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Part 3: Taormina, Catania, Villa Romana del Casale

22.12: Munich -> Catania
23.12: Acireale - Mt Etna - Acireale
24.12: Acireale -> Taormina -> Acireale
25.12: Acireale -> Aci Castello -> Catania -> Acireale
26.12: Acireale -> Villa Romana del Casale -> Palermo
27.12: Daytrip to Cefalu
28.12: Palermo
29.12: Palermo -> Monreale -> Palermo

30.12: Palermo -> Riserva naturale dello Zingaro -> Trapani
31.12: Trapani -> Erice -> Trapani
1.1: Trapani -> Marsala -> Trapani
2.1: Trapani -> Marsala -> Selinunte -> Agrigento
3.1: Agrigento -> Ragusa
4.1: Ragusa -> Modica -> Siracusa
5.1: Siracusa
6.1: Siracusa -> Catania -> Munich

24.12: Acireale -> Taormina -> Acireale
Hotel All Seasons, Acireale.
Weather: sunny blue sky the whole day. Mild temperatures the whole day, probably between 15C and 20C. No rain.

Today the idea would be to visit Taormina, making a stop in Castelmola for the nice view first. Leaving the hotel around 11am I key in Castemola into the navigation system. When it asks for the street I just enter a random street, with the idea that it will bring me close enough to Castelmola, so that I can complete the final part of the trip by following road signs.

What in reality happens is that the navigation system brings us a place on a hill in the middle of nowhere, 9km from the centre of Castelmola. Apparently even a small village such as Castelmola is spread over a very large area, with streets located several km from the village centre. But here is what happens.

Initially we drive to the motorway. Getting to the motorway access point of Acireale really takes a lot of time because you have to drive through a weird maze of streets, many of them very narrow, with very frequent intersections, frequently turning left or right. In theory Acireale is a small city of just 53000 inhabitants, in practice reaching the motorway takes half an hour. It's a tiny little city, but has the traffic problems of a huge metropolis. The roads are planned in a totally dumb manner.

Anyway, we reach the motorway and drive until Giardini Naxos, which is the last motorway exit before Taormina. Later I find out that I should have taken the Taormina exit and the road I took is not a shortcut.

We follow the directions of the Navigon car navigation system and this leads us to an unbelievably weird route. At a certain point the paved road ends and we find ourselves on a narrow dirt track full of stones, which is slowly winding up the mountain.

We make lots of stops in between, because here up in the hills the views are great. And by the way, in the plains the scenery is absolutely beautiful, with olive trees, orange tree and lemon tree plantations.

It's just that driving on this steep dirt track is really a challenge. Luckily there is no oncoming traffic, because it's impossible to reverse the car and driving in the reverse direction on a road would be almost impossible. But I guess that the locals know this road and nobody would be so dumb to drive on it with a car. It's just tourists with a GPS navigation system who end up on a road like this.

Anyway, it must be 1pm or so when we finally reach the point in the middle of nowhere to which the car navigation system has sent us. So we reverse a bit, make a U-turn and start driving towards the sea.

I wonder if there is a bug in the Navigon software or if perhaps those who supplied the maps of the area did a poor job. This could also be because yesterday, when I enquired about the road to Mt Etna in the hotel, the staff at the reception told me not to use the car navigation system.

With a few more stops we finally reach the car parking of Taormina. Cars are not allowed into Taormina, unless the driver is staying in a hotel in Taormina or is driving to Castelmola. We park the car at the Lumbi parking (6 Euro for 2 1/2 hours) and take the (free) shuttle bus to Taormina.

It's almost 2pm when we finally make it to Taormina. The city lies on a hill overlooking the sea and is sort of cute, although not that impressive and is in fact a bit overrated. It's not exactly a gem as claimed on some tourist portals. It's more of a mid-range pretty city, worth visiting, but which you can also skip and not miss that much.

We look around for some place where to eat. There are several restaurants, all charging this coperto fee (although only 2 Euro instead of 3). Finally we choose a bar where to have a small thing. It's too late anyway for a real lunch and this bar doesn't charge a coperto fee.

At 3pm we get out of this bar and walk to the Greek theater. This was in reality built by the Romans, from what I read in the Internet. The entrance ticket costs 8 Euro, children do not pay. The Greek theater is really nice, in a good preservation status and offers good views of the surrounding area.

We spend 50 minutes in the theater, then slowly start walking back towards the car. We catch the shuttle bus to the parking and by the time we are start driving back to Acireale it's already 4:20pm and the sun is starting to set.

Brief stop shortly before Giardini Naxos, because there is a great view of Mt Etna at sunset and a brief stop in Giardini Naxos where I check the beach. The beach really sucks and in fact around Taormina I don't see a beach, which makes me wonder why people would come here for a beach holiday.

We finally get back to the motorway and drive until the Acireale exit (toll is 1.30 Euro). Once there we drive to a McDonald restaurant I had spotted this morning. There we finally have some decent food. Well, it's just fast food, but better than the junk we have been eating these past two days.

It's possible that there is great food in Sicily, but restaurants are just too overpriced. It's absurd spending 80+ Euro for meals twice a day, just because restaurants are so expensive. Eating in a restaurant here is more expensive than in Germany, even if in Germany the average income is much higher.

We are back in the hotel at 6pm. Tomorrow we might drive to Catania which seems to have a nice beach judging from the satellite view of Google Maps. Or we might have a closer look at Acireale which seems to have a nature reserve adjacent to it.

25.12: Acireale -> Aci Castello -> Catania -> Acireale
Hotel All Seasons, Acireale.
Weather: sunny blue sky the whole day. Mild temperatures the whole day, windy along the beach.

We leave the hotel after 11am and drive to the nearby Aci Castello city. Aci Castello is a small city with 18000 inhabitants a few km south of Acireale with an small harbour and a seaside promenade. We are there at 11:30am and park somewhere. It's actually a free parking but there is a woman who is there doing nothing besides collecting donations of people and Shirley thinks we need to pay her 2 Euro.

So we walk towards the harbour and the promenade. It's the Xmas day and lots of people are on the streets and on the promenade. The view is kind of cute but not really that impressive. There are three rocks coming out of the water (the so-called faraglioni), two of which are vertical pillars, but that's it. The promenade is actually quite short and there is no beach.

A couple of young Poles from Wroclaw who are fluent in Italian and seem to be living here ask me to take a picture of them. They kind of hint that due to the bad economy they cannot stay here. I'm a bit surprised that they are living in Italy at all since the Polish economy is booming, or let's say is certainly in a better shape than the Sicilian one.

We don't spend too much time in Aci Castello and shortly before 1pm we leave for Catania. The idea would be to have a good lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Catania, then either do a tour of the city or go to the beach.

We take again the inland road (i.e. you have to drive for some time towards the interior, then proceed parallel to the coast). This is the route suggested by the navigation system, but in fact it would have been simpler and faster to just drive along the coast, as we later find out when driving back from Catania to Acireale along the coast.

Again we drive on absurd roads, narrow, steep, full of intersections. As usual the local Sicilian drivers drive like shit. A woman stops her car in the middle of a narrow road to have a chat with another woman, not bothering that this way she is blocking the traffic. Other drivers are doing manouvers which are either forbidden or dangerous. Lots of cars passing red traffic lights. A car honks us when we stop at a red traffic light instead of driving through.

Essentially it's this combination of very poor road network and car drivers with no manners which makes driving in Sicily such a challenge. It's not a surprise that so many cars have scratches and dents.

Anyway, Catania is not that far away and before 1:30pm we are there. Shirley spots a Chinese restaurant along the way, the Ruyi. So we stop there and have lunch.

At first sight this would appear to be a good place to eat, because the staff is friendly and speaks good Mandarin and the meals are inexpensive (dishes are in the 3-5 Euro range). Turns out that this is not a good restaurant, because they have no rice (can you imagine a Chinese restaurant with no rice?), the portions are very small and they use the same, very salty sauce (lots of glutamat perhaps) for all dishes we order.

After a mediocre lunch we drive to Piazza Duomo. It's 3pm now and too late for the sightseeing bus tour of Catania, because the sun will set in less than an hour and a half.

So we stop for about 20 minutes here for some strolling and photos of the Duomo square and then just drive to the beach which is actually quite close (1.5km from the Duomo square).

Since it's winter the beach is pretty much deserted. It's a nice and long beach of fine sand, at least 50m wide, extending for 3-4km to the west of Catania airport and immediately south of the harbour of Catania. We can't find an entrance to the beach, so simply walk over a small fence.

The kids are immediately delighted by the sand and the waves. It may be winter, but if you put two small girls on a sandy beach they immediately know what to do. Alissia and Natasha start collecting sea shells, and then proceed building sand castles. In the process they get a bit wet because they get too close to the waves.

We are on the beach until sunset and leave after 4:30pm. We then drive back to Acireale, this time on the coastal road. This turns out to be a much better road than the interior road we have been using so far. On the way I spot a Credito Siciliano bank branch and get some cash from an ATM.

Shortly after that I see several cars crossing a red traffic light. I stop and wonder how it can be that people drive over a deep red traffic light. Shirley tells me that most probably the traffic light is broken (otherwise why would people simply ignore it) and that I should drive through as well. I tell her I'll wait a minute or two to see if it is really broken.

After a short while the traffic light turns green. So it was not broken after all and all those drivers who just crossed broke traffic rules.
Later I stop again at a red traffic light, which the cars in front of me have ignored. It even goes as far as a driver behind me honks me because I stop and don't drive through.

We are back in the hotel at 5:30pm. Alissia has a strong headache. It must have been that fresh wind on the beach, since she wasn't wearing any jacket while playing with the sand on the beach. Later in the evening she recovers.

We spend the rest of the evening in the hotel not doing much.

26.12: Acireale -> Villa Romana del Casale -> Palermo
Hotel Casena dei Colli, Palermo. 80 Euro for a small apartment consisting of a corridor, a bedroom and a living room. Both rooms have an A/C unit which doubles as a heater in winter. The A/C unit in the bedroom emits an urine smell when generating cold air (probably it needs servicing). The small bathroom is inside the sleeping room and has a shower (electric water boiler system). This hotel is not as flashy and new as the one in Acireale. Two TVs (not flat screen), one in the bedroom, one in the living room. Breakfast included in the room rate. Some furniture, two tables, and a cupboard for the clothes. No WLAN reception in the room (access code valid for 24h obtainable at the reception upon request).
Weather: cloudy in the morning in Acireale, from 12pm onwards and more inland the sky opens up. Sunny blue sky for the rest of the day, mild temperatures.

We check out of the hotel in Acireale shortly after 11am and start driving towards Piazza Armerina, where we'll visit the ancient Roman villa. As usual it takes a while to navigate out of the maze of streets of Acireale (and it appears that the maps of Navigon are out of date).

Once on the motorway we initially drive towards Catania. Suddenly Alissia remembers that we forgot the plastic blanket of Natasha in the hotel (the one we use in case Natasha pees in the bed). Never mind, we'll get that when we are back in Catania on January 6th (I call the hotel and ask them to keep it for us).

We stop at a motorway station since Alissia does not feel so well and buy some snacks. Then we continue driving. From Acireale to Catania the motorway toll is 50  cents of a Euro. After that and until Palermo the motorway is free.

We drive on the motorway for a while, then at some point we leave it and continue driving on normal roads. The surprising thing is that these roads now are very wide, straight, mostly in good shape and empty. Almost no traffic. It's amazing that in the interior of Sicily, in the middle of nowhere, where there is barely any traffic, the roads are in such a good shape.

Quite cool scenery by the way, on this sunny December day. The landscape consists mainly of hills with not so steep slopes. Very few real mountains.

At 1:40pm we reach the parking of Villa Romana del Casale. From here it's a 300m walk to the Villa, passing by souvenir stands which today are almost all closed. Not so many tourists today.

The ticket costs 10 Euro/person (children don't pay).

The Roman villa is a set of buildings, covered with newly built roofs designed to protect the mosaic floors. In these buildings there are very impressive mosaics on the floors, in fact the best preserved and most impressive mosaics I've seen so far. These mosaics are also very big (one extends for 20m or so) and incredibly detailed. They show scenes of ancient Rome (social life, hunting, war etc.).

We spend one hour in this place, then Shirley has had enough and we walk back to the parking. It's almost 3pm when we start driving towards Palermo.

The road to Palermo is again pretty much empty and mostly in a good shape. Every now and then there are speed limits which make no sense (down to 30, 20 or even 10km/h in the middle of nowhere). After a while we are back on the motorway.

Shortly before 5pm we reach Palermo and the motorway ends. We have to drive the few remaining km through Palermo. The traffic is a bit chaotic, with local drivers doing what they like. I start honking people (usually in Germany I never honk anybody). Around 5:20pm we are finally in the hotel.

In the evening we have a dinner in a nearby Chinese restaurant.

Copyright 2013 Alfred Molon