Taormina: sea, ancient ruins, and volcanic dust

It is so unbelievably sad that Italy is living through really dark times at the moment. For a traveler like myself it is double-fold devastating: only few countries can boast amazing landscapes, rich culture, and delicious cuisine compared to that of Italy. In these dire times, I would like to think about all the beautiful things that Italy is home to and celebrate its potential for cultural visits which we all can hopefully soon enjoy again.

This story is of a little town of Taormina which finds itself perched upon a tall rock on the Western shore of Sicily. Taormina is a tiny city and is probably not the first one that you think of when someone mentions Sicily. Most of the travelers use the town as the base for conquering Etna, one of the world’s most famous volcanoes, and, to be honest, so did we, but this little Mediterranean town certainly has a charm of its own!

Taormina

On a nice morning in the late May we flew into Catania, the closest airport to our destination. Our plan was to stay on Sicily for five days so we looked into car rentals. Try to guess the price that we paid for a car for the entire stay, and while you are guessing, take a look at the majestic Etna that we had a pleasure to watch while waiting for the car rental agent.

Made you guess? Great! Brace yourself…

It was 30 euros. For five days. That’s 6 euros per day. If you are on Sicily, get a car, it’s totally worth it (but watch out, they are very aggressively trying to sell you insurance).

As we got to Taormina and accommodated ourselves in our guest “house” (actually, just a big apartment that we got for hilariously little money), it was time to check out the city. Taormina is quite touristic but quiet and adorable nevertheless. It is one of lesser known destinations so it is not as soulless and cynical as touristy places can be. Most of the visitors here are either young couples set to scale Etna or elderly Europeans that are just cashing in on another beautiful Italian destination with a character.

The most popular tourist attraction of the city is the Greek theater (Sicily used to be Greek some millennia ago). Of course, we could not just skip that!

An audio guide is included. Do not miss out on this great opportunity to listen to about half an hour of information that you will immediately forget as you hand your headphones back!

What is not easy to forget though are the views on the Mediterranean sea and the town of Taomina.

While at the Greek theater, we noticed a small mountain with a castle on top. Can we get there, we thought?

Unfortunately, the tourist office told us that the castle was closed at the moment, but we could still go to the hill behind the mountain which was open at all times and also had some ruins. This one:

The hill is called Castelmola, and there is a bus connection between the top and Taormina. However, we are always up for a little challenge and decided to walk the entire way. The trail is paved (though not very well maintained) and took about 40 minutes from the center of Taormina. We were there in the beginning of the season, and the sun was not very hot yet – it might take some more time and effort in the midsummer.

Our strain was very well rewarded. We got all we ever wanted: a castle ruin, a great view on nearby hills and the sea, and a tiny restaurant perched on the very edge of the hill.

The best way to spend an evening in Taormina is to get to the coast and the second most popular spot of the city – Isola Bella, “the beautiful island”.

In theory it is possible to walk there, but you can also take the cable car (probably the only cable car in Europe that goes from a city center down to hit the beach).

The island used to be a private property and still hosts remains of the former owner’s villa. The walls of the building are designed to blend in with the natural landscape.

Even though Isola Bella is called an island, at low tide it is accessible by foot via a narrow pebble path which is also conveniently used by the residents and the visitors as a beach (though it was still a bit cold to swim in those waters in the end of May).

So… that is how to see Taormina in one day. There is not much more. A couple of churches – maybe – but they are not really special or impressive.

There is some rudimentary nightlife in the town but Taormina is not really a party destination (young and elderly couples, remember). We did not get a chance to check it out anyway as we next day a serious plan awaited for us…

The Valley of Temples and The Roman Villa

We woke up at 5 a.m. to take an organized tour to the two popular Sicilian sites which combines discovering heritage from the Ancient Greek and Roman times alike. I have to say, at such early hour Taormina looks unbelievable. Without a single soul in its narrow streets, it seems like a decoration for a retro movie.

And the sunrise? Just see for yourself. Wouldn’t you want to be there right now, beneath these palm trees wrapped in the gentle warmth of the morning sun?

The way from Taormina to Argigento – the home of a really well preserved site with many Greek ruins – is long. Time to compensate for a lack of sleep due to the early departure and enjoy the view of erupting Mt Etna (yeah, it started to erupt the day before we arrived – lucky as always!) that towers above endless plantations of lemons – probably we most Sicilian of all landscapes.

The Valley of Temples is going to impress anyone… who hasn’t seen any Ancient Greek or Roman ruins before. It is not so different from Acropolis in Athens or Foro Romano in Rome.

There are eight temples including one of the best preserved Greek temples – the Temple of Concordia.

The views and the atmosphere are very calming and pleasing, too. Those Ancient Greeks definitely new where to build the heart of their city!

A visit to the Valley of Temples is often combined with Piazza Armerina, or rather the Roman villa that finds itself not far from the city. The villa is exemplary of a Roman aristocrat’s homestead and is known for its many mosaic floors which are done with a lot of skill and creativity.

The person who made them created a certain theme for each room – from simple ornaments for utility compartments to incredibly imaginative scenes for living and ceremonial quarters. It is crazy to think that he was probably a slave or a low-pay craftsman, and we do not even know his name…

So… was it worth it to see the Valley of Temples and the villa? Those were definitely nice places to visit! Is it worth taking the guided tour? Not so sure. The tickets to the premises are not included. You are basically paying for the bus and the on-site guide. Not the worst thing to have if you are lazy and just want some entertainment, but if you rent a car and are planning to see the entire island you might be better off by yourself as you would pay less and have no time restrictions imposed by the group.

Etna

Finally we are coming to the whole reason why we went to Sicily – conquering Mt Etna. There are many ways to do that. Some people hike, some bike, some take quads. We chose one of the less conventional ways to climb a mountain – we went to the top on a horse back. I believe that horseback riding is an excellent skill to have for a traveler – horses enable you to get to tougher and wilder places than you could get to by bike or car, and you can get there faster than if you walked the way on foot.

For our adventure we picked a small family farm simply called Sicily Horse Riding based at Zafferana Etnea, at the very foot of the mighty volcano. I can strongly recommend them to any trail riding enthusiast: their horses are well trained and energetic, and the trips are highly organized and welcoming (you have to have some riding experience though as the trail is quite challenging and there are canter stretches through the forest where you would have to evade obstacles such as tree branches). We booked a tour called Majestic Etna – three days on the horseback all around the volcano with overnights in small mountain refuges. In the end we did not make a full circle because Etna decided to erupt a little, but we got memories to keep for a lifetime.

The path brings your mount and you through an unbelievable, otherworldly landscape of lava rock.

As unwelcoming the volcano may seem, the ground it creates is actually extremely fertile. A young forest made these grim grey rocks its home.

Porous, fragile soil gave birth to heavenly flowers and grass so green that it hurts your eyes, looking even brighter next to the black volcanic rock.

As I was preparing for the trip, I looked at the weather cast and was disappointed. Two out of three days promised rain and fog. But, as it sometimes happen, in life, what I thought to be a curse turned out to be a blessing. Shining sun and blue heavens would never get us the same feeling of another planet’s landscape as we rode these craters of black dust through a fog.

Nothing could better contribute to the sensation of being an explorer on an unknown planet than… the solitude. The loneliness I find one of the greatest advantages of trail riding. Horse riding is a niche experience, and you get to trek paths which are not normally visited by hikers or bikers so the chances are you will be just alone in the nature with your guide.

And what could be a better place to forget yourself than an active volcano under your horse’s hooves that makes you listen to the hissing of the boiling lava and wonder whether you are going to fall victim to its next explosion?

A short break from the saddle – time to descend into a cave formed by a lava stream. The cave is short but so beautiful that it looks like it was designed for Skyrim or such: hard to believe such places can actually exist in a world outside fantasies!

This experience was overwhelming in so many ways: from incredible landscapes to real adventures that we lived through, from searching for lost GoPro batteries to catching runaway horses, from real human hospitality at a tiny mountain refuge to a wild fox that found friends in its land’s occupants.

I wish each of us could experience something like this, that strikes right to your soul and makes you realize how many fantastic places our dear old Earth still holds.

The last day of the ride was surprisingly bright after the rain and cold of the first two days. As we descended Etna, we finally got a clear view on the mountain and the still ongoing eruption (the other days we could only hear it constantly hissing).

The skies were clear, but the ride was actually more challenging than on the days with worse weather. The horses were considerably tired by the heat, and the flies seemed to noticeably bother them. One more confirmation that riding in the rain was a good luck!

Conclusions

Sooner or later, all journeys come to an end. We had to fly home right after the three-day ride on Etna. There is, of course, more to see on Sicily, including famous destinations such as Palermo or Syracuse. Sicily is an amazing, beautiful land of nature, great food, and welcoming people, so it is a good thing that I still have to discover some pieces of it 😉

Over all, Sicily is a great, inexpensive destination with many exciting things to discover: from quaint Mediterranean towns to ancient ruins and nearly untouched nature, from piercingly blue sea to the black volcanic soil. You will not find the drive of a big city or boiling cultural life on this island, but anyone who searches peace, unity with nature, and simple rural experience, will be very pleased.

I wish all of you good luck in these hard times and hope that we can soon experience great places like Sicily again! Take care!

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