Sicily: Catania, Taormina, Around Etna
At noon on Thursday, the stubby Trenitalia train pulled into Cefalù Station.
My mother, sister, J and I were unable to find seats together. J and I sat behind a group of loud and snacking Sicilian dude bros. The others sat across from a silent, middle-aged man.
I moved into the seat next to the man and put the pressure on him by continually commenting on the beautiful scenery outside. Eventually, he took the hint and either moved to a different seat or got off at his stop. I moved onto his still warm seat, and J moved onto mine. We broke out the bread, salami, cheese, and salad greens and ate our lunch while watching beautiful sea and farmland zoom by.
After three hours and a lot of tunnels, our train stopped at Messina Station. We switched to a longer and older train that had openable windows. The heavy blue curtain of a nearby window flapped violently. I feared that when we entered a tunnel, it would get ripped off the rod and shoot curtain hooks into our eyes.
The rest of the journey took around an hour. As we approached Catania, we got our first glimpse of snowy and steaming Mount Etna.
Enjoying the view.
A glimpse of Etna.
Again, our AirBnB was in walking distance of the train station. We rang the buzzer next to the massive Jurassic Park doors and a little man let us in, led us through the courtyard, up some dark stairs and into the apartment.
We dropped our bags and went wandering in search of sights and dinner. After my wariness wore off, I got out my camera and started enjoying the view.
Catania is old and crumbly like Palermo, but overall in much better shape. It feels safer, less chaotic, artier, and more youthful. There isn’t nearly as much dog poop or trash on the streets.
That evening, J and I raced to the top of the nearest hill to watch the peach colored sunset.
The famous lava rock elephant, Fontana Dell’Elefante.
Cattedrale di Sant’Agata.
Underground aqueduct by the fish market.
Lava rock everywhere.
Courtyard not by Marriott.
Sunset over beer street.
Chasing the sunset to the top of the hill.
Fiat and sunset.
Catania candy van.
One of our two fancy pizzas. This was pistachio pesto and ham. The other had sausage and olives. My sister had a cured tuna and pear salad.
Distance walked for the day: 11km/7mi
Friday morning, we explored the bustling fish and produce market. The area was dense with fresh seafood, fresh cuts of meat, and piles of colorful fruits and vegetables.
The orderly part of the market was the main hallway inside the seafood building and under the blue tarps outside. The uncovered area outside was a chaotic mix of fish hawkers, shoppers, and sightseers. The mosh pit was unpleasant from ground level, but a walkway above it oftered a view from a calming distance.
We tried seltz, a drink made with sparkling water, fresh citrus juice, sugar, and salt (€1). My mother and sister bought some fish, vegetables, and nuts.
I ran the groceries back to the apartment, reconnected with with the group, and we visited the ruins of Teatro Romano and Anfiteatro Romano before resting in Giardino Bellini. There were a lot of friendly cats on the walk, especially in Teatro Romano.
My mother made fish and wild asparagus for dinner.
Parking amongst history.
The laughing gate.
Oranges and snails: the perfect combo!
Seasoned artichokes getting placed on the coals. Delicious.(€1 for one)
Shrimp peelers in the shadows.
Festering little fish.
The lamb dude.
So much fresh produce.
Unloading a little truck.
OCD stone sidewalk.
The ugliest building in town, San Nicolò.
Old factory by ancient bath ruins.
The old baths.
Inside the ruins.
Another corridor view.
J and I.
Apartments on the edge of greatness.
Heading down to the stage.
Looking up Via Etna.
Green and red.
Anfiteatro Romano and one of the busiest streets in town.
Bellini Park entrance.
Pavilion of Ignorance.
Man and underpass.
Venus di Etna.
I saw a bust in the park.
Distance walked for the day: 12.5km/8mi
On Saturday morning, my sister felt ill. We cancelled the rental car, and my mother and I walked across town to the apartment of a long-lost and distant relative. We buzzed the door twice, but no one answered. We left a brief note with my contact information and headed back to my apartment.
We tried arancini, a typical street food. The orange-sized fried rice ball has many varieties. We tried one filled with spinach and cheese, and another with tomato sauce, meat, and peas.
Botanical garden sneak peak.
Lord of the flowers.
In the afternoon, we walked to the nearby marina. It’s a massive space with grain silos, large docked ships, fishing boats, a parking lot full of long haul trailers, a rowing school, abandoned bars, and one crowded outdoor bar blasting funk. A massive jetty/road offered an unobstructed view of Etna and a path for shipping trucks to reach their containers. The water was clear.
Gas delivery bikes.
Sunken radar and fish.
Etna view from the marina.
Do the Urkle.
The guidebooks don’t mention it, but on Saturdays nights it’s Sicilian tradition to go to an an artisanal burger restaurant right when it opens.
Distance walked for the day: 11.5km/7mi
On Sunday, we took an expensive taxi the short distance to the airport Avis. The driver ripped us off an extra €2 claiming that the rental offices were an extra kilometer away from the airport. Jerk.
As our friendly agent in red explained our rental, another man started yelling. He briskly walked alongside a green rental agent, gesturing wildly and demanding his phone. We surmised that he had damaged a rental car and refused to pay for the damages. Did they not have his credit card number?
I lurched the sensitive Peugeot through the parking lot maze and onto the road.
J navigated us south to Augusta, an industrial town unknown to tourists. Some of our ancestors had lived there, and driving the streets of the old town we discovered one that might have been named after them.
We scanned people’s faces looking for a family resemblance, but everyone looked related.
Family in Augusta.
A family street.
The main church.
Just lion under a blanket.
Watch out for loose balls.
An hour-long drive north on the partial toll highway brought us back through Catania and into Taormina. We wound up the hill and found a paid parking lot below the town.
I was starting to feel in a bum mood before we sat down for lunch at an expensive restaurant with a great view of a stepped street lined with blood orange trees. I squirmed in my seat, anxious to see new scenery.
The oranges were some of the best I’ve had. Plus, they were free (I think).
Half our group went to the amphitheater ruins and its excellent view and other half went to buy some extra parking time and enjoy other excellent views.
Taormina was too touristy for our tastes, so we drove back down the hill and hiked to the postcard-perfect rocky beach around Isola Bella. The water was glass clear and cold.
An army of determined Chinese women walked around offering foot massages. Business was bad that day.
Free blood oranges.
Isola Bella from above.
Glass clear water.
J and I freezing our feet off.
Tattoo’s day out.
I didn’t want to rush our time at the beach, but I also wanted to drive back up the road and see some of the hilltop towns above Taormina.
The drive was the craziest yet. The roads were narrow and switchbacked up the steep mountains. Oncoming vehicles fought for room with muscly bikers, pedestrians, and our car. There were no shoulders, but there were flimsy rails and steep drops.
At the top of a hill, I got stuck at a dead-end. A group of old ladies took turns getting in my way and trying to direct my driving a multi-point turn righted my course. They seemed very happy about it.
Our road dead ended at the top of another hill, and we had to backtrack. Vistas were in every direction, but I had no place to pull off to admire them.
Quite a drop.
Our dead end.
Mother and Peugeot.
Layers of fog.
As the sun set, we drove counterclockwise around Etna. It was dark by the time we passed through Sicily’s pistachio capital of Bronte.
Etna from another angle.
An hour later, we had seen every side of the volcano. We entered the insane evening traffic of Catania. My bladder was about to explode.
We parked in a questionable alley a few blocks from the apartment, and I waddled ahead of the group, unlocked the doors, and floated into heaven.
Distance walked for the day: 9.25km/5.75mi
Our time in Sicily felt short, but it was great to see it with my family.
Our transit days showed a glimpse of all the beautiful scenery waiting to be explored. And loitering about that scenery, somewhere, are long-lost relatives waiting to be found.