TRAVEL with pat and lew

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* SICILY – May 2008: Taormina … Mt Etna …

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 26, 2008

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 ******

SICILY – May 2008: Taormina … Mt Etna …

After two weeks in Collioure, our first major trip of what my daughter-in-law Stacie calls our ‘travel season’ is to Sicily. We’ll spend most of the trip – 7 nights – in Taormina, on the northeastern corner of Sicily, but, with a bargain price of one cent from Ryanair, we’re flying into Trapani, on the northwestern side of the island, and then driving across.

A cab to Girona

The trip from Collioure to the Girona airport has been one of the most tiresome aspects of our travel experience, involving: train from Collioure to Port Bou (15 minutes); change trains (sometimes an hour wait), luggage up and down stairs to a different platform, sometimes rush to catch the connection from Port Bou to Girona; bus from Girona train station to Girona airport (25 minutes after a wait of up to an hour). We’re often exhausted before we even catch our first flight.

Pat’s cousin Renee and her husband Gary were scheduled to arrive in Collioure at 6:38 pm the day before we were leaving. After a 1 day overlap, they’ll be staying in our apartment while we’re gone. To catch our 5:25 pm flight to Trapani the next day, we would have had to leave early in the morning, due to a limited train schedule between Collioure and Girona, and would have had no time with Renee and Gary.

One option, which we’ve done before, was to go to Girona the day before, rent a car, drive back to Collioure, and then drive the car to the Girona airport for our departure. I was ready to book that when Pat suggested that we explore the possibility of taking a taxi from Collioure to Girona. It turns out that the price of a taxi was 130 euros, compared with 115 euros for the car rental plus train ticket to get the car in Girona. In some circles I used to frequent they would call this a ‘no brainer.’

We reserved the taxi to pick us up at 2:00 pm. Nicholas arrived on time, the taxi was comfortable, Pat slept most of the way while I had a non-stop discussion with Nicholas, whose English was excellent. Good choice.

Finding our hotel in Trapani

The flight and the Trapani airport were both unremarkable. No passport control. No customs. No problems.

We do not own a car, but we do have a Garmin Nuvi GPS with maps for Europe and the US. Last year in Tuscany, we drove another couple to dinner, and during the drive, named our Nuvi direction-giver ‘Gypsy.’ It is always a pleasure to hear Gypsy’s precise British voice as we begin any drive. Once we switched to the American voice, but we missed Gypsy and switched right back.

Before leaving Collioure, I had entered all of our known Sicily destinations, including the hotel in Trapani where we would spend our first night. I don’t even look at a map anymore; we just go wherever Gypsy tells us to go. Even when her directions are not perfect, which happens occasionally, usually due to recent construction or one-way changes, or I make a wrong turn, I never have the agita I used to have when driving to unknown destinations. If we go wrong, Gypsy immediately says ‘re-calculating’ and gives us a new path.

No problems on this half hour drive until we arrive in Trapani itself. It turns out that some of the streets to which we were directed have been converted into pedestrian streets, unbeknownst to Gypsy. Other streets have apparently become one way. Perhaps an update has these corrections, although our maps are only a year old. In any case, we were several times directed to streets where we can’t go.

Frustrated, I drive slowly along what is supposed to be a pedestrian street. Several people give us directions, although the English-Italian interchange is always suspect. We are sent through a narrow arch, which frightens me, since this was the cause of our accidental scrape in Girona two years ago, but we emerge unscathed … right into a group of 7 police officers … we are still on a supposedly pedestrian street. Nobody is upset, one of the officers gives us direction in excellent English, and we’re off again. But still we don’t find the hotel. It is now dark, and the streets seem to be getting narrower.

We park. Pat stays with the car. I get out to find the hotel, which must be within a block or so. Very good directions from a man on the street, back in the car, drive to the hotel, which is on another pedestrian street. No matter, we are there.

But where? There’s a sign for the hotel, Ai Lumi, but I climb the steps in the ancient courtyard, and all is dark. A door says Ai Lumi, but it is locked.

We bought French cell phones for this very reason. I call the hotel number, and am advised to come downstairs to the restaurant. There, we are welcomed. A woman gets into our car to direct us to our room in a building around the corner, and then to where we can park the car. Without her, we would have found neither. The room is fine, and we walk back to the restaurant for an excellent meal.

Trapani, which was in ancient times the port town for Erice, is not a destination city.

The small medieval section along the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle near the Ai Lumi is the only nice area we find. We’re here because we didn’t want to drive very far on arrival, and for that purpose, for one night, it is ok.

Erice, only 7 kilometers away, would have been a better choice, but we didn’t know that when we booked Trapani. We have learned, however, and will stay in Erice on our final night in Sicily.

from Trapani to Taormina

Breakfast is included in our room rate, and it too is excellent. We decide to roll our luggage to the car, rather than re-enter the narrow one-way streets. We load up, and Gypsy greets us with directions right back into the maze we had hoped to avoid. It isn’t too bad, and we’re soon on the highway.

Michelin projected the drive at four hours; Gypsy says closer to five; she’s right.

We pass through Palermo. While still in Key West, we had read a book titled Midnight in Sicily, a history of the famous mafia trial of the 1990s. In the background for the trial, Peter Robb describes the mafia penchant, after WWII, to build concrete soviet-style housing, especially in Palermo. Robb says there was more concrete consumed in Sicily than in all the rest of Europe. Palermo, at least what can be seen from the highway, is ugly, with nothing but hundreds of 7-10 story concrete apartment buildings.

The mountain scenery, before and after Palermo, is spectacular. It is May, the mountains are blazing with yellow flowers. Some of the hills are rugged, other rolling, there is no flat land. Even the road dividers are a riot of blooming flowers: yellow, pink, blue, purple. We stop only for gas and coffee, and arrive in Taormina at 3:00 pm, exactly on schedule.

Then, Gypsy fails us. We’re climbing the tiny mountain roads, trying to follow her directions, but too often hear the dreaded ‘re-calculating’ which tells us we have made a wrong turn, or that, in the winding streets, Garmin has become confused. Up and down, up and down. No people, a mass of people, ugly, spectacular. Finally, we stumble on Padre Pio square and our apartment.

Pat rings the doorbell, no answer. I call on my cell phone and Pam, our host, says she is downstairs in the apartment we have rented. She comes up, we unload and carry the luggage down. Our training with steps and hills in Collioure will be valuable. Taormina, and our apartment, involves many steps and many hills.

Pat found the apartment on www.holidaylettings.co.uk.  The apartment is large, newly decorated, and spectacularly well furnished. Every door, curtain, plumbing fixture is top grade. The design of the apartment is remarkable, from the tiles, ledge, reading lamp, and hand grabs in the Jacuzzi tub, to the extra large closet/wardrobe, to the HDTV with CNN. The kitchen is large and fully equipped. There is a second bathroom. Pam has done a great job, and Pat has done equally well to find it and book it. (Our arrangement is that I handle the transportation and Pat does the accommodations.)

first impressions of Taormina

We find our way into the town center, teeming with restaurants and tourists. We love it. Many aspects of Taormina’s almost 3000 years – Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, Spanish – are represented.

We stop at an ATM to withdraw the euros to pay for our apartment since Pam accepts only cash. A sidewalk café for a glass of wine and some people-watching. An outdoor restaurant for dinner, where we have the best bruschette ever, including mine. I’ll try to duplicate it: tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, on thin toast.

We hear other American voices, but it’s late and we’re tired, so we don’t pause to say hello. We climb back up the steps and hill, then down the steps to our apartment.

In the distance, lava is running down the sides of the currently erupting Mt. Etna. We are watching an erupting volcano! Early to bed after a tiring but productive day.

our plan for the week

Our host Pam came to Taormina from England for a one-year stay 42 years ago, never left. She is delightful. We meet with her on Saturday morning, and she helps us plan our week. She has left us a bottle of sparkling wine in the refrigerator; now she brings local fruits and some bananas. Her husband, a former champion swimmer, saw Pat go out to run and said, “The Signora will need bananas”.

Her step-son Christy is a tour guide, and we book trips to Mt. Etna (Monday) and Syracusa (Wednesday). Today, we plan to wander about and see the sights of Taormina.

The main street of Taormina is the Corso Umberto, lined with shops, restaurants, and tourists. A good selection of high quality Italian clothes and jewelry, plus ceramics and the usual tourist stuff. The buildings are mostly old – very old – including several ancient gates and pieces of city walls.

Sicily was founded in the 11th century BC. Greeks in 753 BC, followed by Romans, Byzantines (Greeks with a different name), Saracens, Turks, Normans, Spanish, Germans, French, and English, each to plunder or establish defensive positions in the strategically placed island. In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi put an end to foreign domination in Sicily. Until the Nazis came in the 1940s. In 1943, George Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery visited for an eventful 38 days.

Architectural vestiges of much of the island’s history can be found along Taormina’s central street, the Corso Umberto. Ancient city gates and walls once blocked the only access between Messina and Catania along Sicily’s eastern coast. Churches reflect a variety of Christian heritages; Jewish stars are carved into the wall of what is now the police building; Arab filigrees and arches surprise the eye. Another example, to add to that of southern Spain in the 11th to 14th centuries, of a relatively peaceful mingling of the west’s three main religions.

the Teatro Greco

The principal attraction in Taormina is called Teatro Greco, although what’s there today is mostly the result of Roman amendments to the Greek original.

Tickets are 6 euros each, free to those over 65. We show our passports, are told the senior pass is only for those who live in the European Union. “But we live in France.” The woman explains that the discount is only for those who are citizens of the EU, but she graciously allows it for us anyway.

Teatro Greco in Taormina

Originally a venue for Greek theatre, the 7000 seat arena was transformed by the Romans into a bloody pit for gladiatorial combat. We sit on the remnants of stone benches, long shorn of their marble tops. The center section of ancient columns behind the stage has been destroyed; we see this as an improvement, since it allows a stunning view of the sea, with Mt. Etna beyond.

We imagine an equally sunny day over 2000 years ago. Pat wonders how the Romans, so advanced in law, oratory, road building, and so many other aspects of what we call civilization, could find their amusement in the gruesome spectacle of men fighting each other (and lions) to the death. We sit quietly, absorbed in our thoughts and the panoramic beauty of the columns, mountains and sea, imagining the roar of the crowd at the life or death drama unfolding below.

We choose a small restaurant for lunch, several steps up from the main street. A large group of west coast Americans, on tour of Italy, surrounds us, and we have several interesting conversations. A recently retiree is struggling with his first novel; we share writing experiences.

On the walk back through town, we find two restaurants with views of the sea from terraces on the down side of Corso Umberto. We make an 8:00 pm reservation for dinner.

The climb to our apartment is difficult. Up a gently sloping street with little sidewalk, then 50+ steps and a steeper hill at the top. Then down 25 steps, which we will climb again when we leave. It’s good that we’ve practiced this kind of climbing in Collioure, where we have 60 steps up to our apartment.

We go down for dinner, enjoy the intriguing view of the sea and clouds as darkness falls. More good pasta, a shared dessert, and we’re fortified to again mount the steps and the hill, then clamber down to our apartment.

a day at the beach

Our plan for Sunday is to cable car down to the beach and see what’s there. On the way, Pat checks out mass at several Catholic churches, but misses the starting time and does not attend.

There are four small cars, capacity 12 persons each, cost 3.50 euros round trip each. The trip down takes less than 5 minutes. At the bottom, there’s a street and steps leading further down.

The narrow beach is sandy and gorgeous, the sea a brilliant blue, rocks protruding, the surf pounding. Chairs are available, with umbrellas. We did not bring swim suits. But then, we live in two beach towns, Key West and Collioure, and almost never go into the water.

We walk along the beach into the private area of a luxurious hotel. The hotel bar and reception lobby feature stunning marble pillars, railings and floor, brilliant white offset with bold patterned colors.

Past the cable car in the opposite direction is another hotel with spectacular grounds. We sit on a shaded bench and listen to the sea, then walk down to the restaurant. Yes, it is ok to order, even if not a hotel guest. Gin and tonics, a plate of nuts, a stunning view. We sit and talk quietly, pay the bill (24 euros), and head back to the cable car.

At the top, we find the pizza restaurant (La Cisterna del Moro, Via Bonifacio, 0942-23001), enjoy an early lunch on the terrace overlooking the sea. The pizza is excellent; we’d have been shocked if it wasn’t.

The waiter asks, “Is it possible to pay in cash?”

“Anything is possible,” I answer, “but it is not my desire.” He takes the credit card.

I withdraw more cash at an ATM, of which there are many. We are finding a greater than usual portion of our expenditures in Sicily are cash rather than plastic.

We climb to the apartment, settle in, and read. We no longer feel obliged to squeeze every tourist minute from every day, one of the great benefits of the way we travel. We live in Europe; everywhere we want to go is close; we can take a week in Taormina. In the night, we’re awakened by what turns out to be fireworks, from one of the towns on the way to Mt. Etna. It is a spectacular sight, watching fireworks explode and the lava pouring down the side of the volcano at the same time.

into the crater of an active volcano

We allow 45 minutes to walk to the bus terminal at the other end of Taormina from our apartment; it takes less than 30. Students arrive on motorbikes, park, and wait for their bus to school. A variety of local and tour buses come and go; it’s a busy scene.

The excursion bus to Etna arrives, along with our guide Christy, step-son of our host Pam. We take the first seat high behind the driver, who is introduced as Salvatore, a very safe driver. Salvatore immediately demonstrates his skill as the large bus squeezes through the turn out of the parking area onto the narrow street.

The road down the mountain is narrow, enough for two buses to pass closely on the straight sections, but not on the curves, where wide turns are necessary. The protocol seems to be that the bus coming up the hill waits before the turn until the bus going down makes the wide slow turn. But one bus apparently didn’t get the drill – Christy explains “it’s a new driver.”

We cannot pass. Cars and buses line up behind each of the blocked buses, stretching back in both directions. Christy and others get out, and calmly (to our surprise) guide the vehicles facing us as they back tortuously down the narrow winding roadway. After maybe 10 minutes of this, a space has been cleared that allows 1-2 inches on each side of our bus. Salvatore, following Christy’s hand signals, negotiates the space without a scratch and we resume our trip.

There are two more stops to pick up passengers, but even then, the large bus has only 12 in all. As we come down from Taormina, the sea is sparkling and pounding. We drive south toward Mt. Etna, through several small picturesque towns. Then we begin to climb.

Christy tells us about volcanos in general and this one in particular. Etna is a live volcano, and its recent eruptions have brought flowing lava to within 100 feet of homes in the villages built on the slopes of the mountain, which Christy calls a volcanic building. There was also an earthquake recently, which Christy experienced while in a bus full of tourists halfway up the mountain. We are respectful, and a tinge frightened, to be so close to the power of nature, on an island where the tectonic plates have not yet settled.

Sicily is geographically if not politically part of Africa, the land connection disappearing under the sea millennia ago. The plant growth is luxurious, a function of the mineral rich lava soil, the water flowing freely from the melting winter snow and ice, and the preponderance of bright sunny days. Water, however, is beginning to be a problem in Sicily, as global warming reduces the formation of snow and ice and the subsequent run-off.

Some areas are pure lava; you can imagine the hot flows slowing and stopping where they now rest. Lava, we’re told, flows at a rate of several kilometers per hour. It’s remarkable to seen lush plant life pushing its way through the black lava.

We park at 1000 meters, stretch our legs and get acclimated to the thinner air. Then another 1000 meters up, as high as the large buses can go. Here we switch to cable cars for a long ride, and then to smaller buses for the final climb to within sight of the very top. This roadway is lava, and occasionally one of the buses leaves the roadway to ride on the adjacent un-surfaced lava.

Smoke is emerging from several craters around us. Christy explains that Etna is not a single volcano, but a system with multiple craters, some now extinct (presumably) and others quite active. We are within a few hundred meters of the crater which is expelling the lava flow we saw from our apartment the night before. The lava is flowing down the hill opposite where we park; we can’t see the lava, but the smoke shows us where it is. This area is blocked off to all but professional geologists and volcanologists.

We exit the bus, form up with Christy for our walk up to and down into one 0f the smoking craters. It’s cold and windy. We’re wearing several layers, a sweater, and a light jacket; it’s just enough. My jacket has a hood, so I give Pat my hat. She looks great, my opinion, not hers.

We walk up to the edge of the crater, peer over with some trepidation, walk down. Christy explains that we are well within the perimeter of the crater when it was active, perhaps 100 meters across. As some of the lava exploding from the center fell back down, it filled in the open hole until what is left is a small opening at the center from which white smoke still emerges. We walk on the crumbling lava base, not too near the edge, but when the wind gusts, quite close enough.

I select 5-6 small volcanic rocks, and later, a plastic bag full of black volcanic dirt, which I hope will make a nice memory in Collioure. After 30 minutes at the top, we reverse the process; small buses down to the cable cars, cable cars to the base, large bus back to Taormina.

On the way back, Christy spots a small silver fox along the road; we stop, he takes some of our cookies, kneels down, throws pieces to the fox. Another fox emerges from the woods to share the treat. I think this is a regular event for Christy; the foxes seem to know him.

Christy told several interesting stories on the drive back to Taormina. He began when we passed a gas station and I asked him to explain the 6 legged dog on the station sign.

“It must be some sort of myth,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Nor a myth. The founder of the Agip (Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli), had a dog he loved greatly. So he created the sign to reflect the way they stood together, on the dog’s four legs and his two.”

Conversation turns to blood oranges, the true examples of which grown only in Sicily. “Francis insisted he was going to grow them in California. But they didn’t grow.” He mentions that he help Francis pick out locations.

“Francis Ford Coppola? Locations for The Godfather?” Margaretta asks from across the aisle.

“Yes.”

Then there were stories about U.S. presidents. “I was selected to guide two US presidents in Taormina,” Christy said proudly. “Gerald Ford and George Bush the elder.”

Christy is as fascinating a story-teller as he is a fact-relater; I could listen to him all day. Which is exactly what we do two days later when we go to Siracusa.

All in all, the trip to Mt. Etna was a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime excursion, and Christy is a terrific guide (+39-368-7035-621 if you’re in Taormina). The cost was 31 euros each for the tour bus from Taormina, plus 49 euros each for the cable car/small bus part at the top.

With us on the Etna trip is a British lady named Margaretta, who, like her friend and our host Pam, came to Italy 40 odd years ago. She moved back and forth over the years, now lives in Taormina. Walking from the bus terminal to town, she offers several restaurant recommendations.

On the way to dinner, we stop at an internet café, check our email, and vote for our friend Eileen who is one of 5 contestants in a national “Picture of Health” contest sponsored by Prevention Magazine. The current tally shows Eileen with 100,000 votes, about twice as many as the next contestant, with another 10 days of voting to go.

We try one of Margaretta’s recommendations for dinner, a charming place called Ristorante Licchio, set in a partially covered courtyard near the Corso Umburto at the lower end of town (Via C. Patricio, 10; 0942-625-327). Pat’s pasta is excellent (what else is new in Italy?) and my dinner, a local fish fried lightly in crumbs, is splendid.

a pattern for the week

We have, without planning this in advance, come into a pattern of alternating active and quiet days. On Friday, we drove across Sicily; Saturday we wandered around Taormina (highlight – the Teatro Greco), Sunday we went down to the beach, Monday – Mt. Etna, today (Tuesday) in town, shopping.

Tomorrow, we’re taking another excursion with Christy to 2700 year old Siracusa. Thursday is as yet unplanned, but perhaps the beach again. Friday, we drive back across Sicily, with at least one stop for more ruins (Segesta?), and a night in Erice. Saturday, Erice on foot and drive the few miles to the Trapani airport for a night flight to Girona.

We have long ago learned that the best way to ruin a vacation trip is to overdo it. The great luxury of living in Europe is that we have the time to travel more leisurely; and we can always return.

a quiet Tuesday in Taormina

Pat is down to town twice before I leave the apartment, once to run 3 miles, and then to shop. Her plan has a defect; the shops aren’t open when she arrives.

I work on this blog entry and read in DK Sicily and Pam’s Rough Guide about the places we’ll go later in the week. I call Pat (the French cell phones are proving very useful) and we meet in town. The shops have opened; she has a new hat and bracelet.

We explore one of many sets of stairs on the downhill side of Corso Umberto and find another section of Taormina just a bit lower on the cliff. One charming street scene after another: a profusion of spring flowers in bloom, vines growing up the hill, many delightful-looking restaurants, a shopkeeper who wants to talk about her daughter’s trip to NYC, an American who declares he has just eaten the best cannoli of his life.

He points to Robert’s, across the tiny street; a few minutes later, we have dessert before lunch. Robert takes a crisp pastry shell and fills it with cold ricotta cheese from his refrigerator; 2 euros; outstanding.

We find a small outdoor restaurant for lunch (Shelter, via Fratelli Bandiera, 10; 0942-24034). We have bruschette on thin toast, cheese omelets, fries, a small bottle of local white wine. Everything is superb.

an excursion to Siracusa

We never take bus trips. This was a worthy exception to our rule.

We meet Christy for coffee at 7:15 am; he arrives precisely at the appointed time. The bus leaves at 7:30. After several stops to pick up passengers, it’s almost full. The ride south along Sicily’s eastern coast takes about two hours.

The Greek Theatre in Siracusa, carved out of the side of a hill in a single piece, could once hold 16,000. This was one of the best equipped Greek theatres ever constructed, including remote acoustical effects from a nearby cave and a rotating wooden stage. Performances were held in the afternoon, with the last words timed to coincide with the setting sun. Christy explains the teaching nature of Greek theatre; the chorus fills in the gaps in action and reinforces the moral of the story.

We stand at the site of the premier performances of the plays of Aeschylus, the founder of Greek tragedy, who died in Sicily in 456 BC. If we listen carefully, can we hear the chorus warning of the plight of Agamemnon, dead at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra for the crime of keeping the Trojan prophetess Cassandra as a concubine?

Siracusa was also the location of one of the world’s first concentration camps, with conquered prisoners kept for 7 years hard labor in the stone quarry a few hundred meters from the theatre. The only ones who could go home, the story goes, were those who could recite a few lines from the plays.

Nearby is the Roman amphitheatre, with separate exits for those who lived and those (gladiators and assorted animals) who didn’t. A sarcophagus along the road replicates those which once held the more esteemed dead along all the roads to Siracusa. Christy explains: Sarcophagus means ‘body-eater.’ These stone coffins, high in lime content, caused a relatively rapid decomposition of their eminent remains. The practical result? An empty coffin could be resold to the next customer.

We drive to the island of Ortygia, site of a remarkable church. The exterior of the cathedral of Siracusa was constructed in the 18th century baroque style of the Bourbons who then ruled Sicily. Sit in the pews, however; blazing white columns from the ancient Greek temple of Minerva, peeking through Roman columns, a dark wooden ceiling from the period of Spanish occupation, and polished marble floors. Much of Sicily’s history is represented in this one remarkable building serving a variety of Greek, Christian and Muslim religious belief.

Christy had made arrangements for us at a lovely courtyard restaurant a few steps from the cathedral square. We were in a conversation with a British couple and so we joined them for lunch. Turns out they’re from Liverpool, and their son Gavin plays George Harrison in the ‘Fab Four’ act currently headlining in Las Vegas. He’s a retired fire fighter; she’s a chef in a nursing home. He likes historical novels – funny how I keep meeting people who do – so I told him he could find mine on amazon.com.

Our after lunch walk includes the remains of the Temple of Apollo, discovered in 1860 inside an old Spanish barracks. It is the oldest Doric temple in Western Europe, built in the 6th century BC, 27 centuries ago, 2200 years before Columbus ‘discovered’ America. A very different dimension of time. Men and women lived here, loved here, died here, so long ago.

Our drive back to Taormina is interrupted by a huge traffic jam. We divert through some side roads, learn later that a motorcycle driver was killed in the accident which caused a lengthy stoppage on the main highway.

Christy speculates on what an uneducated man might have imagined when the ruins of the Temple of Apollo were unearthed. Without knowing any of the history, Christy says, he would have been proud: “My ancestors. Some good job they did all those years ago.”

I mention to Christy that he has identified one of the important tasks of a novelist, especially one who writes historical novels, which is to portray the inner thoughts and feelings of famous and unknown people as they confronted the events of their day. Thus a fiction becomes more alive and perhaps even more true than strictly factual historical truth. I tell him that I have promised to send a copy of The Heretic to his step-mother Pam, and I will ask her to share it with him.

Christy takes our card. He has a friend in France, and when he visits her, he’ll come to Collioure and buy us dinner. I have no doubt that he will.

last day and night in Taormina

The week has gone very quickly. As we enjoy one more day in Taormina, we also prepare to leave. I’m working on this blog, Pat goes to town. We coordinate by cell phone; I find her sitting on the bench along the cathedral reading the International Herald Tribune. She has once again met Pam in town and arranged for us to meet at the apartment around 6:00 pm.

We lunch on side of hill down from Corso Umberto. Another tiny outdoor restaurant, with each set of two tables on its own level terraced down the hill. They get my order wrong, bring something that’s not what I ordered. When it finally arrives, however, the lasagna is excellent. It’s hard to find a bad restaurant in Taormina. At the next table, several young people with huge cameras are taking close up photos of each plate. We speculate that maybe they work for a food journal.

Pam came down at 6:00 pm. She refunds our deposit of 150 euros. “No need to inspect.” We chat. She prints out directions for leaving town the next morning; we follow the directions as we walk down to dinner. It seems so easy. How did I get lost the last time I tried to do it.

We go to dinner at the second restaurant recommended by Margaretta after our Mt. Etna tour. It’s just below the end of Corso Umberto, a little off the main walkway, and its practically empty. The waiters are very pleasant.

I point to a menu item and ask “what sort of fish is this?” The waiter leaves and returns with a plate holding the actual fish they will cook for me. It sits in the plate looking totally alive, looking at me. When it arrives again, now grilled, it has not been filleted. The waiter fillets it for me at the table, and aside from dropping the head on the floor, does a credible job.

I ask for dessert, but they don’t seem to have any. After more confused discussion, the waiters group up in the kitchen, which we can see from our table; they talk, a plate appears, ingredients are assembled. It seems they are creating a dessert, which ultimately includes a slice of cold pudding/ice cream, strawberries, sprinkled cinnamon. Delicious.

When we’re done, I offer to pay by credit card, as I’ve been doing all week. They say “the line is not working.” I shrug as if I don’t have cash. The waiter says, “It’s ok, come tomorrow and pay.” We explain that we’re leaving early in the morning and I pay with cash.

We take a last look at Taormina at dusk …

it takes 3 days to get home

In the morning, Pam stands in her window and waves to us as we pack the car. She stays there long enough to assure that we have successfully negotiated the tight u-turn at the dead end of her street.

We follow Pam’s directions and reach the highway without (much) confusion, although the signs are not completely clear. We will drive back across Sicily just the way we came.

There’s no flight back to Girona on Friday night, and we’ve taken Pam’s recommendation to spend the night in Erice, near Trapani. We will then fly out Saturday night, but arrive in Girona too late to get back to Collioure that night. So we’ll stay at the Novotel and return to Collioure by train on Sunday morning.

the Greek temple at (near) Segesta

Our original thought was to drive west along a southern route, stopping at several Greek and/or Roman ruins before turning north to Trapani on the west coast. But we decide it will take too long and be too tiring. Also, we have been told that the best Greek temple in Sicily is to be found at Segesta, just off the main northern road between Palermo and Trapani.

We use our GPS and our eyes, but see no signs for either Segesta or the Greek temple. We go off the highway, get lost in beautiful countryside, see signs for a town near Segesta, and climb winding (but not too narrow) roads up and up and up. The views across the fertile plains are spectacular.

Whenever we pass a construction truck, we stop and say “Segesta?” and they point us in the right direction. We arrive in Segesta, a small town with a few shops and no Greek temples. We drive out of town, see a sign for Roman ruins. We know Rome is not Greece, but we follow the signs anyway, climb even higher. When we have reached even greater heights with no ruins, Roman or Greek, we carefully make a u-turn and start down.

A car is behind us. I stop and ask for directions to the Greek temple.

An old man smiles and says, “No capesch.”

I go to our car, get the guidebook, point to a picture of the temple.

He smiles knowingly, says something which I optimistically interpret as “follow me.”

Down the hill behind the old man. After 5 or 6 kilometers, he pulls over, points to the edge of a temple on a far hill. We drive in that direction, see our first sign. The temple sits by itself on a mountain top which is nowhere near the town of Segesta.

But it is sublime.

Built in the 5th century BC, 2500 or so years ago, there are 36 Doric columns forming its four sides. The interior is incomplete, the columns have not been fluted. Something interfered with the temple’s completion – a lost war? an insufficiency of funds?

It’s a perfect day, sunny with puffy white clouds in a blue sky. We contemplate the beauty of the temple and its setting, try to imagine the feelings of the people who built it, offered sacrifices, prayed.

Civilization’s most awesome buildings, and this is one of them, were often raised to honor a concept of divinity which then prevailed and is now unknown. Each group thought (wrongly, I believe) that their honoree was the only one worthy of devotion, thus leading to ferocious warfare and brutal killing. Magnificent buildings and murder are apparently the inseparable consequences of fervent religious belief … 2500 years ago, before that, and today. Will we ever learn that none of us really knows God, except what we know within ourselves, and that any attempt to force others to share our beliefs is foolish, arrogant and almost always destructive?

Leaving the temple, we find the highway within seconds. But our meandering trip, lost in the mountain heights and tiny villages, guided by an old man with whom we had no common language, was one of our highlights. The benefits of getting lost! If you’re not in a hurry.

Erice

From ancient Greece to medieval Europe. We climb another steep mountain, this one overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily, to the town of Erice. Warned not to even think of taking our car into the narrow streets, we park at the foot of Corso Vittorio Emanuelle. Our hotel is in sight, but it’s a steep climb and the street is cobblestone. I walk up while Pat waits in the car with our luggage.

“We will help you.” I drive down with the hotel employee, he loads our luggage. Pat and I walk back up. The hotel features a richly furnished library, wi-fi access, a very nice dining room with an extraordinary view, and a nice room with satellite TV. We’re too tired to climb further up into the town, so we dine in the hotel, served by two young Romanian girls, one who speaks perfect English with only the barest trace of an accent.

A quick breath of fresh air and we’re up to our room. It’s the first time I ever watched Al Jazeera TV. David Frost is the host and among his guests is Gore Vidal. Not exactly the more exotic views I was expecting, although Vidal’s opinions are quite bizarre enough, and mostly wrong in my opinion.

We have exchanged books. Pat was reading One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson, and I was reading Exile by Richard North Patterson. We both finished sooner than expected. Usually, we don’t read the same authors, but with no other choices, there we were. Turned out well in both cases.

In the morning, I go down before the dining room opens, searching for coffee. The waiter goes off to pour (or make) the coffee. He brings out a tray, sets it down, leaves. I carry the tray into the library. I start to pour; it’s tea! A moment later, the man, smiling, pointing, saying “My breakfast.” He takes the tea, returns soon with my coffee.

After breakfast, Pat and I explore Erice. Up the steep hill, small shops on both sides, to the town square. A side street, up again, to the Norman castle overlooking the plains and the sea below. Sicily has seen so many conquerors, many of whom settled; its architecture is an overview of civilization through Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Saracen, Norman, Spanish, Bourbon, and Mafia times.

We descend, follow the signs to our hotel, get lost in the winding, unmarked streets, exactly as the Rough Guide said we would. Somewhere along the way, I lost my new hat. It was stuffed into the handle of my camera bag and dropped out. We re-trace our steps, no easy matter to find our way or to re-climb the cobblestones, but do not find the hat. It was purchased in Collioure, can perhaps be replaced.

In the town square, we choose a small restaurant and are directed to a second floor dining room where we become the only diners. We sit near a window, which we open for the view and the breeze. The waiter closes the window. “Too much wind.” I object. The window is re-opened.

Remember, we are the only customers! In much of Europe, it seems that commercial establishments, governmental as well, exist first to provide employment, second to serve customers and citizens. At least in the eyes of the employees.

I have pizza, and Pat has her “last pasta” of the Italian trip. We return to the hotel, where we have left our bags, and reverse the trip down the hill to our car. We GPS our way to the Birgi Airport near Trapani. The Hertz counter is closed. I leave the key and contract, hope they will find my car. Two days later, I’m still not sure.

There are signs that Birgi Airport may evolve, under the prodding of Ryanair, as has Girona airport before it, but this, if it happens, is still years away. We sit in a dismal waiting area until the Ryanair counter opens, then pass through security to a barely less dingy departure area. Well, we didn’t come to Sicily for the elegance of the airport terminal.

Fly to Girona (two hours), van to the Novotel (5 minutes); next morning van back to the airport, bus to the Girona train station (25 minutes), train to Perpignan (2 hours), reverse train to Collioure (20 minutes). We’re home by 12:30.

In our third year, we’re used to this. When we’re home, Pat says “Today was not too difficult.” Nevertheless, next time I’m going to consider the idea of taking a cab from Girona airport to Collioure. The cost, when compared with hotel, meals, train, etc, might be less, and we would be home a day earlier.


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