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Posts Tagged ‘castlemola’

April 21 – 22, 2008

Taormina is one of those places that has become a victim of its own success, like Dubrovnik and Venice. Of course, it is still cute, it still has a fabulous view of the coast and Mount Etna, and it still has a largely intact Romanized Greek theater, but you are liable to find yourself enjoying them crammed shoulder to shoulder with a lot of other people. Apparently, as cruise ships have grown bigger and bigger, the crowds on bad days have become larger and larger. One solution is to arrive late and leave early, or to spend the day up the hill in Castlemola, or out touring Mount Etna.

While I was glad to see Taormina, I was even more glad that I had spent the time before my tour in Ortigia instead. Now I backtracked to Taormina to join the first Rick Steves tour to focus just on Sicily. I started traveling back in the 90s, with tour groups, but over the years I switched more and more to independent travel. I do take an occasional tour – when it makes sense for transport, when I’m feeling lazy, when I want some company in the middle of a long trip. This was my fourth Rick Steves’ tour – I’d done two back in the 90s, and then Greece in 2006. I’d found the guides to be excellent, and the other tour members interesting travel companions, but the groups have grown larger and the prices higher, and most of the tours go to places where I’d rather travel alone. I had carefully compared itineraries before deciding, and this one came closest to including all the places I wanted to visit .

I began the day by buying a panini for lunch from the alimentari conveniently located in the same building as my B&B. Then I rode the shuttle back to the train station. Initially I thought that a bus would be faster, but then learned I would have to change in Catania. Besides, I really prefer trains – no worries about luggage disappearing from the storage area under the bus, and easy access to a toilet. At the station I found that a strike has caused the cancellation of trains coming from the mainland – good thing I was already on the island! (One couple joining the tour had to find a car and driver in a hurry because of this.) I also found that groups of schoolchildren were being taken through the train – apparently this was an educational outing…

At the Taormina train station, at the bottom of the cliff, I met up with a young Swedish couple on a long trip, unaccountably lugging a large suitcase around with them. Since the taxis at the station wouldn’t take me to my hotel, we rode the bus up to town, to find one that would. After dropping the Swedes in town, the driver negotiated some remarkably narrow streets – just wide enough for the car, but not for the car and a pedestrian – on the way to the tour hotel, the Vello d’Oro. Here I was surprised to find that I had a single room (these tours operate on a mandatory share/no single supplement basis), and a very nice single room at that, with a balcony with a good view (once I got the sticky door fixed). Turned out I was the only solo traveler on the tour. This might sound good – I wouldn’t have to share a room – but single rooms are usually the worst, and I would have to work harder on socializing.

I went out to look around – quickly abandoning the shops for the lovely Villa Communale gardens. Gorgeous views, pretty flowers, quirky buildings and some welcome shade – even so early in the season the sun had developed some noticeable heat. Then I compensated for a very bad coffee at the café just outside the gardens (I suppose they thought they were selling the view rather than the coffee), with a much better one back at the hotel.

At 5:00 o’clock it was time to switch to group mode and show up for the introductory meeting. Our tour guide, Alfio, turned out to be a tall, dark Sicilian with a charming accent and an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of things Sicilian, but he seemed not to feel the sun, as this meeting was out in the open – no shade, and tables too far apart to hear each other properly. After the introductions, and a move indoors, Alfio went through the entire itinerary with us – did he think we had signed up without reading it? Then we went out for a pre-dinner walk to visit a stretch of Roman wall. Nice piece of wall, but Alfio used it as the starting point for a complete outline of the history of Sicily. Standing around listening to things I already know, or would prefer to hear while sitting down with a drink, is a major complaint I have with tours. No complaint about dinner, though. Antipasto, including cheese, lasagna and veggies, pasta alla Norma (with eggplant and an excellent cheese, a Sicilian specialty), beef involtini and salad, and a huge slab of tiramisu. And wine – later the wine drinkers would chip in for a wine kitty, but this first night it was included.

The next morning I started the day on my balcony, with a view out to sea over the main piazza. Late in the morning we visited the Greek Theater, where the views were still stellar despite the stage wall (happily now somewhat ruined) built across the best view by the Romans. And I spent the afternoon up above Taormina in Castelmola, which had the best views of all. The town itself did have attractions beyond the shops. My photographs include several churches, a baroque fountain with an angel-faced centaur centerpiece (the symbol of Taormina), the narrow streets (staircases in places), a flower-bedecked balcony, a quaint door, but, of course, lots and lots of shots of Mt. Etna and the coast.

The morning included a walking tour of the town, taking in the Villa Communale gardens and the Greek Theater, with an informative local guide (of course Alfio was also a local!). Then a group of us rushed off to catch the bus up to Castelmola. One hardy sub-group decided to walk up, but I did mention that Sicily was short on trees, didn’t I? No trees means no shade, and I didn’t want to trek up a steep hill in full sunshine when I had an alternative. (I do my hiking in the Appalachians – plenty of trees!) Too many people wanted the bus and I wound up sharing a taxi with three fellow group members. We picked a quiet place for lunch, and then I went off to enjoy the spectacular views from the castle and explore the town. It was festival time – in the Church of St. George a big statue of the saint and the dragon was up on a float, being decorated with red roses.

Back in Taormina (by shared taxi again) I checked out the restaurants on my list. I had done a fair amount of research and had a list of possibles for most of the towns I would visit. Here the first couple of places seemed too pricey, and I settled on the Granduca. The town seemed crowded and one reason to eat at the Granduca was to enjoy the view, so I had my hotel make a reservation. Perhaps as a result, I had a table right in front of their big glass windows, and even after the sun set I could watch the palm trees tossing in the wind. For the first time I had brought my iPod to dinner, and I listened to Marlena de Blasi taking about Orvieto while I ate. And I ate well. A carpaccio of swordfish with greens was excellent. I followed that with a Sicilian specialty, pasta con le sarde, with sardines, raisins and pine nuts. I had had doubts about pasta with sardines, but promptly became a convert. With wine and water, the bill was around 30 euros.

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