A Driving Tour around Mount Etna
Nature was calling and we asked at the bar if we could use the bathroom. One thing about Italy is that there are very few public washrooms, but fortunately local bars are quite easy-going about their facilities being used by non-paying strangers. This particular facility was in rather abysmal shape, though, and when I came out of it I instructed Jill to make sure not to touch any of the surfaces for fear of contracting a horrible communicating disease. The facility did the job, but it certainly was everything but a shining example of hygiene and cleanliness.
Another view of Rocella Valdemone
Our driving tour continued with a drive into the mountain area. Tree cover got sparser and all of a sudden we were in a mountain area that must have been about 1500 to 2000 m high with a beautiful 360 degree view northwards and eastwards down to the sea and southwards and westwards towards Mount Etna. Hundreds of local Italian families had their cars parked in small side roads that were leading onto what looked like pasture lands for goats and they were having picnics. We didn’t seem to see any tourists at all, and we realized that this is what Italians do on a public holiday in Sicily: they go for a picnic in the high mountain areas surrounding Mount Etna….
Church and main square in Rocella Valdemone
We had come prepared – before our departure we had picked up some prosciutto, cheese, fresh buns, fruits and drinks at the local supermarket in Taormina and this was our time for our very own little picnic. Due to the chilly wind that was blowing on this high mountain plateau we actually stayed in the car to eat our lunch, but nevertheless our view out the windshield was simply gorgeous.
Our lunch spot, looked like in the High Alps
After a very satisfying improvised meal we drove back down from the mountains towards Mount Etna, past a large number of parked cars whose owners had gone hiking somewhere in this mountainous terrain. At an intersection a local woman was selling home-made cheeses and sausages, evidence of Italian culinary craftsmanship. We neared a town called Randazzo, with the volcano majestically draped in the background which impressed us with its Cathedral of Santa Maria, which was started in the 13th century and rebuilt several times. The bell tower dates from the 18th century, an example of the various different styles composing this imposing church.
We started our leisurely drive around Mount Etna, at times right next to the Ferrovia Circumetnea, a small-gauge railway that encircles Mount Etna for about 90 km between Catania and Riposto. Terraced vineyards spread far in front of our eyes, and the drive through little towns like Maletto, Bronte, Adrano and Paterno was enjoyably peaceful. Once we approached the coastal side east of Mount Etna things got a lot busier. We started realizing that this was indeed a public holiday and all the locals were out and about. The traffic was starting to get crazy. Continuing through Nicolosi, Trecastagni, Zafferana Etnea (where saffron used to be cultivated, introduced by the Arabs), we continued through Giarre and Fiumefreedo di Sicilia towards Gardini Naxos, located right on the Ionian Sea.
Beautiful mountain villages
The traffic in the coastal areas was now enormous and beside the road along the shoreline stretching north of Giarre, thousands of cars were parked, belonging to people who had been enjoying a sunny day at the waterfront. We continued through Giardini Naxos at a crawling pace. This resort town south east of Taormina was founded in 735 BC by the Greeks and represents one of the oldest Greek settlements in Sicily. We drove past Isola Bella and Mazzaro and took the northern entrance into Taormina and got into a major traffic jam where we sat virtually without moving for about 45 minutes, a distance that should have taken us about 5 minutes under normal circumstances. No doubt everybody was on the road.
View of Mount Etna from the west side, always hidden by the clouds
It was a relief to finally have reached Taormina when we drove through the tunnel underneath town to reach the rental company on the western side of town. Just like the roads had been full of people, the town of Taormina was now packed with people strolling. Thousands of people were milling up and down the main strip, Corso Umberto, and we were literally rubbing shoulders with the other walkers. We decided we would have dinner outside of the city gates on Via Pirandello, where the pedestrian traffic was not quite as crazy and grabbed a nice table on a terrace at Trattoria Da Lino’s, a little restaurant where I had already had a couple of chats with the owners who recognized me and gave me a friendly hello. From the terrace we had a great view over the northern part of town and the Ionian Sea below us. After a filling pasta dinner we received a little free treat: a tasting of Amandola liqueur (made from almonds) on the house – a great way to cap off an exciting day to catch a rest for another day of Italian lessons…