Sunday, February 18, 2018

In the Shadow of Mount Etna - Sicily (Part 5)

We had kept the best until last, or at least that is what we thought based on the guide books and notoriety. We headed to the famed Taormina, home of stunning sites, views and celebrities.

Much of the route from Palermo was impressive motorway - I have never seen so many tunnels and bridges - forcing a course through the mountainous north coast of Sicily. While cutting the journey time for several hours and clearly sucking up a lot of subsidised funds from the mainland (these roads must have cost hundreds of millions), they did unfortunately hide much of the view.
We made up for this somewhat by stopping off at the beautiful little city of Cefalù. Situated in a sheltered bay beneath towering hills, it is a place of beautiful old buildings and steep streets dropping down to a harbour of aquamarine.

The cathedral is another Norman beauty and all the better for still having much of the original interior intact. We had an amazing lunch in the square beneath it, devouring pizza in the sunshine.

To cut a long story short, this was my biggest (and perhaps only) disappointment in Sicily. It is not that I did not like it, I did, but it fell short of the high expectations set by its renown and, indeed, other sites and cities we had seen in Sicily.
Taormina’s setting is undeniably impressive. Set high up on ragged hill, jutting out into the sea, with the mighty Mount Etna for a backdrop. Its streets are attractive and its ancient theatre is large and well preserved, framing the mighty volcano perfectly (the classic photo of the island). It was great to scramble up the dodgy paths to the peaks above the city, enter the small shrines and look down upon the brilliant combination of nature and nurture that the city entails.
The place though lacks charm. It is as if the sheer level of tourism, both of the jet-set and tour bus variety in equal measures, has sucked the life out of the place. Very little is real or local. I am glad I have seen it, but can take or leave it in future.
In three days we did find one clear exception that I can't fail to mention. On a twisting backstreet down from the main thoroughfare is the best granita I have ever tasted.

In case you do not know, granite is a Sicilian speciality of ice and flavour, usually lemon, but in this granite specialist café every flavour you can imagine. It is refreshing, sets your taste buds buzzing and is a perfect antidote to a long day walking in the sun. Another produce of Sicily’s complicated past, supposedly emanating from the Arabs who once ruled the island.
Etna was most certainly not a disappointment. It is just ginormous and, silly as it may sound, so perfectly volcano shaped. It dominates the East of the island, simultaneously drawing you in and threatening.

We took a day to drive up its slopes, leaving behind vineyards and forests, to the treeline and beyond. There we found old volcanic craters to explore. With wind buffeting us and the kids half laughing, half grimacing, we ventured into one of them, rubbing our hands in the dark black volcanic dust at its base. I have never been anywhere that so resembled the moon.

Etna is still decidedly active. Small eruptions are frequent, larger ones blow every few years and then, infrequently, it really goes, wreaking havoc in its wake. The lower craters we explored dated from violent eruptions in 2002-3, which knocked out much of the ski-station area.
To my middle child’s particular dismay, high winds had stopped the cable car. Not wanting to give up, we managed to get a ticket for the off-road upwards adventure and were soon sat on a many wheeled monster of a vehicle powering up the volcano on twisting dust tracks. It took quite a lot of strength to hold the kids to our laps and stop them smashing into the windows.
We were soon at the snowline, but, as the weather closed and the truck steamed up, we could see less and less. Every so often we would get a glimpse of a dead drop through the swirling clouds, before the truck powered around another corner, jerking back and forth. Onwards and upwards.
By the time we arrived at the intermediate base (2500 m), we were in a snow cloud with even higher winds. Instead of the usual walk around, we were ushered into the shelter with some urgency (and I dare say a little panic) by the mountain guides, being pushed sideways by the swirling, buffeting winds. The conditions had turned heavily against us and, after having to wait for some time in the shelter pouring over tacky gifts, we were relieved to squeeze past a tour group and get back on a truck heading down the volcano and out of the turbulence.
It was a bit of an adrenaline rush, adding some fizz to the end of our vacation. We decompressed on a relaxed drive back to Taormina, clockwise around the verdant lower slopes of Etna.
On our final day, we had just enough time to stop off in Sicily's second largest city, Catania, before flying home. It is living proof of the power of Etna, lying in its shade with scars of its fury. In 1669 much of the city was destroyed by horrifically violent eruptions. Volcanic dust and flame covered the city and a river of lava smashed right through it.
Much of the centre was rebuild with ambition, using distinctive black and white stones and in the baroque style. We parked up in the centre and enjoyed a walk around the grand squares, around its smelly fish market and through its backstreets to its towering thirteenth century castle, Castello Ursino. While the castle was interesting in and out, it was outshone by rock at its base. Here were the remains of the lave flow form  1669, still winding their way around this massive building.
A final word for the people of Sicily. They were warm, welcoming and friendly throughout. None more so than a father and daughter we met at the last in their small café off Catania’s central square. For our final minutes, they chatted, played with our kids and served us some great food.

In short conclusion, we found Sicily remarkable. It combines stunning nature, history, architecture, people, food and culture. I could not recommend it more highly.  In fact it is one of my favourite places on earth. No exaggeration.
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