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Report 1843: Chilling in the Aeolian Islands

By aprillilacs from New Jersey, Spring 2010

Trip Description: Two weeks on Panarea and Malfa in the Aeolian Islands.

Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Sicily

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Vacation Rentals; Sightseeing; Walking/Hiking; Independent Travel; 2 People

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Page 1 of 5: Preliminaries -- Catania and Taormina

photo by Anita OBrien

Taormina open-air gallery

A five-day visit to Lipari in May 2009, with day trips to several of the other Aeolian Islands, made us (my husband and me) long to return for an extended stay in the Aeolis this year. We decided on a week in Panarea and a week in Salina as the first part of a seven-week trip to Europe that would include England and France as well, and made our arrangements over the course of the winter, settling on what looked like a gorgeous little place overlooking the sea in Panarea, and another sea-view rental in Malfa, on Salina. We were not disappointed! You can see a link to my photos to the right.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010 – Newark, New Jersey

We checked in to our flight to Catania via Brussels (Continental) online the night before our scheduled departure, though things were dicey because of the volcanic dust swirling around Europe. When I checked the flight status the morning of the 11th it said the plane (from Zurich) was going to be at least 2.30 hours late on takeoff, which would make us miss our connection in Brussels to Air Brussels for their one flight of the day to Catania. I got on the phone with Continental, after checking the other options for getting to Catania, and was able to get the final two tickets on the Newark-Rome flight leaving at 5:25 pm, connecting to Alitalia at 10 am the next day. No extra charge by Continental because of the volcano situation, so everything was looking good to go. Only glitch was that we had no seat assignments — we were supposed to get them at the airport. Hmmm.

We took the train to the airport, checked our bags, and went right to the gate to try to get seats. Turned out the flight was overbooked and there were no volunteers willing to give up their seats. We, and 10 other people, would be offered $500 vouchers, a free night in a hotel, dinner, and breakfast and would need to take the next afternoon’s flight instead. The offer was good, but who wants to start a vacation that way? We hung around until everybody boarded the plane, became friendly with several of the other unlucky ones, and hoped for the best. Voila! Two seats opened up, but we were #3 and #4 on the waiting list. But the nice young couple with whom we had been chatting (#1 and #2) decided to cancel their trip (they were going on a short break only), decline the seats and take the offer instead, leaving the seats for us. So there we were, the last ones on the plane, and even got two seats together! Our lucky day.

Wednesday, May 12, Catania, Sicily

After an eight-hour flight we landed in Rome and transferred to the Alitalia flight to Catania. We flew over the Aeolian Islands and right past Mt. Etna, still majestically snowy. We hopped in an expensive taxi to our hotel in Catania (€35), Hotel Rubens, a small place on the third floor of a building on a major street, Via Etnea, right in the middle of the action. They didn’t have our reservation (was our luck turning?) but gave us a room anyway, at the “Internet special” price of €58. It was clean and convenient to the major sights, and the continental breakfast was good. Our window opened to street noise and a dark alley, but we were only staying one night so it would do.

We immediately headed out to explore the city, which turned out to be lively and interesting. Lots of impressive public buildings, people, shopping and enjoying the passegiata along the pedestrian-friendly shopping streets, some not-so-well kept archaeological sites, and nice cafes. We bought tasty arancini from a tiny shop for lunch (ragu and spinach béchamel), and ended up in an outdoor café for white wine and a great view of the strolling Sicilians.

For dinner we found Trattoria Pomodoro Rosso, a sweet little place frequented by locals, including one person who was treated like royalty — why(????) — and another group of men who were glued to the TV news report on the arrest of a Sicilian higher-up due to Mafia ties (or so it sounded to our non-Italian ears). The waiters were really nice, and we had fun watching the first half of a UEFA Cup game while we ate our delicious Caprese salad, spaghetti Norma, and penne arrabiata. Some of the best pasta we’d had in our five previous trips to Italy!

Thursday, May 13, Taormina

After breakfast we strolled down to the Catania fish and produce market, which is not to be missed. A great scene of fish sellers, fantastic fish, and shoppers. Lots of fish being sold! Great photo ops, too. Then we headed back to pick up our bags and took the bus to the central bus station, eventually finding the area for long-distance buses, which isn’t obvious at first. We waited a while and the bus finally came at 11:15. It cost €4.60 each for the ride up the coast to Taormina.

Our hotel in Taormina, Hotel Condor ($122/night) was just a bit out of the center and uphill from the bus station, so we took a taxi (€10), which was a good idea. The hotel was cute, with everything one could want in a hotel, especially our room, with a little balcony overlooking the sea and across to the mainland of Italy. We didn’t let the distant crane and the parking lot below us spoil the view. The hotel was full of friendly staff, and our room rate included an hour’s free Internet.

Taormina is a beautifully situated tourist town — emphasis on tourist — and fun to walk around in. Gorgeous views of Etna and the coast, and full of flowers. And shops. We bought sandwiches at a market and strolled down to the public gardens, a well-taken-care-of oasis overlooking the sea. After wandering some more we decided it would be best to take some time back at the hotel while the day was at its hottest, so we headed back for some relaxation on our balcony. Very nice.

Things I liked about Taormina:

  • flowers and little alleys everywhere
  • public garden – beautiful views of Mt. Etna and the sea, green and flowery, quiet in a tourist beehive
  • Hotel Condor — nicely located off the beaten track; friendly staff; good views (though not the best) of Calabria across the straits; the roundabout; and the church(?) tower
  • Il Baccanale tavern — good food (pappardelle with pistachios and shrimp; risotto with shrimp and rucola), good white wine (Alcamo); nice ambiance,on a street below the action, with lots of locals (old ladies, kids with soccer balls, families, really nice) along with a few other tourists
  • Bam Bar — best granita in Taormina, if not Sicily (freshly made by the owners with fresh fruit in season). We had a combo of kiwi and lemon. Mmm good. The owners are so proud of their product.
  • After dark — the hordes of tourists are mostly out of sight, and the ambiance is wonderful, especially below the main drag.

Things I didn’t like: tourist hordes.

Friday, May 14, Taormina

What a great day. The sunrise woke us up. We started with a nice light breakfast (with excellent cappuccino) on the covered terrace of the Condor, then were off to the Greek Theater, which opened at nine — we wanted to get there before the tourist throngs overwhelmed the place (€6 each). Workers were putting up the stage for the summer performances beneath the columns; we are always too early for summer performances, it seems. That’s OK though; I like the trade-off of fewer tourists out of season. The views from the Greek Theater of the Sicilian coast below Mt. Etna were stunning. Last time we were there, it was raining and Etna was behind the clouds, so it was great to see it lording over the coast this time.

Then we walked over to the funicular (or funivia, as they call it in Taormina) and took it down to the beach below town (€7 round-trip, each). It was a quick ride down the steep hill, and from there we walked up the road just a little ways to the entrance to the nature preserve that includes Isola Bella, a lovely island on the end of a small cove with a pebble strand. I finally got a long-held wish fulfilled — we rented a couple of lounge chairs underneath an umbrella and settled in to read, get a little sunshine, paint a watercolor, and enjoy the scenery. We were there early — about 10am — so we were some of the first people on the beach.

Over the course of the next six hours we were joined by quite a few others, a real international crowd, doing what people seem to do at the beach in Italy (lounging). It was great! A young couple from Belfast, just married and on their honeymoon, occupied the lounge chairs next to ours. She was a former world champion Irish dancer (hasn’t danced competitively in four years — she just got tired of it) who, get this, brought 22 pairs of shoes with her on this trip! Her husband just rolled his eyes. I think they had a lot of luggage. She was quite a talker! On the other side of us was a middle-aged couple from Melbourne, Australia, who had been traveling for several weeks and spent the entire time they were there on the phone with their children and friends in Australia. I think they were ready to go home.

One downside of the beach at Taormina was the small army of Chinese massage girls who patrolled the beach. They wouldn’t take no for an answer — many, many no’s. Eventually we persuaded them that we did NOT want a foot massage, a back massage, any massage. After a while we took a little walk to the island but didn’t want to cross the watery divide because it was full of jellyfish. Others weren’t so reluctant, and nobody seemed to complain of being stung. Instead of forging across the water we decided to head back to the bar for a snack of bruschetta and arancini, and a birra nazionale. Refreshing!

After we had had enough sunning/shading and relaxation, we took the cable car back up to town and headed straight for the Bam Bar for another granita — lemon/strawberry and lemon/raspberry this time. Oh, and a glass of sparkling prosecco each. Very lovely, very decadent — we would enjoy many outdoor cafes over the next seven weeks, and this was one of the nicest.

We strolled over to the soccer stadium to watch a bit of an international tournament of U-14 boys, then eventually went on to dinner at Taormina Vecchio, where we had excellent lasagna al forno and pizza margherita di buffalo. Too much! But tasty.

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