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Taormina, Part II (Sicily)

On our second day in Taormina, we went to climb Mt Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world!…

Mt Etna was another one of those sights that I didn’t really care for until I got there. It’s difficult to marvel at nature when you’ve only seen it through the computer or TV screen! We learned from our tour guide from the day before, Marcello, that the Taormimians are actually waiting for Mt Eta to erupt and hoping that it’ll do so soon in order to boost the tourism economy of Taormina. The lava that flows from Etna tends to be very slow-moving, so tourists are actually able to get within a couple feet of the flow to observe it live. I also just learned from Wikipedia that footage of Etna’s 2003 eruption and flow was recorded and used in Revenge of the Sith! Cool 4-minute video of Etna eruption.

We decided to climb some of the craters around Mt Etna despite our poor choice of footwear of TOMS and Rainbow flip-flops. Our driver/tour guide of the day, Antonio, told us a story of an elderly English couple who he had taken to Etna and who climbed the craters, took a fall and tumbled down, and came back to the car badly bruised and battered and bloody… We took the longer but less steep route up.

I took a quick nap to avoid carsickness as we left Etna and drove over to a winery, Vini Gambino. They served us with delicious food: a multitude of cheeses, cured meats, olives, roasted red peppers, eggplant, and of course, bread and wine. I didn’t have any of the wine, but the Lion gave high accolades to their wines. The grapes that are grown here are unique because of the volcanic soil and the particular climate, where temperatures drop down to the mid-50s in the evening which allows for “aromatic ripening” of the grapes and wine.

During our walk through the Public Gardens (Giardino Pubblico), Marcello told us that the etymology of “carat,” the unit for measuring gemstones, came from a Greek word meaning ‘carob seed.’ Marcello said that the reason for this was because every carob seed has exactly the same weight and was therefore a reliable unit of measurement. Wikipedia claims that there isn’t a definitive answer on whether there is high or low variability of carob seed weights, and the skeptical scientific researcher in me also believes this is more likely (zero variability is highly improbable). Regardless, I hadn’t known or considered the etymology of “carat” before, so this was a new and interesting fact!

I had noticed that a lot of the souvenir shops sold these ceramic pine cone-looking items. Additionally, a lot of apartment buildings and balconies had these displayed outside on their patio or their gates. I asked Marcello about this, and he told us that for the Sicilians, the pine cone represents family/hospitality, fertility/abundance/wealth, and immortality (basically, all the good stuffs). The Lion and I were really interested in getting one to keep in our home, but we put it off because we didn’t want to carry it around with us and ended up never getting one šŸ˜¦

I also thought that Marcello had told us that the artichoke represents the mafia, but I have been unable to find that link elsewhere on the internet (or maybe I misunderstood Marcello). But I did find that there was indeed a mafia member, Ciro Terranova, who was nicknamed the “Artichoke King” because he purchased all the artichokes going from California to New York, started a produce company, and re-sold them making a 30-40% profit. Apparently, he terrorized distributors and merchants and attacked artichoke fields with machetes (why would he want to terrorize his own money-making field?). Naturally, the government stepped in, and the Mayor of NY declared an “artichoke war,” making artichokes illegal in New York…for a week. The mayor was too big a fan of those tasty arties and lifted the ban. Thank goodness rules are so flexible and can come and go!

Our last day in Taormina before heading over to Cefalu’ was spent lounging around the pool, playing video games, walking the main streets

Taormina, Part I (Sicily)

This was, by far, my most favorite part of the trip and the city I’d visit again.

Our arrival was a little rocky initially because our shuttle driver took us to the wrong hotel at first. When we arrived at the hotel where we DID have a reservation, we discovered it to be a gorgeous hotel, The San Domenico Palace, a 15th (16th?) century monastery-turned-luxury-hotel. And my, was it luxurious. You can see from the pictures itself– there were garden courtyardsĀ  at every turn (picked some delish kumquats in some of them…), old stone steps, luxurious rugs, statues and antique wood furniture, and seemingly endless hallways lined with doors where monks would retire for solitude or sleep. The pool was gorgeous, as was the outdoor garden, the sea view from our room was amazing to wake up to every morning, the bathroom was uniquely decorated, the breakfast buffet was delish, and service was impeccable. SDP certainly lives up to its 5-star rating, except for the fact that it had poor air conditioning and limited WiFi, two really basic and expected American commodities, but I guess “you win some, you lose some,” right? And despite those two things, this was my favorite hotel by far.

The SDP was a personal mansion owned by a Dominican friar named Damiano Rosso, a descendant of the Altavilla family and prince of Cerami. When he became a friar, he donated all his possessions to the Dominican order and the mansion was converted into a Dominican monastery. A few centuries later, the monastery was apparently returned to Rosso’s heirs, who converted it into a hotel. The chapel part of the monastery-hotel was destroyed in WWII bombings, but the rest of the hotel, including the 50+ cells (hotel rooms) were not. The hotel is high atop a cliff and has a view of Mt Etna (next post).

Our first day in Taormina, we spent with a tour guide named Marcello, who was fantastic at his job. We learned a lot about Taormina from him, and he didn’t mind our incessant questions (I think what was supposed to be a two-hour tour turned into a 2.5-3h tour!).

One of our first stops was the town square, of course, where we saw the “minotaur” statue atop the fountain. The minotaur is Taormina’s coat-of-arms, but the reason why it’s “minotaur” with quotation marks is because the statue is half horse (/bull), half woman, which has never been shown before in any records of Greek mythology. It is unknown why a female minotaur is depicted here, but what makes this statue and even more unique is that she only has two hind legs, despite her body position of standing on four. Taormina was hit with bombs during WWII and miraculously, the female minotaur atop the fountain survived but lost her two front legs. Her two front legs were left unfixed and missing in memorial of Taorminian lives lost during that bombing.

We then walked over to see the ruins of the Greek theater in Taormina. I never thought much about these theater/amphitheater ruins when I’d seen them on TV or read about them in history books, but in person, they are quite an impressive sight. The one in Taormina is the second-largest one in Sicily and was originally built by the Greeks (and rebuilt by the Romans when they came), but Marcello was careful to note that this was a theater and not an amphitheater–the Greeks mainly used the semi-circular theater style for operas and plays, building specialty arches behind the audience for improved acoustics. The Romans used amphitheaters for chariot races, gladiator fights, animal fights, and executions, and the Roman amphitheaters are more circular/oval. The theater was well thought out; it has side hallways for actors to enter and rooms for them to get ready in, and it also has an orchestra chamber allowing musicians to contribute emotion to the plays. When the Romans came, they converted this theater meant for plays and operas into a fighting ring, bringing in exotic animals to fight brave (but stupid) people. Marcello explained that they know this because the Romans had dug out a chamber and a drainage trench (underneath and behind the stage, respectively) for disposing for animal carcass/blood/guts, and archaeologists have found animal bones in those areas.

While walking the streets, I noticed this three-legged, body-less head symbol everywhere. Marcello explained that the trinacria is the symbol of Sicily. Sicily has a lot of Greek and Roman influences because it was under their rule for a long period of time. Sicily has a very complicated history, and what makes it interesting, I think, is that Sicily has been taken over and ruled by numerous countries, and it wasn’t a part of Italy until the early 1860s. In short, the Sicani were the first settlers in Sicily, then the Greek settled north and southeast regions, from Messina to Syracusa, and the Carthaginians (Phoenicians) settled the west, and then the Romans came and conquered and killed (as they are known to do), then Muslims came and took control awhile, then Normans (crusaders of the pope), Bourbons (Spanish), then French (?), then somewhere along the lines, Sicily became part of the Neapolitan, then part of Italy after WWII/Italy Unification.

So, back to its flag: the head in the middle was originally the Greek goddess of wheat (what Sicily is known for), Demeter (Roman: Ceres). Now, the head has snakes surrounding it, more akin to Medusa. It’s unclear why a Medusa is on the flag, but perhaps her appearance and history of turning enemies into stone was used as an intimidation tactic, seeing as how war-prone Sicily is. The three legs represent the triangular shape of Sicily and the three extreme points of the island capes: Cape Pelorus, Cape Passero, and Lilybaeum head (Messina, Siracusa, and Marsala, respectively), the wheat sprouting from Medusa’s head retains some of Demeter’s symbol of the fertility of the land, and the red-yellow color block represents Palermo and Corleone, the two cities who founded the confederation to overthrow the Sicilian Vespers (more here).

This may be a future post on its own, but one of the reasons why I really like Sicily is because of their mindset and identification as independent of Italy. I knew ahead of time that Sicilians to tend to consider themselves to be Sicilians, not Italians, and the general response of Sicilians when we asked them about this confirmed it. Sicilians all have a island identity, where they first identify themselves as Sicilians, and then Italians (“I am Sicilian in my heart!”). For a reason I am unable to put in words at the moment, I am attracted to that sort of independence (“rebellion”?), and perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to Texas as well! Indeed, being in Sicily is a really different feeling, atmosphere, attitude than being in the boot of Italy.

My next post (Taormina Part II) will recount our hike on Mt Etna, a winery we visited, the importance of pine cones in Sicily and artichokes in the Mafia, the Sicilian Mafia, and why we measure gold in carats!