Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Italy: The Unexpected in Catania (plus a day on Mount Etna)

We knew little positive about Catania before stopping here for three nights in the last week of June 2018. Historically, it's been one disaster after another: its residents deported or enslaved by Greek tyrants, the city occupied by Carthaginians, plague in the Middle Ages, lava flows from Mount Etna in the 1600s, followed by an earthquake, then falling into crime and urban decay. Yet, today, it's a surprisingly pleasant city to visit that seems younger than its years, possibly due to the number  of university students in school here.

The video, above (I apologize for its abruptness, but this blog platform can't accommodate large video files), shows one of the many delights we stumbled upon here. On a Monday evening walk after dinner through the softly dark streets of the historic district, we came upon someone playing tango music from a portable sound system in the cathedral plaza. And, amazingly to us, people had come to tango. We assume this is a more or less regular thing as many of the dancers seemed acquainted with each other, though they were not necessarily dancing with their romantic partners.  People changed partners when one or the other wanted to sit on the edge of the fountain to rest.

The surprises, however, began even before we reached Catania. On the drive from Taormina, we wanted to stop in at one of the small towns en route. Our first choice was Acireale, but after driving around a bit without finding a legal place to park, we headed to the next town, Aci Castello, where we explored the ruins of a seaside fortress and gazed out on the Riviera dei Ciclopi, marked with gigantic rocks that the Cyclops threw at Odysseus as he fled after blinding and tricking the Cyclops. Who knew this stuff is as real as rocks that you can see with your own eyes! Or don't you believe Homer?

Our inn in Catania, B&B Sciara Larmisi, was easy to find. Again, our inn occupied just one floor of a large building, but that floor included a very nice outdoor terrace where we had breakfast. Our innkeeper helped us find a guided tour to Mount Etna, which we had been counting on. It's possible to approach Etna from the north, using Taormina as a base, but there are more lava flows, craters and ash heaps on the southern side, so we chose to go from Catania, which is southeast of the volcano (and well within the danger zone).

The rest of our time here was spent wandering the city (we even took a tour on one of those for-goobers-only tourist trains), exploring its fish market and the huge Villa Bellini park, and enjoying its robust passeggiata on the pedestrian-only Via Etnea.

Related Posts: 
Three Months: Rome to Palermo, including hotel links (Click HERE)
Walking in Rome (Click HERE)
Eating in Rome (Click HERE)
Palatial Rome (Click HERE)
Ancient Rome (Click HERE)
Catholic Rome (Click HERE)
A Night in Naples (Click HERE)
Visiting the Isle of Capri (Click HERE)
Pompeii and Herculaneum (Click HERE)
Trani and Castel del Monte (Click HERE)
Alberobello and the Trulli District (Click HERE)
Lecce, Otranto and Gallipoli (Click HERE)
Matea, the Cave City (Click HERE)
Maratea, and Goodbye to the Mainland (Click HERE)
Taormina, Mountain and Sea (Click HERE)
27 Centuries at Siracusa (Click HERE)
Agrigento, Valley of the Temples (Click HERE)
Marsala: Wine and More (Click HERE)
Holy Palermo! (Click HERE)

In the distance are the rocks that the Cyclops
supposedly threw at Odysseus as he escaped. This
is the view from the fortress at Aci Castello.

Spiderman seems right at home on the wall
of a palace in Catania.

A zoom lens created this compressed view of Via Garibaldi, looking west to the
 black-and-white Garibaldi Gate, which is well outside the city's historic center.

This is the view from one of our balconies in Catania. The
little gray and black Citroën C3 at lower left was our rental;
it brought us here from Naples and eventually
took us to Palermo. This is Piazza Cutelli.

The view east from another balcony. This looks down
Via Vittorio Emanuele II toward the Piazza dei Martiri and
the Ionian Sea.

This photo looks the other way on Vittorio Emanule II,
west toward the historic central district.

We walked to the Garibaldi Gate. In the distance you can see the dome
of Catania's Duomo or cathedral.

This elephant is being squished by the clock
atop the Garibaldi Gate. The dark
stone is lava, which is used in many
ways throughout Catania.

A still photo from the tango session featured in the video at the start
of this post. The building in the background is the Duomo.

All this food accompanied aperitivos at
a sidewalk cafe on Via Etnea. What look
like meatballs are fried balls of rice. Most
places give snacks of some sort with
cocktails, but this was excessive.

The park Villa Bellini provides acres of gardens, promenades and fountains
near the center of Catania.

Signs on the southern
slope of Mount Etna.

Mounds of ash attest to geothermal
activity not too far underground
at Mount Etna, which is perhaps
best thought of as a huge mound
of craters and vents, not a
cone-shaped volcano.

Desolation left by eruptions decades ago. 

Lichen are the first plants to grow on lava flows,
and they begin the process of breaking down the rock
and leavening it with organic matter. Other plants
come much later.

Different colors reflect different eruptions. These hikers
are dwarfed by Etna's size, and this is just a tiny bit
of the volcano.

One of hundreds of craters scattered around Etna. When Etna erupts,
its force is seldom diverted to old craters, meaning that
new ones are created each time.

The entrance to a lava tube, which was formed by
a stream of moving lava beneath a hardened
surface. The lava drained out, leaving a
pipe-like formation. This tube was about
a kilometer long.

Inside the tube, the only light comes
from headlamps. The floor was very
rough, sharp and irregular. If you tripped,
you'd probably receive a nasty gash.

Striations on the walls indicate there
were more than one lava flow through
this tube.

Italy: Mountains and Sea at Taormina

The gondola (Funivia per Taormina Mare) from Taormina's central district to
the beaches below passes over an athletic field on its way down the mountain.

We arrived in Sicily a little after 10 on a Friday morning on the ferry from Villa San Giovanni to Messina.  Since we were in Messina and the timing was right, we wanted to see one of Messina's most popular sights, the Duomo's bell tower clock striking noon. It took a while to find a parking spot and then to figure out how to buy the parking slip to put on the dashboard, but we made it to the Duomo piazza in plenty of time.

The clock tower isn't some artifact from medieval times. It was built in 1933, but its technology seems much earlier. At noon, counterweights, gears and levers move and animate gilded bronze statues in the facade that have religious significance (a lion standing and roaring seems a symbol of a strong Christian faith, for example, or maybe of the resilience of the city) or relate to traditions specific to Messina. It lasts about 15 minutes and drew a couple hundred spectators on the day we were there. (For more on the tower, click HERE.)

As soon as the clock show was over, we left Messina on the coastal road south to Taormina, a medieval mountainside town on the Ionian Sea northeast of Mount Etna.  It's almost totally a tourist town, and for good reason. It has excellent restaurants, a gondola to take people down the mountain to beautiful beaches, rugged buses to take people up the mountain to even more scenic Castelmola, and a raft of hotels with sea and mountain views. It reminded me of Capri.

We stayed at a tiny inn, the Maison d'Art Casa Arico. We were using GPS on our smartphone to reach the inn when it told us to turn into a covered alley that was about a meter wide. We couldn't park nearby, so we kept driving thinking we could find a way to reach the other end of that alley, but we ended up parking on the other side of town and calling the hotel. One of the innkeepers came to us on a motorcycle and had us follow him through a maze of narrow streets and turns so tight that I had to reverse our small car to navigate them. When we got to the inn, on a tiny residential street, there was no place to park, but that wasn't a problem. The inn had someone come and take our car away as soon as we got the luggage out. The car reappeared three days later when it was time to leave.

Related Posts: 
Three Months: Rome to Palermo, including hotel links (Click HERE)
Walking in Rome (Click HERE)
Eating in Rome (Click HERE)
Palatial Rome (Click HERE)
Ancient Rome (Click HERE)
Catholic Rome (Click HERE)
A Night in Naples (Click HERE)
Visiting the Isle of Capri (Click HERE)
Pompeii and Herculaneum (Click HERE)
Trani and Castel del Monte (Click HERE)
Alberobello and the Trulli District (Click HERE)
Lecce, Otranto and Gallipoli (Click HERE)
Matea, the Cave City (Click HERE)
Maratea, and Goodbye to the Mainland (Click HERE)

Catania, City of Surprises, Plus Mount Etna (Click HERE)
27 Centuries at Siracusa (Click HERE)
Agrigento, Valley of the Temples (Click HERE)
Marsala: Wine and More (Click HERE)
Holy Palermo! (Click HERE)
Messina's Duomo is a typical southern Italian
cathedral, which is to say that it is magnificent,
but it's the campanile or bell tower
that steals the show with its
intriguing clock.

The lion is just a few minutes away from
moving up and down and roaring.

Biblical scenes are depicted in this revolving element.

This is the view from our hotel balcony
in Taormina. Though most hotels are either
near the beaches or in the commercial district,
ours was tucked away on a quiet residential street.

Jane adds the tonic to our afternoon G&Ts
on our hotel's roof terrace. That's the
Ionian Sea in the distance.

The little almost-island at left is Isola Bella, a destination
for sunbathers who want to get away from the crowded

A lido at Mazzaro, Taormina's most popular beach.
Our hotel provided us with towels and a beach bag, we
rented shaded lounges here, ate lunch at the
snack bar, and had a very nice day. It was one
of the best swimming spots we visited in Italy.

The central piazza in Castelmolo, a small town high above
Taormina, which is visible in the distance. The main
attraction is the remains of a mountain fortress.

Tourists stroll the narrow
streets of Castelmola

"Cucina Tipica Siciliana" appears on many restaurant signs. It advertises typical
Sicilian cooking. Here it's rather badly translated. I wonder how many visitors
to my city of San Diego would want to eat at "Typical California Restaurant." 

This bronze in Taormina's beautiful Villa Comunale
park, is by Piero Guidi and is called "Angeli del
Nostro Tempo" or "Angels in Our Time."

Century-old follies, structures with no function other than to delight the eye,
at Villa Comunale park.

Corso Umberto I is the main shopping street in Taormina.
Most of the good restaurants are on smaller streets. The weekend
we were there coincided with a book fair sponsored by Jaguar.
Jaguar E-Pace SUVs, some of them plug-in electrics,
drove fair VIPs very slowly through these crowded streets.
Only one English-language work was sold at the fair,
a child's folding book about ancient Greek gods. We
bought it for our granddaughter.