The Splendors of Eastern Sicily: Taormina, Siracusa, Ortygia, Noto, Mt. Etna, Catania, Messina, Savoca, and Forza d’Agro
September 7 – 15, 2017
Italy: Taormina, Siracusa, Ortygia, Noto, Mt. Etna, Catania, Messina, Savoca, and Forza d’Agro
$3569 for payment by credit card
$3499 for payment by check
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A delightful, nine-day, seven-night tour to magnificent Eastern Sicily – the largest Mediterranean island – noted for its stunning natural beauty, ancient historical sights, and splendid architecture. Organized for the FRHS by Alan Amaral of Italian Wine Services, LLC, this tour comprised a seven-night stay in the four-star Villa Diodoro in lovely Taormina, and a comprehensive sightseeing program throughout the magnificent countryside and along the beautiful coastal regions of Sicily.
The tour included:
Day 1: Boston—Rome—Catania
Depart Boston’s Logan International Airport on our transatlantic flight to Catania, via an intermediate stop at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in Rome. Full meal and beverage service, as well as stereo headsets, available while in flight.
Group assembly and easy transfer for check-in at Alitalia; a small group of fellow travelers from the Fall River and greater Fall River area. Pleasant flight with the usual Alitalia hospitality and more than ample food and beverage service; “house" wine surprisingly good for an airline, as one would expect from Alitalia!
Day 2: Taomina
Upon our arrival at the Vincenzo Bellini Airport in Catania, we will meet our Tour Escort, who will help us board our deluxe private motorcoach to take us to our hotel, the 4-Star Villa Diodoro, in Taormina – known as “The Jewel of Sicily.” Upon arrival and hotel check-in, we will have leisure time for rest, relaxation, and familiarization with the hotel and our immediate surroundings. This evening, we will enjoy a special “Welcome” drink and dinner, before overnight at our hotel.
Greeted at airport by Bruno, our guide of choice when in Italy, and delighted to see him; an exceptional guide with few rivals, he possesses the legendary charm of the Italians. Easy transfer to coach for the drive to Taormina with scenery changing quickly from metropolitan to rural countryside, with extensive plantings and orchards evidence of the stellar quality of the mineral rich volcanic soil. A severe drought affecting the area has taken its toll, and today’s heavy rain, the first to have fallen in months, is much-welcomed by the inhabitants; a “gift from the Gods” according to Bruno, “to greet the visitors from America.” Despite the rain it is abundantly clear that this is a beautiful, enchanting island.
Mt. Etna, the mother of this island, shyly reveals her dominance through a veil of thick fog, coyly allowing a quick glimpse of her awesome profile before retreating behind the mist; evidence of her power and fury everywhere in the form of rocky outcrops and solidified lava flows.
Arrival just outside Taormina and transfer to smaller vehicles for the ride uphill to our hotel. One marvels at the skills of the bus drivers able to traverse these narrow, curiously winding, terraced streets – designed for donkey carts – with large, modern vehicles, that come within inches of structures, pedestrians, and other means of transportation; admirable and not for the faint of heart. Much to see at every turn, and ample opportunities for exploration. One is immediately struck by the perseverance and skill it took for inhabitants, past and present, to tame this fiercely craggy landscape.
Villa Diodoro situated on a rocky promontory at the base of a steep, short driveway, easily accessed by the pedestrian via masonry stairways and walkways winding through lush, terraced gardens. A very grand hotel with stunning, picture-perfect views of Mt. Etna and the Bay of Taormina, viewed from impressive terraces and small gardens planted at various levels. Accommodations extremely comfortable in this very fine hotel, within walking distance of cafés, restaurants, shops, and attractions of all sorts.
Day 3: Taormina
Our day begins with breakfast at the hotel followed by meeting our local guide who will escort us on a half-day walking and sightseeing tour of Taormina, with a complete orientation of the city, including the major shopping district, and charming arches, piazzas, and overlooks of the Sicilian coastline, as well as a visit to the ancient Greek and Roman Theatre with its distinct backdrop of Mount Etna. We will return to the hotel for lunch and leisure time to relax or to further explore this breathtakingly scenic city on our own, and to shop, before dinner and overnight at our hotel.
Woke to perfectly beautiful weather and no trace of yesterday’s rain; spectacular views of the Bay of Taormina and Mt. Etna, the latter greeting us with a billowing ribbon of steam. Gorgeous scenery to delight all the senses, amazing in the extreme and spectacularly beautiful.
Delicious breakfast in the hotel’s stately dining room, and then off to meet our Local Guide, Geromino, who goes by Gerry, for an informative walking tour of Taormina. First up, the lovely garden adjacent to the hotel, once the private retreat of Florence Trevelyan Cacciola, a British heiress married to a prominent local physician; orphaned at an early age she was fostered by Queen Victoria. Beautiful plantings amidst eccentric architectural “follies” set on multi-terraced levels, the latter typical of everything here. Her former island residence, Isola Bella, purchased by her adoring husband, dominates the coastline; reached by a tidal causeway, it is now a public beach.
Architecture in town of myriad styles faced with stucco painted in pleasing shades and decorated with ornamental ironwork, all fronting on windy, cobbled paved side streets, busy with residents going about their day-to-day business, and tourists alike. Cafés, shops, private homes, offices, all closely positioned side-by-side and making optimum use of scant frontage to sell wares, or serve patrons; charming in the extreme. The main shopping street, Corso Umberto I, reached by tributary-like side streets, features all that one could hope for and is very grand, indeed. Stunning vistas at every turn.
The ruins of the theatre, of both Greek and Roman construction, surrounded by modern life, evidence that the inhabitants of this place coexist with their brilliant heritage; these ancient builders were genius, perfectly positioning the theatre with its arched proscenium to frame Mt. Etna in all its wondrous beauty. A modern stage and sound equipment not at all out of place in this structure, still used on a near daily basis.
Remainder of the day free to wander and explore this beautiful place, aptly-named “The Jewel of Sicily”; one can see why this was a privileged playground of wealthy expatriates from the world over. Vistas here of a beauty difficult to describe, and almost fairy-tale like, with sun glistening off azure waters, with mirror-like reflections of vegetation, intricate masonry, and grand villas; Mt. Etna presides over all … mesmerizing.
Day 4: Siracusa—Ortygia—Noto
Today we journey along the Southeastern coast of Sicily to the wondrous city of Siracusa – once known as the most powerful city in the world before submitting to the power of Rome. Among the sites we will visit are the Archeological Zone with its ancient colosseum and amphitheater dating back to the 5th Century BC, and the “Ear of Dionysus” cavern, situated among the quarries that supplied limestone for this ancient city. We will enjoy a visit to the nearby island of Ortygia, linked to the city by two causeways, for a visit to the magnificent Baroque cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo. We will enjoy a traditional pizza lunch before continuing the day’s southward journey to the town of the most spectacular example of Baroque architecture in all of Italy: Noto. Here we will see honey-colored tufa limestone Baroque buildings from the 17th century, for which the city has become known as the “Garden of Stone”; in 1996, the city received the designation as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Return to our hotel for dinner and overnight.
Wondrous Siracusa, with its ancient ruins impressive beyond measure. Archeological Zone with the remains of all manner of structures, and an awe-inspiring amphitheater; architectural fragments and sarcophagi litter the walkways – amazing. The ancient quarries that furnished the stone for these and countless other structures are massive; the slaves that toiled here for centuries left their marks everywhere. Ear of Dionysus cavern, a whispering chamber with perfect acoustics, carved from a cliff face, an amazing feat, as awe inspiring today as it was to the ancients. Everything perfectly maintained.
Next, off to Ortygia, a fascinating city with an impressive Baroque cathedral, reached via small alleys, its impressive façade best viewed from the Piazza del Duomo, beautifully paved and surrounded by imposing structures of similar date. Very grand indeed. Fine lunch of traditional pizza, prepared as only the Italians can and so unlike the hardly palatable American version that would be unrecognizable to the natives.
The city of Noto impressive beyond imagination and in a remarkable state of preservation – a period film could be shot here without the necessity of set dressing; simply remove the tourists and costume the residents. It is, indeed, a honey-colored city, with Baroque buildings of easily workable tufa limestone heavily carved and confection-like, dripping with ornamentation of every kind. The appellation “Garden of Stone” is, in reality, a vast understatement. Too little time here as one would like to wander about this place, and view the interiors of some of its impressive buildings. Vanilla gelato in a local shop – excellent.
A very fine day, with much to see.
Day 5: Mt. Etna—Catania
Following breakfast, we journey to the southern base of Mt. Etna and the city of Catania, rebuilt after the eruption of Etna in 1693. We will travel skyward to an altitude of 2,500 feet and well above the tree-line, where we will view the three Silvestri Craters and the “River of Lava.” We will have a traditional Sicilian Vintner’s lunch, followed by a panoramic tour of Catania, where we will visit the Duomo, the site of the Capella (Chapel) of Saint Agatha and the open-air market, before returning to Taormina for dinner and overnight at our hotel.
On today’s itinerary: a walking tour of Catania, an ancient port city on Sicily’s east coast, situated at the foot of Mt. Etna. A busy place with activity of all sorts and clear evidence of centuries of continuous habitation. Much to see in this busy port where the air is infused with the scent of the sea; beautiful Baroque architecture and buildings of later dates, all adapted perfectly for modern use; Gerry an extremely informative guide, though prone to philosophizing.
The Cattedrale Metropolitan di Sant’Agata, the main cathedral, a stunning example of Baroque architecture with grand interiors evidencing the wealth, and piety, of the parishioners who funded its construction and interior splendid decoration … gloriously brilliant. The piazza teeming with life and surrounded with offices, shops, galleries, delightful cafés, and, of course, the occasional gypsy beggar – best ignored when visiting. Strong coffee and pastry while seated outside at a diminutive table, an ideal spot by a grand fountain heavily carved with all manner of beasts, spouting water in all directions. La Dolce Vita!
Fascinating tour of La Pescheria, the weekday fish market, with stalls presided over by animated mongers offering everything good the sea has to offer, a natural harvest all plucked from the ocean only hours before and much of it struggling to gasp its last breath. Additional stalls selling a wide variety of goods: fruit, vegetables, meat, and cheese, all perfectly fresh and beautifully displayed – the air a heady perfume, immediately triggering pangs of hunger. A gourmand’s dream into reality – one cannot help but stop and purchase … something, anything. But where to prepare it? A so-called “Vitner’s lunch” today in the traditional Sicilian style – cheese, pasta, meat, and fresh bread – all delicious and enjoyed in an outdoor café not far from the sea.
Onward to Mt. Etna. As one climbs higher and higher the terrain rapidly changes from verdant, although drought scarred, to desolate black, with solidified lava flows, rocks of all sizes, massive boulders, and bizarre outcrops all about; ruins of buildings and stone walls evidence of Mt. Etna’s ferocity. Etna sleeps, but not for long. Spectacular views from a visitor’s center below the summit; surprisingly cold and with strong gusts of wind as one approaches for welcomed shelter and refreshment.
Return to Taormina and our hotel and pool time and relaxation before dinner. Evening spent in town, in joining the passeggiata on the Corso Umberto I; this traditional evening stroll a mainstay of Italian life. Cafes, shops, restaurants, all bustling well into the early hours with patrons of all ages.
Day 6: Messina
After breakfast, we will travel north along the eastern coast of Sicily to Messina for a half-day tour of this city closest to Calabria and the Italian mainland. We will visit the Duomo, made famous for its mosaics and clock-tower with moving statues, and have time for lunch, on our own, shopping, and individual sightseeing, before returning to our hotel for dinner and overnight.
A drive through lovely countryside to the city, Messina, devastated in a catastrophic 1908 earthquake and subsequently rebuilt in a pastiche of various styles. A particularly unattractive city save a few structures and nothing to recommend it except its proximity to mainland Italy, clearly visible across the Strait of Messina. The Duomo, rebuilt after a direct hit during WWII, features lovely mosaics; one religious statue salvaged from the rubble. The animated clock tower an amazing feat of technology and a showstopper on the noon hour, drawing crowds of spectators. Little else of note here.
Delicious, leisurely pasta lunch at an open-air, family-owned restaurant; hostess mother and waitress daughter beautiful women both with striking features. Time spent wandering about, visiting shops, and watching the locals.
Return to Taormina for a late afternoon and evening of free time. A trolley ride to visit the tiny village of Castelmola, located at the summit above Taormina, for a must-do visit to Bar Turrisi, a local spot of some note, legendary for its phallic décor; gorgeous evening views.
Dinner in Castelmola at a small pizzeria frequented by locals – marvelous.
Day 7: Savoca—Forza d'Agro
Today takes us to the quaint village areas of Savoca and Forza d’Agro made famous by the so-called “jewel of classic films,” Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (Part I). We will witness the beautiful mountain locations of the filming of the village scenes of the Bar Vitelli and the church where the self-exiled young Michael Corleone and his Sicilian bride, Apollonia, married. We will then return to Taormina for leisure time, lunch, and shopping, on our own, with ample time to reflect on the unforgettable beauty of this city, followed by a traditional Sicilian farewell dinner and overnight at our hotel.
Another beautiful day promising perfect weather. Following breakfast, group assembly for a morning drive through striking countryside to Savoca, a tiny village situated amidst steep, craggy terrain; one need possess the sheer-footedness of a goat to live here and traverse the vertical streets. A very sleepy community – until the tour busses arrive – beautiful in the extreme, and immaculately maintained, made famous by The Godfather, a godsend for this place, which has capitalized on it ever since. Bar Vitelli as depicted in the film, albeit today a popular tourist attraction; café offering drinks, food, and a plethora of souvenirs, all a bit too campy, as one would suspect.
Fascinating history here to be discovered when one disregards the Hollywood bit, with the village dotted with the ruins of several structures: a medieval church, in the process of restoration; an ancient Jewish synagogue; and a once-grand castello. Highest point of the town dominated by the small, yet very striking, Chiesa di San Nicolò, the main place of worship. Residents and cats extremely friendly and welcoming; delicious paninis at a shop frequented by local inhabitants surprisingly affordable.
From here a jaunt to nearby Forza d’Agro, situated on the lower peak of a small mountain and also made famous by The Godfather. Time spent exploring and wandering about side streets to a small, local restaurant with a tiny terrace jutting out to reveal amazing, picture-perfect views in all directions; striking beyond imagination. Lunch of delicious bruschetta, prepared with native tomatoes and basil – everything fresh here – followed by pasta c ánciova e muddica, a simple dish of fresh pasta with anchovies, all washed down with ample quantities of local, crisp, vino della casa bianco – wonderful. Dessert a large bunch of green grapes, purchased at a neighboring shop, of a variety only found in Italy; grown on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius they are a much-sought-after treat when in Italy.
Return to hotel for an afternoon of free time. “Farewell Dinner” in hotel dining room in the evening, after which another visit to town to join the passeggiata.
Day 8: Taormina
Today will be a free day to enjoy Taormina with all this world-class resort has to offer! Perhaps travel on our own to quaint Castelmola, situated high above Taormina, or down to beachfront Taormina Mare, or Giardini Naxos. Dinner and overnight at our hotel.
Another lovely day; our last for this visit to Taormina. Following breakfast, a leisurely visit to the Trevelyan gardens en route to the city center for shopping, sight-seeing, and lunch. Much to do and much to see; one could spend days here roaming about and still not see it all. Marvelous shops and galleries here, most catering to an elite clientele – wools and silks in a rainbow of colors, superbly crafted leather goods, a gem-like array of candied fruits so perfect as to appear artificial, and so much more. Brilliant stuff!
An amazing lunch at a small, very fine restaurant, accessed down a narrow, stone paved side alley, nearly hidden in the rear of a building; its quaint entrance belies its interior, which opens up to reveal a small garden and absolutely spectacular views of the bay and Mt. Etna. Fabulous, unhurried lunch of bread, cheese, Insalata di Polipo – an octopus salad dressed with olive oil and lemon – followed by pasta c ánciova e muddica, a favorite dish of pasta with perfectly fresh anchovies; delicious local wine, and, as a finale, strong black coffee. Sheer perfection!
Return to hotel for late afternoon packing before dinner. A perfect day.
Day 9: Catania—Rome—Boston
After breakfast and hotel check-out, we transfer to Vincenzo Bellini Airport for our return flight to Boston, via an intermediate stop in Rome.
Group assembly for transfer to airport for return home; a delightful, relaxing visit to a magical place. Weather Gods in our favor throughout. An exceptional tour.
Testimonials From Tour Participants
“Having traveled on three previous occasions with the Fall River Historical Society’s Grand Tour Travel Program, I knew the Splendors of Eastern Sicily would be as fun-filled and a well-planned adventure as the previous tours I have taken with them. Every detail is planned, and always includes ample free time to venture off on one’s own to explore the area’s cafes, shops, and experience local culture.
“The Hotel Villa Diodoro in Taormina, had grand accommodations overlooking the Bay of Taormina and Mt. Etna. The daily tours, led by our experienced tour guide, Bruno, were well executed and allowed us to experience the warm, local culture, and the people of the scenic towns we visited. Some of our meals were at local restaurants, which truly allowed us to experience the local cuisine and people. From the walking tours in Taormina, the colosseum and amphitheater dating back to the 5th Century BC in Siracusa, driving up to Mt Etna, and the drives along the coast – all were breathtaking.
“I loved this trip because all of the details were taken care of: an experienced guide and bus driver, and a really fun-loving, friendly group of people to travel with. I’ve made new friends and hope to see them on the next “Grand Tour,” wherever it may go."
—Patricia A. Rebello, Canton, Massachusetts