Escorted tour of Sicily with Riviera Travel

Growing up near one of England’s premier Roman cities, I’ve been a fan of men in togas all my life. We have some pretty impressive mosaics in St Albans, once the Roman city of Verulamium, not to mention our hypocaust and Britain’s most intact Roman theatre. So I’ve always enjoyed visiting other Roman sites to see what they have to offer. I’ve walked Hadrian’s Wall, marvelled at the Pont du Gard aquaduct in southern France, and toured theatres and arenas from Arles to Rome, but I’ve never seen anything to equal the mosaics at the Villa de Casale at Piazza Armerina in Sicily.

Villa de CasaleBuried by a mud slide for centuries, this vast villa with more than 60 rooms must have been the last word in Roman designer homes, clearly belonging to someone of great importance. Every mosaic floor is more spectacular than the last – exotic animals and hunting scenes, battles and sporting contests, musicians, deities, and children playing. Even women gymnasts in bikinis.  Each colourful work of art is densely packed with vibrant scenes brought to life by skilled craftsmen.

Villa de Casale is just one of many unique treasures that await travellers on Riviera Travel’s escorted Sicily tour, which leaves regularly from a variety of UK airports between April and early November. We travelled in October when temperatures were in the low to mid-20s – just perfect for Mediterranean sightseeing – though it does pay to pack waterproofs and umbrella, just in case.

This was our third holiday with Riviera and as with the previous two trips (Andalusia, and Moscow & St Petersburg, both reviewed on this site), a full programme of visits is included. Our Sicilian tour manager Daniella was both passionate and knowledgeable about her island, and we enjoyed the added bonus of local guides at historic sites.

Riviera use five hotels on this two-centre holiday and our week was split with three nights at the Hotel Kaos close to Agrigento in the south-west and the Excelsior Palace in the heart of Taormina. Unlike our previous two trips, evening meals were included and proved to be the only disappointment of an otherwise excellent holiday. Dinner at both hotels was adequate overall but with a few interesting dishes offset by too many lacklustre ones. 

Sunset over Mt Etna from the Excelsior PalaceThe 4-star Hotel Kaos is a large holiday hotel with a stunning pool, but you can’t walk to alternative restaurants so have to eat in. The buffet table of starters and desserts was appealing on the first night but remained largely the same throughout our stay, with main courses changing daily. The century-old Excelsior Palace – set on a promontory with panoramic Etna views offered a choice of starter and main followed by a set dessert, but wasn’t up to what we expected from a 4-star hotel of tradition and standing. With Taormina’s main street just moments away, free dining would be an easy option. Customer feedback may however influence 2019 holidays so watch the website.

But the destinations and quality of the tours was well up to the high standard we’ve come to expect from Riviera’s cultural tours. And most days there was the chance to enjoy an authentic local lunch (at our own cost) in a restaurant of our choice, which made up in part for the bland evening meals. 

From Agrigento, we were just a short drive from the stunning Valley of the Temples which stands beneath the hilltop town and the sea. We also enjoyed a day trip to Palermo, the island capital on the north coast, and the nearby Cathedral of Monreale, commissioned by a Norman king in the 12th-century and lavishly decorated by craftsmen of many faiths.

Greek Theatre, TaorminaOn changeover day, we stopped mid-way at the fabulous Villa de Casale en route to Taormina. Next day was free for independent exploration, a welcome opportunity to browse for souvenirs and visit the fabulous Greek Theatre. Cut into a steep hillside and substantially remodelled by – you guessed it, the Romans – this archaeological gem offers panoramic views down the coast and over the rooftops to Etna.

From Taormina, we then embarked on two full-day trips, impeccably driven by Pippo, surely the most careful and smiley coach driver in Sicily!  At which point, a word about timing. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and its cultural treasures are scattered in every direction, which means a couple of days of early starts (think 8am) and several hours on a bus. Riviera operate a democratic seat-rotation policy so every day, your name badges will have moved forward four or five rows. We were lucky to get the two-hour drive to Palermo in the front seat, but by the end of the week were in the back row. So if you’re not a good coach traveller, this may not be your holiday.  

I’d have rated all our fellow guests as Silver Travellers and it’s always good to see that the older generations are in general a pretty punctual lot. Never did we have to wait for anyone and on more than one occasion, we were able to leave before the allotted time – probably because we tend to wake early as we get older!

And although some days were long, I wouldn’t rate this as a particularly physical holiday. At the Valley of the Temples, for instance, the guided trail was around 2km, level but stony in places so you need to wear flat shoes with a good grip. And do take a sun hat, as there’s no shade. Here, as in Monreale Cathedral and Villa de Casale, we had headsets which made it easy to follow the guides’ commentary without sticking to their heels. A boon for those of us who like to stop and take photos.

Ortygia, SicilyMy husband and I are pretty independent travellers, well used to packing a lot into a short space of time, so we always look for an element of freedom on escorted tours. The free day in Taormina was therefore a big factor in choosing this trip, and we were also pleased to explore Palermo indepently as well as Ortygia island – historic quarter of ancient Syracuse and birthplace of Archimedes – helped by annotated maps and personal recommendations from Daniella. I could have spent several hours at the Roman villa, so compelling were the mosaics, but we were generally happy with the amount of free time included in the itinerary.

There’s not much extra to pay for on top of the tour price. Lunches, as light or as lavish as you please. An optional evening of Italian opera classics in Taormina which turned out to be delightful, especially the interval glass of Prosecco on a floodlit terrace above the main square. In fact the only significant expenditure was the optional add-on to the Mount Etna trip on the final day. 

At 2900m on EtnaPippo drove us to the main visitor area at 2000 metres where you can stop to eat as well as walk unaccompanied round a number of small craters across solidified lava. Most of us however chose to invest in the cable car ride to 2500 metres and then an all-terrain vehicle trip that zig-zags up the slopes to 2900 metres, some 400 metres below the summit of Europe’s highest active volcano. 

Here walking tours depart with expert guides around the substantial crater made by the eruption in 2002 – a chance to take some unique photos, hold your hand in the steam vents, and handle hot rocks from just below the surface. Expect to pay around 30 euros for each of the two elements – well worth it in my book for an experience that will stay with you long after the holiday is over.  

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Gillian Thornton

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