The drive down from Amalfi of about 540km was rather extended due to the fact they seem to be replacing most of the tunnels and viaducts from about 50 miles south of Naples to Messina and long stretches were single lanes.
At one point the autostrada was completely closed for about 20Km and we were diverted through admittedly beautiful scenery but when you are in a queue of slow moving traffic it rather takes the edge off things. We finally reached the ferry to Messina which cost €41 and after about an hours drive down the coast arrived at Castelmolo about 7pm where we had booked a room at Villa Regina.
We did not much fancy the drive back to Naples from Sicily so investigated the ferry from Palermo. It costs €165 including pullman seats, leaving Palermo at 8pm arriving Naples 6-30am so what with petrol, ferry and autostrada tolls there was not much cost difference and far less tiring so we booked it and cancelled one of our nights in Castelmolo. There was a power cut when we arrived and the Villa owners wife had died just that morning so the place was in a state of organised chaos!
Above you can see an image from a postcard which shows an aerial view of Castelmola and I have marked the location of Villa Regina which, as you can see is in a pretty vertiginous position. Hope we don't have an earthquake or we might end up in Taormina!
I really fancied a nice breakfast the next morning but the restaurants here only open for lunch and dinner and the bars serve the standard coffee and croissant so we had an early brunch of a cheese omelette with the obligatory carafe of white wine and a view North to Etna. First eggs we have had since arriving in Italy and ones that came with the view below!
We had morning coffee in a bar which seems to have a theme of "big willies"! They have ceramic and wooden statues of phallus' and figures with male appendages of grotesque size all over the place. It's enough to put you off your croissant! I connected with the bars WiFi and to my delight discovered that the Lions Rugby Union team were victorious in the first test against Australia. From the report it was never in doubt the Lions were on top in the first half and we were looking at an easy victory then all the subs came on in the second half and it went a bit pear shaped with the Wallabies almost overtaking us. It finished 21-23 and looks like being a close run series. It was a majority Welsh team and I was reminded of the number of times the Welsh national side have lost games in the last few minutes against southern hemisphere sides. Lions captain Sam Warburton who achieved his Rugby lifes ambition to captain a Lions side must have been proud and relieved.
The Aussies have created the largest painted turf advertisement yet in a field on the flight approach to Tullamarine airport in Melbourne which the team will see from their aircraft when they eventually fly in. It shows a cartoon Lion with a startled expression being jumped from behind by a cartoon wallaby who is winking with the caption "Rooting for the Wallabies!" For the uninitiated, the adjective "to root" has two different meanings in Oz!
Castelmolo is a little village sitting on a 530m mountain top high above Taormina which is about 300m vertically below us and 3km by road. It is a favourite excursion for those staying in Taormina who come up for the views and the abundance of little restaurants which mostly have fine views out to sea and up to Mount Etna smoking away 3000m above. We had booked the Villa Regina which is perched on the edge of a crag so that we look down almost vertically to Taormina from our balcony and it is that view which is pictured at the top of this page! Our room is at the corner of the building so we have a view spanning 180 degrees and is air conditioned which is a blessing. Because of our altitude it is a lot cooler than down in Taormina, there are nice sea breezes so walking around is quite pleasant and a bus service runs every hour and takes about twenty minutes into the town so the car can stay parked.
Villa Regina is under the same ownership as Villa Sonia 76 steps beneath us on the other side of the mountain facing Mount Etna where we can indulge in a buffet breakfast on their terrace and from where I took the above photograph.
The road down to Taormina is quite exciting with some tight turns and hair raising precipices so you just have faith in the bus driver (or pilot) and tighten your seat belt! The main attraction of Taormina is its situation overlooking the sea and across to Etna. The Greeks built their theatre here in 3C BC with that view in mind, then 'yer Romains rebuilt it in 1C AD and were not really interested in the view as they wanted it for gladatorial blood baths so built a brick wall to obscure the view. Some centuries later, possibly for the flourishing tourist trade, someone knocked a hole in the middle of the wall to restore the view and make it into a bit of a romantic ruin.
From the top of the Greek Theatre there is a stunning panorama which is impossible to see from inside the theatre inself, despite the gap in the wall. The view extends from the sea at Giardini Naxos, Taormina with Etna behind and if you look at the extreme top right of the photo below you will see a rocky mountain top behind the castle which is Castelmola on which we are perched.
Looking up to Castelmola from Taormina with the telephoto lens you can see how Villa Regina is perched on the edge of a precipice and it really is a wonder that Sue sits out on our balcony so close to the edge? Normally she won't go near any drop of more than a few feet let alone a few hundred!
We seem to be following in the footsteps of D.H.Lawrence who spent some time in Assisi and also lived in a villa in Taormina for three years in the 1920's. He even has a road named after him - Via David Herbert Lawrence - where the house is located. We wandered into town along with thousands of other tourists and found a little pub on some shaded steps for lunch. We strolled along the Corso Umberto which is pedestrianised and full of shops located in beautiful old 15C palaces. At the end of the street we found the post office so some lucky Europeans will be getting postcards but not the Antipodeans as the postage is too expensive!
Villa Sonia has a deal with a Lido down on the beach where we pay them €7.50 each and we get picked up, transported to the beach at Mazzeo and are provided with all the necessary equipment like sun beds, brollys and beach towels etc. so off we went. The lido had its own restaurant which did not look great and was a bit pricey so we strolled along the beach a few yards to a really nice one called Lido Tropicana. One of the waiters was married to an English lady and they have a B&B called The Beach House while directly across from the Lido was the Hotel Calipso so either might be good places to stay if you fancied a beach holiday close to Taormina. They will arrange airport transfers if you don't want to drive and there are regular buses up to the town. We had a little too much wine and sun that day so after going down round all those bends in the bus to town that evening we were not up to eating anything but contented ourselves with the best ice cream we have had yet. I had Pistachio with Cassata and it was truly scrumptious and I was truly gratified to borrow an American expression that Les taught me!
A five masted sailing ship moored up at Amalfi and it followed us down to Sicily as we noticed from our balcony. Down in the town we had a closer view.
Next day we woke up Desmond and Daphne and set off for Mount Etna. After some difficulty route finding we found our way to the highest point you can drive to at Etna North where you climb to about 1590m. We then drove down to Zafferana which isn't a bad little town but could not find a decent place for lunch so it was off up the mountain again to Etna South at 1900m where we tried to park at the Rifugio without success so drove a little way further to "La Cantoniera" and parked easily. Inside was a fast food counter but upstairs was a nice restaurant where we had a good lunch for a reasonable price considering the location half way up Mount Etna.
At Etna North there were lots of lava flows but here it was much more impressive with some big craters dating from a major eruption in 1983. A cable car was working that took you up about another 1000m, still 430m from the top and you are not allowed higher as explosions and molten rock are common past that point. Sue is frit of cable cars so we did not go further!
In a major eruption in 1991/92 the molten lava reached the outskirts of Zafferana where the locals paraded statues of the Virgin Mary in front of the flow. It stopped before doing much damage and it might be hard to convince some Zafferanians that the Virgin Mary had nothing to do with it!
The roads wind backwards and forward across lava flows, some of them looking relatively new especially at Etna North. I suppose the logic is that the next time it erupts that the lava will take a different route, however, the cable car has been destroyed several times and the observatory at the top of the mountain, which is supposed to warn of impending eruptions has also been destroyed once.
We continued to circumnavigate Etna by car. You can do this on a little train and the road follows the railway line most of the way. The road was littered with so much rubbish that it was down to one lane on occasions! More like a third world country than an EU one Sue reckoned. It is surprising that the Italians allow such a beautiful place to become a rubbish dump and they have just announced that Etna has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
The wine that is made from the grapes grown around the mountain is much renowned so we found a little deli in a village just above Linguaglossa where we bought red wine which the deli owner assured us was local. At €18 a bottle it had better be good! We also bought local olives and olive oil and he vac packed the olives for us. He had some great looking cheese, salamis and hams which we could not buy as we were leaving in a couple of days but the smell made us feel really hungry! It was nice to put a smile on the face of a village shopkeeper and we thought about how pleased we used to be when we owned Provender Deli in Somerset and foreigners came in out of the blue and spent up large!
Siracusa started life as Syracuse in 733BC when Corinthian colonists arrived on the little island of Otygia just a few yards offshore. Very close to the sea shore is a freshwater resurgence called the Fonte Aretusa which would have attracted the settlement. Eventually the settlement spread to the mainland where there are extensive Greek and Roman buildings but on this visit we confined ourselves to exploring the old heart of the city in Otygia.
Syracuse was the birthplace of Archimedes who was lying in his bath one day when he came to the conclusion that the weight of water his body displaced from the bath was exactly equal to his own weight, at which point he leapt out of the bath and ran around town stark naked shouting "Eureka, Eureka" (I've found it). We now use a ships "displacement" as the only proper measure of its weight. The great man was put to the sword by a soldier when Rome finally captured Syracuse in 211BC.
Walking across the bridge to Otygia you arrive at what's left of the Temple of Apollo built in the 7th or 6th century BC and just behind it is the market. Of course we could not resist and bought salamis and sun dried cherry tomatoes plus a kilo of cherries. During the buying process we tasted quite a few bruschettas with different things on them plus various salami and ham so we didn't need lunch!
In the Piazza Archimede there is a 20th century fountain (which was not working) depicting the nymph Arethusa at the moment of her transformation into a spring. That's not the springy sort but the watery sort. She is supposed to have swam across from Greece to escape the clutches of a randy God called Alf (actually Alpheus the Greek) but he was a river god and caught up with her in the Fonte Aretusa for a watery mingle!! The resurgence reminded us a bit of La Fosse Dionne in Tonerre on the Burgundy canal in France.
We wandered around the little medieval streets and finally found ourselves in the impressive Piazza del Duomo. The cathedral itself was originally a Greek Temple to Athena built about 530BC. It was a temple which 'yer Romains nicked all the treasures from so fell into disrepair until it was converted to a church in 640AD using the original massive Doric columns. The original Norman facade collapsed during the 1693 eathquake and is now ornate Baroque. Inside it is quite plain apart from the main altar and small side chapels which are separated by those massive columns.
A final night in Taormina saw us having an excellent meal with some Etna wine entitled "Rampanté" which was so good we added a couple of bottles to our stock before getting the 9-45pm bus back up the hill to Castelmolo.
We checked out the next morning and headed for Palermo. On the way we made a detour to visit the Roman Villa at Piazza Amarina. The villa dates from about the end of the 3rd century AD is famous for its magnificent mosaics. The problem with photographing mosaics is that the photo never does the art justice as the mosaic should be wetted first to bring the colours out. It is a huge villa which took up at least an hour to walk around and virtually every floor is covered. One hallway must be about 50 or 60 metres long and the floor is a huge hunting scene capturing animals from Africa for 'yer Romains 'ter kill in their arenas.
Of course, being Romains, there had to be a bit of erotica mixed in but it just happened to be one of the best so here it is! But just look at the expression on the face of the nymph and then think that it is just bits of coloured marble that was done 1700 years ago when we were still living in mud huts!
Our guide book says that we would have to be crazy to drive in Palermo but we had no option as we had to catch a ferry to Naples there. We followed the signs to the port driving defensively where the policeman redirected to the next gate where another policeman redirected us to another gate which was closed so we went back to the first one where another policeman directed us to the ticket office. Collected our tickets but parking was not permitted in the port so we headed out into the traffic once again and found an empty parking spot. There were no meters or machines in sight so we asked in a hire car office where we could get a ticket. One of their staff came with us to a bar around the corner who redirected him to another bar where he was redirected to a betting shop where we bought a parking ticket!
We walked a few blocks and found the Teatro then sat outside a quiet shaded bar and watched the world go by. That part of Palermo at least was very up market with all the designer shops like Gucci and Prada much in evidence. Eventually it was time to risk life and limb once again in the Palermo traffic and we eventually managed to find the ship, the MS "SNAV Lazio" which was boarded efficiently two hours before sailing. After a very poor meal in the restaurant on board we retired to our Pullman Seats for a kip. Problem was there were about a dozen TV's in the so called VIP Pullman lounge, all tuned to a different channel and some bloke singing into a Karaoke machine next door very loudly. They finally turned it all off at midnight then turned the air conditioning up to maximum! We were frozen and the Pullman seats were so uncomfortable that we could not sleep, arriving in Naples at 6-30am where they then took over an hour to unload us. Never again!