Italy 2014 - Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Syracuse - Click here for the slideshow (130 pictures)

Finished - September 27, 2014

Travel day. Well, the original plan was to leave Taormina after breakfast and drive to Mount Etna and then on to Catania. As luck would have it, it was overcast and raining, so we decided to head straight to Syracuse and see the volcano on our way to Palermo in three days.

Driving in the rain is never fun. Add to the rain an unfamiliar car on unfamiliar roads with other drivers who are fully convinced they are in the Formula One race of their lives, and your comfort level as a driver drops to zero. The worst of the drivers are in big Mercedes and Audis. At 120km per hour (72 mph), I was being passed by cars that were traveling at least twice that speed. No problem. We owned the right lane and made extensive use of the various hand signals. They all left us alone.

Relying on nothing more than my acute sense of direction, we aimed the car at the largest church we could see and stopped to ask directions at a gas station to Via Malta (the street for the hotel) as we got close. The street was directly behind the gas station.

Hotel Cavalieri

First stop - lunch. Sicilian pizza is the order of the day. Three different varieties (clockwise from the Coke cans): pomadoro (tomato or what we call plain), funghi (mushroom), and patate (potato). All three were perfect and quite traditional, although the potato was a surprise. Five slices and two Cokes were 10.50 Euros ($13.35) what a bargain! No calzones in sight, but he did have some odd looking meat pies that appeared to be properly aged.

Syracuse (Sircusa) is an archeological treasure trove. Ruins are everywhere! It also has an attached island (hmmm... an island attached to an island) called Ortigia. We walked from the hotel to Ortigia and found some excellent Sicilian pizza stuck in between the ruins. Also, of all things, a head shop selling not only glassware but seeds, potting mix, and fertilizer. According to the owner, he can sell all this stuff to collectors only, as it's illegal to grow or smoke marijuana in Italy. He said if you grow it, it's your problem, not his. Clever dude.

This is the hot ticket in Ortigia - O'Scina Restaurant. We were lucky to get a table for two in the alley. Okay, not really an alley, actually a street just wide enough to accommodate three tables for two (one on the right and two on the left) and passing motorcycles. My appetizer - cavatelli with capocolla and a ricotta lemon sauce - was beyond good. It was also more food than several people could have consumed. The tuna was good, the veal steak superb. We started eating before either of us remembered to take pictures. If you go, you MUST have a reservation to eat inside, otherwise... the alley.

Calamari and shrimp

Tuna steaks (partially eaten)

Veal steak (also partially eaten)

After a grueling walk past jewelry stores, luggage stores, and fancy apartments, we arrived at the ruins. I am pleased to report that they are not yet fixed, i.e. they are all still in... ruins. All kidding aside, the two theatres - one Roman, one Greek - are in amazing shape for being more than 2000 years old. The grottos below the Greek theatre were originally an old limestone quarry. The cave was called the Ear of Dionysius by Caravaggio during his visit to Sicily in the early 1600s, because of the its shape resembling an auricle and its acoustics amplifying even the faintest sounds. According to the legend Dionysius was able to hear his enemies without seeing them, thanks to the cave's extraordinary echo.

A world-class dinner at Don Camillo. This, as were most of the restaurants where we dined, was a recommendation from the hotel. What a meal! I selected the meat tasting - five courses, not including dessert. All of them small, but together it was more than enough to satisfy even the hungriest appetite. From the outside, during the day, you'd think the restaurant was closed, out of business, but at 7:30pm, the doors open and you enter a magnificent eatery with a wine menu over two inches thick. The first course - slices of smoked wild boar - disappeared before Suzi could take a photo; use your imagination!

Arancino - meat filled rice ball

Pasta with Pork Cheeks

Veal tenderloin (Suzi's entree)


Lamb chop (very small)

Casatta for dessert
I'm having a hard time deciding between cannoli and casatta when it comes to the best dessert. They both have lots of sweet ricotta cheese, but the casatta adds layers of cake and rum, almost like a trifle, but much better. The wonderful thing about food in Sicily is that it has no perceptible calories. Right.

Ortigia from the castle

Hanging succulent garden
Our last day in Sircusa and we're out looking for old stuff on the Island of Ortigia. First stop is the Castello Maniace. This castle, on the point, has been heavily restored and it's easy to see where. The views were great, though, and we got some great shots from up on high. Next is the Fonte Aretusa - an underground spring feeding a huge koi pond. From there, we walked into the Piazza Duomo and found two musicians playing stringed instruments. Along with some Beethoven and jazz, they suddenly switched into "Thus Spake Zarathustra" aka the opening music from "2001 - A Space Odyssey". And our last stop, before heading back to the hotel for the afternoon siesta, was the Duomo - every city has one.

Fonte Aretusa

Street Musicians

Il Duomo

Our last dinner in Siracusa was, for me, a Lipitor test. The meal comes sealed in aluminum foil, as you can see below. Opening it, you find layers of meat, mushrooms, and potatoes. The meat is mostly sausage, two different kinds, along with two slabs of ham, some other unidentifiable meat wrapped in bacon, and two skewers of what I think was lightly breaded lamb. The potatoes are mashed and mixed with sauteed onions and the mushrooms are there just so you get something healthy with this bucket of cholesterol. The side dish is ratatouille and lightly fried zucchini. I ate it all and almost licked the foil.

Overall Impressions
  • Hotel Cavalieri - they call this a "design boutique" hotel. Okay, I'll buy it. It's clean, very South Beach, and in a good location - close to Ortigia and not too far from the major ruins. The bed was as hard as a rock and the pillows not much better. The bathroom is deluxe - large shower, very modern. Good breakfast, continental, no eggs but fresh squeezed orange juice! The front desk staff are very friendly and fluent in English.
  • People - not many tourists, but on Saturday night the whole city of Syracuse flocks to Ortigia, so if you want to have dinner there, make sure you have a reservation and arrive on time.
  • Driving - an easy drive off the Autostrada. We parked the car in front of the hotel and didn't get back into it for the entire time we were here.
  • Getting Around - easy walking in the main shopping areas, not a very big city. The bulk of what you are going to do and see is on the island of Ortigia, so if you don't use this hotel, choose one that's close to the bridge into Ortigia. We did see several nice hotels in Ortigia.