A day trip to Sicily might sound a bit strange to those who know me a little as after all I live in the UK and Sicily would be a long way to go for a day's visit, unless I was very wealthy of course.
My day trip to Sicily though was taken during a two-week vacation on the Island of Malta a few years ago. The day trip to Sicily was to begin with a sea-trip on a high speed catamaran with promised views of dolphins plus a smooth fast journey.
At the time the price of the day trip to Sicily was not cheap but we felt it would be worth every penny.
Was that the case? Well, yes and no.
Let me try to explain and then any visitors to Malta who may be faced with the prospect of this day excursion can make an informed choice.
The boat leaves Valletta Harbour very early in the morning and so the first thing to bear in mind is that this excursion is a long day. I seem to remember we had to rise around 4.30 in the morning in order to travel to Valletta and catch our early morning boat.
Memories of our day trip to Sicily, and in particular our visit to Mount Etna, sprang back to mind with the travel chaos caused by the fairly recent Icelandic volcanic eruption.
Mount Etna is an active volcano that erupts fairly frequently although often the blasts are not classed as major eruptions. Over the years local residents have faced the threat of Etna erupting on a fairly regular basis but this has not deterred them and people still live quite close to Mount Etna.
Although we did not visit Etna to 'Volcano watch' our Sicilian trip did include a visit to the slopes of Etna; not right to the very top but as far as coaches are allowed to travel.
What were we thinking? Heaven only knows
Within a few months of our visit, Etna came alive and a massive eruption occurred. I guess it could have happened when we were there although, these days, scientists seem more able to predict such things.
My overall memory of Etna was that it was rather like a huge coal slag heap; you know a huge pile of coal, cinders and the leftovers of a fire.
The coach stopped where there were some shops and I was fascinated as these were all wooden and on wheels. This meant that these shops could be moved easily and quickly when the need arose.
I had thought that we would go right to the top of Etna and look into the molten lava.
Etna was smouldering when we visited and actually some of the best views of it were as we travelled to and from the volcano and from Taormina. On the slopes of Etna it was rather cold and all we could see for miles was a scene that looked like something from another planet; it was barren and harsh.
The Day Trip
Having made the early start from Malta we expected to be in Sicily quite early. Life is never simple though is it? The weather was windy and the sea became choppy. Our oh so smooth journey to Sicily was anything but. To this day Hubby always recalls, to anyone asking about our day trip to Sicily, that we saw no flying fish or dolphins just one huge wave after another and fellow passengers throwing up.
As one, the travellers on our trip became ill. Some managed not to throw up but looked ghastly. Others spent the whole journey in the toilets. The expected 90 minute journey became almost three hours long as we diverted to avoid the worst of the weather.
But we disembarked in Pozzallo in the south of Sicily to a lovely September morning.
It was still reasonably early in the day as the coach began its meandering journey to the north for our visit to Taormina, Catania and Mount Etna. Initially the scenery was pretty bog standard and this was a problem. With everyone having been sickly, plus the early start, it was hard to keep your eyes open on the warm coach as it sped along a motorway. I had been really looking forward to our day out but unfortunately snoozed most of the way across Sicily.
We stopped at Taormina for a light lunch before visiting Etna. Taormina is a charming place but pricey. We were to discover that shopping, be it snacks, meals, gifts or what you will is expensive on Sicily.
Hubby and I settled for a cold drink and hot pies which we decided to eat in the warm sun. We both sat fascinated as the congregation and guests of a local church wedding spilled out onto the streets in a scene that appeared to be from the Godfather gangster movie.
You can climb to an amphitheatre at Taormina which is worth the effort especially for its fine views of Etna.
From here our coach began the climb to Etna and up its winding slopes. We could see the evidence of previous eruptions. Houses and villages were buried under a pile of ash and debris.
Etna was worth visiting despite our visit not being as I had imagined. Whether I would want to do it now, I am not sure. For those wanting to reach higher there is a train which takes you the final lap before the last climb. I guess for us time was short.
Our coach tootled down to Catania which is a beautiful city but we were warned to be vigilant as pickpockets were rife in this city.
We had a final stop above a lovely looking resort where we bought the tastiest and most expensive ice cream I have ever consumed. The resort below looked so tempting too.
Pros of this day trip
The full itinerary depends upon who you book this day trip with. It does vary slightly. Of course the Mount Etna visit depends upon that volatile volcano.
When we visited we also had to take our passports with us from Malta and this may still be the case.
The Euro has made the currency easier when you are abroad in Europe.
If you are visiting Malta and fancy a hop over to Sicily go for it. Bear in mind though that it is gruelling in some ways and will not suit everyone. If we had known the timescales we probably would not have visited.
On the whole though I did enjoy Sicily and still have a couple of cinders from Etna's slopes in my garden.
The 2013 spat between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar reminded this writer of a day trip she took to The Rock, while she was enjoying a two-week vacation in the Algarve. At that time, even without a disagreement between the two countries, entering Gib took a little time. Nothing I imagine compared to the hold ups experienced by visitors during the 2013 dispute.
The location of Gibraltar, one of the UK's last bastions of our colonial past, means that any peace is always uneasy.
With the United Kingdom set to leave the European Union in the near future who really knows what will happen to Gibraltar?
Gibraltar may still appeal to you as a travel destination, be it for a day, a long weekend or a full blown vacation and with BRexit in mind now may be a good time to visit.
Here is a review of our visit.
Location of Gibraltar
Gibraltar is to be found at the entrance to the Mediterranean sea. It is a headland overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. On a clear day you can see the coast of Africa with Tangiers in the distance.
Over the years there has been some dispute over who Gibraltar belongs to. As it is on mainland Spain you may think that ownership would be a simple matter. However you would be wrong. Currently Gibraltar is British and is very much so.
This means that when you enter the tiny province you have to go through passport control. However this is by no means the only strange thing that you will find if you visit Gibraltar.
We visited Gibraltar from The Algarve, on Portugal's Southern Coast. It was a long tiring journey but ultimately worth the effort. However visiting for only a day just gives you a taster of Gibraltar and that is what I will try to offer here.
For all that travelling we only had four or five hours in Gibraltar but it was enough to get a feel for the place. There were other brief visitors, such as passengers from cruises, that had docked at Gibraltar to take advantage of the duty free purchases available.
We arrived by coach and had to disembark and walk across the frontier and through passport control. As our guide told us, we could wait and drive across but it would take ages. This was obviously so, and there was a huge line of traffic attempting to cross the frontier.
We had booked our excursion in Albufeira and our travel rep had also booked tickets for a tour of the Rock for those keen to see this wonder. We walked through passport control and headed for our parked mini van, which would take us up the Rock. Not everyone had chosen to take part and so there were about a dozen of us on board.
As we set off we were curious to see that we had crossed over the airport's runway. If a plane is due to land or take off gates, similar to those at railway crossings, close and the traffic has to wait before it can move again. No wonder there are such long traffic queues.
Our driver headed toward the base of the Rock and started to wind his way upward. The roads are in good order but there are times when they are a little narrow.
As you head upwards you pass the old British Naval bases which are no longer in operation. There are many optional sights to see. Our rep had booked a tour of St Michael's Caves for us. These caves have stalactites and stalagmites which are all lit for great viewing. The tour ends in a huge part of the caves that has been made into an auditorium. There were rows of seats stacked high and a concert had been held here the night before. I imagine the acoustics are phenomenal but the setting must be strangely eerie. As you leave the caves there is the regulation tourist shop.
This tour was interesting but may not be suitable for those with mobility issues.
We continued our upward journey which soon brought us to the main viewing point of the Barbary Macaques. These are often referred to as Apes but apparently are wild monkeys. There are different stories about how this colony of monkeys ended up on Gibraltar as they are native to Africa. However no-one could give us a conclusive reason for their presence. There is an old British saying that goes along the lines of, if and when the Apes leave Gibraltar Britain will no longer rule the Rock.
For many including me these monkeys were one of the main reasons to visit Gibraltar. I wanted to see the Rock and its views, but was looking forward to seeing these monkeys. I was not disappointed.
The tour guide advised everyone not to touch the monkeys. Overall they are wild animals and can bite and infect you. However there were many tourists and guides who did not obey these rules. We did. My Hubby was a little unsure of the monkeys and did not want to get too close, anyway. I got close but in an observational sort of way.
There were older monkeys, tiny babies and whole families. They dart about and swing precariously from walls that overhang steep drops to the town below. All too soon we were to move on and we walked along the road to the mini van.
From here we could see the cable car which also takes visitors up the Rock. I quite fancied this but others did not. The guide didn't. Probably because it could make him unemployed but as he quite rightly said there was only the "huge cable supporting it and, if it were to snap, a terrifying drop down".
The views from here were terrific, and still we climbed a little further.
Our final stop was near the Mosque where there are spectacular views over the water toward Africa and Tangier. On the whole Gibraltar is a Christian community but it does have such a multicultural population that many religions are practised here.
There were many ships anchored out in the bay, which they use as a tax dodge. The day we visited the sky was clear and we could make out Africa clearly.
Our trip did not take us to the highest tip of the Rock but far enough to enjoy the scenery and the fresh clean air.
The rest of our visit was spent in the town lunching and shopping. The main street was strange as it was full of bunting made up of Union Jacks. At first glance it was as if you were in a market town in England. After all there are traditional English red telephone boxes scattered around. However we do not have these in England anymore. The flags it seemed were from the previous days celebrations.
We purchased some cigarettes for hubby and some whiskey for a relative at home, and that was about it. However others shopped until they dropped.
Here are a few hints and tips, learned from our visit:
Just a few Gibraltar facts
Gibraltar is definitely worth seeing. I would not like to spend a whole vacation here but a long weekend would be lovely. There is plenty to see and do for a short break.
Gibraltar has a fascinating history but this blog is about my brief visit and whether or not such a visit would interest you. I would have to say that it probably would as Gibraltar is such a unique place, it is definitely worth seeing, at least once.
(Information correct at time of visit)
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