The Five Best Day Trips from Seville

Something happens to me every weekend – the push-pull of relaxing in a city I love exploring against the need to grab my car and drive until I’ve found somewhere new. Using Seville as a base to discover Andalucía, Portugal and even other regions of Spain was easy because of a top-notch transportation, and having a car means extra flexibility. And most don’t require an overnight trip.

My guests have been multiplying over the last few years, and once they’ve gotten on my nerves enough, I tend to send them outside of the old city walls via bus or train and to another city. Or, we hop in Pequeño Monty and set off, sometimes without much of a plan.


I’ve left off a lot of favorites like Granada, where you should spend at least the night, and the famous white villages because they’re best reached by car. But within two hours of Seville are ruins, gastronomic highlights and enough surprises to make my visitors come back and see more of Spain.

Carmona (Sevilla) 

I will be the first to admit that the other pueblos in the province can’t hold a candle to the regional capital, but Carmona comes pretty darn close. It’s a smaller scale version of Seville, complete with an intact wall encircling a jaw-dropping old town and winding, cobblestone streets. It’s kind of like the Santa Cruz without all of the signs advertising the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus and peddling polyester flamenco dresses.

Carmona has traces of Roman, Moorish and Carthinigan rule in its large historic complex, and during its heyday, it produced enough food to feed the army thanks to its location on the Roman road and near the Guadalquivir River. Today it’s a bit sleepy, but a pueblo perfect for a Sunday trip.

the village of Carmona Spain

the streets of Carmona Spain

Carmona Spain from the watchtower of the Clarisa Nuns Convent

Read more: Carmona, the Perfect Day Trip from Seville

Get there: If you don’t have a car, hop on the M-124 bus from the San Bernardo train station. The trip will take you close to an hour but leave you right in Plaza del Estatuto, home to a number of old man bars and the Giralda’s kid sister. Tickets are 5,60€ round-trip.

See / Sip / Chow: Stop through the Necrópolis on the west side of town. For a small fee (or free if you’re an EU member, you can see excavations taking place on one of the best preserved Roman funerary ruins.

Roman Ruins in Carmona

Once you’re hungry, L’Antiqua, an abacería just inside the city walls, serves Andalusian fare and especially good stews, called guisos. Wash it all down with a local Los Hermanos anisette and a torta inglesa, a typical sweet cake made with almonds. Locals consider Las Delicias (Chamorro, 12) to have the best cakes in the city.

Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz) 

I’ve long been privy to the charm of Jerez (pronounced hey-RAY by locals). The stunning churches and majestic Andalusian horses had little to aportar once I’d tried the city’s most famous resident, Tío Pepe. The school I worked for as an auxiliar de conversación took a teacher’s outing by train to the González Byass wineries for a sherry tasting, and that brand would be served at my wedding seven years later.

Apart from its star export, Jerez claims Andalusian stallions and flamenco culture as its own, leaning this small city packs a lot of salero punch. Like Carmona, it’s got a lot in common with Seville – the tapas bars, the guitar-filled patios and the whitewashed houses, but it seems a little more willing to rebel. Seville is stuck firmly in the past in many senses, where as Jerez can’t wait to be on the wave of the future.

Feria de Jerez

caracoles in jerez

real escuela ecuestre jerez

Read more: Tasting Jerez de la Frontera

Get there: Jerez is just one hour south of Seville on the media distance train that ends in Cádiz. From the station, the sites and city center is a short stroll. Tickets start at 16€ one-way, though buying round-trip will knock 30% off the price.

See / Sip / Chow: Like Córdoba, May means a month of hedony when the Feria del Caballo rolls into town. But the fair isn’t members-only like Seville’s, and it’s got a decidedly more international feel. And if you like horses, don’t miss a show at the Real Escuela Ecuestre de Jerez (if you’ve got a carnet jóven, you get a mad discount!), and flamenco fans will revel in its festival each February.

Sampling sherry in Jerez de la Frontera

If you’re wary of sherry, a Pepe Limón spritzer – half lemon juice, half sherry –  will cool you down just before you dive into tapas. Hopping from tabanco to tobanco, or old man tapas joints, are a beloved tradition in Jerez.

Mérida (Badajoz)

I am a complete convert to seldom explored Extremadura, a place said to have hardened the New World conquerers and one that brought riches back to Spain. Imagine vineyards and olive orchards that stretch for miles under an empty sky, local cuisine punctuated by hearty wines and game animals, and traces of the grandiose Roman and New World cultures.

Though not the de facto capital, Mérida is the largest city in Extremadura and an easy two-hour drive north of Seville – it’s actually closer than Granada! The Roman ruins of the Aqueducto de los Milagros, the Roman Theatre and Temple of Diana are the show stoppers from Emerita Augusta, and the recently renovated National Museum of Roman Ruins is a treat.

And if you need a break on the return trip, nearby Zafra is quaint, full of plazas, and has nunneries peddling cookies. You know, for merienda on your way back south.

Merida Spain amptheatre

Merida Spain

Read more: A Guide to Archaeological Sites in Spain

Get there: A private bus is your fastest option at just over two hours. The ALSA line leaves from Plaa de Armas a few times each day for just 14€ one-way. If you’re on premium bus, ask for the wi-fi code and a free coffee, and bring headphones for the movie.

Bocaito de Berenjena Tapa at Meson Sabika

See / Sip / Chow: You should spend at least a day in the ruins, which dot the city. If you’re into classical theatre, the city hosts an international festival in the Roman Theatre mid Summer. I recommend trying migas, an earthy bread dish popular in the region, and pub hopping on Calle John Lennon with university students.

Ronda (Málaga)

The jewel of the whitewashed villages of Andalucía is undoubtedly Ronda. A jaw-dropping gorge, vistas of a lush countryside and quaint homes characterize this town, which is perfect for strolling, eating and… little else. There’s barely enough to stretch your trip into a long weekend, making Ronda a great place for just a day.

Depsite this, the town has a long, fabled history stretching from the early Celts to modern-day Facists. In fact, the town’s most famous fan was Hemingway, who was rumored to have modeled events in For Whom the Bell Tolls off of executions, and who wrote fondly of modern bullfighting, which was fashioned in Ronda.

puente nuevo ronda

walking around Ronda

Ronda countryside

Read more: Visiting Ronda: A Photo Post

Get there: The only way to Ronda is by bus, unless you have a car. Count on winding roads on the two-hour trip, which is operated by Grupo Samar out of Prado de San Sebastián – just look for the green and yellow coach buses. Expect to pay 22-30€ round-trip.

jamon y queso

See / Sip / Chow: I’ve never done the hike to the bottom of the gorge that merited the Puente Nuevo, but it looks incredible. Bring sturdy shoes and water, and then hike up for a drink with a view at the Parador, a converted hotel that’s owned and operated by the Spanish government.

Córdoba (Córdoba)

What really sold me on Spain was on the inside cover of my first Spanish book, Paso a Paso 1. At the tender age of 13, I was upset with my mom for forcing me to study Spanish instead of French, but the plaster of the graceful horseshoe arches in Córdoba’s mosque lit up my face faster than Bastille Day fireworks.

Southern Spain had my heart long before studying abroad, a decade before making my home in Seville and half a dozen boyfriends before meeting my Spanish stallion, and it all started with Córdoba. The flower-filled patios, the yummy salmorejo and the dream-like Spain of your imagination can all be found here, plus a spring full of festivals and its own gastronomic heritage (I may love snails, but the cordobeses take their affection to the next level come springtime). 

cordoba guadalquivir river

horseshoe arches of cordoba mosque

calleja de las flores córdoba

What’s most striking about Córdoba is its juxtaposition of Andalusian and Moorish culture. While you can’t have one without the other due to the Arabic rule over Spain for more than seven centuries, Córdoba was once the political and intellectual capital of the Al-Andalus caliphate. Apart from art and architecture, language and tradition outlasted the califas, and the Jewish and Christian occupations that followed have left its mark on a city made for wandering.

Read more: Technicolor Córdoba

Get there: The AVE high-speed train is the fastest way to get to Córdoba, and the train station is a 10-minute walk from the city center. Trains leave practically every hour and pass through the Caliphate city on their way to Madrid. The trip will take about 45 minutes and cost about 30€ return (grab the media distancia, a slower train, for 10€ cheaper!)

salmorejo in córdoba

See / Sip / Chow: Springtime is especially magical in Córdoba. From flowers dripping down walls to a raucous Feria to loads of street drinking, try to make May the month you travel here. Don’t forget to try the star dishes of salmorejo and flamenquín, a pork loin rolled in ham and cheese before meeting the deep fryer. My cordobesa friend has spoken loads about the new gourmet market, Mercado de la Victoria, which is located halfway between the train station and the historic center.

This post was brought to you by Monster.Travel. If you’re looking for package travel to destinations around Spain, get more information at Monster.Travel.

Where do you go to get away from the city (I know, I know: I skipped the Sierra, Arcos, the beaches and even Granada!)? Know any hidden spots in these cities?

Confession: I’m Nervous to Travel After the Paris Terror Attacks

After a late night trip to the bathroom, my hand fumbled across the nightstand looking for my watch. As my fingers crawled over a pack of Kleenex and the smooth, cold case of my laptop. I found my phone first, lit up with notifications from Instagram and Facebook.

There was one whatsapp from my mother:

“did u c travel alert? <3″

Being halfway across the world, my daily news intake usually comes as I’m eating lunch in Spain. I get the highlights from Facebook when I wake up – from sports to mass shootings to birth announcements – but often find that I’m behind when it comes to the heavy-hitting stuff back home because of the time difference. As 5pm news programs are rolling the opening credits, I’m typically sleeping. As the BBC reported that the US had issued a worldwide travel advisory, I had long since been asleep.


When Paris nightclubs and restaurants were under attack on November 13th, 2015, I was dozing on the couch after dinner. The following morning, my entire newsfeed was burping up messages of disgust and horror and changing their profile pictures to shots of them at the Eiffel Tower during college study abroad

I studied journalism and have a piqued interest in developing news stories. Settling in that Saturday morning with a mug of tea and my laptop, the news stayed switched on for hours as I read hard and soft news related to the incident, including this haunting HuffPo piece on European mothers of ISIS.

But it took some time for it to sink in: I am a person living in Europe. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target for terror. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target who is traveling to city with known, active terror cells in three weeks.

The Colors of India - Lonely Planet Guidebook

Ten years ago, I was studying abroad in Valladolid when bombs rocked the London underground. A friend and I were in Barcelona long before travelers had smartphones or tablets, unable to reach our family but blissfully unaware of any real danger (meanwhile, our parents were manically trying to track us down). And Spain, at that time, was no stranger to terror – there were mass casualties the year before on the Cercanías commuter lines in Madrid. Our parents, once they finally reached us at a seedy hotel in El Raval, pleaded us to walk instead of ride the subway, and we did so with cans of San Miguel in our hands. Blissfully unaware of any danger.

Nothing hit home as closely as Paris has – not 9/11, not European terror, not the war in Iraq – at age 30. 

When I was a kid, I was fearless – riding my bike at top speed down hills, attempting dangerous gymnastics tricks, convinced I was made of rubber. As I’ve gotten older, however, fear creeps into my head every now and again (and I sincerely blame driver’s ed for this). I say a silent prayer to the Virgin of Loretto when a flight taxis and raises its nose into the sky, and I am constantly nervous for the Novio in his high-risk job. Anxiety nags at me, low in my stomach, whenever I sense that something could do horribly wrong.

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

But I have yet to let fear foil any plans, be it travel or otherwise. While my family wasn’t thrilled about me traveling to India with another female companion, I looked at it as an adventure, a “level up” sort of accomplishment as a traveler. Europe was child’s play to someone who had to have more passport pages affixed after six years of living abroad, and after getting stranded in Romania on NYE and traipsing through rural Morocco, I was in for a challenge anyway.

And India was rewarding on so many levels. I decided to travel less, but to more far-flung places before settling down with a family. But thanks to a new house and a wedding, I’ve been grounded and holed up in Spain. 

Choosing a solo trip to Copenhagen over a long weekend was something I considered being on the right airline website with the right amount of airline miles. It seemed like it’s been ages since I went anywhere outside of the US or Spain, and my feet were seriously itchy to use a free flight on Vueling. Málaga to Copenhagen and back cost me less than three nights at a hostel in the center of the Danish capital, so flights were booked without batting an eye in mid-September, along with a flight to Sicily

On my second solo trip to Croatia

On my second solo trip to Croatia

Life next year is still unpredictable between work and possible relocation. But as I saw it, it would perhaps be the last solo trip I took for a long time.

Following the Paris attacks, I didn’t think Denmark, often dubbed ‘Happiest Nation in the World,’ posed much of a threat. Still I located the American Embassy, copying down contact information into my phone and my notebook to be on the safe side, and I asked the Consular Agent here in Seville if he’d heard of any threats in Denmark. Negative. I went back to finding low-cost activities and places to try reindeer meat and proudly announced I’d take the train to nearby Mälmo, Sweden and find an IKEA.

As a week turned into 10 days, news that threats in Brussels had shut down the city’s museums and public transportation didn’t rattle me. But waking up at 4:32am to a travel alert issued by the US took me aback. Yes, it’s vague and doesn’t pinpoint any cities or countries or even news of a rumored attack, so why was I suddenly reconsidering a trip? Is it silly of me to worry that a Christmas market could end up as a target? Or that many ISIS sympathizers have been raised in Denmark? Am I safer in Spain than in the US or in Copenhagen?

I began reading an English language newspaper straight out of Copenhagen, The Local. Like it’s counterpart in Spain, news relevant to expat and travelers spatters across the pages and, buried under news about footballers and an imminent cold front, there were a few isolated articles related to terror, and only one spoke of an incident. It seems the happiest people on Earth are more about accepting potential radicals and using a soft method to wean them off of their jihad-fueled conviction.

So, I’ll go.

I’ll admit that I’m nervous, the same way I sometimes get nervous in Chicago because of gun violence. I feel safe in Seville, but who’s to say that something couldn’t happen here? Or who’s to say that I won’t be the victim of a gun crime in America? Or fall out of bed tomorrow and hit my head on the same nightstand where my phone had been blitzkrieged with safety messages 24 hours earlier?

We live in weird times, and I’m more convinced that just about every country, race and religion is having an identity crisis.  

My brand-new passport has 52 free pages in it. When I woke up at 4:52am, I couldn’t fall back asleep and began punching out this post, perhaps as a way to sort through my feelings. Six hours later, I am 98% sure I’ll be on a plane come December, albeit with the anxiety rumbling low in my stomach. Could just be my stomach asking for reindeer meat and a Carlsberg, though.

American travelers seriously concerned about threats should copy down information about their home country’s consulate or embassy abroad and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program with the US Department of State. While it’s certainly important to be aware of where you’re headed and what the risks are, only you can ultimately decide whether or not you go. And I’m in the former camp – go, but proceed with caution.

In the midst of global terror attacks, are you still planning to travel, or stay home? Am I silly for feeling nerves?

Five Things You Should Know About Málaga

Eight years ago, I welcomed my parents to Spain for the first time. They arrived to Málaga via bus after several cancelled flights and a mad scramble to get them from Heathrow to Andalucía before Christmas Eve. Once they finally arrived, jet lagged, smelly and not amused with my cry of ‘Bienvenidos a España!’ we grabbed our rental car and beelined out of the Costa del Sol’s capital and didn’t return.

We missed out on the opportunity to explore what is becoming a cultural capital and a city that embodies cool, and I have yet to really get to know more than Málaga’s airport.


Paolo Trabattoni via Creative Commons

Many visitors to the golden shores of Spain’s Costa del Sol choose to bypass Málaga in favor of the nearby beach resorts. It’s a shame – this vibrant city offers a great selection of cultural sights and historic gems, plus great dining options, all on the Mediterranean Coast. If you’re visiting for the first time, you may be surprised by these five facts about one of Spain’s up-and-coming cities.

Picasso’s Mark on the City

Arguably the most influential artist of the twentieth century, Picasso remains one of Malaga’s most renowned citizens. Nestled in the heart of the city’s historic center, visitors can explore the artist’s birthplace and family home during his formative years.

An exhibition displays artifacts from his childhood and personal mementos from his family. From here, art fanatics can visit the Picasso Museum located in the 16th century, Buenavista Palace. Showcasing over two hundred and thirty pieces, it’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity to marvel at some of Picasso’s best works. Plus, it’s just a stumble from great tapas joints (and we stayed at an awesome AirBnB nearby for my despedida de soltera!).

Feria de Málaga

I mean, it’s no Feria de Sevilla, but Málaga’s beachside feria is allegedly just as much fun (and without all of the pomp). The annual fair takes place in August and was established to commemorate the Catholic reconquest of the city in 1487. The weeklong celebration is the time to enjoy authentic Andalusian cuisine, marvel at the trajes de gitanas and take part in a sevillanas dance if you’re fueled by rebujito.

La Feria en Crisis

And it’s ok to go in street clothes – this fair is far more low-key than Seville’s, so you don’t have to put on the airs or sneak your way in to a private tent.

Antonio Banderas and his Devotion

Picasso isn’t the only famous malagueño: another notable native is Hollywood A-lister, Antonio Banderas. Born in 1960, the famous actor began his studies at the College of Dramatic Art in Malaga. Although he no longer resides in Spain, Banderas does return every year to celebrate the Holy Week festivities.

Taking place from Palm Sunday through to Easter Sunday, Banderas joins in several of the processions as a costalero, or a brother charged with carrying the heavy floats through the streets of the city.

Biznagas Malagueñas

Spend a short time in Malaga and you’re sure to come across the handcrafted flowers, Biznagas Malagueñas. Traditional to the region, these are often sold by street vendors, known as biznagueros who are often dressed in an outfit comprising of a white shirt and red waistband.

The floral creations are famed for their sweet smelling scent, usually made with a combination of dried thistle and freshly picked jasmine. Many people are unaware that they have a secondary purpose – they’re also said to repel mosquitoes.

An endless summer

It may come as no surprise that the capital of Spain’s Costa Del Sol receives some of the best weather in Europe, and that it’s not limited to the summer months. With roughly 300 days of sunshine every year, this destination is perfect for a sun worshiper’s fall getaway. The winter also stays pleasantly warm with very few days of rain and highs reaching an impressive 20 °C. The vitamin C alone is worth it.


Laura Flores used under the Creative Commons

With so many affordable flights to Malaga, there’s never been a better time to explore this beautiful city. From the winding streets and traditional tapas restaurants,  lively nightlife and 

Read more about Málaga: Cooking in the Malagueño Countryside // Ronda, the White Village Capital // Walking the Caminito del Rey near Málaga // Málaga’s El Tintero Restaurant


I need a weekend escape to Málaga – what should I see, do and eat?

When Living Abroad Starts Feeling Like Living in America

I could have easily been in a neighborhood pub back home in Chicago. Armed with two guiri friends and a stomach that hadn’t eaten all day, I ordered a cheeseburger meal, piled on the ketchup and sat down on a couch, directly under drapes of spider webs. It was Halloween, and one my friends mentioned that – gasp! – another American friend of ours had had trick-or-treaters the night before in her pueblo.

De verdad? Since when does the oh-so-racio Seville feel just like America?


Slowly, Americana has been permeating into a city as Spanish as the tortilla. At first, I embraced the introduction of peanut butter onto supermarket shelves (and willingly forked over 7€ for it) and made special trips to Madrid for international cuisine. Eight years on, I’m feeling like I’m in a parallel universe sometimes as craft beer, Netflix and my favorite holiday are becoming mainstream, albeit jabbered on about in Spanish.

I’ve long been the guiri who drags her heels when it comes to embracing my culture while living in another. I famously chastised my friends for shopping at the American food store and have yet to set foot in Costco. I do not regularly catch baseball or American football games in bars, nor could I tell you the best place to watch one. Yes, I cook Thanksgiving for my in-laws with American products and dress up for Halloween, but those moments were always reserved for special parties with my compatriots. What I love about living in Spain really boils down to the fact that I love living in Spain.

Cue the hate comments: I didn’t really sign up for an American life when I moved to Seville. And in all fairness, I’m letting it happen.

Spanish potato omelette

The line between life abroad and life as I knew it before 22 is blurrier than ever. I conduct a large part of my day in English, have English-speaking friends and watch TV in English. I just picked up a Spanish book for the first time in three years. I consume news in English via my smartphone and had to recently ask the Novio the name of the new mayor in town. 

I knew I needed to make a change when the Novio suggested we get Netflix as a wedding present to ourselves. Wait, you mean I can watch a show on a big screen with no need to let the show buffer for ten minutes? And in my native language? The fun of the TDT system, which allowed shows to be aired in their original language instead of dubbing. Ni de coña – I will binge watch my American television shows on my laptop. Wouldn’t that 8€ a month be better spent on something else?

While Spain is definitely not America when it comes to lines at the bank, reliable service or a way around 902 toll numbers, I find my adult life becoming more on par with that which my friends are living in the US. I got more than a fair dosage of Americanism this year, spending more than four months of fifteen in the US. Going home is a treat – Target, Portillo’s and endless hours of snuggling with our family dog – but it’s lost a lot of its sheen now that Seville has Americanized itself, be it for tourists or for sevillanos

But at what price? Gone are the decades-old ultramarinos that once peddled canned goods – they’ve made way for trendy bars and clothing chains. While I admit that the Setas – a harsh contrast from the turn-of-the-century buildings that ring Plaza de la Encarnación – have grown on me, they caused a lot of backlash and an entire neighborhood to address itself. Do I really need a fancy coffee bar to do work at, or a gym with the latest in training classes?

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

As my world becomes more globalized, I find myself seeking the Spain I fell in love with when I studied abroad in Valladolid and the Seville that existed in 2007. We’re talking pre-Crisis, pre-smartphones and pre-instagram filters, and one where a Frapuccino every now and then helped me combat my homesickness. The Spain that was challenging, new and often frustrating. The Spain in which I relished long siestas, late nights and a voracious desire to learn new slang and new rincones of a new place.

But… how do I get back there? The Sevilla I discovered at age 22 is barely recognizable. Do I love it? Do I deal with it? I mostly stick around Triana, which stills feels as barrio and as authentic as it did when I took up residence on Calle Numancia in 2007.

This sort of rant seems to be a November thing, when rain has me cooped up outside instead of indulging in day drinking and mentally preparing myself to de-feather and de-gut a turkey. Maybe I’m in a slump. Maybe I’m comfortable. Maybe I’m lazy. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Spain doesn’t present the same day-to-day victories as it once did. 

One thing I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to jumping back into the Spanish manera de ser once the Novio arrives back home this week. I can’t wait to head to San Nicolás, sans computer, and search for castañas, to sleep without an alarm and to remember why and how Spain became mi cosa.

Do you ever feel like you’re no longer living abroad? Any pointers to get me back on track?

The Truth About Traveling in Sicily

“This is the part of Catania I wanted you to see,” the Novio cooed as we passed a fifth consecutive butcher windows displaying carne di equino. To be fair, I’d seen little else than the local airport, a roadside bar and enough near-traffic accidents to turn me off from getting into a car in Sicily. And now, before we’d hit the beautiful Piazza del Duomo or even had a slice of pizza, my husband had brought me to the back streets of the immigrant section of Siciliy’s second city. It was not what I had anticipated on a weekend I let him have complete control over.

Italy has never been to foreign a concept to me – my mom studied in Rome in the late 70s and brought her love for the Eternal City back to Chicago by way of spaghetti and meatballs and an addiction to ice cream. But traveling in Sicily is not for the novice traveler or faint of heart. I felt exhilarated as many times as frustrated and that it was equally the most beautiful place on earth and a dump. But overall that I’d barely scratched the surface (and one cannoli in three days is simply not acceptable).

The Truth AboutTraveling in Sicily

Sicily is like every place you’ve been, and nowhere you’ve ever been

I was unimpressed with Sicily at first glance. The chevron shaped island didn’t have any destinations I could recall outside of Palermo, and the little research I’d done online left me with only a few places jotted down on the inside of a book cover. I was willing to let the Novio recreate Driving Miss Wifey and usher me around.

After a harrowing ride into the heart of Catania, we parked nearly two kilometers from the attractions. The Novio led me down darkened alleyways that reeked of garbage and urine until we’d reached Via Plebiscito. Catania was shabby, with lopsided houses teetering amongst overgrown bushes and converted car parks. We saw no one until we’d reached the main drag, which, at nearly 8pm on a Friday night, was buzzing with commercial activity. 

Catania street scenes

To me, this slice of the city felt like the roadside markets of Jaipur, with butchers and barbers sharing sidewalk space. Vespas weaved in and out of the sidewalk displays of plastic toys and ripe vegetables. Shopkeepers yelled at one another across the busy street. It was as much Jaipur as it was Istanbul, feeling familiar for a city I’d only begun to know. 

And Catania continued to surprise me – its city piazzas had me reminiscing about its northern counterparts. Its shopping streets might as well have been Madrid or Paris. The pizza we ate as good as I remember it in Naples, fifteen summers earlier.

streets of Catania, Italy

The following day, as we drove to Siracusa and Agrigento, the landscapes changed dramatically, from neat olive groves that neatly backed up to rolling hills – just like in Andalucía – to towering hills crowned with castles. Sicily could have been Tuscany or it could have been the Côte d’Azure. It could have been the Greek countryside. It could have been Northern Africa. 

Yet at the time, Sicily was unlike any of these places as far as flavor and flair. The natives we came across were jovial, and we were never scammed or overcharged. I could barely find a place to buy a postcard. Maps are unreliable, and I found one person that spoke enough English for me to ask and be answered. Sicily is a little more “off the beaten path” than you’d expect, especially once you’re out of the ports of call.

Sicily felt worlds away from the Italy I’d gotten to know in three previous trips, anchored to the boot by little else than the common language and the pizza. It’s like the underbrush, or the boonies, as far as Italy is concerned. And for as backwards as it seemed, the way Sicilians live all made sense.

Let’s just say that when boarding my plane on Sunday, I didn’t feel ready to go.

Driving is like dangling your mortality right in front of the devil

I was clued into the manic driving practices in Italy when I was 15 and was nearly taken out by a moped in Naples. Half a lifetime later, as we pulled out of the Fontanarossa Airport, I said a small prayer to Saint Christopher.


If you’re in a roundabout, be prepared to stop. Don’t trust stoplights. Park where you feel like. Most highways are not lit at night. And Exit ramps are perfectly acceptable places to drive up when you’re not exiting the highway. 

Our Saturday plan was to wake up early and check out the catacombs in Syracuse, the Greek temples in Agrigento and the preserved mosaics in Piazza Amerina. Syracuse was easy enough to reach, but we’d have to return to Catania to reach Agrigento. After an hour on the A-19 that snakes between Catania and Palermo, we turned off just after Enna. As it turned out, the entire section between the motorway and the city famous for its Valle di Templi is under construction – we were driving behind trucks on gravel highways, making it nearly impossible to pass. 

Three hours after leaving Syracuse and air braking until my ankles were sore, we finally arrived, though we’d have to scratch the Villa Romana del Casale off the itinerary. 

Exploring Siracusa Sicily

That said, renting a car is far more reliable than the bus system, and there are few trains that operate between the major sites. I had worked up enough courage to take the car to Piazza Amerina. I got the feeling that the car was made of cheap plastic as it rattled and hummed to life. I immediately stalled. And stalled a second time, vowing to obey speed limits and turn around if necessary.

We had looked in earnest for a gas station when driving back from Agrigento, and let me warn you – Italian highways are not the places to run out of gas. Though I had one-third of a tank when leaving Catania, within 50 kilometers, there were no bars left, only a piercing beep every ten seconds.

Syracuse Italy

Like getting stranded in Romania, I was glad to not be a novice traveler. I remembered seeing a service station the day before, just past the turn off for Piazza Amerina. I was nearly confident that I could make it the 12 kilometers, but my heart was racing. I had bought data, so I could Skype the rental car company and try to speak to them in Spanish. The Novio was working until noon, four hours from that moment. I had a credit card to pay a towing company.

I watched the miles tick down to the service station, pulling up to a self-service station. “CHIN-QWEN-TI…espera,” I spit out, cramming my hand into my pocket and looking for a scrap of paper with the word for unleaded gas, “BENZINI.”

“Benzina,” the attendant corrected as another washed my windshield. Whatever.  

fusball table

I grew more confident in the car, taking turns past Pergusa with more speed, eventually arriving to the Villa Romana del Casale, my third UNESCO World Heritage site of the weekend. I’d long given up the use of the Italian GPS and instead used my phone’s. After an hour traipsing around 2500-year-old mosaics, I jumped back in my car, set to avoid the steep climb through postcard-esque Amerina.

I was again taken through dirt roads to reach the highway, convinced the plastic car would fall apart around me, cartoon style. I won’t even get into the thrill ride that was the trip to Acitrezza that afternoon – my eyes were transfixed on the GPS! 

The colors are more vibrant than you’d imagine

I was still in a haze from an overnight trip and two planes when I touched down at Fontanarossa Airport, and Mount Etna was veiled in its own smoke. After a nap, I gasped at how regal the volcano was, midnight blue against a clear day with smoke curling out of the top.

Sicily and Italian flags

Sicily has some serious bragging rights when it comes to the rich colors of its landscape. My book stayed packed in my purse as we drove through low-hanging vineyards and climbed steep mountains will houses and church spires dripping down and rolling towards the Mediterranean. This place is seriously jaw-dropping. The smoky ombre of ancient buildings, the dusty green of cyprus trees, and turquoise blue of the ever-present sea.

The outskirts of Syracuse, known as Siracusa locally, are nothing exciting, but its city center is spectacular. Once the center of commerce on the Ionian Sea, the city has 2,700 years of history and was one of the few places we saw Anglo tourists. Think cobbled alleyways, massive fountains and a spotless marble Duomo. 

Duomo de Siracusa

center of Syracuse, Italy

Valle dei Templi, which we arrived at just after 4pm, shone in the waning light.

Greek temple in Sicily

Valle dei Templi Argigento

And Acitrezza, a small beach neighborhood with port side osterias and craggy black rocks, enchanting.

port of acitrezza

I only wish we could have has a panini or arancini with these views!

Sometimes, you have to make your own plan

I’d been warned that Sicily was kind of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure type of place. Reliability was not necessarily something to be expected, and that frustrations were rampant. Because I hadn’t done the planning, I was ready to roll with the punches.

mosaics at Villa Casale Romana

Food was the first – I’d been on an overnight trip, and my cheese bocadillo was a thing of the pat by the time I hit Fiumicino and chowed down a croissant and a macchiato. The Novio had been raving about a pizza place across from the first hotel he’d stayed at, but the place was shuttered for the winter season. It was either loading up on pastries, or eating at a hit-or-miss restaurant down the road.

We went with the latter, and it was a hit. Five tables were crammed into what looked like the family’s living room, and there was no menu. We had four pieces of bruschetta placed in front of us as soon as we’d sat down, plus a plate of pasta piled high with clams, shrimp and fresh parsley, followed by a plate heaped with fried fish. I fell into a coma-like nap later, and it would be the first in a series of small victories that were almost immediately followed by a travel mishap.

Typical Sicilian Fare

The most notable: when we finally made it to the Valle dei Templi after several wrong turns, dirt highways and slow-moving vehicles (and maybe a few near accidents), I was over seeing Greek temples – that’s why I’d gone to Athens. At the foot of a ridge lined with cyprus trees, the columns of the Temple of Heracles pierce the sky, so we drove up the road adjacent to them.

“No, no, you must to pay parking at the next road,” a souvenir stand attendant said. There were bus loads of cruise guests and a very exasperated Novio. Looking at his watch, he announced that we’d never make it to Piazza Amerina before it closed, but that he didn’t care to pay the entrance fee for the temples. I suggested the castle at Enna, but he flashed his teeth and grabbed my hand.

Valle dei Templi walking paths

Construction signs blocked a walking path that would have otherwise been open. I devised a “play dumb” plan should we get caught, but after around 300 metros, the path led to the Temple of Concordia. We spent over an hour walking around the seven temples and the ruins of Olympeion Field, snickering to ourselves when passing guards and other tourists. 

Sicily wanted to play hardball with us, so we threw them a curveball and did things according to our terms.

Valle dei Templi Sicily

We got the payback the following day: first with my no gasoline coasting, and then in Acitrezza when we couldn’t find a place to eat, much less have a beer with a view. We ended up at a self-service bar with overcooked pasta. You win, Sicily.

Much like the south of Spain, Southern Italy is its own place. It’s more rugged, more of a challenge. But it’s delicious and sensual and downright different to most of the other places tourists flock to. I’d love to make a trip back – if only because I didn’t get to eat nearly enough.

Have you ever been to Sicily? What did you like about it? Check out my Bobby Pin map of the places I saw (and where I ate) in Western Sicily for more!

Waking up in Vegas: Five Things to Do that Aren’t Clubbing or Gambling

I have friends who swear by visiting Vegas once a year (I’m from Chicago – who could blame us when winter descends?). When my family went for a second time during Christmas a few years ago, we did it the right way: we camped out at the Flamingo and everyone was over 21, a far cry from a Motel 6 overnight where we had to stay at least 10 feet away from the slot machines. On our way to Mammoth Lakes to ski, we missed our chance to see the attractions in Las Vegas.

Five Things to Do

Our Vegas sojourn was brief – just two nights sandwiched between the Grand Canyon and a trip to see my snowbird grandparents – and included a night of pure hedonism with my sister and our boyfriends. A hazy gambling session at the Imperial Palace. Hitting the jackpot on a slot machine and winning $640.50 (which I put towards purchasing Camarón).  A round of Jägerbombs. Feeling less than splendid the following day when we explored the non-gaming attractions.

Vegas may be an adult playground, but there is far more to do than you think – and these attractions won’t break the bank.

Visit the Hoover Dam

I was not feeling my best when we took an hour-long trip down Route 93 back towards Arizona to see the Hoover Dam. A feat of engineering that lead to Las Vegas’s incorporation, construction on the hydroelectric dam – then called the Boulder Dam – began in 1930. I was hungover and grumpy, and I didn’t feel much like looking at a bunch of stone for a morning.

Hoover Damn

But the Hoover Damn wowed me. From the Art Deco design to the sheer power of a structure built nearly a century ago, it was worth the trip. The Hoover Dam can be visited every day but Christmas and Thanksgiving from 9am. Parking is $10 and tours run $15 for adults and $12 for seniors, children under 17 and military.

You can also get a glimpse simply by driving the 93 over the Hoover Bypass between Nevada and Arizona (cue the Fools Rush In screens stills).

Check Out Old Vegas

As a History Channel follower, my dad has always been fascinated by the history of Vegas, from a small town on a major railway just a century ago to the building of the Hoover Dam and its subsequent boom – did you know that the casinos and nightclubs catered to the predominately male contraction workers? Or that the Nevada state government legalized gambling as a way to turn profits? 

Old Vegas

Old Vegas, located on Fremont Street just east of the Strip, boasts some of the city’s first casinos, announced by vintage neon signs, and a little less hedonism than the more famous Las Vegas Boulevard. There are also less seedy street performers and cheaper buffets. If you do gamble here, payouts are more frequent than the other big-name resorts.

Take in a Show

Entertainers have long set up shop in Vegas, from the Rat Pack to Celine Dion and Britney Spears. Casinos rake in big money by hosting Broadway shows, and while it’s not New York, Vegas is an awesome venue for catching a show.

New York New York Casino

Ever since working on my high school’s costume and makeup crew, coupled with a yearly tradition of seeing Broadway in Chicago with the women in my family, I’ve been fascinated with the Lion King Musical. I missed the opportunity to see it in Madrid, but my dad took us to see the smash musical at the famed Mandalay Bay Casino. And I cried (the Novio fell asleep).

Apart from the big money win, it was the highlight of our trip.

Chow Down at a Buffet

My one memory of a Vegas trip at age 15 (apart from my early-bird-gets-the-worm father arriving at 8am with a plastic cup full of quarters) was the dinner buffet we ate. My parents let us eat jelly beans out of ice cream dishes and as many chicken fingers as we could stomach before collapsing into a food coma at the Motel 6.

Vegas Buffets

Buffets have been around in Vegas for as long as its casinos. El Rancho Casino, the first resort built on the Strip, used its gourmet buffet as a way to defray costs, and because Las Vegas is home to a culinary revolution, and you can find everything from cutting-edge cuisine to fried chicken in buckets nowadays. We chose a hearty breakfast buffet at our resort before a long drive back to Arizona. It didn’t come cheap – we paid $45 per person – but as someone who misses weekly brunches, it was worth it. lists Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan as its top pick (as does a college friend who calls Vegas home), with Bacchanal (Caesar’s Palace) and Studio B (The M) as its other favorites. All three offer different types of cuisines, ample seating and unlimited helpings.

Pay Homage to the City Lights at the Neon Museum

In its short history, Vegas has shone brightly – and I don’t just mean the lights from its casinos. But many of the iconic resorts that lead to the city’s boom have since been bulldozed to make way for newer constructions, and nearly 150 signs have been restored and laid to rest in a Neon Boneyard at the Neon Museum. 

Neon Graveyard Vegas

Housed in the former lobby of La Concha Casino, the mandatory tour takes visitors to the Neon Boneyard and North Gallery and past signs from haunts of Vegas past. A guide narrates the tour, painting a picture of Old Vegas and how its legacy shaped the City of Sin today. 

If possible, nab entrances for a night tour. Tickets run $18 for adults.

Have you ever been to Vegas? What are your favorite things to do?

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