Excerpt from the book Julian’s Journeys.
If you would like to know what nuns in Italy recommend to eat and how quickly you can get drunk on slivovitz in Bulgaria, this is the book for you.
The nun was at a bus station in Catania in Sicily and was incredibly knowledgeable about the local delicacy, mortadella. I was waiting for a bus to the beautiful town of Taormina with views over Mount Etna, the active volcano.
In Bulgaria, I became slowly drunk when a local villager offered me the opportunity to sample his homemade slivovitz in his garden – all the while we wrote down football results on a piece of paper as the sun beat down from a blue sky.
The bus headed northwards past several resort towns on Sicily’s eastern coast. The weather was warm and the sun was just beginning to come out, though the top of Mount Etna away to our left was covered in clouds and there was evidence of plenty of snow on the highest point that we could see. Just past Taormina’s railway station the road began to ascend the lower slopes of Monte Tauro, the hill that the town is situated upon. The culmination of this climb was a series of hairpin bends skillfully negotiated by the driver, his vehicle seemingly going to be too long, but always just fitting the twisty turns of the road. At the bus station, the nun turned to us, pointed outside and said “Taormina!” After a journey of an hour, we had arrived at our destination.
After leaving our luggage at our bed & breakfast, situated on the slopes of Monte Tauro with superb views over the town, the coastline towards Catania and towards Mount Etna, we headed into the centre. The main thoroughfare, Corso Umberto I, meanders through the town from the Porta Catania to the Porta Messina. Along this pedestrianised street I saw that almost all of the town houses had balconies full of potted plants, which enriched the faded facades of the buildings, and their fragrances augmented the subtle hints of sauces and almonds emanating from the cafes and restaurants; I gradually began to unwind from the journey and to understand why, when combined with its staggeringly beautiful situation, this town has become so popular with tourists. This attraction started with the English nobility ‘doing’ their Grand Tour of Europe in the late 18th Century and continues to this day, judging by the number of visitors we came across.
The most famous building in Taormina is the Greek Theatre, which was featured in the Woody Allen film Mighty Aphrodite. The theatre dates from the 2nd Century AD, when the Romans enlarged and transformed the original Greek amphitheatre to better accommodate circus games and gladiatorial contests. The coast snaked lazily northwards towards Messina, while in the foreground cable cars descended the hillside to the shore, where the waves were lapping gently onto the sandy and sheltered beaches.
On the road to the theatre ceramic hens, flowered tiles, olive oil, Marsala wine and models of traditional Sicilian carts vied for your attention. Some shops sold puppets representing various figures from Sicily’s turbulent past, some of good character such as Charlemagne, some bad such as Arabic infidels, and some of a traitorous nature, such as one Gano di Mangosa, who is always depicted with squinting eyes; the reason being that a traitor can’t look someone straight in the eye. Other stalls were also selling mouth-watering gelati and this, combined with the adverts for some of the local specialities such as Pasta con la sarde, made with freshly caught sardines, and Pasta alla Norma, made with tomatoes, aubergines and ricotta cheese, began to make us both feel hungry. I was also keen to sample the local mortadella, as it had been recommended to me by a nun; I don’t know about you, but I don’t get recommendations like that too often.