This posting was originally an e-mail to friends in September 2006.
We’ve had lots of visitors this summer and what a blast it’s been. Towards summer’s end we fancied a short break and when we learned our very good friends G and M were having a holiday in Sicily we jumped at the chance to go and spend a weekend with them. It would be great to catch up with them and Sicily was one of the places we’d longed to visit, in my case since I’d first read about the island as a 13 year old in class 3S. The place had a fascinated me for years – the Strait of Messina – the narrow strip of water separating the island from the Calabrian coast of mainland Italy, famous for its treacherous waters and deadly whirlpools. These were immortalised in the Jason and the Argonauts stories from Greek mythology where he had to battle the Scylla monster and the Charybdis whirpool (is that the origin of the expression between a rock and a hard place?). Then there was Mt Etna, a real live and huge volcano dominating the SE corner of the island. Imagine living with that in your backgarden. Then the historical context of an island ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, Vandala, Goths, centuries of Arab rule and the Spanish – all of whom have left their mark before Italian unification. Then the mafia and the scenes from The Godfather I and II, surely the best twin films of all time. Well they are to me. I had to see the place but would we be disappointed or delighted?
We had been visiting the UK beforehand and our daughter S flew back with us to look after R whilst we were away. We got back mid-afternoon, washed some clothes overnight and set off with them dried but un-ironed next morning, back to Ancona airport. Then a flight to Rome, with another hop down to Sicily. En route we flew past the volcanic island of Stromboli – sensational – and then circled the smoking Etna before landing in Catania around 5pm. It was still baking hot. We were heading for Taormina about 40kms away up the eastern coast of the island.
We hadn’t had chance to pre-book any transport but how hard could it be? Pretty hard to be honest. We checked out the queues at the car hire desks but they were lengthy. There didn’t seem to be a train service and taxis were quoting 100e for the journey, one-way of course. Seemed a bit steep. We checked out the bus service but it was once an hour or something and we’d just missed one by faffing around. Ah well back to the car hire. We tried several of the major desks first but we were quoted crazy prices – like 250E for a two and a half day hire. Eventually we found one of the little desks tucked away and negotiated a decent rate for the only car they had left – a Fiat Panda, cute but not generous on room for C and I. Ah well. We figured G and M would have an open-top Maserati at the v least. But we only needed to get to the hotel.
We looked at the map. There was an autoroute all the way through to Taormina virtually. But this was our first visit and I suggested we take the pretty looking coastal route via lots of tiny towns. All we had to do was get round/through Catania first and bob sherunkle. Before we left the hire desk they asked if we wanted the maximum insurance premium – spotting a sales line I said no thanks just the regular CDW etc. They looked very quizzical but I thought nothing of it at the time. Once we got going I kind of understood the significance of the question. There is no highway code or sense of road rules other than ‘no rules’. Everybody comes at you from every angle, jumping lights, stop junctions, on the wrong side of road etc. Most cars are full of bumps and scrapes and you can guess why dear readers. Getting through Catania took nearly an hour but at least we were on the coastal road. It took us 3 hours to do the 35kms or so. What an experience. I’ve driven 5 hours a day for years in and out of one of the busiest cities in the world and in many countries around the world, including in Italy for 6 months! But nothing prepares you for driving on Sicily’s small roads. It’s just nerve-jangling. There was air-con in the car but I was still soaked by the time we reached Taormina. Or should I say the base level of the town. The town is set on the cliff face of a mountain effectively and the road twists and turns its way to the top of the town. Our hotel of course was virtually at the top – it must have taken a further half hour to reach it and how we weren’t scraped by other cars belting past us on that tight little mountain road I’ll never know.
Our hotel was one of these bijou places, very chic and cool, owned by a former rock star. Maybe he still performs, I don’t know. It’s setting is simply stunning (bit of a clue to the owner) – more of that later. But we were a little frazzled when we got there and just checked in as quickly as possible, caught G and M in the bar and told them we needed to shower and quickly change -into our only other ironed clothes – before joining them for dinner in about half an hour. We grabbed a couple of long cool spritzers and headed to our room. We were quickly done but before heading back to the restaurant I called reception to see if we could hire an iron. They said this wasn’t possible – it was not hotel policy because I think they said the irons set off the heat/smoke alarms. But they did a next day ironing service. Great – we left bag full of ironing at the door as requested and headed off to the restaurant to have a great meal and lots of wine with G and M (well with G!). They told us about the week they’d spent near Palermo in a lovely old villa in the hills and a few more days in the town which had been hotter and more frantic. G told me about his driving experiences and I had to hold my hand up to stop him as we tried to top him with our own harem scarem adventures earlier in the evening. Sicillians were just crazy drivers – period, we decided. We hadn’t crashed the car but we crashed to sleep that night.
Next day I awoke first, thinking I could hear some banging somewhere, and stepped out onto our balcony not wearing very much but there was no one on next door’s balcony. What a view. There before me was Mt Etna, gently smoking away, with this perfect massive shape. To the left the Strait with a beautiful white liner in Taormina’s glistenning bay. Below us this steep mountain with pretty houses and hotels seemingly hanging by their fingertips to the montainside. The sky was already deep blue and cloudless and the sun was shining brilliantly. I was just thinking to myself that there couldn’t be many hotel balcony views more awesome than this. I was quite moved to be honest and as I scratched my bum in appreciation, a voice behind me belts out some Italian aria. I swung round to see this chap plastering away at the the extension to the hotel wing, 4′ away from our room and an army of builders beyond him. He smiled and then winked at me for f*cks sake. So that was the knocking sound identified.
I know we’d checked in late the evening before but this wasn’t quite what we were expecting. I headed up to reception to see if I could get a change of room or something. But the hotel was full…uumm. They explained that it was just out of main season and that’s when all their building development work is undertaken. I understood that but would have liked to have been forewarned before we booked; if we’d known we’d have booked somewhere else of course. So I was a bit pissed off but I figured we were only going to be there two days and out and about during the day, so we could live with it. They promised that the work wouldn’t commence before 9am which wasn’t huge recompense but they were genuinely apologetic and nice about it. She was also very attractive which probably made me less grumpy. I did double-check that our clothes would be back later, she said ‘of course’.
Meantime C had borrowed (against hotel policy, ooh!) a travel iron off M for the only remaining clothes we had left. We got dressed, had breakfast and set off to explore Taormina. Before you die, go see the place. The liner had disgorged a large bunch of American tourists that morning so the town was busy but it didn’t spoil the enjoyment. The little squares and piazzas are lovely, the views everywhere just sensational. We had coffees and drinks at a few places and headed for Greco-Roman open air theatre, the jewel in Taormina’s crown. It’s beautifully acoustic, well-preserved and offers the bay and Mt Etna as a backdrop to any performances. The Greeks built it and it must have been just beautiful when it was pristine. It’s pretty good now – take a look. Click on the image to enlarge.
The Romans decided that the Greeks hadn’t finished the place properly and decided to add that series of columns and backwall to obliterate the backdrop view. That was one make-over that didn’t work. I think they were just building mad. I mean what was Hadrian’s wall all about?
Later we caught a cable car down to the beach-side and had a fabulous and outrageously expensive lunch in some delightful hotel restaurant over-looking the sea. We worked our way back through the town in the afternoon, taking in a brilliant Miro show in a slightly hidden gallery. We got back to the hotel around 5pm and had a swim in its lovely little pool overlooking the sea, and of course a few sundowners. We thought we’d go to this restaurant right at the top of the mountain for dinner. We agreed to meet in the bar around 8pm.
We went to the room to find a bottle of wine, compliments of the manager, for that morning’s disturbance. Nice touch but it was red – I very much prefer crisp white wine, but he wasn’t to know of course. But nowhere could I find our clothes. Aw no. I called reception just to see if they had them at the desk or knew of their whereabouts. But they just told me they’d be ready the next day as requested. Er no – today! We handed them in last night for next day service and had double -checked this morning that they’d be back today. Sorry, she replied the ironing gets sent out and the place would now be closed for the evening. There was nothing she could now do. We had no more clean clothes apart from undies and I couldn’t see M being happy at going out with us in our sweaty stuff or just in underwear. She has standards you know.
So I traipsed back up to reception and the manager came out to see me. I explained the saga of the clothes again and the building work first thing and I handed back my bottle of red in protest at its inadequacy. I have to say I flounced around like a gay guy with bad piles. It was a bit dramatic, not loud nor angry, which is my usual style, just a bit theatrical. Maybe the visit to the theatre earlier had inspired me. I even dug out the crushed, sweaty linen shirt and shorts I’d worn to travel in the day before and running my hands down my sides with palms outstretched I said with quiet dignity, ‘this is all I have to wear to dinner this evening’. Even Larry darling would have been proud. He looked at my dress state and I must have pricked his style conscience. He turned to me, apologised on behalf of the owner and all the staff, said our room would be at no charge for the duration of the stay, our fridge would be stocked with complimentary white wine and that he would personally ensure the cleaners were contacted, even at their homes, to see if they would be prepared to finish the ironing this evening. No guarantees but he would do everything to ensure the hotel delivered on their promise to have the clothes returned, freshly ironed to us that night.
There wasn’t a lot I could say except accept graciously, which I did of course. The wine arrived at the room shortly afterwards, chilled, and within the hour the clothes were brought to our door beautifully wrapped. Now that is style. He is simply the best hotel manager I have ever come across, not because we got some stuff for free but because he dealt with the situation generously, instantly and impactfully. Just tremendous care for guests who had been disappointed. You know that guy in Pretty Woman? That was fantasy; this guy was the genuine article.
The rest of our stay at the hotel couldn’t have been better. The service, food and everything was spot on. And now I’m writing about the place as if it is the greatest hotel in the world. Of course it’s not but you should try it, finding the owner should be simple. Mind you it’s bound to be busy.
Anyway the following day we headed up the coast to visit a village with two claims to fame:
a) they have some catacombs but they were closed. However they’d laid the bodies out in a chapel whilst restoration work was taking place but this too had just closed. We met with one of the sisters whose sisterhood looks after the catacombs. She wasn’t very sympathetic till M offered a 20e note. That opened the lock. Fascinating if grisly experience (I mean the remains, not M’s tipping).
b) this is the village on which Corleone was based and where they filmed the Godfather’s Sicillian scenes in part I. The church where Michael married Apollonia, the square where they had the reception but best of all bar Vitelli where Michael first met his father-in-law-to-be. For a couple of sentimental old movie queens like G and I this was just tremendous and very poignant. We met an old lady who appeared as an extra – she told us all the stories she must have told a thousand times to the visitors but I know she knew that G and I were genuine fans. Plus the beer we bought her helped. Here we are re-enacting the father-in-law scene outside the bar; G’s the old guy and I’m playing Michael Corleone of course.
So that was our two days in Sicily. We flew out later that day. It was more than I’d expected in every sense. Just do your self a favour and go and experience it. I would take out the maximum car insurance though.