Our stay in Syracuse/Ortigia has come to an end, and reluctantly we pack our suitcases and head for the next stop on our itinerary, Taormina. I lug the suitcases down the stairs and we pull them through the streets we've come to love.
A taxi carries us to the bus station, and, after a short wait, we clamber aboard an intercity bus, bound for Catania. Traffic is fierce and it takes 18 minutes to travel the half mile between the bus station and the Church of the Weeping Madonna. I could have walked faster. Another 15 minutes finally finds us passing through the outskirts of Syracuse and into the open country.
The highway parallels the coast for a short distance, past a vast oil refinery with tankers waiting patiently offshore. In the distance, shrouded in a cap of clouds, is Mount Etna, the object of our visit to Taormina. The land surrounding Syracuse is much greener than the barren earth of Malta. Through my bus window, I see olive and lime trees, date palms, cactus, and the occasional pine tree. Perhaps it is the rich volcanic soil that makes this lush greenery possible; I wouldn't expect ninety miles of northing to make much of a difference climate-wise.
After nearly two hours on the bus, we reach Catania, a grim industrial city. We change buses here for Taormina and continue up the coast. We pass between Etna and the sea, and then begin a long, switchbacking ascent up a coastal cliff. The big blue bus has some problems negotiating the well-snaked road, but eventually we reach Taormina.
Off the bus for a long pull of suitcases through town. The Blue Anvil, my suitcase, grinds and snaps at my heels. The directions to our new flat are precise, right up to the last bit, where I get muddled by a lack of street signs. Mary eventually finds the right door, however, and we are saved.
“Taormina bewitches the stranger within twenty-four hours or it no longer bewitches him at all,” reads the guidebook we have purchased for the city. Hmm. The clock is ticking. After settling into our flat, we take a short walk around the local neighborhood. It is clear that we are firmly back on the tourist trail. The streets are clogged with both visitors (mostly British, by the accents) and souvenir shops. It is a tough blow after Syracuse, which seemed a bit more authentic.
We decide to assuage the disappointing first impression with some ice cream. Brioche con gelato proclaims a sign on a nearby stand. This is a Sicilian specialty, a sweet roll, sliced in half and wrapped around two scoops of ice cream. The girls have wanted to try it since reading about it, and here is our first chance.
I'm not a convert. I opt for a mix of Rum Raisin and Coffee flavored gelato. The brioche is fine for holding the ice cream, but you eat it like a sandwich. The bite of ice cream gives me a brain freeze. Moreover, I don't much care for the combination of thick roll and ice cream. Back to cones for me.
The other thing about being back on the tourist route is that we are again subject to tourist prices. The pizza that Grace has come to love – bianconeve (literally “white snow”), a pizza base covered with mozzarella – has doubled in price. Pizza for four, which priced out around thirty euros in Syracuse, comes in at just under fifty in Taormina. We have moved upmarket and up-price. Our restaurant did have a nice view, however. We ate on a terrace that looked south, over the ocean and down the island toward Mount Etna, which was smothered this evening in clouds. As the light fades from the sky we finish our pizzas and stroll back to our flat. Tomorrow is a new day, the beginning of our exploration of Taormina.