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Today it was time for us to leave Catania behind, picking up our hire car and exploring some more remote bits of Sicily. We'd booked to pick the hire car up from the airport, mostly because it will be convenient to be able to return it to there at the end of the week, and so we set off to catch the airport bus back there this morning. We'd realised when walking outside our apartment the other day that the airport bus actually has two stops on our road, so the good news was that we didn't have to walk all the way to the station to catch it. The bus wasn't as busy as it had been on Saturday morning and we had a relatively pleasant journey, arriving at the airport just before 10am. 10am was the time we had booked to pick up our hire car, so I expected that we'd just be able to walk in, show the documentation and drive off. Every time we've hired a car previously it's taken about 10 - 15 minutes to sort out the formalities. It turns out hiring a car in Catania takes a lot longer When we got to the hire counter we found we had to take a ticket to wait to be served. We got number 83 and they were currently on 72. I've got no idea why, but dealing with each person seemed to take an extremely long time and we stood there for what felt like forever while the numbers edged slowly forward. Some people must have either given up or taken several tickets, because a couple of times they'd call a number and there would be no one there, so we were able to skip forward a bit. In the end we stood there for over an hour and it was after 11am by the time Tim finally had the hire contract. When I was researching hire cars in Sicily prior to the trip, they all seemed like quite good value but the thing which really made us nervous was the level of the excess which the rental companies wanted to hold on our credit card. I think the most we've had before was €800 in the Azores, but it seems that hire companies in Sicily routinely ask for €1,200 and sometimes even €1,500. Because Sicily felt like it had the potential to be a challenging location in which to drive, we ended up taking out a separate insurance policy which we can claim on if we end up having to pay any of the excess to the hire company. That added on to the overall cost, but gives us a bit more piece of mind. When we eventually located the place to pick up our car from and got the keys, it turned out that we'd been given a Polo; a bigger car than I had expected! The rental desk was so chaotic that we definitely weren't going to go back and question it There was plenty of space in the boot for our suitcases and soon we were on our way, only about 90 minutes later than I'd expected. Our first stop of the trip was a place called Cava Grande del Fiume Cassibile, which our guidebook had described as being like the Sicilian version of the Grand Canyon. It was included in the list of the top 18 things to see in Sicily at the front of the guidebook, so I'd deliberately worked it into our itinerary for today. When we got there, we ended up being a bit underwhelmed by it. There was indeed a canyon, but because the weather is so hot and dry there wasn't very much water to see. We could just about make it out if we zoomed in Luckily the canyon hadn't been too great a diversion, because it was only a few miles outside the town of Noto, which is where we were heading next. Noto has existed since Roman times, but the original town was destroyed during the Sicilian earthquake of 1693. The town was rebuilt, but in a completely different location about 8km from its original site. Today Noto is one of the best examples of Sicilian Baroque architecture and a World Heritage Site. The most impressive building is undoubtedly Noto's cathedral. The construction of the cathedral was completed in 1776 but part of the building, including the dome, collapsed in 1996 and had to be rebuilt, opening again in 2007. You wouldn't be able to tell that by looking at it today We walked around Noto for a while, admiring the views. We stopped to have lunch at a restaurant under some shady trees. We both had penne with ragu which was really nice, but not the largest portion in the world, so we ended up ordering pudding as well There was a bit more of Noto to see before heading back to the car to travel onwards to our ultimate destination of the day: Ragusa. Ragusa is located about 30 miles inland from Noto, so it wasn't the longest drive in the world. What did take us a while was trying to track down our B&B once we'd arrived! We did several circuits around the old town before I got out of the car and tracked it down on foot. It turned out to be exactly where Google had said it would be, but the sign was very small Our room is in a B&B in Ragusa Ibla. In what seems like a familiar theme, most of Ragusa was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake and a new town, called Ragusa Superiore, was built higher up the hill. The original town, Ragusa Ibla, was also eventually reconstructed, and when I was researching places to stay this definitely seemed like the most scenic location. Once we'd settled into our room, we went out to explore. The sun was in the wrong location to take good photos, but we could see Ragusa Superiore in the distance. We soon got a good view of the Duomo of San Giorgio. We'd already driven down this narrow road and seen it once when we were looking for our B&B! We came around the side of the cathedral into a square. Again, the sun wasn't in the best possible position, but from the end of the square we could look back towards the cathedral. Further on we found another beautiful church too We walked towards the edge of the town where I'd read that there were some gardens. Sure enough we found them and walked down a beautiful alley lined with palm trees. From the far edge of the gardens we had views out over the surrounding countryside... ...in several directions We'd walked as far as we could now, so we turned around and set off back towards the B&B to make a start on the blog
Our plan for today was to take a daytrip to the town of Siracusa, located about 40 miles south of Catania. There is a regional train service connecting the two towns, but the trains don't run very often. We had a choice between 08.45 and 10.45 this morning, so decided to have a leisurely start to the day and take the 10.45. We left our apartment around 10am and walked towards Catania's main train station. It was already baking hot, even in the shade. We got to the train station with plenty of time to spare and bought our tickets from the machine. As ever in Italy, the regional trains are really cheap and the trip to Siracusa - which takes just over an hour - only cost €6.90 each. It turned out that we needn't have hurried to the train station because every single train on the departures board was delayed, including our own, which was due to arrive on platform 1. When we stepped out onto platform 1 I was surprised to see how busy it was, only to later realise that most of the people were waiting for a train to Rome... which was delayed by an hour and 50 minutes We were quite lucky in comparison that our train was only advertised as having a 10 minute delay, although that was gradually extended to 15 minutes and then 20. We had a change of platform, to accommodate a train from Messina which was also delayed, and eventually, around 11.10, our train finally appeared. Hooray! There was no attempt to make up for lost time, as the train sat in the station for a bit and then made other, seemingly random, prolonged stops along the way. The journey took us through some countryside, then along a bit of coastline which seemed quite industrial, before finally arriving in Siracusa around 12.30. Better later than never I guess! Siracusa, also known as Syracuse, is famous for having been an important Greek city in ancient times and was the birthplace of Greek mathematician Archimedes. Most of the sights of the town are located on the island of Ortigia where Greeks from Corinth originally founded the city. Today the city has spread out onto the mainland, which is where the train station is located, so we needed to walk from there to Ortigia. There weren't many helpful signs to follow, but we knew we were on the right track when we came to a bridge across a small body of water. On the far side of the water, we came to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo. The temple is believed to have been built by the Greeks in the sixth century BC. We walked through a pretty square with a fountain... ...and then began to make our way through the narrow streets of the old town. It was a really beautiful town We soon came to a huge square... ...which is home to Siracusa's cathedral. The cathedral was built on the site of a Greek temple to Athena, originally in the 7th century, but significantly rebuilt after Sicily's big earthquake in 1693. From the cathedral it wasn't far to the edge of the island. The beach looked incredibly stony, but there were still a fair few people sunbathing on it. The water was beautifully clear... ...and we had some great views, both of the town and out to sea. We found a lovely walkway to follow along by the coast. Once again we found some really pretty flowers, which seemed to be flourishing despite how hot the weather was. After a while we came to a little park which provided some welcome shade. It was home to some enormous trees, which looked very old. By this point we'd managed to do a circuit of the island and were back at the bridge where we'd started. We headed back into the old town, now on the lookout for a place where we could get a late lunch. After a bit of walking we eventually found a place with scenic views out over the sea. We had some delicious pizza... ...followed by an americano, which came like this: an espresso, with hot water to dilute it After lunch we walked back along the coast... ...crossing back over the bridge towards the newer part of town. Our regional train back was supposed to be just after 4pm but guess what, it was delayed! It actually set off more or less on time, but after a few unexplained stops somehow still managed to arrive in Catania over half an hour late It was also incredibly hot and sticky, which made me glad that we're not relying on public transport for the entire holiday. Tomorrow we will be picking up our hire car and leaving Catania behind, heading towards the town of Ragusa.
After a good ten hours of sleep, we felt a lot more energised this morning than we did last night Our plan for today was to visit a town called Taormina, which is located about 30 miles north of Catania. While you can take a train directly to Taormina from Catania, it's not a very good idea; the station is at sea level, but Taormina itself is a hilltop town situated around 200 metres above that. Our plan was therefore to travel by bus, which takes just over an hour and costs €8.50 return. The guidebook had warned that the bus station was a bit confusing, and indeed it was. The ticket office isn't located within the bus station itself but on a separate street around the corner, which is a bit odd. Tim got directions from a taxi driver and we found it in the end, just on time to catch the 10am bus. Sadly, the 10am bus itself wasn't on time. We waited in the bus station while numerous other buses came and went and an increasingly large horde of people began to congregate, all of whom seemingly also wanted to go to Taormina. It was around 10.25 by the time it eventually showed up and we managed to battle our way on to get seats. The delay setting off, combined with traffic on the way, meant that it was getting close to midday by the time we got off the bus in Taormina. The bus station seemed to be on the outskirts of the town and there were no obvious signs pointing to the town centre, so we walked uphill in what we hoped was the correct general direction, and soon had this confirmed when we arrived outside what looked like an old town gate. We passed through the gate and onto a narrow street. As you can see, it was quite busy. The main attraction in Taormina is an ancient theatre, so we started following signs towards that. As we got closer, we walked down a street with the most amazing purple flowers. They looked like some sort of creeper. Whatever they were they had completely taken over the trees they were growing on. It costs €10 each to go into the theatre, which I'd included in my holiday budget, only to forget to add the extra money to the pile which we were taking out today. I was just lamenting this fact when we walked through the entrance of the theatre and found that it was free to get in today Not sure whether it was because it was a Sunday (or maybe because it was the first Sunday of the month?) but it was very good timing The theatre is slightly confusingly described as being Greek, although it's actually Roman Apparently the style and plan of it is Greek, but the fact that it's mostly built of brick means that it's Roman in origin, although it may have been built by the Romans on the foundations of an older Greek theatre. It was really huge anyway As we climbed higher up around it we had some brilliant views of Mount Etna in the distance... ...and of the sea We came around the corner to another view point, where we could see down towards a coastline that looked quite rocky. This way we were looking northwards rather than south towards Etna. We were level with the top of the theatre now and walking around the outer edge. From here you could really appreciate how enormous the theatre was. And how enormous Etna is! The theatre was so high that I was too scared to walk around the top steps (it was quite a steep drop!!), but Tim did and took some photos of the amazing views From here we could also see what seemed to be a castle on one of the hills above Taormina, but it was far too hot today to consider exploring it any further. Instead, we climbed back down to the bottom of the theatre... ...went back past the purple flowers... ...and started to explore the town a bit more. In the distance we soon caught sight of a clock tower. This was located in Piazza IX Aprile, which is Taormina's main square. It was a lovely square, with views down towards the sea... ...and trees with beautiful pink flowers. Given how hot and dry Sicily is, the flowers are really exceeding my expectations! We continued further along the main street... ...before emerging in another square. This was Piazza Duomo. The church is Taormina's cathedral, originally built in the thirteenth century but reconstructed several times since then. We found a restaurant by the side of the square where the prices seemed surprisingly reasonable and sat down for our first proper Italian meal of the holiday We both had pizza diavola, which was absolutely beautiful, and some local wine. Then it was back through the town, in the direction of the bus station. We took a diversion to some signposted gardens, which were free to enter. They were really beautiful We had views up towards the castle on the hill above the town... ...as well as down towards the sea... ...and we could still see Etna looming in the distance. There were some pretty amazing cactuses too We got to the bus station on time to elbow our way onto the 15.45 bus and were soon on our way back towards Catania. So far Sicily has been amazing
We have booked a fair few early flights over the years, but I think today's may be one of the earliest ever: 06.20 from Gatwick. Once we worked it backwards, this meant airport parking was booked for 4am and, as the drive to Gatwick takes 2.5 hours even in optimal conditions, this required leaving home at 01.30. It was a painful feeling last night when we set our alarms for 1am... and I have to confess that when mine went off, I gave serious consideration to just going back to sleep and not going on holiday at all I did drag myself out of bed in the end though, and we set off to Gatwick in the darkness. The journey went well until we realised that the M1 was completely closed for overnight roadworks between two junctions, which necessitated us following a somewhat long and torturous diversion. That added a bit on to the journey time, so it was closer to 04.15 when we ultimately arrived at our airport parking. Tim had booked the cheapest possible parking, which turned out to be at a hotel in the general vicinity of Gatwick. We had to pay an additional £3 each per direction for the privilege of using the airport shuttle, which was a little bit unusual, but otherwise it was fine and we got to the airport more quickly that I expected. Our destination for the coming week is Sicily and today we were flying to Catania with Norwegian. Check-in was extremely efficient, as was security, and by 5am we were sitting in the airport Wetherspoons eating breakfast It felt a bit weird to me to be flying with Norwegian to a sunny destination, as it's an airline we've only ever used in the past for flying to cold places (Norway and Finland), but the planes are more spacious than most budget airlines and we had a nice flight. After such an early start I fell asleep pretty much during take off and only woke up again once we were over the Alps. From there the plane flew down the coast of Italy but we were on the wrong side of the aircraft to see anything except for a lot of sea! It was around 09.30 when we caught our first glimpse of the coast of Sicily. Catania is on the eastern coast of Sicily, and so we flew across the middle of the island as we came into land. We will be exploring some of the interior of the island later this week with the help of a rental car. First impressions are that it doesn't look very green! Ironically for a day when we weren't in a rush to be anywhere, our plane landed slightly ahead of schedule. As we taxied towards the terminal building, I got my first view of Mt Etna. Any time which we gained on the flight, we lost again while waiting for our bags to be unloaded from the plane Eventually they arrived though and we stepped outside into the baking heat to track down our airport bus. Catania airport is only a few kilometres outside of the city centre and there's a regular bus service to the main train station, which costs €4 each. Unfortunately it was one of those airport buses which isn't really designed either for large volumes of people or for transporting luggage, with the result that it was rather full and we had to stand. The journey into Catania was fairly short though, and within 20 minutes we were disembarking outside the train station. The apartment we are staying in for the next three nights is located about a mile away from the station and I had booked it mainly on the basis that it was possible to check in at midday. That still gave us a bit of time to kill, so we took a slow walk in the general direction, stopping for an ice-cream when we were in danger of arriving too early. We've got a lot of different accommodation booked for this trip so I couldn't really remember what this place was like, but it turned out to be quite spacious We've got a large bedroom... ...which has a little balcony overlooking the street... ...and a nice kitchen/dining room. It's worked out as a about £48/night which seems like good value, especially as it's quite centrally located I was in definite need of a nap by this stage, so it was several hours later before we headed out to explore Catania. The guidebook wasn't terribly complimentary, describing "a traffic-choked city centre" "largely constructed from suffocating black-grey volcanic stone". While there were some dark-stone buildings, first impressions were that it was a much prettier city than the guidebook had given it credit for. Our apartment was a short walk away from the church of St Francis of Assisi. Not far from there is Catania's cathedral, which is dedicated to St Agatha. The cathedral is situated in a beautiful square... ...which is home to a rather unusual monument featuring an elephant. Elephants have historically been a symbol of Catania and in ancient times, the locals apparently venerated a statue of an elephant which was said to have the magical power of being able to predict when Mount Etna was going to erupt. Today's elephant statue is made from lava stone and was erected after a serious earthquake in 1693 which destroyed much of the city. We strolled through various squares in the city centre, trying to stick to the shade to avoid the baking heat. It was well over 30 degrees in the sunshine. It was about 4pm by this point which meant that we'd napped through the Italian restaurants' definition of lunchtime, and the owner of our apartment had given us the impression that 8pm might be an early time to try and get dinner. We hadn't eaten since Gatwick and I was absolutely starving by this point, so we did something we're not proud of and followed signs to McDonalds from one of the central squares. We have tried and failed before to get proper food in southern Italy outside of official meal times, most notably in Campobasso, and come to the conclusion that it just isn't possible, so McDonalds was an opportunity not to be missed McDonalds was actually not far away from a square where there were supposed to be some Roman remains. We weren't initially blown away by them... ...but later realised that if we walked to the opposite side of the square, there were more obvious remains of a theatre on display. The owner of our apartment had recommended that we walk down a road called Via Crociferi, which he said had some of the best examples of baroque architecture in Catania, so we set out to try and find it. It turned out to be a street completely dominated by churches... ...many of which were so big that we couldn't get far enough back from them to take decent photos. It was really beautiful though And overall Catania definitely seems more attractive than the guidebook led us to believe I was expecting to find the same level of chaos as in Naples, but so far it seems comparatively calm (and the streets aren't full of uncollected rubbish, which is a huge improvement over Naples!) We were feeling tired again by this point so went to the supermarket to pick up some food for tonight and then headed back to the apartment for an early night. (The photo below is our apartment building. It's a lot nicer inside than it looks from the outside ) So far first impressions of Sicily are good and we're looking forward to exploring more tomorrow