I wonder what Sicily conjures up for you: Lemons? The Godfather? Erupting volcanoes? Well, it’s all of those things and more and having recently returned from a short pre-Easter break I can recommend that it be added to a places-to-go list.
We arrived at Catania airport at 10.30 in the morning via Easyjet having set off from Gatwick at the most ungodly hour. The flight is just under three hours which is just about bearable if you’ve equipped yourself with a good book although when flying I revert to small child mode after about thirty minutes, mumbling questions like ‘are we nearly there yet’ and fidgeting annoyingly due to being seated in an upright position with limited leg room. Whatever you hear about Easyjet though, they got us there on time, we were swiftly through passport control and ready to make the most of our early start.
So, having filled out reams of paperwork we secured a little hire car – we went for typically Italian.
Hire Car Man was very concerned that we might be going into Catania – apparently their insurance won’t cover them for theft of vehicles in the city. We assured him we weren’t, and off we went. Well, that was the plan. I had the map, we could see the auto-route signs; we were heading north-east, to Taormina – simple.
Oh no it wasn’t. We hadn’t reckoned on the eccentricity of Italian road signage so we toured and became very familiar with the airport ring road before we discovered that when the Italians say east, they really mean west until there is a sign for north. Work that one out – it was just luck that we eventually found our way out of spaghetti junction heading in the right direction: Mount Etna to the left, Mediterranean to our right.
This was actually our second visit to the island. The first, a few years ago (and without hire car) was during July when a visit to Mount Etna brought welcome relief to the searing heat of a Sicilian summer. To get as near to the summit as is safe, you have to travel by cable car and truck and then follow an Italian geologist along well worn routes, passing hot spots and teetering alongside the edges of extinct craters while above, Etna spews out her fumes.
The scenery, like a breath taking moonscape is constantly changing as Mount Etna is an active volcano. The last major eruption was in 2008; on the lower slopes old lava flows are clearly visible.
This time though, we were headed for Taormina, a pretty little town nestled on the side of the north-east coast, just below the straits of Messina; on a clear day the Italian mainland is visible.
Taormina is divided in two by its position on a cliff side – at sea level there are hotels, bars and restaurants and everything that goes with beach paraphernalia while at the top of the cliff is the main town with a plethora of further hotels, trattorias, cafes, bars, sophisticated restaurants and shops ranging from high-end designer to tacky souvenir. The two parts of the town are linked by a funicular railway, a set of steep stairs if you’re feeling like a challenge or a twisting, chicane-ridden road which is akin to being part of wacky races. Driving Italian-style becomes a necessity.
We stayed two chicanes down the hillside from the bustling centre of town. On the walk up we passed this old wall – once part of the old cemetery.
Sicilians stay up late; they eat late – one of their main delights is to stroll, stop for a gelato or a coffee or a drink, watch the world go by then stroll a little more. They call this activity the passegiatta and it is an activity that is easy for tourists to accomplish. We were soon as much a part of the passegiatta as any native Sicilian.
The main street, which is largely pedestrianized, is called the Corso Umberto. Crammed full of all sorts of shops and bars, it opens out periodically into small squares, or piazzas, the loveliest of which is the Piazza IX Aprile.
This square was so named because on the 9th April 1860, mass in Taormina cathedral was interrupted to announce that Garibaldi had landed on the far side of the island to start his conquest of Sicily that would eventually make it a part of Italy.
Antique shops or bric-a-brac abound and all the shops stay open until well into the night.
Puppets seemed to be popular …
… and displays like this are everywhere.
Shop windows are beautifully decorated. Here is a Sicilian delicacy – perhaps one or two of your five a day? I don’t think so, unless you want to precipitate diabetes: these fruits and veg are all made from marzipan.
Taormina is not without its ancient history. Wander around the Greek theatre to marvel at the archaeology while enjoying spectacular views over the Bay of Naxos.
The theatre was built by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC and was designed to incorporate outstanding acoustics. In the first century AD, the Romans refurbished the theatre a little, removing some of the seating area and part of the stage to create a circular arena for their popular gladiator games.
After this, you can cool off in the Giardini Communale (communal gardens) under the shade of banana trees and other exotic plants.
It goes without saying really that the food in Sicily is wonderful. Everywhere there is fresh fish, pasta dishes galore and salad with those succulent Mediterranean tomatoes that you just can’t get anywhere else. One place we found deserves a special mention – the Trattoria da Nino – a small, unpretentious restaurant specialising in home cooked Sicilian food. The welcome is warm, the suggestions and dishes of the day spot on and the prices are reasonable. Their delicious tuna carpaccio and penne with artichoke sauce will definitely become one of my memorable meals.
We had planned to visit the Villa Romana del Casale, situated in the centre of the island and a couple of hours drive from Taormina. We wanted to see the spectacular mosaic floor, supposed to be the best preserved in the world, but the delights of wandering around Taormina and the warmth of the spring sunshine lured us to the beach for some unexpected holiday laziness. We simply ran out of time.
So we’ll just have to go back someday… it’s as good an excuse as any.