Out before dawn with the camera, trying to snag a shot of Mount Etna at sunrise. The old lady wins this round, however, burying her head in the clouds and frustrating my photography.
Breakfast is cornetti (croissants) from a nearby bar. After a leisurely morning, the Euro2008 team sets out for a longer exploration of the town. The Umberto Corso, the main street running the length of the town, is packed with tour groups. Withered ladies, holding either umbrellas or cruise ship signs aloft, lead their charges past the open doors of souvenir shops. I am still trying to work out why Taormina has so many tourists. Its principal attraction is the Greek theater that stands near our flat. It has a couple of pretty churches, and some lovely views of the sea, but not much more to recommend it. Nevertheless the tourists are swarming here.
Like most Sicilian towns, Taormina was originally founded by Greek colonists. The town's elevated and defensible position provided security to its earliest inhabitants. At one point, the town was under the control of Hieron II of Syracuse, but in its later years it would emerge as an important Roman city. It played a key role in the revolt of Sextus Pompeius against the first Roman emperor, Augustus, and after he had secured power, Augustus expelled the town's residents and replaced them with his retired soldiers.
We have come to Taormina for one simple reason: it is our base camp for a trip to Mount Etna. Our guidebook suggests that there are several volcano tours that originate in Taormina, and one of the tasks for the day is to find out how we can reach the mountain. One small problem may be the weather: if the skies remain overcast then there is no point in going, as Etna will be fogged in. Fingers crossed for improving conditions.
We have lunch at a pizzeria just off the Umberto Corso, and surprisingly, it is pretty good. Unlike Syracuse, the pizzerias actually serve pizzas at lunch time. Moreover, I don't see peas anywhere on the menu. These are two strong points on the plus side of Taormina's ledger.
After lunch, I volunteer to walk down the hill to the train station to arrange tickets for our onward journey to Naples. The descent is precipitous, and it will be a major hike. Having been relatively inactive since Seefeld, I am eager for a hard walk. The afternoon is cool, and as I set off, I am touched by a few spatters of rain. Overhead, wind-driven black clouds scurry westward.
The train station is at sea level, far below Taormina. A trail stitches its way down the side of the mountain, a route that will allow me to avoid the main roads. It is a lovely walk, and I am soon kicking myself for failing to bring the camera. The trail switchbacks down an outcrop between two canyons. There is a rugged beauty to these mountains. The sea, far below, is a deep bluish-green, scoured by an onshore breeze.
I reach the train station and procure our onward tickets. I had played with the idea of catching a bus for the return ride, but I am still feeling fresh and this hill, although steep, is no Rosshutte. The return climb is more arduous than the downward trip, but I take it slowly, stopping from time to time to admire the marvelous views. As I near the top, the wind begins to buffet me a little, threatening to dislodge my adventurer's hat. But we both make it to the top, and pass through the back streets of Taormina to our flat.
As evening approaches the wind rises like an old Sicilian witch. She batters and howls through the streets, slapping the loose green shutters of a nearby building and clawing at the branches of the tree outside our window. I suppose that as we settle into autumn, the weather is likely to slowly deteriorate, but this sudden storm seems shocking nevertheless.