First time in Sicilia (part 1: Catania and Taormina)

More often than not on trips abroad, I leave behind grey overcast skies for clear blue ones, in search of a drier, sunnier and all round more agreeable climate (which let’s face it, as a Brit, ain’t all that difficult). Occasionally, however, you visit the right place at slightly the wrong time, and my first and final days in Sicily were beset with torrential rain in quantities to rival those of monsoonal climes. Despite Sicily’s reknowned sunny climate, it is on occasion susceptible to heavy rains, flooding and landslides (whole streets in parts of Catania and Messina were badly flooded in the weeks before my visit). Thankfully, however, all the days inbetween were blessed with warm rays of Mediterranean sunshine, making this a wonderful place to visit in October when most of Europe has long since turned the page to autumn. Due to Sicily’s size, my scarcity of time (8 days) and lack of a hire car, I was only able to see a portion of what this island has to offer, and so restricted my itinerary to the East Coast Catania-Taormina-Syracusa route. It was a great intro to Sicily but definitely left me wanting to return to experience a whole lot more.

The first couple of nights were spent in the island’s second largest city, Catania. Thinking this would be a noisy, dirty, grimy, slightly smaller version of Naples, I wasn’t expecting to like this place. I was, however, immediately struck by how friendly the inhabitants of this town were (I don’t recall a single occasion when I stepped out in the street without being approached by a local or entering into converstion with a cafe owner/waiter etc). People were extremely hospitable here and it’s incredibly refreshing to experience this in a city of Catania’s size. The city itself is cleaner, easier to navigate and much less caotic than Naples. During my stay, I chose to reside in a very unique hostel, Ostello delgi Elefanti. With its high fresco-adorned ceilings and spacious terraza looking over the local square and over to the omnipresent Mount Etna, this is absolutely not your average hostel. Largely run by volunteers who live at the hostel for an extended period before moving on to their next destination, this was a great place to meet other people on the road.

The below shot is the view from the terraza at L’Ostello delgi Elefanti. On a clear day you can see Mount Etna in the background but both my stays in Catania were marred by thick layers of cloud. Still a fanastic view though.

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It’s well worth spending a day or two walking around Catania – lots of great architecture, ornate churches, cafes filled with dolci at very reasonable prices. Didn’t get many pics owing to the bad weather and the conundrum of having to balance my Canon and a large umbrella.

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On day three I caught a train north to Taormina, which drops you off a couple of miles or so downhill from the main town. The bus is a more direct route but whichever way you do it the route is a scenic hour-long journey with Mount Etna on the one side and the sea on the other. Taormina is a popular town perched on a hillside with wonderful views of the Sicilian coastline and a fantastic panorama of Europe’s largest volcano (I wasn’t prepared at all for the scale of Mount Etna – higher than Ben Nevis, it’s quite a tremendous sight when flying over into Catania airport). It’s difficult not to love this picturesque little town as, despite being one of Sicily’s most touristy and expensive places, it offers a perfect concoction of nature, relaxation, history and Italian culture. Here are some photos taken during my stay:

View from the grounds of the Teatro Antico di Taormina looking out towards the sea and EtnaIMG_8563 cn

Il teatro antico di Taormina, the town’s biggest attraction, dates back to the 3rd century BC, and boasts a particularly spectacular setting.20151017_105028 cn

Piazza IX Aprile, Taormina’s main squareIMG_8589 cn

Vibrant cactii typical of the vegetation in the area20151017_111830 cn

A rather quirky little house I encountered walking up to the Madonna della Rocca Sanctuary20151018_123419

Me outside the Chiesa Madonna della Roca just above the main town (from a distance you can’t see the tens of mosquito bites I had all over my body – warning! if like me you are popular with mosquitos you must take precautions from day one – I was ill prepared and really suffered as a result).

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Adoro la granita siciliana… I had previously thought this originated in Campania but the Sicilians were quick to point out I was wrong! Bam bar, a fantastic little granita bar in the town, has a huge variety to flavours to  choose from.

Isola bella – a pleasant stroll from the town and popular bathing spotIMG_8577 cn.jpg

A popular sight in Sicily, the old classic Fiat cars. This was taken in the nearby Castelmola, a hike uphill from Taormina (feasible in October, would definitely not attempt in summer heat!)

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On my first night in town, I stayed at Hostel Taormina, ran by the extremely hospitable Francesco (pictured below) – the hostel has a lovely terraza overlooking the town and all the staff really go out of their way to make you feel welcome. Francesco even drove me round took me for a slightly hair-raising ride around town in his classic Italian car (without seatbelts – apparently not a legal requirement in Italy!)

20151018_175233 crop cn.jpgWith my new amico Siciliano and Etna in the background.20151018_181306 cn

A local feeding his 7 catsIMG_20151017_175048

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