This morning, we were up again, as usual about 8:00 am, and ready for a delicious breakfast. Though it rained the night before, the morning was sun sparkly. We dried off the chairs under the persimmon trees and enjoyed our final breakfast with Vivien. Our original plan for this morning was to drive to another riserva naturale, near where we’re staying and on the way to Taormina. The rain of yesterday and last night has left everything pretty slippery though and I think we were all trying not to imagine another gorge walk like that of a day or so ago – this time on slippery, wet stones. The consensus was to skip it and drive to Taormina.
The drive proved pretty uneventful. Again we admired the scenery as we drove along the strade provinciale and strade statale. The rain of the last few days brought the countryside to life in a colorful way. We saw lots of flowers and the grass and leaves all seemed greener and fresher by far. Leaving the narrower roads we finished the last part of the drive on the autostrada, covering a tract that we will drive several more times in the next few days.
It was daunting to look at the GPS route of where we had to go and see all the curves and switchbacks. Just ask Gerry how daunting it was to actually drive it! Leaving the autostrada at Taormina Nord we drove a road that on the GPS looks just crazy. Roadside, it is a madhouse!
We negotiated narrow city streets that, impossibly, are two-way, and crowded with tourists walking on both sides! Motor scooters zipped past and around us. Finally we arrived at our lodgings for the next three nights, the Hotel Villa Ducale in Taormina. The hotel is located high above the central part of the town and very high above the beach. It has a beautiful view of the large bay that stretches southward toward Catania. To our right, looms the massive Mount Etna, the peak teasingly shrouded in clouds. (Click on any of the images below to see them all larger.)
Our welcome was first class! We were led to the patio to admire the scenery, while others parked the car and unloaded the luggage. A welcome beer or glass of wine seemed the perfect beginning to our idyll in this ancient, tourist-packed, grand tour destination!
We decided to have lunch in the hotel. (Were we putting off another foray into the madhouse of traffic? Quite possibly!) After lunch (and all this while we were hoping and praying, fingers crossing and uncrossing, that Etna was going to reveal her charms) the staff told us all about the hotel, and we found, to our immense delight, that the walk into town is a rather simple affair of negotiating a long stairway down to the main shopping area, and that the hotel provides a shuttle to return us up the hill. That’s a relief! I still don’t think I am ready to climb up anything!
Our rooms were ready after lunch, so we decided a nap would make a great plan. Our evening included a guided tour that started at 7:00pm so we walked down around 6:00 and look around a bit for ourselves before the tour. Post-tour we planned to have dinner at a restaurant called L’incontro, (recommended by the hotel and highly rated on the Internet) which also has the benefit of a location directly across the street from where the hotel shuttle will retrieve us. I loved walking on the busy shopping street in Taormina. There were lots of fancy shops for clothing and jewelry, better souvenir shops, art galleries and old buildings to admire. As the sun set, the place was full of people, mostly all tourists, but tourists from all over.
Our nighttime guided tour was a bit of a disappointment. Our guide’s English was fathomable once you got used to it, but unfortunately for us, most of the information he gave us, we had already read in our guidebooks. Our tour basically covered the same route our own wanderings had taken us not an hour before. However, we did get some interesting tidbits to take away: We saw the Roman odeon that was beneath the Santa Caterina church, we saw some old Norman buildings, and we wandered some little, cramped, off the beaten track streets full of interesting restaurants and shops.
Dinner turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, too. Our waiter was overly servile and fawning, and the menu descriptions lacked certain important ingredients, meaning that both Jon and Galina ended up with plates of food they could not eat. The crowning affront of the evening came when we asked that our bill be split 50-50 between the two credit cards and the credit slips came back for 50 euros each when the total bill had been only 82 euros. What a mess! We are beginning to learn that the extent to which businesses here in Sicily court the TripAdvisor ratings can really skew the true worth of a restaurant or hotel. Every business we see has a TripAdvisor “Winner” certificate in the window. L’Incontro was highly rated, but highly disappointing for us. But! Our shuttle was right on time! That was a happy ending.
Even since our arrival in Taormina, we have been trying to arrange for a guide to take us up to see Etna. All the options we get seem too expensive, too long, too late or too uncertain. I guess we are a little uncertain, too and that doesn’t help much. Today is a gorgeous morning though, and we are seeing those irresistible peaks at the peak of Etna, so it is going to be hard to stay away. First, a little exercise: We will walk up the mountain to Castelmola. What insane notion propels me to walk up steep mountains, I do not know! Yet, once again, I defy nature and do it. Gerry, wisely, called it quits about 2/3rds of the way and waited for us down at the hotel. The walk was worth it though – a delightful village awaited exploration at the top.
Once back down at the hotel, we took the car out and drove around the villages at the base of the volcano, our destination a town called Bronte, where pistachios are “the thing.”
Our first stop, though, was Savoca, one of the villages where the first Godfather movie was filmed. The town is a beautiful little medieval village and we even stopped to see the church where the scene of Michael Corleone’s Sicilian wedding was filmed. We had fun playing with the mirrored cutout in homage to the director, Francis Ford Coppola, in the plaza. Next we went to a town nearby called Forza d’Agro for lunch. The restaurant, Il Padrino, was recommended by our hotel, and we did have our doubts, but the amount of food we were served was enough to feed two armies, so no one went away hungry, even if it was not the gourmet food we have had on many other days. It was a sampling of fish antipasti dishes that totaled at least 12, some hot, most cold. This town also has its Godfather connections, this one to # 3.
After lunch we headed for Bronte, on the other side of Mount Etna. We drove through lava fields, vineyards and farms. The drive is beautiful. We stopped to take pictures, at one point facing an almost cloudless summit on Etna with a field of ripening grapes before us. Red and white grapes in the same vineyard were planted side by side. The grapes were plump and ripe, and we sampled them, hoping that the grower was planning to pick them soon. They were ready!
Finally we arrived in Bronte and, as the afternoon was getting on, our plan was to stop and get the pistachios and get going. Dividing to conquer, Galina and I split up, she heading for a grocery store and I for a tourist store to see what we could find. What I found was a very friendly and garrulous proprietress of a tourist shop who regaled me with stories about how the nuts grow and are harvested, as well as pelting me with samples – not just for me but for Galina, too, and the men, still in the car. The ending of this story you can probably guess – we all ended up in the shop eating pistachios, speaking our fractured Italian and then buying supplies to bring home. It was all very pleasant and fun, and I highly recommend that you make the trip to Bronte and search out Mariuccia in the main piazza to buy your pistachios. We could tell that not a lot of American tourists come driving into Bronte, for within 15 minutes our car was surrounded by craggy, little old Sicilian men staring at us without a hint of bashfulness. Gerry got out of the car and shared his photos with them and they proved to be friendly and fun, really capping off a wonderful afternoon.
We were back late from the ramblings, so decided to dine on pistachios from Bronte, fresh strawberries and Sicilian wine. Just another of our great impromptu picnics.