Northern Sicily on a budget
If you’re Europe based and looking for a budget break, then I’m recommending you check out Northern Sicily. I’ve just come back from a four-day trip and was pleasantly surprised. Here’s what I did, what it costs and why you should go too.
The train ferry
To get to Sicily there are a number of airports served by low-cost carrier Ryanair. However, I didn’t choose to fly into any of them. Instead, I hopped on a flight to Lamezia, which is on the mainland in south western Italy. Why would you do that, you ask? Well, it was cheaper (the flight cost me £21.99 one way just three days ahead of departure) but also it gave me the opportunity to tick something off my bucket list: Europe’s last train ferry.
This is not only unusual, but a lot of fun and inexpensive to boot. My single ticket from Lamezia Terme to Milazzo cost about 14 euros in second class for a 3.5 hour journey. Passengers stay on this Intercity train as the ferry tracks are lined up with those at the port. Then you trundle on. If you’re lucky to be on the first half of the train, you can disembark and stand around to watch as the second set of carriages are shunted on. Throughout the short crossing of the Straits of Messina, you are free to come and go as you please.
Up on deck, you can grab a coffee, watch the scenery or peer down onto the train below. Down on the train, some of your fellow passengers opt to stay in their seats – including in our case one travelling with her pet canary – though be warned, there’s no lights or air-conditioning as the power’s off. On arrival in Messina, the unloading process begins, and you are free to watch the tracks being aligned once more. The train continues on to Palermo, but I chose to stop at Milazzo. The train station is two miles out of town but a bus to the centre costs less than 2 euros.
Before I started researching this trip, I knew very little about Milazzo other than it was the jumping off point for ferries to the Aeolian Islands. I love a good volcano, especially if it’s active, so it was too good to resist. I found a stylish waterfront B&B, L’Ancora, overlooking the marina which had ensuite rooms from 45 euros, very reasonable if there are two of you sharing. Milazzo had a surprise up its sleeve – a hilltop castle and cathedral. My press pass got me in for free but if you pay your way it’s only 5 euros for a ticket. The views from up there are extraordinary: Milazzo is on a promontory so of course from up there you get to see sea on both sides.
I could have stayed up there all afternoon but I had a boat to catch. If you’re keen to see a couple of the Aeolian Islands independently Liberty Lines operate regular hydrofoils from the centre of town. The two hour journey to pretty Panarea, for instance, takes two hours and costs 19,30 euros; Stromboli a few euros more. Play around with the schedules as the routes vary and you can hop on and hop off to make up a bespoke itinerary.
Instead, I opted for a tour, departing from the port a five minute walk from my hotel, which was a little extravagant at 70 euros. The reason was that at this time of year (early autumn) there are no late ferries back from Stromboli and I was keen to see the volcano after dark. So I donned a pink wristband and joined a boatload of Europeans to see first Panarea and then Stromboli. A couple of hours on pretty Panarea was enough for me to have lunch at the Bar del Porto and a stroll past some of the whitewashed houses and the quayside.
From there, a different boat took us to Stromboli, passing some magnificent volcanic scenery along the way. We docked in Stromboli for the passeggiata. A cold beer and the usual snacks went down a treat while I passed the time people watching. The third and final boat took us to the other side of the island to a scar on the landscape called the Sciarra del Fuoco. Old lava flows had scoured away any vegetation. The volcano wasn’t exceptionally active; we saw a few clouds of ash and some small lava fountains – enough to say we’d seen it in action. While you can arrange a boat trip on Stromboli itself, doing a tour meant I could return to Milazzo the same evening.
An early start got me to Palermo Centrale station (a ticket bought online through Trenitalia’s website cost 12,40 euros) in time for a No Mafia tour. Valeria, our guide, was passionate about her cause and told us how the city was fighting back against the actions of the Mafia. Though there’s still a long way to go, the percentage of businesses paying money for fake “protection” has halved. The city is a far safer place than it was in the early 1990s when two of the key prosecutors were murdered in twin bomb attacks a few months apart. The tour cost 29 euros, which included a donation to the grassroots organisation Addiopizzo, which campaigns, educates and fights against the Mafia in Palermo.
For lunch I ordered a veal spleen sandwich called pani ca’ meusa (which was utterly vile) so filled up on arancine – you can taste three different flavours if you order the mini selection at one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Antica Focacceria San Francesco, though be prepared for surly service. Afterwards, I checked in at another great value B&B, A Casa di Josephine, which cost about £59. I thought it was excellent value for a spacious, modern double just around the corner from the railway station. I spent part of the afternoon visiting the small No Mafia museum on the main shopping street Via Vittorio Emanuele and paid my respects at the Piazza della Memoria. Palermo’s a gritty but interesting city with a fabulous UNESCO-listed cathedral. There’s an entrance charge if you want to see the Royal Tombs inside it, but the rest is free.
In the evening, I joined a street food tour with Streaty. This was quite a bit cheaper than many food tours I’ve done, costing 49 euros including all food on the stops and a couple of alcoholic drinks. It was a good opportunity to try some of the carb-rich local favourites, including sweet-sour caponata, bruschetta laden with swordfish roe, delicious fried lentil discs called panelle, the local twist on potato croquettes and that veal spleen sandwich again. Unusually, we didn’t have Palermo’s famous ice cream in a brioche, but that was easily remedied.
Last stop was Erice, reached by cable car from Trapani. I caught a bus from Palermo as it took less than half the time of the train. The bus ticket cost less than 8 euros with Segesta, though I was almost denied boarding as I was wearing a cloth mask instead of the required FFP2 version. Luckily a local lady passed me her spare. The cable car up to Erice took about fifteen minutes, offering some splendid views over Trapani and the local salt works on the way up. This hilltop village is very quaint, with plenty of cobbled streets and a castle to explore. My round trip ticket cost 9,50 euros which was more than worth it. Back at sea level, it was time to hop on the airport bus (4,95 euros) and fly home from Trapani’s airport with Ryanair at a cost of £25.21.
Take out the cost of the tours – much of which you can do yourself on a far smaller budget – and this is a seriously cheap place to visit by European standards. Typically a cappucino and a croissant at a cafe cost about 3 euros and dinner at a reasonable restaurant anything from 15 to 20 euros including a beer. I could have stayed in simpler B&Bs that would have cost me about £25-30 for a single room, but I opted for better quality in a better location. Temperatures in mid September were around 24-26 degrees so it’s definitely a place you can go to slightly off peak and still get decent weather. But most importantly, this was a great place with lots of different things to do and I’m really keen to go back and see more.
Review of Secret Food Tours Bologna
You know you’re going to like someone when they meet you with a smile and a croissant. Raffaella, our delightful guide from Secret Food Tours, certainly knew how to win us over. Our group of six soon gelled and bonded over a shared love of food – and Bologna.
We met under the Due Torri. The city that they call La Grassa (the fat one) is known for its food, but climb the 498 steps to the top of its tallest tower, Torre Asinelli, and you’ll go some way to easing the guilt of a glutton. Such towers were built by the residents of Bologna in mediaeval times to provide a safe haven in times of strife – in those days you wouldn’t have found a door at ground level. But interesting though Bologna’s past undoubtedly is, we weren’t on the tour for the history, we were there for the food. It was time to get walking.
Fellow foodies, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bologna is the home of spaghetti bolognese, but ask for this pasta dish and you’d be laughed out of town. Instead, you’ll need to ask for Ragù alla Bolognese, a slow cooked meat sauce tossed through fat strips of fresh pasta. We sampled it in a backstreet trattoria alongside half a plate of tortellini cooked perfectly al dente and they were both exquisite. Having watched a table of nimble-fingered women twist tiny squares of fresh pasta into those tiny tortellini shapes gave us some inkling into the work involved. This is nothing like the pasta you’d buy in the supermarket and definitely a treat for the taste buds.
The Quadrilatero, Bologna’s old market area, is crammed full of delicatessens, food stores and cafés, but it helps to have a guide as knowledgeable as Raffaella to navigate such a maze. As we strolled in and around the streets surrounding the Piazza Maggiore, we learned about mortadella, prosciutto and even balsamic vinegar, even though the best of the latter hails from nearby Modena.
In a store stocked with huge rounds of Parmigiano Reggiano, we discovered why some have horizontal scratches – these are the ones that fail quality control and are sold off cheap. The very best thing about sampling with a local is you try things you wouldn’t otherwise be tempted to consume. For me, ciccioli was a revelation – the ugliest slice of meat on the plate but – oh my! – also the tastiest.
This was my second visit to Bologna and last time, I’d walked right past its oldest osteria, a place with no signage that’s been serving thirsty Bolognesi since 1465. True osterias, like this one, don’t actually serve food, just alcohol. But Italians like to eat while they imbibe and so it’s the norm to carry in a parcel of cooked meats and cheeses to eat while you drink.
Raffaella had something different for us – a rich, sweet, gooey rice cake that was the ideal accompaniment to a glass or two of Pignoletto. It’s an Italian sparkling wine that to an uneducated palate is not unlike Prosecco. But while 400 million bottles of the latter are produced each year, Pignoletto production amounts to a paltry 11 million. That said, I enjoyed its frothy bubbles so much I pushed my way through the throng outside to pay a return visit the following evening. At two euros a glass (a small one) it was utterly quaffable and decidedly moreish. If word gets out, or if I can find it here in the UK, that figure of 11 million will shoot up.
It wouldn’t be an Italian food tour if it didn’t include an ice cream stop, and this tour was no exception. We popped into a cute little place not far from where we began to sample some lusciously creamy gelato. I think I may have disgraced the family, however, as I ordered the zabaione flavour, commenting that my Mum used to make this dessert for us when I was a child. Given the alcohol content, that’s probably not something I should have admitted to, but the ice cream was every bit as flavoursome as Mum’s creation.
Now, you’ll probably have noticed there’s a distinct lack of names and addresses in this blog, but that’s deliberate – it was a secret food tour, after all. If you want to find out exactly where to eat in Bologna, you’ll have to book a place yourself, but I can promise you that if you love your food, you won’t regret it. Buon Appetito!
I’m grateful that I was offered a complimentary ticket for Secret Food Tours’ Bologna walking tour in exchange for a review; the opinions expressed here are mine, however.
A beginner’s guide to Alberobello
Puglia is Italy’s heel, where a karst landscape makes its presence felt in the form of caves and sinkholes. Somewhere in the middle of all that is Alberobello, a town known for one thing: trulli. These simple circular dwellings are built without mortar and take their name from the Greek word “troullos” meaning dome.
The nearest airports to Alberobello are Brindisi and Bari. The latter’s the most convenient in terms of onward travel, served from London Gatwick, Stansted and Luton by easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz respectively. Flights can be had for a little under £50 return, excellent value for a flight that’s almost 3 hours long.
From Bari, a train takes you direct to Bari Centrale station, taking about 20 minutes. From there you can pick up the FSE train, tucked away on a far-flung platform – ask for assistance if you can’t find it. Even though it’s an FSE train, you can buy a ticket from the Trenitalia ticket machines (Trenitalia bought FSE in 2018). The fastest connection takes about 1 hour 15 minutes, but it’s more usually about an hour and a half. Tickets are cheap at just 5€ and can be used on any train without the need for a reservation. At the moment, until at least 2020, the stretch of track from Putignano to Martina Franca is being renovated, so there are no trains to Alberobello itself. Instead, you need to catch the connecting rail replacement bus – and fortunately it does connect, waiting for the train if the train is running late. It’s part of the same 5€ ticket, so just show the driver. The bus journey takes about half an hour.
On Sundays, things get a little more complicated. FSE trains don’t run at all. Instead there is a bus service that connects Alberobello to Bari Centrale. Though that might sound simple, the bus doesn’t start from the station. Instead, you’ll need to find the stop – tucked around the corner on Viale Bari near Hotel Astoria and the petrol station. Remember to buy your ticket online or at the petrol station; you can’t buy a ticket on the bus from the driver.
To explore the surrounding countryside, it’s most sensible to hire a car. Though public transport does exist, it radiates from Bari and other large towns and there are few cross-country connections. To visit Matera by public transport, for instance, would require a trip from Alberobello to Bari and then out again to Matera – a long detour.
However, it is possible to catch the train (or Sunday bus) to some of the nearby villages. I enjoyed Locorotondo, the next village along, which is a pleasant outing for the afternoon. There aren’t many sights as such, but the hilltop location affords fantastic views across the surrounding countryside and the pretty old town is compact as a result.
Things to see
The big draw when it comes to Alberobello is Rione Monti. This district is packed with trulli and straggles picturesquely up the hillside. One of the best views across from the town centre is at the Belvedere Santa Lucia. It’s also worth checking out the park beside the tourist information centre and, across in Rione Monti itself, several shops that offer free access to their upstairs terraces.
Close up, it’s not quite as quaint, largely because many of the trulli house souvenir shops – some of which is mass produced tat. A few stood out, including La Bottega dei Fischietti which sells not only the traditional ceramic whistles common to Puglia but also some rather lovely ceramic tableaux.
Nearby, Pasteca La Mandragora sells high quality linens and there’s also a store to delight art lovers called Forme e Colori di De Marco Vita crammed full of brightly painted pottery. Be warned, however, some places that purport to be museums house a minimum of exhibits which exist as a honey trap for unwary visitors.
But it’s also in Rione Monti that you’ll find a 20th century trulli church and where you’ll find the curious Trulli Siamesi. This double trulli has one roof. Legend has it that two brothers fell out over a woman but neither would give up the home they had inherited. Instead of moving out, the spurned sibling bricked up the wall and knocked through to make a separate front door.
You’ll also see plenty of trulli with symbols painted on their roofs. Some people will tell you that these symbols have an ancient spiritual or religious meaning. That’s probably true, but I also read on an exhibit tucked away in a corner of the town’s museum that when Mussolini came to visit in 1927 many of the villagers were asked to paint those symbols on their trulli to add a touch of mystery. This seems to be glossed over now in favour of the more politically correct religious imagery line.
Rione Aia Piccola
The only district to rival Rione Monti in terms of the sheer number of trulli is Rione Aia Piccola, which faces off against its nemesis across Largo Martellotta. In contrast to its touristy neighbour, it’s quieter than you’d expect from somewhere on the tour guide route. Many of the trulli here are private dwellings, though a significant number are let to visitors. You’ll see just how many if you wander through in between check out and check in, when they’re marked by vacuum cleaners and mops on their thresholds.
A tourist map I had been given implied that there was a kind of open air museum here, but there was no evidence of that during my stay – perhaps because it was still early in the season? If you are in Alberobello in the height of summer it would be worth checking out just in case.
In the main part of town, there are also more than a scattering of trulli, one of which is worth seeking out as it is two-storey. This is rare: Alberobello’s trulli were originally modelled on the agricultural buildings found across the Puglian countryside and the dry stone wall construction wasn’t strong enough to support an upper floor.
Trulli Sovrano was built in the 17th century by the family of a priest, taking the name Corte di Papa Cataldo and is now a museum, its rooms recreated with antique furniture. In the front bedroom, a notice pinned to the wall states that the slit was useful for seeing who was at the door, or shooting them if they weren’t welcome. It was at one time a warehouse; if you climb the stairs, you’ll see a trapdoor in the floor used for passing goods down to the floor below. Over the years it’s had many uses, including a court, chapel, grocer’s, monastery and the HQ of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament.
Museo del Territorio “Casa Pezzolla”
Much of the town’s history can be learned within the confines of this collection of fifteen or so trulli which now form a museum. It recounts the impact of the Prammatica De Baronibus, an edict of the 15th-century Kingdom of Naples. The Kings wished to impose a tax on permanent dwellings, so under the leadership of nobleman Gian Girolamo II, the residents of Alberobello were forced to live in trulli. Their dry stone construction made it easy to take them down if an inspection was imminent. The tax dodge worked, serving Alberobello well for many years but in the end, the political situation changed and thus these temporary structures became an enduring part of the urban landscape.
One of the sections of the museum explains the significance of the adornments on the roofs of the trulli. What’s called the “pinnacolo” is the only part of the trulli to be purely decorative, a kind of architect’s calling card. The more complex the design of this topper, the more talented was the master trullaro. It was also a good way of finding a particular trullo amongst so many similar constructions; think of it as the design equivalent of a postcode.
Where to stay
If you’re going to stay in Alberobello – and why wouldn’t you, since once the daytrippers have gone home it’s absolutely gorgeous – then I’d suggest you book Trulli Anti.
While there are plenty of trulli scattered across town that can be rented by visitors, many of them cluster in Rione Aia Piccola. Though that district isn’t as plagued by tour groups during the day as Rione Monti, it’s still on the tourist trail. Where Trulli Anti wins is that it’s close to the sights without being in the middle of them. Plus it’s on such a narrow road that it’s almost impossible for cars to drive past. I only saw one car try it and that was the local police.
That peace and quiet, coupled with its stylish and very contemporary design, gives it 10/10 in my books. If you’re thinking that I’m only saying that because I got a freebie, I didn’t. I paid my own way. It wasn’t cheap for a solo traveller, costing about 125€ a night – though it would be much better value if there are three of you. But oh was it worth it!
The trulli has been well thought out and owner Angelo is keen to ensure you have a great time. On a mezzanine, there’s a very inviting double bed under the domed roof. Lighting is good, and the stairs are pretty solid, which is reassuring as the bathroom is downstairs. That bathroom is chic – I especially loved the tiles and having a shower with some oomph to it. I also need to mention the comfortable sofa (so comfortable I fell asleep on it one evening) and that there’s a single room on the ground floor if you need a second bedroom or you’ve had so much vino you don’t trust yourself on the stairs.
If you plan to cook, there’s also a small but well-equipped kitchen with a dining table. When it comes to eating out, Angelo provides many recommendations and there are several excellent restaurants within staggering distance. Call ahead if you want to try La Cantina as it’s tiny and usually booked out. I had better luck geting into Trullo d’Oro and the food there was delicious. Make sure you try burata, a type of mozzarella that is moist and creamy. Breakfast comes in a box from a nearby cafe, with plenty of choice. You simply pick what you’d like off a menu, send it to Angelo via text message or What’s App and tell him what time you’d like it delivered. You can, if you prefer, eat at the same cafe, a ten minute stroll away.
Out back there is a courtyard garden. During my stay the weather was rarely sunny, but if it hadn’t been wet I’d have loved sitting out there. Angelo supplies bikes too and there’s even an outdoor shower. Pots of flowers add colour to the whitewashed trulli and fairylights create a magical feel. I’m probably gushing, but it was just delightful. Trulli delightful, in fact. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
I booked Trulli Anti via booking.com – here is the link if you want to check prices and availability: https://www.booking.com/hotel/it/trulli-anti.en-gb.html
To Florence, for some sunshine!
Beautiful Florence never looks more charming than it does when the sun is shining. Here are some of my favourite shots from this trip. The sun was reluctant to make an appearance at first, but when it did, wow, what a show!