Postcards from Italy

Staff Inspiration: Maria Gabriella’s Dream Trip

Over the past few weeks, we have shared our dream trips through Italy and Switzerland to inform and inspire future jaunts to Europe. This week, we continue our series with Maria Gabriella, owner of CIU Travel together with her partner and husband, Brian.

For years I’ve thought about taking a trip with my sister, just the two of us—no husbands, kids (she has one), or cats (I have two). For a couple of big reasons, this year seems like a great time to finally make a plan, even if we can’t go just yet.

Maria and Renee

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

First, as you may have noted a couple of weeks ago, Brian dumped me for Mike Tucker for his own Dream Trip. That’s fine (and understandable, as Mike is much more fun than I am!), so now I can plan my own itinerary guilt-free. Veering sharply to a more serious note, the second reason is that my mother died in March, just as the Corona Crisis was hitting the U.S. At the time, we believed that she passed away in her sleep from a heart attack and that her death wasn’t Corona related. She lived out her final years in a nursing home, which, at the time of her death, had no recorded Covid-19 cases, but a few weeks later had a couple of dozen. Mom was a smoker for decades and had other comorbidities which would have made her an easy mark for the Coronavirus, so, just as she was in life, she may have been a trailblazer in death, and been the first one to succumb at her nursing home. We’ll never know. We’re just grateful that she passed quickly and peacefully and we had all been in touch with her the very day that was her last. Commenting on the Covid restrictions that banned my sister to the nursing home window in the parking lot and me to the telephone, my mother said on that last day, “I’ll be glad when this is all over.” We are now attributing deeper meaning to her comment.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Out of the depths of despair comes…a trip to Rome and Sicily! I texted my sister when Rebecca, our staff writer, sent me a not-so-gentle reminder that I was the only one on the CIU team that hadn’t yet written up a dream trip. I asked Renée what she would want to visit and I received a number of rapid-fire texts back listing many, many things—some visited before on previous trips (if you have a sister with an Italian travel business, you’ve been to Italy a few times!) and some new and not yet visited. I opted for a mix of both: Rome, often visited but with an embarrassment of treasures never exhausted; and Sicily, an island never before visited by my sister.

This eclectic Sorelle Landers itinerary has me very excited, as I think Renée will love seeing the convergence of cultural influences that have shaped Sicily over the centuries. In some prescient naming scheme concocted by our father, my sister was named Renée Marie and I was named Maria Gabriella, though we have neither French nor Italian blood in our family. That said, Renée Landers has long been a Francophile, while I took the Via Italiana. It was a natural progression for me from singing Puccini and Verdi, but still, how could dad have known at our births? Anyway, Renée can delve into the French influence on Sicily from the Normans to Charles of Anjou to Napoleon.

Maria and Renee on Vacation

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Nerd Alert: We have an almost unlimited capacity for museums, art, and historical sights, including churches. We have pursued the Piero della Francesca Trail in Tuscany and Umbria, and have set foot in almost every church and chapel in Rome, hunting down Caravaggios and particular sculptures.

Rome to Palermo

Though I generally counsel travelers to avoid Sicily in the scorching summer months, we have to make this trip in the summer as Renée is an academic with a full teaching schedule. Luckily, we are fairly heat tolerant; if you’re not, opt to visit in the spring or fall to avoid the soaring temperatures!

Sicily can satisfy the tastes of virtually any traveler. History buffs will love visiting the spectacular archaeological sites dating from the Greek colonization of Sicily 800 years before Christ, and gourmands (we know a couple of those!) will be drawn to the local cuisine, which has been influenced by successive waves of conquerors and settlers from North Africa, Spain, and the Middle East over the millennia. Lovers of art and architecture can visit Caravaggio’s masterpieces, see stunning Byzantine mosaics, and purchase traditional maiolica pieces. Renée and I will enjoy all of the above.

My sister and I will catch a flight from Rome to Palermo, and relax while our driver whisks us to the newly renovated Villa Igiea, an outstanding Rocco Forte property outside the city center. After an afternoon nap and freshening up, we’ll enjoy cocktails and dinner at the hotel overlooking the sea and getting to bed at a decent hour to begin our adventure.

Palermo and Monreale

We’ll begin our day with a guided tour of Monreale, where Byzantine influences and breathtaking mosaics can be seen in some of Sicily’s most stunning Norman churches. The most famous of these are in the Cathedral of Monreale, home to the largest cycle of Byzantine mosaics in Italy. The interior of this imposing Norman church is almost entirely covered with ornate mosaics, and it is estimated that craftsmen from Constantinople used over 2,200 kilograms of gold to make the 100 million tesserae (individual tiles) featured in these magnificent works.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

We’ll return to Palermo in time to stroll a bit with our guide, learning of the history of the city, present-day Palermo, and even the mafia. This is the best part of having a local guide—no book can really convey the feeling of a place like a local who has spent their whole life there.

Palermo was a Phoenician city in the 8th century BC and was subsequently conquered by the Romans, Arabs, and finally the Normans. The rich architectural layering and complicated history of this gritty Sicilian capital are evident everywhere. Buildings destroyed by bombs in WWII have been left as ruins throughout the city, and buses, cars, and mopeds fly recklessly by beneath balconies of drying laundry.

Palermo is a lively city in which much of the social interaction takes place outdoors in the sweeping squares and bustling open-air markets, both perfect for participating in the refreshingly tourist-free local flavor and for browsing landmark shops and overflowing market stalls. The two most iconic squares are the Baroque Quattro Canti and Piazza Pretoria, home to the famous Pretoria Fountain with its frolicking nymphs and nudes that the Spanish invaders found so shocking that they took to calling it Piazza della Vergogna (Square of Shame).

We can stop for some Sicilian street food as we go, but will skip the local specialty of spleen sandwiches (la milza) because the sisters are a bit picky and we do not eat things like spleen sandwiches or stigghiola (lamb or veal intestines). I will certainly show the pot of spleen to Renée, explaining the delicacy in detail to gross her out because that is still the little sister’s job, even if we are now closer to the nursing home than the nursery school. The sisters (an appellation coined by my nephew when he was about 3 years old) do eat things like arancini (fried rice balls filled with meat sauce or prosciutto and cheese), crispy chickpea fritters (le pannelle), cannoli, and sweet almond-flavored cassatine.

Palermo arancini

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Palermo desserts

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Then back to mosaics. Just as opulent, if less extensive than Monreale, are the mosaics decorating the Cappella Palatina, the royal chapel of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily in Palermo’s Palazzo Reale. The chapel is also a symbol of Sicily’s cross-cultural heritage, combining Norman, Arabic, and Byzantine styles in the architecture and mosaics. Craftsmen of different religious traditions worked alongside each other when creating the interior mosaics. Also worth noting in Palermo is La Martorana, or Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, which has a spectacularly decorated interior featuring a series of 12th-century mosaics that were created, like those in Monreale and the Cappella Palatina, by Byzantine craftsmen.


(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Palermo’s numerous historic churches unite Islamic, Byzantine, and European architectural styles, and are so remarkable that many have been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Among the most striking are the Cathedral, begun in the 12th century and expanded and renovated over the subsequent 600 years with Norman, Arabic, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical elements.

In addition to its churches spanning from the Byzantine to the Baroque, Palermo is home to the oldest royal palace in Europe, the somber Norman Palace that was once home to the Kings of Sicily during the Norman occupation and today is the seat to several government offices and the Palatine Chapel.

Palermo is also a cultural center, boasting two opera houses. The Neoclassical Teatro Politeama houses the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra, and Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy and the third largest in Europe. They will be closed during the summer, but we can admire the external architecture of the Massimo.

OOPS! I forgot to issue a SHOPPING ALERT! We are nerdy, but we love to shop. I mean, we really love to shop. After almost 22 years of marriage, I continue to amaze Brian with my ability to find things to purchase in the most unlikely places. Even the stand of stuff at the car wash cash register is not safe from my acquisitive gaze.

So there will be shopping all along the way. Anytime a shopping experience is detected—and we have special Landers Radar for this—we will stop in.

At day’s end, we’ll return to our hotel, shower, and after a relaxing prosecco, we’ll head into town for dinner in the city center.

Sciacca via Segesta, Erice, and Mozia

After breakfast, we’ll say goodbye to Palermo and head to Segesta—site of a perfect 420 BC Doric temple, amphitheater, and other ruins of the settlement. We’ll continue on to Erice, a small medieval town overlooking Trapani, with spectacular views and one of Sicily’s treasures: Maria Grammatico, a local orphan raised in a convent by nuns who were expert marzipan and Sicilian pastry chefs. After leaving the convent in 1963, Maria opened her first little shop in Erice and has become an Italian legend. We’ll visit her shop, with plenty of sampling, of course! Erice is also known for handwoven rustic rugs and home textiles, so we’ll check out a local workshop to see the looms and weaving technique.

Maria Grammatica Erice

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Erice rugs

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Erice loom

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

We’ll then see the salt flats and ancient island of Mozia, set in the lagoon between Trapani and Marsala. This was a Phoenician center as early as the 8th century BC. We’ll reach the island in a small private boat, and we’ll spend some time with our guide exploring the ancient roads, walled city, residential areas, sacred sites, and fortified gates and towers.

Mozia 3

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

For the evening, we’ll head to Sciacca. The problem with this itinerary is that there is simply too much to say about every stop and destination! I’ll try to keep it brief. Sciacca is a charming small town and the resort where we will lay our heads is one of my favorite in all of Italy. La Verdura is a luxurious place with a full service spa and amenities, while still local in atmosphere and cuisine. Renée and I will relax here this evening, enjoying the spa pools and a spectacular seafood dinner.

Selinunte and Caltabellotta

This morning, our driver will take us 25 minutes away to Selinunte, the westernmost colony of ancient Greece and home to some of the best Greek ruins. Much of what we know about ancient Sicilian history comes from Thucydides and his account of the Peloponnesian Wars. He places the founding of Selinunte (named for the wild celery that grew in the area) in the 7th century and describes its organization, divided by a river. That description is helpful because many of the structures were toppled by an earthquake in the Middle Ages. Huge blocks of columns and ancient detritus litter the fields of the site, giving it a kind of wild and untamed atmosphere. Some of the temples have been reconstructed and other original pieces from the buildings are in the archeological museum in Palermo.

After scrambling among the ruins, we will be ready for lunch near Menfi at one of the vineyards of La Planeta. Did I mention that the sisters have been known to enjoy a glass or two of wine? Renée’s taste runs toward Chardonnay (of course!) while I, having developed my taste for wine in Umbria, am a fan of big reds. But, I can only guess that it will be around 1,000 degrees while we’re in Sicily, so crisp local whites, here we come! In the afternoon, we’ll visit Caltabellotta, a historic hill-town offering panoramic views from Agrigento to Mount Etna. The famous peace treaty of 1302 was signed here, ending the War of the Vespers. Other points of interest include the small Church of St. Maria della Pietà, partly built into the rock face, and the 14th century Church of St. Augustine. We’ll return to Sciacca for the evening.


Today we’ll explore the picturesque fishing town of Sciacca, with its scenic Piazza Scandaliato, historic thermal baths (beloved by the Romans), and local ceramic production. Another must-see: a small workshop of coral jewelry production. Brian and I gave Renée a coral bracelet from this shop a few years ago, and I think we need more of this artisan’s jewelry. We’ll enjoy the afternoon and evening at La Verdura. I think the mineral pools and a spa treatment may again be in order.

Caltagirone ceramics

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

La Verdura Beach 2

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples

The following morning we’ll head out early to avoid becoming ruins ourselves under the midday sun. It’s a little over an hour’s drive from Sciacca to the Valley of the Temples, and I can’t wait to revisit this archeological site! Centuries of neglect have kept many of the sites in Sicily well-preserved and Agrigento’s Greek temples are now in better condition than those in Athens. The most intact are the Temple of Concord (converted to a Catholic basilica in the first century AD) and the Temple of Juno, both dating from the 5th century BC; of the massive Temple of Olympian Zeus, all that remains is one of the telamons, or figures sculpted in stone, which once served as a pillar holding up the temple roof. After exploring the small museum displaying statuary, mosaics, art, and other finds from the site, of course we’ll have to visit the museum shop. We will definitely be ready for a relaxing lunch after traversing this sprawling archeological park.

Valley of Templi view from V. Athena

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

We’ll eventually make it to the lovely family-run Villa Athena hotel, with stunning views of the ruins from our rooms. We’ll spend a relaxing evening here.

Siracusa (Syracuse) via Piazza Armerina

This route will have us skipping Ragusa and Noto on this trip—there just isn’t time to do it all and Siracusa is perhaps my favorite Sicilian city. I think Renée will love it. But first, yet another breathtaking sight: the Villa Romana del Casale, a Roman hunting lodge near Piazza Armerina that boasts the best-preserved mosaics of their kind.

Piazza Armerina 1

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

After our visit here, we’ll stop in the Sicilian ceramic capital of Caltagirone for shopping and a refreshing granita. We’ll then settle into our seats for the two-hour drive to Siracusa (Syracuse), checking into the waterfront Musciara Resort, a small and elegant hotel on the bay of Lakkios just outside the town of Ortigia. It is within walking distance of the town, so we’ll have the best of both worlds: a peaceful seaside resort plus easy access to the town’s bustling shops and restaurants.

Siracusa was a vital Greek city for over two centuries before falling to the Romans; it is often described as one of the most beautiful Greek cities in ancient literature. Our guide and driver will take us to admire the sights of the ancient city today. Although the ancient quarries are no longer in operation, we have Thucydides to thank again for detailed descriptions of the location and area’s history. One of the marvels of this site is the “Ear of Dionysius”, a limestone cave so named by Caravaggio because of a unique acoustic characteristic. Legend has it that the structure of the cave allowed the tyrant Dionysius to eavesdrop from a distance above the cave on political enemies he had imprisoned inside.

On our way back to town, we’ll stop in at the Museo Archeologico which offers a large and varied collection of historic artifacts from Siracusa and Sicily. This is where our excellent guide comes in to help us navigate the collection and spend time with works that are of most interest to us.

Siracusa Market

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

For lunch, nothing beats the stands in the food market. A final must-see for the day is the Burial of Saint Lucy in the Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia in Piazza Duomo, a Caravaggio masterpiece commemorating Santa Lucia, the patron saint of Siracusa. The painter spent a brief time in Sicily during his years on the run from the law and the slit in Santa Lucia’s throat would be nothing compared to what Renée might do if I don’t take her to see this painting. We can spend the rest of the day and evening exploring and shopping in town.

Taormina via Mt. Etna

Mt. Etna 6

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Dragging ourselves away from Siracusa, we’ll head to Taormina, a 1.5-hour drive, stopping at Mt. Etna, the tallest volcano in Europe (topping 3,300 meters) and one of the most active in the world. An alpine guide will meet us here to lead us on foot and via the funicular to ascend to the volcanic fields at the peak, offering insights into the particular flora and fauna that live in the volcanic soil as we also learn about various eruptions over the centuries. I will not make the mistake of wearing bright white sneakers this time.

Gambino Waiter with glasses

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)
Don’t try this at home.

Arriving in Taormina in the afternoon, we’ll visit the ancient amphitheater and spend our last night at the boutique Villa Ducale, set above the town, with incredible views over the sea.


We’ll catch the short flight from Catania back to Rome and check into Villa Spalletti Travelli, a 14-room hotel that was formerly a private residence and still conveys the feeling of staying with a friend—a friend who lives in a historic mansion and happens to be an aristocrat. Renée loves hotels with character and this one won’t disappoint!

This afternoon and tomorrow morning, we’ll take to the streets with our guide, chasing down all of the Berninis, Borominis, and Caravaggios we can fit in. One absolute must is revisiting Bernini’s Santa Teresa in Ecstasy, a favorite of my sister’s. Of course there is a story to go with this. On one of Renée’s first visits to Rome (pre-CIU Travel), she and her husband had a private guide booked for the day. Renée told the guide that she definitely wanted to see Santa Teresa and the guide kept putting it off and in the end, didn’t take them to see her. This is a cautionary tale – not all guides are created equal! So Renée’s next visit to Rome years later, we were out and about with Renée, her husband Tom, and their son Nelson in tow. After touring a variety of sights without making it to see Bernini’s masterpiece, Renée announced that she would “make everyone miserable” if we didn’t fit it into our itinerary. So, we took a wild taxi ride to the church before it closed; our family hasn’t been the same since. Renée gets points for singling out this sculpture before it ascended into the popular conscience via Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

After dinner, we’ll tool around Rome with a driver to see the fountains and ruins at night, something else that just never gets old.

More Rome

If this happens to be a Saturday, we’ll visit the privately-owned Palazzo Colonna with our guide, a baroque jewel housing one of Rome’s largest private art collections. If it isn’t a Saturday, we’ll go to Villa Farnesina instead to see the charming frescoes of Raphael. We may duck into the Basilica of San Clemente to cool off in the lower levels at some point—that also never gets old. And we will work our way over to the Pantheon, another favorite sight, which happens to be near one of the sisters’ favorite treats: granita al caffè con panna from La Casa del Caffè Tazza d’Oro. We’ll cin cin to our mother here as this cool summer treat would be right up her alley.

Tazza D'oro

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

Maria and Granita

(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

For shopping, we’ll check out the small shops in the Monti neighborhood for some one-of-a-kind fashion and jewelry. Our last dinner will be on the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere at Sabatini’s, a favorite family spot, ending our trip as it began, with views of gilt mosaics.


After 12 days, it’s time to say, “Arrivederci, Roma!”

Travel Specialists

Maria Landers

Brian Dore