Ancient cities of the East

 

Leaving the glorious mountain roads that brought us to the foot of Etna (I was not prepared for the awe of suddenly discovering Etna around a bend of the road, immense, majestic, a lone snow-covered giant with plumes of steam coming out of the top), we enter a short stretch of motorway to Taormina. The entrance to the town is a succession of crazy bends over viaducts suspended on the side of the steep mountain, with a view to the sea below.

Having precariously parked the car in a multi-storey car park where we also have to completely change the baby’s outfit due to epic poo coverage as cars continuously manoeuvre close to us, we finally enter the city through a little archway guarded by four soldiers in full combat gear and hands on their rifles. Well hello, global terror threat. We reunite with Heather’s family in a little cafe before setting off into the pretty roads of Taormina. It really is pretty, despite the fact that it’s very poopular with tourists – some unfortunate souls have managed somehow to find themselves driving through here and are probably still traumatised. We wander for a few minutes down the road, taking in the ubiquitous balconies strung with washing and decorated with potted plants, the many shops selling tourist tat and some appealing little side alleys all decked up as terraces for restaurants. We settle at one of the tables to enjoy a nice meal (as we keep discovering, Sicilian restaurants serve mostly fish-based dishes and very, very few meat ones, often offering one or two things with ham in – Jackie is invariably trying to find those meaty offerings and on this day finally enjoys spaghetti bolognese).

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Because of our somewhat nutty schedule in which we have to cross the entire island in the one day, we don’t have the hours that would be needed to properly visit Taormina; so we abandon our stroll through the streets to head to the Greek theatre. What a sight! Built on an outcrop overlooking the sea, it’s enormous – as is usual for me in archaeological sites, I am immediately moved to find myself in an edifice in which people from the past moved, socialised and laughed (this was built in the third century before Christ!). Most of the original seats have disappeared and been replaced with wooden benches, but the effect remains due to the unusually well preserved area behind the stage, where ruined columns frame a view of the sea in a most scenic manner. Unfortunately there are many men at work in the theatre; they’re in the process of preparing it for the summer performances which will take place in it, and there is much clanging and banging and many metal scaffolding bits here and there. The views from the top of the theatre are magnificent, over the city, the lush moutains tumbling into a beautiful blue sea, and snowy Etna in the background.

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Before we depart to reach Siracusa before nightfall, Heather wants to take in Siracusa’s little beach, which is accessible by cablecar – Vicky is not a lover of heights or cablecars, but the ride is short. We reach a little cove lined with cafes and hotels, but it’s late afternoon so it’s not crowded. I enjoy great play time with Zaza whose aim in life is now to lick the entire world, and so it’s pretty full on to try and prevent her from nomming all the tiny pebbles all around her. Hev’s family spend only a few minutes on the beach before heading back up to their car; we linger a little longer while Heather has a little snorkel and another one of her famous cackhanded attempts at changing to and from swimming costumes while retaining decency. No boob licking is necessary this time, thankfully.

 

The road to Siracusa is pretty, with little villages perched sometimes in quite vertiginous manner on top of tree-covered rock pinnacles – Etna is still steaming on our right as we head South. Heather has prepared our visit by booking a bed and breakfast in the old part of the city, Ortigia, and has even researched where to park – “Fabulous!”, I think, until she directs me past the recommended car park (by mistake), and then round and round Ortigia’s minuscule narrow streets while we fail to find parking. Turns out, just like trying to trust the GPS to find petrol stations, you should not trust it to find parking spots, either, as we go from blue “P” symbol to blue “P” symbol and they all turn out to be residents parking or completely inexistent. Meanwhile of course, Eliza has finally had enough of being in the car, after a whole day of being a complete angel in the car seat. We have another episode of very tense navigating city streets, with terse dialogue, on a background of wails. I finally end up ramming the car into a free space overlooking the sea, ready to throw caution to the wind and leave it there despite the many signs telling me this is residents parking only (I wonder if we could pass as residents with our UK number plate and roof box? Ha!). That is until I also spot the pictogram depicting a tow truck taking a car to the pound. Heather calms the screaming Zaza with magic and boobs as I calm myself with beautiful views of the sea in the sunset complete with tiny fishing boat; it’s hard to actually feel crap when I’ve already seen that I’m going to love Siracusa, even if I’ve only glimpsed it in the throws of awful parking searching. We settle on the plan of leaving the car temporarily parked in the residents bay until we have transferred our luggage to the B&B, and Heather will come and move it to the original planned car park afterwards. Meanwhile, as it transpires, Hev’s family are engaged in a similar struggle, and we get a really arsy phonecall from Vicky who’s been ejected from Paul’s car while he looks for parking, after they’ve had terse words which I’m guessing were identical to the ones that were had in our car.

Anyway – all thoughts of frustration disappear as we wander the tiny streets (on foot this time) to our accommodation, which is tucked in the most delightful little lane full of gorgeous sculpted balconies overflowing with all sorts of plants. The evening is balmy, people are milling about outside with their kids, the buildings have that air of faded magnificence which I love so much about Italy, I’m ecstatic. We check in and head for our host’s restaurant recommendation, a little “osteria” all decorated with Sicily’s famous puppets, and even a fake balcony with drying laundry. The garrulous owner takes our order, sniffing in disdain when Fanta is ordered to go with the meal, and nodding his appreciation when wine is added to the order. As had become routine for us, him and his staff are all besotted with Zaza, and she is whisked away by the owner to the back of the restaurant, where he carries on waiting on tables and welcoming new patrons with our baby in his arms.

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Heather has been trying desperately, out of anthropological interest, to witness Easter celebrations, which are particularly prominent in Sicily – as this is Good Friday, we’ve been told there’s a procession going through the streets of Ortigia tonight, but we haven’t come across it. Suddenly we hear the distant sound of a marching band, and Hev all but jumps out of her seat and into the street to go and see the action; I follow close behind with Eliza who’s had enough of being in the restaurant already. We discover the procession which is going slowly around the nearby Piazza Archimedes – at the head of the march there are women, all clad in black, carrying a big statue of the Virgin Mary in mourning on their shoulders; behind them, follows a glass case framed with ornate gold-painted decorations, and containing a life-size statue of dead Jesus complete with bloody wounds, in a re-enactment of taking Jesus to his tomb after he’s died on the cross. Closing the march is a black-clad marching band walking super slowly and playing funereal music. As it’s dinner time, the procession is small, with very few people following, but I’m guessing it gets bigger as the night goes on.

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We return to our meal, the end of which is accompanied by a truly loud band busking with traditional music involving high-pitched flute thing, drums, an accordion and a dude blowing in an amphora to produce bass sounds. The baby is loving it, but the rest of us are a bit done by song number two! The owner of the restaurant glares and rolls his eyes at anyone caught clapping, as if to say “Don’t encourage them, they’ll stay longer!”. We head to bed after this, looking forward to discovering the city tomorrow.

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