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Taormina and Mount Etna, Sicily

Everyone we'd spoken to about 'must see's' in Sicily had said Taormina. Taormina is on the east coast of Sicily, in a bay slightly north of Mount Etna. On the south side of Etna is the sprawling city of Catania. As we wound our way north from Syracuse along virtually deserted highways where weeds grew thick along the centre lane and road verges we felt we had almost entered a post-apocalyptic world. The empty roads in Sicily were nothing like driving in mainland Italy, which were always busy and frantic with traffic. During the drive Shelly and I regaled Emma with tales of fear and trepidation from our previous Italian adventure - insane drivers, cliffside roads, narrow dual carriage laneways barely suitable for bicycles and our GPS' disturbing tendency to navigate us to life-threatening routes. All this time Etna loomed larger and larger ahead. We skirted around Catania and entered a zone of low plains and hilltop towns. The GPS then directed us into one of these towns and we found ourselves driving on steeper and narrower roads as near the centre. This must be Taormina we all though as the Lonely Planet mentioned the town being atop a hill. But it also mentioned Taormina being near the sea and we were quite far from the sea. We drove on - obviously this was not Taormina (I have no idea what town it was). As Etna faded from view behind us the highway ahead was leading us towards an enormous sheer faced cliff of rock. As it got closer we could make out little villages clinging precipitously to the sides and top of the cliff. As the view improved I asked Shelly to take a photo, commenting that "Thank God we're not going anywhere near there." But the longer we kept to this heading the more uneasy I became. I did a quick mental calculation - was the mountain 12 to 15 kilometres away? I looked at the GPS - distance to destination 13 kilometres. "That can't be Taormina.", I said, "Isn't Taormina a seaside town?" We all stared quietly at the mountain as it loomed ahead until we disappeared into a tunnel. Through the tunnel we turned right and found ourselves on a winding aerial roadway that led up the sheet cliff. Oh sh*t!
Taormina sits on the edge of a mountain spur jutting out into the Aegean so effectively it is on the sea - if you go straight down. We reached the town easy enough but the GPS led us on into the old town and our apartment. Of course in this location the GPS can't differentiate between drivable roads and mountain tracks. Many lanes in the centre of town are closed to traffic during the day (very sensible), but we were committed now and there was no going back. A policeman waved us away from the turn into our street, forcing us to drive further up the mountain. All the while the GPS helpfully advised us to do a U turn and go back - as if we could! We stopped in a driveway and tried to phone the apartment owner to see if there was another way of reaching the place, but he spoke no English so we pressed on until we found a road heading back down the mountain. This road took us through a cluster of pedestrian streets. If you've ever accidentally found yourself driving on a pedestrian street you'll know that everyone glares at you with disgust and doggedly refuse to move out of your way, regardless of how polite you ask. Then to make our experience even worse an Italian driver pulled up behind us cursing us furiously and impatiently for holding us up. After a tortuous journey we managed to locate a cross street to the apartment. The impatient driver squeezed past us drove up the road a way, parked and got out leaving her car in the middle of the street blocking traffic while she carried on an animated conversation with someone. I left Shelly and Emma with the bags and left them to check in. Stupidly I gave Shelly my wallet in case she needed to pay for the room in cash and headed off to find a parking spot.
To get down I had to go up the mountain again, then back through the pedestrian streets and down the mountain. Near the bottom I found an overflow carpark, but the guard needed 2 euro to let me in. Damn it! Shelly had my wallet and there were no coins floating in the car. Damn it! I had to go up the mountain again. I went all the way to the top until I found a vacant spot on a cliffside terrace. Directly above me where the expensive hotels with their views over the bay below. From here it was at least walking distance back to the apartment, so I headed off. The girls were all very excited with the apartment but I was hot and a little stressed. The owner had indicated that it was illegal to park where I did so I grabbed my wallet and the photocopied map he'd left and headed back to the car. From there it was back down to the foot of the mountain and the great subterranean carpark. I left the car there and took the free shuttle bus back to Taormina town centre. I was exhausted.
We wandered into the town that night but struggled to find a suitable restaurant. Sometimes it can be hard enough deciding where to eat with two people. The problem is magnified with three people, but after walking around the centre of town at least three times we settled on a nice little cafe-restaurant in a little sidestreet. We were the only customers eating there. The food and service was good and the owner gave us a free aperitif with our meal. For entertainment we watched the France vs Portugal match of the World Cup in the centre square. Fun times.
The next day we attempted to join a tour to Mt Etna but the tour we wanted to do was booked out. We ended up booking something online for the next day. With time to kill we took the cable car from the town to the beach. Taormina is a beach town after all. The little beach at the bottom of the mountain was packed with people and beach chairs. We enquired about a beach chair but the cost was extravagant - we don't pay to go to the beach in Australia! There was a small area of 'free' beach at the far end of the bay so we wandered down there. For a long time we stared at the water debating whether to go for a swim. Swimming meant changing and the change rooms belonged to the beach hotels. I just downed togs and whipped on my bathers but it was more difficult for the girls. Eventually we all went for a swim in the Adriatic. Job done!
After a drink at one of the bars (which allowed us to change back into our clothes), we headed back up the hill Taormina's main tourist attraction is its Greek amphitheater. The amphitheater is spectacularly situated in a natural hollow at the top of the old town, overlooking the bay. It is very well preserved and the views are amazing. After drinking in the views we wandered back to the apartment (with gelato in hand).
That night we stopped for a drink at a bar-cafe on the stairway across from our apartment. The wine was good and the food reasonable so we settled in for the night.

First thing the next morning we needed to move to another apartment across the other side of town. We dropped our bags and then walked back across town to the cliffside road where I'd parked on the first day. There we were picked up for our Etna tour. It was just the three of us and the driver. Etna was about and hour and half back the way we'd come. Etna is Europe's highest and most active volcano. It has erupted every year since 2000 mainly at the summit but also occasionally through side vents. The volcano itself is a vast mass of black, pumice-like rubble. Near the base is a hotel and tourist centre. You can walk up to the summit from here but it takes several hours. The quick option is to take the cable car. The cable car takes you about two thirds of the way. From there you take a four wheel drive bus up to the summit - or as near to the summit as is safe. This day the summit was closed - by a small white chain across the four wheel drive track. A multilingual metal sign said the summit was closed. It didn't stop some people walking around the chain and heading up on their own. The mountain rangers didn't seem too worried about that, given that they had a bus full to tourists to try and manage.
The walking circuit took us around one of the many older summit craters (there are 5 summit craters at the top and more below). The rangers tried to explain facts and features of the volcano as we walked around but it was difficult to hear what they were saying. Besides, the views were simply too distracting.

Posted by paulymx 05:20 Archived in Italy Tagged volcano

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