Our ship pulled into the port in Messina – the third largest city in Sicily, which also serves as the tip of the “boot” that forms Italy.
Much of Sicily is an interesting place, in that it serves as a stark reminder that one volcano eruption can wipe out an entire visual journey through history.
On our way to Taormina, much of the housing we saw along the way were considered “the projects” by U.S. standards, in that when the Mt. Etna erupted in the early 1900s, it took a lot of the housing with it, whether by lava or earthquake. Thus, there was not enough money to rebuild the housing by the same standards, which meant cheaper construction and poorer people – particularly those that lost their businesses/jobs as a result.
Still, the further up the coast of the Ioanian Sea you go, the more the towns and villages become the quaint/charming architecture one comes to expect – particularly when you you start driving up Mt. Etna. Regardless of lava flow, inhabitants of the towns (including Milo, where my mother’s family is from) won’t leave their homes for safer areas, as they believe if something should happen, it’s what was meant to be.
The first stop on our tour was Taormina – a quaint little village, founded in 5 BC by the Greeks, completely surrounded by fortified walls. This village is where the likes of Greta Garbo, other celebrities, and many royalty have come (and still come) to vacation in the winter months.
It’s known for it’s handmade pottery, jewelry, and of course, local fashion designers. There are cafes on every block and gelato places that stretch as far as the eye can see. But the best charm are the alleyways with all of the hidden restaurants and bars that line them. Some of them look like little holes in the wall but definitely offer the best views of the Ioanian Sea and Mt Etna!
In the center of the village is Duomo where the famous Fontana di Orione is located, right in front of the Cathedral, constructed under the command of Henry VI of Hohenstaufen. While it doesn’t look like much from the outside, it’s definitely breath-taking from the inside!
Past Duomo and right up the first side street holds the second largest Ancient Greek Theater in Sicily, still used today. Because of its natural acoustics, bands still love to come and perform for typically sold out shows of 4,000 people.
Although I never would have admitted it in my younger years, I’m a huge fan of taking in nature. After all, it was here long before us. When I found out we’d be hiking part of Mt Etna, I was beyond excited. It’s thrilling to walk on the same lava flows that once leveled parts of towns and also explore craters that just added to the overall devastation it brought to the people of Sicily, over the centuries.
Our tour took us 6,000 feet (2,000 meters) up the mountain to La Capannina.
This little town of about 1/4 mile long boasts two craters – one of which is Crateri Silvestri, as well as the famous coffee shop that was completely surrounded by lava in 1999, when Mt. Etna blew, but never burned down. As such, there is a gated natural lava cave that has been turned into a shrine for Mother Mary, as it is said she saved the shop from being destroyed.
During our time there, I hiked up the side of the crater to take in the views Mt. Etna had to offer. To the east was the Ioanian Sea, to the west were the laval flows. To the south and north were nothing but lush, green vegetation that are home to so many different fruit and nut trees, beautiful flowers, and other wildlife. The views were breathtaking and for the first time on the trip, I felt incredibly free. Had it not been for the ton of people surrounding me, I seriously considered meditating on the side of the cliff I was standing on, just to further that feeling. While that sounds completely contradictory, to be in such an expansive atmosphere, brought about a certain elation that I hadn’t had in such a long time – that feeling when you look around you, take in the views, and realize this is your life. 🙂
After our tour/play time was over, we took our bus back down to Messina – about a two-hour drive.
As an added bonus – if you’re on a cruise ship, make sure to be outside during sunset. The sunset happens right next to Mt. Stromboli, which is hands-down, the coolest thing I saw at sea.
- In the summer, Messina is warm – about 80 degrees but at Mt Etna, it’s about 25-30 degrees less at the 6,000 ft. range. Wear layers!
- Although we didn’t have the time for it, make a day of Mt Etna – take the funicular to the top for lunch
- If you’re feeling more adventurous, rent a car. The hairpin turns are great for driving enthusiasts and of course, the views at every turn get better and better.
- When you visit Taormina, I’d advise you to stay at least two nights there – there are so many restaurants, bars, and shops to visit, that one day is definitely not enough!
- Pottery is definitely cheaper in the little shops – especially down some of the side streets. We had our best luck with the shops on the same street as the Greek Theater (find out the name of it).