Friday, 8 July 2016

Taormina

We slip quietly out of the port of Lipari just after dawn, our bow slicing through the flat, mirrored surface of the lazy morning sea.  The Aeolian Islands slowly merge in our wake, then fade and disappear into the haze.  We are heading for the Straits of Messina, a strip of water just a mile wide that separates Sicily from the Italian mainland, where the currents run fast between the Tyrrhenian Sea in the North and the Ionian to the South. We plan to catch the last of the south-setting current to push us down the East coast of Sicily to the famous hilltop town of Taormina.

In Sicily, summer has arrived. It is early afternoon and the air-conditioning is on full blast in our little rental car, as we take the Autostrade north, thumping along the hot asphalt, occasionally plunging into dark tunnels and emerging again, blinking away the dazzling sun.  We take the exit and snake our way up the hillside, the limestone walls of Taormina balanced on the cliffs high above us, the sparkling pale blue of the Mediterranean far below.


We are here at the hottest time of the day because England are playing Wales and Jamie and Lucie race off down the cobbled streets, looking for a bar that is showing the match on TV. We leave them down a side street, sitting in the shade with cold beers, engrossed in the game, while Caroline and I walk the labyrinthine streets of Taormina, culminating in the Greek amphitheatre with its perfect views over the valley to Mount Etna. In the main square, chairs are set in a circle, and on the dance floor elderly men with a predatory eye survey the seated ladies, also of a certain age, and invite their willing prey to dance. It is a deadly serious endeavour; cheek to perspiring cheek, backs ramrod straight, elbows out in the ballroom dancers pose, they glide around the square – a marvellous glimpse of a bygone era. As darkness falls and the shadows lengthen across the square, we walk down a flight of steep steps to Maffeis for dinner, sitting in the garden under a bourgenvilla pergola, with traditional Sicilian pasta, rich with capers, olives and tomatoes, accompanied by punchy local wines.




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