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simple pleasures in achingly expensive Taormina and stunning Savoca, Sicily 

(Written, Wednesday 6 September 2017)

The sun is beating down on me. Ryan is snorkeling (3rd mask lucky). I’m feeling pretty happy on my lumi-lilo, compared to all the other less smug humans scattered on this proverbially uncomfortable stoney beach opposite Isola Bella. Every so often a a gentle breeze strokes over me, bringing with it a wash of triumphantly Italian horn music.

I think it must be coming from one of the dozen of beach-side trattorias behind and across from me.

Greta Garbo, DH Lawrence, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemmingway, Oscar Wilde, Henry Faulkner and a hundred other artist types came here and it’s not hard to see why, with its glorious jumble of Greek, Roman and Arabic architecture.

On Monday we graced the flowery urn adorned balcony of Casa Cuseni: a writers and artists sometime haunt now museum / historical monument (the dining room hidden for many years thanks to the dining room fresco of a homosexual family). In the end we had to be sated by seeing only the same sea view they did, having missed the one-15-euro-each-11.30am-tour-a-day.

But we don’t get to see where they all hung out” I protest, until Ryan points out “They probably walked up here too then, and around this corner.. and sometimes they went that way.. and sometimes they went this way and other times they went up here to Castel Taormina …” which is our cue and up we go towards Saracen Castle. A couple, sweating as they reach the bottom, utter a “good luck”. 

We see why. It’s a hot climb up Monte Tauro, with prickly pear (or fichi d’ india as the Italians call them) cacti spiking us on past every corner. The ‘safety’ railings lining each of the one-and-a-half-step-steps which zigzag all the way up, are rusting, haphazard and pretty much obsolete but we relish the lack of (too much) health & (overly precautious) safety. At one point we stop so Ryan can sun-cream up.. and put down (and wave goodbye) to his 10 euro-faux-Ray-Ban sunglasses bought the previous day.

We can see the Grecian amphitheatre with its dramatically blue Ionian sea backdrop from here in all its glory: good news when we are at ground level the next day and realise it would cost another princely sum of 15 euros each to get in and see it up close (You really do pay the price of tourism attraction here in “achingly expensive” Taormina – an epiphany from the guide-book which we learn not to take lightly).

We skip seeing the amphitheater up close as I conquer my FOMO (translate for Ryan earlier and you too now, in case – Fear Of Missing Out) and instead are doubly grateful for this view we had from on high.

(Ampitheatre, top left)

There is a sculpture nodding to Jesus on each significant corner of the climb up to Santuario Madonna Della Rocca and we joke about Ryan (who gets told he looks like Jesus about four times a week at the catholic schools he teaches at in Bishops Stortford) revisiting the place he once came to shelter with his mother Mary. How last time he also struggled to find a decent snorkel and how it’s got a lot more achingly expensive these days.

(Practicing walking on water)

Later the guide-book tells me that it was actually a shepherd who took shelter from a storm and saw Baby Jesus and Mary in a vision, rather than they themselves (which somehow makes more sense than the Ryan version of the story – I’d asked “Why would they have been in Sicily? I don’t remember that trip being mentioned, you know, in the Bible…” . Note to self double-check the Ryan/guide-book, loose interpretations!)

The church at the top has a roof carved out of the hillside rock (this must be what denotes a grotto?) like it’s been carved out of the rock and the (original?) faded, now glass-protected painting of Jesus’ poor haunted face against the stone roof has a timeless feel to it (no sign of Ryan’s sunglasses on him either, when we come back in searching for them a second time). In the end we conclude that either, Mr White-Panama-hat-in-the-foursome who just walked past before nabbed them, or a happy-daddy-lizard has taken them home to furnish the Family Gecco Casa (“Tada!! You can look out of the windows without damaging your eyes now kids!”). We follow Mr Panama-hat and his pals up to the very top and squeeze through the wrought iron gate with a bar missing, and make it right to the top of Saracen Castle (score: the guide-book said you couldn’t get in!).

From up here it’s more solid and looks less likely to topple down the vertical drop into the sea at any moment. There’s a well at the top (no cover, naturally) – we drop down some stones and it’s full of water still. The fresh drinking water / fountain systems in Italy really are something else.

Now we’re having a lazy beach day, taking it in turns to snorkel with our ‘third time lucky!’ purchase. There’s a surprising amount of fish here: wrasse, and parrot fish, angel fish and dogfish.. and a gazillion others I can’t remember the names of – their names have all faded away since the fish identification tests I did back in Mexico all those years back. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a rainbow parrot fish and a harlequin something-or-other, so you get the picture: it’s pretty colourful. Some shoals of those thin long silver ones too with trumpet noses that glints back sun rays like splinters from tin foil scales. It’s as pretty under the water’s surface as it is above.

Isola Bella is teeny tiny island – an Italian heritage site. The Taormina Cult signpost (of which there are a number dotted around the city) tells us it is a natural monument of great historical and artistic interest. It was “once home to Florence Trevelyan; it’s her house that sits in quiet solitude on top of the rocky islet.” (Lonely Planet, Sicily, 7th edition). She was granddaughter of Queen Victoria no less, and married the Mayor of Taormina Salvatore Carcciola and bought the house in 1890.  It was named by a German photographer (naturally) and bought later by the Bosurgi Brothers who were big in citrus in Messina, and in 1990 the Sicilian region acquired the island and it became protected in 1998. Now (slightly weirdly) its owned by the Cutgana (whatever that might be) owned by the University of Catania and is a site of Community Importance in the Nature 2000 network (again, whatever that might be).

Anyhoo, it’s quite stunning and certainly differentiates this beach from every other one in the world. Old Florence we later learn is responsible for quite a lot of the more exotic-plant friendly attractions here in Taormina including the public gardens that we find below the amphitheatre after rejecting its entry fees. In amongst the tropical plans she so favoured, we spy an equally exotic bird enclosure with Macaws and African Greys (one gets our attention by wishing us “Ciao“and later “Hello“). In a feat of Krypton Factor worthy prowess, using just a stick, my nail tips and a tiny pair of scissors, we manage to extricate two fabulously bright parrot feathers from the enclosure. Worth half an hour’s effort, for Ryan’s expanding (and now colourfully adventurous) hair-feather collection.


(This chappy is the talking one. Much as he’s pulling his “not guilty” face!)

Earlier in the week, we paddled over the spit of stoney sand to Florence’s old abode – me magpie-picking this time: bits of green, brown, yellow and green, mainly green, sea glass for future wrist bangles. Visits up to her house are free today with it being the first Sunday in the month. We find out later that this is a ubiquitous thing in Taormina: all the attractions, which all seem to be 15 euros (“How to families ever afford to do anything?!”) are all free, first Sunday of the month.

Dawn Top-Tip: time things right, arrive at the start of the month and do all the “achingly expensive” sightseeing trips in one long day on that first Sunday. Then go to Savoca on a moped one day – more about that later – and chill on be beach on the three leftover days. Perfect.

Anyway, it’s good that it’s free (sorry I’m being distracted now by a crazy man in matching sky blue Callejon Napoli football strip and matching baseball hat, who I think is selling coconut and pineapple, but is working extra hard for his sale singing to a joyless-looking couple sat next to me and not managing to raise a smile. The surrounding sun worshippers who have less of his attention are now giving him a good clap, which has saved the day somewhat. Oh and a mum has just bought a little tin of coconut and sent him on his way. I think he’s a quirk of this beachlet though, because the other day when we were here a bunch of lads spotted him and were singing back from the sea… it’s not a bad tactic! Unless you pick the joyless looking couple of course).

So back to the free Florence Trevelyan house. We were sent down the steps, to wash our feet  next to the boat slope, put our shoes on and then headed up to the “house”. Which is probably pretty cool from what we could see, built around the rocks… but all the best bits were teasingly roped off, with what Ryan terms “the fun police” on close stand by to stop curious wanderers. So we looked at a terrace or two and a little crowd of slightly not great paintings, and a bit of info about native flora and fauna and headed out again, saying “Glad we didn’t pay for that!” It probably would have been 15 euros…

So in conclusion (in my humble opinion) the best bit about Isola Bella are the stories around it and the view of it from the shore: a charming heart-shaped bay. Bizarrely there’s a railway, which doesn’t spoil anything but somehow or another adds to the beach’s unique charms running along the shore between the beach where we are and the road. Every maybe hour or so, a train glides past, reminding you that the real world still exists and that there are people trying to get places. I, however, am completely content going nowhere: laid out flat sweating fat salty drips onto my orange lilo. It’s seriously hot the entire time we are here – high 20s/early 30s, at least until the sun dips behind the hills and shadows fall over the beach.

It occurs to me that if you were looking at me from above – from one of the helicopters that fly over every 3 hours or so – or from on a level from Ryan’s point of view (he’s out there, next to the island, snorkeling in his canvas shorts – couldn’t find his swimming ones before we left) I’m to the top right hand side of the heart, and he – at the little rocky outlet to the left of Isola Bella (from mine or the helicopters point of view) is at the bottom tip of the heart.  I lie – he just got back, with brain freeze yabbering (his own words) about craggily (he can’t find the words) rock and orange sponges next to the island’s shelf rock. He stretches over, after I offer my baking hot belly to warm his hands. “That’s it – I’m all snorkeled out. I didn’t think I’d say that today”. Happy days. Happy Ryan.

It’s an improvement on yesterday’s water encounter, when we momentarily experienced Grumpy Ryan (‘X-Ryan’ is a hangover from our trip to see my sis and her kids in Rome, where to entertain my 3 year old niece, Emily – and I – we had Sleepy-Ryan, Silly-Ryan, Naughty-Ryan, Clever-Ryan and Handsome-Ryan: she wasn’t so keen on the last 2: not as funny I guess…she’s a cheeky one like me).

So yesterday… after we hired our moped, a few hours later than intended (meh to 8am starts on holiday), we made our way out on towards Catania and branched off via Franca Villa to Gore Alcantara. “Worth a trip” the guide-book said. It maybe should also have added “if you have a family who enjoys water parks” and “don’t bother with the 13 Euro ‘hike trails’ ticket, just go for the 8 Euro – lift down option and enjoy the water….if you enjoy  achingly freezing and achingly expensive water“. (!) Too cold to swim. Although we might have swum momentarily just for shits and giggles … if Ryan had shorts that might have dried in less than 2 hours. Couldn’t risk the pretty navy blue Vespa’s suede-look seat with frozen water-logged pants, could we now.  If he’d had gone in, I would have followed, unable to resist and powerless (helpless FOMO). However our feet turned Baltic ice on the 30 second paddle across the shallow gorge, so it may not have been the best plan we’ve had yet. Instead just after slightly grumpy Ryan concluded “This is shit” we sat on a smooth lava stone, contemplating the almost cool tree opposite the entrance to what might have been a cave.

And I laughed at his grumpy face for a bit.

(…not so grumpy!)

Characterised by its weirdly symmetrical rock formations – created when a red-hot lava flow hit the water and splintered the basalt into lava prisms – it’s a spectacular sight well worth searching out”. I dunno. Some of the lava stone looked like grey new plasticine ridges….and  maybe you had to wade into the gorge to see the best bits.

(See what we mean about the plasticine?!)

The names added to the disappointment really: when you promise a spectacular-sounding name like ‘God Vulcan Head’, or ‘Venus’ Balcony’ or ‘Basalt Columns’, you don’t then expect to say:”Oh..was it that bit we just passed?“. The mechanical hippo, dwarf elephant, crocodile and a Tyrannosaurus Rex might make up for it if you have kids. And let’s not forget Ryan’s favourite bit (I’m being entirely sarcastic, yes): the Safari-outfitted-tortoise (I had to point this out to him after he thought it was a stupid lizard) with helpful information on the way round. So yep, good for the family. To be fair we are both spoilt rotten by previous adventures. Yes we are.

We did on our way out however, see a very cool butterfly balanced on a red and orange multiple headed flower. It might be the photo of the holiday. So this makes up for it….


After navigating the toe-freezing paddle back,  we set off back through Giardini Naxos, zipping between Taormina on our left and the sea on our right, in the direction of Messina as concrete orange, red, yellow (every shade of warm) peely-paint, cracking buildings whip past our eyes on one side and flowers of orange and red, pink, tiny white and purple disappear behind is on the other. We arrive at a dead-end in Santa Teresa, consult google maps and then I phone navigate us (just call me iron-grip!) back to the right road and upwards on wiggley hill roads to Savoca.

Here, quintessential Sicily sprawls out down the hillside. They filmed bits of the Godfather here in front of one of the  churches perched at the top of the peninsula, in a line of three, like an eclectic clutch of birds huddled on a thin telegraph wire.

There’s a gaudy silver cut out of a filmmaker and his old school camera at the front of one of the squares. Whilst the ‘statue’ sticks out like a sore silver thumb, you can see why Hollywood picked here. These delicately perched churches – argumentative in their contrasts to each other – punctuate the skyline of this precarious hill-top town: give it teeth. Even if you’re not religious, it’s inspiring.

(The Godfather church)

(…another church to the left)

(…a third church to the right)

Once you’ve explored as many of cobbledy streets as is mopedly possible, you might just spy the best bar in town with broad red square parasols, outside the oblong shaped most-plain (from the outside) church. The sign outside tells us it has a boat-hull-shaped-roof-designed for seriously impressive musical resonance, so Ryan scoots off to check it out, whilst I pick a table and settle on a cold crisp white wine thank you very much (more vino-soaked 2017 mountain views, tick).

He returns with photos of the photos inside, and tells me to do a hard right into the shut-off bit. I’m caught before I can get in there by the smiling wine-serving lady who tells me it’s closed. “Only open for toilet”. It’s so tantalizingly close and I’m gutted not to see the spooky black and white photos of religious rituals complete with an Afro-Caribbean bishop and starkly contrasting triangle-hooded-pagan (Klu Klux Klan-look / churchy-pagan-ritual?) cloaks.

(The back of The Godfather church)

So I have a little sulk, but enjoy my wine (+ ready salted crisps and peanuts) and the view anyway. I can’t let it go and, once we finish up, take the opportunity to ‘go to the toilet’ / break back in to the church to steal a look at the pictures. I really want find out the story of what’s going on in those photos. It’s probably just tradition and ceremony. But it so intriguing. I blush with naughty disobedience as I return to Ryan who is firing up the bike for a quick escape (!) and the wine lady smiles  at me like she know (the heavy church doors certainly know how to creak and clank).



Once we’ve had our fill of spectacular churches, ruined castles and craggy Italian gents who look like they’ve grown out of the hillside, we take the ‘no entry’ road down the hillside and roll rebelliously downwards to emerge onto a less illegal, less dusty standard road, and half an hour later return the moped back to Rent Italia (only taking one way street the wrong way, right at the end. Whoops.)

(Happy beats off Grumpy)

Happy (again) Ryan  concedes that Savoca definitely made up for the not so gorgeous gorge disappointment. We eat StritFud arrancini and pizza for tea, buy supermarket beer, wine and strawberry ice cream that tastes like sherbet as we admire the twinkling lights of the jagged coastline, Mount Etna to the right and the bright sea-top reflection of the moon from the balcony of Villa Greta to the left. Nothing short of spectacular. 


Thursday, 7 September 2017 

It’s 10.45 and we made it to the airport after our first pre 9am Sicily wake up. Waking up at 7am regularly again for work is going to be tough.

We’ve taken off and Isola Bella, our sea view villa, Etna’s craters and burnished triangular fields are under us. I want to remember the sounds, smells and tastes. Holiday memories always fade so quickly.

Yesterday evening was a lovely one and a fitting end to our trip. Well after a momentary panic that we weren’t going to find a restaurant still serving as we wandered around trying to find somewhere amazing after 10pm. In the end panic got the better of me and we chose a backstreet place opposite a rainbow painted shuttered doorway, where the bottles of wine varied from 35 euros to 500… achingly expensive. Yes. Luckily they also had the Etna DOC wine by the glass for 6 euros each. We had delicious meaty octopus set on almost liquid potato mash (more delicious than it sounds) and homemade pasta with seafood (fat clams, bright striped prawns and juicy muscles). “It’s really fishy” says Ryan. I think he means In a good way. Fish that tastes as fishy as it should. It’s delicious but sets the two of us back another 80 euros. Next time we might come self-catering…

(The not quite full moon, reflecting on the sea. Taken on our balcony at Hotel Villa Greta)

It would be a misdemeanor not to mention last nights back-street bar here: Casa Matta. Ryan spied the make shift fruit box tables and chairs opposite a thick stone caramel coloured wall topped with pink bougainvillea, as we foraged out our final night meal. We found our way back and a rustic band was playing. A bearded chap the leader, with guitar and voice, another on drum, a third on guitar and the female singer barefoot, strumming and effortlessly floating her voice into the night. The host – a little dark headed chap with a quirky handlebar moustache – invites us to take a seat at the end. Wine, gentle music.. everything soft focused and balmy. Ryan looks like he might just float away with contentedness. The unexpected aural-delightfulness of it, is almost on a par with the operatic crescendo which ran towards our ears out of the stage door of an assuming concert hall one evening earlier in the week as we walked home.

So, our bank balances might have taken a hit, but our senses – not least our taste buds – have thanked us: the spicy sausage arrancini from StritFud (purposeful misspelling?) hit the spot… so we went back for more; cannoli from a little backwater place – they fill up the deep-fried pasta parcel with fresh (not too sweet) ricotta and roll the ends with pistachio crumbs right in front of you. But top of it all (physically and mouth-wateringly) for me was the seafood gnocchi from our own Hotel Villa Greta (wonder if Greta Garbo has some link to this building). Nothing like the gloop you might have had before. Little pillows dripping with a broth which is making my mouth water even as I write about it now… bite size pieces of falling apart fish, calamari that melts and prawns worth masticating over. Just a touch of tomato, a squeeze of lemon and a scattering of mint. It’s a taste explosion and runs rings around my mouth. I would come back to Taormina just for that. Oh and sips of cold white wine, up on this perfectly placed rooftop terrace protected by overhanging parasols, adorned with crisp white table cloths and red napkins, overlooked by Mount Etna and overlooking luxurious sail boats and a jagged shoreline jewelled with twinkling lights of sea glass orange. What could be more perfect? A gorgeous man next to me? Oh Yeah.

From the beach we counted 562 step up to Hotel Villa Greta.. not including  the uphill-slope sections; every gradient going. Our aching calf muscles tell us that we have earnt some culinary splash outs. For some reason on our first night out (the night after the morning when I woke up and stropped “I feel like a swollen bug” when we got up for breakfast… which was only served until 9.30am …boo.) Ryan decided “only 27 more steps”. 40 later I was like: “This is more than 27″. He counters: “No look, 13, 13, 13, 13, 13…” (you get the idea). I’m bemused: “Why did you pick 27?!”. I dunno, it seemed like a good number.” So, on the final day, when the sun has dipped behind the mountain back drop (the mountain of which our guest house is at the very top of) and he says “Only 27 to go” as we set off on the climb, I insist he instead count them all.

(555 steps later…)

So we now know it’s in fact, 562 steps, which includes the 2 from our balcony into our room, and NOT including slopes. He insists that were it all steps we’d be at 3000. I’m not so sure. Although my body feels exercised despite no running for two weeks. Which must have at least something to do with all the steps I guess… all 27 of them(!). We only took the expensive cable car once (12 euros all told for 2 up and down). These feet were made for walking.One more thing I don’t want to forget. Interspersed with the smell of Vespa engines (incidentally they even design steps –  562+ – with mini-slopes to one side for scooter wheels)… is a heady smell from these tiny white flowers, delicate, intangible but unmistakable. It took me back to our family house in Stamford Bridge and the honeysuckle which rambled over the wooden fence between the back door and the surgery. We asked the waitress in our first restaurant what flowers it came from after the scent danced around us during our first meal in Sicily. She pointed out the tiny white flowers: their necks ten times as long as the opening bud, the kind of flower a miniature hummingbird might like to make friends with.

Even when we knew what we were looking for, the evidence of the flower more often than not eluded us. Yet tendrils of its scent permeated the city and wafted under our noses as we floated, my three middle fingers between his thumb and forefinger…. along Taormina’s charming alley ways and up it’s tumbling step-steep climbs.

(One of the prettiest beach views you might ever see?)

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