Sicily’s historical haunts

by Lois Edwards, Greensboro, NC

Sicily. It’s not for sissies. It had long been a destination I looked forward to visiting, primarily due to its historical sites. On a trip at the end of May ’05, it did not disappoint.

My husband, Steve, and I planned a 10-day fly/drive that would hit most of the “must sees” of the island. While it was not necessarily an easy trip and we had a few disappointments, we found that the effort expended was well rewarded.


While Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean (175 miles by 30 to 110 miles), I thought it would be no problem to fit in everything on our ambitious 10-day itinerary. This misconception was bolstered by several guidebooks that offered suggested routes that we soon discovered would have been nearly impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, we did manage to see and do a great deal during our visit.

Arriving at the Palermo airport, we found that it has two terminals with a shuttle bus that makes frequent trips between the two buildings. After picking up our luggage, we shuttled over to “Departures,” where our Avis rental car was available through Auto Europe. (Oddly enough, the rental car offices are at the Departures building only.)


Our first two nights were scheduled in Érice, a small town on the west coast. An easy stop on the way there from the airport was Segesta. You can start your visit there with a short walk from the Doric temple (tickets are available near the parking lot) or head up the hill 1½ kilometers to the theater on Monte Barbaro.

Although we walked up the hill and back to loosen up after our long trip, there is a bus that will transport you for an extra €1.50 — but if you choose to do this you will miss the best views of the near-perfect temple standing by itself in the valley below. A good compromise might be to take the bus to the top of the mountain — where archaeological excavation is still taking place — and stroll back down the well-maintained 2-lane road.


After this wonderful start to our vacation we were on to Érice, which is described as the best-preserved medieval town in Sicily. A narrow corkscrew road led up to the town, which was frequently socked in by the thickest fog I’ve ever encountered.

Our stay in Érice was at Hotel Moderno (Via Vittorio Emanuele 63; phone 0923-869300 or visit, recommended by the Karen Brown travel series and other guidebooks as well as on several websites. (We have always had excellent luck with any accommodation endorsed by Karen Brown.)

The Moderno did not offer the usual quaint charm we have found to be the hallmark of the Karen Brown-recommended inns, but at €106 ($130) a night, including breakfast, it provided a spotless, large room in the annex that was the least expensive of our stay.

Parking is nonexistent on the narrow cobblestone lanes that surround the hotel, but guests of the Moderno can park at no charge in the public lot approximately two blocks down the steep street.

A quick orientation of the town was cut short by the pea-soup fog that swiftly enveloped Érice. Dinner that evening was a very enjoyable meal at the hotel’s restaurant. Two courses each, a shared dessert and a half bottle of wine came to €58 ($71).

The next day dawned clear and bright and we walked through town to Castello di Venere, a 12th-century castle built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Venus. There was no entrance fee, but a contribution is encouraged. The views to the coast and out to sea were spectacular.

The afternoon was spent on a trip to nearby Trápani. Said to have a medieval Centro Storico (Historic Center) worth seeing, we found it to be disappointing with heavy traffic and poorly marked streets. We would not recommend a visit.

Dinner that evening back in Érice was at the highly praised Monte San Giuliano (Vicolo San Rocco 7), set in a maze of backstreets. This homey trattoria lived up to expectations, with two courses plus desserts and wine coming to a mere €48. The house specialty is a seafood couscous, which was excellent.

The road to Selinunte

The next day we headed for Agrigento, with a stop at Selinunte on the way. This drive was our true baptism on the roads of Sicily. The roads had almost nonexistent markings and there were few signposts for towns. If we did happen on a sign directing us to a city or historical site, it might be the last one we would see — the next crossroads would offer no hint as to the correct route.

We had the most detailed map available, but it did little good because there were no reference points for comparison. We have driven in many countries throughout Europe and have never been as lost as we were on the way to Selinunte. We somehow ended up on a one-lane dirt road surrounded by olive trees and vineyards with no buildings in sight for miles.

Although delayed, we eventually reached Selinunte, which proved to be worth the frustrating drive. This was my favorite of the archaeological zones we visited.

Set on a plain above the Mediterranean, with poppies and other wildflowers surrounding the ruins, Selinunte was wonderful. A rival of Segesta, Selinunte was destroyed by Carthage in 409 B.C. Visitors can walk between the four zones, drive to the acropolis or, for an extra fee, choose to ride in one of the electric carts with a (non-English-speaking) guide. We chose the most extensive 2-hour tour for €15 each and enjoyed every minute of it.


As much as we hated to leave Selinunte, we had lost a good bit of time and we had to depart for the Valley of the Temples. Although Agrigento is said to have an interesting medieval quarter, we saw nothing of interest outside the archaeological zone. Again, signs guiding visitors to the site were confusing.

Leading to the “valley,” which is actually a plateau set in the suburbs of Agrigento, there are two entrances, each with its own parking lot. The entrance fee, as at most archaeological features on Sicily, is €4.50 ($5.50). Ranging from the very well-preserved Temple of Concord to the jumble of building blocks of the Temple of Jove (Giove), the remains of the fifth-century-B.C. city are truly remarkable and unmatched in my experience.

We had chosen the Colleverde Park Hotel (phone 0922-29555 or visit over the better-known and -situated Villa Athena based on reviews posted to several websites.

The Colleverde Park (€170, or $209, including breakfast) has beautifully terraced grounds and an excellent location on the Via Panoramica dei Templi. Our room, No. 326, offered a view of the Temple of Concord and was very spacious. We cannot recommend the restaurant (which caters primarily to tour groups), as dinner that night was the worst we had in Sicily (or ever in Italy, for that matter).

Central sites

The next day we headed for the interior to see Villa del Casale in Piazza Armerina. Thought to be the late-third-century hunting lodge of a Roman emperor, the 40-room villa boasts 37,800 square feet of the best-preserved Roman mosaics in existence. (Note that the directional signs through town alternate between “villa” and “mosaic.”) It is absolutely a “must see” for the incomparable mosaics.

The walk from the parking area (where we were warned not to leave any valuables) was lined with tacky souvenir stalls, but Rafaella, a shop near the snack bar, had some lovely, reasonably priced, hand-painted ceramics.

We later wanted to visit the lesser-known archaeological site of Morgantina but were frustrated by another plague of disappearing markers. By the time we found the dig, a thunderstorm had broken and we had to give up on the idea.

Dinner that evening consisted of average pizzas near the center of Agrigento. Restaurants and other public areas in Italy are now nonsmoking, but outside seating and cafés still allow smoking.

A youth group put on a performance of folk dancing and singing back at the hotel in one of the garden pavilions — a nice end to the day.

We returned to the interior again the next day to see the city of Enna. While the 13th-century Castello di Lombardia (again, with poorly marked directions) provided good views of the countryside, we found little else of interest in the town and this was our least impressive day.

The evening was saved by an excellent dinner at Trattoria dei Templii, across the street from our hotel. For €62, we each had three courses with wine. Oddly enough, the restaurant had been closed the previous night, a Friday, illustrating some of the quirkiness found throughout Sicily.


In hindsight, we would have spent one day less in Agrigento and added it on to our next destination, Taormina.

Taormina is one of those enchanted places you hope to encounter in your travels. True, it is overcommercialized and there is a mad crush when the cruise ships hit town, but the charm of the place overcomes those negatives.

Our hotel (another Karen Brown recommendation) was the Villa Schuler (fax +39 0942-23522 or visit, a real find. With a great location on the cliff above the sea, plus a terrace and garden, it was a deal at €116, including breakfast. They offer parking for an additional €14 a day and strongly suggest you take advantage of the opportunity since there are only two allotted public spaces for the hotel’s 40 rooms.

We lucked into room No. 2 on the terrace level with a seaside balcony and a side window with a view of Mount Etna. The room was simple, but service was impeccable and the setting couldn’t be improved upon. (Plus they provided excellent directions on how to get there — something that was very much appreciated by this point.)

The first afternoon, we got acquainted with the town and visited the third-century-B.C. Greek Theater and lovely Villa Comunale, the very fanciful public garden. (The archaeological sites in Sicily do not close in the middle of the day as do churches and shops.)

We noticed preparations being made for a festival in the lower part of town and were informed that it was for the feast of Corpus Christi. After a great dinner at Trattoria il Baccanale, located at Piazzetta Filea 1 (highly recommended at €54 for three courses each, including wine as well as complimentary bruschetta and glasses of Marsala), we strolled around the flower-strewn streets by candlelight. It ended up being the most memorable evening of the trip.

Mt. Etna visit

The next day we took a tour to Mt. Etna arranged by the hotel. The charge was added directly to our bill. As previously noted in ITN (May ’05, pg. 4), Villa Schuler requires payment by cash or travelers’ checks upon departure for the tour.

Be aware that you can book transport to and from the base of the volcano alone (€27) or a complete guided package with continuation by cable car and jeep to the most recent crater (€66). If the weather is bad (electrical storms here are not uncommon), you may not be able to leave the cable car station.

Dinner that evening was at another outside café, La Botte (€42), with “mama” and “papa” overseeing the service.

Sightseeing base

If you would want to make Taormina your primary location and not do much driving, you could book tours from there to the main sights, with the exception of Érice, Segesta and the Valley of the Temples.

Our last day in Taormina was spent exploring the outer reaches of the town, specifically, taking a steep walk up to Castello Saraceno, with spectacular panoramas of the area, and an easier stroll to the belvedere.

We ended with champagne at the Café Wunderbar in the Piazza IX Aprile, supposedly the watering hole for Liz Taylor and Richard Burton when they visited Taormina. Couples were dancing to the sound of musicians playing in the shadow of the Duomo.

Our final dinner in Taormina was at La Grotta Azzurra (Via Bagnoli Croci, 2), spread up and down the steps of a steep passageway. My husband ordered the fresh-caught red snapper, priced by the kilo, and we were somewhat surprised when the bill came in at €70, the most expensive dinner of the trip.


We had a long drive the next day to Palermo. We had wanted to make a slight diversion to visit Monreale but were once more stymied by the lack of any road or directional signs to what is reputed to be the most spectacular cathedral on the island. If you are returning a car to the airport, be aware that there are no gas stations on the approach, so fill up early.

After dropping off our rental car (we weren’t about to drive in Palermo), we took the shuttle bus into central Palermo, the third stop, and a cab to Hotel Principe di Villafranca (phone 091-6118523 or visit www. This is a small, modern hotel with quiet rooms away from the bustle and noise of Palermo plus a fantastic breakfast spread (€180 with breakfast).

Upon arrival, we were informed that the next day, June 2nd, was a national holiday and everything would be closed. This was a surprise since it wasn’t listed in any of our reference material. We immediately headed out to cram as much sightseeing as possible into the afternoon.

A cab ride took us to the Palazzo dei Normanni with its gorgeous Cappella Palatina. Since the Parliament was in session, we were unable to visit the Royal Apartments.

We then walked through the historical part of town, visiting the serene church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti; the Duomo; Quattro Canti; Piazza Pretoria, and Chiesa San Cataldo. Two churches on our list were out of bounds due to weddings (on a Wednesday afternoon).

Since our hotel was in the residential area we decided to stop on the way back for a light meal, but most eateries were closed until
7:30 or even 8:15. We found the oddly named Café Pipi open and ended up having the best pizzas of our lives (€25 for two pizzas and beer).

June 2nd was indeed a holiday, and all stores, many sites and most churches were closed. The Archaeological Museum was open, and it provided a good overview of finds from all over the island. We then managed to catch the end of the Vucciria Market before heading back to the hotel to pack. We returned to Café Pipi for a very good last meal (two courses each, with wine, for €50).

Looking back

It was a wonderful trip, and we took in many magnificent sights (especially the Greek and Roman ruins). The food was excellent, especially the fresh produce and seafood.

While the roads themselves weren’t bad, driving was very difficult due to the extremely poor road markings, not to mention the Sicilian drivers who pay no attention whatsoever to what we would consider the rules of the road. (We were worried that we had totally lost our navigational skills, but everyone else we met who was taking a driving vacation was having the same problems.)

Be prepared for a lot of walking and, in Érice and Taormina at least, steep climbs. Although willing to help, very few locals spoke English. (Don’t count on anyone speaking English outside of the hotels and car rental agencies.)

Sicily is not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth it.