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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.

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