Wednesday 28 August 2013

Casa Talia, Via Exaudinos, Modica, Sicily

Casa Talia serves a sweet breakfast with a view

Occupying a clutch of converted houses hugging a steep hillside opposite the historic heart of Modica, Casa Talia is a tasteful boutique hotel in an enviable location. Its stylish rooms each have their own patch of garden with sun loungers, sheltered by fig trees, offering views across to Modica's captivating Cathedral of San Giorgio.  Artfully furnished with surprising materials, colours and fabrics, the ancient stone rooms have been overlaid with a high-tech veneer, including centrally-controlled lighting, air-con, touch-sensitive keys and reliable WiFi. Bold, thought-provoking black and white prints adorn white-washed panels. One of the family rooms has a mezzanine level reached by a minimalist staircase sheltering a fridge and hidden cupboards. Behind the bed and a heavy door is a cool, contemporary bathroom with a refreshing rain-head shower. Covered in premium cotton sheets, the beds are comfortable and you should sleep well surrounded by the thick stone walls. 

Modica, Sicily

Taking over Corso Umberto, Modica's occasional curio market is packed with collectible knick-knacks, books and paintings.

Aside from doing a roaring trade in the local crunchy chocolate, Modica is a pleasingly relaxed and uncommercial town that still caters largely for locals, rather than tourists. Yet this Unesco World Heritage site is awash with ancient alleyways, steep stone steps, grand palazzos and decent restaurants tumbling up and down its slopes.  On a Saturday evening, rather than hiking up through the maze of streets, you can take a tour in a tiny old Fiat Cinquecento. If you are in Sicily, try and get to Modica. 9/10 

Scicli, Val di Noto, Sicily

Nestling in a valley in southern Sicily not far from the coast, Scicli is one of the eight Baroque towns in the Val di Noto Unesco World Heritage site. A laid back place with some beautiful churches, handsome palazzos and a crumbling castle high on a hill, Scicli is well worth a day trip.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Church of San Pietro, Modica, Sicily

Reconstructed in the years after the massive 1697 earthquake that wrecked much of southern Sicily, Modica's Church of St. Peter has a beautiful Baroque facade.  Statues of the twelve apostles watch over the flights of steps up to the massive doorway.

Sampieri beach, Southern Sicily

A gentle arc a couple of kilometres long, Sampieri beach has a wide swathe of soft orange sand. Although it can be busy near the village of Sampieri,  there is plenty of space in the middle, as long as you steer clear of a cluster of tangerine-coloured sun shades and loungers in front of large beach-hut. Moreover, there are some decent dunes and the land behind the beach is largely undeveloped. There may even be some head-height waves to keep the kids entertained.  You can park for free just off the SP 66 and walk through the greenery, crossing a lane, before you hit the beach. 8/10

The Cathedral of San Giorgio, Modica, Sicily

Many, many flights of steps lead up to the stunning Baroque facade of Modica's Cathedral of San Giorgio. Built after the earthquake of 1693, the ornately carved rich cream stone looks pristine after what must have been a recent restoration. High up the hillside, the elegant bell tower is a majestic image of Modica. If you are lucky, you might see a wedding part congregate on the steps in the sunlight on a Saturday evening. Unfortunately, the small gardens in front of the cathedral are litter strewn and in desperate need of tender loving care. 

Pizzeria Ristorante La Contea, Via Clemente Grimaldi, Modica, Sicily

One of the most popular restaurants in Modica, Pizzeria Ristorante La Contea has dozens of tables in the ancient alleyways just off the main drag. Although these backstreets aren't well lit, the large numbers of diners generates a welcoming buzz. Get here early because service can be slow, sporadic and mistaken-ridden (the staff may confuse orders between different tables). Even though you pay a cover charge of 2 euros a head, your table might not get any bread. But the waiters are friendly and relaxed, given the large number of diners they have to cope with: There is also a warren of rooms inside. Moreover, the food is excellent. The dishes are made using really fresh ingredients, including succulent pasta, while the pizza bases are thin, crispy and delicious. The chicken, ricotta and pistachio pizza (7 euros) is superb, while the taglieri (thin strips of pasta) frutti di mare (9 euros) is loaded with seafood, including a chunky king prawn and some decent mussels. The house red wine is just about drinkable and is very cheap at 3 euros for a half litre. Water is almost as expensive at 2.5 euros a bottle. You'll enjoy eating here. 8/10

Monday 26 August 2013

Ancient Greek Remains, Siracusa, Sicily

The surprisingly-extensive remains of the sixth century BC Tempio di Apollo

Piazza del Duomo, Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily

Lined with beautifully-carved buildings made from a creamy stone, Ortigia's Piazza Del Duomo is an incredibly well-preserved square that can rival some of the best in Europe. Shaped like an elongated triangle, it is a surprisingly light and airy space that breaks up the narrow streets in medieval Ortigia. Alongside the stately Duomo, which incorporates the remains of a fifth century BC Ionic temple, is the magnificent seventeenth century town hall and several grand palazzos.  Gleaming in the after-glow of restoration, the piazza is also home to the fine Baroque church Santa Lucia alla Badia.

Siracusa Cathedral, Sicily

Solid pillars and saintly statues adorn the front of Siracusa Cathedral

Ortigia Harbour, Siracusa, Sicily

A tall ship visible down one of the atmospheric old streets leading down to Ortigia's harbour. Surrounded by the Mediterranean, Ortigia has a breezy promenade lined with elegant eighteenth and nineteenth century palazzos.

Gran Caffè del Duomo, Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily

Situated in one of Sicily's finest squares and offering respectable pizzas at keen prices, Gran Caffè del Duomo makes for a ideal lunch stop for weary sightseers. The cover charge is two euros a head, but a big margherita pizza is just five euros, while a romana pizza is six euros. A large, cool beer will set you back just 3.3 euros, while a shaded seat with a view of Ortigia's grand cathedral and surrounding palazzos is priceless. 7/10  

Osteria dei Sapori Perduti, Corso Umberto, Modica, Sicily

As you walk down Corso Umberto in the evening, there can be quite a buzz from the diners packed into the dozens of tables outside Osteria dei Sapori Perduti. This lively trattoria has waiting staff in smart white shirts and black waistcoats weaving their way round the distinctive chequered tablecloths, while more casually-dressed staff take orders and the owner prowls around in a proprietary manner. The book-like menu is packed with photos and explanatory text. It is meat-orientated and the portions are generous. The house antipasti (7.8 euros) includes fried rice balls, lasagne, excellent creamy ricotta with bread, aubergine, bruschetta, sausages, hard boiled eggs, olives and other tasty morsels - if you order two, it is quite a spread. Among the main courses, the veal stew (7.3 euros) is rich and hearty, while the pork has a liquorice flavour, which might be a little strong for kids. Be sure to order the moreish patati cunzati (4.5 euros), a sicilian dish of thinly-sliced fried potatoes with onions, olives, capers and vinegar.  The local white wine in a carafe is pretty good for 3.2 euros, while the cover charge is a reasonable 2 euros a head. You will probably need go inside the sprawling and grand palazzo to pay. If you are hungry and like hearty Sicilian food, Osteria dei Sapori Perduti is the place to come. 8/10

Sunday 25 August 2013

Taverna Nicastro, Via S. Antonino, Modica, Sicily

With tables laid out on the steps of a quiet road high up in Modica, Taverna Nicastro is well away from the main tourist sights of this fine old town. But it is worth hunting down, as the food is authentic and the service is friendly and helpful - the waiters may even show you ingredients they can't translate. The antipasti of the house (8 euros), which includes cured ham, cheeses, lasagne with ricotta and four fried rice balls containing meat and egg, is fresh and tasty, as is the grilled vegetable antipasti (6 euros), featuring spicy sun-dried tomato, aubergine drizzled in olive oil and marinated onions. The concise menu might also offer some peppery, fennel sausages, served with fried potatoes (about 8 euros). It's pretty good, but the flavours might be too strong for kids. Another decent dish is the pasta with ricotta, in a chilli and sausage sauce (8 euros). Better still, is the rabbit stew with olives, capers, fried potatoes, tomatoes and carrots. There are some bones, but the flavours make a delicious combination and it's a fine dish for eight euros.  You can get a half-litre carafe of harsh red wine for five euros or dip into the more pricey wine list.  Although Taverna Nicastro feels like a neighbourhood restaurant, it has made it into the Rough Guide to Italy. Still, its location means it doesn't get particularly busy even on a Saturday night in August. 8/10

Marina di Modica beach, Sicily

 Although it is surrounded by low rise suburbia, the one kilometre long Marina di Modica beach feels wide open and spacious.  You can park on a rough patch of gravel near where a big swampy pond cuts into the beach. There are acres of soft orange sand and, even in August, there is plenty of room for ball games and the like, particularly at the eastern end. At the western end, there are some some dinghies and wind surfers. But the sea can be very gentle. 7/10

Saturday 24 August 2013

Relais Parco Cavalonga, near Ragusa, Sicily

Clinging to a hillside south west of Ragusa and well placed for sightseeing and sunbathing, Relais Parco Cavalonga combines a smart hotel with eight self-catering apartments. Although each apartment is different, they generally have tastefully furnished bedrooms and living areas with sturdy wooden furniture, attractive floor tiles, neutral colours and plenty of space. There is reasonable air-con in the rooms, but no Wi-Fi - you need to go down to the reception for that (and it is a steep walk back up again). 

Friday 23 August 2013

Beach of the Randello Forest Reserve, near Punta Bracetta, Sicily

It is well worth seeking out the 3km tract of fine sand in front of the Randello Forest Reserve.  You can leave your car in one of two small, but smart, free car parks, just off the SP85. From here, you walk for about half a mile along an expensively-paved road through the eucalyptus, pine and myrtle woods, past empty picnic tables and showers, and down towards the beach. Although there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam in the substantial dunes, most of the beach is clean and the fawn sand is very comfortable. Even on a sunny day in August, the middle stretch of the beach is largely devoid of people. The sea is shallow, but there can be enough waves to keep the kids amused. A rare beast, Randello is a pleasingly empty and spacious Mediterranean beach. 8/10

Al Buco, Coso Vittoria Emanuele, Noto, Sicily

Housed in a fine Baroque palazzo and with tables laid out on the flagstones opposite the steps leading up to the elegant Chiesa di San Franceso, Al Buco is in an enviable setting. Although the host is helpful and the service is well-drilled, your order can take a while as tourists quickly fill up the 20 or so tables, covered with crisp white tablecloths. If you have kids, aim to get there by 8pm. Be sure to order one of the decent pasta dishes priced at about eight euros. The thin tubular pasta in a thick pesto sauce has a really rich, satisfying flavour, but the portion is on the small side. The penne pasta with prawns is also excellent. The mixed meat grill (10 euros) contains decent veal steak, a respectable pork chop and fennel sausage, while the mixed fish grill (15 euros) includes three precisely-cooked king prawns, some slightly bland swordfish and juicy squid. If the baked lamb is off, the rabbit casserole (10 euros) is a pretty tasty substitute. The cover charge of two euros a head includes plenty of bread, so you won't need a plate of what can be slightly soggy potatoes (three euros). A half-litre carafe of reasonable house white wine costs just four euros. The rare combination of a superb setting and good cooking makes Al Buco a great trattoria to soak up Sicilian history, while sampling the island's cuisine. 8/10

Thursday 22 August 2013

Noto, Sicily

Noto's grand cathedral
One of the least spoilt of the eight members of the Late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto Unesco World Heritage site, Noto gleams in the after-glow of restoration. Park on one of the roads leading down from the public gardens and head for the solid stone gateway that marks the entrance to an impressively well-preserved and harmonious grid of Baroque streets running along a hillside. The roads are paved with flagstones and lined with creamy-gold palazzos, houses and churches, often embellished with ornate carvings and voluptuous cast iron balconies. 

Caffe Sicilia, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Noto

Authentic and classy, Caffe Sicilia has an appealingly refined interior and a clutch of aluminium tables on Noto's historic main drag. As well as serving fine ice creams and cakes, Caffe Sicilia offers an extensive range of uncompromisingly sophisticated drinks, including an exceptional tomato juice, with lemon and salt. The fruit juices are also thick and nourishing, while the Menabrea beer hits the spot. Costing about 3 euros apiece, the drinks are served with an array of appetising snacks and nibbles. Service is smooth. 8/10

The Beaches of Vendicari Nature Reserve, Sicily

A short drive south east of Noto, the extensive Vendicari Nature Reserve attracts sun worshippers as well as ornithologists. From the rough and ready car park, which costs a few euros and has showers, it is about a quarter of mile walk along a boardwalk, which passes through the shrubbery, the bird watching huts and the reservoirs to a narrow strip of sand hugging an arc of coastline. Unfortunately,  the very shallow waterfront can be clogged with seaweed and the sand strewn with lumpy vegetation, so the beach isn't that comfortable. To find plenty of space for your towels, you might have to walk down to the rope cordoning off the southern section of the beach. Still, Vendicari is good for small kids -  once you get through the seaweed, the water can be very clear and shallow. Moreover, the surrounding watery wilderness and the stark ruin of an eighteenth century fishery, with pillars and chimney still standing, provide a picturesque backdrop. 7/10

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Ristorante u Saracinu, Via del Conventu, Ragusa Ibla

Tucked into an atmospheric alley in the shadow of Ibla's picturesque Piazza Duomo, Ristorante u Saracinu is a cheap and cheerful establishment serving a broad selection of stock Italian dishes. As it can get rammed in August, you probably should try and bag one of the outside tables before 8pm. The bread is basic and the antipasti misti is simple, but tasty enough, featuring aubergines, spinach-filled pastries, cold meats and hard cheese, similar to gouda. Among the primi courses, the salmon ravioli (containing ricotta) is very good for 7.50 euros - the pasta is fresh and the salt of the cheese works well with the salmon. The spaghetti in a tomato sauce (about 5 euros) would be a good choice for little kids, if it wasn't quite so huge. The seafood risotto is mainly rice, but it gets good reviews. The Sicilian pasta isn't so appealing, however, seemingly lacking the promised anchovies and capers.  For just four euros, you can get a half litre carafe of a rough red wine. The waiting staff are pretty rushed and the kitchen workers may come out to help serve tables. And you might have to go inside to the cashier to pay. For desert and coffee, try the authentic gelateria-bar next door. 7/10

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

Huddled on a paddle-shaped hill-top, the medieval town of Ragusa Ibla is a world apart from its much larger and younger neighbour Ragusa Superiore.  The most dramatic way to arrive is to walk down from Superiore via the steep flights of steps that thread their way over and under the town's roads. Your first view of Ibla itself might stop you in your tracks - the town's weather-worn rooftops tumble down the hill towards the eye catching church and neighbouring palazzos that mark the gateway to the old city. On your way down, you'll pass strikingly ornate Baroque balconies, railings, bell towers and archways, adorned with stone cherubs and swirling filigree.  At the bottom of the hill, you are confronted with the handsome eighteenth century facade of the Church of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. From here you can stroll past a beautiful golden palazzo and up through the eerily quiet streets paved with fine flagstones. The crumbling old terraces are punctuated with grand dwellings with cast iron balconies and lavishly-carved window surrounds. Many are for sale, others are being renovated. 

Monday 19 August 2013

Al Giardino di Bianca, Donnafugata, Sicily

One of a clutch of restaurants and bars clustered around Donnafugata Castle, Al Giardino di Bianca offers a wide array of keenly-priced dishes. However, its upstairs terrace, overlooking the floodlit castle, can be half empty on a Sunday evening, even in August. Still, there are tasteful black and white prints of the Val di Noto on the yellow walls. And you should be able to find something appealing on the lengthy menu, which has a big selection of meat and fish dishes, plus respectable pizzas and pasta dishes. If you aren't that hungry, a good choice is a local Ragusa dish - decent ravioli in a thick tomato sauce containing a couple of big lumps of fatty pork. It isn't that large, but tastes good and costs only 7.50 euros.  The wine lists start at about 12 euros for a bottle and there are five wines available in half bottles at 8 euros apiece, but they can be a bit rough. The waiters, who wear white shirts and black waistcoats, don't speak much English, but they are friendly and welcoming. A worthy, but unexciting restaurant, Al Giardino di Bianca can lack atmosphere. 6/10

Caucana-finaiti-casuzze-finaiti beach, Sicily

One of a handful of beaches next to the seaside town of Caucana-finaiti-casuzze-finaiti. Although the sand can be coarse and gravelly, there is plenty of space even on an August evening when the locals have set up a volleyball court. Moreover, the water is shallow and the waves can be small, so young kids should be fine here.  Behind the beach, there are some fenced-in ruins and patches of green, but little in the way of refreshment options. The scenery is pretty mundane and there are few showers. Still, it is easy to park and the beach is free. 7/10

Sunday 18 August 2013

Vittoria, Sicily

The Teatro Comunale and Chiesa della Madonna delle Grazie, which date from 1754, in Vittoria

Saturday 17 August 2013

Castelmola, near Taormina, Sicily

Crammed on to a hilltop high above the touristy town of Taormina, Castelmola is a compact village offering captivating views of the Mount Enta volcano and the countryside tumbling down to the coastline far below. You can catch a public bus up to its modest piazza and admire the broad panoramas, before moseying around the souvenir shops in the narrow alleyways between Castelmola's crumbling castle and its Duomo. On a summer evening, the heart of the village is awash with tourists dining in a cluster of lively restaurants. 7/10 

Villa Sonia, Via porta mola, Castelmola, Sicily

A comfortable and well-run hotel in a fine location, Villa Sonia provides far-reaching views of rugged countryside and Mount Etna, as well as easy access to the atmospheric tourist hotspots of Taormina and Castelmola. The relaxing reception sets the tone - its antique furniture includes an elegant bureau, an antique gramophone, vintage candlesticks, a set of elderly scales and plump, welcoming sofas. More ancient artefacts are dotted around the hotel, striking a slightly incongruous note with the more mundane interior. Unfortunately, the outdoor pool has a slightly tacky classical theme - pillars, topped with plant pots, demarcate the shallow end from the rest of the pool. And it can be tough to get a sun lounger in busy periods and you may have to plonk your stuff on a table next to the bar, which is pretty much on top of the pool. One level down is a running machine, a sauna and showers. It is a bit confusing what you pay for - the hotel literature suggests you have to pay to use the sun beds and the sauna, but in reality nobody seems to be monitoring this. 

Friday 16 August 2013

Ristorante Tiramisù, Via Cappuccini, Taormina, Sicily

Don't be put off by the naff name, Tiramisù is a polished operation selling good food. Away from the main drag of this busy holiday resort, it can be tricky to find. But in August that doesn't stop the "in-the-know" tourists piling in from about 8pm and there is soon a queue and the large garden and the smaller terrace are both buzzing. You sit on smart wicker chairs and eat off heavyweight cream tablecloths. The water is San Pellegrino, no less, while the fresh, tasty bread rolls (cover charge 2 euros a head) are accompanied by bread sticks covered in sesame seeds. Although a 40cl glass of Moretti beer is more than six euros, the thin and crispy pizzas are a bargain at between five and ten euros - the toppings are generous and delicious. The calzone is packed with mushrooms, as well as the customary cheese and ham, while the tagliatelle, with fresh king prawns and tomato, really tastes of the sea (in a good way). The linguini, with mint, mussels and zucchini, is also very good with fine, fresh ingredients. Although the service by the black-shirted waiters can be a bit brusque, Tiramisù must be one of the better places to eat in touristy Taormina. 8/10

The Greek Amphitheatre, Taormina, Sicily

Originally built by the Greeks for plays in the third century BC and later enlarged by the Romans for gladiatorial contests, Taormina's teatro greco is a bit special. Dramatically located high above Sicily's mountainous eastern coast and in the shadow of Mount Etna, the brick shell of this evocative amphitheatre is mostly intact. Some of the classical stone pillars are still standing and you can wander around the stone innards where the gladiators must have prepared for battle. The spectacular views from the upper echelons are well worth the eight euro admission fee (children are free). If you go in the cool of the evening after a blistering August day, Mount Etna may be shrouded in haze. But there may be fewer visitors and you might catch musicians rehearsing for a concert. Taormina's teatro greco must be one of Sicily's most atmospheric and picturesque ruins.  9/10

Ristorante le Mimose, Via Tutti Santi, Castelmola, Sicily

Hard to find, Ristorante le Mimose is down the hill from Castelmola's main piazza. It can be quiet early evening, but its leafy outside terrace does provide a commanding view of the sweeping bay south of Taormina: You just need to ignore the concrete shell of a partially-finished building on an adjacent plot. Family run, Ristorante le Mimose combines a warm welcome with rustic home cooking. The elderly matriarch greets prospective diners enthusiastically and there may even be a chatty American lady on hand to help with translations. Packed with flavour, the antipasti misti includes aubergines, courgettes and other morsels drenched in olive oil. Another good bet is the big plate of mozzarella and chunky tomato slices. The presentation is a little rough, but the food is fresh and appetising. To follow, there is wide selection of pizzas (starting at 7 euros), pasta and other Italian staples. The pizza bases can be a little stodgy, but the toppings are very generous and tasty. If the kids leave half their pizza, the restaurant will wrap up the leftovers in foil. Among the other dishes, the seafood risotto (12 euros) is well seasoned and full of flavour, while the spaghetti carbonara (8 euros) is creamy and rich. Water is 2.5 euros for a big bottle and you can get a carafe of the cheap local wine, which is a bit sharp, for 5 euros. Given the exceptional view and competent cooking, Ristorante le Mimose is good value. 8/10

Taormina, Sicily

Although it can be over-run with tourists in August, the elegant old town of Taormina manages to maintain a certain dignity and charm. Bookended by ancient stone gates, Corso Umberto, the main thoroughfare of the historic core, is mostly pedestrianised and lined with upmarket shops and restaurants occupying grand old houses with cast iron balconies and imposing wooden doors. Steep narrow alleyways lead off the main drag, inviting you to explore more restaurants, shops and bars tucked into the nooks and crannies. Before too long, the shops give way to the airy, tree-lined Piazza IX Aprile offering fine views of the sea far below and the cream facade of a handsome old church with a striking conical bell tower. At the far end of the square is another medieval stone gate complete with a rectangular clock tower. Beyond this gate are more elegant period buildings and a pretty little square, where you can sit on the circular steps of the grand stone fountain and admire the town's venerable thirteenth century Duomo. At the end of Corso Umberto, is a small, but well-maintained, park with stone benches and far-reaching views of the sea - a good place for an ice-cream stop. Once you have strolled back through the town and through the north gate, head south east down to the town's atmospheric Greco-Roman amphitheatre, which offers memorable views of Mount Etna and Sicily's east coast.  8/10

Thursday 15 August 2013

Palermo to Taormina by train, Sicily

Messina station
It can take five hours to travel by train from Sicily's capital to the popular resort town of Taormina on the east coast.  From Palermo's central station, you catch one of the air-conditioned inter-city trains towards Rome. It hugs the island's north coast and you get some fine views of both beaches and the surrounding hills as the train moves at a leisurely pace. Better still, you may be in an atmospheric old-fashioned six person compartment, but it can get a bit stuffy. After almost three hours, you alight at the port town of Messina where you might have to wait almost an hour for the Catania train down the east coast, which stops at Taormina-Giardini station. You can't book seats on this one. But you would be well-advised to choose a seat near the doors, as the train can get rammed in the summer, making it tough to get off with luggage. Again, there are enticing views of the Sicilian coast, now supplemented by mainland Italy in the distance. This leg takes an hour as the train stops quite a few times before it reaches Taormina-Giardini's handsome period station. The ticket office, with its elaborately-decorated ceiling and ornate cast-iron chandeliers and screens, conjures up a bygone era of upmarket rail travel. Be warned, it is quite an uphill hike from the station to Taormina's historic heart and you should probably get a bus or a taxi. 6/10

Maxim B&B, Via Stabile Mariano, Palermo, Sicily

A small, but stylish, hotel tucked away in the upper echelons of a block (marked hotels) near the edge of Palermo's historic centre, Maxim B&B is well placed for sight seeing and restaurants.  Although the
 lift is slow, cramped and claustrophobic, Maxim's small reception, breakfast room and bedrooms are tastefully decorated in soothing shades of brown. The safes are small and the WiFi only works in reception, but the in-room air con is excellent and the hotel is quiet and well sound-proofed. The family suite also has a very cool, multi-coloured lighting system in one of the bathrooms. Unfortunately, the air conditioning in the breakfast room, which is decorated with large clocks, may not be working and the water and excessively sweet fruit juices can be a bit warm. Still, the bread is varied and fresh (the ryebread is particularly tasty).  The buffet also includes run-of-the-mill ham and cheese, plus cereals, yoghurts, fruit and some cake. If you want a really cold drink, you'll find small bottles of water in the fridge in your room, but they cost 1.5 euros apiece. The English-speaking proprietor comes and goes and you may have to arrange a time to pay the bill in cash. You may also have to contact him in advance of your arrival to gain access to the hotel. Still, Maxim B&B offers a very good night's sleep in a convenient location. 7/10

Vino e Pomodoro, Via P Pe Di Belmonte, Palermo, Sicily

One of several restaurants on this pleasant pedestrianised street in the heart of Palermo, Vino e Pomodoro's popularity makes it stand out. There are plenty of hotels in the vicinity and you may have to compete with other tourists for a table. With navy and white tablecloths, plastic flowers, funky chairs, with leaf-like patterns, and arty purple lighting, the mood is cool and contemporary inside and out. But service by the white shirted waiters is friendly and helpful. The extensive menu covers many of the Italian classic dishes, plus a bewildering array of pizzas (starting at 5 euros). They are typically thin, crispy and pretty good. One of the best (8 euros) comes with ricotta, spinach, fresh tomatoes and then has creamy cheese stuffed inside the turned-over rim (it is called a Calabrese on the menu).  There is also a generous and tasty focaccia della nonnina for about ten euros. You can get a bottle of smooth Sicilian white wine (Firriato Chiaramonte B) for 16 euros, while a big bottle of water costs three euros. Although there is a cover charge of 2 euros a head, you get a complementary glass of vaguely alcoholic fruit juice when you sit down. 7/10 

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Giardino Garibaldi, Palermo, Sicily

Laid out in the nineteenth century, Giardino Garibaldi is home to a couple of monstrous rubber trees. The park's original iron railings and statues remain intact, but these historic and atmospheric gardens are in need of a little more tender loving care.

Santa Maria della Catena, Palermo, Sicily

Dating from the sixteenth century, the church of Santa Maria della Catena overlooks Palermo's La Cala marina

Porta Felice, Palermo, Sicily

Dating from the sixteenth century, Porta Felice is a grand gatehouse marking the entrance to Palermo from the sea

The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, Piazza Bellini, Palermo

Known as La Martorana, this distinctive and handsome church in the Piazza Bellini dates from the twelfth century.  

The Quattro Canti, Palermo, Sicily

Four ornate seventeenth century buildings stand at this extraordinary Baroque crossroads in the heart of Palermo's historic centre. Each has its own fountain depicting one of the four seasons, a statue of a Spanish king and a statue of a "patroness of Palermo".

The Ballarò, Palermo, Sicily

One of Palermo's lively street markets, The Ballarò fills ancient alleyways in Palermo's African quarter with food stalls. 

Palermo Cathedral, Sicily

Palermo's vast cathedral, which dates from the twelfth century, is a magnificent mishmash of Norman, Gothic-Catalan, Baroque and neo-classical architecture built from a warm brown stone.  Parked outside is a kind of longboat on wheels.

The Piazza Pretoria, Palermo, Sicily

Sometimes dubbed the "Square of Shame", the Piazza Pretoria is dominated by an enormous, bright white sixteenth century fountain featuring dozens of nude mythical figures linked to Mount Olympus. Originally built for a garden in Florence, it was sold to Palermo and reassembled in the Piazza Pretoria in 1575.

The Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Sicily

The Teatro Massimo, Palermo's massive neoclassical nineteenth century opera house. Closed for renovations for 23 years between 1974 and 1997, it is reputed to be the largest opera house in Italy.

Trattoria Del Pesce Fresco, Foro Umberto Palermo, Sicily,

In the heat of summer, lunch on Palermo's wide open seafront can offer welcome respite from sightseeing. Built into the imposing stone Foro Italico promenade, Trattoria Del Pesce Fresco has a dozen or so well-shaded outdoor tables, surrounded by foliage and overlooking green open space leading down to Palermo's port. Although the surroundings are pretty dishevelled and there may be a tramp or two on the nearby benches, there is a pleasant sense of space. The restaurant itself doesn't make a great deal of effort: You sit in green plastic chairs and the service is gruff at best. Still, for 10 euros, the seafood risotto, containing decent mussels and other fresh morsels, is pretty good. But the more unusual "lime" and shrimp risotto, seems to be overpowered by lemon juice. The safest bet for young kids might be a reasonable plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce and eggplant (7 euros) or you can get spaghetti with clams for a few euros more. Water is a reasonable two euros for a large bottle and the cover charge (for bread) is low at 1.50 euros a head. However, espresso is the only coffee available.  Still, with better service, Trattoria Del Pesce Fresco could make for a decent Palermo pit-stop. 6/10

Sunday 11 August 2013

The Cleveland Way, near Cloughton, Yorkshire

The view south from a spectacular stretch of the Cleveland Way. Scarborough Castle is in the distance

Sunday 4 August 2013

2013 Prudential RideLondon London-Surrey Cycle Classic

The peloton races down Whitehall in the closing stages of the London-Surrey Cycle Classic. 

Saturday 3 August 2013

The Parrot Inn, Forest Green, Surrey

Well-located for a pit-stop during a walk or cycle ride, the Parrot Inn lies in the flattish countryside south of Leith Hill
A sprawling pub in the hamlet of Forest Green, The Parrot Inn has a couple of large beer gardens overlooking the vast village green. Inside is a warren of bars, snugs and a restaurant. Even on a sunny Saturday lunchtime, it can be easy to find a table, perhaps reflecting the fact that the food doesn't live up  to the prices.  For pub grub, the main courses are expensive and you need to buy side orders of vegetables on top. The beef burger (£12.85), served with red pepper, skinny fries and a beetroot salsa, can be lacklustre. Similarly, the chicken balti (about £12) can be bland - it needs fresh herbs, chutneys and more of a kick.  The rib eye steak, served with beef tomato, mustard butter and chips, is chunky, but it should be for almost £19. The best option may be the fish and chips (about £9), which is nicely cooked. But you get the same flimsy fries. Still, the Parrot has plenty of space, a broad selection of beers, lagers and ciders, including the fine Aspall, and the young staff make an effort. Better still, it is well placed for scenic walks or cycle rides up and down Leith Hill - the highest point in south east England. 6/10 

The Begging Bowl, Bellenden Road, south London

(Images from the Begging Bowl web site)
On a warm summer's evening, the hum of conversation and the aroma of Thai cooking might lure you towards the Begging Bowl. You can't book ahead of time, but you can register in person and decamp to the pub opposite - the staff will call you when a table of ready. There is a row of tables outside, sheltered by the glass roof held up by cast iron pillars or you can sit at one of the closely-packed tables inside. Service by the young staff is effervescent and effective - they are good at subtle up-selling. On the menu, the dishes are colour-coded according to price.  The fish cakes, with sweet chilli sauce, (£5.75) are a bit too crispy, but nice enough. The seafood curry is creamy, but can be runny and stingy. Better is the marinated raw salmon with samphire, lemongrass, green mango and chilli lime dressing (£9.75). The chilli is too dominant, but the freshness is really palatable. By contrast, the deep fried pork belly, with sour chilli dip and gravy (£9.75), is quite heavy and dry. Meat eaters might prefer the beef cheek, which is fatty, succulent and tasty. The piece de resistance is probably the deep-fried sea bass, with sweet, sour and chilli dressing with deep fried shallots, garlic and Thai basil  (£14.50). You need to fillet the fish yourself, but there is a lot of flesh and the flavours work well together.  Your dishes are served with appropriate portions of sticky rice and Jasmine rice. The Begging Bowl has a broad selection of wines, starting at £16.60 a bottle and £5.60 a glass. The staff recommend the Cote de Duras 2011, Terroirs de Duc, (£25 a bottle) - a very clean and drinkable wine that goes well with seafood.  Beer is a tad pricey. A 330ml bottle of Estrella Damm costs £4.20, for example. The Begging Bowl has a good vibe, but the food is hit and miss. 7/10