Taormina, Sicily - More than one Italian expert has called this lovely medeival resort "the most beautiful town in Sicily." I can't really confirm or deny the superlatives, but it certainly is striking, its rolling hills and rocky cliffs dropping down to sweeping seascapes, not to mention the smoking Mt Etna, always lurking in the background.
Besides all that, Taormina is home to a large - and mostly intact - Greek theater. Its setting high atop a rocky cliff guaranteed that theater-goers not only had excellent views of the stage, but also of the towering Mt Etna and the crystalline Ionian Sea. It has been called "the most spectacularly situated Greek theater in the world." Again with the superlatives! But it was gorgeous when we visited - clear blue skies and a blazing sun made the place irresistably photogenic, and we spent hours climbing around the ruins and snapping pictures.
We spent the afternoon strolling the cobblestone streets and browsing the chique boutiques. And resting up for the next day's adventure...
It might have been the only day that we were actually on schedule - out of bed early, finishing breakfast and checking out of our hotel right on time. That's when we noticed that all the clocks in the hotel read 10am - not 9am - and we had unknowingly lost an hour in the night for daylight savings. So on the day we were supposed to get up early and go climb Mt Etna, we were an hour late before we even started. I feared that we would not have time to climb to the crater.
Nonetheless, we drove to the Refugio Sapenza on the southside of the mountain, stopping only to purchase some local artwork for our garden: a Sicilian Baroque-style grotesque face, carved out of Etna lava (we would later regret this, when security personnel at the Palermo airport would not let us carry it on the plane). It was cloudy and cold; visibility was about five feet. And the mountain - blanketed in black lava - was not exactly picturesque. This appeared to be an ill-fated expedition.
Anyway, we rode the cable car as far as it would take us, which was about 2500m. We could see nothing whatsoever from the sky ride. But as we approached the top, the fog seemed to dissipate as we rose above the clouds, and suddenly the sky was unbroken blue with an unimpeded view of the smoking summit. The workers informed us that the hike to the craters (3200m) takes about three hours - less than we anticipated - so we set out along the trail to the top.
The sun was warm, even as we trudged through snowbanks. And the surrounding scenery was so stark - just a barren patchwork of black and white against an icy blue sky. I'm not sure I have ever seen anything like it.
When we reached the top, we followed the trail around the rim of a smoking crater. It was incredibly windy, as if a gust might come along and blow us right into the crater or alternatively, off the side of the mountain, which seemed like the edge of the earth. Then we went off-trail, across the gravelly landscape to another smaller crater that was smoking like a steam engine. There we found our place in the sun, out of the wind, and warmed by the thermal heat from below - the perfect place to unpack our picnic of ricotta pastries!
Here is the place for the obvious metaphor... like all trips, this one certainly had its highs and lows, but this was a good place to end!