Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sicilia: Taormina

We arose early the next morning with the humble goal of climbing Europe’s most active volcano. We headed over to the nearby supermarket to buy foods. Spencer and I combined our hiking experience to think of what foods would serve us best on our adventure. We couldn’t find peanuts or sardines, so we settled for inferior hiking food.
Once we bought our food and several liters of water, we headed to the tourist office near the train station to ask which bus to take to Etna. The people there were kind enough to present us with the bus schedule to Etna. There were only two buses each day, one at 8:30 and the other at noon. There were also only two return buses, one at 10:30am and the other at 4:30pm. Being as it was already ten in the morning and we would need to catch the morning bus to have any time to climb, we decided that we weren’t going to Etna. Just so we would be ready the next day, we asked the helpful ladies where we could meet the bus. It was quite simple, the Catania train station which is about two hours from Messina.
We decided not to waste our day, so we headed to the train station to see about going to Taormina. After a while, we found a bus headed to Taormina. We sat down on the sidewalk to wait and ate our yogurt. Of course, we didn’t have any spoons, so by the time we were finished our faces and fingers were covered in it. If we were in America, I’d say that passersby were probably wondering where our parents were. Of course, Italians tend to have free range children. It’s far from uncommon to encounter a child wandering the streets alone at two in the morning; and more often than not, when you see families walking with strollers, they’re inexplicably empty.
That being said, we cleaned ourselves up and hopped on our bus. The bus drove through the streets of Messina for what seemed like hours. We scanned the area for signs of life. Seeing none, we tried to get some sleep. Luckily, just about that time, we exited Messina. Of course, we didn’t head for a freeway or anything of the sort. The bus descended into every single costal town. The streets, of course, were barely as wide as the bus, had cars parked along them and were two way. This meant that every two to three minutes we had to pull over to let a line of cars pass us in the other direction. With all the stopping, going and car dodging, it was impossible to fall asleep. We were able to settle into what Italians call “dormiveglia”. It’s that halfway point between asleep and awake.
We had endured what seemed like an eternity of this torture, when suddenly we found ourselves on top of a rise looking out over the sea. We continued to climb until we were driving along cliffs that fell several hundred meters to the sea. We could see the coast, with beaches that were mediocre in comparison to Salento and the Calabria coast across the water. Before long, we reached the base of Taormina and began to switchback up the face of the mountain. With every switchback, we could see farther in every direction. We could see the beaches, cliffs, coves, and caves beneath us. We could see the mountains of the Calabria coast in the distance. And looking inland, we craned our necks and strained our eyes, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive Mount Etna. No such luck.
The bus pulled into an unimpressive parking lot and we disembarked. The three of us wandered about a block and found an overlook. We settled down, pulled out our bread and prosciutto cotto and made some panini. After our modest meal, we decided to head into central Taormina. We were walking through what seemed like a fairly normal Italian mountain-top town when suddenly we ran into the tourist center. It was as if someone had turned an Italian town into Disneyland. There were shops in every direction and there was no indication that we were on top of a mountain, no overlooks or anything. Also, there had been a sudden shift of lingua franca from Italian to English. Suddenly, we were some of the most experienced Italian speakers in the area.
Deciding to make the best of our time, we started heading down the mountain toward a nearby beach that’s also some sort of national park. We wandered back roads and nearly hidden flights of stairs for nearly an hour. Once or twice, we found ourselves in someone’s yard and had to turn back. When we finally reached the bottom, we were tired and sweating to an unreasonable degree. We arrived at the beach and quickly became aware of several important facts. First, the beach was made up of rocks; hot, hot rocks. Second, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the water at this beach. From what we could tell, a flock of jellyfish were also vacationing in Taormina that day, making the water hazardous, if not hostile. After returning from the water’s edge in disappointment we discovered a third thing. This particular beach has the highest representation (per capita, of course) of attractive women in Italy. So, we decided to partake in a Italy’s second largest pastime (after public arguments) and watch beautiful women.
This only entertained us for so long, and after a while we were looking to return to Messina. We had heard that the train station was at the bottom of the mountain, just like us, while the bus stop was on top. That, combined with the far from forgotten misery of the bus ride moved us to seek the train station. We asked a shop keeper near the beach how to get to the station and he sent us off down the road. We walked along a busy highway for something like thirty minutes until we finally reached the station.
As I went to buy the tickets, we had yet another everyday Italian experience. There were two ticket machines. One didn’t accept cash. The other had a sign on it informing people that it didn’t give change. Of course, all Italians are accustomed to carry cash and people rarely use debit or credit cards, but thanks to these two machines, working in perfect tandem, the trend was being changed.
We made it back to Messina without difficulty, and bought our tickets for the next morning. We got kebabs at the place near our hotel and decided to give Messina night life another chance. We headed back to the place to be, finding it almost twice as full this time, meaning almost no one. We decided to get a second dinner at a nearby restaurant.
We ordered some pizzas and waited at a table outside for a long time as the table next to us was practically showered with all sorts of food products. Finally the pizzas arrived and we got ready to eat them. The suddenly annoyed busboy asked us if we planned to eat there. We were sitting, hungry, and had food, so we responded in an affirmative fashion. At this point, the guy got really fussy and took our pizzas back. As we looked at each other in shocked confusion, several people came out and put down full place settings for each of us. They then offered us drinks, but it was the kind of offer we just couldn’t refuse. Our options: water? Whiskey? We ordered a bottle of water to appease him. Then we were told something incomprehensible. It sounded like it wanted to be in Italian, but it just wasn’t. Maybe our server was sucking on marbles, or maybe he had suffered some blunt head trauma, but it just wasn’t coming out clear. After he repeated himself for the third time, we realized that he was telling us that we had to pay something like six euro extra for a cover charge and water then he instructed his female companion to stand there and wait until we paid her. Sicilians are rude. Maybe that’s why no one likes the Mafia.

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