09 Oct – 18 Oct 2020 – A Taste Of Sicily

We spent a few days at Andy’s daughter’s place (in COVID “quarantine”) but were soon on our way to Sicily – a place we’d promised to ourselves but never been. We knew this was just a few days to sample the place with a view to returning for an extensive visit. The flight in was spectacular – we flew over the island, out to sea and turned back to land at Catania with a stunning view of Etna.

Etna towering over Catania on our approach to Sicily

Re-assembled our bikes (Andy’s frame dented!) and headed out of Catania towards Siracusa about 60km South. Well our first ‘taste’ of Sicily was mostly ‘OIL’. We cycled past mile after mile of refineries. Milford Haven on steriods! Pretty disappointing. We arrived at Siracusa and met our AirBnB host Martina who stored our bikes and drove us to our apartment in Ortigia – an island (just) off Siracusa that’s stunning. It’s very much an ‘old town’ with decadently decayed buildings, beautifully decrepit back streets and a fabulous sea front.

Magnificent fountain in Ortegia

Martina said Siracusa goes to Ortigia at weekends and holidays. It was kind of touristy but it was also easy to escape the crowds and lose yourself in back alleys … you can easily walk the circumference of the island in a couple of hours. Fran’s son had previously stayed in the same apartment and it was a great place to stay. The sea was remarkably warm and so hard to resist a dip in mid-October!

Hard to resist a dip (and a read) in MID-OCTOBER!!! Oh yes!

From Siracusa we decided to get the train back to Catania where we had a B&B near the station and the bus to Etna. This was a seedy area (hookers on the corner … etc.) – it usually is near train stations! The B&B was a room in a large apartment on the 8th floor of a 60’s highrise block. Oddly we loved it! The view from the balcony was amazing … busy streets, railway lines and a port below, huge sea views in one direction and a view over the city towards Mount Etna in the other direction. Bit noisy first thing though but hey …

View from our balcony over Catania towards Etna

Since arriving we’d been trying to figure out how get tested for COVID – it was a legal requirement but they weren’t testing at the airport when we arrived. Depite sending messages to the local health authority and the airport, it was TripAdvisor that came to the rescue – we needed to get to a local private clinic so we arrived at one at 7:15am – it was rammed. We got a ticket number and more and more people continued to arrive. Great place to spread COVID! Luckily a friendly guy helped us understand what was going on (“not much” as it turns out!). Testing was due to commence at 10am. We got tested at 11am and they were turning people away. We came back for our results at 2:30pm and thankfully we were negative and now legal! Off to the beach south of the city to relax. Next day was Etna!

COVID Central at the testing clinic!

Early start to get the 8am bus to Etna. It took over an hour for the bus to climb the road (stopped for a coffee on the way). We bought cable car tickets and decided to hike the rest of the way ourselves as much as possible (rather than paying 30-odd Euros each for an all-terrain bus ride and a guide). It was certainly cooler (we were up 2500m) but the landscape was lunar, we walked through the snow line and could see billowing clouds of volcanic activity .. but the summit was still a long way up.

“Walking on, Walking on the mo-ooon. Da-da daaa-daaah” Just pointed and clicked. No effects!

Cloud began to form and we entered a ‘guide-only’ area (as did a few other intrepid walkers). We easily followed the paths and things got colder. And windier. And cloudier. And much colder. And steeper. Eventually we reached a place where we could see very little but could smell sulphur and see bright yellow sulphur deposits on the ground. A guided tour group was also at the spot and the guide gave us quite a bollocking! We (us and about 8 others) shouldn’t be there un-guided! It was illegal! If the volcano erupted it would be very dangerous! We were quite glad really because we didn’t particularly want to go any further – for a start you couldn’t see a damned thing and it was freezing.

Freezing Hairdo! It was pretty chilly up that volcano!

So we headed back and found our way down (sort of) – but the wind became ferocious (60mph-ish) and the cloud was very thick. We reached the all-terrain bus park and a driver warned us to ‘stay on the road or you’ll get lost’. Good advice. It was a long decent to the cable car and an even longer decent IN the cable car and eventually we reached our bus park and gladly ate and stayed a while in a restaurant in the warm. Only at the bus park did the cloud end and we could see sunny Catania below. Later, back at our apartment we looked back at Etna – the top was still covered in cloud but you have no idea from sea-level how ferocious the conditions are in that cloud. Quite an adventure!

Before the clouds set in. You could hear the volcano roar … like a dragon breathing. Amazing.

Next day we cycled from Catania to Taormina – 50km – and we dodged thundery downpours along the way where the roads turned temporarily to rivers. It was a fantastic ride though, undulating nicely through little towns and past lemon and lime trees. Taormina loomed at the end of the ride – a 200m climb that annoying went down and then steeply up again at the top. Andy was not happy! Our B&B was well situated and had a great view of Etna from the terrace. It turns out the road goes around the houses a bit and town-centre was only about a 5 minute walk down some steps. Unfortunately yesterday’s Etna escapades had taken it out on Andy’s poor old legs and he was walking like a 90-year-old moaning about all the steps! Taormina is undoubtedly a classy tourist destination but my god, it’s beautiful! The old hill-top town is riddled with really nice shops and restaurants – and then you get to the edge of town and are treated to some of the most stunning coastal views imaginable.

View from Taormina Public Gardens

We visited the public gardens created in the 1890’s by Florence Trevelyan and they were pretty amazing. Particularly amazing are the follies Flo had built for her birds – elaborate and stunning structures giving Andy a few ideas for that garden in the flat at Clifton! Oh … and then there are the views from the garden. She was on to a good thing was Florence Trevelyan!

A folly!

A cable car takes you down to sea level so we had a swim – irresistable really – as was Andy’s elbow to a jelly fish! Stung but no harm done. Unfortunately we had to press on – getting our bikes out of the garage, we spotted a gem of a dusty old Fiat 500 that could use a good home and the cycle down the hills from Taormina was unforgetabbly beautiful. Quite an amazing place!

Hard to resist a swim … despite the jelly fish!

We cycled a relatively flat 50km along our usual route (the SS114 – diverting onto coastal roads wherever possible) to Messina passing through largely unremarkable towns that seem to turn their back to the sea. An exception was Lotjanni which looks like a good place to stay a while in winter and one or two now-empty tourist towns that kindly laid on a tail-wind that swept us past their endless beaches. We enjoyed a coffee at Bar De Luca on the outskirts of Messina and found our way to our B&B where we checked in via WhatsApp (very COVID friendly!). Like most Italian cities, Messina is, well, a bit messy on the outskirts but the centre of town is worth a visit. In Messina there are the usual great cathedaral, churches and elegant architecture but Messina has a crazy clock tower – it has a giant calendar and astrological ‘clock’ on one side and a series of mechanical stuff an another side that goes mad at mid-day. Back tomorrow then!

Messina’s crazy bell/calendar/clock/astronomical clock tower

That evening we ate in a socially distanced but very lively place (mostly we’d been avoiding ‘lively’ but it was good to see a bit of life in action again). We made it to the clock tower the following day and, sure enough, at mid-day the tower went mad (in slow motion). A lion roars, a cockerel crows, ‘Ave Maria’ blares out while saints process past the virgin Mary and birds fly above a choir. Surreal but it drew quite a (socially distanced) crowd. We had the usual run-around at the ferry port trying to get tickets but had plenty of time to enjoy an ice-cream in a brioche bun for lunch (a Sicilian invention). 3 Euros each! Cheap as chips! Same price for the ferry crossing including our bikes. Soon we were on our way to mainland Italy.

Yep! Ice cream sandwiches! 3 Euros a piece!

We cycled the unremarkable 15km or so from Villa San Giovanni to Reggio Calabria – there was obviously some kind of bin-men dispute – rubbish piled high in the streets. We checked in to our B&B and sought out the train station to buy tickets for tomorrow. Remarkably the centre of Reggio Calabria is really nice. Fantastic main shopping street and a beautiful waterfront with magnificent rubber trees (enormous roots!) where everyone was promenading in their finest clothes. We stopped at a waterfront memorial (strange thing … paintings of Venice floating in the sea) and watched the sun set over Sicily across the Straits Of Messina.

Sunset over Sicily across the Straits Of Messina

So our taste of Sicily is over and it certainly left us wanting to return. Fran has been reading “Midnight In Sicily” and is therfore very keen to visit Palermo which features heavily in the book. We heard that south of Siracusa is also lovely so we’ll plan in a return trip and stay longer. But for now we’re heading to our friends Esther and Richard near Matera to stay with them for a while …

… maybe I’ll see if that Fiat 500 is still there when we return!