Sicily: Giardini-Naxos, Isola Bella, Taormina, Agrigento, and Palermo

Sicily was amazing. We may have said this already, but one of the awesome things about Sicily is that it was exactly what we had hoped and imagined it might be.

Giardini-Naxos, Isola Bella, and Taormina

We took a ferry from Reggio Calabria to the city of Messina. Here is a photo of the ferry

Ferry in Messina (Sicily) from Reggio Calabria

We didn’t stay in Messina long and walked directly (almost) to the train station from the ferry. We stopped for our first REAL Sicilian cannolo (aka cannoli), which was amazing.

cannolo or cannoli in Messina, Sicily, Italy

A small note on cannolis here. I never realized this, but apparently most “real” cannolis in Sicily at least are made with sheep milk ricotta. This sheep milk has a distinct flavor that both Lindsay and I find very favorable. Basically, they were awesome. I believe I’ve eaten nearly 6 – 8 cannolis in the past 8 or 9 days.That might not sound like much, but considering all of the other food we’ve been eating it’s at least notable.

So we took a train from Messina to a town of Giardini-Naxos. This is semi-significant because it was one of the first trains we’ve taken inter-city, in large part because it was cheap. We ended up taking a number of trains in Sicily, which was pretty nice for a change!

Once we arrived in Giardini-Naxos we had a small micro-crisis as we weren’t exactly sure how to get to our accommodation for the evening. We had a GPS coordinate, so we know WHERE it was, but when you have two potentially correct directions, one that goes up a hill and one that doesn’t, when you’re in a very small town, sometimes it can be stressful because picking the wrong direction means you might end up walking an extra 3 kilometers uphill with your pack if you end up having to backtrack.

We choose the path of least resistance (the path along the water, which was pretty flat) which ended up being the right choice.

Once we left the station and really started walking along the coast, it was BEAUTIFUL and felt like one of those not-so-rare-on-this-trip-but-still-awesome “we are somewhere so awesome!” moments. This photo was taken at dusk from the beach near our apartment, but if you can imagine it being a beautiful sunny day, our walk was from the right of this frame to the left along the coast. It was a good 2.5-3 kilometer walk but it was great.

And this photo is from a totally different angle (and elevation) taken the following day, but the walk was along the coast line.

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Our apartment was also nice. It felt Italian, like something you’d see in a movie. Nothing crazy fancy, just nice.

The town was small, quiet, and nice. There was a little grocery store nearby that we walked to to buy some microwavable crepes (which I ate cold with Nutella), beer (which I drank cold with Nutella), milk, and other such necessities. We only spent two nights here, so really we ate most meals out (we went to a small and not-super-fancy meat/cheese place that served pasta that tasted a bit like something you’d get from the instant pasta aisle in Target).

We went out for dinner

The first day/night we spent a bit of time figuring out what to do the next few days (our AirBnB host was super helpful and actually helped us figure out the rest of our trip in Sicily), what we were going to do the next day, etc. Then we walked around the town for the rest of the night, collected a few rocks, etc.

Bad picture (thanks Obama!) but there were lots of very beautiful statues along the coast with various sea related subjects.

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Rocks

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Aww
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I also destroyed my pants. I’ve been wearing these pants nearly every day for the past 7 or so months and was somewhat sad to loose them. At the same time I’m not shocked because they were starting to wear through in a few different spots. This is the crochal region of the pants

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We probably watched an episode of House of Cards season 3, and went to bed. Which was a bit cold, so we took the space heater and plugged it in precariously balanced on a shelf.

The next morning we started with a fairly typical breakfast of cappuccino (me) and americano (lindsay), and added some pizza. I believe this cost us 6 euros, which wasn’t bad.

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After breakfast at the bar we walked and walked and walked. Our destination was and island called Isola Bella, which was next to the town of Taormina. The island was something Lindsay had read about and our airbnb host recommended. It’s basically a tiny island that’s connected via a small strip of land that is underwater during high tide, and just barely exposed during lower tides.

The walk to get there was pleasant enough, especially considering 99% of it was very beautiful with an awesome view of the sea.

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The island was beautiful as advertised and we were quite lucky to have beautiful weather on this particular day. Apparently during the summer the island and the surrounding water is completely packed, so much so that it can be hard to find a place to sit, but seeing as it’s winter there were only a handful of people at the beach.

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Lindsay wore her bathing suit and I changed into mine (there were no showers or changing rooms open this time of year so I was just quick, changing behind a rock (ish)). Then we just had an awesome few hours reading, and swimming!!!

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This is a situation where I wish I had my GoPro with me. The water was beautiful, not CRAZY visibility but I’d say a good 30 to 40 feet. There weren’t any big fish, but there were a number of sea urchins (once you got past the shallow area near the beach) and a decent number of small fish to watch. I of course brought my mask and snorkel for the swimming.

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I have to give Lindsay credit on this trip – she’s been quite tough in terms of dealing with cold water. The water was not quite as cold as it was in Split when I went swimming, but not far off. I’d say we were both in the water for a good 30 minutes.

We got out, dried off (as best we could with the tiny towel we had), then sat in the sun for a while longer to give our bathing suits a chance to dry off. We ended up talking with a few americans/australians who lived in a nearby town (one was in the Army, the others were Au Pairs).

Aww

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Eventually we walked back from the island (which was easy for us as we were barefoot, but sort of fun/different because as I mentioned the path connecting the land is JUST above water so small waves would make the walkway wet. So people have to sort of time their steps/run to cross the path if they don’t want to get wet or take their shoes off) to find a funicular our host told us about that would take us up to the town of Taormina.

I don’t know what the exact definition of “funicular” is [edit: Ok, I just looked it up, sort of. I googled, and clicked on the wikipedia article, but I didn’t read it all. The pictures though, they look like what I think a funicular should look like. Which makes me wonder if this was a funicular at all!], but I always think of it sort of like a trolley that goes up a very steep hill on a rail of some sort, with another funicular on the other side acting as a sort of counterweight. To me this “funicular” was more of a gondola, but perhaps the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

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I’m scared of hights

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PSA: if it seems like I post a lot of photos of myself, but not many of Lindsay, it’s because Lindsay is the one with a digital camera. i.e. she takes most all of these photos. I have my film camera, which is great, but I won’t see a single photo from this past year until late April/early May!

Regardless, we got up to the small town above and spent the next few hours walking around and admiring the oldness and beautifulness of the small town. There is also a very old greek theater (by “old” I mean ancient rome/or before old) which I wanted to see, but the entrance fee was a bit much for us (12 euros each I think) so we ended up just walking up to the theater and looking at the outside walls. Not exactly as cool, but if we went to even half of the awesome historic things we could every day we’d probably have to double our budget.

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We ate these panini/sandwhich type things, and ate gelato.

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After a few hours exploring the town we started the (long) walk home. We stopped along the way at a bus stand to find out information about where we needed to get the bus the next day, and then on the way home spent a bit of time to figure out where exactly we needed to be the next morning to catch the bus. This has become something of a normal thing for us, when possible we’ll spend an hour before traveling to be sure we know exactly where to go to cut down on stress on the early travel days.

All said and done, we walked over 10 miles on this particular day, which was well above our average and it felt pretty great.

The next morning we had a somewhat early morning but made time to stop at a bar (i.e. cafe) and get coffees and “sweet treats” as Lindsay would call them. Probably a croissant with cream or something similar.

We got on the bus and took it across Sicily West to a city called Agrigento.

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Lindsay listened to podcasts on the bus

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and I read

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Agrigento

Agrigento is another small/old city close to but not right on the sea. It’s probably best known for something called the “Valley of the Temples” which is basically a shallow valley that contains a bunch of old temples and buildings from the (I think) ancient Greek pantheon. Things like Zues, et cetra. We came here to see this collection, and because it’s an interesting city, and also because it’s along the path that we needed to travel to get to Palermo by the 9th.

When we arrived in the city everything was completely dead and felt like the city was a ghost town. This is not totally unusual for us on this trip, but you never know if it’s really just an empty city (off season) or if it’s a timing thing. It was a bit difficult as we had an address for our apartment/airbnb, but we hadn’t been able to tell our host what time we’d arrive.

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This has become something of a classic/annoying problem, which I’ve likely mentioned in other blog posts, but most of the time AirBnB hosts prefer you to give them a call when you arrive, or know specifically when you’ll arrive and plan ahead. This makes sense of course as often times in the case of a private apartment the host may not live right nextdoor so planning ahead is required. Most of the time we can figure out a pretty good estimate about when we’ll arrive (especially when we have a single mode of transportation like a train, and we’re able to accurately estimate our walking time from the drop off point), but sometimes we have no real idea of how long a bus will take, or how long it’ll actually take us to get from the bus drop off to the apartment. In these cases we don’t want to make somebody wait around for us if we are 3 hours late.

This is what happened here, and we ended up getting to Agrigento, walking NEAR the apartment, and then spending an hour walking around the city looking for coffee shops or open wifi networks. This sounds easy enough, but as we’ve mentioned in other blog posts or as is perhaps obvious to you if you know much about other cultures, there are many times when nearly every shop is closed. When we arrived it was one of those times, and the bars/cafes that were open didn’t seem to have wifi. Anyway, I’m writing more then the situation really warranted as we eventually found a wifi network that was open and I was able to schedule a time for our host to come meet us at the apartment to let us in.

As luck would have it, the apartment was up quite a few stairs once again, but at least they were cool stairs!

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The apartment was nice and clean. One of the stove burners was a bit “strange” as it caused a giant flame, (I recorded a short video of this which is on youtube), but apart from this everything was great.

After checking in, our host told us that between 7:30 and 9 (or something close to this) the main street in the city filled up with people and was quite active. This turned out to be exactly the case, and we had a wonderful few hours walking along the street and looking at people/shops/food. We stopped at what turned out to be our #1 cannoli place. Then we eventually (after what was probably an hour of mild debate – Lindsay didn’t want pizza, I didn’t care what we ate) stopped at a trattoria and had a nice pasta meal. Lindsay had (I think?) some sort of oil/cream based pasta with shrimp, and I had some sort of tomato based pasta with the small noodles that are hand made and look like a bit like a cross between a gnocchi and a shell. It was quite good.

The next day was spent primarily at the Valley of the Temples. This actually turned out to be incredibly awesome.

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The coolest part, though I don’t believe you can really tell by the photos, is the landscape that you could see behind the hills/cliffs that the temples were located on. The landscape just felt very clean, Italian, historic, old, expansive, magical. Those would be my adjectives. Lots of little olive trees and sorts of desert (or dessert, not sure!) plants mixed in.

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I loved the fact that the place was not busy at all. It rained a bit (just sprinkled on and off), but was a really clear day. We even saw a rainbow I believe.

It wasn’t just temples here, there were also a bunch of house foundations which I really enjoyed because there were a number of great description/explanation placards. The text might describe how a house during this period had three rooms, including a large main entrance room facing the West, and then you could walk over the ruins/foundations and stand inside of these rooms and sort of get a feel for how things might have looked.

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Anyway, after the temples we headed back to the city and spent an hour or so getting our transportation in order for the next day. We ended up getting quite lucky (or perhaps it’s not luck – we’ve heard that the trains in the South of Italy are just a lot cheaper then other parts of Western Europe) and getting train tickets (which we generally like better then buses) to Palermo.

We went to a very small grocery store near our apartment and bought a bunch of food to make pasta at home, then we stopped at our favorite cannoli place and bought cannoli(s) for desert (or dessert?). We cooked up a feast with pasta, pesto, fresh parmesan-ish cheese, mozzarella, some sort of spicy tomato sauce, and water.

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About water, I prefer sparkling fancy water, Lindsay prefers “natural” water, and it’s a constant source of minor argument between us. Water is really expensive at restaurants (like, 3+ euros, which is often the same price as a beer or wine), so we’ll only buy one. The question is which water do we get!

Then, as many nights before, we packed up and prepared ourselves for leaving in the morning, and headed to bed.

In the morning we (as every other morning) went and got coffee and I believe we got one last cannoli at our favorite place, and headed to the train.

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Palermo

We knew that it was supposed to rain the next week so we decided to spend the last 3 days in Palermo, which is a large-ish city, and also the city that we would eventually fly out of back to France/Marseille. Also, we had hoped to head to a number of beautiful nearby beaches/islands that are apparently awesome for snorkeling/scuba diving. Sadly, that didn’t happen as the weather reports were correct and it rained nearly non-stop for the next 3 days.

Palermo is a pretty cool city. It reminded me a bit of Naples in that it was pretty “gritty”, but it was certainly different and had it’s own feel.

We stayed in a small studio directly above a market. This place we found on AirBnB, and it had 3.5/5 stars which is fairly bad for AirBnB (most people seem to leave 4 or 5 stars it seems, unless there was a real problem, because you have something of a personal relationship with the owner most times). The reason for the rating was the market that I just mentioned. People said that it was INSANELY loud at night. But, the apartment was a full 15 dollars per night cheaper than almost any other option in the city so we decided that we’d give it a shot!

The apartment itself was small, but great. The bed was a small couch that folded out. That was another complaint in the reviews actually, that the bed was more of a single bed, good for one person but very tight for two. This turned out to be accurate, but we managed (a few annoying moments when I woke up and almost threw Lindsay off the bed, but I managed to fall back asleep without violence).

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The market that our apartment was on top of was really really cool. Frankly, and sadly, it was perhaps slightly less cool for us as we’ve seen a number of amazing markets in our travel days, but we were both reminded of a somewhat less intense version of the markets on the side streets of Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam. Dirty, loud, but with some really great looking produce. Lots of little stores selling various household goods, light bulbs, batteries, some tourist items, etc.

The market was quite loud when we arrived (during the day) but quite honestly I thought, “oh, well, this is a bit loud but not so bad.” And then the night came, and the music (I can’t quite place it, but it sounded like what I’d describe as Caribbean mixed with some sort of African) came on. The music was incredibly loud, with an incredible amount of base. Lindsay and I were sitting in our room when it first came on and we looked at each other and sort of laughed and said, “ok, this is about what we expected.”

The music didn’t stop until, I don’t know, but after 3AM. And the drunk/loud people who as far as I can tell were hiding directly underneath our mattress were incredible. Keep in mind we aren’t super late party people (generally), so we’re in bed by midnight or so, sleeping around then. Even with earplugs in, if we could speak/understand the languages being spoken we could have understood every word being said in the song, and by the people.

It didn’t make for a great nights sleep, but it was at least something we’ll remember!

“OK,” you say, “but what did you do other then not sleep super well while in Palermo?” That’s a great question. In short, not all that much. The weather really wasn’t great (moderately heavy rain) and we found ourselves asking ourselves “why are we outside right now?” fairly often. We walked around the different areas of the city a decent amount and ate quite a few different “fast food” items. In particular, there is a type of fried food that has rice inside with mozzarella or meat inside that I quite enjoyed.

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This is a fairly famous thick, spongy pizza/bread cart, which smelled a lot like motor oil

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Lindsay went running along the water one day, while I sat and thought about writing this blog post and working on Phapi.

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We went to some of the market stalls near our house (closed down mostly in the pictures below) and bought snacks, beer, wine, etc, to eat when we gave in and went inside.

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We read and watched a movie. I think I mentioned this in a recent blog post but I’m reading a lot of books from a series called the Dresden Files about a wizard in modern day Chicago. And I’m reading various programming books. Lindsay is reading books that she can use in her classes.

I bought a new hair razor from a super cheap little store that sold knockoff Chinese products, and I attempted to cut my own hair (which I can generally do OK), but screwed up:

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The last day, as is somewhat normal when we are getting ready to leave a country, we basically just walked around for exercise, ate to eat (with the exception of one final cannoli which was a targeted food item!), and waited for the morning to come to get to the airport. Oh, and we spent part of the last day walking around looking for a place that was open that we could print our Ryanair boarding passes at.

We took a bus (1 hour, and roughly 8 euros each) to the Palermo airport, got there around 2 hours early (it’s an international flight, although it feels more like a domestic flight, so I’m not really sure how early we needed to be there), and amazingly managed to get on the Ryanair flight without any extra fees being assessed. This is in part thanks to our friend (who we stayed with in Tokyo) Cath, who had recently been charged 70 euros for not checking in online. The crazy thing is that all said and done, our tickets, including taxes, fees, baggage, etc, for two people, was USD $89.XX from Palermo to Marseille! That’s so cheap!

The flight was only 2 hours and once again we were in France! Sadly, once again we got no passport stamps. We had a few hours to wait, and then we caught a bus from Marseille airport to the city of Monasque, where we met Jean-Jaque, Nicola’s father. Which is next post.

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