Today was Italian Labour Day, a big national holiday that presented the perfect opportunity to do a little out of town excursion: a drive around Mount Etna. So together with Jill, a co-student of mine from England, we rented a little two-door Lancia to go on a country driving tour. At 50 Euros the rental was not exactly inexpensive, but we figured it would be worth it to be able to explore the countryside around Taormina.
First we had to deal with fuelling the car: our rental car was essentially empty and we were supposed to only put about as much fuel into the car as we thought we would use up so we’d be able to bring the car back empty as well. The gas stations were officially closed on this holiday, and unlike in North America, there was no option to use a credit card for payment at the pump. The pump, however, did have a little slot where you could feed in bills and one of the local drivers patiently took his time to explain the system to me.
With enough fuel to get us a couple of hundred kilometers we set off on our country excursion. At Giardini Naxos we turned inland towards our first destination: the “Gole di Alcantara”, the Gorge of the Alcantara River which is cut from black basaltic rock. The signs on the country road pointed towards the parking lot for the Alcantara Gorge, so we parked our vehicle and entered the complex. A simple 20 minute tour to see the river and the strange rock formations would cost 3 Euros, while longer tours and wading tours through the river are available also. We descended several sets of stairs to get down to the riverbed from where we got a good look at some of the interesting rock formations. Unless you wanted to walk through the river, there was no other place to go than back up through another set of stairs.
Once at the top we found out that if we had taken this entrance we would have been able to view the gorge for free. We were a couple of hundred meters away from our parked car and by the roadside there was a little stand which actually was the tourist information booth for this inland area. Two ladies supplied us with a range of brochures and information about the villages surrounding Mount Etna, and I have to admit that the service was better and more knowledgeable than the tourist office in Taormina, which happens to be a much bigger tourist centre.
We decided to explore a few of the gorgeous hilltop towns which are patched up against the rocky outcrops, providing an amazing vantage point of the surrounding countryside. Following a sign for a village called Motta Camastra we turned into a winding narrow road that was slowly taking us to the top of this crag. At the bottom of the town there was a public parking spot and we figured it was better to park our car there and walk up than to try to navigate the unimaginably narrow roads that were snaking through this little hilltop town.
Just as we had parked our car a local resident in his fifties started shouting at us in Italian from his balcony and waving at us. It took us some time to realize that he was actually inviting us up into his abode for a beer. We graciously declined, and continued our walk. Jill commented that local Sicilians had been showing a marked amount of interest in her and attributed it to her noticeably pale English complexion. After about a 10 minute walk through tiny cobble-stoned walkways we reached the main square which featured a bar with about 20 older men sitting outside. Most of them were wearing caps similar to French berets and they were engaged in a very spirited discussion. Not a woman was to be seen.
Our walk continued to the ancient church and from there we followed a walkway past narrow houses to a lookout point overlooking the entire mountain area. Sleepy cats were lounging lazily on the pavement, here and there women were watering flowers in front of their apartments. The vista towards Mount Etna, the Alcantara Valley and various mountaintop villages perched precariously against different rocky outcrops was breathtaking.
After Motta Camastra we decided to explore another one of these hilltop towns and following a beautiful drive through a countryside full of vineyards we reached a place called Rocella Valdemone about 45 minutes later. We parked the car right next to the old town church and strolled across the piazza. At the other end of this public square we saw the obligatory bar which again featured about 15 to 20 older gentlemen fully engrossed in an animated discussion. My guess was they were probably discussing soccer. We got the definite impression that tourists don’t come here very often because we certainly stuck out like a sore thumb and the locals were looking at us a bit as if we were a novelty. Again, women were conspicuously absent, with the occasional exception who was sweeping the pavement in front of the house and then disappeared inside again.
Nature was calling and we asked at the bar if we could use the bathroom. One thing about Italy is that there are very few public washrooms, but fortunately local bars are quite easy-going about their facilities being used by non-paying strangers. This particular facility was in rather abysmal shape, though, and when I came out of it I instructed Jill to make sure not to touch any of the surfaces for fear of contracting a horrible communicating disease. The facility did the job, but it certainly was everything but a shining example of hygiene and cleanliness.
Our driving tour continued with a drive into the mountain area. Tree cover got sparser and all of a sudden we were in a mountain area that must have been about 1500 to 2000 m high with a beautiful 360 degree view northwards and eastwards down to the sea and southwards and westwards towards Mount Etna. Hundreds of local Italian families had their cars parked in small side roads that were leading onto what looked like pasture lands for goats and they were having picnics. We didn’t seem to see any tourists at all, and we realized that this is what Italians do on a public holiday in Sicily: they go for a picnic in the high mountain areas surrounding Mount Etna….
We had come prepared – before our departure we had picked up some prosciutto, cheese, fresh buns, fruits and drinks at the local supermarket in Taormina and this was our time for our very own little picnic. Due to the chilly wind that was blowing on this high mountain plateau we actually stayed in the car to eat our lunch, but nevertheless our view out the windshield was simply gorgeous.
After a very satisfying improvised meal we drove back down from the mountains towards Mount Etna, past a large number of parked cars whose owners had gone hiking somewhere in this mountainous terrain. At an intersection a local woman was selling home-made cheeses and sausages, evidence of Italian culinary craftsmanship. We neared a town called Randazzo, with the volcano majestically draped in the background which impressed us with its Cathedral of Santa Maria, which was started in the 13th century and rebuilt several times. The bell tower dates from the 18th century, an example of the various different styles composing this imposing church.
We started our leisurely drive around Mount Etna, at times right next to the Ferrovia Circumetnea, a small-gauge railway that encircles Mount Etna for about 90 km between Catania and Riposto. Terraced vineyards spread far in front of our eyes, and the drive through little towns like Maletto, Bronte, Adrano and Paterno was enjoyably peaceful. Once we approached the coastal side east of Mount Etna things got a lot busier. We started realizing that this was indeed a public holiday and all the locals were out and about. The traffic was starting to get crazy. Continuing through Nicolosi, Trecastagni, Zafferana Etnea (where saffron used to be cultivated, introduced by the Arabs), we continued through Giarre and Fiumefreedo di Sicilia towards Gardini Naxos, located right on the Ionian Sea.
The traffic in the coastal areas was now enormous and beside the road along the shoreline stretching north of Giarre, thousands of cars were parked, belonging to people who had been enjoying a sunny day at the waterfront. We continued through Giardini Naxos at a crawling pace. This resort town south east of Taormina was founded in 735 BC by the Greeks and represents one of the oldest Greek settlements in Sicily. We drove past Isola Bella and Mazzaro and took the northern entrance into Taormina and got into a major traffic jam where we sat virtually without moving for about 45 minutes, a distance that should have taken us about 5 minutes under normal circumstances. No doubt everybody was on the road.
It was a relief to finally have reached Taormina when we drove through the tunnel underneath town to reach the rental company on the western side of town. Just like the roads had been full of people, the town of Taormina was now packed with people strolling. Thousands of people were milling up and down the main strip, Corso Umberto, and we were literally rubbing shoulders with the other walkers. We decided we would have dinner outside of the city gates on Via Pirandello, where the pedestrian traffic was not quite as crazy and grabbed a nice table on a terrace at Trattoria Da Lino’s, a little restaurant where I had already had a couple of chats with the owners who recognized me and gave me a friendly hello. From the terrace we had a great view over the northern part of town and the Ionian Sea below us. After a filling pasta dinner we received a little free treat: a tasting of Amandola liqueur (made from almonds) on the house – a great way to cap off an exciting day to catch a rest for another day of Italian lessons…