Taormina, Cefalu and the surrounding areas
By way of introduction
To the untrained eye, Sicily is simply the bit at the end of the boot of Italy. It’s hard to gain a perspective as to just how large an island it actually is. Relatively speaking, it’s actually larger than Wales.
Wales, with a population of just over three million, covers an area of 20,779 square kilometres and accounts for 5.88% of the population of the United Kingdom. Sicily, on the other hand, contributes 8.4% to the population of Italy and covers 25,711 square kilometres. Etna, still smouldering and producing ash on a regular basis, stands 3,329 metres above sea level, dwarfing the mighty Snowdon by 2,240 metres.
The comparison stands when you’re expecting to ‘do Sicily’ in two weeks, and have a holiday in the process. Trekking north to south or east to west is not conducive to relaxation and recounting country-wide exploits as part of any sort of whole-island guide is not likely to happen. Anyone who has had to endure the A487 from north to south in Wales, knows how arduous and impossible a task it would be to set oneself.
So, with two weeks in Sicily stretching ahead, at best it was intended that it would be restricted to the east coast. But, as you will see, plans change….
Getting here was hardly the start of an adventure, although we did break the journey south with a night in St. Albans. We stayed in one of those dreadful sterile and corporate hotels that spend much of their life accommodating conference delegates and wedding parties. Room 336. It says everything. Long anonymous carpeted corridors and even more anonymous rooms with meaningless, functional art on the walls.
St Albans was once Verulamium and a fine Roman City. There’s not much left to tell of that tale, but what is there is attractive, purposeful and accommodating. There is a fine Cathedral with Robert Runcie residing in peace in the adjacent graveyard. The Cathedral staffed by a cadre of extremely ancient, but also commendably knowledgeable, guides, who totter about providing wonderful snippets of information for all and sundry.
“Did you know? In 1320 we had a really bad Winter that lasted well into Spring. One of the pilgrims who was also a monk and sat here (pointing to a stone seat in an alcove) thought he would prepare the bread for Good Friday and add a little spice and a few currants into the mix and he invented the Hot Cross Bun!”
Well, whether it is true or not, and who am I to doubt her, it’s a tale I shall be telling most Sundays as my sliced buns pop out of the toaster and I think on how the ancient Brother would have marvelled at the work of St. Russell of Hobb.
And so to Taormina and our base for a week on the Eastern coast of Sicily. Apartment Curioso at Villa Costanza lacks a little of the old world charm that Russell Crowe found in Uncle Henry’s Provence retreat in A Good Year. However, it would have made a comfortable Sicilian gentleman’s retreat with its long views across the valleys and its privileged position high on the Taormina hillside. Its owners have developed it into four modern apartments, attentively manned, and clearly business is good. The apartments are owned by the local urologist, Professor R. Capello. ‘R’ stands for Rocco, although I still wondered more than once if he could turn out a song without accompaniment. Most mornings he sets out for work at about 8.15, casually dressed but with well-worn briefcase to hand. Italian business men, the country over, seem to take the smallest of briefcases with them to work. Many are almost too small to be practical. Little larger than an A4 sheet of paper, they are always in leather and you can’t but wonder what they manage to put inside?
The son, Antonio, is the public face of the enterprise and lives on site along with his wife and family. Gardeners arrive and depart; the pool-boy, who has not been a boy for many a decade, keeps the water spotlessly clear and a man turns up weekly to try and keep the wasps and biting insects at bay. Of the team, he is the one with the toughest job, I’m afraid to say.
So, as with so many first evenings of a holiday, I take to the balcony of my allotted apartment; soaking in the vista while drinking a glass of warm red local wine. It’s a Tipica from the Terre Siciliana and it is ripe, rich and fruity. There is a good deal of Sicilian wine available. Clean whites with the taste of crisp apples and lemons lingering on the palate and rich, earthy reds. The Sicilians have a penchant for serving their red wine cold from the fridge. Each to his own, I suppose.
To the left, the hillside drops down to Mazzaro and Giardini Naxos in the distance. Seaside resorts and ports, popular with the cruise ship fraternity. Some of these multi-decked floating hotels stay overnight, others depart shortly after the 5 pm klaxon summons their inhabitants back on board. Most mornings, as I throw open the shutters and stand at the balcony railings with the first espresso of the day, I look down into the bay and imagine someone resting on an elbow and looking out from a narrow berth, through a small porthole and up a verdant hillside. Look Doris, there’s some bloke way up there on a balcony. He’s having his morning cup of coffee. Pass the binoculars…….yes, there he is. He’s in his pyjamas! What’s he got written on his tee-shirt? Los Pollos Hermanos? Didn’t we stop there last week? Wasn’t that the place with the bar that had Guinness on draught?
To the right looms Mount Tauro, heavily shrouded in mist at first light but soon to reveal strange hillside formations that are typical of the geology across the whole island. I’m told that they are not formed by lava, but nevertheless, they are clearly soft enough to to have been weathered to the extent that they ripple across and down, providing clefts for villages and fields for sheep, goats and cattle.
Ahead of us lies a sight I don’t think I will ever forget. In the evening light, like a veritable behemoth, the mist clears and reveals the might and dreadful majesty of Etna. Most days it hides in cloud. Then, as the sun starts to set, the air clears and it appears ominously out of the mist and is truly a mighty monster. I was not expecting something on such a scale. From the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, I looked out across the hillsides and away into the distance, wondering how on earth Vesuvius could have created so much damage from so far away. I suppose I responded rather like the old Romans themselves. “Don’t worry, Brutus Antoninus, it’s miles away. We’ll be fine here. Now, pass me another jug of wine and here’s a few sesterces for your troubles. Carpe diem and all that, I’m off for a bathe.” Ignorance with so little time to relent, unfortunately.
This, however, is on another scale. Etna towers over and dominates the landscape. They say it still spits fire on a regular basis. It certainly smokes from the main and subsidiary craters on most days. I’m not sure that even the two or maybe three valleys between us and it are likely to be protection against what would be cataclysmic eruptions. Signore Capello Junior has already pointed out the thick black ash that is draped across some of the rooftops below in the town and along the top of the municipal car park. As recently as three years ago, it took his whole family a week to clean the villa and the pool when Etna spat out petulantly into the atmosphere.
Aficionados of the Carry On films many well recall that in the 1969 Carry On Camping, Josh Fiddler (Peter Butterworth), the money-grabbing farmer and owner of the Paradise camp site, had a stock phrase of ‘It’s a pound’ as he levied charges right and left for all and sundry. Somebody in the Italian government clearly saw the film and took the principle to heart. Nightly accommodation tax? It’s a Euro. Cover charge in restaurants? It’s a Euro. The bread that arrives without request and slips mysteriously onto the corner of your table? It’s a Euro. It’s clearly a clever stealth tax that must generate millions over the course of the year. You can’t blame this one on Brexit, either. In October 2009, a Euro would have been worth an all-time high of 93p. Even in the current state of European uncertainty, it’s dropped to 85p. Still, it all adds up.
The A18 autostrada starts in the south of the island at Rosolini and cuts a swathe up through the eastern coast to Syracuse and then from Catania to Messina in the north. ‘Cuts a swathe’ is a fair description. The autoroute has no respect for national parks or glorious coastlines. From the balcony, I look way down the valley at the grey scar in the distance. Two double carriageways, emerging from and disappearing into long tunnels cut through the hillsides; roads built on enormous concrete pillars that tower over the landscape. A road in the sky. The effect is that the distant hum of traffic is constant. Trucks thunder their way north and south, day and night. Of course, those who live with it will tell you that they never notice it. And, of course, it’s necessary in a modern world, I suppose. However, just for a moment, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have the glorious silence of the hillsides, broken only by the call of the buzzards and the drone of the insects. It might have taken me a further hour to get here, but, on reflection, would that have mattered? It might have cost me a little more in fuel and a little less in the toll charge from Catania to Taormina. So what? By the way, it’s a Euro!
If you read the ex-pat blogs then they’ll all tell you the same. Back in 2010, there was much concern about the central government’s ability to pay the communes what they needed to manage the island and the communes’ inability to efficiently collect taxes. Consequently, the inadequate infrastructure meant disparity of wealth. However, most also related that the cost of living was low and, for the tourist, extremely good value.
Those days have clearly gone in Taormina. Think prices and then think London prices. Yes, you can get a pizza for five euros but generally, they range from eight to twelve. Fresh vegetables are still best acquired from the many small vans and pickups that dot themselves around the town every morning. Mezzo kilo of fagioli verdi? The unshaven hunch-backed farmer in his freshly-ironed jeans was not going to let us get away that lightly. We faced the prospect of green beans for breakfast, dinner and tea as we staggered back under the weight of the purchase. Four euros a kilo for fresh beans, and two for a handful of tomatoes and a lettuce.
In the supermarket, what strikes you most is the lack of fresh meat. The chicken comes in at around five euros for two breasts sliced thinly so it goes further. Beef is slightly more expensive and the pork chops look as though they have been prepared by a surgeon with an extremely sharp scalpel. The supermarket may well be part of the Simply franchise, but there is nothing underwhelming about their prices. We have to face it; as Brits on tour, we’re no longer in the enviable position of watching our pound go a long way. Basic tourist menus start at eighteen euros and that may well generate a number of courses but it’s not exactly an exciting experience. On one evening, a single gentleman on the table next to us enjoyed a prima piatti followed by a meat dish, two glasses of wine and was relieved of not far short of sixty euros for his troubles. It may well have been magnifique as he told the waiter, but so was the bill.
But enough of this negativity. Taormina is a jewel and independent fishmongers and butchers can be found, albeit behind anonymous doorways with beaded curtains. They are there if you know where to go and what to look for; as does any local. Add to that a panoply of designer jewellers, high-class clothes shops and a wide range of artisans producing work in ceramic or metals, and you can see why Taormina is the holiday choice of many well-heeled Italians.
Mind you, well-heeled or not, the Italians are always elegantly fashionable and well-turned out. Listen closely, and you’ll also hear Scandinavian, Dutch, German and French. Of course, there are the usual English tones and invariably Southern. Thanks to Easyjet, no doubt.
Of course, the English have been coming here for years. Back in the 1920s, David Herbert Lawrence rented Fontana Vecchia, an unassuming house just off the Piazza IX Aprille. By the time he had paid his first month’s rent, it had already been home to Goethe, Guy de Maupassant, Oscar Wilde, Selma Lagerlöf, Hemingway and Friedrich Nietzsche. Taormina, like so many places he visited, claims fame that the nearby Wunderbar was a bar of choice for Tennessee Williams. It probably joins a long, long list! Anyway, our son of Eastwood, Nottingham, was apparently much taken with an Englishwoman he met out here and used her as the muse for the character of Lady Chatterley. Whether she would have been pleased with the honour, I’m not sure. Needless to say, she must have been a woman of interest. I wonder if F.R. Leavis ever traced the steps from the Messina Arch to Fontana Vecchia? In the ’50s, Truman Capote did and wrote numerous articles based on his wanderings around the Mediterranean and one on the town house frequented by so many literary greats. DH Lawrence was also inspired by the work of the German artist Otto Geleng, who died in Taormina and after whom our street here is named.
Half way down the Corso Umberto, is the Hotel Victoria. From the front it is a single width, three-storey hotel but it expands into the whole block as you enter. The facade hasn’t been changed for years. Back in 1898, Oscar Wilde arrived in Taormina and booked in for a month. Like Andre Gide, he was drawn by the mythological fascination that Sicily offered to its visitors. From the Hotel Victoria, he wrote love letters to Alfred Douglas, his beloved ‘Bosie’, clearly affected by the heat and the images he collected of the work of photographer Wilhelm Von Gloeden, mainly of young ‘marvellous boys’. Von Gloeden owned a house in Taormina and some of the more ‘gentle’ images are available on cards in shops around the town. Even so, some of them would generate interesting discussions on where art stops and porn starts.
One of the great sites and sights in Taormina is Il Teatro, the Ancient Greek theatre, built in the third century BC. It’s made of brick, which leans more to the Roman style of construction but its form is definitely Greek. It’s the second largest of its kind in Sicily, the largest being in Syracuse and it is of massive proportions, being able to hold an audience in excess of 5,000. A good deal of it has survived invasion, weather, earthquakes and theft. From 1955 until 1980, it was home to the David di Donatello film award and saw many of Hollywood’s greats step onto its stage to receive their trophies. Peter O’Toole, Cary Grant, Audrey Heburn, Liam Neeson, Marlon Brando, Tom Cruise…the list is almost endless. Today, the theatre is used for the staging of operas and concerts. What makes it doubly impressive is the backdrop. Behind the main stage and entrance arch the ground drops away to the sea. From any seat in the audience, the view looks out to take in the whole of the bays of Taormina and Naxos and upwards to take in Mount Etna and the lesser Mount Tauro.
The Italians are credited with inventing the passeggiata. However, the French and the Spanish have been keen to adopt it, especially in the warm, southern regions. But it is the Italians who have it down to a fine art. The etiquette is that you must ensure you look the part from the dressing of the hair to the quality of your shoes. Then, you must accessorise: earrings, handbag, bracelets, rings. The women have to make an effort as well. But I jest. In Taormina, it is no different from any other Italian town or city. It was noticeable in Puglia where the standard of living is extremely low, the restaurants were often for the tourists and the passeggiata was for the locals to socialise and enjoy a gelato as an evening’s treat.
Here, the more well-heeled Sicilians play a full part. At weekends, in particular, the restaurants are full to capacity and people are happy to wait in the street for tables to become free. Throughout the night, the main thoroughfare, the Corso Umberto, is busy with the most elegant of people slowly walking from end to end, from the Porta Catania at one end, to the Messina Gate and the Funevia, the cable car, at the other.
It’s easy to spot the tourist. Even allowing for the fact that many of them carry some sort of day bag. For a start, the footwear is too comfortable, the shorts and tops not stamped with the right designer’s brand and the cameras all too visible.
On the other hand, the Sicilian women, young and not quite so young, dress in the highest of high heels or platforms. The dresses are tantalisingly revealing and the handbags invariably ‘designer’. Many men wear highly polished, patent leather, slip on shoes (no socks of course, that is very much de rigure), tight slacks or shorts and the shirt or polo bears the correct embroidery to show it was suitably expensive.
Older women and men, with less reason to impress, are still extremely tidy, if considerably more comfortable and are often in charge of the children. The family group frequently stop to greet friends. There is the usual round of social kissing and exchanging of news. You have to remember that, even in a town of this size, they would have grown up together; been to the same schools, attended the same weddings and social events, the same fetes and gatherings, cross-married into the same local families and met on a regular basis throughout the year as they sauntered down the Corso, in search of a friend, a lover, a husband or wife, and, eventually, a companion in old age.
The passeggiata remains the pleasure of a warm climate and is rooted deep in tradition, custom and practice. It feels as though the whole town turns out, although I suspect that, like anything, frequency turns into boredom and some may only indulge at weekends or when they are entertaining friends. It would never work for those of us from Northern Europe climes. Hello, how are you? Yes this is a new coat. Hang on while I put the umbrella away. Yes, we’ve just nipped out. Can’t stay long as there’s something on ITV at eight that I want to watch. Yes, it’s a repeat, but it’s very good and it’s got her who used to be in Eastenders in it.
The central square, is often the setting for social and cultural events. In the summer, beauty contests vie with performances of classical music to entertain the passers-by. Early arrivals set up camp on and around the utilitarian white plastic chairs and wait for the event to start. Once they have settled down for the evening, husbands fetch their wives the compulsory gelato and wait on the interminable ramblings of the Italian compères. This is an art in itself. On and on and on, recounting heaven knows what. They have taken the concept of the ‘filler’ to its next level. It’s usually longer than the entertainment itself. People applaud dutifully and the whole evening totters along with a degree of grace and conviviality. The compères seem always to comprise an attractive twenty-something female and a slightly too rakish thirty-something man who sports a good head of hair and emanates what he must think is an aura of self-confident, if somewhat greasy, desirability.
While I was there we were subjected to a beauty queen pageant. Eight young Sicilian women in the skimpiest of bikinis and the broadest of sashes. They had all ensured that the lower half of their outfits were suitably pulled up and tucked in to ensure that their thighs and bottoms were as visible as possible. There was a lot on show. Fortunately, the Mediterranean sun turns the skin the right colour to make the Jaffa orange instant tan hue that we are so familiar with back home unnecessary. Everyone looked fit, healthy and they all glowed in the warmth of a Saturday evening. Oh how we clapped as the signore and signorina in charge of the event whiled away the hours with tales to entertain. I suspect they were narrating Garibaldi’s 1860 Expedition of the Thousand and the part it played in the Risorgimento. In real-time, of course. After all, Garibaldi would have passed this way either on his way to or coming away from the battle at Messina.
Between the contest and the two supporting acts, the whole business seemed to last forever. We had a baritone impersonator (no, I hadn’t a clue who he was impersonating and yes, they all sounded the same) and a male flamenco dancer who stamped his feet and waved his arms around in time to the recorded music. Somehow, everybody got through the evening with smiles and a contentment brought about by the fact that it was Sunday Mass tomorrow and a day of rest. No doubt the eventual winner was rightfully crowned and all her fellow competitors were gracious in defeat. They were probably glad to be going home, to be tucked up by mama with a glass of warm milk and snuggle down to the the latest re-run of Strada Incoronazione.
If you want, or perhaps need, to leave Taormina for the day, then the Circumetea is an interesting alternative. It is actually a circular journey by train around the base of Etna, taking in all the outlying towns. However, there is a parallel route by road and the advantage of this is that you are able to drive up to the very centres of a whole host of hilltop towns that circle the volcano.
The route starts somewhere, anywhere, between Taormina and Catania and you can drive it clockwise or anti-clockwise. However, be prepared for a long day out. The route altogether, must be a little short of a hundred miles but it feels a good deal longer. Throughout the whole journey, once you leave the 21st century A18, the road has been subjected to the effects of very dodgy subterranean structures, Constant earthquakes and subsequent subsidence provides you a sense of driving on enormous sheets of corrugated tarmac. The road regularly falls away, has cracked open and has generally disappeared in places. Huge amounts of yellow sand help indicate where you need to venture gingerly. The Sicilian roads department has marked a good many of them with warning signs but they have clearly over-spent their signage budget and the rest is over to you. It would seem to be an endless and probably impossible task to deal with all the necessary work. Presumably, once completed, the slightest tremor will open up further cracks and create more work for someone.
Added to this, driving slowly to avoid the dips and potholes seems to irritate the pants off the average Italian driver. They seem to find it necessary to drive six to ten inches from the bumper of your car, flash their lights when you won’t, or can’t, pull over or speed up and gesticulate when you do anything silly such as to be considerate to other road users. Woe betide anyone who irritates them in town centres. They will pull alongside you to deal out a swift and forceful berating despite the fact they will have blocked the road in the process with an absolute disregard for the oncoming traffic. The irony in this seems to pass them by; unless, of course, you are a passenger in my car!
Anyway, the Circumetea, by road, started for us in Giardini Naxos, a small pretty seaside resort of a thousand cars, about five miles down the coast. From sea level, you drive up hill and round hairpin bends for what seems like the rest of the day. All the while, Etna is there, off the port bow, shrouded in mist and getting gradually closer and closer. At some stage, when the volcano was a good deal more active, early settlers realised that lava never seemed to run uphill. Consequently, the concept of developing settlements high on a promontory with at least one or two valleys in between must have seemed the sensible option. Early settlements became villages and then towns and the elevation provided some comfort for the inhabitants, if not quite so for the farming fraternity eeking out a living in the valley below, albeit with extremely fertile soil.
Castiglione di Sicilia is one such emplacement. The lava that has flowed down in the valley has provided the rich fertile soil and the building blocks for walls and houses. The stone can be easily worked and produces an excellent building material. There is a lot of it about. The product of the eruptions over the last century can be seen along the roadside, in the fields and littering the mountain sides. The boulders spat out during an eruption cooled as black pumice in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Many of the houses are still a showing signs of the ash cloud from the four flank eruptions since 2000. Walls are grey and the black ash have been swept into piles around the properties.
From Castiglione, the lava flowed all the way to Randazzo on the northern foot of the mountain. It provided the fertility needed for miles and miles, hectare after hectare of hazel nut copses. The fallen nuts crunch under the car tyres as you drive along and the verges are full of travellers who have stopped and are busily collecting.
As you begin to get closer to Etna, you appreciate even more just how enormous it is and the fact that, for most of the year, it is in a shroud of wet mist and very, very cold. Climbing it is not for the faint-hearted or the under-prepared. Ascending as far as the crater is a serious business and warrants proper preparation. There are a number of ways to ‘get close and personal’. For a scant 245 euros a head, with no concessions for children and infants, you can fly over it in a helicopter. For a good deal less, you can take a jeep tour and walk the last stretch. Either way, how close you can get depends on the weather, the visibility and, more importantly, whether you are suitably kitted out.
Any starting point is a good hour and a half of stiff driving from Taormina. It means an early start and, after all, you’re on holiday.
From Castiglione and Randazzo, the Circumetea takes you to Bronte and then on to Cesaro. Bronte is spectacularly under-whelming. Its claim to fame has nothing to do with the sisters and their something of a wastrel brother. Rather, it was a duchy presented to Horatio Nelson and remained in the Bridport family until 1982 when it was returned, at a cost of course, to the Italian commune to be their rightful property. After having to undertake a fifty-three point turn in a side street in Bronte in an extremely small Volkswagen; they are welcome to the place. One interesting fact is that the Bronte pistachio makes up 1% of the world’s total output. They are a distinctive green in colour, borne out of their ability to grow on rich lava-generated soil. The trees only produce nuts every other year, so Bronte pistachios are much sought-after, at a price. A kilo, courtesy of Amazon, will set you back over £22. Here, they still fetch 17 euros a kilo.
Cesaro is the home of yet another ‘Big Jesus’. Frequenters of the Manc-Holidays blog may recall that I have a ‘thing’ about Big Jesus monuments. How exciting to find one in Sicily. It has been erected high on a cliff overlooking the town and accessed via a small and very lonely car park next to a redundant outdoor disco. I left the hire car dreadfully exposed to any Sicilian Tom, Dick or Harry to snaffle and sell for parts in Palermo and climbed the hundred or so steps to the top. What a view. Big Sicilian Jesus looks out over the whole of the valley and offers protection to the eternal souls within Cesaro, if not their mortal beings.
So many of the small hill towns you’ll pass on the route are a nightmare for the car driver. The streets were built for emaciated donkeys not for what runs off the production line in Turin, Mexico, Argentina, Eastern Europe or Germany. The residents of many of them seem to have agreed on a senso unico, a one-way system. This agreement must have been formulated in one of the local cafes or in a secret meeting of the town council. Or perhaps that’s one and the same thing. Anyway, nobody seems to have had the necessary circumspection that somebody other than blood relatives will be driving through their town. Wait though, perhaps this is my naivety. After all, we’re in the country of vendettas! Either way, it’s not until you’re driving down one of the town streets, trying to leave some enamel on the wing mirrors that you realise the ploy when a battered up Fiat or something that you’d only take out in the dark if you had any sense of personal pride stops in front of you and the driver starts gesticulating. You are wrong and he is right. The choice is simple. Another fifty-three point turn or a horrendous reverse for half a mile up hill on cobbles. Touching your head, saying Eeenglish and pretending you’ve had too much sun rarely works. Neither does smiling, shrugging the shoulders and being amiable. They’ve seen it all before. They can smell blood over diesel every time.
Eventually you extricate yourself from an impossible position, bathed in sweat and feeling every bit the foreigner and continue on your way. One of the last stops before you hit the sanity of the autostrade is Gagliano, a classic hilltop town with views that would be hard to beat. From here, the road descends to Agira and the Canadian War Cemetery, formed as a mark of respect to the 1st Canadian Division who relieved the town on 28th July 1943. There are 490 Commonwealth graves here in a beautifully peaceful spot high on the Sicilian countryside.
Just outside Agira is Regalbuto, just a short drive from the A18. Here we stopped to let an old farmer move his cattle across the road from field to field. Twelve coffee-coloured creatures, the colour of the soil. However, the memory will always be of the old man with the stick, leading the way, wearing an old pair of underpants on his head. True, he might well have tried to tuck in the edges to form something of a rather flat turban, but there was no denying their origin. They were recognisably underpants!
After all that excitement, the manic A18 back to Taormina seems almost tame. The Circumetea is a long day out, but en route it will generate many memories for years to come.
Public vs Private Beaches
The bay below Taormina is home to two main beaches. The guide books will tell you that these are the two best beaches in this part of Sicily. To see more or better, you have to face a long drive south to the eastern tip or, alternatively, a long hike up onto the northern coast.
Actually, the bay is one long beach with Mazzaro and Spisone at the left hand end and Giardini Naxos at the right. The railway station, Taormina – Giardini in the middle of the bay, forms a ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ between the two coastal areas. The Etna line bus takes you from the main terminal in Taormina dropping through a series of hairpin bends and down to sea level. The coastline is indeed beautiful with deep blue water and the boats of affluent mariners bobbing about in the bay.
Giardini Naxos is a busy resort town with the usual strip of hotels, ristorante, cafeterias, bars, shops and tourist tat. The beach opposite has been carved into sections and purchased by local hotels and businesses as private beaches. Every so often there is a small strip of sand for public use. Between the hours of 9 am and noon the strip resembles the evacuation of Dunkirk. Fortunately, the exertion of lying down all morning in the sun is enough to send couples and families in for a well-deserved lunch and then a post-prandial further lie down to recover before venturing out again late in the afternoon for a pre-dinner lie down. The blazing mid-day sun and baking hot sand are left to the mad dogs and the English.
The concept of a private beach is interesting. They charge for you putting your towel down, for hiring a sun bed, for access to the water. Presumably it made good economic sense to sell vast tracts of the beach to be developed by some Sicilian fat cat whilst raising an annual rate for the public purse from which a sum is extracted to maintain the small sections for the use of those who can’t or won’t pay for the pleasure of looking affluent.
It’s strange. The sand is of the same quality, the sea brings in the same flotsam and jetsam and yet the demarcation lines are there. In Giardini Naxos the private sections are fenced off behind four foot high wire. Fortunately, it’s single strand and without guard towers, Alsatians and warning signs: Pericolo di Morte. The public stand, sit or lie barely a foot away from those who have paid for the pleasure of being there at the same time and on the same sand. Those who wish to sit or lie in private do so on rented beds and so a little higher off the ground than the poor unfortunates on the other side of the wire. The inequality of wealth! I’m surprised that the commune officials haven’t worked out how to ensure that the public sections get just a little less sun than those who are more favoured and pampered.
The foreign traders who ply their goods up and down the beach make no such distinction. For private and public alike, they constantly wave towels, sunglasses, beads and bracelets in your direction with a half-hearted plea for you to buy. In Giardini Naxos, they also offer on-the-spot foot massage. I couldn’t think of anything worse on a beach made up of abrasive, dark volcanic sand. One elderly gentleman was selling pillow cases. And why not?
An evening with Mr Samar and the Two Wolves
Caffe Wunderbar, on Piazza IX Aprille, spreads its tables over the whole piazza and smart, jacketed waiters have been serving drinks and snacks at achingly exorbitant prices here since the 1960s and La Dolce Vita. Tennessee Williams sat here ‘watching the squares go by’ and the likes of Richard Burton, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor and Greta Garbo propped themselves up against the bar enjoying cocktails and, no doubt, more than the odd glass or two of Scotch.
Mr Samar and his two wolves have something of a residency and have been playing their own style of jazz here for many years. Mr Samar, adorned in a taqiyah, plays tenor sax and is accompanied by two smooth ‘wolves’ on drums and keyboard.
I came across Mr Samar sitting alone in the middle of the square, leaning back precariously on a cafe chair with his feet high up on a lamppost. Eyes closed, he was improvising around As Time Goes By while the wolves brushed out a rhythm and provided the accompaniment. We all know that the look is everything. Mr Samar’s look is clearly to be as enigmatic as possible and uber-cool. He barely smiles, nor does he acknowledge the acclaim from the customers or the people passing through the piazza, who pause to listen and to take photographs. His white shirt is part of his look. One sleeve has been removed and the other looks as though he has been in dispute with the wolves over royalties. Shreds of fabric around each wrist complete the look. Fortunately, his trousers seem to have survived intact but the long pointed brown leather shoes would benefit from a bit of a shine.
You can’t play late-night, super-cool jazz and be energetic. The two wolves are testament to that. They move with all the alacrity of two retired greyhounds. Their days of stomping through brisk numbers are well and truly behind them. We might be in a town square in the middle of August, entertaining tourists from around the world; but for them, in their playing, they are elsewhere. It’s two in the morning, the air thick with cigarette smoke, the ceiling fan barely turning and Rick Blaine and Captain Renault are sharing the last brandy of a long evening.
Play it again, Mr Sam-ar.
Syracuse or Siracusa? OK, let’s start with a bit of a diversion. There are 21 letters in the Italian alphabet, having derived, of course, from Latin. The letters missing are j,k,w, x and y. Only the spelling of foreign words have these letters; words that have become adopted into the Italian vocabulary. So, strictly speaking, Syracuse with a ‘y’ is a foreign spelling.
The second curious thing is that the Sicilian language, spoken by nearly five million people, does not have a synthetic future tense. Strictly speaking, that means that it is a language that has the past and the present tenses but the future tense is adapted from the present. Presumably, Sicilians can express hope and aspiration like the rest of us. That got me thinking about the long tradition of vendettas and the fragility of existence as I fought my way down the E45 and south to Siracusa. It’s a fine road, the E45. Funded from Brussels, it’s 130 kmh nearly all the way. Well, it is if you stick to the speed limits. Which, apparently, are not there to be adhered to, especially if you’re driving anything other than a bus, coach, lorry, scooter or one of those infernal Piaggio three-wheeled monstrosities. Well, maybe not the Piaggio!
The sat-nav told me it was a mere 90 minutes to Siracusa. It lied. The guidebook told me it was an easy drive to a beautiful city. It also lied, in part, at least, It was well over three hours of unmitigated hell. Traffic snarl ups in Catania started the blood pressure increasing. The irritation was only broken by the entertaining sight of an Italian driver reversing five hundred yards down the fast lane of the motorway so he could avoid the congestion and take an alternative route down the slip road he had missed the first time.
Outside Siracusa, four lanes gradually converged to three, and then two and then a very packed one. It took well over an hour to reach the centre of the city. That’s when we discovered Siracusa was hosting the 2016 World Canoe Polo Championships. I never realised it was such a popular sport. I’d have gone for ‘niche’ if pushed, but there were teams battling it out from throughout Europe as well as from the United Kingdom and the rest of the World. Please excuse that last bit, I’m just practising for when we trigger Article 50.
Of course, as one would have expected there was a heavy police presence. The Carabinieri, armed to the teeth as usual with sub-machine guns, stab vests and paratrooper boots. They looked comfortingly menacing as they patrolled the arena and the main audience stands. The rather more casual Polizia stood around in groups, admiring each other’s sunglasses and generally making sure that tans were topped-up and tourists kept informed. To mis-quote the old song, If you want to know the time….don’t ask a Carabineri!
Siracusa is an ancient city. Superficially it is not attractive and I suspect it needs living in to begin to appreciate the reason why it has World Heritage status. The centro antico is a labyrinth of narrow down-at-heel streets and old buildings, many in need of restoration. Alongside the marina, the area has been opened up to vast swathes of concrete and pedestrianisation which must make it busy and popular during the evenings. I headed down to the marina to park. A man on a bike blew a whistle at me and directed me into a vacant place. Ur Inglese? ‘Ow long you ‘ere? 4 Euros, 4 ‘ours. Then he provided excellent directions to the old part of Siracuse and Ortygia, the island on which many of the ancient sites and relics.
It was only when we returned later to pick up the car that I noticed all parking meters had been suspended, presumably due to the canoe polo events, and the parking signs had been covered up in black bin-bags. Parking was libero and I had been stung, again! Another variation of the ‘it’s a Euro’ scam. Archimedes came from Siracusa, but I had a feeling in that car park that there was a different meaning to ‘getting screwed’. When will you ever learn, Haye?
Years ago, I’d go annually to Le Touquet in Paris Plage. Every Saturday morning I’d head down to the fish market just to marvel on how ugly a creature is the fish. It probably accounts for not ever really taking to its meat; that and one nearly finishing off the Queen’s mum. The fish market in Siracusa is outstanding. I’ve rarely seen such ugliness. There were long silver fish, almost like eels, that seemed to have been cast in aluminium and striped fish, the size of mackerel, in Newcastle United colours. Believe me, these were amongst the more attractive of the species. The rest gaped and yawned on beds of crushed ice and for all the world, I couldn’t honestly have said they cried out ‘Eat Me!’.
Slightly out of town is the Archeological Park and home to the Greek Theatre. This is the largest in Sicily and seated 15,000 for Greek theatre, in the first instance, and later on for Roman games in a modified arena. The white stone is blinding and the heat bounces off making the whole place a furnace. However, again, the setting is spectacular. At the back, the hills are a natural necropolis and at the front, the views pour down the hillside and into the blue of the Ionian Sea. It was just so unbearably hot! They had the first night of Aeschylus’ Promethean Bound here. Then home for a glass of wine and an olive and await the critics, I suppose.
Within the park is the Orecchio di Dionisio (the Ear of Dionysis). It’s a natural limestone cave that has formed to be a similar shape to the human ear. As a result, it has superb acoustics. The cave is 23 metres high and extends back over 60 metres. It’s pitch black but it’s strange how soon your eyes become accustomed to the dark. Perhaps more accustomed than to the wailing Japanese lady who wanted to test out the acoustics with her mezzo-soprano warm-up. After half an hour of ooo – ahh – eee – ooo, I could willingly have done an ‘Indian Joe’ on her and left her in the Sicilian equivalent of McDougal’s cave.
A few hours in Siracusa did not do it justice; but alas, that was all that we had to spare. I think you need at least a couple of days to begin to feel at home and at one with the place. It was time to head back to Taormina and a bottle, or maybe two, of blood-warm Primitivo. It had been one of those days.
The weekly market, the mercato settimanale, is held every Wednesday half way up an extremely steep hill between Taormina and Castelmola.
The walk up is interesting in itself. Every inch of building space has been utilised. Houses mix in with each other ranging from the extremely old to the relatively new. Living cheek by jowl with your neighbours requires adaptation for privacy. Fences make good neighbours, as someone once said…..so gates are secure, warnings about deadly and ferocious dogs are prominently displayed and cars are squeezed onto your own minuscule areas of concrete. It’s rare to see a large car, it’s even more rare to see any car that doesn’t have a scratched bumper, wing or boot.
There are countries known for their markets. Perhaps we need a posting of Places with great markets? I’d have to include Paris, of course, and Bury in Lancashire, Porta Portese in Rome and the indoor market in Nazare. The souks in Doha are amazing places, as well. But I think Kalkan would be on the top of my list. Taormina. Sorry, no. When we eventually emerged out from the narrow winding streets into the piazza we were greeted by a dozen or so white vans around a dozen or so stalls. It was reasonably busy, predictably women meeting to chat and to buy what they needed. That was the problem. What did they sell that anyone would need? It was a great market if you were seeking a replacement fish slice, a new pair of knickers, last season’s-but-three tee-shirt or something to add to your already eclectic collection of blue buckets.
Needless we came away empty-handed. I fought the temptation to take back cross-over aprons in a range of colours as holiday gifts for friends to wear when watching early episodes of Coronation Street or as accessories for Cauldwell, Longhurst and Sharples themed parties.
Just when you think Taormina is built precariously enough on a cliff face, you turn around and there, behind you, is Castelmola. It towers above Taormina, the remains of a medieval castle and a whole village gripping the cliff.
The foolhardy and seriously insane might well choose to walk up the zig-zag hair-pin bends that wind their way from the lower reaches of Taormina to the height of Castelmola at 529 metres above sea level. The more sensible will buy themselves a return bus ticket and wonder at how anyone can achieve job satisfaction shuttling a full-sized coach up roads barely wider than two small cars. Predictably, on every bend, the bus meets traffic coming the other way and we negotiate the wafer-thin spaces between walls and vehicles. The journey takes a little over twenty minutes and ends up in the main square of the village.
The guide books describe it as the ‘prettiest village in Italy’. That’s a little on the generous side, although it does have considerable charm. The small, winding streets take you to the Chiesa Madre, built as recently as 1935, although in a plot where a church has stood since 1500; and to various vantage points around the town where you can gaze mile after mile, down to the sea, or across the hills and out into the far country. There is little to see of the medieval castle, just a few walls, anchored by steel cable to stop them falling down the hillside. It was used as a fort for centuries and later as a ‘detention centre for miscreants’. How this differs from being a prison beats me.
In the main piazza, the resident officer of the Polizia Municipale, parks his Vespa scooter and stands amiably chatting to the local cafe owner. This must be a posting in Paradise. On the other hand, it could be the posting in Hell brought on by professional misconduct in Rome and Italian Internal Affairs summarily casting him out to serve his time in Purgatory, high on a Sicilian cliff top like a modern-day Prometheus.
I’d prefer the former. Watching him from the cafe across the square, it’s clear that he knows everyone. He probably ran around the same nursery, sat in the same classroom, drank coffee in the same snack-bar and attended the same Mass as most of them. In his role as the town’s only policeman, he must have so little to do. Out of bed every morning, put on the crisp navy trousers and shiny black shoes, white belt, blue shirt and white cap and then after a cafe and a cornetto position himself at various vantage points around the town ensuring all is well and at one with the World. I suppose Palermo summons him in from time to time for his own professional development and offers him courses on dealing with various brutalities and serious crimes. He must yawn his way through hour after hour of presentations and PowerPoints, longing only to climb the hill back to his village where the only crime he meets is that someone’s dog has been keeping everyone awake with its barking, or the butcher has threatened his wife, who he suspects of having an affair with the undertaker. Occasionally, a young lad might step out of line and need a quick clip round the ear and a subsequent visit to discuss things with his father. Apart from that, the sleepy life of Castelmola goes on uninterrupted.
We travelled back with a couple in their 50s. She was dressed anonymously enough not to raise even a mere eyebrow in passing. Her husband, on the other hand, was dressed to kill, or should that be dressed to be killed? Straw trilby, bright yellow sports shirt with JAMAICA emblazoned across the back, crimson red cargo shorts, brown ‘sensible shoes’ and black socks, pulled up as far as they could go. Unfortunately however, the left sock went considerably higher than the right. They may well have once been a matching pair, before the ‘hot wash’ took its toll. And yes, before you ask, they were English.
In every decent-sized town and in every city, there is always an Irish bar. Even in Ireland. They range from small quirky establishments with old-fashioned separate seating areas to large open spaces with wall-to-wall televisions and comprehensive menus. There’s usually at least one member of the staff who seems to be ‘Our Man in Wherever’ and welcomes you with the brogue from the old country. I used to think that there was a huge catalogue available that prospective owners used to decide on the decor. Pages and pages of reproductions of framed photographs of Republican heroes or street signs from Donegal, Wexford, Dublin, Kildare and Kilkenny. Along with a fair amount of dark wood, brass and a good Gaelic font on the computer, it was enough to make an Irishman tearful and long for home. It was certainly enough to make the rest of us sure we’d get a wam welcome and a decent pint of the black stuff.
Invariably, they are named as they would be in any small Irish town: O’Callaghan’s, O’Reilly’, Flannagans or O’Dowd’s. You’d almost half-expect the door to open and a man in a long wet raincoat and a fedora to step in with a call of ‘peace be to all here’.
In Taormina, the Irish bar is set back in its own little square. Disappointingly, it’s called O’Seven. Why? I’m really not sure. It has Irish Bar over the door in large enough letters for you not to be mistaken and plenty of old darkened wood inside. But the franchise catalogue seems never to have arrived. The walls are bare, the ceilings unadorned, the glass plain. Even more strangely, while they sell Guinness, it’s only one of three beers that they do sell. The other two are German. A pale lager and a red lager. Even more strangely, they’ll charge you four euros and fifty cents for what is to all intent and purpose a half pint of Guinness and just a further euro for a pint. Now that is Irish!
And just when you think things are going well…….
…they take a turn for the worse…..
It was the start of our second week. We had arranged to move to a beach-front apartment a little up the coast from Taormina in nearby Mazzaro.
We drove up the Via Nazionale looking for No. 175a. It’s a rather scruffy coastal road, the verges packed both sides with parked cars. 171…..173…………….175? An elegant tiled forecourt beckoned. An equally elegant man sadly informed us that this was not the place we were looking for and pointed instead to a pot-holed and rutted side road that plunged like a lift-shaft down into the gloom.
Down at the very bottom, amidst plastic bottles and rubbish thrown from the adjacent railway embankment, was a two-storey block of what looked like something from a budget holiday camp of the 50s. It had the feel of somewhere they’d send you while they considered to which country you would eventually be deported. Our host directed me to the ‘designated parking place’. How on earth I was supposed to park anything larger than a shopping trolley there beggered belief. Even with a small VW hire car, I blocked both entrances and exits. Still, the listing stated it was only 10 metres to the beach from the apartment. We walked up a long flight of concrete steps and down past a row of identical cell doors. At the very end we paused and went into what, in all fairness, was a pleasant space. Phew, but it was small. We took turns to admire the view from the balcony. There, down below…..ten metres away, was the beach. However, to reach it, you needed to go out again and past the cell doors, down the concrete steps, around the corner, down past the back of the block, through the steel and rusted security gate and down another flight of ladder-steep steps. The beach was a thin strip of sand that ran between two private beaches and conveniently housed the main drain outlet. As a result, half of the beach was in the sea following the heavy rain the night before.
It was dire. Our host left, smiling and presumably thinking we would be content.
We looked at each other. Woe-begone and devastated. This was to be our home for a full week. Talk about professional misrepresentation. The nearest shop was a car drive away with the added virtual impossibility of finding anywhere to park. Next door they are already winding up the volume on the music system.
Within ten minutes we knew what must be done. Be damned with the expense. Secure accommodation elsewhere, but where? The finger gradually headed north and west along the map and the vacancies were checked on Booking.com. Villa Santa Barbara in Cefalu had a vacancy for seven nights in an apartment. The last one, but then again, it always tells you that! Still, we knew a little about Cefalu and and it made eminently good sense.
And so we set off. I sent out our Mazzaro host a quick email letting her know what we had decided to do and why; and received a tirade back for our troubles. Apparently, we’re clearly ‘difficult people’.
Within twenty-four hours, emails started arriving from Airbnb. They see themselves not just as a booking agency, but also as arbitrators in disputes between hosts and guests. Despite not having photographic evidence to support our claim, they contacted the host and eventually we reached something of a settlement. It seems that my error was not to stay and suffer the whole week, claiming only at the end of the rental agreement and when I was back in the UK and only after allowing the host the opportunity to deal with our issues. As the issues were less to to with the accommodation and far more to do with the environment and location, I can’t see how much could have been done to rectify the situation. Staying the week would have been purgatory.
So, financially, we were out of pocket, but we’ve managed to claw back some of the original rental costs. Airbnb have been backwards and forwards on our behalf and also provided an additional gratuity in the form of a discount off a future booking. Of course, settling the issue means that the booking is duly cancelled. This results in our inability to leave a review that would enable future guests to make a more informed choice. The best I can do has been to strongly urge Airbnb to ensure that the listing is accurate, both in the written description and in the images provided. And, of course, make my views known here. As for Airbnb, I really can’t complain. Clearly, they are sensitive to the need to keep the customer as content as possible. There’s no such thing as bad publicity? It might have worked for Marie Lloyd and Mae West, it doesn’t work as well in the era of social media and online reviews.
Waking up in Cefalu is a joy. From the apartment we can look down on the city and out to sea. The water is azzuro and so is the sky. Gone has the faint drone of A18 traffic and the background hum has been replaced with the evening clicking of cicadas.
It receives a pretty miserable write-up in the Top Ten Guide to Sicily (DK). It refers to it as a fishing village, it feels more like a town and it has a cathedral, so that ought to make it a city. It’s all very confusing. However, it’s a village-cum-city of two halves. The western end is modern and built on a grid system. The eastern end is outstandingly pretty, old and full of narrow twisty streets and pantile roofs. It deserves a much better set of recommendation than Messers Dorling Kindersley dispatches on it. It’s quite a special place.
The main road that follows the coast, past private and then public beaches, seems always to be busy. Today, somebody paid the price of overtaking somebody else who was endeavouring to turn right. In my rear mirror, I saw a scooter going down sideways and that sickening noise of when plastic meets tarmac.
You go into another mode, as did many pedestrians. ‘Diffused responsibility’ can’t be an excuse in a country where accidents must be daily eventualities. By the time I’d stopped and ran back, somebody had called the police and the ambulance. The old man driving the Citroen seemed more concerned about the state of his front wing than the plight of the young mum and her pillion daughter who were in the road. Fortunately, both were wearing helmets and mum took most of the impact on her thigh and the top of her leg. Flip-flops on scooters are not sensible footwear. The daughter was sitting on the curb nursing a sore leg. We turned the scooter motor off and I told them in broad Mancunian to leave the bike where it was until the police arrived. Clearly, it didn’t need translating and somebody started making the oncoming traffic turn around. Job done, I thought. Back on with the Clark Kents and we carried on to the beach.
The town beach is of golden sand. There are waves and it’s well managed. During the working week, there is plenty of room for everyone, but at weekends, it’s predictably busy, especially in high season. The far western end is more rocky but generally quieter. It’s always a dilemma. Sand or stone?The latter is cleaner, but the former makes for a more rewarding sea experience. Stone makes for clearer water, but with sand often comes better waves. Why we bother debating it is ridiculous. You’re unlikely to get both in the same spot. Seek and ye shall find, that’s our motto.
There are other marked differences between being here in a city in the north and the towns and villages on the east coast. It feels far more developed here. Consequently, the roads that skirt the city are open and broad. The actual city streets are are still narrow, but are more or less pedestrianised zones, rather than they only way to get through the city and move about. I suppose if you were booked into a hotel in the old town, you would still be faced with the problem of negotiating the side streets in a car, but most of the larger holiday residences are slightly out of town and the on road parking is far easier.
Cefalu in the evening is still busy, despite it being September. Pupils in the Palermo commune return to school for the new academic year a little later than other areas of Sicily, so the city is still busy with families and tourists.
The main thoroughfare, the Corso Ruggero, runs south to north from more or less parallel to the Rocco di Cefalu down towards the sea and the Chiesa dell’Itria. It’s a beautiful street, adorned with a mixture of quality shopping and local crafts, many being demonstrated by their respective artisans on open tables under a warm, starry sky. The passeggiata is in full flow and everybody turns out in their finest, and often most revealing.
At the end of the Corso Ruggero the road turns towards the harbour and the sea. Moving north, we’ve left the Ionian Sea behind and this is the Tyrrhenian Sea. Still, part of the Mediterranean, it takes its name from the Etruscans who emigrated from Lydia, led by Prince Tyrrhenus. They eventually settled along the west coast of Italy, giving their name to Tuscany, as they did to Etruria. The Rocco de Cefalu and many of the smaller rocks in the harbour are floodlit in the evening; more for tourists, I presume, than to warn sailors. However, there is a lighthouse here and it casts its beam out at regular intervals across the bay.
The cathedral is a grand Romanesque edifice that almost looks Moroccan with its palm trees and weathered stone. Started in 1131, it was consecrated a decade later. The portico was much later in 1472. Inside, it has the magnificence that one expects from a Roman Catholic cathedral. A grand nave, a sumptuous high alter and an interior that reflects the wealth of the mother church.
Towering above Cefalu is La Rocca and the remains of Greek, Roman, pre-Christian, Byzantine, and Medieval settlements.
Even in the cool of the morning, with the weather on the change and ominous clouds forming on the horizon, it was still a stiff hike. From the crenelated battlements, the views are extraordinary. On one side the new town, the railway and away down the coast to the mountains. From the other, the new harbour, the old fishing port, the pan tiled old houses of the village, the exceedingly large duomo, and away out to sea and the Mediterranean. From such a vantage point, it was not surprisingly that the original residents packed up their belongings from the old village and headed upwards for safety. It would have been far easier to defend and would have provided excellent protection from pirates and invaders. I’m beginning to think that with all these hills to climb, natural selection would have favoured a race with a low centre of gravity. Perhaps this is why there seems to be so many short Sicilians?
Spiaggia di Torre Conca
The Torre Conca is a wildlife area about 10 km east of Cefalu and has a 6km stretch of public beach with the usual addition of a reasonably-sized car park and tunnel under the road providing safe access to the horrendously steep hill down to the beach. Steep hills are fine when you’re fresh and still benefiting from the morning breeze. At 4.30 in the afternoon, when it’s in the 30s and you’re salty, sandy and tired, it’s tortuous. Poor Mrs H. found it particularly tiresome. I was tempted to take out her spark plug and winch her to the top of the hill on her starting handle a la M.S.M Pugh (Harry Andrews) in Ice Cold in Alex.
The beach lies just below Sant’Ambrogia, just off the SS113, which claims to be the first eco-village in Sicily, home to 250 Sicilians and, having been ‘found’ by the Guardian and the Independent journalists, it is rapidly becoming popular as a corner of ‘authentic Sicily’. That should help the local economy but do little for it’s authenticity. The entrance to the village crosses a number of single track bridges. The residents have planted flowers in urns and a ‘WELCOME’ sign in small white pebbles. You are full of expectation as you reach the brow of the hill and the start of the village. Then, in less than a blink of the eye, you pass the shop and that’s it. You’re out of it. It’s a bit of an anti-climax. I fear the Guardian travel reporter had her 1200 words and must have worked hard to use them all!
The beach of Torre Conca is popular and the water is incredibly clear. It’s volcanic sand, black and gritty, with an interesting array of small pebbles. Whatever the colour it is and whether it’s soft or gritty, sand is a ‘Marmite Moment’. You either love it, or hate it. Personally, I’d choose small clean pebbles every time. It’s popular with couples and families, even though it’s not patrolled and does not have a resident lifeguard. However, there’s plenty of room for everyone and the water is certainly boisterous and refreshing.
The beaches in Italy, generally, are not amongst the best in Europe. Greece and Turkey must rank as the top two providers for glorious beaches and good weather. Spain and France have their fair share of quality sand and sea combinations. If only we had the weather in Wales, we might be able to compete with the best given the quality and the expanse of the golden sandy beaches of the Lleyn Peninsular or of Ynys Mon.
Spiaggia Costa Verde and surrounds
The SS113 goes west from Cefalu to Palermo. It’s not a pretty road. It’s a mish-mash of renovations to the surface and the adjacent rail track. As far as Lipari, the scenery is hardly memorable. Turn off the road in Lipari and head down to the beach and you see Sicily at its worst.
In one fell swoop, they’ve turned a silk purse into a sow’s ear. The glorious backdrop of mountain has been ruined by thoughtless development. The rubbish by the side of the road is a gigantic pile. It would not have looked out of place in Govanhill, back in 1975. The promenade is miserable with broken and rutted roads, wrecked kerbs and cars left abandoned.
However, head just a few kilometres back towards Cefalu and it’s a totally different story. The beach at the Costa Verde is like something from another age. Wild and unspoilt, the car parks are reasonably priced and well-manned. There is minimal development and the beach stretches as far as the eye can see. The sands are golden and the sea crystal clear. More importantly, it was almost empty. Just a few couples dotted here are there with tasteful umbrellas, quietly sunning themselves and reading. It must get busy at weekends; we went on a Monday and it was absolute bliss. Even given that it was overcast and the weather presumably changing to clear the air, it was still more than warm enough to enjoy the waves and dry out between dips. From Cefalu, it’s a fifteen minute car ride and on the bus route, as well.
On the way back, it’s easy to pull in at Conad the Supermarket, to stock up on Grillo, Frizzante from the Veneto, local beers and fresh supplies. It almost feels like it has the degree of infrastructure that one has come to expect in France or Spain. Presumably, the road development is as a result of European funding; Sicily needs more. It needs serious investment if it is to attract the demanding Europeans and keep them coming back.
The SS113 takes you out along the coastal road towards Messina. Turning off onto the SS280 takes you to Castelbueno, high in the Madonie mountains. The scenery on the way is spectacular. The backdrop of the Madonie national park is splendid, wild and rugged.
After about 12km, you arrive in Castelbueno, which is a fair-sized town. Unfortunately, once again, it is a town of too many cars; many of them old, battered and, fortunately, small. There is nowhere to park except on the outskirts , by the bus park and the cemetery. One thing about Sicilian cemeteries, there is always plenty of parking space.
The town has a charm, although the streets are a little on the grey side. The main drag takes you up through the medieval pedestrianised area to the Ventimiglia castle, now an art gallery and the town’s museum. It’s a rather dull experience, wandering endless rooms of ecclesiastical artefacts, modern and less modern art and and viewing bits of broken vases and jugs, unearthed in the 1990s when the castle went up for auction.
I can never work out who does the translation into English that is supposed to help the passing visitor understand the nature and importance of the exhibits. Why they can’t farm it out to an agency, preferably in the United Kingdom, never fails to surprise me.
For example, on entering the Tower, one reads: The castle arises on a hill at 400 metres above sea level, that presented, in the medieval period, precipitous declivities on the northern and west side and was extremely steep on the other sides. We’re back on the battle ground of the Plain English campaign.
One can very easily feel an Alan Bennett moment coming on in small town cafes. Due ‘Coca lights’, per favore. They have only Coca Classico. All that sugar. Mind you, asking for anything else in the middle of the day that isn’t alcoholic, especially when you’re driving and still twitching from too many espressos turns out to be a bit of a ‘splother’, so we say a fond farewell to the dental enamel and succumb.
One thing I have realised from being in Sicily, is that I need to develop a different attitude to ‘holidays’. There is a difference between ‘travelling’ and being ‘on holiday’. Perhaps it stems from no longer working? Time was always so precious and there was inevitably a sense of having to ‘move’, ‘get on with the day’ and see as much as we could in the week or fortnight at our disposal before it was time to return home and go back to work.
After all, the world is very large place and we were unlikely to pass that way again. Time is even more precious these days, though for different reasons; but there is also the feeling that I need to slow down and be more at one with a place. Stop and observe rather than carry on through, regardless.
Years ago, I used to watch coach-loads of American or Japanese tourists disembark with frightening regularity at Conwy Castle. They would stop, gather into pairs or small groups, have their picture taken, get back on board and be gone. Tick the page. Conwy ‘done’. On one occasion, I was with my late father-in-law, who we referred to as Taid, standing on the battlements of one of Edward I’s finest examples of his fortifications built during his 13th century conquest of Wales, and enjoying the panoramic view on a sunny August morning. We were joined by an American couple. Fair play to them, at least they had stayed off the coach for a while, paid their entrance fee and had climbed up the inner wall to share the view from the top. He was in the then usual uniform of open-toed sandals and white sports socks (pulled up), large beige shorts and checked shirts. His wife was unremarkable and, therefore, invisible in memory after so many years.
He turned to her. Do you know what I don’t understand? Why did they build the castle so close to the railway?
The memory has stayed with me, not only for Taid’s disbelieving shake of the head and quiet snigger or for such a naive comment, but also for the fact they we let it pass without taking the opportunity to enlighten. The engagement would have been everything.
In contrast, some of my favourite early twentieth century literature presents quite a different approach to travel. The Grand Tour often meant that its participants would stay in a particular town or city for days or weeks on end. There was a sense of immersion; soaking up the atmosphere, albeit still somewhat detached from reality. Invariably, they lived life as they did at home: breakfast, a short walk, lunch, reading, afternoon tea, a visit or another walk, dinner and a game of cards. Adventures and incidents were few but were heightened in as much as they broke the patterns of regularity.
However, staying and being in a place meant that they were often known by the hotel staff or other individuals, touching their own lives. Whether on land or at sea, travel was taken with all the urgency of a long voyage. France, Italy, Switzerland – they developed an intimate understanding of fewer places, rather than then superficial width that modern ease of travel provides. Who can forget the sheer excitement of the Malabar Caves?
I think this is perhaps what I’m searching for. How to experience a place without simply feeling that I am ‘passing through’? I don’t believe it’s done through sitting in restaurants or bars and being the seasonal tourist. It comes more from walking the streets, going off the beaten-track, sitting in a corner of a cafe on a square and observing; watching the world go by. Being ‘around in hope’ rather than expecting.
Some places have already given me this feeling. Has Sicily? I’m still not sure. Perhaps two weeks is too short; perhaps for what we have seen, it’s been a little long. Perhaps being ‘in season’ has been the issue. Certainly this last week, the first week of September, has been slightly different. The streets are quieter and the place seems to have just slowed down, if only marginally. Oh, and it’s raining!
Sicily can be very pretty. The coastline, mountains and countryside are impressive and interesting. It’s certainly popular with Italians as well as a wide range of other European visitors. However, like many areas of the southern Italian mainland, it cannot hide its poverty. It wears its heart on its sleeve. The villages are too often run-down and shabby. It’s not that they are essential working villages, either. It’s not a ‘take us as you find us’ issue. There seems to be a lack of desire or an inability to make the area one of which to be proud. It’s like visiting a teenager’s bedroom. You know that, with work, the whole place would be easier, tidier and would make life just that little more pleasant. The responsibility for this has to lie with the communes.
There is such a a poor infrastructure here, that it can only result in many untidy areas and too much needing to be done to maintain the quality of pavements, roads and buildings. Prices are high and the choice and quality of fresh food, both in the shops and restaurants, matches what can be afforded.
I suspect that many of the old ruined buildings and houses that litter the outskirts of towns and villages are inheritances locked in family probate and they are waiting for someone to come along and offer the right price to take on a project. Wait too long, and it stops being just ‘the one down the road’ and there becomes so many that the whole area loses its desirability.
Drivers and other road users are no better or worse than anyone else in Italy, although you see far fewer larger or more expensive cars in the south than you do in the northern areas of Italy. Old Fiats last forever out here and I’ve even seen a fair number of Lancia and Alfa Romeo marques that are still running after twenty or more years. Now you rarely see that at home outside of the enthusiast car shows.
Between the State and the Church, the poor Sicilians have been over over a barrel for generations. Historically,it’s no wonder that so many left to seek their fortunes abroad. The longing for home must have been strong, though; the cemeteries are full of the graves of Sicilians who were brought back to be buried. Many, of course, from America.
Still, the eastern and northern coasts of Sicily have charm and are well worth visiting. Take them on their own terms, they make little concession for those of you who want some of the finer pleasures. Outside of the main tourist towns, it still feels like a working country, with working villages slightly down at heel, with locals trying to make a living and giving life a decent shot. The money is clearly in the towns and the cities; in the businesses that attract tourists and in the draw of the main sights; and they are plentiful.
So, that’s it. Our time in Sicily has come to and end. All that’s left to do is to pack up and head down the A18, through some seriously impressive countryside, to Catania and the airport. Back to cooler climes and to give some thought to the next trip.
Would I come back to Sicily? Do you know, I’m not sure I would. It doesn’t leave me with an ache from not wanting to leave. We’ve experienced most of the eastern coast, around half of the northern coast and a fair amount of what is inland and in between. From what I’ve read, the western side of the island has he same issues but not the same beauty. Perhaps one day, I’ll return and go west.
For now though, I think I’ll tick the page and move on.