Mind the Euro-Trash – Sicily, Italy

I sat up top, front and center on the double-decker bus from Agrigento to Taormina. This was necessary not only because the rolling green, hilly scenery of Sicily was wonderfully beautiful, but also because the ride was so rough and bouncy that I needed to keep an eye on the horizon so I wouldn’t get bus-sick. I am usually the last one to get queasy because of movement-related issues, but this was about as bad as I have ever experienced, including the English Channel ferry that I took through a violent spring storm back in ’93 that was so unsteady that the bar band refused to play until they had each been lashed to something solid. Plus, I had eaten a none too satisfying breakfast out of a bar next to the bus station and my stomach was still in deliberations as to whether or not to send it back.

Taormina was to be the last city that I planned to document on my travel writing tour of Europe. If you ever have the notion, please respect my wisdom on the matter and do not set out to tour, write about and photograph all of Western Europe in just six and a half months without earmarking several, long, idle breaks to recuperate. If you do not make these arrangements, you will spend much of the trip physically exhausted and, the last six weeks in particular, on the verge of a profound nervous breakdown that will ultimately age your face like a two-term presidency.

So, it goes without saying that I was swooning with relief as my bus pulled into tiny Taormina (population just under 11,000) knowing that this small, fantastically picturesque town would be the focus of my final essay. Knowing still further that there were just a few, minor tourist destinations in and around Taormina for me to dutifully march through was even more of a reprieve. Actually, during high-season the town is little more than an over-priced, spirit crushing beach-town for Eurotrash with only a few mild diversions beyond the sun and sand. I was likely to be the only tourist there in December, which would not only guarantee some peace and quiet, but I would have Taormina’s ridiculously beautiful scenery all to myself.

From the edge of Taormina’s cliffs, one could see straight down to the vast expanse of the Mediterranean Sea and then spin around and gawk at Mount Etna, Europe’s largest live volcano, looming directly above. My plan was to check into a cheap and quiet hostel, rest, stagger around taking hopelessly inadequate pictures of the scenery and then zip back to Palermo where I would immediately depart on a 20 hour, luxury ferry ride to Genoa and from there make my way to a waiting plane in Paris to take me home for Christmas. Such an anticlimactic end. And why the hell not? I had just finished a six and a half month harebrained run through 59 cities in 18 countries. I had been climaxing – in more ways than I care to detail here – for nearly every day since I got off the plane in Stavanger, Norway the previous June. I was climaxed out.

Italy’s passing interest in accurate signage was better than average in Taormina. Still, finding my hostel was made more adventurous as I stumbled around in the pathetically lit, early evening streets squinting for the signs directing me to my hostel, which were about the size of a license plate, printed in tiny, light blue cursive writing and posted in odd places, like around the corner from a turn I should have taken. I finally found the hostel and was a little surprised to see that there were eight other people staying there. The Odyssey Youth Hostel B&B was small, friendly and was being run by the best English speaker that I had met in nearly a week on Sicily. I actually had a conversation with her in English! A long conversation that wasn’t about buses or accommodations and didn’t involved short, vague statements of two or three words accompanied by an impromptu round of charades. I had not realized up until that point that my stay in Sicily had been all but solitary as far as interpersonal communications were concerned. The luxury of having a regular conversation in English made me momentarily giddy which probably succeeded in making the owner a little uneasy about my potential for subsequent eccentricities. She visibly relaxed when I said that I would only be staying for two nights.

I awoke the next morning to find that my presence had precipitated the usual spell of foul weather into the area. It was raining lightly, but constantly and a fog bank had appeared, covering Mount Etna in a cream-thick shroud of gloom. I decided to use the weather as an excuse to prepare slowly for the day and then linger over internet related tasks and a chocolate filled pastry with my late morning cappuccino.

Taormina From Up High
Taormina from up high
Miraculously, the sun burned off all the nasty clouds, except those covering the very top of Etna, by late morning and I set out to explore Taormina. When I thought that the town would be mostly deserted and all but a few of its swish shops closed up, I couldn’t have been more wrong. All of the over-priced, crappy stores on main street were open and doing a decent business with the relative gobs of December tourists that had invaded the city on day-trip buses from Catania. There were even guys selling stuff off blankets laid out in the street like they do in Rome and Florence. The first thing I saw when I rounded the corner into the shopping district was an organized, Japanese tour group coming at me, each of them with a video camera up and running, filling the entire width of the street. This was closely followed by groups from China, Russia, the U.S. and even Italy. An unusual number of people seemed to be sporting warm-ups with their country name adorned on the back. I learned later in the day that several militaries from around the world had sent athletes to compete in soccer matches in Catania and this was obviously their day off.

The streets were filled with alarmingly heavy traffic for a such a small city. There were places where the exhaust fume levels rivaled Naples. I guess all this traffic was due to the number of people who did not have the resolve to trek up and down all those hills on foot. Traffic was zipping by in both directions on streets so narrow that a car and a human could barely share the road. In many places, if two vehicles met, one would have to back up into a driveway or some other wide spot in the road so that the other car could pass. Taormina was quickly losing its off-season allure.

Greek Theatre
Greek Theatre
After stopping back at the hostel to drop off my jacket (the sun’s appearance drove the temperature into the upper 60s, far past my jacket comfort level) and inhaling a double serving of cannelloni for lunch, I returned to the city center to find it deserted. The shops had all closed up at the usual 1:00 afternoon break and when this happened apparently all of the tour buses followed suit and left town. I had virtually the entire city center to myself. Knowing that the shops would reopen at 4:00, I had to act fast. I went straight to the biggest tourist attraction in the city, the Greek Theatre.

Taormina’s Greek Theatre dates back to the 3rd century BC and is still used in the summer to host concerts, theatre and festivals. The �4.50 entry price was a bit steep considering the limited number of original components of the theatre that still remained on the site and the fact that there was absolutely nothing in the way of labels or descriptions for said items. The area was scenic though and the sun was at a cool angle, so I took copious amounts of pictures before moving on.

Other than the modest Duomo in the heart of the shopping district and the numerous, priceless, panoramic photo opportunities along the cliff-side, Taormina had very little in the way of sights. Eventually, for some foolish, masochistic, reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to make the climb up the mountain to see the Santuario Madonna della Rocca and the castle that are perched nearly side-by-side. Sane people usually make this outing by bus. There was a clearly excruciating series of steps for morons like me that started from the highest part of Taormina, leading all the way up past the Santuario to the castle. I took the steps nice and easy, but with the way I tend to heat up with only minimal strenuous exercise, I was sweating all over the place by the time I got to the Santuario, which was disappointingly locked. I stuck my camera through the gate and took some reasonably nice pictures before continuing up the steps which eventually led to another locked gate, just short of the castle. Needless to say, I was pissed off. I checked the gate on the off chance that the lock and chain were nearing a point of failure that I might be able to physically accelerate, but both were solid. Then I took a look around the side of the gate at the wall to ascertain the possibility of scaling it. The wall looked climbable, but one tiny slip would spell terrifying disaster. The fall was fit for Wile E. Coyote himself, 100 feet down a 60 degree slope, through a jungle of cactus plants before terminating on the busy road by the Santuario where I would in all likelihood be run over by a tour bus. I reluctantly decided that it wasn’t worth the risk and headed back down to the city.

As the sun started to set, I realized that the cloud cover over Mount Etna had never lifted. I didn’t have the option of lingering another day in the hopes of catching a glimpse. I had a very expensive, non-returnable ferry ticket from Palermo to Genoa, and knowing how unreliable the Sicilian bus system was, I wasn’t going to take any chances by hanging around Taormina until the last minute. I went to bed and departed somberly the next morning, happy to be heading home.

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