Sicily, Italy in Summer

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Just south of the boot of Italy is a wonderfully colorful island marked by remarkable history and art, ancient ruins, a gracious people and delicious cuisine

The mountain had been rumbling all day, but it wasn't until the setting sun sent sparkling streamers of light across the azure waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea that Stromboli's fireworks began. With a primal roar and a boom that shook the entire island, the smaller of the cones inside the crater below us exploded in fire, spewing molten lava hundreds of feet into the air. We just stood there on the volcano's rim, too dumbstruck to grope for our cameras. As the red glow faded and the magma spattered back to earth like fat raindrops, I turned to my friend:

"Welcome to Sicily."

A choice of the year 2000?

Where in Italy can you beat the dense Holy Year crowds this year, when the papal jubilee is packing Rome with an estimated 29 million pilgrims and tourists, and other major destinations like Florence and Venice are catching much of the overflow?

Flee to Italy's best-kept secret: Sicily, a land of colorful folklore, remarkable food and wine, welcoming people, and a richly layered culture born from 2,500 years of ever-changing rule by Greek city-states, Saracen emirs, Norman kings, Spanish viceroys, and Italian nationalists (the latter only since 1860). Best of all, everything from decent hotel rooms to memorable meals comes at one-third the price of Rome or Venice.

The following quick circular tour of the Mediterranean's largest island will give you the inside scoop on how to enjoy the best of Sicily on a rock-bottom budget.

We'll hit the chaotic capital of Palermo to seek out its colorful street markets and medieval Norman churches, glittering inside with twelfth-century mosaics. We'll clamber about the world's best-preserved Greek temples at Agrigento, explore the ancient and medieval sights of bustling Siracusa, and relax on a budget in two very different resorts: pricey, popular Taormina and the little-known gem of Cefalu.

Palermo

Sicily's capital is dirty, chaotic, and fascinating. It's well worth a day or three rooting amid the padlocked churches and crumbling baroque palazzi to discover this decaying city's sight-seeing gems, but Palermo does not invite lingering.

Nineteenth-century cafes and Arab-style palaces stand alongside the charred shells of buildings bombed during World War II, a testament to a city long paralyzed by Mafia-corrupted bureaucracy (though things are finally changing thanks to crusading magistrates and mayors). This is not a city prettied up for tourism, but that only makes it a more genuine slice of Italy. You just have to be ready for a Palermo that's as much rough port city as historic capital.

Nightfall brings out the opera-goers and open-air puppet theaters, but also the prostitutes and addicts (especially in the Old Center around the train station).

Churches, markets and catacombs

By daylight, however, Palermo's cultural riches are yours to discover. Luckily, most of the city's great sights are free, including dozens of churches, elaborately stuccoed chapels, and fountains-the grandest, on Piazza Pretoria, was christened by scandalized locals the Fontana della Vergogna, or "fountain of shame," for the leers of its brazenly nude sculptures.

Sicily's enlightened eleventh- and twelfth-century Norman conquerors built grand churches, adapting them to local Arabic and Greek Orthodox cultures by capping them with pink mosque-like domelets and wrapping the interiors in shimmering gold- and silver-backed Byzantine mosaics. The best mosaics reside in the jewel box-like Capella Palatina, tucked away in the Palazzo dei Normanni on Piazza Indipendenza, and in La Martorana church on Piazza Bellini.

For sheer glittering volume, though, visit the hillside cathedral of Monreale, swathed with more than 68,000 feet of mosaics, the elaborate columns of its beautiful cloisters (admission $2.15) topped by fantastically carved capitals. Take bus 389 from Piazza Indipendenza.

For a mosaics break, visit the romantic ruins of pink-domed San Giovanni degli Eremiti, planted with a jungle of jasmine, Indian fig, palm, and bougainvillea (Via d. Benedettini; $2.15). Or head to Palermo's Regional Art Gallery to admire the Madonna Annunciate by Antonello da Messina (Sicily's only great Renaissance master) and a macabre fifteenth-century fresco of the Triumph of Death (Via Alloro 4; $4.30).

As much a sightseeing attraction as any church or museum are Palermo's vibrant street markets, ranging from the food-and-secondhand-junk stalls of Ballar (centered on Piazza Carmine, Piazza Casa Professa, and Piazza S. Chiara) to the "it fell off the back of the truck" clothing and CD carts of Capo (lining Via Bandiera/Via S. Agostino, with food stalls on Via P. Carini/Via B. Paoli, of Via Volturno). The famed La Vucciria market-where the fishmonger stands are piled high with swordfish and sea urchins, and the local bars serve 30 glasses of wine-fills the sunken streets north of Via V. Emanuele and west of Via Roma with a jumble of colorful awnings.

Prefer the offbeat? Ranks of semi-mummified eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Palermitani dressed in the decaying rags of their Sunday best line the basement walls of the creepy Catacombe del Convento dei Cappuccini, including a two-year-old so preternaturally well-preserved she's been dubbed the "Sleeping Beauty" (Via d. Cappuccini 2, several long blocks west from Piazza Indipendenza; $2.70).

Get off the tourist path by following Italian pilgrims up the misty 2,000-foot northern headland of Monte Pellegrino to the surreal, pew-filled cave shrine of child-saint Santa Rosalia, whose holy remains are believed to have miraculously stopped plagues. The cavern's mineral drippings are collected as holy water by a crazy cobweb of flat metal troughs on the ceiling, and everything in the gift shop has been preblessed for your convenience. Take bus 812 from the Politeama/Piazza L. Sturzo.

Palermo pensioni

Most Palermo hotels are of the lovably rickety, sagging-bedsprings persuasion. The "New City" (north of Via Cavour) is safer, if blander, than the tangled streets of the rough-but-characterful Old Center (dicey after dark).

My top New City pick is timeworn Principe di Belmonte, whose huge rooms suffer only from uninspired furnishings and limited hot water (Via Principe di Belmonte 25; 091-331-065, fax 091-611-3424; $49, apartments with kitchenette $62-$78). Tiny, simple Petit roosts above a lively pedestrianized block of cafes and bars (Via Principe di Belmonte 84; 091-323-616, $29).

In the Old Center you might sleep easier in the high-ceilinged rooms of family-run Sausele, near the station, knowing that Eva the Saint Bernard guards the door (Via E. Errante 12; 091-616-1308, fax 091-616-1308; $65). Just off Piazza Marina, with its caf,s and exotic park, sits creaky old Letiza (Via dei Bottai 30; tel. and fax 091-589-110; $39 without bath, $44 with bath and TV). Some rooms at recently overhauled Cortese (Via Scarparelli 16; tel. and fax 091-331-722; $29 without bath, $34 with) overlook the noisy but colorful Ballar market .

Capital meals on a cheapskate's budget

Since 1834, Palermo's budget eatery of choice has been Antica Focacceria San Francesco, with its fresh stuffed focaccia panini for $1.60-$4 (Via A. Paternostro 58/Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi, two blocks south of Via V. Emanuele; 091-320-264).

Palermo's best set-price menus (wine included) are at Da Massimo-two courses of home cooking for $6.50, three courses for $10.80 (Via Discesa dei Giudici 24, between Piazza Bellini and Via Roma; 091-616-7520; closed Thursday)-and at tiny, family-run Enzo, with a $8.30 lunch menu or la carte pasta and meat courses for just $2.80 (Via Maurolico 19, one block west of the train station; 091-617-720).

Dock workers and shopkeepers have crowded the communal tables at Osteria Fratelli Lo Bianco for more than 90 years to chow down on $2.70 ravioli and $5 swordfish involtini (Via E. Amari 104, off Via Roma; 091-585-816; closed Sunday). Ask any local: Palermo's best pizza costs a mere $2.70-$6.50 at Pizzeria Italia; expect a line (Via Orolorgio 54, off Piazza Verdi at Via Maqueda; 091-589-885; closed on Mondays).

Agrigento

Halfway between the hilltop city of Agrigento and the sea lies a ridge carpeted with olives and almond trees. Along its top is strung a trio of remarkable Doric temples crafted from honey-colored stone and dating from the fifth century B.C. At their center stands the Temple of Concord, the best preserved ancient Greek building in the world.

Agrigento's vast archaeological park, called the Valley of the Temples, is divided into four sections, the most spectacular of which contains those three temples (admission to this section is free). A road snakes from the town down through the valley, serviced by buses 1, 2, and 3 from the train station (train from Palermo: two hours, $10).

The bus's first stop is 300 yards before the temples at the entrances to two of the park's other sections: the insula romana (excavated remains from the city's Roman era preserving some floor mosaics; also free), and the archaeological museum across the street ($4.30; closed Sunday except in August).

The museum's star is a worn, 25-foot stone telamon (man-shaped column) that once graced the world's largest Greek temple, the Olympieion - now merely a massive pile of rubble in the park's fourth and least impressive section ($2.15; its entrance is across the street from that of the main temples).

Affordable Agrigento accommodations

You'll have to book ahead for Agrigento's choice family-run hotel, the modest but homey Concordia (Piazza S. Francesco 11; tel. and fax 0922-596-266; $38). If they're full, ask the Belvedere for one of rooms 32-35, which have views of the Valley of Temples (Via S. Vito 20; tel. and fax 0922-20-051; $37). In a pinch the Bella Napoli offers pokey college-dorm-style rooms a ten-minute walk from the center (Piazza Lena 6; tel. and fax 0922-20-435; $31).

A picnic fit for the gods

Nothing beats a picnic at the temples (amazing at sunset); pick up supplies in town at the minimarket on Via Atenea or the string of grocers, fruit stands, and pastry shops along Via Pirandello. The tastiest cheap eats in town are the full home-cooked meals starting around $11 at Hotel Concordia's La Forchetta (Piazza S. Francesco 11, follow Via Pirandello from the main square; 0922-596-266; closed Sunday).

Siracusa (Syracuse)

Siracusa has a friendly, laid-back atmosphere quite unlike the rough character of most Sicilian cities. This southeastern coastal burg (train from Palermo: five-and-a-half hours, $15) incorporates as its center an island called Ortigia, graced with medieval streets, seafront promenades, and classy caf,s. But Siracusa is far older than Ortigia lets on, and its greatest sight lies on the mainland.

During the fifth century B.C. golden age, Magna Graecia (Greater Greece) extended across southern Italy, and the important trading center of Siracusa counted among its citizens the great Plato as well as the philosopher Archimedes, who developed calculus and hit upon the scientific concept of water displacement while taking a bath (whereupon he supposedly ran naked through Siracusa's streets shouting "Eureka!" Greek for "I've found it!").

The plays of Aeschylus premiered 2,500 years ago at the world's largest Greek theater, a vast semicircle of pale gray stone remarkably well-preserved and still used for summertime performances under the stars. It's the centerpiece of the excellent Archaeological Park of Neapolis, off Corso Gelone/Viale Teracrati ($2.15).

Near the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi, one of Italy's premier archaeological museums (Via Teocrito 66; $4.30; September to May: closed Monday, second and fourth Sunday of each month, and afternoons), lie the Catacombs of San Giovanni, a web of spooky tunnels niched with early Christian tombs hidden beneath the roofless, flower-filled ruins of a Norman church ($2.15; closed Tuesday).

Across the bridge on Ortigia you can visit an unusual cathedral converted from a fifth-century B.C. temple to Athena by simply walling up the spaces between the ancient columns and slapping on a baroque facade-and admire the Antonella da Messina and Caravaggio paintings in the regional art museum of Palazzo Bellomo (at Via Capodieci and Via Roma; $4.30; closed afternoons except in July and August).

Myth holds that, to escape a lustful river god, a nymph metamorphosed into the spring that feeds the tranquil seaside pond Fonte Aretusa, which sprouts with the only wild Egyptian papyrus in Europe, an ancient gift from Ptolemy II.

Sleeping in Siracusa

Top honors go to the only budget hotel on Ortigia, family-run Gran Bretagna, which has frescoed ceilings in some rooms (Via Savoia 21; tel. and fax 0931-68-765, fax 0931-462-169; breakfast included, $46 without bath, $52 with). The spare Arethusa is near the train station-comfy and friendly, but a 20-minute hike from everything (Via F. Crispi 75; tel. and fax 0931-24-211; breakfast included, $36 without bath, $42 with). The modern and pleasant Bellavista is a ten-minute walk behind the archaeological park (Via D. Siculo 4; 0931-411-355, fax 0931-37-927; $85). In considering any other hotel, try to avoid the dank, dingy backpacker flophouses lining Corso Gelone between the station and Ortigia.

Dining in Siracusa

Dig into hearty $4 portions of more than 20 types of spaghetti at no-nonsense Spaghetteria Do Scogghiu (Via D. Scin... 11, off Piazza Archimede at Corso Matteotti; no phone; closed Monday and December). Sit under the palms on a cobblestone square with a pizza and beer for $6 at Il Cenacolo (Via d. Consolgio Regionale/Corte d. Avolio 9-10, near the cathedral; 0931-65-099). Feast with abandon-courses are $6.50 to $11 each-on scrumptious soups, vegetarian dishes, or fresh meat and fish at quirky La Foglia (Via Capodieci 29, south of Piazza Duomo; 0931-66-233; closed Tuesday).

Taormina

Sicily's premier resort (three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half hours by train from Palermo; $13) is a flower-fringed tangle of medieval streets and nineteenth-century villas-turned-hotels clinging to a cliff high above the sea. A favorite of the old jet set and the modern packaged tour, this jasmine-scented townscape harbors one breathtaking reminder of its ancient heritage: the hilltop Greek Theater, second in size only to Siracusa's, its stage backed by a panoramic view of the coast below and Mt. Etna smoldering in the near distance ($2.30).

Otherwise, come here solely to relax. Despite the suffocating summer tourist crowds, gaudy postcard stands, and overpriced restaurants, Taormina still manages to harbor a heady dose of hedonism and rarefied atmosphere amid the bougainvillea. The town that convinced devoted annual visitor Greta Garbo to retire and inspired D.H. Lawrence to pen Lady Chatterly's Lover-reportedly based on his wife's affair with a local mule driver - continues to deliver a quirky little slice of paradise to those who take the time just to passeggiata the pedestrianized streets.

On Via Pirandello is a cable car (five minutes; $1.70) down to the prettiest small beaches of Mazzar and Isola Bella ($5.80 per day for umbrella and chair), and the depot for buses (twenty-five minutes; $1.15) past the train station to the larger and sandier beaches of low-rise modern resort Giardini-Naxos.

For a natural thrill, hop the bus (one hour; $5) to Alcantara Gorge, a narrow river chasm 230 feet deep but only 15 wide, where icy waters have shaped the volcanic basalt walls into convoluted, fractured trapezoidal shapes of luminous dark gray.

Budget beds among the bougainvillea

Taormina hotels are legion; few are reasonable. An exception is tiny, cozy, family-run Villa Gaia (Via Fazzello 34, just up the steps from Piazza del Duomo; tel. and fax 0942-23-185; $62 up to a breakfast-included $83 in August). And if you want to stay right on the main drag, you're also in luck: basic Victoria, Corso Umberto 81 (tel. and fax 0942-23-372; $55 to $72) lies smack in the heart of town but without the high prices to prove it; its prime location means it can get noisy in summer, though.

If it's views you're after, try these. Old fashioned pension-style Villa Nettuno (Via Pirandello 33; tel. 0942-23-797, fax 0942-626-035; $52-$62), with terraced gardens that offer fantastic vistas, and the beach cable car is just half a block away. Modern, comfy Corona (Via Roma 7; tel. 0942-23-021, fax 0942-23-022; $41-$78) boasts some askance sea views over a semi-busy road.

Taormina trattorie

You can get cheap pizza or pile your plate from the vast antipasti spread at hidden La Botte, on tree-shaded Piazza San Domenica 3 (near the Greek Theater; 0942-24-198; closed Mondays, January to May). The best pizza in town, though, is at Vecchia Taormina (Via Ebrei 3; 0942-625-589), its tiny tables spilling over the steps and cobbles of the stone alleys that hide just off the Corso between the Duomo and Porta Catania.

At hole-in-the-wall U' Bossu (Via B. Croci 50, Taormina's main car thoroughfare; 0942-23-311; closed Monday-except evenings June to August-and November 15 to March 20), Enzo might soften your bill (two courses with wine start around $14) with a shot of his homemade hot-pepper hooch.

Prices are similar at nearby Al Giardino (Via B. Croci 84; tel/fax 0942-23-453; closed November and Thursdays, October to May), where you can enjoy Sebastiano's excellent cooking on a flowering patio.

Cefalu

Savvy travelers and Italian vacationers who want to avoid the often overpriced and, in summer, far over-touristed resort of Taormina head instead to Cefalu (pronounced chay-faa-LOO). This ancient, overgrown fishing village turned midscale resort nestles in a natural harbor of Sicily's northern coast sheltered by a massive sheer headland (train from Palermo: 45-75 minutes, $3.30). It makes for the perfect break from a trip of intense sight-seeing, with modest beaches and a few low-key attractions to keep boredom at bay.

The evening passeggiata through the streets of the old town inevitably leads to a caf, table on the palm-shaded central piazza. Anchoring one end of the square are the twin towers of a mighty 1131 Norman cathedral, sheathed inside with blazing medieval mosaics. From here, stroll down to the pebbly fishing wharf, where scenes from 1989's Cinema Paradiso were filmed. The sandy beaches start just beyond, but the wharf itself always has a few tourists catching some rays in between the beached boats, fishermen mending nets in the shade of Gothic-arched boathouses, and local kids diving off the stone pier.

Art buffs can check out the Renaissance painting by Antonello da Messina and Greek vases in the tiny city museum (Via Mandralisca 13, $3.25). For some exercise, follow the trail up the cliff above town; a sturdy hour's hike (shaded in the morning) will bring you to the meager ruins of an ancient temple to Diana, spectacular coastal vistas, and the overgrown remains of a Byzantine fortress.

Budget inns the resort spas don't want you to know about

The only hotel within the old city is La Giara, with functional furnishings and a friendly welcome (Via Veterani 40; 0921-421-562, fax 0921-422-518; last year prices were $28 in winter, $38-$52 in summer including required half-pension). Just outside the old town, teensy pension Locanda Cangelosi gets dozens of calls daily for its four ancient rooms (Via Umberto I 26; 0921-421-591; $32-$38). A 15-minute hike uphill from the town center, stuffy old Pensione delle Rose has spacious rooms, some with views over the city to the sea (Strada Provinciale Cefalu-Gibilmanna/Via H 2; tel. and fax 0921-421-885; $49-$54).

Cheap chow

You can dine fine for just $15 to $25 with the set-price menus at refined La Brace (Via 25 Novembre 10, off Corso Ruggero; 0921-423-570; closed Monday). If you prefer a table on the seaside promenade, head to Da Nino for $3.30 pizzas and an $11 fixed-price seafood menu (Via Bagni 11/Lungomare Cefalu; 0921-422-582; closed Tuesday). Or settle for passable food (from $3.30 pizzas; $4.25 pastas) in a stupendous, secluded starlit setting on a terrace over the sea at Lo Scoglio Ubriaco (Via C. Ortolani di Bordonaro 2-4, at the seaward end of Corso Ruggero; 0921-423-370; closed November and January through February and Tuesdays except in summer).

Getting around

Sicily's train system is slower and less extensive than that in the rest of Italy; buses are often better networked and more comfortable in the summer heat. The bus stop in most towns is a piazza (square) near the train station; buy your tickets at a kiosk or newsstand on the square or, more often, at the nearest bar or tabacchi (tobacconists, marked by a white "T" sign).

Renting a car may be worth the expense (three or four people travel cheaper by car than by train) for freedom of exploration and to save the time and frustration of multiple train and bus transfers. Skip the big three and go straight for the better deals from European specialists Europe by Car (212/581-3040 or 800/223-1516), Auto Europe (800/223-5555 or 207/842-2000), or Kemwel Holiday Autos (800/678-0678). Rates fluctuate widely, starting around $120 per week, but mandatory insurance coverage increases the total cost to about $255/week. Pick up the car upon leaving Palermo to avoid the nightmarish city traffic.

You get around most cities on foot or by bus; buy tickets (35 -85 ) at a newsstand or tabacchi.

Getting to Sicily

You can't fly directly from the U.S. to Sicily, so fly first to Rome on any U.S. carrier or Italy's Alitalia (800/223-5730 in the U.S.). Round-trip fares: from New York, $368 (low season) up to $694 (high season); from Chicago, $468-$730; from L.A. or San Francisco $558 to $830. Consolidator and discount flights from New York to Rome can run as low as $307-$440 in low season from Travac (800/872-8800), Air Travel Discounts (800/888-2621), Cheap Tickets (800/377-1000), Travel Avenue (800/333-3335), or Lowestfare.com (888/777-2222).

From Rome, the quickest but priciest option to Sicily is by plane to Palermo (1 hour) or Catania (70 minutes), a four-hour, $11 train ride from Siracusa. Though you can't book Air Sicilia (091/625-0566 in Italy) tickets from the U.S., they do offer the cheapest one-way fares: $59-$91 to Palermo, $65-$97 to Catania. Alitalia charges $132 to Palermo (though you can tack the Rome-to-Palermo leg onto your connecting Alitalia flight from the U.S. for an extra $80 or so round-trip).

Meridiana (800/275-5566 in the U.S.) flies to Catania for $152-$200.

The cheapest route to any Sicilian city is by overnight train (from Rome: 10-13 hours, $36-$66). If you're driving, ferries leave every 20 minutes from Villa San Giovanni in Calabria (the toe of the Italian boot) to Messina, Sicily (25 minutes; $16-$20).

In summer, treat yourself to a boat from Naples (train from Rome: two hours, $10.30). April 20 to October 10, "SiciliaJet" hydrofoils (081-761-2348) to Palermo leave Naples' Maritime Stazione at 5:30 p.m. (four hours, $55, or $69 July 24-Sept 12). The overnight ferry (081-720-1111) to Palermo (eight hours, $40 plus $15-$20 sleeping berth), leaves Naples' Maritime Stazione (get off the train at Napoli-Centrale/Piazza Garibaldi and catch tram 1) at 8 p.m. daily.

Should you prefer a package or guided tour, Alitalia's Italiatour division (800/845-3365) offers three-night air-and-land packages from March 1 to May 31 starting from $899 to Palermo and a "Treasures of Sicily" nine-day escorted tour from $1,739 that hits (briefly!) every destination in this article. Central Holidays (800/935-5000) runs a similar air-included eight-day "Splendors of Sicily" escorted tour for $1,499 to $1,949, depending on season. And their nine-day "Sicily on Wheels" package deal for $1,439 covers airfare from the U.S., hotels, seven-day car rental, and lets you pick your own itinerary.

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