I get an early morning flight from Naples to Palermo and arrive around nine, then take the bus into town, which takes about 60 minutes and costs around six Euros (at the time of writing this).
I get off the bus at Via Roma and first walk to cafe Bisso Bistrot at the famous Baroque square, Quattro Canti, where I’m meeting one of the friends I’m staying with while I’m in Palermo. I get an espresso while I wait. When visiting any place in Italy, an espresso with whatever assortment of Sfogliatella, cornetto, zeppole, or other types of sweet pastries is a must to get into the right mindset. The square of Quattro Canti is magnificent, with four picturesque buildings making up the four corners of the square.
You can’t go to Palermo without visiting the harbour. A walk along the seafront presents fabulous views with a backdrop of rocks and mountains in almost every direction.
Not surprisingly, there are several options for eating good seafood. Even though seafront restaurants are usually inevitably tourist traps to some extent, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good meal, for instance, at Trattoria del Pesce Fresco where my order of Seafood Linguine is mouthwateringly delicious.
Ballaro is a traditionally working-class and slightly derelict neighbourhood with cobblestone streets and a famous food market. It’s worth sitting down for a meal or snack and soaking up the lively atmosphere. A typical snack might be aubergines in olive oil and some squids and bread, which is tasty but so oily you can’t overeat – maybe that’s the point.
A cool hang-out in Ballaro is the cafe Moltivolti, with a strong sense of community and lots of activities. I set up camp here almost every day while I’m here to write.
Another interesting and unusual place to visit is further west in Palermo’s Zisa area: The catacombs. As of this writing, it costs four euros to get in, and photography is not allowed. Walking down the stairs into what amounts to a mass grave, it’s an eerie place to walk around. Surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands of skeletons of adults and children, some dressed, some not, Some standing, some lying down, it feels surreal and overwhelming and once back outside, it feels extra good to be alive.
There is a lot of beautiful architecture to marvel at. Near Quattro Canti, there’s Fontana Pretoria, also known as the Fountain of Shame, with its naked men and women statues. Behind the fountain is the beautiful baroque church San Giuseppe dei Teatini with its colourful dome.
Palermo is a rugged town that looks like it’s taken a beating or two, but that’s part of its charm.
After a few days, I take a train from Palermo to Taormina (via Catania, four and a half hours). When arriving at Taormina station, I take note that though the town of Taormina might look close to the station on a map, it’s too far to walk as it’s up on the top of a mountain and you can’t go straight up from the station. Getting a cab from the station to the town centre and hotel of choice is essential.
Taormina is on the southern coast of Sicily and is very different from Palermo on the northern coast. Smaller with 11,000 inhabitants, a number that significantly increases during tourist season, as Taormina is a popular vacation destination. There’s an abundance of hotels to choose from, many with sea views and the distant south-western backdrop of Mount Etna.
This is not tourist season, though. There are glimpses of this being a place where the well-to-do come to play; there are many shops with designer clothes, and a look at the restaurant prices reveal it’s more expensive here than in Palermo. It might be choc-a-bloc with people between May and September, but there aren’t many people in early March, and half the restaurants are still closed. Though Taormina comes alive in the summer months, there’s a certain quiet charm to the place out of season. It’s no problem finding a seat in a restaurant; it’s a bigger problem finding a good restaurant that’s open. Though the daytime weather is mild, it gets nippy in the evening, and on the first day, I buy an overpriced sweater in one of the designer shops. I don’t even want it, but I do need it.
Taormina is made for designer shopping, fancy dining and swimming in the beautiful green and blue waters below. As these options are limited outside of the season, other options take precedence; like visiting the Greek Theatre of Taormina, which has beautiful views of Mount Etna in one direction, and the Sicilian coastline and the Italian mainland in the other direction.
Another thing for film fans like myself is to visit the locations, the two small mountain villages Savoca and Forza d’agro, where some of the Sicilian scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films were shot. Group tours are available, but I book a cab (through the hotel), which makes it more manageable.
After an early morning coffee and pastry, it’s time to explore.
The drive to Savoca is along and above the seafront, and the views are breathtaking. From Savoca, via Santa Teresa, the drive up the windy mountain to Savoca is stunningly worth it.
One of the first things you see when you arrive in the village is the famous Bar Vitelli, in which Michael Corleone sits with his two guards and meets the father of his future bride to be. I save the bar ’till the end of my walk around the village, through narrow cobblestone roads, past old houses with religious ornaments carved into them and superb views continuously.
When looking down at pastures with sheep bleating, it’s tempting to try and guess where the three actors stood, looking up toward the village when they filmed the famous scene in The Godfather II when Calo tells Michael, ‘Look, Corleone’. Savoca famously was used as the town of Corleone as the actual town of Corleone (in the northwestern part of Sicily) was already too big and modern to look ‘authentic’ at the time of filming in the early seventies.
In high season, the village might be more filled with tourists, but it is nearly empty in early March, and I get the feeling of having the place to myself (almost). One of the famous locations in the film is the San Niccolo church, and I look out over the beautiful scenery while the church’s bells ring out. Once back where I started, I order a Negroni and raspberry pastry at Bar Vitelli before reconvening with my driver for the afternoon.
The drive to the second village, Forza d’agro, goes back towards Taormina before turning right and up to the top of another mountain. In Forza d’agro, it’s easy to get lost in the old town in the quiet, narrow streets. Two churches in the village were used for locations in The Godfather; the one for Michael Corleone’s wedding and the one that serves as a backdrop for when the young Vito Corleone is smuggled out of town to get away from evil mobsters and flee to America.
Back in Taormina, I take a cable car down the mountain to the beach (three euros each way as of early 2020), where the clear, sometimes green, sometimes blue water views are truly spectacular.
I considered getting a Granite al Limone from the stall situated where the cable car stopped. But the lady running the place was so grumpy I decided against it.
The beach is a blend of pebbles and a little sand. Walking westwards along the road for ten minutes or so, I get to another even more beautiful beach, where you can walk over a slight stretch of sand between the mainland and out to Isola Bella. The water goes back and forth from both sides, but if you time it right and walk fast, you can get over without getting wet feet. The handful of people I see cross take their shoes off, but it is possible to time your walk between the small waves coming in from each side without taking your shoes off. I make it over with dry feet, sit down, and watch the scenery for about thirty minutes. When it’s time to go back to the mainland, I stand for a while, waiting for my chance to cross back with dry feet. An Italian woman emerges behind me and says ‘Coragio’, and then she runs across. I run after her and this time my feet get wet. I sit down on the pebble beach and let my feet/shoes dry while watching the beautiful water and sky.
Ristorante Da Giovanni, which is on the main road, Via Nazionale, at the top of the stairs coming from the beach, has fabulous views of Isola Bella. I enjoy a tasty ravioli meal with the local fish, Grouper, with almonds and broccoli cream.
I have my final supper back in town before returning to my friends in Palermo tomorrow – I order a seafood risotto, and I don’t order a Tiramisu, but I get one anyway. Like in Napoli a few days ago, I’ve yet again fallen prey to some weird Italian scam, where a meal I didn’t order was forced upon me, and now I have to pay for it. I leave the Tiramisu uneaten, and I don’t add a tip to my overpriced bill. All I can do is promise myself never to return to that restaurant, which insultingly enough is called Tiramisu. Other than that, I have a nice evening walk through the quiet town. In the evening, I marvel at my marvellous view of Mount Etna and the coastline at the hotel making its way towards Catania while I listen to reports on the tv about the increasing cases of this new phenomenon everyone’s talking about: Coronavirus.
Taormina gets busy in the warmer months, from spring to autumn, as with any popular tourist destination. And there’s no doubt that visitors will find the most action and more options in the high season. But visiting out of season has a quiet charm of exclusivity that you won’t find when the streets are full of people all fighting to get a reservation at the restaurant of their choice – I think I enjoyed my trip more for being here at ‘the wrong time’.