Travels in Sicily

Around Etna-September 24-26

On our journey around the western flank of Etna, we drove to Paterno first, took some photos for a friend whose ancestors emigrated from there long ago. The Normans occupied this part of Sicily for awhile, and they built a series of forts on hilltops. Here’s one. 

Back on the road, past the cactus, fig, olive, and pistachio groves, grapes, tomatoes, and strawberries, abundant in the volcanic soil, but abandoned buildings speak to the masses of Sicilians who left over the last century and a half (3 million?).

Lava fields (crops are planted right up to the edge):

Picturesque snapshots of Randazzo:

I’m so glad I couldn’t get a reservation there, and found a room instead at Hotel Frederico II in Castiglione de Sicilia, perched on this mountainside. Very narrow streets that wind along the slope, sometimes ending in steps. Park the car, check in, and take a walk! Walk up, walk down, get turned around, 

but suddenly we are back in the Piazza de Lauria, steps from our hotel!

Blood sugar low, too early for dinner. Buy some of those lovely little yellow pears, so delicious, and a cup of tea at Le Chevalier (Norman residue?), the bar/cafe/tobacconist. Larry visits the barber for a beard trim, and I sit and draw, observing the evening ritual among the older men:

At first, three men sit in chairs along the wall, with a fourth, younger, sitting on some steps near by. Silent, observing, occasional talk. One by one, they check their cell phones, put them away, quiet again, then conversation begins to flow. A sixth, a seventh, an eighth arrive, the social gathering increases, conversation varies in animation, the language is not as recognizable as Italian, more Sicilian perhaps, but what do I really know? Some move over to sit with others,  who had appeared to me to be alone, not part of the group. More men come up, greet everyone, who knows everyone.

Larry comes back looking trim and refreshed. We go to dinner (no photos).

September 25, Mt Etna

After getting sandwiches at the neighborhood bottega, totally jammed with five people, we left for Etna Nord, to hike in the forest, having opted out of a rugged hike in the hot sun, on steep slopes of lava gravel (health considerations and common sense). Hiked through pines and some oak, on a ski trail on a sunny day, the volcano smoking picturesquely. After a while, the trail appeared to be headed very downhill (no trail maps available), so we headed back to our car and down we drove, discovering on the way that we had a parking ticket. Funny, the lot we were in was not posted, nor were there other cars there. So we went to the address on the notice, but no one answered, nor on the phone. If we did not pay €3 within five days, the fine would jump to €35! Tried the email address, not a recognized domain. A scam? To be continued…

A walk before dinner was very instructive. The majority of people in this town live in a newer section, at the bottom of the hill, which is the center of town post office (€2.55 for an international postcard stamp!), caribiniere, many more shops and restaurants. The old guy scene “downtown” was twice the size, but silent, as if maybe they were waiting for a certain time of day to start. We didn’t stick around, but headed up via stairs and alleys, while the sun turned the sky orange, then pink, violet, indigo, and Etna blew smoke rings.

September 26

Gole dell’Alcantara & Taormina

From our hotel in Castiglione, it is twenty minutes through a fertile valley of olives, grapes, hazelnuts, citrus, castle ruins, to Gole dell’Alcantara.

The gole (throat, gullet) of the Alcantara river is a narrow gorge of volcanic basalt thirty meters deep and maybe ten wide, which the river has cut through and eroded, creating a magic spot, with elements of Zion, Iceland, and the Yuba River.

188 steps take you down to a pebbly beach with willow and other water plants. The air is hot at eleven in the morning, the water cold and clear and turquoise in hue. Wading up the gole can be done in full waders, etc, though most pilgrims were in shorts or bathing suits. As you enter the gorge, the shade and the water immediately cool things off, everyone is smiling or in that “this is cold water” pose, arms extended, breath in. Looking up at the crack of sky and plants above, you see that over the millennia the water has softened the hexagonal waves of rock as high as six meters up the escarpment. A little further up, the water turns to rapids, and there are those who don wetsuits and helmets and ride those. It time to turn around and brave a short swim down stream, as the water chills your bones. But not your soul.

It is here that we learn that we can pay the parking fine at a bank, no sweat, but it must be paid. In Taormina? Sure.

In a half hour we are at the coast, navigating the flow of traffic to Taormina. Signage is okay, though sometimes the signs are overgrown with vines, or maybe the paint is peeling. But Toarmina is a tourist magnet, so the signs are plentiful.

Now, I know people love this town, but I did not. I suppose our parking headaches would’ve been solved by parking at the bottom and taking the funicular, but acrophobia ruled that out, which complicated the first half hour. And if boatloads of cruise-ship tourists weren’t parading through the pricey, glitzy shopping street, and if the hike to the Saracen castle didn’t present itself as a form of mid-day torture worth skipping, then the experience would have been different, more like that of DH Lawrence or Lawrence Durrell. So we drifted against the tourist tide, stopping in at churches to cool off, peering up up tiny alleys, came to the main plaza and terrace that overlooks the magnificent view: the coast precipitating into the Ionian Sea, glittering and multiple shades of green and blue, the hill above studded with blocks of palazzos and brightly-colored houses, flowers and plants cascading over the balconies, etc.  Caught an exhibit of Sicilian carts.

Oh yes, the bank. You don’t have an account with us, sorry we can’t take care of this, and besides, we’re closing. Breathe…

And have some granita: lemon, orange, almond, mulberry. Cools the temper, brain freeze to the max. Very effective therapy.