over the coast, the views are spectacular. The town is cut by one main street of upscale shops and lots of people. Our guide pointed out significant buildings and gave us the history while we strolled through town. At the end was a huge Roman amphitheater. I normally would have been interested but I’ve seen so many ruins by this time that I was pretty numb. I would like to go back to Taormina sometime and give it another chance. I think it’s a gorgeous city that is worth exploring, perhaps in late October or April when it isn’t as hot and there are fewer crowds. I wanted to venture out and do a boat tour but there’s always next time. 

Meet at 6:30 in front of the restaurant for pizza making class! 

Two long tables set under the bougainvillea pergola. Perfect weather. A young man in a chefs uniform explaining about dough and tomato sauce. Everyone laughing and enjoying the camaraderie of a group that has traveled together for a week. 

The pizzas start hitting the table. Who wants the margherita? Pass me the one with the artichokes. Have you had the spicy one? Oh my gosh, there are more? They keep coming. I can’t eat another bite. Seriously so full I hurt. Oh, there’s tiramisu? Yes, I’ll have one thanks. 


Everyone is listening attentively before the pizza pig out fest
Tuesday 

Last full day

Breakfast at 7:00, in front of hotel with bags at 8:30. Is there such a thing as a pizza hangover? I was definitely over-served last night. 

The ride from Taormina to Catania is only an hour. On the bus Virginia provides interesting information about Sicily and Italy during WW2. We stop on the way to visit the WW2 Museum. It’s a nice change to see something in this century after so many ruins. I am struck by how involved the Americans were in “liberating” Sicily. The museum is fascinating. 

Catania is a bit disappointing. Perhaps I am just tired from traveling for almost two weeks. There is a beautiful cathedral and town square. My room is nice (another beautiful marble bathroom!) but the area around the hotel is a bit shabby. I need to pack, so it’s a good excuse to stay in my room and relax until dinner. 

Our Last Night

Our “last supper” was at a seafood restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. As we walked, everyone talked about where they were headed tomorrow. The food and wine, as usual, was plentiful. We laughed and joked like friends who were familiar with each other beyond just a 10 day relationship. I didn’t feel sad the tour was almost over, instead, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience this adventure with these wonderful people. We said our goodbyes in the lobby of the hotel. I sincerely enjoyed getting to know each and every one of them. The one I will miss the most, however, is Virginia. My first Rick Steves tour guide will always have a special spot in my heart. 

Amunami!

What a fun group of travel mates!

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions! Click on the down arrow next to "Comment as:" then select Name/URL. Type your name in the slot (ignore URL) and click "continue." Your comments will not appear right away. To avoid spam, I read all comments before they are published.