Italy and Sicily, spring, 2018
As crazy as it sounds, I can't even figure out how many months we have spent in Italy since shipping an RV to Europe in 2010—but well over 9 months. It is certainly one of our favorite countries. Last November we stored our camper (now a 5.4 meter 2001 European camper bought in Amsterdam in 2015) in Rome having spent 6 weeks driving along the Mediterranean coast from Barcelona. We have stored at Prato Smeraldo camper storage/sosta twice before as the manager speaks English, and it is fairly convenient to Rome. (A sosta is an Italian camper-stop/aire; usually in Italy they are not free but have dump/water services and sometimes bathrooms and more.) Since we have spent so much time in Italy we base what we want to visit now often on lesser known sites and “biggies” that we enjoyed so much that they are worth a repeat.
As the years go by, we are finding that many of the small difficulties of RVing in Europe are disappearing. Certainly buying a SIM card with data was much easier this time. At the huge Termini station in Rome we looked at plans from Wind, Vodaphone and TIM. TIM's was by far the best with unlimited calls in Italy and 10G a month for 24E. (The Euro has fallen recently from $1.24 to $1.19.) It even allows 4G of the data to be used in other European countries. Not something we need now, but good to know. We got a card for each of our iPhones and are enjoying much easier walking navigation in the towns and cities using Google maps and public transportation with that app and the Transit app. Certainly not flawless, but way less getting lost than pre-smart phone days. To find places to spend the night we are still relying on the Camperstop book (which we buy every couple of years) but a great supplement is the Parkings app. The reviews in the app are particularly helpful and we have done a few reviews ourselves. We do buy yearly the ACSI Discount Camping Card as it is inexpensive and has good discounts for campgrounds except during July and August high season and holidays. It is not very good for Ireland or Great Britain, however. Another plus is that ACSI will mail to the US for a reasonable fee. Aires, sostas, camper-stops are still abundant throughout the continent though more are charging fees in the more desirable spots. In very desirable spots, just as in freedom camping in New Zealand—you better arrive early. Motor-homing in Europe is extremely popular.
So back to the start of this trip in Rome. Jet lag from San Francisco is 9 hours and for us a bear to overcome. Fortunately, our little camper, after five months of storage, performed great except for a dead starter battery which the caretaker quickly fixed with a battery charger. Last November we had the oil changed and a safety check done at a nearby independent Fiat garage. So now we needed to have the front brakes replaced along with the broken engine mounts. Having arrived during a two week period where there were two holidays, we had to wait over a week for an appointment. We also decided it was time to replace the rear tires at 9 years of age, and the manager at Prato helped us with that. Italian mechanics don't speak much English so we communicated a good bit with Google Translate. During our 12 nights in Rome we did spend 6 days in the city.
Our first Sunday we decided to take advantage of the fact that the Appian Way just outside the southern gate to Rome is closed to traffic on Sundays. We navigated the bus system to the gate and started walking, and walking, and walking. Turns out there isn't really much to see along this stretch and the road is still open to buses, taxis and local traffic headed to the catacombs. So, well short of traffic-free. We saw the catacombs back in 1979, and once was enough. Compared with what else you can see in Rome, we count this walk a skip unless you want to visit the catacombs.
Another new site we wanted to visit was the Sacred Steps across from the St. John in Lateran Basilica. These are the steps from Pontus Pilate's palace that Helen (Constantine's mother) had moved from Jerusalem to Rome. Therefore, the steps that Jesus walked up and down during his confrontation with Pilate. Given nearly all the other relics in Christendom are fake, these have an pretty reasonable chance of being authentic and are therefor quite holy for believers. In actuality there are three staircases—the middle one, the real one, can only be climbed on your knees, and the steps themselves have been covered in wood. The other two staircases are for tourists to go up and down to visit the chapel where other relics are stored. But, the real stairs are closed for all of 2018, for restoration and the kneelers moved to one of the other staircases—but they are still eligible for a plenary indulgence, real or not. So we still haven't seen the Sacred Steps but it was interesting anyway. Stay tuned, we will try again next April when we return to Rome.
We spent an enjoyable but long day wandering Trestevere, having unfortunately only a so-so lunch at the well reviewed Otellos. We had wanted to eat at Osteria Zi Mberto but it was fully booked from opening till 3 pm. Sigh, everywhere is getting so crowded that reservations are becoming more and more important. We did however luckily run into the Sunday morning Trestevere market. Sooooo much better than the more famous Porta Portese market that we went to in the past. The Trestevere market had a few of the cheap clothing stalls but also some very nice goods and lots of antiques and bric-a-brac to wander through. It will be on our list to return to next spring.
Another day we spent at the National Museum of Rome right next to the Termini station. We have visited twice before and will probably go again next April. If you want to see the best of what Rome was, this is the place. Admission has increased to 10E but still worth it. Start at the top floor where the mosaics and the recreation of Roman villa of Farnasi are located. The recreation allows you to walk through and see up close what a Roman villa was like. You will see similar rooms in Pompeii but you are not allowed to actually go in them like you can here. Ceilings, walls, floors, halls—fabulous. Plus our favorite of all is the winter dining room from Livia's Villa. It is easy to miss as the doorway is small and easily overlooked. This was an underground room painted to feel like you were in a garden—so well done and well preserved that biologists can name the birds and plants. It was found almost completely intact and moved to the museum. Downstairs from all this are the sculpture rooms with the most famous discus thrower, a beautiful and surprising hermaphrodite, and the rare bronzes of the boxer and another, and on and on. You will be tired. But the basement has lovely gold jewelry, glass and a meticulously displayed collection of coins from earliest times to modern including ducats from Venice, the Papal States, and other areas outside of Rome.
We revisited our favorite Caravaggios and Berninis in various churches and worked our way part through a list of the five best gelaterias in Rome. Life is tough. Actually, skip Raw Chocolate—a gelato without sugar or milk—how can you call it gelato? It really did taste like raw chocolate.
So ot was time to push off from Rome, feeling good with our new brakes and tires, and we decided to take the autostrada all the way to Sicily. It is only a toll road from Rome to Salerno and free after that. The toll was only 17E—much less than the toll roads in northern Italy. We cut the long drive in half by stopping at a free sosta in the hilltown of Morano Calabro. It is only a short detour from the freeway and one of Italy's beautiful mountainside villages. If it were in Tuscany it would be mobbed. Here tourists are a rarity. We walked up about 1k—and I do mean up--to the Church and ruins of the Norman castle at the top of the town. Not a souvenir or even a store in sight. The tiny local market is located just downhill from the sosta. The view from the sosta included patches of snow in the nearby mountains. The whole area is one of Italy's national parks. Just a word of caution that, as we left the freeway a sign warned that snow tires were obligatory from November 15 to April 15—just like we saw in the hills of Tuscany. Don't think that all of Italy is warm in late fall or early spring.
The ferry to Messina is fairly short but a steep 91E round trip. We allowed ourselves about 3 weeks to circle Sicily. We were here in March, 2011 and spent a little less than two weeks. Unfortunately, several things we wanted to do or see were closed then, so we were happy to be back. (Just an aside here about the ferry. I did no advance research and we just turned off the highway at the ferry to Messina sign and got in line for the Bluferry. No problem on the way over and landed in Messina with the other cars, etc. Coming back was a different story. We followed the ferry signs and our TomTom into Messina, arrived at port, and ticket taker waived us off—wrong company—go back towards station. So we managed to find a tiny sign pointing further south that said Bluferries. We turned at another sign, parked in lot with big Bigloteria sign (ticket office) which was also a bar. One man inside spoke a little English—no, not here, 7k further south at some town I couldn't understand. He motioned for me to give him my phone and he put the place in Google maps--Tremesteri. Off we go, but after 7k, Google wanted us to turn inland, away from the sea—huh? So we decided to find a place to stop, turnaround, and maybe look for a police station. At the turnaround point we glimpsed another Bluferry sign, followed it in a huge loop and were the next to last vehicle aboard the ferry. No cars on this one, just trucks. So we have no idea what happened or why. Travel in foreign countries has all kinds of unsolved mysteries.)
Our first stop was a sosta in Torrenola that advertised that they could arrange tours to Stromboli—a still active volcano out in the Tyrrhenian sea, 20-30 miles from Siciliy. The campground was right on the water, and we paid 17E a night with showers available for .50E. The owner, who lives in a condo on the front of the property, did not speak much English, but we were able to communicate enough to arrange for a tour the next day leaving, at 11 am and returning 12 hours later for 130E for two. As it turns out we were more than pleased. A driver picked us up for the 30 minute drive back east to port at Milazzo (crazy town—very glad we didn't try to drive there). There we boarded a Tarnav boat—the Aeliolian Princess. On it were several tour groups, French, German, Italian,--and some independent travelers like us. The announcements were in all four languages and it was about 90 minutes to our first stop on the island of Panarea. The tour groups all were booked in various restaurants and we blindly chose the Cusiritati Ristorante (where it turned out the Germans were dining.) We had a very nice lunch for 48E—just be aware no one takes credit cards in the islands and the ATMs are known to run out of money. Had enough time to walk up to the very Moorish building that is now a Catholic church.
Back on the boat we circled some of the islets just off Panarea (best on right side facing bow) and headed for nearby Stromboli. Still full from our long lunch we walked up the hill to the main street of tiny shops and restaurants on the way to the Church. We had thought about walking the 45 minutes out to the pizzeria that overlooks the lava (all solidified) from the last eruptions. Decided against it as it would have taken us way longer and we only had 2 ½ hrs. There were lots of folks in Panarea catching the regular ferry service, having done the 6 hour round trip to the crater with the required guide. This necessitates an overnight stay on Panarea or Stromboli, boots, and hiking equipment (all rentable.) and a guide. This is considered a difficult hike for anyone, and not for us. The Tarnavboat departs just before sundown (best from left side), circles little Stromboli with its perched lighthouse, and then moves on to the side of the island where the eruptions over the last hundred years have spread lava down the steep face into the sea. There were lots of clouds handing low over the volcano but as it got dark one could see faintly the bright sparks and slight glow from the 4 mouths currently in eruption on this side (well below the top.) The boat guide said that this was not much of show for the volcano, but we still enjoyed what we saw. In fact we loved the whole trip. It was a bright, sunny day and the colors of the water were phenomenal—in places deep sapphire, near islets aquamarine, and always dazzling. Our driver was waiting for us as we left the boat. Great day!
We took a day off, staying put and then drove on to Palermo, staying in the sosta in town at Area Freesbee N38.147160 E 13.353040. It wasn't too difficult to get to. 15E a night without electric, has toilet, water, dump, no showers. You catch the bus right outside the gate and the guard will give you a map with bus routes and sell you an all day ticket for 3.5E. We really enjoyed Palermo but spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for and riding buses, as the traffic is awful in the city, even on weekends. The most difficult area to reach is the cathedral at Monreale, as the bus runs only every 75 minutes. (No schedule posted but has been the same for years; just count forward from 8:45—it is always crowded and a haven for pick-pockets) The stop for catching the bus to Monreale is right outside the Royal Plaza, and there will be plenty of touts there selling taxi rides and hop-on bus rides. Timing is difficult so if you get there too early you can walk the three blocks to one of the best pastry and gelato cafe in town—Cappella. Also nearby is Trattoria ai Cascani which has terrific food at reasonable prices and an interesting history. Be sure to go to Monreale on a sunny day and do not miss the cloisters as the carvings are really some of the best in Europe. We also enjoyed the market Ballaro, much expanded on Sundays but good everyday.
Another great site is the Capella Palatina. Since the chapel is smaller than Monreale the mosaics are better lit, but take your binoculars anyway. Finally, though you may be thinking I've had enough mosaics go to the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio—2E entry, again when the sun is out. Just like stepping into a jewelry box. Most of the historic center on Palermo has been pedestrianized and is very interesting for strolling. We spent 4 days and nights (having been there before) and another day would have been worthwhile, but we were getting itchy feet. If you don't want to deal with bus into the center you could stay at the campground on the west side and take the train. We didn't investigate this further as the train for some reason was not running while we were there. We had run into a couple earlier who had stayed there and used their bikes.
Finally, don't miss the Archaeological Museum. When we were here in 2011 it was closed for renovation and now they have the first floor open with most of the best stuff. Seeing the metatopes (sculptured scenes from the banks around the temple top, like the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens) and learning all the history really is helpful when you get to the temples themselves in Selinunte and the Valley of the Temples.
Next stop was to be the hill town of Erice. We had no problem getting to the designated auto-caravana and bus parking but it was still a kilometer walk up hill to town. Our Parkings app had mentioned an area closer to town so we headed up. Never found it because once we past the area where the road became one way we were literally trapped. We parked near the castle ruins (great views if you are not totally stressed out) and Mark went ahead on foot and assured me we could make the turns. Which we did, with onlookers looking at us like we were crazy, which we were. Finally we crossed the top of town and headed down still on the one way street—ahead a gate through the remains of the ancient wall. No markings whatsoever on width or height. Mark thinks we will fit (10 ft high, 7'7” wide), I hop out and help guide him through from the other side holding up all the traffic. We clear by about an inch or two. At that point are only thought was to get off the mountain. Now I wish we had parked and walked back up as it is supposed to have a lovely medieval center. But not lovely by camper. I would say live and learn, but we have been driving in Europe for three to nine months a year for NINE years. Definitively not always learning from our mistakes.
Segesta is the site of a single Greek temple from about 490BC that was never finished. It is right off the main highway and we spent the night nearby in Calatafimi in the town's free sosta. N 37,91719 E 12.86687—drive a little further on for an easier turn. At 4:30 all but two spots were parked in with cars. We were the only camper spending the night and it was quiet till morning commute time. We headed back the 6k to the temple but the new parking lot wanted 7E for parking, then 6E each entrance, and it was unclear if that included the shuttle bus. Knowing lots more temples were coming up, we passed.
Instead we got to Selinunte at mid morning and again enjoyed the archaeological park, even more this time since we had seen so much of the “trim” in the museum in Palermo. They have a little tram inside the park where you can pay 12E each to reach the far temples. Don't do it and don't walk. There is a road leading from the main parking lot over to those temples and a place to park. No one tells you about this—just look for it and show your ticket. We love the Baedeker's Sicily we are using for this trip for all its historical information, but it doesn't include this type of info, nor does Lonely Planet Italy. Rick Steves will finally do a Sicily book in 2019, and this is just the kind of info at which he is great.
After two hours or so we headed west to Helios Camping in our ACSI discount book. We spent two nights at 18E per night with electric and did 3 loads of wash at only 3E a load. Great, but the campground has only 1 washer and no dryers. In fact most Sicilian and many Italian campgrounds do not have dryers. What a pain. The campground was fine, right on the beach, but the showers had a very strange coin operated box. Lots of trial and error to get a hot shower. Ask in advance for an explanation.
Next up was Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. Last time, in 2011, we could spend the night near the entrance—no longer allowed. So instead we headed to the Museum where daytime parking is a maximum of 6E and overnight from 8 to 8 is free. Unfortunately, it is a long walk from the museum to the entrance and then another long walk uphill to see the many temples. There is a tram and taxi service from the entrance so you are well advised to do that. Of course, we decided to walk. You can't actually walk inside the temples except for the ruin of the Temple of Zeus and somehow we missed that last time. This was the largest Greek temple ever built and it is hard to comprehend its size in its ruined state. But in the interior you will find at least 4 partially reconstructed (laying down) telemons—the stone men (originally 38) columns who held aloft the temple on their shoulders. Super cool to see.
Having walked a long way in the heat of the day we consulted our Google Maps and saw that there was a 1k path from the Temple of Concordia down the ridge side and up again to the museum. Bingo—no 3k walk back. So we strolled over and at the end were met with a wall, a fence, and a securely locked gate. Certainly not mentioned on Google maps. Mark noted that next to the gate the fence above the stone wall had been partially bent down probably from miscreants trying to enter the grounds without paying. So being totally nuts Mark made it over first and by piling a few more rocks atop the wall even I managed the climb. Nuts, nuts, nuts, at ages 71 and 70.
One of our biggest regrets of our visit to Sicily in 2011 was that when we pulled up to the Villa Romana di Casale in Piazza Armerina, the whole property was closed for restoration. This Villa is an absolute highlight of any trip to Sicily. It is still uncertain who built it, but whoever it was was rich beyond belief. 38,000 square feet of villa, plus outbuildings. The whole wasdiscovered in 1929, having been buried by a landslide in the 12th century. Arriving mid morning we spent three terrific hours touring the mosaic floors. Just a few feet of walls remain with glimpses of the frescoes—the attraction is the floors. The signage is excellent. If you read all the signs you will probably know more than you want to, but I especially loved all the detail and caught Mark up as he took picture after picture. All of it is covered to protect the mosaics and much of the viewing is done from catwalks. For detail you may want binoculars and even a strong flashlight if it's a cloudy day. We did not go into Piazza Amerina as it is another hill town with medieval streets. We crossed it twice in 2011 and vowed never again. Leaving the Villa we tried to take the truck route but somehow lost it. So we spent about 20 minutes roving country one lane roads and finally hooked up to the main road for Noto.
We had originally read the one paragraph on Noto in the Michelin green guide (though two stars) and since its claim to fame was its fine Baroque architecture—which we don't much care for--had decided to just go on to Siricusa. But, in rereading I read the fine print that mentioned the third Sunday in May was the Flower Festival. We checked the web and sure enough today was the third Sunday in May and the festival slated to last to Tuesday. So off we went. We did take the long way round sticking to the big roads. I didn't like the look of the roads over the mountains. In fact we were quite surprised around Piazza to see signs showing chains required from November 15 to April 15. I had no idea it snowed in Sicily away from Mount Aetna. We arrived at Parking Nota, a sosta in a lemon grove, with pretty much full campground amenities, and a free shuttle the 1 mile to town for 15E a night without electricity. N 36.88365 E 15.08602. Nice folks with even a little English. (There is a sign indicating 2.7 height just before campground. Actually it is over 3m in the middle and only 2.7 at edges.) We took the 5:30 shuttle to town. Oh my gosh. I thought everyone in Sicily was there. There were way over a hundred tour buses, a huge market with antiques, food, collectibles, curiosities, etc. Like the booths from the Texas State Fair and the Ohio State Fair all done in Italian. In the town piazza between the Cathedral and the Town Hall was full of dancers, bands, and the end of a costumed procession. Beyond it folks were lined up for blocks to see the flower street. Each year a different theme is interpreted in “paintings” done in flower petals on the street which runs uphill for perhaps three blocks. This year's theme was all things Chinese. We had dinner just after dark and took the shuttle back. At this point we were really surprised that the sosta had had plenty of room, despite the festival. We had decided not to wait in line to see the flower pictures so went back in town Monday morning. A few straggler booths were still selling things but for the most part all was cleaned up and no line to admire the flower paintings and the rest of the UNESCO historic area. The town was moved and rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1789 and the wealth that was put into the new buildings is amazing. They are all from a gorgeous, creamy sandstone, with lovely balconies with carved figures supporting them. By all means if you can be there for the weekend of the third Sunday in May, go, but even if not then, it is well worth a day of your time.
Syracuse is only an hour away. We decided to stay at the free sosta at the port (N37.06912 E15.29078). Not the most pleasant to get to with small streets, but a super convenient site just 1.2k from the archaeological park and 1.1k from the historical center of Syracuse on the island of Ortigia. The downside was that there are 3 restaurant/bars and even on a Tuesday night the partying persisted until after midnight. The most room for campers is to the left as you enter. Having been to Syracuse before we decided not to revisit the archaeological park ruins but did go back to the museum. Most of the signage is in English. Again, like last time, sections were closed, but there is still too much to see. On the island we visited the Cathedral, 2E charge unusual in Italy, but very much worth it. The ancient Greek temple was incorporated into the basilica and makes an immediate impression upon entering. The nearby church with the Caravaggio painting is also worth a stop. Most of all we enjoyed wandering the streets down to the harbor and through the old Jewish quarter and the market area. Somewhat touristy, but still atmospheric and interesting.
We had allowed ourselves up to three weeks for Sicily, but now at the end of two, we decided not to linger further but head up the boot to the Naples area. I think that if it is your first trip, three weeks would be just about right for a thorough but somewhat leisurely visit to the island. We had good weather overall with temperatures in the 70s sometimes getting a bit too hot for all the outside sightseeing. Last time we came in March and found several of the things we wanted to see not open. I think April would be perfect. Till next month. Vicki (TheRoadGoesEverOn.com)