For Christmas I am staying at the beach resort of Giardini Naxos, a 3km long bay which lies below the popular tourist trap of Taormina. There are several sostas here and they are full of wintering northern Europeans and Italians who just want a few festive days in the sun.
After the usual Christmas day excesses, I decide that it would be a good idea to take an equally traditional Boxing Day walk and set off to Taormina. The original plan involved getting a bus up to the clifftop town and walking back down, but after waiting beside the busy main road for some time I wonder if any will be operating and so I opt to walk to the train station of Giardini-Taormina at the other end of the bay where there may be more chance of a bus and where I know there is a footpath up to the town.
The bus plan still looks unhopeful so I top up my water bottle and set off on the path. Some locals sitting on their balconies, soaking up the sun, just shrug when I try to confirm that I am on the right route and I soon realise why when I meet two Germans on their way down. They explain that part of the path has disappeared in a landslide but, after checking out my boots, declare that I’ll be okay. That part of the path does indeed turn out to be a bit hairy and I have to cling to rocks and carefully place my feet to avoid sliding down the steep slope. The locals watch on with amusement, clearly enjoying the entertainment provided by the stupid, masochistic tourists.
When I finally reach the top, I’m rewarded with an amazing view from a quiet terrace. Then I set off into the narrow streets to explore the town. The main drag is very busy with locals who have arrived to enjoy the good weather and sip sparkling wine in the ‘Wunderbar’, a popular haunt of celebs over the years. In the square adjacent to the Duomo is a large pile of ash, the remains of a bonfire from Christmas Eve.
It’s €10 to see the picture postcard Greek Theatre with Mount Etna as its backdrop but I decide that I would rather spend that on lunch. It’s just enough for a pizza and a glass of wine in a small restaurant overlooking the Roman Odium. I’m joined by a lovely German lady called Ruth who is also travelling on her own in the area and happened to arrive at the same time.
After lunch I try for another bus, this time to the even higher village of Castelmola, but the 14.40 never appears. So, at 3pm, I follow another zig-zag footpath up to the Saracen castle and the chapel of Madonna della Rocca. From there I have great views back down to Taormina and along the coast to Giardini Naxos where I started my trek.
I still need to get to Castelmola and it’s either 2 kms up an officially closed route, 5 kms along the busy road or hitch a lift. I flag down a couple of elderly Italian men in a beat-up Fiat panda and they happily squeeze me into the back and drive me up to the village. I reward them both with a peck on the cheek and then climb up the last steps of the day to my ultimate destination. They’ve laid out the red carpet for me and the views of the coast and the steaming, snow-capped Mount Etna are breathtaking.
In celebration of my achievement, I seek out Bar Turrisi, a local spot which is known for its unusual decoration. For me it will always be thought of as the “Penis Bar”, as it has a large number of phallic statues and even a penis-shaped tap over the bathroom sink. It’s almost enough to put you off your beer.
Having completed my mission and with the sun setting, I still have to get back down to Giardini Naxos. A taxi would cost me an eye-watering €35 and a bus may, or may not, arrive at 5pm. I decide to stand at the bus stop, next to the car park exit and look sad and tired. My ploy works for, as the first car pulls out, I gesture to the young couple to ask if they are going down and they stop. Local Francesco and Aussie Bonnie are on their way down to Taormina but they welcome me into their car and take me all the way back to Giardini Naxos. The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me.