Out the door at 5:45 AM, heading west away from the faint glow of dawn. My goal this morning is to climb the mountain behind Taormina, reaching the top before the sun breaks the horizon. I want to capture some pictures of the lights of Taormina, and then shoot the town as the sun rises. If I'm lucky, I will also get another crack at Mount Etna.
I make my way through the sleeping town, the silence broken only by the roar of garbage trucks as the rubbish men ply their trade. There are actually two peaks just behind the town. The lower of the two (my destination) is capped by a church, the Santuario Madonna della rocca (Church of the Madonna of the Rock). A further climb leads to the top of the second peak, which has the ruins of a castle gracing it. For my purposes, the lower peak will suffice.
The path up the hill is called the Via Crucis—the way of the the cross. At first I thought this was a reference to the suffering in store for climbers, but it quickly becomes evident that it refers to Christ's sufferings. The stations of the cross have been placed at intervals along the path, concrete statues that depict Christ's final hours. The path has lights which we have seen from our flat at night, but this morning they are turned off. I switchback up the steep slope, climbing the brick- and pebble-paved route. Taormina falls away below me, and after a long upward grind, I reach the summit of the lower peak.
Sunrise is still twenty minutes off so I have some time to look around before starting my shooting. To my great delight, Mount Etna is out of the the clouds. Even more delightful is the fact that I can see an orange ribbon of lava worming its way across one of her lower slopes. The volcano is erupting. A cloud of smoke drifts laterally in the still morning air, a plume that originated in Pluto's kitchen, far below the earth's surface.
The sun rises and I capture my photos on the eastern side of the peak, aiming down at Taormina. I can see the Greek theater quite clearly from up here, but I am shooting into the rising sun, which prevents a good photograph. If there is time, I may try to return in the late afternoon, when the sun will be behind me. A cold wind rises with the sun. I begin to wish that I had worn my Tyrolian vest, but soon it is time to retrace my steps, down the hill to breakfast.
I suppose that previous sentence may mark a turning point in our expedition: it is the first time on the trip since the awful rain-soaked chill of the first days of the Danube Cycle adventure that I have felt cold. The temperatures of the past couple of weeks have been pleasant: I was hot a couple of afternoons in Malta, but Syracuse was refreshingly temperate. Nevertheless, our first two evenings in Taormina have been right on the edge of fresco (cool). Winter is on its way and we are heading north. A change is in the air.
After lunch we head over to visit Taormina's main attraction, the Greek theater. I have already recorded my jaded opinion of Greek theaters on a previous page (see Syracuse), so will not restate them here. I suppose it is simply too much of a good thing for us. Nevertheless, compared to the theater in Syracuse, or some of the specimens we've encountered in Turkey, Taormina doesn't measure up. It does have the most stunning position of any theater we've visited, perched on a hilltop overlooking the sea, but as a structure, it fails to impress. It has been significantly reworked to accommodate modern audiences, and there seems to be a lot of steel and concrete integrated into the original stone. No, the Sicilian palm must be awarded to the carved-out-of-the-hillside theater of Syracuse.
After taking in the theater, I fight the crowds packing the Umberto Corso in order to secure a few photographs. I hope, Discerning Reader, that I have not given you the impression that I don't like Taormina. In fact, I like it very much. It is a lovely hilltop town that is strikingly clean and graffiti free. It has a beautiful setting, with views of the mountains, a volcano, and the sea. The climate is lovely, the food is good, and Sicilian wine pleases the palate. But I still haven't grasped its appeal as a tourist attraction. The main street, the Umberto Corso, is packed, morning to night. I suppose, at the end of the day, that it is simply one of the main towns on the Sicilian tour bus route. Or maybe people are just drawn by its natural charms.
As I noted in an earlier installment, the real reason we are here is that Taormina is close to Mount Etna. Tomorrow is the day. We have our bus tickets, so, weather permitting, we will be on our way.