Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Taormina, Sicily

Posted on 12/14/03

I sat up top, front and center on the double-decker bus to Taormina. This was necessary not only because the rolling green, hilly scenery was wonderfully beautiful, but also because the ride was so rough and bouncy that I needed to keep an eye on the horizon so I wouldn’t get bus sick. I am usually the last one to get queasy because of movement related issues, but this was about as bad as I have ever experienced, including the English Channel ferry that I took through a violent spring storm back in ’93 that was so unsteady that even the bar band refused to play until they had each been lash to something solid. Plus, I had eaten a none too satisfying breakfast out of a bar next to the bus station and my stomach was still in deliberations as to whether or not to send it back.

Taormina was to be my last city that needed documenting on this extensive leg of my tour. As much as I have dug traveling this much for this long, I can’t tell you how much of a relief it was knowing that I was near the end of my exceptionally long run through Europe with the feverish writing duties and the eye-straining, tedious picture processing that went along with it. There was very little chance that I would pick up where I left off upon my return to Paris in January. I had no desire to see Switzerland during the winter (to be honest, after what I had been reading, my albeit trifling desire to see Switzerland in the first place was pretty much wiped out) and I also had a slightly demented desire to delay my visit to Greece until late spring, so I could witness firsthand the entire country coming unglued during the final few months of its panicky, fantastically overdue preparations for the summer Olympics. Rumor had it that the Olympic committee had discreetly put Sydney on notice to be prepared to host the Games at the last minute if Greece didn’t pull some kind of miracle out of its collective ass and finish things before the deadline. Personally, from the athlete’s perspective, I would have all 22 fingers, toes and what have you crossed, hoping the Games would be moved to Sydney. Athens’ air quality is still among the worst in the world and who wants to compete in the sporting contest of their lives while choking down half the usual amounts of oxygen?

Taormina from up high. You can see the Greek Theatre in the upper left/center.

So it was with a profound sense of relief that I pulled into tiny Taormina (population just under 11,000) knowing that this small, fantastically picturesque town would be the focus of my final essay. Knowing still further that there were just a few, minor tourist destinations in and around Taormina for me to dutifully march through was even more of a reprieve. Actually, during high-season the town is little more than an over-priced, spirit crushing beach-town for Eurotrash with only a few mild diversions beyond the sun and sand. I was likely to be the only tourist there in December, which would not only guarantee some peace and quiet, but I would have Taormina’s ridiculously beautiful scenery all to myself. From the edge of Taormina’s cliffs, one could see straight down to the vast expanse of the Mediterranean Sea and then spin around and gawk at Mount Etna, Europe’s largest live volcano, looming directly above. My plan was to check into a cheap and quiet hostel, rest, stagger around taking hopelessly inadequate pictures of the scenery and then zip back to Palermo where I would immediately depart on a 20 hour ferry ride to Genoa and from there make my way to my plane in Paris over the course of four days. Such an anticlimactic end. And why the hell not? I had just finished a six and a half month harebrained run through 59 cities in 18 countries. I had been climaxing - in more ways than I care to detail here - for nearly every day since the beginning of June. I was climaxed out.

Sadly, my gaping at the aforementioned scenery was delayed until the next morning due to my bus from Agrigento to Catania being 25 minutes late and causing me to miss my connecting bus up to Taormina. By the time I was deposited at the Taormina bus station it was after 5:00PM and hopelessly dark.

Italy’s passing interest in accurate signage was better than average in Taormina. Still, finding my hostel was made more exciting and adventurous as I stumbled around in the pathetically lit streets squinting for my hostel’s signs which were about the size of a license plate, printed in tiny, light blue cursive writing and posted in odd places, like around the corner from a turn I should have taken. I finally found the hostel and was a little surprised to see that there were eight other people staying there. The Odyssey Youth Hostel B&B was small, friendly and was being run by the best English speaker that I had met in nearly a week on Sicily. I actually had a conversation with her in English! A long conversation that wasn’t about buses or accommodations and didn’t involved short, vague statements of two or three words accompanied by an impromptu round of charades. I had not realized up until that point that my stay in Sicily had been all but solitary as far as interpersonal communications were concerned. The luxury of having a regular conversation in English made me momentarily giddy which probably succeeded in making the owner a little uneasy about my potential for subsequent eccentricities. She visibly relaxed a bit when I said that I would only be staying for two nights.

Although it was barely 5:30PM, it felt like 10:00 after all of the traveling action I had been through. I had been eating out of bakeries all day, so I was in need of real food before I could fall into bunk-bed oblivion. I was given the usual Italian hostel, subsequent kickback, referral to a restaurant in town where I dined on a surprisingly tasty pasta and shrimp in scampi cream sauce. This was two times in a row that I had been mildly suspicious of these referrals and had them turn into great meals. I decided it would be best to drop my defenses in regards to these arrangements. I couldn’t complain while I was eating so well.

I awoke the next morning to find that my presence had precipitated the usual spell of foul weather into the area. It was raining lightly, but constantly and a fog bank had appeared, covering Mount Etna in a cream-thick shroud of gloom. I decided to use the weather as an excuse to prepare slowly for the day and then linger over internet related tasks and a chocolate filled pastry with my late morning cappuccino.

Miraculously, the sun burned off all the nasty clouds, except those covering the very top of Etna, by late morning and I set out to explore Taormina. When I thought that the town would be mostly deserted and all but a few of its swish shops closed up, I couldn’t have been more wrong. All of the over-priced, crappy stores on main street were open and doing a decent business with the relative gobs of December tourists that had invaded the city on day-trip buses. There were even guys selling stuff off blankets laid out in the street like they do in Rome and Florence. The first thing I saw when I rounded the corner into the shopping district was an organized, Japanese tour group coming at me, each with a video camera up and running, filling the entire width of the street. This was closely followed by groups from China, Russia, the U.S. and even Italy. An unusual number of people seemed to be sporting warm-ups with their country name adorned on the back. I learned later in the day that several militaries from around the world had sent athletes to compete in soccer matches in nearby Catania and this was obviously their off-day.

The streets were filled with alarmingly heavy traffic for a such a small city. There were places where the exhaust fume levels rivaled Naples. I guess all this traffic was due to the number of people who did not have the resolve to go up and down all those hills on foot. Traffic was zipping by in both directions on streets so narrow that a car and a human could barely share the road. In many places, if two vehicles met, one would have to back up into a driveway or some other wide spot in the road so that the other car could pass. Taormina was quickly losing it’s off-season allure.

After stopping back at the hostel to drop off my jacket (the sun’s appearance drove the temperature into the upper 60’s, far past my jacket comfort level) and inhaling a double serving of cannelloni for lunch, I returned to the city center to find it deserted. The shops had all closed up at the usual 1:00 afternoon break and when this happened apparently all of the tour buses followed suit and left town. I had virtually the entire city center to myself. Knowing that the shops would reopen at 4:00, I had to act fast. I went straight to the biggest tourist attraction in the city, the Greek Theatre.

Taormina’s Greek Theatre dates back to the 3rd century BC and is still used in the summer to host concerts, theatre and festivals. The 4.50 euro entry price was a bit steep considering the limited number of original components of the theatre that still remained on the site and the fact that there was absolutely nothing in the way of labels or descriptions for said items. The area was scenic though and the sun was at a cool angle, so I took copious amounts of pictures before moving on.

Other than the modest Duomo in the heart of the shopping district and the numerous, priceless, panoramic photo opportunities along the cliff-side, Taormina had very little in the way of sights. Eventually, for some foolish, masochistic, reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to make the climb to the top of the mountain to see the Santuario Madonna della Rocca and the castle that are perched nearly side-by-side. Sane people usually make this outing by bus. There was a clearly excruciating series of steps for morons like me that started from the highest part of Taormina, leading all the way to the summit. I took the steps nice and easy, but with the way I tend to heat up with only minimal strenuous exercise, I was sweating all over the place by the time I got to the Santuario, which was disappointingly locked. I stuck my camera through the gate and took some reasonably nice pictures before continuing up the steps which eventually led to another locked gate, just short of the castle. Needless to say, I was pissed off. I checked the gate on the off chance that the lock and chain were nearing a point of failure that I might be able to physically accelerate, but both were solid. Then I took a look around the side of the gate at the wall to ascertain the possibility of scaling it. The wall looked climbable, but one tiny slip would spell terrifying disaster. The fall looked to be about 100 feet down a 60 degree slope, through a jungle of cactus plants before ending on the busy road by the Santuario where I would in all likelihood be run over by a bus. I reluctantly decided that it wasn’t worth the risk and headed back down to the city.


As the sun started to set, I realized that the cloud cover over Mount Etna had never lifted. I didn’t have the option of lingering another day in the hopes of catching a glimpse. I had a very expensive, non-returnable ferry ticket from Palermo to Genoa and knowing how unreliable the Sicilian bus system was, I wasn’t going to take any chances, by hanging around Taormina until the last minute. I went to bed and departed somberly the next morning.

The ride to Palermo sucked. I was caught in the rain both during my late morning run to the Taormina bus station and in Catania where I changed buses. The rain was worse than ever in Palermo. I shared a cab from the bus station to the docks with a Lithuanian soccer judge and staggered, soaked and disheveled through the four star accommodations of the La Superba ferry. The ferry was nicer than most expensive hotels I have stayed in. I again congratulated myself on my excellent, if costly, transportation/accommodations decision making.

As I sat in my gleaming cabin, freshly showered and naked as, well, naked as the last time I was in that situation, I hammered out the last bit of notes that I would have to take for a very long time. My now instinctive habit of walking around and mentally dictating potential writing material to myself about my surroundings would have to be dropped. (i.e. “As I approached the 800 year old church, I saw not one, but two ‘Clapton is God’ graffiti tags.”) So would the tendency for never unpacking more than the socks and underwear I planned to wear the following day. I had finally come to the end of the six and a half month consequence of my premature mid-life crisis freak out. It was gratifying. It was rewarding. It was being conducted in a state of unacceptable sobriety! I looked at the lower right hand corner of my laptop screen. It was after 1:00AM. The bar was closed. Dammit. No matter. The festivities would come fast and furious in Minneapolis where more than a few people were threatening to get me loaded on cider in the hopes of prying the “gory details” of my epic voyage out of me. Ho ho! Boy were they in for some serious disappointment! I never kiss and tell.

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