Sicily, Mt. Etna and Taormina, Italy
Lava Flows & A Medieval Stroll
By Larry Larsen
Stark, volcanic landscapes, quaint villages and vineyards are abundant in Sicily, the largest
island in the Mediterranean and home to the tallest active volcano in Europe. Catania, where
our cruise ship hit port, means among other things "harsh lands," and from the moment we stepped off on the pier and took a bus to
Taormina and Mt. Etna we easily noticed the traces of numerous volcanic eruptions.
Black lava formations have hardened along roads and around homes, and the rich soil that forms as a result of
the volcanic ash creates a lush farming community at the base of the Mt. Etna and other nearby mountains.
Our "Taste of Sicily" port excursion began in the picturesque town of Taormina. As is typical in
this part of the Mediterranean, Taormina showcases a mixture of medieval, Roman and Greek i
nfluences in its history and architecture. The most popular and best known example is the
Ancient Theater (additional fee required to visit it), one of the most celebrated ruins in Sicily. The well-preserved ruins built atop the mountain overlooks a very scenic coastal area.
The Ancient Theater is built mostly of brick, which automatically describes it as from Roman times, but the plan
and the design are in accordance with Greek theaters. This leads experts to believe the theater was renovated and expanded by Romans on top of the foundations of an older
theater from the Greek period. It is the second largest theater of its kind in Sicily.
Another historical highlight is the Corvaja Palace, a medieval construction built by the Arabs
during their period of rule beginning in 902. You just can't miss the unique cube-shaped Arabic
tower, since it sits right in the middle of town. Also of interest to some visitors is an ancient Roman wall which originally encompassed the
town of Taormina. It's the oldest structure there, dating back to the first century BC. Today, it is often ignored by most tourists even though it's now located within the
center of the village. The unique and impressive brick wall still has niches where Roman God statues once stood.
Taormina is a great walking town with scenic views of the coastal
region in every direction overlooking the Ioninan Sea. Cars are not allowed within the center of town, making this an ideal way to take your time through the busy and narrow passages.
Taormina has been a tourist destination for many years and was also known as a popular creative destination for artists such as Tennessee Williams
and Truman Capote. Numerous shops and restaurants as well as old churches will keep visitors occupied. One of the most interesting churches is St.
Nicola Cathedral, built around 1400 on the ruins of an even older church. A unique aspect is its wooden beans, carved with Arabic motifs.
After visiting Taormina, we headed towards impressive Mt. Etna. Evidence of old and recent
volcanic activity is everywhere! Higher up in the mountain several buildings and homes were still buried halfway under the lava flow of the most
recent eruption in the late 80's. Our bus navigated the narrow roads until reaching the visitors' center 3,000 meters high. A cable car leads even higher to
the top of the mountain, but it was not accessible that day due to weather and winds. And it's no wonder – it was no warmer than 45 degrees F with
a 30-mph wind that was responsible for a wind chill of 15 or 20 degrees!
Visitors can climb to the volcanic craters (Silvestri Spent Craters) surrounding the visitors'
center and have even more magnificent views, but you do need to wear the warmest of w
inter clothes. Heavy jackets are recommended. I don't think we have ever been so cold in our life. But it is interesting to note
that you can ski here in the winter and this Mediterranean destination at 6,400 feet above sea level is extremely popular for European tourists.
Sicily is well known in the U.S. as
being the home of many mafia bosses, however, that part of "history" was never discussed by any of our guides.
Sicily has a strong regional identity,
primarily due to its influence from other locations in the Mediterranean. That sense of "separate" explains why Sicilians have their own dialect and speak it in addition
to Italian. The locals also have a darker complexion than the mainland Italians, evidence of the Arab ancestry among the island's population.