Mount Etna is always referred to as a female in Sicily, even as a mother figure. She smothers the defeated monster Typhon and protects the local inhabitants. That’s a different way of seeing one of the world’s most active volcanoes! Mama Etna had been shrouded in clouds and mist since we arrived in Sicily. We drove past and around it several times, but Taormina, our last destination in Sicily, was all about the smoking mountain.
The drive from Polizzi Generosa to Taormina was long and demanding, even with Pietro’s local knowledge of ‘shortcuts’ to get to the highway. I didn’t mind travelling the last winding, rough roads and had come to terms with the hairpin bends (by closing my eyes mostly). Our memories of the Madonie mountains and nature reserve will always be special. Eventually we were on the autostrada, travelling very fast, but being overtaken by those driving even faster. And woe betide any car that gets in their way!
Our new bed and breakfast was in Giardini Naxos, a little way south of Taormina, which is incredibly expensive. Villa Chiarenza is a stunning old villa with Roman remains scattered around, mixed with hundreds of terracotta pots of succulents and cacti. It was apparently a nunnery originally and has been renovated and used for hospitality for about forty years.
Our room, reached by over twenty marble stairs with no handrail (my knees are getting mighty strong now) has its own large terrace framing a view of Etna, when she deigns to show herself. Splendid and over-the-top decorations and art work everywhere; the place has style. As do our hosts, Salvatore and Agathe, who must be close to eighty, and speak no English at all. That has forced us to try our minimal Italian. They serve us a generous breakfast on different sets of fancy crockery each day, with Agathe wearing frills and jewellery and her hair immaculate. Just gorgeous. We find out later that they have six children and nine grandchildren.
What a shock to be in Taormina (which is twenty minutes of hairy driving and a toll from our stay). From the gentle peace of the mountains to the most touristy town in all the island, and prices to go with it. Magnificent views from a height, narrow, steep roads, people just wandering, taking selfies, eating and drinking, buskers on the terrace and Etna towering over it all; no lack of ambience. Although the heat was less blistering, the humidity was high and it felt very tropical. Oleanders and bouganvilleas dominate and add colour.
The juxtaposition of a display of Ferraris in the piazza with the duomo as a background probably epitomises Sicily today. High end shops, like the Rolex shop with an armed guard at the door, sit beside the souvenir and trinket stalls. People either wear sneakers or stilettos! Watching the passing parade is truly fascinating. We can pick up Aussies from a long way off by their accent, wearing of wide brimmed hats and use of ‘mate’ and ‘loo’. In a ‘what’s the chance’ moment, we ran into a Canadian couple from two stays before.
On our first trip we explored the lower level of the town, finally paying a sum we’d rather forget for a drink and snack each. A wander down the Corso took us to the famous terrace, where people gather for drinks, Etna sunsets, flaunting their latest fashion accessories and viewing an occasional eruption.
We know how to spend and how to save: one night it is Vegemite sandwiches and an apple, and the next we splash on fish and prawns and tiramisu. Breakfast on the terrace consisted of fresh juice, savouries like bruschetta and prosciutto, fresh croissants (they are mad about Nutella here), cake, fruit and coffee. Plenty to kick off our day. Agathe hovered around as we drank from her etched glasses and matching coffee sets, wanting to know if it is all ‘bene’ and making sure we ate enough.
Our next foray into Taormina was a Sunday visit to St George’s Anglican Church. It is a chaplaincy church which has visiting ministers on a monthly roster, and we actually looked at the possibility of Peter applying there at one stage. It has the most stunning views a church could have from its terrace and we looked forward to worshipping in English for the only time in ten weeks.
The highlight was the renewal of marriage vows by a sweet Welsh couple – very romantic and we held hands, acknowledging our 50th year excuse for this amazing trip. And there is comfort and strength in the liturgy we know so well.
The lowlight was that out of over twenty people present, not one reached out or spoke a word to us! There were even drinks afterwards, but still we stood there. It was quite a shock and a reminder to us of the importance of the church being a welcoming community. We left, shaking our heads.
Although unplanned, we found ourselves at the top of the famous funicular down to the beach area below (Taormina is on a cliff). We caught the sparkling sea moment and glorious coastal views for a large sum of money to ride down, but discovered that the precinct below was a bit tacky and we felt old and out of place! With hats and sunscreen firmly in place in the scorching heat, we went back up the hill and bought the ubiquitous arancini to eat sitting on a step in the main street We stopped briefly at a stall that was playing ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ and sang along while a couple of people danced.
Having waited for the clouds to clear from the mountain, it was exciting to open the terrace doors on our last morning and see that the peak was clear and sunny! The day had come and Etna beckoned. Equipped like explorers to some arctic destination, we set out on the hour long drive south, then up the mountain.
There is no overtaking once you leave the highway, especially behind a bus! Corner after corner, with the bus doing three point turns and beeping its horn on blind corners, we rose higher and higher. The coast paraded its photogenic best for us, although it was hard to stop anywhere. The rocks beside the road started to be black and barren, and we knew where we were: on the side of a 3300m high volcano.
Cars can drive to Etna south, which is about 2000m above sea level. We parked there and rugged up before taking the cable car and then the four wheel drive bus up another 1000m. After that there are guides to take groups up on a two kilometre hike closer to the top. We decided that Peter would do that and I would stay where the bus went.
it is like another planet. Black rock and sand everywhere and some hardy tufts of tough plants growing. It was freezing, and we were glad of our coats and scarves, but I did see people in t-shirts and thongs who didn’t get the memo! Getting up into the bus was my ascension triumph for the day…
The air was thinner and I was breathing a bit harder, but otherwise felt OK. Another tick on the list of things I hoped to do but didn’t know how it would pan out. Peter’s hike was cut short when the mist rolled in and prevented visibility. An active volcano is not the place to walk without knowing where you are!
So, was it safe to do? Etna erupted late last year and is always smoking. It is Europe’s most active volcano. We delayed our decision until we arrived, but felt in the end that it was well monitored and it is closed when there is the slightest doubt. Front of mind was the NZ tragedy, but this seems a different situation. Apparently the lava flows very slowly down the slope… We have form regarding volcanoes and holidays: we took our little family for a stay on the side Mt Merapi in Java back in the eighties,which is probably the world’s other most potentially dangerous volcano. Some time later, it erupted and ash landed all over our home which was 150km away!
Anyway, we survived. We said we loved each other and that the kids would say, ‘They died doing what they loved’… In my opinion, we were in much greater danger on Sicilian roads!
The rain and clouds rolled in as we drove home. Just made it! As we got up the next morning to pack and leave, Etna bestowed a beautiful goodbye; a double rainbow appeared over it while we had breakfast. Eastern Sicily is all about the mountain, so we felt content to take our leave.
What a month! Towns, mountains, sea. It’s all beautiful and so were the people we met.. Salvatore and Agathe escorted us to the gate, as we knew they would and we said our farewells – I had graduated to double kissing. I managed to say a little thank you speech I had practised which made them exclaim. Agathe touched her temple and said (I think) that I am clever. Salvatore opened the gate with a flourish and stood directing the traffic while we drove out.
Now to safely return the little Panda Fiat (with great relief and miraculously no dints) to the big city of Messina and start the trek north to Tuscany. If we had known what would happen over the next two days (including an earthquake in Naples and more) we might have been less optimistic. Stay tuned for Tuscany!