We arrived in Catania with a flight from Rome. The sign next to the car rental office warned us not to leave any luggage in the car nor to park the car in the city center. After one hour in the queue, we finally got our car and took the road to Castelmola, a small village overviewing Taormina. Our B&B lodge was really basic but the food at the nearby restaurant’s terrace, with great views and a full moon, rewarded us.
The next morning we woke up early and descended to Taormina, a popular tourist destination since the 19th century. The town, built on the cliffs above the coast has an ambience of wealth and a reputation for being frequented by gentlemen mostly. A walk along Corso Umberto, the main shopping street with the nicely preserved buildings and the collection of expensive outlets confirms that it offers an upmarket choice for those who want to sunbath in Sicily. The well preserved ancient Greek theater is the second largest in Sicily and offers panoramic views of the coast. Taormina is nice for a day’s visit but I would spent a second night here.
We headed north, to Milazzo, to catch the hydrofoil to the Aeolian islands. Our destination, Stromboli had only one purpose. To climb the volcano and see the eruptions. We arrived in the afternoon after three hours of island hopping and walked straight to our lodge to leave our bags and begin our ascent. Since Stromboli has been very active this summer, the guided tours to the top summit had been suspended, so we had to settle with climbing without a guide to 400 meters. The active vent is called Sciara del Fuoco and is famous for producing the so called Strombolian explosions, small scale but spectacular fire-cracker style eruptions of glowing lava. We took what we thought was the short route from the beach and it took about two hours to reach the 400 meter elevation. Along the climb we observed spectacular sunset views but the trek was gradually becoming steeper and more difficult as we were coming closer to the 400m observation point. I remember climbing the last 30 meters on four limbs, carrying the photo gear on my back and sweating like a pig. As our luck had it, Stromboli was very quiet that particular evening. We were able to see the glowing vent, but no lava flows and no firecrackers. Nevertheless, the spectacle was well worth it and the colors of red against black-blue evening sky simply spectacular. On the way down we stopped at the L’ Osservatorio, the pizzeria at the base of Sciara del Fuoco and tasted Stromboli Pizza – yes, cliché – while observing the red glowing clouds crossing the peak. We arrived home exhausted. In fact, I only remember one time being as tired in my life and it was when we trekked to watch the Gorillas in Uganda.
From Milazzo to Cefalu was ninety minutes on well paved Autostrada. The town of Cefalu is picturesque and as with every other city in Sicily of Greek origin. It has an evident historic continuity with monuments dating from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Baroque and modern times. Clearly a popular touristic destination, it has not lost its charm and would definitely be my choice if I were to spend 2-3 days in Sicily to relax. But as our schedule was again tight, we had to move on.
The next morning we took the road through Palermo to Selinunte, The imposing temple of Hera is undoubtedly the most important of the ruins. We started from there and walked through the valley to the Acropolis in a lovely mediterranean outset. Selinunte had grew at its peak at a population of 30’000 – excluding slaves – and was one of the most important of the Greek colonies in Sicily, an arena of conflicts and battles until its fall and destruction by the Carthaginians in early 4th century BC.
Marinella di Selinunte is a small town with a nice beach at the base of the ancient ruins. The beaches of Sicily cannot compare to the best Greek beaches but we welcomed the opportunity for a refreshing swim and quick lunch. We headed east to Agrigento, through the provincial route SS115, one and a half hours through a familiar Mediterranean landscape and slow traffic. For the first time I noticed how poor is provincial Sicily. The non touristic places are worn out and seem stripped of any significant economic activity, showing the clear divide between northern and southern Italy.
Next: Sicily Part 2