More about the Sicily tour as rashly requested by Karen and Monix:
The trip began well as BA didn’t lose my luggage this time (My suitcase went missing for 10 days on an Indian holiday and I've been nervous at carousels ever since). Only one party member had to struggle with a temporarily lost case - and she turned out to be a wonderful intelligent person as she had actually read one of my books!
All the hotels were fine, efficiently run and clean. The Palermo one was especially smart (see view from terrace bar above). This was only my second experience of package tours - Pluses: the other punters were charming, the guides were good, all the arrangements are arranged and you escape the worries of scary Sicilian driving and lunatic parking. Minuses: it’s not always easy going around in a group of 40, however well organised. For instance, we often found ourselves at what appeared to be the only motorway service station in central Sicily standing in line for the obligatory Comfort Break.
Spring is a obviously a busy time of year and we were one of several big foreign groups. While this didn’t matter at the larger sites, the crowds at e.g. the Roman villa meant I was sometimes too distracted by the queues, heat and dust to absorb anything much.
Of all the Sicilian sites, Mt Etna was the most striking. It’s so strange to see a snow-capped mountain (3,300 metres) right by the sea. The locals take its regular small eruptions as a matter of course. Now and then the lava flows threaten mountain villages but last time things became serious (2001/2002) engineers managed to dig a channel and divert the flow. I hope they were paid lots of danger money.
We were told Sicily’s strategic position attracted settlers from all over the Mediterranean in ancient times, hence the plentiful Greek and Roman ruins, surprisingly well preserved. Nowadays Sicily is less prosperous and its main income comes from farming and tourism.
Precipitous Taormina was sophisticated and beautiful, with sophisticated prices – a round of drinks there cost the same as whole meals elsewhere. Syracuse has the wonderful harbour and amphitheatre. I’ve mentioned the Roman villa at Piazza Amerina and the temples at Agrigento, particularly dramatic at night glowing beside the full moon.
We also saw Cefalu, Monreale and Palermo (above) – all had wonderful churches with shining mosaics. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken the craftsmen working so high up with such intricate designs.
Of course I also enjoyed eating at the little outdoor trattorias (there's a delicious kind of Sicilian ratatouille - caponata, which I intend to cook next week), the orange trees, the Mediterranean flowers (hibiscus, bougainvillea, oleander) and the dramatic views. It reminded me strongly of our time in Greece all those years ago.
So it was all extremely interesting if exhausting, as we had early starts and often didn’t end our trip until six in the evening. If I were rich, I’d hire a personal guide and only sight-see half a day, spending the rest of the time reading and lazing by the hotel pool, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of the above. In fact, I quickly got into the swing of being an obedient package tourist and could have gone on for another week. For more about Sicily click here