8 August 2016

After the British Museum: itineraries for touring historic Sicily

There are just a few days left to visit the British Museum's current exhibition Sicily: Culture and Conquest (closes 14th August 2016). If you've visited the museum's show, or are planning to visit this week, and find yourself tempted by the thought of Sicilian travel, I've come up with some ideas for itineraries, below.

The exhibition is a good introduction to the history of the remarkable Italian island, with photos and exhibits to whet the appetite for travel. It concentrates mostly on two phases of the island's long and varied history: the Greeks and the Normans. These are only two of the outside cultures which have occupied Sicily, so it's not a complete overview, but given the wealth of history and the museum's limited space, it's a fair choice. There are brief illustrations of other phases of history, including the final exhibit, a painting of the Madonna and Child by Antonello da Messina (from the National Gallery).

Exihibits predominantly come from the British Museum itself, from the archaeological museums in Siracusa and Palermo, and from Agrigento and Gela. The Cappella Palatina in Palermo features in the form of large and detailed photographs.

If you still have time left after seeing the exhibition, upstairs in Room 90 you'll find a large collection of Francis Towne's Italian watercolours; mostly depicting Rome and the surrounding area (this free exhibition also closes on 14th August).

Sicily historical itineraries

If you've seen the exhibition and are ready to think about a holiday in Sicily, here are some ideas for itineraries which follow on from the British Museum's displays:

Greek itinerary

This short Greek itinerary can be joined onto the Norman itinerary below to give an overview of these two eras - as well as seeing some of Sicily's finest sights. It's easiest to hire a car to tour Sicily, but if you're patient and plan around bus and train timetables, it's possible to see the island by public transport - this is what I've always done. Palermo is the best airport to use for this tour, though Catania is also feasible for an extended itinerary.

Selinunte - one of Sicily's less-known treasures, this Greek site by the sea is large and evocative. It was destroyed in a Carthaginian siege; Sicily's history of conquest is very evident here. It's a big site so I'd suggest staying nearby. Selinunte is reached by local bus from Castelvetrano, which is on the island's rail and bus network. Salemi buses run from Palermo to Castelvetrano, and they also operate the local service to SelinunteLumia buses connect Castelvetrano with Agrigento.

Ruins of Selinunte
 Agrigento - the Valley of the Temples is rightly famous; this must be one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world. The hillside town and the museum (which contains some of the exhibits featured in the British Museum exhibition) are also worth visiting; staying at least one night will give you the best chance of enjoying the town - two nights will allow for a more leisurely exploration. Agrigento is about two hours by train from Palermo - though if you have time, you can extend your tour to Siracusa in the south-eastern corner of the island.

Siracusa -  a great city break destination in its own right, Siracusa has a history as an important Greek city, an archaeological zone, and an excellent museum. It adds quite a bit of extra travel to this itinerary, so if you're planning a short holiday, you could consider leaving the town for a future trip. To reach Siracusa from Agrigento, you can catch a bus to Catania airport and then change to a bus for Siracusa - or catch a train to Siracusa from Catania station. Heading from Siracusa back north, the easiest option for public transport is probably a bus (Interbus) from Siracusa to Palermo, where you can continue the tour into Norman Sicily.

Norman Itinerary

Following on from the Greek tour above, this itinerary on Sicily's northern coast allows you to see fine architecture, museums and mosaics - as well as enjoying city life, Sicilian street food and a break by the seaside.

Palermo cathedral
Palermo -  a good base for a couple of days or more, Sicily's capital is the best place to experience Greek and Arab Sicily. Important sights include the Palatine Chapel in Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cathedral (don't miss a tour up to the roof) and the mosaics in the church of La Martorana. Palermo's archaeological museum has been closed for years for restoration, but does host exhibitions; when open it's well worth visiting.

Monreale - a short bus ride from the centre of Palermo, Monreale's Norman cathedral, cloisters and gold mosaics are among the wonders of Norman Sicily.

Cefal├╣- a lovely seaside town where you can relax on the beach, explore the old town centre, climb up to hillside ruins and admire some more amazing mosaics in the town's Norman cathedral. A good place to enjoy some holiday atmosphere after Sicily's museums and ruins. Just a hour by train from Palermo. To get to Palermo airport, catch the train back to Palermo, and then the airport bus from the station.

Sicily's other historical highlights

Agrigento Ephebe, Archaeological Museum Agrigento
To get an insight into the other eras of Sicily's history, a circuit around the island's coastline takes the visitor through some remarkable sights. It would makes sense to allow at least three weeks for a more complete tour - or divide the island up and visit more than once, seeing the eastern half of the island (flying into Catania airport) and the western half (Palermo airport) separately. Sicily is a really rich and varied destination which definitely repays multiple visits. Highlights include:

MoziaErice and the Egadi islands - Sicily's western coast has ruins and artefacts of the Phoenician occupants of Sicily, as well as the interesting Egadi islands, the site of the sea battles which gave Rome dominion over Sicily.

Taormina - Sicily's most popular resort, Taormina doesn't have good museums, but its Greco-Roman theatre is spectacular. Important to Greeks, Romans and then to tourists from the 19th century onwards, Taormina contains a lot of Sicily's history in one small picturesque town. Taormina's on the island's eastern coast, not far from historic Catania.

Lipari - The Aeolian islands were strategically located on ancient sea routes, and Lipari was a well-off island in Greek times. The archaeological museum has an excellent collection of Greek vases and of terracotta masks.

Baroque towns - Sicily's Baroque towns, rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693, offer an attractive contrast to the island's ancient archaeology. They give an insight into more recent Sicilian history, are attractive places to stay, and are increasingly popular as holiday destinations thanks for the Sicilian TV detective Inspector MontalbanoRagusa is one of the best destinations, along with ScicliNoto and Modica, famous for its chocolate.

Marble altar-decoration, 9th century, Archaeological Museum Agrigento (featured in the British Museum exhibition)

Head of telamon, Agrigento Archaeological Museum
Admiring the mosaic of Roger II being crowned by Christ, La Martorana, Palermo

3 May 2016

Sorrento Apartments - Review

Sorrento Apartments have several self-catering holiday flats in a building in the heart of Sorrento. This is one of the cheaper accommodation options in the historic centre. I rented a flat anonymously in April 2016 - this is my review.

I booked a one-bedroom holiday apartment online at fairly short notice. I was looking for somewhere affordable and central, with cooking facilities, and Sorrento Apartments was just about the cheapest option - and it had good reviews from past guests. I booked four nights at a total cost of €293 (€73 per night).

The apartment building has a cafe-bar on the ground floor run by the same management, and there's a reception desk inside at the back. This is a convenient arrangement for guests as it means there's almost always someone around to offer maps, advice, refreshments or a chat. When you arrive, look out for the name Sorrento Apartments on the wall to help identify the building (see bottom photograph).

My flat was on the first floor, accessed by stairs or lift. The window looked out over another building, with extractor fans in its wall.These were sometimes audible, and didn't provide the nicest of outlooks.

Decorated in a grey-white that looked a bit shabby, the flat was clean and decent, but had a rather tired air. Generally, though, I found it well-equipped and comfortable. An efficient air conditioning unit provided a bit of added warmth in the cool spring evenings. The bedroom had a range of 3 lighting options, operable from both sides of the bed. The shutter had a switch to open and close it. Furniture in the bedroom consisted of a large desk, double bed (two singles pushed together), two stools, bedside tables, and a rail for clothes. There wasn't a suitcase stand, though there was space for a suitcase on a chest of drawers containing spare bedding. There was a large flat screen TV on the wall.

The kitchen was through a doorway from the bedroom (no door). It was minimal, but adequate, providing two hobs and basic equipment (two of each cutlery item). Salt, washing-up liquid and a cleaning cloth were supplied. There was an electric kettle, although this was dodgy and didn't turn itself off, leaving the plastic parts to get dangerously hot. There was enough cooking equipment to make a pasta meal, prepare rolls and eat a take-away dessert, which was all I wanted to do. A convenient supermarket is just a few minutes' walk away behind the cathedral.

The flat's bathroom was again basic but ok: toilet, washbasin, storage unit, towels, minimal sachet toiletries, shower, hair-drier. This room had some minor damage around the shower which would have been better repaired. The flat didn't have a washing machine, but if you wanted to do hand-washing or hang wet beach-wear up, there was a useful washing line outside window and pegs supplied.

The street at the front of the apartment building is one of Sorrento's pedestrian lanes which can get busy at night, and several restaurants and bars had outdoor tables. I used earplugs to mute the background noise, which quietened fairly early, but might be more of a disturbance in the summer months.

Although the flats feel like self-contained holiday homes, they're actually serviced, which was a nice bonus. A cleaner came each day to give a quick clean and provide fresh towels.

The flat was absolutely fine as an affordable and practical base. I found it a bit disappointing at first, probably because the decor was a bit drab and tired, and I was rather spoiled after a couple of nights in the 5-star Grand Hotel La Favorita around the corner. But I settled in, and I liked having a retreat from the tourist scene and an alternative to eating out every night.

I think Sorrento Apartments offer a good practical place to stay in the town centre, and my stay was good value for money. Although the flat was simple, this was reflected in the price; it was cheaper than most other places when I booked. You can get a bit cooped up in a flat but at least you have the open space and views of the Villa Comunale park very close at hand, and a good choice of bars, restaurants etc. nearby. The location is pretty much ideal for sight-seeing and enjoying what the centre of Sorrento has to offer. I'd recommend the flats if you're looking for an independent stay, a cheaper option, or a practical family base. There are a range of flats on offer, including flats with balconies and flats sleeping up to four guests.

> Sorrento Apartments - check availability and prices
> More apartments and other accommodation in Sorrento