About Me

My photo
Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

ROAD TRIP: Taormina

"Boy, Etna does NOT look happy."

We look up and sure enough a large plume of smoke is coming from the top of the very active volcano some twenty miles from our current location in the mountaintop town of Tourmina, Sicily.

Our tour guide is reassuring. "It is safe, I think. We usually have some sort of knowledge if it is going to erupt. Usually." She smiles gently, but I resolve to keep my eye on the summit nonetheless. 

Mount Etna, viewed from the Taormina parking structure
Taormina is an ancient town, with an at-times Bohemian reputation (the writer Harold Acton once referred to Taormina as "a polite synonym for Sodom"). The town sits atop a steep seaside promontory roughly an hour or so south of the port city of Messina, along Sicily's eastern coast. The view from atop the mountain is truly spectacular, looking west down the Catanian Coast. The ocean is a deep Mediterranean blue, with a dusting of whitecaps along the surface. We can see a half dozen multimillion dollar yachts at anchor in the bay below, adding a dose of elegant luxury to the scene. 

We leave the imminent threat of Etna behind and wander into the town proper. One major street cuts through the cent of town, with fashionable boutiques sharing the storefronts with sidewalk cages and a handful of tourist shops. There are, every hundred or so feet, street vendors hawking what seems to be a blob of goo which holds it's shape unless you lob it against the ground, where it splats into a little puddle then slowly gathers itself back into its three dimensional form. It seems to do little else, so we move on.

A sidewalk cafe along the Corso Umberto
The coastline south to Catania

Finding ourselves a little table we engage in what has become our favorite pastime, people-watching. Large tour groups from the only other ship in Messina came blasting through town, overrunning our comparatively little posse from the Wind Surf. We have perhaps thirty visitors, they have at least three groups of equal size, and appear to be on more of a schedule than we are. As a result we seem to merge groups for a short time before they move along, restoring us to our pre-absorption intimacy. Then, as if to reduce our size further, our tour group dissolves for an hour or so of free time -- and thus we find ourselves in our little cafe.

But…as usual…I digress.


There used to be a terrific character named Sophia Petrillo on a show called The Golden Girls, who told some sort of distorted memory of her childhood in Sicily. She would begin virtually every story with the phrase "Picture it, Sicily, 19…" and then go into an anecdote of some kind regarding, usually, her youthful flings and adventures. Sicily was, for Sophia, a land of grand memories and sometimes not so grand family members. Taormina, in the minds of many who have never been there, is also the home of the mafia. Of "The Family", and the rough and tumble times of the early twentieth century. This is largely because Taormina was for a time the home of the film production company making The Godfather (actually shot in nearby villages). But the mafia is, as they say, an unspoken influence best left to the locals. In truth, there's almost nothing to it that will bother the casual visitor, and the warmth of the Sicilian people immediately puts you at ease. 

Throughout its history, this part of the world has been a focal point for the merging of cultures. Italian, Greek, Roman, Arabian and other cultures have long had an influence in this important crossroads of the Mediterranean, and in many ways the area has played an important role in the empires of the past.

Freshness is an essential ingredient of Sicilian cuisine
Taormina of the 21st century is a wonderful town, populated by a proud people who, aware of their past, are eager to accommodate the visitors they meet on the street -- even those of us who arrive, like lambs to the slaughter, on megabuses dispatched by mega-cruiseships in the harbor. (In our case, not such a mega, since this was a side trip during our fantastic trip on the Wind Surf. But for the single bus from the Surf, a good three were dispatched for every other cruiser in Messina. To the point where, when we dawdled just a bit too long along the main street of Taormina, we became overrun with the tour group immediately following our own.) (What we discovered, shortly thereafter, is that the correct procedure is to allow the other group to pass, giving you free run of the place once they have raced by the points of casual interest in search of the One Major Attraction -- in Taormina's case, the ancient Greek Theater overlooking Etna and the coast -- and rebounded their own vehicle back to the harbor.)
Our friend Vicky looking for a photo op

The Best Cannoli in Italy
If you chance to find yourself in this part of the world, make Taormina an absolute stop. Plan for several hours, avoiding mid-morning through early afternoon (the times when the busses arrive). Take a leisurely stroll down the Corso Umberto (the main shopping and restaurants) and stop for a cannoli at the Cafe le Quattro Fontane (http://www.le4fontane.it/) in the beautiful Piazza Duomo in the center of town, voted as the top cannoli in all of Italy by the four of us sitting at the table.

Sit for a while, and just drink (and eat) Taormina in. But if you hear a deep rumble in the distance every once in a while, relax. It's only Mount Etna, expressing its discontent.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


We all have those days, particularly when you cross over that age-related line of judgmentalism that seems to hover at just about 40 years, when we suddenly look at the younger generation of teens, realize we no longer share much of anything in common with them,  and begin tsk, tsk, tsking to ourselves as we watch them deal with the world -- 'our' world --  they are only now uncovering. 

It’s easy to do, and in the second decade of the twenty-first century the world is in such a dire situation we can often find new and better ways of clicking our tongue in disdain over their supposed greed, isolation, sense of entitlement, etc. Fill in the blank with your frustration of choice. (And ignore the brutal reality that our thoughts echo almost exactly what our own parents and others said about US at that age...)

Coffee with the locals
Liquid refreshment?
So it came as -- to use a cliche -- a huge breath of fresh air, while speaking to a friend’'s daughter the other night, to learn how much young people still "get it". We had, for the first time in nearly a year I think, gone to their house for a long overdue visit, and our get-togethers with these particular friends always center around some sort of meal, whether we’'re barbequing, eating Chinese (or Subway or sandwiches), or dining out at a local restaurant. Just part of a pattern of behavior our little foursome plus kids) has adopted in the nearly 25 years of friendship (we’'re celebrating our “Friendiversary” in the next couple of weeks) -- and it nicely reflects the way my wife and I like to absorb local culture when we'’re on the road. Sharing a meal is often the best way to learn about other people, whether you're traveling to foreign countries or just spending a pleasant evening with friends.

In the case of our friends, their daughter has recently been able to take a trip to Italy as p[art of a school-organized tour group, the cost of which was a sacrifice her family was willing to make to help widen her boundaries and give her a better sense of the world which surrounds her. (And a sacrifice it was: the family usually takes an annual vacation together for some group time – an increasingly valuable commodity now that the kids are nearing their 20th and 18th birthdays, respectively. Their week with the kids has become an important event for the parents, which only serves to highlight their sacrifice of their group trip to pay for the daughter’s voyage.) (To her credit, the girl earned it through hard work and growth in the last couple of years, so it was in no way a ”bluebird” indulgent act on the part of her folks.)
Get lost in the crowd

In many ways the daughter is a typical teen. Self-absorbed to a degree – though she also works with special needs kids at her school, which speaks volumes regarding her personality – and constantly pressing here and there to see how many more freedoms she can assume in life. She'’s articulate, outgoing, and apparently doesn'’t mind spending an evening with the old folks.
The farmer's market

All this is background to the moment in our conversation when she noted one of her biggest frustrations on the trip: the lack of personal time she was able to spend just roaming around while on an escorted tour. Yes, she recognizes that she was able to see and do so many more things than she might have had the tour not been a death march, but she was disappointed that, as she notes, there was no real chance to take in the local Italian culture. In other words, no alone time to spend just sitting and absorbing.

When I asked her what she would have liked to have gotten a chance to do, she said she wanted to go out for an evening, find a local cafe and sit with a cheap meal, glass of wine (looking sheepishly at her parents as she said it) and watch the world go by.  That's it, she said, just stop running and take it all in -- get a feel for the places she visited.

A Day at the Museum
This revelation that she considered a visit to another culture was not the same as absorbing that culture, came a surprise for me -- so I burrowed in to ask what she meant. After all, she was able to see several sites in Rome we had missed, as well as getting to the cities of Siena and Florence. Wasn’t it enough to tag those historic sites and move on? (I will admit that for years my wife and I would rush around town’s and villages doing precisely this, but in our case it was to free up time to stop and drink in each destination at a later hour. In visiting our nation’s capital, for example, it might be “Yeah, cool, the Washington Monument…next?” followed by a quick tram ride to the Vietnam Memorial…“Next!”…but at the same time the gained hours were being set aside for a leisurely meal at a local place in, for example, Georgetown. To our way of thinking, buildings represent the images of a place, but not the flesh and blood of it.)

In our friend’s daughter’s mind – and this is what is the surprise for me – the highlight of the trip would have been to go to a local cafĂ©, on her own, and sit down for a true Italian dinner (of course the fantasy involves a glass of wine) and just sit, eat and absorb the scene. A surprisingly mature Anthony Bourdainesque approach for any traveler, let alone a teenager.

Wandering the alleys
Cultures are often best experienced through their food, through the way it is prepared and served, and most importantly how it is experienced.

This, of course, is precisely one of our own favorite adventures when on the road, and I told her so. Arturo’s in New York. Chez Paul in Paris. The Killarney House outside Annapolis. Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Fort Worth. Next Noodle Bar on Robson in Vancouver. Getting the chance to sit in a “local’s hangout” and just spend some time, as they do, watching the world go by and enjoying the fruits of their own local cuisine is one of the grand time-tested ways to truly discover the soul of other places, and it was quite a pleasant surprise to hear such a sentiment coming from someone of a generation I’d – old fartishness and all – written off as completely inadequate to running the world in the future. Their values are not my values, and I spent my formative years in the self-indulgent ‘70s. Go figure.
Exploring new places

(Yeah, yeah, I know I mentioned Italian in New York, Irish in Annapolis, Chinese in Vancouver. At least I got steaks in Texas and French in France right, but each and every one of the places mentioned is very much a local spot – read, “non-tourist” with the exception of Cattlemen’s, which is haunted by both locals and “fur’ners” alike – reflecting a local flavor in a major way. Get over it.)

But sharing a meal, eating the local cuisine, finding something in common and not trying to superimpose your own expectations on others is the surest way to walk away with a sense of relief, of fun and understanding, and more importantly, to discover that you, too, have gained something valuable in the process.

Kind of like talking to a teenage traveler as you share a meal at a friend’s house: Sometimes, if you take the time, you'’ll learn something surprising.