Sicily: A Space A Adventure

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The Cathedral of Cefalu in Italy. Photo provided by the John and Gracia Slater.
The Cathedral of Cefalu in Italy. Photo provided by the John and Gracia Slater.

Sicily is the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Over the centuries, many civilizations—Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards—have been there and left their mark. However, my wife Gracia and I had never been there, and our calendar showed an open block of time in January. These facts suggested that we undertake another Space-A adventure. It turned out to be our best one yet.

Like all Space-A outings, it began with a plan. We would take the Patriot Express from Norfolk to Sigonella, Italy and spend the first three nights at the base and rent a car to make day trips to some of the places we wanted to see. We planned to drive further afield for a couple of nights in hotels and then return to the base for more day trips, while we waited for the Patriot Express back to Norfolk. With luck, we could accomplish the whole trip in about 10 days.

To us, planning a trip is almost as much fun as actually taking it. The Flight Destination Database helped me determine which sites flew to Sicily. I signed us up to depart from Charleston, SC, Norfolk, VA and Dover, DE using www.takeahop.com/signup/form.htm. Ten days later I signed up for return flights from Sigonella, Italy, from Rota, Spain and Naples, Italy. I had also signed up for return travel from McGuire AFB, NJ and Dover AFB, DE, places that might have flights connecting to where our car would be parked. That turned out to be the best advanced planning I did.

I bookmarked the Facebook pages of all these locations and began checking their flights on a daily basis. I also checked back later to learn how many seats each flight had and how many Cat VI passengers made the cut. After a month of this process, I had a pretty good idea of what our chances of flights would be at each location.

While I was monitoring flight information, Gracia and I also gathered information about Sicily. We scoured our town’s library and secondhand bookstores for travel guides. We combed the Internet and discovered a wealth of information, including one unbelievable site, www.bestofsicily.com. We read the trip reports at www.pepperd.com and studied the accounts of earlier trips in Military Living’s® R&R Travel News®. (I keep back issues, together with a homemade index of destinations.) We visited Sigonella’s ITT (Information, Tickets and Travel) office online to learn about local offerings. To see their monthly magazine, go to www.sigmwr.com/index.php and click on “Preview”.

On www.amazon.com we ordered an excellent touring map of “Sicilia,” with place names in Italian, the way they would appear on road signs. At a scale of 1:200,000—about 5 kilometers to the inch—it was a great help with navigation. We also bought Amazon’s highest-recommended guidebook, the Insight Guide Explore Sicily.

When the Patriot Express schedules for January came out at the end of December (both Norfolk and Sigonella post them on Facebook), we saw that the first eastbound flight of the year wouldn’t take place until Jan. 12, and the next returning flight would be Jan. 29. That was longer than we wanted to stay. No problem! My research showed numerous flights from Norfolk. We wouldn’t have to take the Patriot Express.

On January 11, Norfolk posted two flights for January 14, and we decided to go for the later one, with a show time of 1330.  We booked a room at the Norfolk Navy Lodge for January 14 and researched things to see in Norfolk in case we missed the flight. After checking the cancellation policies, we called
Sigonella and booked a rental car for a week. We also booked three nights at the Signonella Navy Lodge.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

We arrived early at the Norfolk terminal. The entrance to the terminal is also the security check for the flight, so every time you enter after going back to the car for your baggage, after moving your car to long-term parking, etc., you have to go through the whole routine, removing your belt and shoes, emptying your pockets, taking off your coat, etc. Be forewarned. Long-term parking is just outside the terminal, but you have to display a parking permit, which isn’t issued until you are called for the flight. So you have to go through security at least twice.

The plane was a C-17 with 19 tentative seats. We had ourselves marked present for the flight and went upstairs to the terminal cafeteria for lunch.

Roll call was delayed. Rumor was that the plane was carrying hazardous material—HAZMAT—and needed to get special waivers to carry passengers. The AMC agents kept making apologies for the delay. Around 1500 they paged me to the counter and explained that they had only one seat remaining. We gave up the seat to the next individual on the list, but the agents told us it was possible that additional seats might be released (they still had not held a roll call). We decided to wait it out.

Eventually additional seats were released and 24 PAX made the flight, including us. Lesson learned: Never give up. Another good travel tip is that Norfolk doesn’t offer box lunches for the flight, so after we checked our bags we went back upstairs to the cafeteria, but by then it was closed. We settled for vending-machine sandwiches.

Friday, January 15, 2016

After a 7.5 hour flight to Rota, two hours refueling there, and another three hours in the air, we arrived at NAS Sigonella mid-morning. Sigonella is divided into two bases—NAS I, pronounced “nass one,” and NAS II—about six miles apart. Flights land at NAS II. A bus carried us from the plane to the baggage-collection room in the terminal, which also houses the Europcar rental office. While we waited for luggage, Gracia started the paperwork for our rental car and I found maps for NAS I and II, a schedule for the shuttle bus connecting the bases, and a printed list of flights departing Sigonella for the next month, along with their show times and destinations. Lesson learned: Always be on the lookout for useful information.

I visited the ATM in the rental-car parking lot and withdrew some Euros from a machine that gave me the choice between Euros and dollars. The rental car attendant showed us how to operate the GPS that came with the car, a five-door hatchback Fiat Panda with just enough room behind the back seat for our luggage—two pull-along suitcases and two backpacks. He advised us never to leave anything showing inside the car when we parked. He also gave us a hand-drawn map of the route to NAS I.

We drove to the Navy Lodge there ($82 a night, with a kitchenette). We chose to stay at NAS I because it has more amenities—NEX, commissary, MWR office, library, food court—than NAS II. The status-of-forces agreement with Italy allows retirees full use of all on-base facilities. When we arrived at the NAS I main gate we were directed to the pass office, where we were given a vehicle pass for the duration of our stay.

Gracia had acquired a new iPhone before we left home, so her first stop was the Vodafone store in the food court at the NEX/commissary compound. The helpful folks there sold her a phone plan and showed her how to install the new SIM card that would give us an Italian phone number and the ability to call the PAX terminal even if we had no Wi-Fi. We visited the ITT office and booked a Wednesday night excursion to Catania for a performance of Giovanni Paisiello’s opera Fedra. They told us where and when to meet the van.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

For our first day trip we chose to visit the island of Ortigia off Siracusa, about an hour’s drive from the base. After some uncertainty about which way to turn at the main gate (left, toward the Motta S. Anastasia exit, where the bright-pink “Love Story” nightclub provides an unmistakable landmark) we were on our way. We had expected Sicily to be rocky, but we were surprised by how steep the mountains are. As a result there are many tunnels, and between tunnels the main roads are often supported on stilts. The GPS that came with the car asked for street addresses, which we didn’t have. We decided to use Google Maps on Gracia’s phone, and, although the routing struck me as circuitous, we found a bridge in Siracusa and crossed onto Ortigia.

The island is known for a ruined Temple of Apollo, a cathedral, and a ban of on-street parking, which is reserved for residents. Its traffic pattern takes cars on a counter-clockwise tour of the island. We were headed for a parking garage three-quarters of the way around when we suddenly encountered a view of the Ionian Sea with the city of Siracusa in the background. We stopped there to take a photograph. There were numerous vacant parking places along the sea front, and we pulled into one. Then, in what I can only describe as a rush of temporary insanity, we took the photo, locked the car and blithely strolled off on a pedestrian sightseeing tour, temporarily blinded to the numerous traffic signs bearing the international no-parking symbol and depictions of tow trucks.

After a couple of hours walking and a delightful seafood lunch, we returned to where we had left the car, only to find that it was no longer there. We had been towed. What to do?

Sanity restored, we returned to our restaurant, where we knew the waiter spoke a modicum of English. He called a taxi to take us to the towed-car impoundment lot. Eventually we were reunited with our vehicle and, $80 poorer after a fine, taxi fare and tips all around, we returned to Sigonella. Lesson learned: Don’t get carried away.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

View of Mt Etna from the Palermo-Catania autostrada. Photo provided by John and Gracia Slater.
View of Mt Etna from the Palermo-Catania autostrada. Photo provided by John and Gracia Slater.

The resort town of Taormina was our destination for the day. Just over an hour’s drive north, beyond Mt. Etna, Taormina is perched on a mountaintop. We wanted to visit the ancient Greek theatre that overlooks Mt. Etna and the sea. Again, our research told us parking would be a concern.

We drove up the mountain to the town. After three circuits of the town center, we found a parking garage and walked to the theater, where we were among very few visitors. The setting, as advertised, was magnificent even though Mt. Etna was out of sight, shrouded in cloud. We then strolled through the town looking for a place to eat lunch. Almost everything—restaurants, hotels and shops—was closed. Lesson learned: January is a great time to avoid crowds, but don’t expect much choice in amenities. We lunched on pizza at an autostrada service area on the way back to the base.

Monday, January 18, 2016

This was the day we chose to test our cross-country navigational skills. We booked a hotel in Agrigento for Monday and another in Cefalú for Tuesday. On the way, we planned to visit the Villa Romana del Casale, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the location of the most extensive collection of Roman mosaics in the world. Built in the 4th century, the villa was covered by a landslide in the 12th century. The mosaics were preserved underground and not rediscovered until the 20th century.

The courtyard at Villa Romana del Casale. Photo provided by John and Gracia Slater.
The courtyard at Villa Romana del Casale. Photo provided by John and Gracia Slater.

The front-desk staff at the Navy Lodge told us there had been snow in the mountains during the night, and they advised us to use caution. We made a reservation for another three nights starting on Wednesday. Google Maps wanted us to head west on the Palermo-Catania autostrada, but my map suggested Highway #288 would be a more direct route. When we turned toward Highway #288 I was pleased to see Google Maps indicating the preferred route stretch out in front of us on Gracia’s cell phone. We followed the instructions as the road climbed and got more narrow.

We passed a shepherd and his flock of sheep, and still the road got narrower, climbing above the snow line. When it turned into a farm track, we gave up and retraced our steps. Funnily, when we made the 180-degree-turn, the preferred route on Google Maps turned with us. That’s when we discovered that Google Maps, unlike our Garmin at home, doesn’t correct you when you make a wrong turn. It simply picks another route starting from wherever you’re headed. From then on, we started relying on our paper map and road signs. Lesson learned: Know how to use your technology before you start using it, and have a low-tech backup.

The Roman mosaics were everything we had expected, and more. There was only one other car in the parking lot. As we left, the parking-lot attendant recommended a roadside café for lunch. We took his advice and enjoyed the food. We also met the occupants of the other car, a couple from Belgium, who had also taken his recommendation.

We drove on to Agrigento without mishap, and checked in to the comfortably upscale Colleverde Park Hotel  ($76, with your choice of cooked or Continental breakfast). Gracia had chosen it because of its location near the Valley of the Temples, which we planned to visit the next morning. The desk clerk recommended a nearby restaurant, the Trattoria dei Templi, where we had a nice dinner. Later, we enjoyed the view of the lighted temples from our room.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

After breakfast we headed out on foot to walk the Valley of the Temples, an impressive array of Greek ruins. Most of the temples are in an advanced state of decay, but the Temple of Concord is reminiscent of the Parthenon. Later in the morning, we checked out of our hotel and set off for Cefalú, a seaside resort on the north side of the island. We relied on our paper map for most of the trip and only turned on Google Maps when we got close to our destination. It directed us to the Carleton Spa Hotel ($76, with a Continental breakfast), located on the waterfront at the west edge of town. The hotel was rustic compared with our previous night’s accommodations, and we concluded that the resort prices were inflated.

We arrived mid-afternoon, after the normal lunch hour, and grabbed a panini and a beer and an outside table at a nearby shop. We then went on a walking tour of the town, which was largely devoid of visitors.
Our destination was the twin-towered, Arab-Norman cathedral, built in 1131. Its apse features a likeness of Christ Pantocrator, a masterpiece of Byzantine mosaic art. After we had finished our tour, a light rain had set in, so we donned our Goretex rain jackets for the trek to a restaurant our hotelier recommended. Just after we set out, the rain became a downpour, and our jeans and footwear were soaked through. Passing the lights of another restaurant, the Tivitti Bottega, we ducked in to get out of the storm. It was a serendipitous happening—it offered excellent food and pizza and, as we came to learn, was the choice of many locals. Lesson learned: Always stay flexible. The rain had stopped by the time we walked back to our hotel.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Bellini Opera House Italy. Photo provided by John and Gracia Slater.
Bellini Opera House Italy. Photo provided by John and Gracia Slater.

Wednesday dawned clear and sunny. We got under way after breakfast, using our paper map to navigate our way back to Sigonella. En route we detoured to Enna, the highest town in Sicily. The view of snow-covered mountains from the Castello di Lombardia is impressive. On the autostrada between Enna and Sigonella we caught our first view of Mt. Etna. I’m not a fan of photos taken from a moving car, but I couldn’t resist taking this one. We checked back into the Navy Lodge and changed for an outing to the opera. The Bellini Opera House, named in honor of composer Vincenzo Bellini, a native of Catania, is a magnificent 19th-century opera house in the classical style. It is well worth a visit.

Back in our room at the Navy Lodge, we turned on the television to check the news channel, one of 11 Armed Forces Network channels available on the base. It told us of a massive East Coast snow event forecast for the weekend, just when we hoped to be returning. Lesson learned: There’s always the
unexpected.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

We designated this day as “rope-yarn Sunday,” a day off from normal duties. We did laundry, visited the base library to take advantage of its paperback book exchange, and fretted about finding a flight back to CONUS. The impending East Coast snowstorm still dominated the news, and we decided that if we couldn’t make it to the East Coast, we should at least try for Rota, a step in the right direction. There was a C-130 flight to Rota on Saturday.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Because our first visit to Siracusa had been a bust, we chose to return there on our (hopefully) last day in Sicily. We wanted to see the Archaeological Park of Neopolis, with its famous Greek theater, and the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi, which houses Sicily’s largest archaeological collection. We found off-street, pay-and-display parking in a neighborhood between our two destinations and toured the archaeological park. After lunch at a Sicilian fast-food buffet, we walked to the museum and marveled at its collections. At the end of the day we found our car right where we had left it, and we headed back to Sigonella to wait for a flight. We had dinner at the Hotel Sigonella Inn, just outside the main gate.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The storm in the States—by now they were calling it “Snowmageddon”—had disrupted all flights to the East Coast, but the C-130 was still going to Rota, with a 1400 show time. We checked out of the Navy Lodge, making a contingency reservation for that night, and topped off our gas tank at the station near the Love Story. (Neither base at Sigonella has a gas station.)

We drove to NAS II in time to confer with the car rental people, who close at noon on Saturday. Yes, we could drop our keys in the box outside the terminal if we caught the flight, but we would be charged for the car until Monday, when they opened again. The car was by far the most expensive part of our trip. Counting the cost of insurance—USAA was no help to us in Italy, and neither of our two credit cards included insurance—it cost us $684.48.

We caught the flight, dropped our keys, canceled the reservation at Sigonella and called Rota to book two nights at the Navy Gateway Inns & Suites ($84 a night, with a kitchenette). We were the only PAX on the flight, and the crew invited us to sit in the cockpit for takeoff and landing.

It was dark when we deplaned, but NAVSTA Rota is very walkable and I had a map of the base. We walked to our lodging and checked in before venturing back out to the shoppette on the base to buy something for dinner. (In Spain, retirees are allowed to use only the shoppette and the Runway Café, a    24-hour restaurant in the terminal building. On weekends and U.S. holidays they also can use the galley.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

We slept in and walked to the galley for Sunday brunch at 1100. For $6, it included an astonishing array of food, starting with a three-egg omelet cooked to order. Then we walked to the terminal. There was nothing scheduled for Norfolk, but there was a C-17 headed for Dover AFB with an early evening show time. We toured the base on foot—it’s a long hike to the ship piers, but we needed to walk off our brunch.
We packed and paid our bill at the Navy Gateway Inns & Suites, telling them we might be back to spend the rest of the night there. Along with two other Space-A travelers, we marked ourselves present for the Dover flight, but its show time was delayed again and again, and the crew finally decided to remain overnight, taking no passengers the next day. However, there was a second flight to Dover, with a show time of 0520. We walked back to the hotel, reclaimed our room, and set our alarm clock.

Monday, January 25, 2016

By now we were old hands at making the trek across the base to the terminal. The plane took all four PAX. We had breakfast at the terminal, called Dover for one night’s lodging as a contingency, and learned of a flight from Dover to Norfolk, with a show time 1000. If everything went smoothly, we might just make it.

Nothing ever goes that smoothly. Takeoff was delayed while we waited for a fuel truck. Once airborne, we encountered turbulence and were re-routed to avoid it. When we finally landed at Dover, it seemed to take forever to clear customs and immigration. We sprinted to the AMC passenger service counter, arriving there at 1049. I told the agent we wanted to be marked present for the Norfolk flight that was currently loading. He told me the flight was closed. I asked about other flights to Norfolk later in the week. There was nothing on the schedule.

I must have looked crestfallen, because the agent, on his own initiative, reached for a telephone and dialed. In the conversation that followed I thought I heard the words “still get them on board?” I did! Somehow the flight was opened up, our bags were checked, and we just had time to cancel our Dover lodging before boarding. We were the only PAX on the 45-minute flight.

The passenger service agent at Dover was exceptional, but I should point out that all the active-duty military people we encountered on our travels were courteous, helpful and professional.

Back on the ground at Norfolk, we waltzed through the terminal to our car and set off for home. The major highways had been cleared of snow, and by the time we reached home most of the snow in our long, steep driveway had melted.

It was the perfect Space-A trip (well, almost), and it reaffirmed our faith in America’s active-duty military. They’re the best!

Story By:
CAPT John Slater, USNR, (Ret.) & and Gracia Slater
Webster, NC
johnandgracia@gmail.com

Reprint from May–June 2016 • Volume 46, No. 3