Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sicilia By-the-Sea

The treasure trove of ancient ruins first drew us to the largest island in the Mediterranean but what made us love Sicily was that she had so much more to offer. Although we visited for a full week, we still didn’t have enough time to see all she had to show us.

We boarded the train for Sicily in Naples behind a pack of fully armed carabinieri, images of the Italian Wild West, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano dancing in our heads. We guessed that there must occasionally be some seriously illegal goings-on aboard the train on this particular itinerary. The train to Taormina, our Sicilian destination, took about seven hours including the two-mile ferry trip to the island. They actually split the train into two pieces and roll the cars onto rails on the ship for the 20-minute passage across the Strait of Messina. While building a tunnel might seem logical, it makes no seismic sense; the earthquake-prone region categorically rules out that possibility. Joe, ship engineer that he is, went up on deck to observe the logistics while I stayed in our train compartment chatting with the 30-something young woman sitting across from us. She was among that rare breed of seriously overweight women who don’t act like they’re heavy; she was confident, wore perfect makeup, was dressed to the nines and carried herself with panache. She knew what to do with what she had, in true Italian bella figura style. While she understood some English, she didn’t speak it and I could understand enough Italian such that we were able to carry on a conversation for a good long while. She spoke to me in Italian and I responded in English; it was a particularly satisfying experience and we had a terrific exchange. She taught me the lovely, lilting Italian pronunciation of Sicily (Sicilia--See-CHEE-lya) and I filled her in on US geography. Like many Europeans, she was anxious to visit both New York City and California and I explained just how far apart they are, suggesting that she would need at least three weeks to see them properly. She was a Neopolitana and was headed for a long weekend in Taormina to visit her boyfriend; she makes the trip south once a month to see him and he travels north with the same frequency to see her in Naples. Joe returned to the compartment once the train was reconnected in Messina for the final leg of our most-of-the-day journey. Our companion’s destination was the same as ours, so clutching her bright pink suitcase, the travel gear of choice among so many young Italian women, she waved goodbye and warbled, “Arrivederci” as she headed for her boyfriend’s car and we proceeded to the taxi stand. La bella figura was our first taste of Sicily and she was lovely.

Taormina is a captivating hilltop town on Sicily’s northeastern coast and the Hotel Bel Soggiorno, our bright white, stately hotel, an early 19th century villa with tall arched windows and a sunny, glassed-in breakfast veranda, was perched about halfway up the rise. Thankful, yet again, for affordable off-season rates of under $100 a night, we marveled at the corner room we were given. It was quite small but had 14-foot high ceilings and two French doors, each with its own balcony, one looking south over the coast with Mount Etna as its backdrop and the other facing east over the hotel’s gardens and the blue-green sea. We had scored, we were told, “the most requested room at the inn.” Honestly, as Joe so aptly observed, we’re not sure we’ve ever stayed in a place with more dramatic views. We never tired of looking out the windows and although we took the very same pictures every morning and evening, the nuanced light made each one unique. Mt. Etna, an active volcano, broods majestically yet ominously over Taormina, lazily puffing smoke now and then just to remind you she’s there. It’s difficult to forget her potential power when gazing up at her snow-capped cone, its peak blown off long ago leaving a yawning, uneven gap below which churning lava continues to boil. While we had notions of hiking to the top of Mt. Etna before we arrived, those hopes quickly evaporated once we saw the snowy winds swirling around her summit 11,000 feet in the air.

We used Taormina as our home base for exploring Sicily, returning to the Bel Soggiorno at the end of each day and experiencing two shades of evening: one a premature precursor when the sun disappeared behind Mt. Etna and the second producing indisputable darkness as the sun sank below the horizon. We made the steep ascent into town for dinner on several evenings, tackling the many stairs and ramps slowly to ensure we didn’t arrive bathed in sweat. The Taverna al Paladino, a small ristorante with only five tables became our evening meal venue of choice. The Mom and Pop operation with her in the kitchen, him in the dining room and the children coming and going, served mouth-watering local specialties at reasonable prices. Seafood dominates Sicilian cuisine and we certainly enjoyed our share during our visit: swordfish and tuna, mussels and clams, anchovies and shrimp, cuttlefish and prawns. As you might expect, Sicily is all about living by the sea, and I so enjoy saying this phrase over and over in Italian, letting the melodious vowel sounds roll around my mouth: la bella Sicilia al mare, la bella Sicilia al mare.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

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