By Carol Sottili
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Welcome to our new trip-planning column. I'm so glad our first volunteers, who asked for help with an anniversary jaunt to Italy, didn't want to do Florence, Venice and Rome. That would be just too predictable. I do think they should follow some traditions, though: Throw three coins in Rome's Trevi Fountain (one of my earliest childhood memories), sip a dry Fiano on an outdoor terrace in Amalfi and light a candle in a Sicilian church. Otherwise, here's the plan.
Day one: Take the overnight nonstop on United from Dulles to Rome; round-trip fare in October should be about $650 each. You can get cheaper fares on connecting flights, but if you can avoid a jet-lagged traipse through a confusing airport, it's worth $100. Start tracking fares now at http://www.bing.com/travel and http://www.farecompare.com.
Days two and three: Stay put for a couple of nights in Rome, an exasperating and exhilarating amalgam of ancient and modern. In one day of sightseeing, I got pinched in the derriere (granted, the guy was at least 80), was nearly run over by a scooter, watched a nun faint at the sight of the pope, wandered 2,000-year-old ruins and ate the best pistachio gelato ever (http://www.ilgelatodisancrispino.com).
To get to the city from the airport, take the Leonardo Express train to the Rome Termini station. (It's about $16 each way and takes 31 minutes; http://www.trenitalia.com.) If you're not within walking distance of your hotel, splurge on a taxi.
Hotels in Rome are relatively expensive, although they usually include breakfast. Best bets on the cheaper end are Hotel Golden (http://www.hotelgoldenrome.com), near the Villa Borghese gardens, and Hotel Giuliana (http://www.hotelgiuliana.com), near the train station and the Spanish Steps; both are about $180 a night during October. For a nice dinner, Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema recommends Ristorante Ditirambo (http://www.ristoranteditirambo.it/en).
The city's metro system will get you to most sites; a ticket good for 24 hours throughout the system is about $6. There are also several bus tours that allow you to jump off and on at will: City Sightseeing (http://www.city-sightseeing.com), for example, is about $27 per person. The buses go to the major plazas and tourist sites, including the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, St. Peter's Basilica and the Piazza Navona (http://www.rome.info is a good site for exploring options).
Days four through six: Head to the Amalfi coast, south of Naples. The coastal route, which basically runs about 30 miles from Sorrento south to Salerno, is a winding, narrow road with 500-foot drop-offs to the sea. Filled with oversize buses, fast scooters and impatient drivers, it is not for driving wimps. But renting a car allows flexibility. A small automatic car (and you'll want it to be both to make parking and driving as simple as possible) should run about $350 for three nights, with pickup at the Rome Termini train station and drop-off at Naples Airport (http://www.autoeurope.com). I'd start by driving to the southern end (Salerno) and heading north: That way you're on the inside of the road for the trip's duration.
If driving does not sound like fun, take the fast train from Rome Termini to Salerno, which is about a three-hour trip; the InterCity train is cheaper than Eurostar, costing about $43 (http://www.trenitalia.com). From that point, you can hop the frequent ferries that connect the coast's towns (http://www.coopsantandrea.com or http://www.metrodelmare.com), but service is seasonal, usually running April to October. Or you can take the Sita Bus (http://www.sitabus.it/wps/portal/OrariCampania); the Web site is in Italian only, but you'll find tickets easy to purchase at kiosks with the Sita logo once you get to Salerno. Make sure you buy before you board.
Hotels along the coast are pricey, especially romantic ones with spectacular views. Your first night, stay in Amalfi, but don't break the bank. Hotel Miramalfi (http://www.miramalfihotel.com), a short stroll from the village center, has good views and prices starting at about $210 a night. From Amalfi, you can do a day trip to the historic town of Ravello, which hosts chamber music concerts from March to October, except for August (http://www.ravelloarts.org).
Save the splurge for your second night, in Positano. Two choices, both of which will run at least $600 a night: Hotel San Pietro (http://www.ilsanpietro.it), which is a bit farther from town, or Le Sirenuse (http://www.sirenuse.it).
For your last night along the coast, Hotel Antiche Mura (http://www.hotelantichemura.com) is centrally located in Sorrento and has rooms starting at $180 a night.
Days seven through nine: After you drop off the car at the airport in Naples, take a short flight to Catania, Sicily, on Air Italy (http://www.airitaly.eu) for about $72 a person. Sicily may be part of Italy in name, but you'll feel as if you've landed in a different country. The language, food, wine and landscapes are different. And within Sicily, each region has a distinct personality. In Mazara del Vallo on the southwest coast, for example, where my husband's grandfather was born, you can see the Tunisian coast and feel the North African influence everywhere, from the signs, posted in both Arabic and Sicilian, to the food; couscous is a popular dish.
I was not intimidated by driving in Sicily, especially on the main roads. You'll find that renting a manual-transmission car will cost about $250 for two nights. (An automatic car will cost hundreds more, so practice your shifting.) You won't be able to see all of Sicily in just two nights. From Catania, head north, stopping at Mount Etna: You can drive to the village of Rifugio Sapienza and take tours of the active volcano from there. For more on cathedrals, ruins and day tours in Sicily, check out http://www.thinksicily.com and http://www.bestofsicily.com.
Stay your first night in the scenic town of Taormina: You can spend a fortune here on accommodations, but for about $144 a night, the Condor Hotel (http://www.condorhotel.com) is a good bet. Other, slightly more expensive, choices include Taodomus Hotel (http://www.taodomus.it) and Isabella Hotel (http://www.gaishotels.com).
Continue driving north to Messina, then head west toward Palermo, stopping in Cefalu overnight. Hotel Villa Gaia (http://www.villagaiahotel.it) is near the village center and costs about $175 a night.
For the family tree tour, hire a local tour guide; Michele Gallo (http://www.sicilytravel.net) is well regarded and will do research on your family before you arrive (a full-day tour is about $300). Town clerks, especially in small villages, may be more suspicious than welcoming, especially if you're not accompanied by a local guide. During my roots tour to Sicily's Santa Margherita di Belice, getting my grandparents' records was like pulling teeth: We were told later that locals are recalcitrant because they believe Sicilian Americans are trying to reclaim their ancestors' lands.
In Palermo, drop off the car at the airport and take a discount carrier back to Rome. Many carriers fly this route, starting at about $78 per person one way; for a complete list of airlines, go to http://www.airninja.com.
Days 10 and 11: Spend your last two nights in Rome, taking time to explore the Appian Way: the Archeobus stops at the catacombs and costs about $22 per person. A tour of the Vatican museums and St. Peter's Basilica is also a possibility: a comprehensive three-hour tour costs about $52 (http://biglietteriamusei.vatican.va).
Total spent on hotels and transport: About $4,500, leaving about $150 per day for food and incidentals.
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