Posts Tagged ‘Sicily’

Untours is unparalleled in the travel industry

February 24, 2009
Sampling Dutch street food is among the Untours travel experiences

You, too, can sample street food in Leiden (in this case, herring) on an Untours trip

Even before I knew much about Untours, the Pennsylvania-based (un)tour company, I loved their travel offerings and attitude. Untours supports longer-term travel with a home base, so visitors have a chance to dig deeper than the usual surface tourist activities.

They provide accommodations for one or two weeks, mostly in Europe (they just added a couple North American locations). For a reasonable fee, you get lodging (with a kitchen), air travel (rare) and an English-speaking local host (unheard of). It’s similar to independent travel, but with someone to hold your hand if needed.

Rome is among the travel destions in Italy

Rome is among the destinations in Italy

Also terrific are Untours’ off-the-beaten path destinations. In Holland, untourists stay in the charming university town of Leiden instead of the big city of Amsterdam, in Greece it’s Nafplio instead of Athens, and in Switzerland Untours offers up Ticino, Oberland and villages between Interlaken and Lucerne. It doesn’t ignore big cities completely, especially in Italy and France, the top destinations. Italy choices include Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also Sicily and Amalfi. It’s similar for France. You can choose among Paris, Normandy, Alsace, and more.

I was surprised when Untours, now in its 34th year, recently added New York City and Quebec City to its offerings. Makes me wonder what’s next. Exciting!

Paris at night with its monuments bathed in illumination

"The Eiffel Tower at night is magical," reported one Untours traveler

While I haven’t traveled with Untours, I’ve interviewed several people who have, and they’ve all loved the experience of feeling like they were living in a community instead of merely passing through. For those of you who just have to be on the move, there are ways to combine destinations with Untours “Samplers.” Untours aren’t cheap, but from what travelers tell me, they’re a bargain when you factor in meals, airfare, etc. Check out the prices for yourself and let me know what you think.

Hal Taussig on his daily ride to work

Hal Taussig on his regular ride to work

Like I said, I’ve already loved Untours for years because I had a great feeling about them and their business practices. So I wasn’t surprised but I sure was impressed when last year I learned about Untours founder and president Hal Taussig, 84. Despite his very successful business, he and his wife live in a modest home. Since 1992 they’ve given $5 million in profits from the business to the Untours Foundation, which they founded to help enterprises around the world that create jobs that improve the lives of the poor. Untours has been engaging in “travel philanthropy” way before it became de rigueur. Hal has gotten some great press lately, but you can tell that he’s not in it for the publicity. Thank you, Hal, for inspiring us as travelers and as human beings!

Sicily: one island, many cultures

February 18, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Feb. 17, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: I loved how Lisa and Mary Ellen’s fellow students, mostly young Germans, hit the beach every day while the older Americans took in much of Sicily, seeing the sights and eating the most amazing dishes. I was glad I wasn’t hungry when I did the interview. The meal descriptions were mouth-watering. 

WHO: Lisa Bryant, 70, of Lexington, Mass., and Mary Ellen Kiddle, 68, of Arlington Mass.

WHERE: Sicily.

WHEN: Two weeks in September and October.

WHY: “I went to language school there last year and wanted to go back. I mentioned it at bridge group and Mary Ellen wanted to go,” Bryant said. “I was a Spanish professor at Boston College, and since I retired I’ve wanted to study Italian,” Kiddle said. “I figured with the location, I couldn’t go wrong.” The school, Solemar Sicilia, is in Cefalù, a historic resort town on the island’s northern coast and 30 miles east of Palermo.

Mary Ellen Kiddle & Lisa Bryant enjoying terrace life at Villa CaterinaBETWEEN A ROCK . . . : “The school offers students a wide range of accommodations,” Bryant said. “We stayed in Villa Caterina, in a spacious three-terrace, two-bedroom apartment.” From the front terrace they saw the Tyrrhenian Sea and from the back, the villa’s gardens and La Rocca, or the rock, an enormous limestone formation.

BACK IN TIME: Their classes, which met in the morning, were small and informal. “There were a lot of German students, and every day after class they’d go to the beach,” Kiddle said. “For us, the beach is not a big deal; it seemed counterproductive.” “We’re history buffs as well as language buffs,” Bryant said. “Sicily has a past of five or six different Lisa Bryant & Mary Ellen Kiddle at Greek theater in Taormina, Sicilycultures – Greeks, Romans, Normans, French, Arabs, Spaniards – that have influenced dialect, culture, geography.” After class they would either go to Cefalù’s medieval historic district or on short trips by train and bus. In town, “the duomo [cathedral] dominates the historic district,” Bryant said. “It has both Arab and Norman influences, then the Spaniards came in later and did a little Rococo. Medieval fishermen’s quarters line the ocean and turn ochre” at sunset.

DOWNHILL COURSES: One outing was to Castelbuono, a village in the hills above Cefalù, to have lunch at Nangalarruni, run by a star chef. “The first two courses were magnificent, but it trailed off after that,” Kiddle said. “The pasta dish was filled with too much sauce and meat.” Before leaving, they visited the town’s Norman castle, which had been used in the filming of “Cinema Paradiso.”

WATER WITH DINNER: Their favorite restaurant, in Cefalù, was Villa dei Melograni, named after the pomegranate trees around it. “We ate there three times, and the food was better than at the high falutin’ place,” Bryant said. “We always ate outdoors and looked down over the city. Sometimes we ate by the water. At one, such a big wave crashed that it drenched the people at the table next to us and they had to leave.”

Lisa Bryant & Mary Ellen Kiddle in Villa Comunale in Taormina, SicilyCHANGING TIMES: Another special meal at the home of a local family was organized by the school. “Almost everything the senora fixed us was picked by herself: fried eggplant, zucchini, bruschetta with ripe tomatoes, olives she had cured from her farm, sausage,” Kiddle said. “We learned that people from her generation – she was in her 50s – are lamenting a changing Sicily. The rural way of life is rapidly eroding. Because of the global economy, Sicily no longer produces oranges. They all come from Spain now.”

ANOTHER TIME: They are ready to go back. “The wonderful serenity, the cultural stimulation, the visual beauty, I don’t know when I’ve gone to another place that gives you all that,” Bryant said.