Sicily, an offer I couldn’t refuse

From the Palermo museum

When my sister suggested that we visit Sicily, I couldn’t say no.  Italy is a favorite destination for thousands of tourists every year, and  I’ll never tire of visiting the mainland, but fewer travelers make it to Sicily.  That is a misfortune.  My sister and I spent a week in Sicily in May 2001, a first time visit for both of us.  Our trip began in Rome, continued with a drive to and a few days stay in Florence, after which we returned to Rome.  From Rome we flew into Palermo to start the Sicilian portion of our trip.  For a few days we toured Palermo, including the Museo Archeologico Regionale, the Norman Palace (exterior only, it was closed on May 1st) and several churches.  We were in Palermo on May 1st, Italy’s Labor Day and a national holiday.  We stumbled upon a political rally, and although we didn’t understand what they were shouting and chanting, we had no doubt it was a protest.  In Sicily we found that most of the local people did not speak English.  It wasn’t a problem for us, we were equipped with an Italian pocket dictionary, knew a few important words such as vino, and found that hand signals go a long way.  We thought is was fun and exciting to be in a place where fewer people traveled.  One evening we did end up with a tuna pizza by mistake, and another night we had insalata di polpo (a salad of octopus tentacles), but all in all, we got by without speaking English.  It didn’t take us long to discover the specialty of the area, pesce spada (swordfish), and it was the best swordfish we ever tasted.

In the Palermo Museum

In Palermo (Photo Credit: Rebecca Nielsen)

The Monreale Cathedral, Sicily


In Palermo we picked up our rental car and began our tour of the island.  Just getting out of Palermo was a struggle.  The road signs were nonexistent and we ended up driving around the city for a while trying to find our way out of it.  We finally found our way and drove southbound, up into the hills.  The first town we encountered was Monreale.  We toured the beautiful Monreale Cathedral (above), built in the 12th century. The interior is gorgeously decorated with golden mosaics and a huge Byzantine looking “Christ Pantocreator” gazing from the apse.

The Monreale Cathedral

My sister and me in the Monreale Cathedral

We also happened upon a colorful street parade with horses in plumed harnesses pulling carts.  The narrow streets were crowded with people, carts and horses.  It was wild and confusing, especially since we had no idea what was going on, so we parked the car and joined the party.  The Sicilian horsecart is the image-symbol of Sicily, with the collection in Monreale known as one of the best and most beautiful on the island.

When we finally exited the town, we had to do the tourist round-about (around and around and around while we tried to figure out which way to go), in an attempt to find our intended route.  The road signs were few and far between.

Our Sicilian adventure continued with a tour of an ancient Greek temple at Segesta.  It was quite warm, but we did the hike anyway and were glad for it.  It is a beautifully well-preserved temple and amphitheatre.


My sister Rebecca in front of the ruins.

The amphitheatre at Segesta

Our first night outside of Palermo was spent in Erice.  Erice is an ancient town sitting about 2000 feet above sea level, reached by a winding and steeply climbing road.  Most of the roads in the small town are too narrow for cars, so we walked around to explore.  We had a dinner of Pesce Spada and a local red wine.  The next day we continued our walking tour of the town, including the Pipoli Castle and the church.  We were lucky in that it was sunny and clear and the view was breathtaking.

Erice castle at dusk (Photo from

Erice, Sicily

Church in Erice

We left Erice headed for Agrigento, continuing our circumnavigation of the island.  My sister drove while I did the navigating.  The driving was hazardous, and my sister’s daily preparation was at least two cups of strong espresso prior to taking the wheel.  It was just like Florence, where it seemed traffic laws are more of a guideline than actual rules.  There is only one other country I have visited where the driving was more terrifying than Sicily, and that was Ecuador.  On one stretch of a two lane road in Ecuador, there were three vehicles abreast speeding towards my brother and me in our rental car. 

Ruins along the southern coast of Sicily (above and below).

The city of Agrigento, on the southern coast of Sicily, was founded by the Greeks in 6th century B.C.  Its Valley of the Temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We toured the ruins, which at night were beautifully lit and visible for miles.


We left Agrigento with Piazza Armerina and the Villa Romana del Casale as our destination.  The Villa, a Roman retreat from the 4th century AD, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We arrived early in the morning, and were the first visitors at the site.  That made a huge difference in our enjoyment of the frescoes, no crowds.  The colorful mosaics have been uncovered and restored, an ongoing project.  In the photo below, you can see my sister on the observation platforms.  

The Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina.

Mosaics in the Roman Villa

A mosaic depicting bikini clad women playing sports.

Because we arrived so early in the morning, without the crowds, we met and spoke with one of the Italian restoration workers.  He showed us around the site, behind the ropes even, and splashed a bucket of water over one of the mosaics to show us how vibrant the colors looked when wet.  The Villa was truly amazing, and I hope to return one day to see it again. 

The mosaic colors were more vibrant when wet.

Our personal guide at the Villa.

From Piazza Armerina we drove to Caltagirone, known for its pottery and ceramics.  Everything in the town, including the bridges and stairs, was decorated with tiles.  We enjoyed some very good shopping in Caltagirone, purchasing beautiful ceramic plates and bowls.

The stairs in Caltagirone

Me on the Caltagirone stairs. (Photo Credit: Rebecca Nielsen)

Closeup of the stairs. (Photo Credit: Rebecca Nielsen)

 The last city on our self-guided tour of Sicily was Taormina.  We had a hotel reserved in Taormina, and also planned to return the rental car there.  We drove through the town on the very narrow streets, but could not find our hotel.  We turned around and drove back through the small town, again missing our hotel.  To head off the encroaching feelings of exasperation and bewilderment, we parked the rental car just outside of town and hailed a cab.  The cab drove straight to the walking mall in the middle of town, and backed down the street which was marked with a “no vehicles” sign, scattering pedestrians.  It was no wonder we missed the hotel, and never would have found it on our own.

Our rental car, driving through the small town of Taormina.

The Greco-Roman amphitheatre in Taormina.

We spent several days in Taormina, enjoying the historical sites, wonderful food and abundant shops.  Taormina is built onto a steep slope with many small streets, narrow stairways, picturesque walking areas, tiny shops, and very good restaurants.  We walked through the Taormina amphitheatre and saw Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, in the distance.  We were in Taormina in May 2001.  Mt. Etna erupted soon after we left.  Between July 17th and August 9th, Mt. Etna’s eruptions damaged tourist facilities and threatened the town of Nicolosi. 

A ceramic shop in Taormina.

On one of our days in Taormina, we took the gondola ride 200 meters down to the rocky shoreline below, to see the beach and test the water temperature.  Our last dinner in Taormina was fantastic, a leisturely meal overlooking the entire area with little globe shaped ceramic candle holders lined up on the steps of the town.  (I purchased one of those candle holders and brought it back with me, and still have it today).  Many of the homes and buildings had tiles set into their side.  I hand-carried a set of 6 tiles back to the US and had them installed on my own home.  They are the perfect souvenir, and have now been on my home for nearly 10 years.  We left Sicily from an airport close to Taormina, bound for Rome.

The Taormina tiles I brought back and installed on my home.

The Coliseum in Rome, prior to leaving for Sicily.

My sister at the Monna Lisa Hotel, Florence (

Me at the Monna Lisa, Florence.

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