Joe's Travel Journal
Southern Italy & Sicily via the Amalfi Coast
November 10 to 21, 2006
This Journal is a compilation of E-mails which were sent to 30 friends and family members during our 12-day tour
Preface - Starting from Vincentown on Friday afternoon, November 10
Thirteen of us boarded our mini-bus in Vincentown and left for the Philadelphia airport at about 3:00 p.m. in order to clear security for our flight scheduled for departure at 6:55 pm. Security was a little tougher than in the past, but we left on time.
Day 2, Saturday morning, November 11 – From Heathrow Airport
Had a good flight over (tight back row seats, but otherwise ok). Arrived at about 7:00 am British time (around 2 am USA time). Security is a hassle on this end, too, but we made it through ok. We are about to board our plane for Rome (leaving at 10:30 a.m. British time). We will hopefully be in Rome by 2 PM. More later. Joe & Penny.
Day 3, Sunday, November 12 - Greetings all from the Eternal City
It is about 4:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon (10:00 a.m. your time). We are having a great time and have already packed a lot into the 24 plus hours we have been here. I'll go back to our arrival yesterday. It only took about 2 1/2 hours in the air from London and we arrived at about 2 pm. The flight to Heathrow from Philly was in a British Airways 777 - a rather tight plane for our big American bodies. There were some bumpy moments but we got into London safely and on time. After our layover there, we took a much nicer plane to Rome, arriving about 20 minutes earlier than scheduled - by about 2 pm Saturday. We have a great Collette tour guide by the name of Thomas Deacon - a native of Lima, Peru, but now an American citizen. He is excellent. Our Roman hotel, the Quirinale (named after one of the 7 Hills of Rome) is smack in the middle of the city, close to everything. Penny and I went out for a walk after checking in and visited Our Lady of the Angels and Martyrs Cathedral, about a block from our hotel, and happened upon a group of American Tourists with their own priest traveling with them, and were able to attend Mass in English in this magnificent Cathedral.
Our group of 33 travelers (16 make up my group)
After that our group headed to The Spanish Steps for our first evening tour – that’s the same area where all the exclusive shops our located ( Rome's Rodeo Drive) - and fortunate for the husbands, they were all closed. We had our welcome dinner in a great Italian Restaurant near the Spanish Steps (called the Re Degli Amici on Via dela Croce) - several courses, lots of wine, and after dinner drinks to make up for the suffering we went through in a tight plane and tightened security to get here. Although we are a group of 16, we were joined by a group of 14 people from Baltimore and 3 from Tennessee -- making for a very comfortable group overall. They are very nice people and we are already bosom buddies (especially after all the booze at the welcome dinner). I had to hold Penny back from dancing on the table. We all went to bed very tired travelers, having restrained from sleep for almost 24 hours straight.
Today we got up early for a special tour of St. Peter's Basilica. We didn't happen to run into Pope Benedict XVI, but we were very fortunate to have gotten to St. Peter's Square before the crowds arrived. Every one loved the leisurely, un-crowded tour of the Basilica. We did see the lights on in the Pope's apartment, however, so he was in town. We then took a city tour of Rome by bus, with a stop and tour of the Colosseum, driving by all the other antiquities of Rome, and ending up at Trevi Fountain, where we all threw in 3 coins to make sure we return to Rome again in our lifetime. We got back to our hotel at 1:30 in the afternoon. Penny and I found a quaint Italian Restaurant near our hotel for lunch - away from our fellow travelers, for a tasty local (and romantic) meal. She is now taking a nap. Tonight we are going by bus to a special dinner with entertainment consisting of 3 tenors (not the FAMOUS three, but three imitators) singing light opera. The restaurant was called Le Grotte Dell’Imperatore II. Then we have a bus tour of " Rome by Night".
At Trevi Fountain in Rome
It is hard to believe that we leave Rome tomorrow, already, but after some people take a tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistene Chapel, we head directly to Naples for our next hotel and 2-day adventure.
The weather yesterday was perfect - sun, and only light jacket required. Today we awoke to rain, but it didn't deter us. Right after our lunch today, the sun came out.
Sorry about the length of this first major entry into our travel journal, but it shows how much we are packing into this tour. Thanks to those of you who have written back to us already. And to answer my sister Mary Lou's question - no, we don't plan to crash Tom Cruise's wedding – although we considered it! It is interesting that we are in Italy when all that attention is being focused here.
Take care -- and until next time, Arrivederci Roma
Joe and Penny
Day 5 – Tuesday, November 14 – A quick hello from the town of Vietri on the Amalfi Coast.
There’s no internet in our hotel, so I came into town tonight and talked a guy in a coffee shop into letting me use his computer, because there are no internet cafes in town, either. It may be worse in Sicily, according to our tour manager.
Superlatives are the only words I can use to describe our past two days. First, the weather. Absolutely fabulous. Sunshine, warm - just absolutely ideal. Oh, and clear, too, a must for the sights we've seen. Our hotel is also indescribable - on a high cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Bright colors, ceramic tile floors, etc., etc. Wait till you see the pictures.
I'll start with yesterday - we left Rome at about 10 a.m. and headed down the coast to Naples, with our destination actually being Pompeii. It was an ideal day to see the ruins and we had a marvelous and humorous guide. After our tour we headed further south to the town of Vietri, where I am now. It is between the towns of Sorrento and Amalfi. We had a great dinner last night in the hotel, preceded by complimentary drinks at the bar. This morning we got up early and headed first to Sorrento - where we toured and had lunch. It is a fabulous town. We first visited an inlaid wood factory for a demonstration, and then toured the town, with its pedestrian shopping street. Then on to the highlight of the day, the actual drive along the cliffs and towns of the Amalfi Coast. It was beyond our expectations. Some people could not sit on the cliff side of the bus - it was so treacherous, yet oh so beautiful. I took lots of pictures which I can't wait to post on Snapfish so any of you who want to see them can go through them. Even our tour director can't get over the great weather we are having. He also told us that we picked the best time of the year to come, because there is hardly any traffic, and no crowds at the tourist attractions. During the tourist season he said you are constantly backed up in traffic jams. Today, we sailed through. Tomorrow morning we leave early for the rest of the trip down the coast to the ferry which will take us, bus and all, over to the town of Messina in Sicily. We will be in another cliff hanging hotel which is supposed to be fabulous. Also, the weather is predicted to be outstanding - even warmer than here.
A break along the Amalfi Coast
I think I'm taking longer at this computer than the guy bargained for, so I'll sign off now, hoping that I will find at least one internet cafe in Sicily. Take care - and if you sent me an email, thanks, but I can't check it now because I'm on borrowed time at this computer.
Penny is having a great time, too. We have a great group, also. That's it for now. I hope to be in touch soon.
Joe - and Penny, too.
Day 7 – Thursday, November 16 – Greetings from Taormina, Sicily
It is fortunate that I found an Internet Cafe here in Taormina - I have learned that Southern Italy and Sicily have not really joined the world of high tech communications (except for cell phones). Penny allowed me to leave the group after our tour of the town today (she's with the shoppers) to try to find an internet cafe, and I finally discovered this little one in a basement store with 5 computers.
I still have to use superlatives to describe our experiences here -- even our local tour guides are saying they never saw such wonderful weather as this at this time of year. Today it is actually hot. Doug Ghaul is wearing shorts -- and I wish I had a short sleeve shirt on -- but I'm not complaining. The weather has been absolutely fabulous except for that second day in Rome.
Taormina -- with Mt. Etna in the background
I have to start off with what is happening here with Mt. Etna -- a very active volcano, which is erupting as I speak, within view of our hotel and this town. About an hour ago we sat in a Greek and Roman Amphitheater at the top of Taormina, with Etna spewing white and grey smoke with the thunder of the erupting volcano in the background. Last night we saw -- from our hotel -- four rivers of molten lava flowing from the crater. Even the locals are saying they have not seen it this active in years. We couldn't have been here at a better time (that is, provided it doesn't get much more active before we leave tomorrow). Tomorrow, we are actually going up as close to the crater as they will allow for a formal tour of Mt. Etna. The activity may prevent us from getting as close as tourists usually get.
This town is absolutely fabulous. Perched high on top of a cliff overlooking the Ionian sea, it is a combination of Greek and Roman ruins. We are still trying to figure out how they built the houses and towns on the cliffs as they have throughout this region.
But let me go back a bit. After my last email, we left that wonderful area of the Amalfi Coast and traveled all the way south from central Italy to the toe of the boot through Calabria. When we got to San Giovanni, our bus drove right onto the ferry and it took about 40 minutes to cross the bay of Sicily to the town of Messina, Sicily. It took all day to make the trip from the Naples area, but we stopped several times along the way. I've never gone through so many tunnels through mountains -- marvels of engineering -- as I did on this trip.
We got to Sicily before dark, and the first marvel to come into view was smoking Mt. Etna. Our hotel is right on the sea, and I took a great picture of the Sunrise this morning over the ocean from the balcony of my hotel room, with the waves crashing on the beach below my window. This is our second hotel with a balcony overlooking the beach.
We had a great meal last night -- all of our hotels are 4 star, and beyond our expectations for quality, service, food, bars and cleanliness.
Tonight we are taking a cable car up to the top of the cliff in Taormina for a dinner at Bella Blu Restaurant overlooking the bay and spewing Mt. Etna with its rivers of red, glowing lava in the distance.
We head for southern Sicily ( Agrigento) tomorrow afternoon for another two nights in a new hotel. Today is the mid-point of our tour.
In addition to having good weather and an extra-active volcano, we have been blessed by no lines anywhere, because we picked the end of the tourist season for this trip. It is the best time to travel to southern Italy.
Just a couple of things I may have left out because I didn't have time at earlier computers. In Rome we were introduced to new technology for the guided tours. Each of us was provided with an electronic ear piece and our tour guide had a transmitter. No matter how far we fell behind -- in fact, it worked from one end of the Roman Colosseum to the other -- you could hear him. I want one of those systems for my tours of Smithville!
Also, I was unaware that Sicily was so virginal when it came to tourism. It is hard to find places to change money, and, as I mentioned, places with internet services barely exist. In fact, the very modern hotel in which we are staying does not have a business center or even one computer for guests. Our tour director said that up until recently, Sicily really didn't cater to tourists. We feel fortunate to be in the vanguard. It is an absolutely beautiful country, and our guide tells us we haven't seen anything yet!
Our group has become very integrated -- and several people not from my group of 16 (our total group is 33) have asked for my business card (they're from Baltimore) in order to be on future trips with my groups, because our people seem to be so prepared and so interested in having fun (especially at night!).
That should be it for now. I want to conclude by saying I'm not exaggerating about how great the weather is and everything else. We have really been blessed!
Wish you were here with us -- but I am getting some great pictures which I hope I can share with those of you who may be interested.
Take care. Joe and Penny
Day 9 – Saturday, November 18 – Writing from the town of Agrigento
Hey, I'm back! I had a hard time finding this internet cafe. Actually, I started my search last night. Italians give lousy directions. I got lost on a couple of back streets and did some pretty aggressive walking. I failed to find the internet café, but did scope out the town. I returned to town early this afternoon, but discovered that here as in other towns in Sicily they follow the old ways - everything closes down between 1 and 4 pm, including the only internet cafe on a narrow side street off the main avenue. And it is a heck of a walk from the hotel. So I found a bus and got back here at 4 pm. This is a great old Italian hill town on the southern coast of Sicily. We arrived here yesterday afternoon and leave tomorrow morning for Palermo. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The weather remains extraordinary. I thought I might jinx myself for bragging so much about it, but it continues to be warm. Today it was definitely a short sleeve day - temps in the low 70s and plenty of sunshine. It was similar yesterday. So with two full days remaining after today, we have had sunshine every day but one - in Rome -- where it really didn't matter.
When I last left you, we were to get up the next morning to go up on Mt. Etna to visit the craters -- one of which just erupted the day before with a new river of hot lava flowing. Of course, we didn't get near that one. But we went way up to close to the top of the Volcano, where it looked like we were on another planet - the complete landscape being desolate and consisting of black lava. We visited a section that was completely wiped out by an eruption about ten years ago and re-built again for tourists. We actually saw submerged houses showing only their roofs jutting out from the black lava rock. It was a tremendous experience, especially being on top of an active volcano, with the smoke rising above our heads. We have some great pictures.
Next we headed to a town in central Italy, called Plazza Armerina, where they discovered a place like Pompeii, which, however, was covered by a mudslide in the 11th century, and only discovered in the late 1800s, and when they removed the mud they discovered a huge Roman Palace, Villa Casale, with all of the floor mosaics preserved over the centuries by the mud. It was mind-boggling to see actual "cartoons" in mosaic of how the people lived and played in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Then we headed for our present haunt, Agrigento. The main attraction here is the "Valley of the Temples" which boasts of ancient Greek Temples which, in my opinion, having been to Athens and other parts of Greece, rivals them in their magnificence and in the manner in which they have survived and been preserved. Penny agreed that this was actually better than having been to Greece.
Capuchino and Coke break after Valley of the Temples tour
Our local guides continue to be entertaining and informative. Sicily is truly a treasure of beauty and history. And as I mentioned the other day, it is only now discovering the value of tourism and being discovered by people like ourselves.
I did a one upsmanship on our Collette Tour guide. He had never been into the town of Agrigento, where I am now writing to you. However, I went out before dinner last night to discover it by myself while all the rest of our group were taking a well-earned nap. I have to admit that I got lost on some scary side streets during my adventure, but eventually ended up in the town center. So today, rather than being dropped off at the hotel after our visit to the Valley of the Temples, I offered to take whomever wanted to tour Agrigento into the town if the bus driver would drop us off close to the town center. About 13 of the 33 members of the group accepted the invitation - with the understanding that we had to walk back to the hotel (about 2 kilometers - and fortunately all downhill). They are all happy they joined me, as the town is a true example of non-touristy Sicily. We saw more how the native Sicilians live, rather than how they cater to tourists. We found a great place for lunch, and prior to the closing of the shops at 1 pm, a great place to shop.
Tomorrow morning we leave for Palermo, on the north coast. Palermo is the capital of Sicily. Palermo will be our last stop and fifth hotel, prior to boarding a small plane which will take us back to Rome, where on Tuesday we'll get our British Air flight to London, then one to Philly. On the way to Palermo, we will be stopping at a winery in the western coastal town of Marsala for wine tasting. I'll tell you about it when I get to Palermo tomorrow night, if I can find an Internet cafe - and if the wine tasting doesn't do me in!
Earlier this afternoon, after we walked down from the center of Agrigento to the hotel, we had a poolside picnic with wine and cheese and meats and fruits we bought from a local market. Penny claims that she is getting a sun tan - you can be the judge of that when we return.
Well, that should do it for now. I hope to send at least one more email from Palermo.
Jiuseppi and Penny.
Day 11 – Monday night, November 20 in Palermo, Sicily
Hello, all! Well, all good things have to come to an end. It is just about 5:00 p.m. in hectic, busy, big Palermo. What a contrast from all we've seen up till now. It is like being in the middle of Paris, New York, or Rome -- a fantastically vibrant city, much larger than we realized and one of the busiest places on earth. So many cars -- and so many Sicilians ignoring the speed limits, the red lights, and the parking regulations. They park anywhere -- and with the small cars they've created over here-- they can park in the most unusual places and are creative in where they find these parking places. They have these little cars, the width of a normal car, so they can park sideways – rear or front to the curb, while the car next to them might be parallel to the curb. All in all, Palermo is a great experience. Palermo is called the cultural capitol of Sicily -- and it is actually the political capitol as well. For culture, you can't beat it. Opera Theaters everywhere. Maginificent cathedrals everywhere; and history everywhere. We have been overwhelmed.
This morning we took a bus tour of Palermo and then a nearby town called Monte Reale. We were dropped off after the tour in the center of the Palermo for two or three hours on our own to explore and to have lunch. We had a great Italian lunch in a little restaurant we found called “Pedro’s”. After going back to the hotel, I figured I hadn't seen enough of this great town, so while Penny is taking a nap back at the in our room, I took a cab back to the heart of the town and discovered this one and only Internet Cafe in the University Center. I thought I'd take about half an hour to close out this Journal.
Last night Doug Ghaul, Penny, Anne Stella and I decided not to go with the group for dinner in order to try to find a restaurant recommended to Doug by a friend in Burlington City who owns a Restaurant there. The owners of this restaurant are related to the Burlington guy. Well, we found it -- but got there 2 hours before it opened (it didn't open till 7:30 pm - a common practice here). So we explored the area then went to eat. What a great find it was! It was very upscale, and Penny was dying for a full Italian dinner -- which we had. It was superb. The atmosphere was great, the decor, the waiters, everything -- and it wasn't in a tourist area, but a typical Sicilian neighborhood. By the time we left it was packed by locals -- and were we happy we discovered it.
As the trip ends, we are all sorry it is over. We made some great new friends with the people from the other group with which we are paired. Yesterday and today again, we had perfect summer weather. There were no crowds at the normally crowded sites we visited and we enjoyed more than the average tourist sees during the regular season. So the tally is this: only a half of a rainy day during the whole tour -- on the second day in Rome. We were truly blessed.
Tonight we have a farewell dinner in the hotel. We have to rise at 3 a.m. to be taken to the Palermo airport for a 6 am flight to Rome. Then to London, then to Philly. We don't expect to be in Vincentown till about 10 pm on Tuesday.
This morning we had our group picture taken in front of the duomo (cathedral) in Palermo. I checked my camera and the total number of digital pictures I've taken is 260. I will weed some of them out and then try to put together a nice annotated album on Snapfish for anyone on this list to view if they want to. I should have it up and running by the weekend. Meanwhile, thanks for bearing with me over the past ten days. Penny and I want to wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. See you soon.
Joe and Penny
Joe; Collette Tour Manager, Thomas Deacon; Driver: Gaetano
Wednesday, November 22 – Postscript from home
Well, our marathon trip home took over 30 hours from start to finish. We were delayed in Heathrow for about 3 hours before we could take off, arriving in Vincentown close to midnight. It was really a long day. We got up at 3:00 a.m. and we had our share of layovers and long flights. I spent today unpacking, getting laundry done and organizing my pictures, journal and album. Penny had to work. We are expecting our grandchildren for breakfast on Thanksgiving. Or Rome, Amalfi Coast and Sicily adventure is now a memory – but one we will never forget.