Sicily Kickoff – Palermo, Caccamo, and a taste of Cefalù

To say I was excited to see Sicily is an understatement. As soon as my parents had planned their first trip to visit us in London, we almost immediately agreed that we had to plan a trip to Italy if there was time. Luckily, we were able to carve out 4 days to explore the Northern coast of Sicily – from Cefalu all the way to Trapani. After chatting with my dad, he determined that our direct descendants actually came from a super small town, pretty far out on the Northeastern tip of Sicily, called Barcellona. This was ideally where we would have liked to go so my dad could say he walked on the same streets as some of his Italian relatives; but unfortunately neither of us could find very much information regarding the town at all. We thought about tagging it on to a trip to Messina, but since we really wanted to see Trapani (total opposite side of the island) we figured it would be best to leave these locales out since we had such limited time. We already joked that next time we will visit this area – dying to see Mount Etna and Taormina!

My dad and I arrived in Palermo pretty late on a Wednesday night, where our first adventure was waiting for us. It had been years since my dad had driven a manual car, so he was a tad bit nervous getting started. We did some loops in the parking lot as he tested out all the gears, and after a few rounds he was ready to go.

We had read a lot about how terrible the traffic is in Palermo – it is a very busy, crowded, and populous city so our expectations were similar to that of our familiar NYC and London. Now personally, I can deal with a little traffic, what I can NOT deal with is insane European drivers. We were completely unprepared for how little regard they seem to have when operating a vehicle. When you think they will slow down, they speed up, when you think they are stopping, they inch out at the last minute. They swerve close to you and don’t seem to pay much attention to street lines or road signs. Admittedly, we did not think we would have to worry about our safety (and the condition of our rental car!) upon the first couple of hours of driving. We thought maybe we would have issues with parking – but no – arrival to Palermo was pure madness. I think my dad wanted to kill me with how many times I gasped & screamed, but we safely arrived at our hotel and eventually found a suitable parking spot. PHEW!

We stayed at Hotel Tonic which felt pretty old school Italian. It was perfect for a quick stay and early breakfast before hitting the road. My dad and I wanted to explore Palermo while we were here, and headed toward the city center to start our day. Remember a few moments ago when I said how horrible the driving was at 11pm on a Wednesday? I’m sure you can imagine what it was like trying to navigate the busiest section of the city during weekday rush hour. I think we both had several heart attacks just trying to find a place to park. I’ve never seen two people more excited to get out of a car after only a 15 minute drive, haha!

We started out by walking through Palermo’s famous Quattro Canti – basically the crossroads of the city’s historic district. The 4 corners have a theme – each decorated with a statue of 1 of the 4 Spanish kings of Italy, 1 of the 4 patron saints of Palermo, and a fountain to represent 1 of the 4 seasons. Pretty impressive to see this in the middle of the city, and how they have left this Baroque masterpiece as is since the beginning of the 17th century.  The other amazing thing about this city seemed to be that you only had to walk another 30 feet to see another historic monument. Just around the corner we came to a beautiful plaza with a large fountain, Fontana Pretoria, as well as church after church – literally I think there must have been 5 in a row! Only in Italy 🙂

Next we arrived at the insanely beautiful Palermo Cathedral. I think this might have been one of the coolest and most interesting ones I’ve seen since my travels began. For a first, this church had some serious space – an open courtyard with gardens and palm trees – smack in the middle of the city. It also was massive and so unique. You could tell right away that there were a few different types of architecture incorporated into this one structure. I think I am also used to traveling in gloomy, European weather, so having this sandy coloured church, against the bright blue sky, surrounded by the lush green trees, was just absolutely gorgeous. After heading inside, we learned a bit more about the history. The main facade, including the two towers, was built between the 14th & 15th centuries, feels very cavernous with lots of high angular arches – typical of Gothic architecture. The southern porch as they call it was built later in the 16th century and is highlighted by the dome as well as more rounded arches, more in line with the Renaissance period. During the 17th through 19th centuries, the cathedral went under additional renovations, mostly to the interior. After going through many additions and alterations over the course of so many years, it is easy to understand why the Palermo Cathedral is so special. It encompasses the architecture and details over a changing period of time as well as the input of numerous artists and rulers!

We continued on through the old city, strolling through Villa Bonanno park, and passing by Norman Palace, and a countless amount of churches. It is not an exaggeration to say there is one on every corner…. there’s probably even more than that. While we were walking we saw down a side street that there seemed to be a lot of people out on the streets. We were intrigued so headed that way to see what was going on. We arrived at the Church of the Madonna of Rimedi where there were tons of people outside selling their stuff. It was a full blown Sicilian garage sale. There were tons and I mean TONS of people selling everything from cups, to worn sneakers, to blenders, to batteries – all plopped down in the street. We struggled navigating through all of the shoppers as it was so congested! I’ve never seen anything like it. Almost everything looked used and not in that great of condition, which just goes to show what kind of life these people live. This was one of the first instances where we could quickly see how different life in Sicily was from the rest of Italy. Eventually we followed our way through the crowds and then wound up in the food market! This was SO COOL! There were vendors selling fresh fruit and veggies – I was dying at the vibrant colours of the Sicilian lemons and blood oranges! The size of the cauliflower were incredible! I couldn’t stop taking pictures. We also saw butchers and lots of fresh fish. We were getting so hungry looking at the overflowing buckets of olives and the CHEESE, omg the cheese I could have bought so much. Such an interesting & unexpected find for us! Even though we only got to spend a few hours in Palermo, it was totally worth it. If I ever have the chance to come back, it would be easy to spend a few days here as there are so many things to see and do.

Dad and I jumped back in the car and headed to our next stop: Caccamo. A tiny medieval town tucked high away on Monte San Calogero. The city is actually built into a cliff and we read that the the heart of the town is an ancient castle with beautiful views. When we arrived, dad accidentally did that thing where he drives past multiple parking spaces and ends up in a face-off with a huge truck in a teeny tiny street that feels more like an alley way. If you ask him, this was the most nerve-wrecking drive of the trip. Once we arrived safely to a parking spot (hehe) we took a short walk to the Castello. Our guidebook explained that it is one of the oldest, largest, and most well-preserved castles in Sicily, so we had high hopes! Upon arrival we were greeted by an open courtyard and one employee who could not speak English. With no tips, recommendations, or direction on where to start, we carried on. We quickly realized though that absolutely none of the titles or captions inside the museum were in English, so we couldn’t read anything. We were also the only people inside the place. I’m laughing thinking about the fact that we had to pay to get in, because we literally learned nothing! We were given an English map though, so we could determine what parts of the castle we were in. We saw the old prison which was on a nice terrace overlooking the beautiful Rosamarina lake. My dad and I thought they did this intentionally to torture the poor prisoners with what they were missing out there. We wandered through the massive complex pretty quickly, but still thought it was an enjoyable place to stop by. I wish we could have learned a bit more, but I think it was worth it just for the expansive view of the valley & the lake. After a quick panini and pastry lunch, we hit the road to our next destination, Cefalù.

The drive took about an hour, heading west along the Tyrrhenian coast. We really enjoyed these drives along the water – lots of beautiful views as well as distinct road lanes which = easy driving! We arrived to Cefalù about mid-afternoon and after some typical scary Sicilian driving through cobbled streets, we arrived right on the beach! We got out of the car and took in the smell of the ocean and the beautiful breeze. It was so sunny, but still pretty cool. Perfect weather for a March beach day if you ask me 🙂

We decided to walk around and peruse the city for a bit. We didn’t want to see too much since our other halves would be arriving the next morning, but we had time to kill and no time to waste! One thing we wanted to do was visit the Museo Mandralisca. This is a small and intimate museum featuring the private collection of Baron Mandralisca, full of regional art and artifacts. It was beautifully curated and was had a really impressive and homey interior. My favourite part was the seashell collection.

After the museum it was time to check in to our hotel. When I plugged it in to Google Maps, it told us it was about 40 minutes away…. we knew this didn’t seem right, but followed along anyway. It took us up what felt like a mountain, then back down around the coast. The roads were rocky and deserted, and with the sunlight slowly coming to a close, we were trying our best to get the hell out of there and back on to the main road. When we were just about to the hotel, I started having a flashback to passing a sign for Hotel Kalura. When we pulled up to the turn, I realized that we were already here, 40 minutes ago, but going in the other direction. Instead of bearing left for the hotel, we went right as Google Maps advised…grrr. Sometimes technology hinders instead of helps. We’re still not sure why the directions say to go up and around rather than just straight there. Although we learned the hard way, we learned at the very beginning which definitely saved us time in the long run.

Hotel Kalura is a beautiful place nestled away in a cove. It has a private beach and insanely beautiful terrace overlooking the water. We had a really nice room with our own balcony! This was such a gem of a find – being outside the heart of the city made the location so peaceful. It was my favourite hotel of the trip. After a quick clean up and regroup, Dad and I headed back into town for dinner at Ristorante Tivitti. We were both craving seafood as we’ve heard that it’s incredibly fresh in Siciliy, so we started with a delish shrimp & ricotta appetizer. I knew I wanted pasta, so opted for penne with sausage, and dad got spaghetti with sardines – talk about authentic Sicilian cuisine! We finished up our glasses of wine (much needed for him after a long day of stressful driving) and headed home. It was time to rest up for our full day exploring Cefalù with Karen and Joe finally joining us!

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