Today we went for a Sunday drive. We drove around Mount Etna.
At 3329 m, Mount Etna is Italy’s highest mountain south of the Alps and the largest active volcano in Europe. It is in a constant state of activity. The first recorded eruption was in about 1500 BC, with the most devastating event in 1669 when 12000 people were killed. More recently, spectacular eruptions and ash clouds in 2002 and 2007 have caused mountain infrastructure damage and airport closures.
We have yet to see the top of Etna. Despite driving around the entire mountain base, and an excellent view from our hotel parking lot, the top has remained mysterious, shrouded in a veil of cloud and smoke. We travelled today through a number of small towns, ranging from rough, work-a-day Paterno to Randazzo, with its medieval town centre. We passed huge groves of orange trees, fichi d’India (prickly pears) and pistachios (and piles of trash).
At times, the landscape was rugged, with piles of lava rock and stunted trees.
As we drove through the towns, we noted Sunday morning gatherings of Italian men on the streets. Where were all the women? At church? At home cooking? Many towns were also preparing for Carnevale celebrations, with children in costume.
In Randazzo, we enjoyed wandering the near deserted streets of the medieval town centre. Then we drove up the hill and picked up some strawberries from a market truck to enjoy with the pastries and bananas we had in our snack pack. We could have also purchased most any kind of bird. How interesting! We headed back toward the coast, passing through lush, tropical terrain, dotted with ancient ruins, piles of lava rock and terraced vineyards.
We travelled a bit north on the coastal ‘highway’ to the area of Taormina. This is Sicily’s most popular summer resort and the abundance of grandiose hotels attests to the number of high-rollers and celebs who are said to frequent the area.
Our destination was the Teatro Greco, the most dramatically situated Greek theatre in the world. This amphitheater was built in the third century BC and has been improved to allow for its summer use in international arts and film festivals. The views of Mount Etna and the coast are spectacular and the intact condition of parts of ruins are amazing. As we left the Teatro, the community’s Carnevale celebrations were in full swing. The celebrations will continue until Tuesday, after which lent will commence. From Taormina, we travelled the very scenic coastal road back to out hotel, encountering the parking madness near Acireale as we passed.
After a bit of a rest at the hotel, we were surprised to find once again an evening rain storm. Waiting until the fashionable hour of 8 pm, we drove to a nearby restaurant, La Polena, recommended by the hotel. We were of course the first patrons of the evening – others arrived slowly over the next hour!
The restaurant staff had very limited English but through hand gestures, their English, our tiny bit of Italian – and pictures of food on the waitress’ iPhone, we managed quite well.
We ordered our sparking water and red wine – never a problem there. Then they brought us a plate of deep-fried prawns and fish balls – very tasty (sorry, in my excitement, forgot a picture). Then a plate with 4 critters in shells – no idea what they were, and probably just as well as I don’t think we would order them again. Somewhat tasteless but sort of crunchy and chewy in an odd way. But this was followed by another plate of delicacies – scampi, shrimp in various ways, tuna, smoked salmon, thinly sliced fish of unknown origin, and oddly a mixture of what seemed to be mashed peas. It was all quite delicious! Not having ordered any of this, we had no idea what our bill would look like.
For our primo piatto, I ordered Spaghetti Vongola and Harvey had Risotto Imperial. My dish excellent and the risotto was filled seafood and the flavor I recognize from crab imperial. We declined the secondi as we were both quite satisfied at this point.
We were pleasantly surprised when we asked for the bill. €35. Apparently the cover charge of €1,50 each must have included the bottled water, the bread and all of the delicious appetizers!!
Feeling very pleased with our dinner, we made our way back to the hotel. It was a delightful day! Hopefully, before we leave tomorrow, Mount Etna will show her summit.