Monthly Archives: April 2017

Urban Adventures in Sicily – Palermo

Sicily, island crossroads between Italy and Africa since forever. You can drive or train the length of it in less than a day, and see cities, ancient artifacts, beaches, mountains and a large volcano. Driving (more of this in a later post) works well but if you pick your destinations the train and bus work very well. I review a route that covered the cities of Palermo, Siracusa, Modica and Trapani in a large train and bus loop. I later visited Catania, although that was to establish how it worked by car, which in fact was pretty well. Sicily’s main gateways are Palermo and Catania. I picked Palermo via Rome to get there.

Palermo is Sicily’s largest city with impressive medieval buildings reflecting Norman, Byzantine and Islamic influences. It has a vibrant street market life both for fast food and groceries.

Fried Snacks

Madonna, Child and Scooter at the Fruit Market

It’s a nice walking city with an extensive 19th century downtown.


The streets fill up in the early evening.

Palermo Cathedral was mostly started in 1185 by the Normans, who conquered Sicily in 1072, although there are plenty of add-ons, including the renaissance-era porch entrance. It was built over a previous Byzantine chapel and mosque, and verses from the Quran can still be found on the exterior.

The Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in the Palazzo Abatellis has interesting art, including the cheery Triumph of Death which has Guernica like overtones.

Virgin Annunciate, ~1476.

The Triumph of Death, c 1446.

Bust of a Gentlewoman, 15c.

Palermo can be run down in places, reflecting it’s hard past.

The Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni) has a brilliant example of Byzantine influence on the Norman invaders who built over the original Emir’s palace. The Palatine Chapel (Cappella Palatina) was built between the 1140s and 1170s, with elaborate mosaics and frescos.

Two 12th-century Norman-era co-Cathedrals overlook Plaza Bellini – on the left is the Martorana, or Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (St Mary of the Admiral) and the San Cataldo church with its distinctive red domes is on the right.

The interior of the Martorana has baroque added to a 12th-century Norman interior. I wished they’d left well alone. Puffy angels should not get in  the way of the seraphim IMHO.

For those of you that can deal with baroque, there is plenty of it. The Oratory of the Rosary of Saint Dominic (Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico), opened in the late 16th century but with the interior from the early 18th century, is worth a look.

The Church of Jesus (Chiesa del Gesu), opened  in 1636, is quite ornate. Again, if you like that kind of thing.

And not forgetting the occasional forgotten Fascist artifact, this appearing to be a memorial constructed in around 1935 with important proclamations from Benito Mussolini and WWI Italian General Diaz.


I stayed at the Palazzo Brunaccini hotel which was central to the medieval center, had large modern rooms and great breakfasts. It’s hard to eat badly in Palermo, these places are highly recommended:

Bisso Bistrot – modern take on Italian classics.

Trattoria ai Cascinari – outstanding traditional restaurant. I would go here if you had to pick just one.

Ferro di Cavallo – simple traditional menu, really well executed.

Italian and Sicilian microbrews are worth trying – Birra e Basta in the Borge Vecchio area north of the old city is a good place to do that.


Train Riding Sri Lanka’s Highlands

The train ride from Ella, in Sri Lanka’s highlands, to Colombo is worth taking as a great way to see the hill country. It’s a 9-hour train ride and a lot more comfortable than taking the bus. Most of the journey (about 6 hours) passes through the hill towns on the way to Kandy and then from Kandy back in Colombo is a further 3 hours.

The parks area around Nuwara Eliya (such as Horton Plains National Park) is on this route so you could put in another stop if you wanted. The views are spectacular, and Sri Lankan Railways is happy to leave the carriage doors open so you can take a clear shot.

Ella Railway Station and Dog

You can choose between an open-window 2nd Class or a more comfortable but slightly warm 1st Class with sealed windows. There are 4 daily trains from Ella to Colombo – the first at 6:39am works well, as you get morning light to see the mountains. I was able to book a seat on turning up an hour before at the station (reservations the afternoon before were no longer do-able, but there was plenty of space on the early departure).

Ella Railway Station Office

The hill country presents small communities surrounded by tea plantations and highland scenery. An early start catches the mist in the valleys before it burns off.

The tea plantations work into the contours of the hills around them.

There is plenty of untamed countryside along the way.

A quick stop in Kandy.

Some Sri Lankan railway history – the railways date from the 1860s onwards…

And back to Colombo.

The other thing I liked about the route was having originally started from Batticaloa on the east coast (, the options back to Colombo either involved very long bus journeys or just retracing my steps around the north of the highlands via Anuradhapura. Taking a bus from Batticaloa to Ella, and then this journey back to Colombo was a good way to split the distance and see the highlands as well.

Eastern Sri Lanka and a Trip to the Highlands

Bus to Trincomalee

I’ve always wanted to go to Trincomalee. It has a neat name, is far away from a lot of other places, and has been a port for thousands of years. From the Amanulawara Junction at Sigiriya in the Ancient Cities, the bus ride to Trinco was a relatively swift 2-hour journey.

Typical Highway Traffic with Buddha’s Oversight

I was greeted by a pair of deer lying on the lawn by the central market. Maybe it’s in the nature of a mostly Buddhist country to give them some leeway.

Downtown Deer, Trincomalee

Love the Comma.

Trinco is an old port town with one of the world’s finest natural harbors – it’s current incarnation was built by the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and then the British.

The 17th-century star-shaped fort that sits at the tip of the peninsular commanding the approaches was built by the Dutch. The British then occupied it, naming it Fort Frederick.

The Duke of Wellington stayed in the Fort, and allegedly an illness of fever and “Malabar Itch” prevented him sailing on a vessel later to be shipwrecked – or that may have been Chennai. Either way. The Sri Lankan Army now has a presence in the fort.


The Koneswaram Kovil Temple is located on an outcrop over the ocean and dates back to around 100 BC, Destroyed in the 17th century by the Portuguese, it was replaced in the 1950s.

The statue to Shiva dominates the entrance.

King Ravana and his 7-string veena by the sea still gets lots of small change.

Downtown Trinco is a pleasant, low-slung town that is flanked by ocean and lagoon side beaches. It was also as hot as blazes when I went, so much so that I failed to visit the naval museum inside what is Sri Lanka’s main naval base – it involves getting a permission and then an escorted tuktuk ride.

Sri Lanka hosts a diverse set of religions.

I stayed about 4 kilometers north of downtown Trinco in the Alles neighborhood, which has some good beachside hotels. It is also close to the Commonwealth Military Cemetery, where war graves from Commonwealth services in the WW2 and postwar period are still maintained. Colombo was never invaded by the Japanese, although Trinco was bombed, and the aircraft carrier Hermes was sunk in April 1942 off the city of Batticaloa in about 60m of water.

I stayed at the Anantanaa Hotel, which had great rooms, a nice layout, and a short walk to the beach. Fernando’s Beach Bar was a nice place to have a beer and watch the ocean, which was as warm as tea when I was there. From Trinco I took the bus to Batticaloa, about 4 hours south.


Batti is a smaller town without the tourism that the beaches of Trinco obtain, but with a lot of charm. The old town, and its attendant Dutch fort, sit inside a lagoon. The port was suitable for smaller vessels through the 19th century, but the 1924-era road bridge cut it off from anything other than small craft. There is a lively old town with a prominent mosque and trading area.

In Batticaloa I stayed at a couple of places – one the Avonlea Guesthouse which was a quiet set of rooms with a killer Sri Lankan breakfast courtesy of the knowledgeable and friendly Mr. Anthony, and the other was the Riviera Resort, a collection of cabanas facing the (crocodile filled) lagoon.

One thing the Riviera offered was a superb restaurant, and frankly the best South Asian meal I have ever put in my face – crab curry and cashew nut curry.

Batticaloa old town at Sunset

The east coast of Sri Lanka was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami, and the lack of warning in a rural area increased casualties. Since then, the island has excellent cell coverage that provides connection through rural areas that don’t have much in the way of landline capacity. The Tiruchendur Murugan Alayam Temple is just back from the sea and a reminder of the force of the tsunami.

The local temples were active at all hours – this offering was happening at about 9pm at a temple to Ganesh. When I left Batti on a tuktuk at about 5:30am to catch an early bus, there was a loud chanting from across the lagoon – I couldn’t work out if it was Buddhist, Hindu or Christian (spoken in Malayalam, the Tamil language).

Leaving Batti for Ella via Badulla

From Batticaloa, there was the option of an 8-9 hour train or bus ride back to Colombo, via Pollunawara and circuiting north of the central highlands, or go via one of the highland towns; I took the bus to Badulla, one of the regional centers, and then connected to Ella, which took about 7 hours.

At Ella, which is a small roadside town that had had a lot of tourism growth in the past few years, there are good hikes out of the town. I took the mid-afternoon to go up Ella Rock, a promontory that overlooks Ella and its surrounding valleys.

The Ella Rock hike can be done in about 3 hours if you are reasonably fit. There are some steep sections to the path but running shoes work with some care relative to your level of coordination. You head south along (or on) the railroad track – trains are not frequent – and then after passing the first and only railway station, you take a left at this pass.

Turn Left Here

Go Up Here

If you reach this mile marker you have gone too far.

For my part, I overshot the trail turnoff by 200 meters and someone from the nearby village pointed me up a set of deer trails that got me back on track, also assisted by his dog, Nemu, who hung out with me for the most part.

The path passes through a village and then the trails head up the hill. It is not signposted although the promontory is to the left side of the hill as you head up to it. Ask someone if it’s unclear, and if it gets frustrating they are keen to guide for a small fee. The trail is simple once you know it and signposting would be a good idea. The view from Ella Rock is very impressive, and the temperatures are moderate given the altitude.