Yearly Archives: 2014

Taormina, Sicily

Our second day trip destination from Catania was Taormina, 48km to the north. It’s possible to make the journey either by bus or train, but we decided on the latter enjoying the views of the sea on one side and Mt Etna on the other as the train wound its way along the coast.

Taormina train stationThe ticket office in Taormina’s railway station looks like it belongs in an early 20th century costume drama

From the old-fashioned 1920s railway station we followed the road beside the tracks. It was a bit further than we expected but eventually we arrived at the bay and beach below the town. In the middle of the bay is a small island called Isola Bella (literally Beautiful Island) which is linked to the beach by a pebbly causeway with waves crashing over it. It didn’t look deep from above but, when we got closer, we saw that it would be over our knees so we didn’t attempt the crossing to the island which is now maintained as a nature reserve.

Isola BellaIsola Bella from above. I love how clear the turquoise waters are

Taormina has been on the tourist trail for a long time, being a popular stop off for rich young Europeans doing their Grand Tour (the 17th-19th century version of a gap year). Nowadays it is a popular beach resort in the summer although the beach is neither large nor sandy.

From the shore it was a long climb up the stairs into the town itself but it was worth it for the fantastic views and a fly past from a large propeller plane. By the time we got to the top we were ready for a sit down and something to eat so we found a comfortable bench in the public park, Giardini della Villa Comunale, where we could relax and eat our sandwiches.

View from the parkView from the park – Mt Etna retreated behind the massive cloud in the middle of the picture between our morning train journey and lunchtime

The gardens were originally built for Lady Florence Trevelyan, an Englishwoman and cousin of Queen Victoria who was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She lived in Taormina from 1884 until her death in 1907, marrying the mayor in 1890. She was a bird lover and the park contains several brick-built “follies” intended as bird houses.

WW2 torpedo memorialThe park also contains Taormina’s war memorials including this replica torpedo commemorating the Italian Navy’s contributions in WWII. I was shocked to find that the Navy divers rode on the torpedo to steer it into place

Taormina’s most famous sight is its theatre. Similar to the Teatro Romano that we had seen in Catania, this one is bigger and has a superb location perched over the town with views up the coast and Mt Etna towering behind the stage (when it’s not shrouded in cloud). The theatre dates to approximately the 3rd century BC but, like the one in Catania, it was almost completely rebuilt by the Romans in the 2nd century AD.

Teatro AnticoThe Teatro Antico’s diameter is 109m

Teatro Antico seatsThe seating areas of the theatre were quite overgrown

We enjoyed sitting on the top row of seats, with just a handful of other tourists in the place, enjoying the sunshine, the view and the peace and quiet, or in Andrew’s case dozing off because he’d stayed up late the night before…

Teatro AnticoLooking down towards the stage from the top levels of the Teatro Antico

In the summer all kinds of cultural events are still performed here, everything from opera to jazz to James Blunt! Hence the wooden stage and rows of plastic folding seats which somewhat detract from the grandeur of the place though it must be an amazing backdrop for a performance.

Teatro AnticoUs on the stage of Taormina’s Teatro Antico

Descending back into the town we wandered along Corso Umberto I, its main street, checking out the various old gates and ancient churches, as well as window shopping in the boutiquey tourist shops which were just opening up for their evening hours.

Taormina buildingsTaormina (clockwise from top left): Porta Messina; the Town Library is housed in the former Augustinian church and convent; Christmas tree in Piazza IX Aprile, the main square; mosaic in the Clock Tower, another of the city’s gates

Halfway along we stopped for a gelato, something that we’d been looking forward to for weeks – Italian gelato being far and away the best ice cream in the world (fact not hyperbole). Foolishly we both opted for the medium sized scoop of chocolate fondant flavour. It was just as amazing as we’d expected, but by the time I’d finished such a large portion I was feeling a little chilly in the late winter afternoon and it was so rich that I just wanted to find a corner where I could lie down quietly and moan to myself. Maybe we should have picked up the gelatos before we went to the Teatro Antico and then we could have both had a nap!

Chocolate gelatoChocolate fondant gelato in Corso Umberto I

Hiking up Mount Etna, Sicily

As we mentioned in our post about Catania, the town sits at the foot of Mount Etna – Europe’s tallest active volcano at a height 3,329m (10,922ft). Having climbed Mt Fuji earlier this year, we wondered if it would still be possible to hike on Mt Etna this far into the winter season, and to our delight, it appears that only eruptions cause it to close!

Mt Etna, Sicily

Our first glimpse of Mt Etna on the ferry transfer from Pozzallo to Catania having just arrived on Sicily

Mt Etna is a still very much an active volcano and had erupted in August this year – just 4 months ago – and a couple of craters near the top are still emitting a little ash. I’ll say at this point that we didn’t know about the August activity until I was researching this post.. not that it would have changed our plans!

Getting there

As we’re finding in Sicily, information about public transport is relatively easy to find, but locations of bus and train stations are a bit trickier, and the English versions of websites aren’t as complete as their native Italian counterparts. This is just a little niggling pain when trying to plan our manoeuvres..

Waiting for the bus to Mt Etna, Catania

Waiting for the bus to Mt Etna with a few locals and 3 other tourists: 2 from Holland and 1 from Turkey

Anyhow, we confirmed our plans with the very friendly lady at the Catania Tourist Information office who also checked the weather and suggested we go sooner than we’d originally planned. Two days later we were up and out at the bus station near the train station waiting for the 08:15 bus that goes to Rifugio Sapienza some 1,910m (6,266ft) up Mt Etna.

08:15 came and went. Then 08:30. The somewhat official guy at the bus stop kept checking his watch and reassuring us in Italian, but when he showed us a pricelist for a tour of Etna by taxi we started to get a little concerned.. he kept checking his watch so we decided to keep waiting with the other handful of others clutching their coffees.

5 minutes later the bus came hurtling around the corner. We picked our seats and tried to catch up on a little sleep during the 1½ hour journey.

House submerged by lava, Mt Etna, Sicily

We spotted the roof of this house submerged in lava on the final approach to Rifugio Sapienza. Yep, we’re on a volcano!

The Hike

The friendly bus conductor told us all that he’d return to the drop-off point in front of the semi-circle of souvenir shops at 16:30 to take us back to Catania. Rifugio Sapienza is just over half-way up the side of Mt Etna, and this large open-air car park offers little protection from the bitter winds that whip through – it was a very cold first experience, and for the other 3 tourists who hadn’t come dressed to hike in winter conditions we think it put them off as we didn’t see them again until the return journey!

Rifugio Sapienza, Mt Etna, Sicily
1910m: Rifugio Sapienza, the starting point is very similar to the Yoshida-guchi 5th Station on Fuji, in that it’s a giant car park with cafes, restaurants, a hotel and, of course, souvenir shops.

Cable-car at Montagnola, Mt Etna, Sicily
1910m: While it’s possible to hike up from Rifugio Sapienza, we decided to take the cable-car to Montagnola and hike further from there. We’d read this section takes about 4 hours to hike or about 20 minutes on the cable-car

Jeep-busses at Montagnola, Mt Etna, Sicily
2500m: From Montagnola we could have taken one of the cool Unimogs to the guide station at 2920m, but it wouldn’t be much of a hike if we didn’t actually do any hiking!

Mt Etna, Sicily
~2600m: Starting out on our hike to Torre del Filosofo. At this point we were starting to feel a little short of breath because of the altitude

Mt Etna, Sicily
~2650m: Looking back down the trail. The landscape is binary – coffee black volcanic rock and egg-white snow with the sky providing the only colour

Mt Etna, Sicily
~2700m: Finally, the sulphur yellow of the top of Mt Etna pops into view

Torre del Filosofo, Mt Etna, Sicily
2920m: Torre del Filosofo, or the top station. We’d read that it’s not permissible to venture further without a guide, but aside from a signpost there wasn’t anyone there to stop us if we were so inclined

Craters near Torre del Filosofo, Mt Etna, Sicily
~2950m: We climbed the ridge of the nearby craters and were rewarded with amazing views of Etna behind and above us, and a blanket of cloud below that covered Catania. Views like this are usually the reserve of aeroplane journeys! We’d arrived at the top just after a Jeep-Bus, which made for some great photos – having people in our shots gives some perspective of how massive these volcanic craters are!

Craters near Torre del Filosofo, Mt Etna, Sicily
~2950m: The highest point we reached was on the ridge of one of the large craters. Time to pose for a photo with Mt Etna herself!

After circling the craters (and taking a lot of photographs), we headed back down the same track alongside a couple of mountain bikers and 3 skiers!

Mt Etna, Sicily
~2550m: The downhill was a lot easier and as we didn’t have to stop to catch our breath as often it was quicker too. We made it back to Montagnola and then via the cable-car to Rifugio Sapienza with plenty of time to spare before the return bus to Catania!

Crateri Silvestri 1986, Mt Etna, Sicily
~1915m: Just to the east of the big car parks are a couple of recent craters that we decided to wander around while we waited for the bus. This is the Crateri Silvestri which was formed in 1986.

Despite hiking in December rather than July, Mt Etna was warmer than Fuji, and was nowhere near as arduous. Next time we’re bringing skis for the downhill leg though!

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to our friends and family. We miss you all and wish we could spend the festive season with you. We’ve celebrated by treating ourselves to a wonderful Christmas lunch here in Syracuse.

Thank you for following our travels, Andrew and Julie xx xx

Catania, Sicily

Catania is nestled at the foot of Mt Etna on Sicily’s north eastern coast. It was our first stop on our circuit of Sicily, the ball to Italy’s boot, and is the island’s second largest city. Although it’s a decent size, with a population of around 300,000, we found the centre to be compact with all of the sights within easy walking distance of each other.

Accordion playerThe first person we met as we walked from the bus to our rented apartment was this cheeky accordion player who deliberately walked in front of Andrew’s camera and posed while playing us Christmassy tunes

In the centre of the city is the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) where we started our visit with a spot of people watching and a humongous (and very alcoholic) rum baba at one of the square’s pavement cafes.

Rum baba and espressoRum babas with espresso at a cafe in Piazza del Duomo

The focal point of the Piazza is a monument consisting of the rather unlikely combination of an Egyptian obelisk and a happy-looking elephant carved from lava stone. It was assembled in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini although its origins are unclear and both the elephant and the obelisk predate the assembly by many centuries. It now serves as the emblem of the city.

Elephant obeliskThe elephant obelisk is a popular place from which to watch the world go by

Along the eastern edge of the Piazza is the city’s cathedral, or Duomo, dedicated to St Agatha who was born in Catania in 231AD. The inside is quite plain but nevertheless grand and imposing. In the middle of our visit, music started playing and a soloist began singing beautifully, it turned out to be a service in one of the side chapels, adding a lovely atmosphere.

Catania DuomoCatania’s cathedral is dedicated to St Agatha


One of the things we were looking forward to in Italy was the world famous food and I was hoping that the markets would be a vibrant place to explore. Catania has two daily markets in the central area and both were great places to look and photograph as well as to shop for provisions. It was easy to tell what was in season with piles of fennel, purple cauliflowers and citrus fruits dominating the scene. We found all of the vendors to be friendly and keen to show off their wares, some of which were unusual for us, such as dried salted cod, huge buckets of globe artichokes and lambs in the butchers shop sliced right down their middle, head included.

Catania markets collageCatania’s markets (clockwise from top left): Fruit and veg stalls in the streets around the fish market; Lambs are sold whole or neatly halved; Crates of fennel were everywhere; Salt cod drying in the sun

The Fish Market was the closest of the daily markets to where we were staying. Fresh fish always makes an interesting display and the most eyecatching of the fish here were huge swordfish. The fishmongers display the head with attached ‘sword’ at the side of the stall, and slice juicy steaks from the body to order. Wandering between the stalls were roving merchants of lemons and big bunches of parsley to complete the ingredients list for a simple fish supper. As well as the fish stalls, the surrounding streets had fruit and vegetable stalls, butchers, bakers and cheesemongers.

Fish marketThe Fish Market

Teatro Romano

Catania has a long history as a city and there are many historic sights. One of the oldest is the Teatro Romano, a semi-circular Roman theatre dating to the 2nd century AD which was built on the site of a Greek theatre from around 500-600 years earlier. Roman theatres followed a similar design to Greek ones for good acoustics to host plays and musical recitals. The structure is impressive and must have looked striking when in its original form with white marble seating divided by eight stairways of black lava rock.

Teatro RomanoCatania’s Teatro Romano

As we paid for our tickets, the heavens opened complete with thunder and lightning so we sought refuge in the small onsite museum. There we learnt that until the mid 20th century houses were built on top of and all around the old theatre, incorporating its stonework into their structures. Since the 1950s, the Antiquities Office has undertaken several projects of excavation, removing the houses and restoring the theatre, and work is ongoing.

Aerial photo of Teatro Romano from 1930sAerial view of the houses built over Teatro Romano from the 1930s [photo credit: Information board inside Teatro Romano]

The museum is housed in one of the encroaching buildings and has been preserved to show the way that the theatre was used through the ages. From there we explored the huge passageways which run beneath the seating before emerging into the theatre itself.

Teatro Romano walkwayAndrew in one of the high passageways beneath the rows of seating

Monastero dei Benedettini

The former Benedictine monastery of San Nicolo is a fascinating building and we joined one of the hourly guided tours to gain access to some of its more interesting corners. I say we joined a tour, but we were the only ones on it and we had to read the information from a printout as our guide only spoke Italian! The monastery’s buildings were confiscated by the Italian state in 1866 and it is now home to the Humanities Department of the University of Catania.

Students at work in the Monastero dei BenedettiniStudy hall in the former Monastero dei Benedettini

Before the tour we looked around San Nicolo church which is attached to the monastery. Its facade is unfinished and inside it is huge and whitewashed, seemingly not much used. The most interesting feature was the meridian line clock which runs for almost the full width of the church in front of the altar. These types of sundials were used to check the accuracy of calendars.

San Nicolo ChurchSan Nicolo Church (clockwise from top left): the unfinished facade; the meridien clock runs across the width of the church; the empty looking interior

In the second half of the 17th century, two natural disasters befell Catania. First, in 1669, a massive eruption of Mt Etna. We were amazed to learn that it took two months for the lava to travel the 40km to the city and so the monks had time to build a barricade around the monastery leaving it unharmed but with an immovable 12m high ‘shelf’ surrounding it to the north and east. Then in 1693 a massive earthquake flattened the monastery along with much of the city. The only part which survived was the basement which now houses the department’s library.

Basement libraryThe Humanities Department’s library is located in the monastery’s basement – it would make a great location for a murder mystery!

The second floor corridors are very grand with high ceilings and stone doorways, witness to the fact that most of the monks were younger sons from wealthy families and were used to luxurious surroundings. When the monastery was rebuilt after the earthquake, it was extended and, as the lava shelf could not be moved, the architect used it to support the new common areas of the monastery – the kitchens, dining hall, library and even a garden for the novices. Beneath the kitchen our guide led us through the vaults used for food storage.

Lava shelfThe narrow gap between the lava shelf (to the right) and the monastery buildings

Monumental staircaseThe tour ended with us descending the Monumental Staircase. Its grand scale and stucco bas reliefs would look more at home in a palace than a monastery

Bellini Theatre, churches and Castello Ursino

Andrew had found the route for a walking tour online and we enjoyed wandering the streets looking at the various monuments. Many were churches (about as densely sprinkled as the mosques in Istanbul), but we also saw the remains of a Roman amphitheatre (with seats all the way around as opposed to the semi-circular structure of the theatre), and a more modern theatre dedicated to Vincenzo Bellini who was born in Catania and whose tomb we saw in the Duomo. The final sight on the route was Castello Ursino, a medieval castle built between 1239-50 in a strategic position on a cliff next to the sea. Nowadays it’s a kilometre inland as later volcanic eruptions extended the coastline outwards! It is one of the few buildings to have survived the 1693 earthquake though.

Historic structures of CataniaClockwise from top left: Teatro Massimo Bellini; Church of St Francis; Roman amphitheatre remains; Castello Ursino

Malta Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Malta?

There were so many historic highlights of our trip to Malta, but our morning of touring the northern coast of Gozo on Segways was so much fun that we’ll always remember it!

Summarise Malta in three words.

You really know you’re in Malta when…

… you can see the Mediterranean Sea no matter where you are, and in a few higher places on the islands it’s possible to see the sea in all directions!

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Malta?

A torch for when you visit all of the underground caves, catacombs, and wartime bunkers