Taormina to Riposto
Mount Etna casts a sinister spell over this whole landscape. Often she is hidden under clouds, then becomes visible, a giant brooding pyramid always with a plume of smoke coming out of the top. We have spent three nights in her shadow, and on two of them we have been in violent electrical storms and it feels as though there is one on the way tonight. She is 10,000 ft high, but only 20 miles away from Taormina and 10 miles from Riposto where we are now. When the storms have passed, and the sky clears, you see the flattened crater at her summit, which is a mile wide, burning with red lava, and this morning the burning lava had spread down the sides of the mountain. She has had four serious eruptions in the last 100 years, the last one was in 2001.
Taormina is reputed to be the most popular resort in Sicily, and approaching by boat you can see why. It spreads around two sides of a ridge, 650 ft above sea level, with sheer cliffs separating it from the sea. At the top of the mountain on which the town stands there is a Saracen castle, then there are the winding medieval streets and baroque churches with which we have become familiar in Sicilian towns, but there are also beautiful 19th century villas surrounded by pines and hanging gardens.
The only way up to the town is via a winding road (I counted 27 hairpin bends) or by a funicular railway from one of the beaches at the foot of the cliff. We decided not to anchor in the first bay as it was too full of hotels, beach umbrellas and pedalos but the second bay looked fairly empty and had the added attraction of mooring buoys. As we approached the buoys two men in a RIB approached us, and one of them called out in perfect English, “Welcome to our yacht hotel. We have all the facilities of a hotel. I am based on a boat in the bay and can look after you 24 hours a day.......” This went on for a while and we looked around and could not see any other boats moored (apart from the what the man in the RIB called his ‘concierge boat’); but the combination of the stunning location under Taormina, the clean sea to swim in and Mount Etna to the south, made us decide to stay. We were also intrigued to come across a Sicilian with whom we could communicate in English for the first time in two weeks, rather than struggling with a mixture of our few words of Italian with the addition of some usually misunderstood attempts at Spanish and French.
We took the bus into Taormina, and both agreed that it must have been amazing in years gone by, but now it has been completely overwhelmed by tourists. The elegant houses and palaces in the main street have all become either designer boutiques or outlets for garish pottery, and it took dogged determination to walk to the Greek theatre, among groups of guided tours, the spiel of the guides being broadcast all around by the megaphones they were carrying. We were relieved to get back to the boat, and found the deck cushions covered with a sprinkling of grey and white ash from the volcano.
The first electric storm was on our second evening in Taormina Bay. Black clouds started drifting towards us in the late afternoon, soon there was sheet lightning and forked lightning , then the sea became turbulent and for about 30 minutes a wind of 40 knots brought down hail stones, first small squares of jagged ice, then milky round balls which covered the decks, then torrential rain. I did not feel too afraid, as we were securely tied to our mooring, next to our concierge boat, ‘Grand Siecle’, but when I went outside to take some photographs, I saw that we were about to collide with a large Italian power boat, called ‘Anything Goes III’, which had been at anchor about 200 yards from us. I called out to Ian who rushed onto the deck but said that the boat (an 85 ft Riva) had dragged her anchor and we saw the crew frantically trying to get her started and out of the way. Luckily they got her out of the way and out to sea, and the next day the skipper motored over in the tender to Anything Goes III to apologise, but said it had taken one minute to start the engine after they realised she was drifting, as she was a new boat with a very sophisticated computerised start. Ian said that if they had not pulled away he would have rushed to the front of our boat, released us from the mooring buoy and shouted to me to start the engine (which only takes seconds by turning a key) . For the rest of the night after the storm the sky behind Taormina was illuminated by lightning, then I saw the burning crater at the summit of Etna, and decided I would probably go mad with fright if I lived here permanently.
This will be my last blog for a while as we are flying back to England for a week tomorrow. We are tied up to a pontoon in Riposto Marina, which seems a safe sort of place (unless there is an earthquake, or Etna erupts).