By Mike Markowski, OLLI Traveler
Our contingent of OLLI members and guest travelers assembled from various airports across the U.S. for a 16-day tour of Sicily from April 17 through May 2, 2023. Although we all eventually arrived in Catania from various U.S. locations, the largest contingent of our 39 pilgrims traveled by Fullington Bus on Monday, April 17, to the international terminal at Philadelphia via Rome to Catania, Sicily. Traversing the Rome airport for the connecting flights from international to national flights was an adventure all unto its own — both ways. It just added to the many memorable experiences that we had individually and together.
The weather was generally comfortable with layers to accommodate temperature variances. The days were mostly bright and sunny and that only enhanced the gorgeous views of coastline, mountains, valleys, and our encounters with local tour guides and the Sicilians going about their daily activities. There was only one day where rain posed a challenge — the day before our departure for the U.S. We had a remarkable string of luck.
Eventually, we arrived in Catania on Tuesday, April 18, and made our way by hired vans to Taormina and the Hotel Villa Diodoro. We had a brief orientation talk and walk with our tour guide, Marcello, who helped with recommendations for dining. Mostly, we were trying to recover from jet lag and travel fatigue after a long day of travel. It was a steep climb from the hotel up the driveway to street level and a short walk uphill to Taormina, but once on the main street of the old town, it was worth the walk among the old Roman road filled with tourists who had the opportunity to window shop or explore a wide variety of eating opportunities. The beauty of the coastline in Taormina is difficult to describe because it was so stunning. The view from the public garden into the town at the foot of the ridge that held old town Taormina was enchanting. The rail lines and station below looked from a distance like a model train set. The sunset from the square in Taormina was exquisite. The lights along the populated coastline at night were a striking visual image from Taormina’s heights. One lasting image of Sicily will be the narrow curving lanes shared by vehicles and people.
Our outstanding tour guide, Marcello, was informative, gracious, accommodating, and patient as we began our tour in earnest in Taormina on Wednesday, April 19. After years of hearing about Mt. Etna, it was striking to have a daily view of its snow-capped rim from our hotel and the town of Taormina. That served as the backdrop for the walking tour of Taormina.
For many of us, the highlight of the tour was on Thursday, April 20. That was the day that we traveled by bus with our outstanding driver, Mario, as he negotiated narrow and curving mountain roads to Savoca, representative of the many hillside villages in Sicily and the site of many scenes filmed in the “Godfather” movies. We even got to meet a woman who had been an actor in the series. But as lovely as the walking tour and scenery were, the best was yet to come — the home-hosted lunch with local Sicilian families. We divided into small groups to be distributed among the families. We all had tales to tell about the graciousness of our hosts, the amount of food and drink (especially the homemade wine), and the opportunity to learn a bit about each other.
Friday, April 21, was “E-Day.” This was our trip to Mt. Etna for a closer look and tour of the multiple craters that make up Mt. Etna. We learned about the rich volcanic soil and lava flows. The day before, we were treated to an informative and entertaining lecture by a volcanologist to enhance our understanding of the geological structure of Sicily. It was colder at higher elevations, but layers made it comfortable. Walking over the crater rim provided stunning views of the countryside. The walk over the stony and dark ash terrain had the feel of “walking on the moon.” While most of us were able to enjoy the walk to the crater, several of us, more seasoned hikers, had the opportunity to explore Mt. Etna from a steeper climb and venue, and see some of the nearby caves. Our return to Taormina included a lunch stop where Mt. Etna had one final gift for us. As we were eating lunch, several of us felt the floor move under our feet (it’s not just a line from a song, it’s a real thing in Italian geology). We looked at each other to verify that we had felt an actual tremor. Marcello and Mario were getting text messages about an earthquake at 4.2 on the Richter Scale.
Saturday, April 22, we departed Taormina for Siracusa by way of a short stop in Catania for a visit to a WWII museum. The museum illustrated life under the rule of Mussolini and his Fascists and the Allied invasion of Sicily in April 1943 on the southern coast by a combined American and British force. The museum included an exhibit to simulate what the civilian residents endured under the Allied bombing attack in support of the invasion. We learned about Liberation Day, celebrated as the Nazis and Fascists escaped across the straits of Messina into Italy, where the Nazis would eventually continue the war even as Italy capitulated and drove Mussolini from power and to his eventual demise. But one of the best surprises of the tour — and that is what makes tours a treat, the unanticipated, and unplanned events (like the earthquake tremor) — was the opportunity to meet Marcello’s mother in Catania. What a joyful reunion. Finally, our bus arrived in Siracusa, founded by the Greeks in the 7th Century B.C., and a powerful rival city-state to Athens. Our stay at the Grand Hotel Villa Politi was memorable not only for the majestic staircase, wonderful veranda, but also the knowledge that it was built next to the quarry that furnished the stone for the Greek Temples in Siracusa. We were literally living and walking among 7th Century B.C. “ghosts.”
Sunday, April 23, began bright and sunny. We traveled by van to explore the original Greek settlement in Ortygia, once a peninsula, but now an island fortress made by the Spanish rulers of Sicily. Our local tour guide took us on a walking tour that began with the ruins of a Greek temple and then followed the boulevard and narrow streets to the Jewish Quarter and then on to the cathedral with its repurposed Greek temple columns. Some of us had the opportunity to tour the harbor and water caves on the so-called “Love Boat.” Others used the time to explore the side streets, full of life and establishments, in this delightful setting. Some of us took the opportunity to shop at the outdoor market for souvenirs and lunch with nearby establishments.
Monday, April 24, took us to the UNESCO World Heritage site at Noto. It was essentially destroyed by an earthquake but rebuilt with magnificent structures including cathedrals, convents, and government buildings. It is notable for a flower festival.
Tuesday, April 25, split the group. Many went to Ragusa on an optional tour of Baroque-style architecture. The rest spent the day exploring the antiquities museum and the park with remains of the Greek settlement and temples. As we had one more opportunity to visit Ortygia for its liveliness, some of us took vans to the island for dinner. As we walked about on Liberation Day, the liveliness of the Sicilian young burst out. There was a very good rock band playing on a street corner with a growing crowd that overflowed into the street in front of the establishment that hosted the band. It was a congested path for cars and motorcycles to navigate but like all things in Sicily, the drivers and music-lovers adapted.
On Wednesday, April 26, we departed Siracusa for Agrigento and its Valley of Temples. We arrived at the Colleverde Park Hotel to a room with a view — the Temple of Corinth. Before our arrival, we stopped at a farm to explore their milk, grain, and cheese-making production. Then, we had lunch at the associated restaurant. Multiple courses were typical of the full meals at lunch or dinner.
Our exploration of the temples began on Thursday, April 27. The Valley of the Temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our local tour guide took us on a tour. The stunning views of the coast and the town above the temples on a bright sunny day were noteworthy. In the afternoon, some of us visited the antiquities museum, some of us visited the beach to dip our toes into the Mediterranean and have lunch at outdoor cafes, and some of us were able to combine museum and beach trips. This was thanks to the accommodations by Marcello and Mario. In the evening, after a multi-course pizza supper, Marcello and Mario had one more surprise. As spectacular as the temples are by daylight, they are lit up at night. Mario drove our bus to a vantage point for picture taking, we celebrated his birthday, and then Mario drove our bus through the valley to see the beauty of the temples in the lights.
On Friday, April 28, we began our bus trip across the middle of the island from Agrigento on the south coast with Palermo on the northwest coast as our final destination. Along the way, we drove through spectacular scenery, including the sharp geological outlines of the Apennine Mountains and lush green valleys. We stopped midway at the town of Corleone for a walking tour and explanation of its role with the La Costra Nostra and the linkages of the Sicilian and U.S. branches, the heroic martyrdom of judges and prosecutor, and the breaking of the organization. A wonderful pasta lunch followed, and we continued on to our last stop, the Hotel Garibaldi in Palermo.
Saturday, April 29, began our walking tour of Palermo. We found the magnificent concert and opera houses and the Four Corners at the intersection of the two main arteries in Palermo, an ancient Phoenician city. Our walking tour included many new architectural forms like the Norman church combined with Arab mosque styles. Many of us continued on with a walk through the fish market and its bustling life. We were treated to a demonstration of marionettes by a 5th-generation family.
Sunday, April 29, many of us went on the optional tour to Cefalu along the northern coast east of Palermo. We had a relaxing day with the view of the volcanic islands off the coast and the rocky shoreline. The highlight of the tour included a visit to the Norman cathedral, fortress-church, and a visit with an artisan who turns the roots of olive trees into wood sculptures.
Monday, May 1, was another national holiday, Labor Day. Many stores were closed but many eating establishments remained open. The city was packed. However, we left by bus for the famous Cathedral at the town of Monreale, built in the 1100s by the Normans and filled with mosaic images and biblical stories made by the finest Byzantine artists. Picture do not do justice to the light playing on the gold between two pieces of glass in the mosaic piece. We were also treated to some interesting entertainment upon exiting the cathedral for the square. We observed a local group of multiple drummers and a folk dancing group. Again, another surprise that makes travel better. Finally, the rain came in the afternoon, our last day in Sicily. Some of us navigated back to the marionette theatre for a performance. Others took advantage to rest and pack ahead of the challenging “longest day” of travel ahead of us with a 3:00 a.m. bus departure for the airport. After a long day of travel, and grappling with the Rome airport, we arrived in Philadelphia in the afternoon of Tuesday, May 2, where some of us looked forward to the Fullington Bus ride to State College.
How good was this trip? My heart is still in Sicily.