Friday 11 October 2019

Since we were in Taormina, we had to take a two-hour drive side trip to belching Mt Etna – even if the satnav didn’t want us to by feeding us into tiny, ancient towns with horse-width roads. Steve, who had taken on the difficult task of driver, often found himself backing up to get around a hairpin or to let a mini-car squeeze past in a muddy country laneway.

As we travelled upwards around endless, ridiculous bends, suddenly there was no foliage, only sinister black mountains on all sides. In the distance a dark, moving cloud indicated where lava was still spewing from the Mt Etna crater. Further down, where it had cooled and solidified, it had formed a black frozen sea as one wave sat in grotesque blobs on top of another. Eventually this would become rich volcanic soil and produce an abundance of greenery, but for now it was a devilish wasteland reaching up to the horizon.

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At the top of the roadway were the expected collection of tourist enterprises. Many were selling jewellery made from lava – which you could say is in plentiful supply – like billions of tonnes of the stuff. If we wanted to go up to the summit and paddle in the flowing lava, we would have had to hike for four hours. After a discussion that lasted about two seconds, we decided to give that a miss and began the heart-in-mouth decent. 

Although our hotel is placed high on the hillside, there are buildings much further up. One, called Castelmola, seems to have its head against the sky. How could people build there, live there and take the necessities of life up there? The solution is, by road, a long rising series of knots that delivered us by taxi into a charming little town straight out of a children’s fairy tale. But it has a side to it that is anything but childlike. Anybody who finds discomfort in reading about male reproductive anatomy should stop here – even though I am only reporting visual facts.

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                     Castelmola, a deceptively innocent little hilltop town.

Led by the Turrisi bar and restaurant, the sweet little place is obsessed by penises. They lie, stand, sit, poke out from and are worked into every Turrisi piece of furniture, menu and plumbing. Penises were so frequent that we very quickly didn’t notice them anymore. The shops in the town also carry the penis theme, selling pottery and novelties of phallic dedication. During the visit we became so immune to penis memorabilia that we might have unthinkingly bought some as gifts or souvenirs. But upon our return to the real, penis-restricted world, we would have been grossly misunderstood. So we bought not. 

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Speaking of buying, what is the most stupid item you could buy on an overseas holiday where weight, space and packing is at a premium? Yes, a plate. Italy is one huge seduction by pottery. We looked into a shop window in Taormina, a little softened by the local wine, it must be said, saw the plate and fell in love. No, we said, not the plate! The way around it was to go into the shop and find it was too dear. Which we did. No, it wasn’t too dear. Damn! We offered the vendor a lower price hoping he’d tell us to bugger off. He didn’t. Now we’re handicapped with a plate – which we may yet bring home in pieces. 

Sicily didn’t want us to leave. The satnav gave a last few vicious kicks with some deceptive roundabout directions and Catania Airport went haywire. It filled up with travellers who rushed from one boarding gate to another as lightening changes were made, Italian style, but no aircraft were leaving. The place was becoming dangerously overcrowded when the news broke that Mr Etna had erupted and sent up an ash cloud that threatened flying. Our flight was delayed, in fits and starts, for four hours until suddenly a gate opened and Moses led his people out of slavery. The captain smugly told us that we were the last flight to leave that night. Then he took off, gunned the engines and got to Malta in under 30 minutes.