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Selected departures in October 2015 and April to October 2016
Uncover one of Italy’s best kept secrets on our escorted tour to the magical island of Sicily with its breathtaking coastline and charming hilltop villages, the magnificent Valley of the Temples and spectacular Mount Etna
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Sicily – the beautiful island off the southernmost tip of Italy is one of the few places in Europe that genuinely can be called unspoilt!
Its scenery possesses a natural and varied beauty that is truly breath-taking. Rugged, sometimes snow-capped mountains reaching for the sky are interspaced with rich meadows, adorned with wild flowers: during spring and autumn, spectacularly green and lush, yet during the sun-scorched summer, transformed into pastel shades of greens, yellows and browns.
Citrus and olive groves stretch into the distance and abundant pine forests lend the air that unmistakable Mediterranean aroma. Punctuated by the occasional farmhouse and Tuscan-like hilltop village the countryside is remarkably empty. The island has a spectacularly indented coastline, with sweeping bays and blood-red volcanic rocks plunging into the deep blue sea, and snowcapped Mount Etna providing a magnificent backdrop.
Although very much Italian today, Sicily has been at the crossroads of almost every Mediterranean civilisation for thousands of years and still retains traces of them all. Founded by the Phoenicians, home to the richest cities in the Greek Empire, Sicily was then over the centuries conquered by the Romans, the Moors, Normans, Spanish, French and finally the Italians. Their magnificent relics include temples, ancient amphitheatres, churches, monasteries, villas and atmospheric old towns, with many being the most outstanding of their type in the world and, due to the climate, in a truly remarkable state of preservation.
In character, Sicilians are noticeably different from the rest of Italy with their Sicilian language still in evidence. The food is wonderful but, again, sometimes a little different from the rest of the country, with nearby African influences present in dishes like couscous. Fish is obviously abundant: especially sea bass, swordfish and tuna, often combined with delicious fresh pasta. Plump and ripe Mediterranean vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and aubergines complete mouth-watering menus.
Our tour visits the finest this remarkable island has to offer. We start in Agrigento, founded by the ancient Greeks, and famous for its remarkable Valley of the Temples – nine of them, some in phenomenal condition and all the more impressive when you consider they are almost 2,500 years old. It never ceases to amaze us – our present day civilisation believes it is so sophisticated and supposedly at the cutting edge of technology, but we wonder how many of our buildings will last as long!
Next we visit Palermo, chaotic and vibrant capital of the island, and in a beautiful setting with an atmosphere of both Europe and the Orient. The architecture ranges in style from Arabic to Norman, Baroque to Art Nouveau.
The pretty little town of Piazza Armerina possesses one of the true archaeological gems of the ancient world: the Casale villa dating from Roman times, covering a huge area, decorated with the largest expanse of ancient mosaics ever discovered and, having been covered by a mud slide many centuries ago, their condition belies their age. We also visit Taormina, one of Sicily’s most beautiful towns. Select and tasteful, Taormina retains its medieval charm, with its main street a lovely collection of 15th to 19th century townhouses, small and intimate piazzas and twisting alleyways. D.H. Lawrence was aware of its charms, making his home here for several years. Taormina’s greatest claim to fame is its Greek theatre dating from the 3rd century BC, with its breath-taking views of the bay and Mount Etna.
Italians are famous for being a friendly and accommodating race and Sicilians especially so, so there is no doubt you will be made welcome on this beautiful island.
The price of this holiday is per person based on two people sharing a twin room. Single and sea view rooms are subject to availability at the relevant supplement. The price includes return flights as indicated, seven nights with breakfast and dinner, airport departure taxes and transfers, all tours as mentioned, guided tours of Valley of the Temples, Villa at Piazza Armerina and Monreale, visits to Palermo, Siracusa and Etna and the services of a Riviera tour manager. Occasionally the opening times of the places of interest vary, and if this happens we may have to change the order of events. Where hotels feature a swimming pool, pools are open in the summer months weather permitting.
Not included: Ortygia boat trip €10, Mount Etna exploration: cable car only €30, or cable car, jeep and compulsory guide €60, approximate costs, payable locally.
You should arrive at the airport to take your flight to Catania. On arrival a coach will take us to our four star hotel where we stay for three nights with breakfast and dinner. The Hotel Kaos, located approximately three miles from Agrigento, is situated in a quiet area with extensive views over the surrounding countryside and sea. There is a pretty courtyard where you can enjoy a refreshing drink in this hotel’s calm and tranquil ambience. The hotel is set in its own extensive landscaped gardens, has its own tennis courts and a large swimming pool. The Hotel Baia di Ulisse is set inside a beautiful pine forest which runs down to the hotels private beach San Leone, just a few miles from Agrigento. This stylish and tasteful hotel is lovingly cared for by its owner with his own antique furniture, fine paintings and exquisite ornaments displayed throughout. The hotel boasts a outdoor swimming pool, bar and elegant restaurant. There are several relaxing lounges with a variety of seating from carved hardwood chairs to soft leather sofas plus an outside terrace with spectacular views across the bay. The Mediterranean style air-conditioned rooms all featuring a balcony with either a garden or a terrace view. This privately owned hotel is the owners life work and it really shows. It is beautifully designed and such a refreshing change from the standard ‘chain’ hotels so prevalent is many parts of Europe. The Dioscuri Bay Palace is situated overlooking the picturesque harbour in San Leone, just eight kilometres from Agrigento, right on the coast. Set on the seafront the hotel boasts a beautiful pool and expansive terrace looking out over the sparkling sea, American bar and lounge and restaurant. All rooms boast either a balcony or terrace, are air conditioned and have safe, minibar and satellite TV.
Pools are open summer months, weather permitting.
This morning we visit what can truly be described as one of the wonders of the ancient world: the amazing Greek remains in the Valley of the Temples. There are six of them in total, situated largely on a ridge looking out to sea. Visible for miles and standing proud as they do, they must have made a statement of sheer absolute power and confidence to any passing mariner or shepherd, leaving none in doubt as to who were the masters. The best of them, Concordia, similar in design to the Parthenon in Athens, is almost perfectly preserved, with just the roof missing. With its wonderful tapering columns and beautiful light golden colour it is absolutely captivating. One can only wonder as to what was going through the builders’ minds thousands of years ago, toiling under a hot sun whilst creating a masterpiece. We enjoy a guided tour of the site and you may also visit the excellent museum, displaying finds from both the temples and surrounding area, including a unique collection of vases. We also visit Agrigento itself, awash with medieval atmosphere, swimming in tiny stepped streets and quiet shady piazzas overlooking the blue Mediterranean in the distance. We return to our hotel during the afternoon to relax.
Today we visit the north coast of the island and during our journey we will experience some wonderful scenery. A rugged wild landscape, scorched by the sun and remarkably empty of both man and beast. Firstly we visit the magnificent Benedictine Abbey at Monreale, founded in the 12th century. Still used today, it boasts outstanding medieval mosaics covering almost the entire interior, depicting stories from the Old Testament. If you can manage the steps to the roof you will have a superb panoramic view of Palermo below, the surrounding countryside and onwards to the sea. The cloisters are another highlight, surrounded by columns, no two of which are alike, almost Moorish in appearance.
During the afternoon we visit Sicily’s capital, Palermo, which under Saracen and Norman rule became one of the most important cities in Europe, famous for the wealth of its court and as a great centre of learning. Today it has more of a 17th century appearance and during our visit we will pass the Norman Palace, a gorgeous former Royal residence, now the seat of the regional government and see the Cathedral dating from the 10th century. We return to our hotel for dinner.
We leave Agrigento and take the drive to the small town of Piazza Armerina, where one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries of the last century was made: a 4th century Roman villa, possibly owned by one of the joint Emperors, which explains its size and richness of decoration. Buried for centuries, you can still see the remains of pastel-coloured frescoes on the walls, but the mosaics, showing animals and hunting scenes, are simply the finest we have from Roman antiquity. This palatial building, complete with its baths, illustrates with great clarity the evident high standard of living of the Roman elite. We have a guided tour of the villa before continuing our drive to Taormina.
Taormina is one of the most beautiful towns on the island towering 250 metres above the sweeping coastline below, where we have a choice of three hotels in three different locations, staying for four nights with breakfast and dinner
Neighbouring Taormina is Giardini Naxos, a charming typically Sicilian town with a seashore lined by seafood restaurants and fishing boats drawn up onto the beach and the beautiful family run fourstar Hotel Sant’Alphio Garden, situated just a few minutes’ walk from the sea itself. This hotel sits in a very picturesque spot with views of nearby Taormina and Mount Etna. It has a host of fantastic facilities including a restaurant serving local and international cuisine, bar, outdoor pool surrounded by shady palm trees and beautiful bougainvillaea with poolside bar where you can relax and soak up the sun after a hard day’s sightseeing. The hotel also boasts a private beach just a short walk away and spa with indoor pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and gym. Rooms are modern, air-conditioned and equipped with private facilities, mini-bar, safe and all have a terrace or balcony affording views over the surrounding area.
In Taormina itself, you can choose the four-star Hotel Excelsior Palace, a classic building, over a hundred years old, which during its long history has welcomed guests as diverse as the King of Italy to Antonio Banderas! It is superbly situated on a promontory with panoramic views of the sea to one side and Mount Etna on the other, set in its own lush, extensive landscape gardens and yet centrally located in the old town. The restaurant focuses on local cuisine and the sophisticated bar/terrace enjoys amazing views of Etna. The large swimming pool, set in the terraced gardens on the end of the promontory, enjoys the same breath-taking views as the hotel itself and has its own bar. All rooms are air-conditioned, elegantly styled, in keeping with the rest of the hotel and very tastefully decorated.
Finally, just eight kilometres north of Taormina, built in Sicilian style and set into the coastal cliff itself, overlooking the stunning Bay of Taormina, is the luxurious, four-star Hotel Baia Taormina. It is a member of ‘Charming Hotels – Independent Luxury Hotels of the World’ one of the world’s most stylish hotel chains. This superb hotel with its stone-faced walls, terracotta tiles and wide arches has a wonderful welcoming atmosphere. There are two swimming pools, an excellent restaurant specialising in local cuisine with a stylish and romantic ambience (there may also be the opportunity to take dinner on the terrace during your stay); a relaxing bar and lounge and a coffee shop, all set into the hillside making excellent use of the topography. The rooms themselves are extremely well-appointed, tastefully decorated and all face the sea. Should you wish to visit Taormina, there is a free shuttle bus and to avoid the walk, you can take this to the beach too, which takes approximately two minutes. In short, your comfort is assured whichever hotel you choose.
Outdoor pools are open summer months, weather permitting.
This morning we are free in Taormina, one of the smartest and most exclusive small towns in Italy – it has everything!
Retaining much of its medieval charm, wonderfully situated on a high balcony, facing Etna and overlooking the sea, it is renowned for its beautiful gardens and charming atmosphere. Today, its main street is lined by smart, designer boutiques and exclusive jewellers, with the tiny side streets, some of which are so narrow you can touch both sides at once, leading to intimate piazzas, lined with atmospheric family-run restaurants. As you would expect in a country so famous for its cuisine, speciality food shops are everywhere, selling fresh pasta, olives, Sicilian wine and the local Marsala. Street stalls groan under the weight of ripe Mediterranean vegetables, tomatoes, courgettes, peppers and aubergines, with flowers and window boxes everywhere, adding a splash of colour, with the stylish locals stopping to exchange a few words in the streets completing the picture. Taormina’s greatest claim to fame is its amazing theatre, a legacy of the ancient Greeks and still in use today. Wonderfully preserved with its panoramic view of Etna in the background; to attend one of the occasional classical music concerts in this most special of venues must rank as one of life’s more pleasurable moments. This afternoon you are free to explore as you wish.
Today we take the drive to Siracusa, once one of the richest and most beautiful cities in the ancient world, even rivalling Athens. Its most famous resident was Archimedes, that genius of a man who, whilst in the bath discovered the principle of displacement, ran through the streets naked, exclaiming “Eureka” (I’ve found it!) in a story that has entered folklore. Today the city is one of Sicily’s most attractive, a wonderful collection of limestone buildings, dating mainly from the 17th and 18th centuries. There is an extraordinary Baroque Cathedral incorporating an ancient temple, with a lovely interior, and just opposite is the Bosco Palace. The old port area is extremely attractive and very traditional, full of small fishing boats unloading their catch. You will be free to explore the old town at the eastern end of the city, called Ortygia; actually an island, connected to mainland by three bridges. You will have the option to take a boat trip around the bay before returning to the hotel.
Dominating eastern Sicily is Europe’s highest volcano, Etna, and this morning we take the drive to as near to the snow-capped summit as possible. Ascending the winding road, the landscape becomes increasingly eerie and alien, with razor sharp black rocks in contorted formations, and some areas devoid of almost all vegetation. As we near the cable car station itself you can enjoy extensive views over the whole area. Subject to certain regulations you will have the opportunity to take the cable car, jeep and guide to explore even higher levels. We return to our hotel during the afternoon.
At the appropriate time a coach will return us to the airport to take our return flight home after a very varied tour.
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