Da Palermo a Roma!
February 17, 2009 3:28 PM   Subscribe

For vacation, I was thinking of starting in Palermo and making my way to Rome. I know next to nothing about this part of the world, so I don't know how good or bad of an idea this is. Any thoughts from those familiar with the area would be greatly appreciated!

Some specifics of areas I'd love to have addressed:

* Are 6-7 days enough for the one-way trip?
* Does a rental car make sense, or would trains / buses be better for all or part of the journey.
* What are must-see cities / places? Where should we avoid?
* How are the highway / road conditions?
* How are accommodations?

If we don't do this, we may instead check out the Czech Republic instead. The Italian idea is sort of a pilgrimage to see the area where my family's ancestors came from.

I did start by reading these three posts which were helpful. So anything in addition to those recommendations as well as the practical concerns of getting from Palermo to Rome would be greatly appreciated!
posted by verevi to Travel & Transportation around Palermo, Italy (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's a great idea. 6-7 days are enough to have a great trip, but not enough to see anywhere near "everything." Note: You cannot see everything. There is far too much everything to see on that trip - you could take 6 months and not come anywhere near seeing all of the "must-see" places and things on that drive.

I would rent a car, but I am very experienced in driving in that area, I am a driving enthusiast, and I'm a little bit crazy. Still, if you are a competent driver, an enthusiast, and adventurous, I would strongly recommend driving. It is a blast. The train can be great, as well, though. I have done it by car and by train, and either one will be great.

The must-see will undoubtedly include more than this, but here are some places I would stop if I were you:

Drive down to Taormina before crossing the straits
Cosenza (If you drive and you like speed, the road between Reggio Calabria and Cosenza is brilliant)
the Amalfi Coast (esp. Positano)
Herculaneum (I can take or leave Pompeii, but you might really like it)
From there, Rome and its surrounding area are an entire topic of their own. Plan on returning or you'll be overwhelmed at how much you miss.

* How are the highway / road conditions?

They range from brilliant high-speed superhighways to tiny, terrifying twisties. If you like to drive, it is heaven. If you merely drive as a means of getting from point A to point B, don't drive in Southern Italy and Sicily.

How are accommodations?

They range from incredibly posh to horribly disgusting. If you plan ahead and are resourceful, you can stay in some nice places for not too much money.

I stay up at night dreaming about returning to do the road trip that you are proposing, and I have done big sections of it more times than I can recall, so I'm leaving out tons of information here. If you have any specific questions, please don't hesitate to MeFiMail me. I'm terribly jealous.
posted by The World Famous at 3:45 PM on February 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Just a brief note to say that all my experiences traveling on trains in Italy have been absolutely fantastic - as good as anywhere I've ever traveled by train. I think the thing about Mussolini getting them to run on time is a myth, but as of a few years ago, they were excellent.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:47 PM on February 17, 2009

When I was a kid, we did the trip from Rome, down to Agropoli, way back in the early-80's, so I can't comment on current infrastructure conditions, but I will say that the capri caves were quite memorable
posted by nomisxid at 3:54 PM on February 17, 2009

I like driving in Italy. You go as fast as you want and get to eat at Autogrill, which, for reasons I do not totally understand, is my favoritest place to eat in the whole world.

I will now plagiarize myself and copy/paste from my blot posting about my last trip to Sicily. Sorry if this is too long, but I have to run in a minute and do not have time to edit.

I am recently returned from a week or so in Italy. What did I do, you ask? A lot, but I'll try and cover the basics. Pictures are at:

Off to Italy
We left last Thursday on a KLM flight from LAX, connecting in Amsterdam and arriving in Venice late Friday afternoon. We picked up a rental car from Avis and started on our drive from Venice to Pietrasanta. This should have taken like 3 hours, since I drive crazy fast when I am in Italy. I put the pedal to the metal and pretend I'm driving a bumper car. Typically I've got a rented Fiat Punto, so they top out at like 160 kph, which is...aww, hell, I don' t know...stupid kilometers. Anyway, the drive wound up taking closer to 5 and a half hours, mainly because we got stuck in not one, not two, but three separate traffic jams in three separate cities: Venice, Bologna and Florence. After getting very lost in the hills around Pietrasanta for a good 45 minutes, we finally made it to the Hotel Palagi at like 11:30, which is late for an 8:30 dinner even by Italian standards.

The Wedding Weekend
So after arriving Friday night, around midnight we wound up meeting up with our friends at a cafe near the hotel and having drinks - including the crazy ex-CEO of my company and my friend Cathy, who I hadn't seen in forever.

Saturday was the wedding. It was in an old church, SS Salvatore, in the middle of Pietrasanta. My friend Julien, who is Parisian, married a girl named Elisa, who is Italian.

Sunday, terrible hangover. I ate an outrageous amount of food at the wedding and then drank way too much champagne. Brunch at the bride's parents' house. Struggle to speak Italian and eat food. Tour of Pisa. Airport. Fly to Rome then to Palermo. Collapse into bed at Hotel del Centro in Palermo.

Monday, sightseeing in Palermo. We took a long walking tour around the city as suggested in our Lonely Planet guidebook. Our walk took us through many different neighborhoods - lots of narrow streets, slightly seedy but always interesting. Tons of cafes selling, in addition to the usual espresso, gelato  and granita, which is like an Italian Slurpee. Walked by the port then had lunch, where I tried pasta con le sarde, or bucatini with pine nuts, fennel, and sardines. It is very strong and very peculiar. I did not like the first few bites but then it started to grow on me. After a siesta, we did some shopping at all the stores along via Roma, where our hotel was. Italian clothes are relatively cheap compared to the rest of Italy, but the exchange rate was high at like $1.32 so stuff was still more than it would be in the US. I like the way Italian shirts are cut, though, so I wound up buying something like 10 shirts and 3 pairs of pants. You can always negotiate in Sicily, so pretty much everywhere we went we got at least a 10% discount. We had dinner at Il Proverbio, a well-known Palermitan joint. Brooke had Pasta all Norma, or pasta with eggplant.

Tuesday, more sightseeing - we headed to the market, ate an enormous peach, tried to see the puppet theater but were unsuccessful. Went to the Archaeological Museum, which has artifacts from several thousand years of Sicilian history. Next day was Cefalu, so I headed to get our tickets. On my way to the station, I saw, down an alley, some smoke coming up and smelled something tasty. I walked over to find a guy with a grill set up next to a table made of plywood on top of cinderblocks. He was making Stigghiola, or grilled intestines. The are grilled over hot charcoal, then cut up into bite-sized pieces. Then, after washing his hands in what appears to be a bucket of dirty water, the guy then gives them a spray of fat Sicilian lemon juice, tosses a handful of salt on them, and pushes the plate across to me. These were veal intestines, though I understand that goat is more traditional. The flavor is meaty an organ-y, like liver, but with a consistency that's something like liver wrapped in grilled calamari. Having written that, it doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense, but that's the best way I can describe it. Also salty and tangy due to the salt and lemon juice, which Italians put on everything they grill.

Cefalu is a resort town on the north coast of Sicily. It was a quick train ride from Palermo, not even an hour. We were not looking forward to taking an IR (interregionale) train, which when we lived in the north were almost always terrible. These new trains were great, though - air-conditioned, comfortable, and new. We went straight to the beach and got some nice big lounge chairs and an umbrella. The guy who showed us to our chairs was a big red-headed guy, surely a descendant of some ancient Norman conqueror. Did some walking along the boardwalk and some shopping. More discounts. Bought some shoes. Excellent cannolo, which are better in Sicily than anywhere else.. After dinner, managed to score some guanciale. Not just any guanciale, mind you, but guanciale piccante, from Calabria. This will surely be part of a Matriciana and possibly some other goodies.

Thursday night we took a train from Cefalu to Catania, changing in Messina, from where you can see Calabria.

Catania and Mt. Etna
We arrived late Thursday night for our 1 day in Catania, staying at the Hotel Savona. We walked around the city that night. Catania is a University town and it was bumping on a Thursday night. I am looking forward to going back on a weekend. I had called ahead that morning from Cefalu and arranged a tour of Mount Etna. Woke up first thing  Friday for our last day in Sicily and headed out for a tour with Etnatura , which I highly recommend. The tour is led by a geology professor at University of Catania, but he doesn't speak English, so his son, Antonio, does all the talking. They are a funny pair - the dad is like Sean Connery from Indiana Jones and the son is this young, smooth 18-year old Italian guy with a trendy haircut and big mirrored sunglasses. We drove up to Etna, hiked across some of the craters and went down into a lava tube. This was especially welcome because it was about 95 and blazing outside but deep inside the cave was dark and a cool 65.

After the tour, sad to leave but also tired and ready to head home, we bought a new suitcase for all my new clothes, took a taxi to the Catania airport, and headed out to Rome. Checked into our hotel very late Friday night, woke up at 4 AM Saturday for a 6 AM flight, connected in Amsterdam, land in LAX by 3:30, get out of customs by 4:30, home by 5:30, Police concert at 6:30, Foo Fighters at 7:30, (awesome), Police at 9, home, exhausted at midnight.

On Language
I have been known to make unintentionally funny mispronunciations in Italian. Luckily, this trip I managed not to mix up three words that sound very similar to me - zingere, zenzero and zanzare - gypsies, ginger and mosquitoes. A few years back I told some people that I needed some anti-gypsy spray because a bunch of gypsies had bitten my arm. They laughed. They laughed even harder when I realized my mistake, corrected myself, and said that no, it was ginger that had bitten me - a huge number of ginger roots had attacked my arm. Luckily when Brooke got bitten she was able to go to the farmacia and not embarrass herself like me.

In the midst of my terrible hangover after the wedding, I mixed up some other words that I have trouble keeping straight - succo, saccho, zucca and zucchero - juice, sack, pumpkin and sugar (yeah, obvious to you but they sound similar to me). I wanted some orange juice, but before I could get it out I think asked the guy first for pumpkin orange, then sugar orange, and finally possibly a sack of oranges before I got out orange juice. Turns out there was no orange juice at all, but some sort of multivitamin juice, which I really needed.

I worried before I went that my Italian would be useless in Sicily as everyone would be speaking Sicilian or heavily accented Italian. When I was in Naples a few years back I did not understand anything that anyone said to me for 3 days straight. This was, incredibly (to me at least) not the case in Sicily. Nearly everyone I met spoke textbook, lightly accented Italian. I discussed this with a few people and found out that lots of them speak Sicilian at home or with their families, but Italian in public lives (like the professor who took us on the tour of Mt. Etna).

Not once did anyone use the word terrone, which is not surprising given that it is a derogatory term for southern Italians and we were in the South. My friends from the north use this word regularly, but never around anyone from south of, say, Milan. Also, no one took the Madonna's name in vain as I have been known to do when frustrated, surprised or impressed. I had been warned that this is frowned upon in the south and only let one "Madonna!" slip out.

Back Home
I can say after this trip that Sicily is my favorite place in all of Italy, if you can even consider it part of Italy. The people are warm, the weather is great and the food is out of this world .

I'll finish up this massive thing by relating a conversation I had with the guy at the front desk of our hotel in Catania. I was waiting to leave and discussing jobs and apartments in Catania, as well as why Sicilians are so much warmer than people in the rest of  the country. He tells me, "We have 360 days of sun a year. I open my window every day and see the sun. And if you are hungry, with nothing on your plate, you just open your window and see the sun."

posted by charlesv at 4:57 PM on February 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wow, what a cool trip! If you're trying for highlights along that path, I'd say 2 or 3 days in Sicily, 1 or 2 days in Naples and 2 or 3 days in Rome. The entire drive from Palermo to Rome will take around 12 hours total and driving is quite possible. The highways are very modern and even the secondary roads are generally pretty good. If you're uncomfortable, I'd recommend not driving too much at night in town - what I found when I first started driving there was that the roads in town where much tighter than I was used to from the US so I'd end up crawling around on roads that seemed barely wide enough for one car, let alone the two way traffic the Sicilians were expecting. During the day it's pretty easy to see where you are and where you're going but at night it can be hard to figure out.

What you do in each place will depend on what you're into - Sicily has some of the best Greek and Roman ruins anywhere and you could spend the whole time going to those sites (my favorites were Piazza Armerina, Agrigento (at night), and Syracuse but there are many more). As mentioned, Etna's a really cool trip - there are a couple of tours up to the crater or a train ride around the mountain with some great views. Taormina is good for shopping (at tourist prices) and nightlife. If you're looking for Italian Ceramics the usual spot is Caltagirone but I like the stuff from Santo Stefano better.

In Naples, Pompeii is amazing. The National Archaeological Museum was pretty cool too. I mostly went to Naples on business so I'm less useful for the tourist stuff here. A safe recommendation in pretty much any Italian town is to start at the Duomo and wander around from there - they'll be plenty to keep you occupied.

There's a lot of info on what to see in Rome out on the web already but in terms of can't miss stuff - for me it would be the Vatican, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain.

Another option for routing your trip – if you don’t have something that you’re really interested in between Sicily and Rome – you could fly into Catania on the east coast of Sicily, make your way over to Palermo and then take the ferry to Naples or directly to Rome. They go overnight so you can maximize your daylight time on either end.

Have fun, whatever you decide to do!
posted by macfly at 7:33 PM on February 17, 2009

Everyone has said pretty much everything, but you MUST eat rice balls if you go to Naples, and you MUST visit the Vatican Museum if you go to Rome after eating a slice of rosso while walking the city. I loved traveling by train when I was there; one warning, though... there are mosquitoes in this part of the world, and if you travel from mid-May through mid-October, there aren't a lot of accommodations that would have air conditioning; you'd have to leave the window open. Be sure to pack a mosquito netting or get one if that is the case. For places to stay, you can go to the Bed & Breakfast Italy web site and book an amazing apartment. I stayed in one of those very rooms on my honeymoon; it was stunning. The prices are fairly comparable to nice hotels, except you have privacy, a kitchen, a bathroom that isn't in the hall, etc. Plus you are away from all the touristy areas and can see the better restaurants. Maybe stay in Trastevere? I loved it there.

I've lived in Rome and been back to visit Italy twice, visited Palermo, etc. and you will NOT regret it. The beaches in Sicily are some of the most beautiful in the world.

That said, I would plan to be in Palermo and traveling north during the week and spend the weekend in Rome. Weekends in Palermo are meh, to me. Everyone else covered everything.

I hope neither of you gets seasick; the ferry between the ports in Naples and Palermo can be a bit choppy. The people in Italy are extremely friendly and helpful and quite a few either speak English or are used to foreigners asking things like directions, etc. HAVE FUN I'M JEALOUS!!!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:09 PM on February 17, 2009

Seconding rice balls, aka arancini.
posted by charlesv at 1:55 PM on February 18, 2009

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