Archive | skiing

Our 10 Favorites in Sicily {Within 1 Hour of Sigonella}

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I’ve been wanting to share some of our favorite day trips, restaurants, and beaches in Sicily because these places hold our best memories from the three years we’ve spent in this beautiful place. I hope new generations of visitors and Sigonella military families to enjoy them after we depart!

If you have questions or if my directions are wrong, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll be sure to get them updated. And if you have suggestions of your own, add them there too!

Taormina

I love Taormina so much that I could go there every week, and Elliott thinks that I pretty much do. It is the prettiest town in Sicily, and it’s what you dream of when you hear the word “Italy.”

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When you visit Taormina, you can park in two different places: at the bottom of town and ride the cable car up into the old town, or in the public garage right outside of the old town.

The cable car parking lot costs about 5 euro a day, and cable car tickets are 3 euro each way per person. (Small children ride for free.) The cable car drops you off right outside the city walls of Taormina.

If you prefer not to ride the cable car, follow the road signs from the toll booth to “Taormina” or “Porta Catania” (the name of the huge public garage). Once you park in the garage, you can walk up the hill and enter the city. I usually do this, and I pay about 8 euro to park for 5 hours.

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Now you’re in Taormina! I always eat lunch at Da Cristina, which was written up in the New York Times and sells the best Sicilian street food I’ve ever eaten. We stop for mini cannoli at one of the little pastry shops along the way. We generally walk through the town until we reach the beautiful Villa Comunale gardens, which has stunning views, quiet benches, stone picnic tables (yes!), a fish pond, Amazon parrots that say “ciao!”, and a dilapidated playground that my kids love.

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On our way back up the hill from the park, we always, always stop at Bam Bar for the best granita (Italian ice) in Taormina. Actually, it’s the best granita in the world. Get the lemon and raspberry (limone e lampone) or maybe the coffee granita with thick whipped cream on top. Order a brioche (sweet bun) and a cappuccino, and take a bite of everything for me!

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Beach tip: The cable car parking lot is also a great place to park if you want to visit the beach in Taormina. You just have to walk out of the parking lot, turn right, climb the hill, and cross the street (follow the signs) to take a long flight of stairs down to the rocky beach. In April, this staircase is full of brilliant purple wisteria! On the rocky beach, you can also wade across to the beautiful little island of Isola Bella, where a Scottish heiress built herself a house when she escaped her unhappy marriage.

To inspire your visit, here are all our many Taormina adventures!

Cassibile Nature Reserve Beach

We love a lot of beaches in Sicily, but Cassibile is our favorite. It’s also called Fonda Pineta del Gelsomineto. It’s an hour drive from Sigonella, past Siracusa, so generally we make a day of it. The pin in this map indicates the beach. Admission costs 10-12 euro during the week and 12-15 euro on the weekend during the summer, and you pay the parking attendant when you turn at the new yellow building by the side of the road.

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Bring food, a portable grill, a beach umbrella, a beach tent, your dog, whatever you like. There are virtually no rules. There is a tiny cafe, and sometimes a guy walks down the beach with a cooler full of fresh coconut, but otherwise no food for sale. There are public bathrooms, but nowhere else to change, so I come and go in my swimsuit.

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My husband loves to take visitors and friends on a short walk/hike (shoes or flip flops are recommended) up the cliffs to a safe place to jump off into the water below. I’m always stuck on the beach with a baby, but he says it’s great! We’ve also explored the pillbox on the northern end of the beach; it was used by the Germans during WWII to watch for invaders by sea.

Siracusa & Ortigia

I love to take visitors to beautiful Ortigia, the little island connected by a short bridge to the city of Siracusa. I usually park at this large parking lot and then wander through the city towards the main piazza.

My absolute favorite place to eat is right there in the piazza at the delicious pizzeria called La Volpe e  l’Uva (The Fox and the Grape). Their menu is trendy and their food is delicious, and I will dream about their four cheese pizza forever.

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After lunch and a gelato cone, we wander down to the waterfront, where papyrus grows in a little freshwater pond. Sometimes we go swimming at the tiny little beach in the port. One summer my sister-in-law and I were so hot, and the teenagers in their mismatched bikinis looked so happy jumping off the pier into the sparkling water, that finally we just took off our shorts and jumped into the water with them!

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While in Siracusa, I have also visited the Archeological Park several times. It’s about a 10-minute drive from Ortigia, and it’s possible to do both in the same day. Admission is 10 euro per person (buy your ticket across the street from the entrance), and there are three large archeological sites to see inside the gates: an amphitheater, a theater that is still in use during the summer, and a cave with a notorious echo.

Here are photos from three trips to Siracusa

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Catania

I visit Catania at least once a month, mostly because I absolutely love the huge market. It’s open every day except Sunday from 8am-1pm, and the prices and produce are incomparable.

I park here underneath the arched bridge. My friend taught me to do this and I’ve been parking here for three years with no issues. The attendant (a friendly guy with gray hair) guides me to a parking spot and will watch my car until about 1:30pm for whatever I want to pay him. I usually give him two euro. Clearly it’s not “legal,” but it isn’t illegal either, a paradox that only makes sense in certain parts of the world.

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Once I park, I walk through the main city gate into Elephant Square (Piazza Duomo/Fontane dell’Elefante). I then might:

  • Ride the tourist train around the city (here are pictures and information from a trip we took)
  • Walk into the huge and magnificent Cattedral Sant’Agata
  • Stroll down the main street of Catania (Via Etnea) to get the best arancini in the city at Pasticceria Savia. I then walk across the street to eat them in the Giardino Bellini, the beautiful public gardens.
  • Wander around the market for fresh produce and fish. When you’re in Elephant Square, look for the white marble fountain. The fish market is behind it (a must-see!), and the fresh fruits and vegetables start there. I buy fresh live mussels (three euro a kilo) for dinner almost every time I come here.

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On our way out, the kids love to visit the playground right next to where we park. The playground is in pretty good condition and has a lot of equipment, which is unusual for Sicilian playgrounds.

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Mount Etna

It is possible to hike most of the way up Mt Etna, and we did it once as a family right after we moved to Sicily. It was an experience I don’t want to repeat — lava is not interesting scenery! — but I’m glad we did it. Mt Etna erupted while we were as high as we were allowed to climb, and that is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can read about that whole adventure (and get some advice) here.

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These days when we hike on Mt Etna, we drive to Etna Sud (the South Station) and hike on a trail nearby. You can find the trail head by driving through the South Station, passing the Silvestri crater on your right, going down the hill, and parking at the T intersection at the bottom of that hill. There’s a little volcanic ash parking lot to your left at that intersection (here’s the location on Google Maps). A wonderful trail starts at that parking lot; just walk around the metal boom and start up the rocky path. The hike takes about 45 minutes for active adults and leads you around the side of Mt Etna to look down into the huge, black lava field. You can continue up the path from there to climb more of Etna if you’d like. Here are pictures from one of our hikes.

You can ski on Mt Etna, too! Here’s everything you need to know.

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Nicolosi

While you’re near Mt Etna, there is a lot to see and enjoy in Nicolosi. This beautiful mountain town is full of delicious restaurants, shops, cafes, parks, and B&Bs. Elliott and I have gone there twice for overnight getaways, staying in this lovely little B&B both times.

We’ve enjoyed delicious spreads at three restaurants and I recommend all of them: Antichi Proverbi, Antico Orto Dei Limone, and 1877 . We also love cappuccinos and gelato at La Dolce Vita and pre-dinner drinks at Santo Doca in the main piazza.

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Here are links to our first getaway without the kids and our romantic skiing weekend (oxymoron?).

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We also love to hike in Monti Rossi, which is a beautiful park on two small hills just outside the town of Nicolosi. There is a ropes course there that’s a lot of fun for kids’ birthday parties (Monti Rossi Adventure Park), and past that is a picnic and grill area. Elliott and I have hiked all over the two hills with and without our kids, and we always feel like we’re in another world when we step into the quiet pine forest.

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Borgo Antico Agriturismo

There’s nothing like Sunday lunch at a Sicilian agriturismo! Our favorite farm-to-table restaurant is Borgo Antico Agriturismo, which is about 30 minutes from Sigonella. As of Summer 2014, the meal costs 30 euro per adult and it is worth every penny. There are four courses:

  • Appetizers, which consists of about 15 different dishes, all more delicious than the last!
  • Pasta, usually two different kinds with homemade pasta
  • Meat, usually three different platters accompanied by a simple salad
  • Dessert and seasonal fruit

The meal also includes as much wine and olive oil as you want to consume, and both are made from grapes and olives on Borgo’s land. The setting is lovely, and between courses the kids can run outside in the citrus groves. I’ve been there at least five times and each meal is better than the last.

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We also enjoyed an incredible agriturismo meal in Randazzo on Mt Etna at Etna Quota Mille. where the meats were grilled instead of breaded and fried like at Borgo. A vineyard called Nanfro (also about an hour from Sigonella) serves an incredible agriturismo meal accompanied by their own delicious wines, and the tour of the vineyard is also fascinating.

Casa delle Farfalle (The Butterfly House)

We love to go here as a family on Sunday afternoons, which is when the butterfly garden is open to the public. We park for two euro for the day, and admission to the butterfly house costs 5 euro per adult. The employees will want to give you a tour in English if they can, and we’ve enjoyed that every time, although it is tedious with small children. Afterwards you’re left alone to enjoy the beautiful butterfly garden.

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We picnic in the grass behind the butterfly garden, usually surrounded by other picnicking families. We’ve always been the only Americans there, so it’s a wonderful chance to mix quietly with Italian families enjoying the sunshine and outdoors on a Sunday afternoon.

becca-garber-casa-delle-farfalle-butterfly-house-sicily-2.jpg The butterfly garden is also open on Saturdays and weekdays, but you will have to call and make a reservation. Only Sundays are public. It’s open from April to October during the year.

I wrote about the butterfly garden twice before: visiting with other moms and kids and a Sunday afternoon family trip.

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The Sigonella Inn Pool

There is a pool on base at Sigonella, but you have to pay to use it (usually $4 for adults and $3 for kids) and it is only open for recreational swimming from 12:30-6pm from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day. By 12:30, the baby pool is in the shade, and it gets cold for kids and moms.

So, because of sunshine, nap schedules, and general thriftiness, I head to the Sigonella Inn pool across the street from NAS 1 instead. This pool is free if you don’t rent a deck chair (which is 5 euro), and the shallow kids’ pool is beautiful and lit with sunshine. We usually leave by 2pm because apparently the pool party really heats up later in the day. On the weekends, it’s bustling with Italians and Americans together, and I love being a part of the melting pot.

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Also, their restaurant makes pizza at the poolside for about six euro a pizza, and you can eat it in a take-out box right by the pool. This summer my friend Sarah have gotten into the habit of swimming with our kids and enjoying pizzas at least once a week!

Random mom tip: if you’re looking for a cool place to go on a hot day, IKEA is not a bad choice. During the week it’s not crowded, and there is a delicious restaurant to break up your browsing for everything you don’t need but are going home with anyway. The restaurant is also right by the kids’ section, which has a great play area. My kids play, eat the food I brought (hello thrifty), get a 50-cent ice cream cone from the super fabulous machine, and then play some more before we leave. I love the place so much that I’ve blogged about it here as a playdate and here with a brand new baby!

Caltagirone

Home of Sicily’s traditional yellow-and-blue ceramics, Caltagirone is a lovely spot to browse take visitors, shop for souvenirs, and eat a delicious meal at a tucked-away restaurant. In addition to shopping for ceramics, I have visited during the Christmas season to see the many presepe (nativity) scenes set up in garages and little shops throughout the town. More details in these blog posts: pottery shopping and the presepe.

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We have loved our three years in Sicily, but I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of cappuccino. If you’re about to move here, it will probably be a lot different from what you’re expecting. And those who have lived here for any length of time know that it’s easy to focus on the negatives, like the driving, or the trash, or everything that comes with living in a rural area.

What we have found is that it’s best to focus on what Sicily does best: deliciously fresh produce and seafood, rich red wine that’s cheap as water, the tallest active volcano in Europe, farm-to-table meals that last all afternoon, sparkling turquoise water by yellow sand beaches, warm and filling street food, and — of course! — sweet gelato cones on hot summer afternoons.

Combine this with Sicily’s warm, generous, welcoming, wonderful people, and you have a whole new world at your fingertips. I wish you a wonderful time in Sicily!

20 :: in agriturismo, beach, hiking, Italy, memories, military life, Mt Etna, pretty places, Sicily, skiing, Taormina, travel

Skiing on Mount Etna: Everything You Need to Know!

Note: Driving directions, contact numbers, and equipment rental info
are at the bottom of this post!

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“We heard you can go skiing on Mt Etna,” I asked right after we moved to Sicily. “Have you ever gone?”

“No,” said my new friend, “never tried it. I’m not sure what it’s like up there… there isn’t that much snow!”

We moved on to other topics. But in the back of my mind I remember thinking, “I’m not going to say what she said! I’m going to ski that mountain!” It’s an active volcano, after all. How many people can say they’ve skied on the tallest active volcano in Europe?!

Skip ahead about… oh, three years. “Have you ever been skiing on Mt Etna?” some new friends asked us, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about life in Sicily.

“No,” I said, flooded with regret. “We’ve always wanted to go, but we never have. It’s so hard to find an all-day babysitter, and I don’t even know if there’s enough snow!”

Our friends took it upon themselves to find out if there was enough snow. This is what they found:

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On the right: that puff is smoke coming out of the active volcano!

So now I really wanted to go. We finally figured out an all-day babysitter: my mom! She gallantly agreed to care for our two children while we went back to our favorite B&B on the slopes of Mt Etna and enjoyed 24 hours to ourselves. Thank you, Mom!

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After a leisurely breakfast in the quaint town of Nicolosi, we packed our bags and drove another 30 minutes to the “South Station,” or Etna Sud, where the cable car leaves for the ski slopes. (See the bottom of this post for more details.) We ran around a little bit looking for where to rent ski equipment. Just look for the log cabins!

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We then bought ski passes inside the large funivia/cable car building. Since we arrived after 12:00pm, we bought the afternoon (pomeridiano) ski pass, and the guy gave us the residential discount. Thirteen euro (about $18 USD) each for ski passes? I’ll take it!

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Kitted out and ready to board the cable car!

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The view from the cable car was beautiful, and would have been spectacular without clouds. Unfortunately, there was less snow than we’d expected, and my hopes were dropping.

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However, once the cable car stopped, we saw plenty of snow. Hooray!

We clicked our boots into our skis (one of my favorite sounds) and took off down the first hill. I felt a little wobbly because we haven’t skied since we went to France two years ago. But the conditions (icy, not powdery) felt familiar because we skied a lot when we lived in New England (and were falling in love!). Pretty soon we were right at home.

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Say cheese!

After a few runs, we figured out that there were only three runs/pistes open. Three! So there wasn’t much exploring to be done. Our friends told us that there were about six runs open when they were there, so maybe it just depends on the amount of snow.

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Suddenly the clouds came rolling in, and our visibility dropped to about 30 feet. We were a little nervous about making a wrong turn and careening down the volcano.

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There’s Elliott in front of me on the ski lift about 30 feet away, and I could barely see past him. The ski lifts were another surprise: no chair lifts, just these single-person “button lifts.” They were fine, but unfortunately that meant our legs didn’t get much of a rest. I really love those breaks on chair lifts!

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And then — as suddenly as it came — the clouds blew away! We could see again!

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We tried to get a shot with the volcano behind us… you can kind of see it.

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We took a break for an Italian-style lunch: a cappuccino and an aracino. I usually look forward to hot dogs for lunch at the ski lodge, but — would you believe it? — they didn’t have any. Something tells me I’ll now want an arancino every time I ski.

The ski slopes are open until 3:45pm, and we were ready to call it a day then, too. As we headed down the cable car, it really started snowing, and we were in for a surprise when we got back to our car. That little Civic hasn’t even seen snow in three years, and now he’s blanketed in it!

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The snow kept coming down as we left Etna Sud and headed down the mountain. We spotted our first Sicilian snow plow…

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… and got treated to breathtaking Narnia-like scenery along the way. How we wished we had the kids with us for this!

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The snow turned into rain right as we entered the outskirts of Nicolosi. Such a beautiful, peaceful end to our little getaway! We drove home to the open arms and snuggles of two little children who were very, very glad to see their mama and daddy. Thank you again, Mom!

And now…

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All You Need to Know About Skiing on Mt Etna

  • We had decided to ski at “Etna Sud,” or the southern side of Etna, which is open this year for skiing. (The North Side/Etna Nord is usually also open for skiing, but it’s closed this year because of a lot of lava flow down that side of the volcano. Too warm for snow, I guess?)
  • Call ahead to make sure that the mountain is open for skiing. The official website is Etna Sci, but we couldn’t find any info on ski conditions or hours or rentals on that website or their Facebook page. Neither are updated very frequently. So I called the cell phone number of a ski instructor who was listed on that website, and he told me it was open and that I could ski from 9am to 4pm.
  • You can also call the cable car offices at Etna Sud to see if the mountain is open. Their website is Funivia Etna and their phone number is listed at the bottom of the page.
  • To get to Etna Sud, type “Refugio Sapienza” into Google Maps and follow those directions. That will bring you right to the South Station, where you can park (and donate a couple of euro to the parking lot attendant) and start your adventure.
  • We rented skis, poles, boots, and helmets at Etna Sud before getting on the cable car. (You can also rent snowboarding equipment.) We were very happy with the quality and the selection, and the price was reasonable: 20 euros each. We left one ID and paid by credit card (or cash) when we returned our equipment. There are two rental shops that are side-by-side and separated from the rest of the buildings. They both look like log cabins and are marked by large “noleggio” (rental) signs.
  • The ski pass is the same as your cable car ticket. You’ll choose which ski pass you want (half day or full day, child or adult, local resident or visitor, etc.) and pay a maximum of 29 euro. (See the photo of the prices in my post.) The pass is electronic, so you’ll attach it to your ski jacket with an elastic cord that they give you, and you will slide that ski pass into ticket readers to get onto the cable car and to ride each ski lift.
  • After you buy your ticket/ski pass, you board the cable car. The ride to the refugio/ski lodge takes about 15 minutes, and it’s really beautiful! Enjoy it, because the same cable car ticket costs about 70 euro in the summer to go hiking on Mt Etna.
  • Once you arrive in the refugio, you can use the bathroom and get a snack at the bar/cafe, or head right out to the slopes. That is the only refugio.
  • In terms of difficulty, all the slopes are pretty easy Blue-level slopes. Again, there were only three, and they were all very wide, so there is plenty of room to learn. We saw some snowboarders who had gone off-piste to practice some jumps, so you could always blaze your own trails, too….
  • If you are military, you can sometimes rent ski/snowboarding equipment or go on organized ski trips through ITT on base at Sigonella Naval Air Station. Call ITT at 095-56-4777 or 095-56-4396 for information.

I hope that helps! As always, feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Have fun skiing on Mt Etna!

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