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November 4, 2008

Taormina to Etna

Filed under: Italy Rome-Sicily 2008, Travel — anotherheader @ 6:34 am

Piazza IX Aprile and San Giuseppe in Taormina in the morning light (panorama)

Piazza IX Aprile and San Giuseppe in Taormina in the morning light (panorama)

We woke early to try and catch Taormina without the crush of people lining its streets. In the morning light, we found the streets near empty with only a few small delivery vehicles and street cleaners occupying

A typically sylish policeman directing the morning traffic in Taormina

A typically sylish policeman directing the morning traffic in Taormina

the pedestrian area. The town has many interesting buildings, some with Moorish influence, and a great, scenic location. Unfortunately, the monolith of upscale tourist shops at street level and the memories of the crowds from the previous night will always color our view of Taormina.

After breakfast, we decided to earn our lunch by hiking to Castelmola. Castelmola is a small village located with a medieval castle perched a 1,000 feet up on a ridge overlooking the saddle occupied by Taormina. The path to Castelmola started immediately in front of our B&B in a set of steps. Seemingly endless steps and climbing paths continued until we reached the top of the hill and Castelmola. On the way up, Becky and I were dreaming of dropping the steps on our mountain bikes. Along the way, the only others we saw suffering on the path alongside us were, predictably, German tourists.

Sweaty and tired from strain of trying to out climb the other hikers on the path, we reached Castelmola. Castelmola is a quaint, small town with a loop of road and web of narrow alleyways serving as the only access routes. The village is capped with the ruins of an old castle that has commanding views of the area and of Mt. Etna.

img_6477Near Castelmola’s church, we found Bar Turrisi, a recommendation from our host at the B&B. Occupying four floors, Bar Turrisi is decorated with a phallus theme. Aroused sculptures and objects of art are everywhere. It was, umm, interesting. The phallic details were everywhere. When Becky returned from the restroom covered with water, she let me know that the balls on the sink’s faucet did not turn the water on and off. Apparently, there’s a pedal on the floor for that. She didn’t say how long she took to determine that, but she sure seemed to be gone for a while. It doesn’t usually take her that much time, so I suspect that there was some “experimental manipulation” going on before she found the floor pedal. I was a little confused by “balls” comment my self until I used the restroom (see the pictures). Of course, the German tourists embraced Bar Turrisi enthusiastically. They fondled and handled the aroused art objects and placed them on their tables.

The menu at Bar Turrisi

The menu at Bar Turrisi

Pictures of Bar Turrisi (not for the super easily offended):

It was strangely difficult to get Becky to leave the bar, but eventually I pulled her away and we continued on our hike. We took a different trail back to Taormina. This trail starts from the western end of Castelmola and ends on the opposite side of Taormina from where we started. At the beginning of the descent we saw a small sticker on the route to Taormina suggesting that this might be a downhill mountain biking route. We can’t confirm that this route to Taormina has been used by mountain bikes or even that it would be an acceptable use, but it sure looked like it would be fun and apparently whoever placed the sticker on the sign felt the same way.

The autostrada emerges from under Taormina on to a viaduct

The autostrada emerges from under Taormina on to a viaduct

If anything, the descent on the return path from Castelmola to Taormina was steeper than the route we climbed up. Initially, the trail starts with nearly continuous steps complete with tight switchbacks and linked turns. This would be one gonzo mountain biking descent. We figure we could ride much of it, but the path has some steep, technical, turning sections of steps that would likely require us to dismount. You’d definitely want a big hit bike for this one! The clear views of Etna and the viaducts and tunnels of the autostrada heading south passed out of our view as we reached the bottom of the path. From higher up, you could see that the autostrada (and another road, for that matter) actually goes directly under Taormina in a 2 km+ tunnel. This is a very impressive piece of road construction, indeed.

San Nicolo in Taormina

San Nicolo in Taormina

It seemed to take us about 20 minutes to reach the bottom of the trail. We worked our way over to Corso Umberto I and reached the sparsely occupied main area of Taormina at lunch time. We were surprised that the town was so empty, but guessed that the beach goers and cruise ship masses only appeared late in the day.

We ate lunch on the main tourist street. Our restaurant figured to attract mainly tourists, but, nonetheless, the meal was excellent. I don’t think we’ve ever had a bad meal in Italy.

After completing the rest of the 5 km or so loop, we were unknowingly late in collecting our bags from our B&B. As we collected our stuff, we departed with many apologies for the inconvenience we caused to our hosts. Into the car and down the winding roads, we headed to our next destination, Mt. Etna.

Moonrise over a cinder cone on Mt. Etna

Moonrise over a cinder cone on Mt. Etna

Our objective for the evening was Refugio Sapienza. From Taormina, we joined the autostrada for a short distance before we left the highway for the tight side roads that took us through the gray, run down looking, small towns on Etna’s flank. We learned from the guidebooks that the dark grey appearance of these towns comes, in part, from the basaltic rock originating on Mt. Etna that was used for building construction. The route was complicated with many narrow roads and confusing turns. The TomTom’s navigation definitely came in handy here. Eventually we cleared the congestion of the towns and starting climbing the slopes of Etna in earnest.

img_6538Heading up the mountain, the quality of the road improves greatly and would be a good cycling route. Initially the road works its way up the hill with the occasional lava flow splitting the forest and bisecting the road. Before long, as the Fiat struggled up the hill, the forested segments gave way to black and red pumice, ash, and lava fields. Eventually we reached Refugio Sapienza at 1910 meters, 1419 meters below Etna’s peak.

Refugio Sapienza sits amongst a disordered cluster of base buildings and lodges near the ski lift that serves Etna. In the winter, this is a ski resort (skiing Etna has to be an experience!), and the area has the unattractive look of a ski resort in summer. That is except for one thing. In 1983, one of Etna’s frequent eruptions barely missed the Refugio, virtually wrapping around the main building and destroying some of the side buildings in the process. You can see some amazing pictures of this in these links:

Old snowblower on Mt. Etna

Old snowblower on Mt. Etna

Refugio Sapienza during the 1983 eruption:

More eruption pictures from the area:

Refugio Sapienza has certainly seen better times. Perhaps the owners were reluctant to spend money to remodel something that is in the path of such an active volcano. The sparsely occupied hotel had that distinctive “redrum” aura that left us looking over our shoulders half expecting to see Jack Nicholson menacing in the shadows. The beds did not add to the comfort as they sagged enough to be technically considered hammocks. Curiously, like many places in Italy, no matter what the condition of everything else, the bathroom was furnished with stylish and high quality porcelain.

Sunset on Mt. Etna

Sunset on Mt. Etna

In the fading light, we had a chance to check out the cinder cones and lava flows that completely surrounded the area around the Refugio. We retreated to the room to find that Sarah Palin jokes had made their way to TV in Italy. Tomorrow we would head up the mountain for a real adventure.



  1. I was in Taormina and Castelmola in the spring of 2006. I was also to Bar Turrisi and I sighed their giant guest book. My cousin Dario and his sister Milena brought me and my brother-in-law to Castelmola, and it’s a beautiful little hamlet overlooking Taormina, which is equally as pretty. We got some beautiful shots of Mungibeddu from a balcony at Bar Turrisi. For those of you non-Sicilians, “Mungibeddu” is the old Sicilian name of Mt. Etna. The word literally means “mountain-mountain”. “Mun” is Sicilian for “mon” or “monte”, and Gebel is the Arabic word for mountain. So, they call it mount-mountain. All of Sicily is beautiful, and I am proud to be a Sicilian-American. I have been to Sicily three times, and my wife and I are finally going there together in September of 2010. I can’t wait! So, to all you Sicilians, “Di Mungibeddu Tutti Figghi Semu!” Ciau from Pitruzzu

    Comment by Peter — March 6, 2010 @ 1:31 am

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