Sparky and the Misfits, Columbia Road, East London

Sparky and the Misfits, Columbia Road, East London, February 27, 2021

It’s a sunny day in lockdown-London, and several people are out for a walk on Columbia Road in East London in search of coffee and a snack and to stretch their legs. Though the arts and crafts shops are closed, and there has been no Sunday-flower market for months, there are enough cafes to keep coffee-drinkers caffeinated. On the short stretch of road, at least five cafes compete for customers who want their lattes, cappuccinos, flat whites, and perhaps a sugar-fix in the form of a croissant or bagel to go with their caffeine-fix.

But there’s something else happening – something unexpected. There’s a band setting up on a street corner; upright piano, double bass, acoustic guitar, and… tap shoes. I’ve seen this band before over the years. They’re the most recent band I saw playing in December 2020, just before Christmas. After many years of attending a couple of concerts each month on average, 2020 was not surprisingly slim pickings; two concerts before the lockdown, one street singer on Brick Lane over the summer, and that was it. So, Sparky and the Misfits now not only have the honour of being one of a handful of bands I saw in 2020, but they are also the first and only musical act I have seen so far in 2021.

A reminder that ‘the arts’ still exist even though we’ve been deprived and starved of it for what seems like a lifetime. I’ve had conversations with friends about how I missed going to concerts, but along the way, I got so used to not going that it felt like I didn’t miss it anymore. But seeing Sparky and the Misfits playing their brief gig in front of a couple of dozen spectators and whoever might be passing by, the sound of LIVE music reminds me of the feeling I get when going to a concert, and it makes me long for a world where art and culture and performances can come back to the fore again, though I fear these kinds of events might get more expensive in the future as those industries have lost so much money during the pandemic that they’ll have to make up for it somehow. Like travelling – which I also fear will be more expensive in the future.

When I saw Sparky and the Misfits in December, they had a different bass player and a trumpet player, but otherwise, the line-up consists of the same guitarist, pianist, and tap-dancing singer. The repertoire is of old Victorian-style dancehall songs and old jazzy standards. They begin today’s set with Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, an upbeat delight that gets the tap-dancer tapping so keenly that it seems like the shimmying ‘sister Kate’ that the piano player sings about is her. 

I’m not the only person on Columbia Road today who find relief in this rare case of live music. The people around me are smiling and bobbing along to the music, and three children in yellow raincoats dance merrily along to the music. This moment signifies community and joy. It’s like coming out of our caves after hibernation or out of the dungeons after an air raid. If this sounds like hyperbole and overdramatization, it isn’t. Lockdowns and pandemics are no joking matters, and the art-starved citizens are hungry for entertainment that isn’t digitalized but alive 3-dimensional and not just streamed entertainment from a computer screen.

I go to the nearest cafe to buy a bagel to break my ten-pound note so I can give the band a fiver. This is more than I would typically give to a street band, but I’m so grateful for this moment that I think a fiver is worth it. I have to leave before they finish their set, as I have to meet a friend for a walk in the sun, But I leave feeling energized in a way I haven’t been for the longest time. It’s not just the sun shining down on me. It’s the occasion. The togetherness. The spirit. There’s a sense of hope and optimism to be found in moments like these, moments that are priceless and impossible really to convey in words.

Sparky and the Misfits setlist
Not available

Sparky and the Misfits, Columbia Road, East London

Sparky and the Misfits, Columbia Road, East London, December 19, 2020

It’s a few days before Christmas 2020 – the loneliest year of my life and now also the loneliest Christmas of my life. Not being able to travel to spend the holidays with family and New Year’s Eve with friends has hit home, and I spend my days in a haze of long walks, working overtime from home and watching fucking Netflix. It’s fair to say that this Pandemic with lockdowns coming and going, Tier-systems that contain us in the confinement of our local neighbourhoods, and social distancing that keep and tear us apart from friends and family has got the better of me. Some days it feels like my new best friends are the people working in the various cafes that have stayed open and from which I buy more takeaway coffees than I’ve ever bought in my life, partly to have an excuse to talk to people, even if they’re strangers.

Today, as I walk in search of my daily coffee fix and, hopefully, an accompanying conversation with the person selling me the coffee, I notice a band setting up their instruments in front of a pub – long since closed, of course – on a street corner on Columbia Road. An upright piano, double-bass, acoustic guitar, and trumpet. Oh yeah, and a tap-dancing singer. This is Sparky and the Misfits, a band that has played Columbia Road many times over the last few years. Their music consists of old jazz standards, Irish-style folk music, old-fashioned dancehall, and good vibes.

They launch into a version of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, sung by the bass player. Though it’s a song I would categorise as a family-friendly song suitable for this time of year, he still ends the song with an apology to nearby parents standing with their small kids: ‘Sorry I played that in front of your children.’

In between songs, singer/tap-dancer Jess does her best to promote the nearby shops telling us we can buy wine ‘over here’ and cheese ‘over there’. Times are hard for many; lonesome homeworkers, shop owners with empty shops and bands with no venues to play in. This certainly seems more like a case of ‘riding out a storm together’ than when celebrities bray on about ‘we’re all in it together’ on their precious social media accounts.

It’s cold and grey, but the dreary weather accentuates the joyful warmth of the band. Several people stop to listen to the whole 30 minutes, or so they play, many wearing masks, keeping their distance, but all joining together to enjoy the music and togetherness that comes with sharing a live musical experience. I’ve bought a mulled cider for the occasion. As the hot alcohol spreads through my veins by way of my mouth, so does the music by way of my ears. The music itself is endearing. The tap-dancing adds another dimension of quirky charm that is guaranteed to cheer up even the most frosty hearts and makes most of us, if not quite tap-dancing along, then at least tapping our toes along to the infectious beat.

At a time when people are being isolated and kept apart, the furthering isolator, Brexit, is heading towards a possible no-deal, and rumours of an even stricter lockdown are looming; Sparky and the Misfits provide us with a much needed musical relief. Christmas just got a little bit less lonely.

Sparky and the Misfits setlist
Not available

Newquay, Cornwall, UK

Covid Restrictions Apply.

This is my first Cornwall trip. It’s also my first Covid trip.

The idea was to take the train from London Paddington early in the morning so I’d get the most out of my first day in Newquay. Five hours from London via Plymouth to Par, I will change trains to Newquay. This is the longest I’ve had to wear a mask yet. It goes surprisingly well, and the horror stories I’ve read in the news about people flocking to Cornwall instead of going abroad this summer don’t seem to apply when travelling on a Monday. It’s no challenge to sit at a safe social distance until I reach my destination as there are not many people on the train.

I arrive at Newquay’s small end-of-the-line platform around 11 am. This presents me with a challenge I hadn’t thought through. Hauling my two-wheel luggage through Newquay’s high street towards my hotel, I can’t wait to leave my bag and go exploring until I can get the key to my room at the hotel’s Covid-friendly 3 pm check-in time. After ten minutes’ walk past surf shops, pubs and hotels, I arrive at my home for the next five days, The Best Western Hotel Bristol on Narrowcliff, facing the high street and overlooking Tolcarne Beach below.

As it turns out, I can’t leave my luggage because of Covid restrictions, so there’s nothing else to do than be thankful I am travelling light. I pull the noisy wheels behind me back through the town centre, past Great Western Beach and Blue Reef Aquarium on one side, and a Wetherspoon and Tesco on the other side. I reach the other side of Newquay, where there’s a restaurant I’ve wanted to visit. Why walk all the way across town when there are plenty other eateries closer to my hotel? Because I’ve seen on their online menu that they serve lobster and chips, a combination I’ve never had before. 

Though pulling the luggage behind me is irritating, I decide to treat this as my daily exercise and a warm-up before tomorrow’s surf lesson. I walk up and down the hilly streets of Pentire, which is a primarily residential part of town. I walk past Newquay Golf Club and catch a glimpse of the town’s perhaps most famous beach, Fistral Beach. And finally, after one last final haul up a steep gravelly hill, which makes the wheels on my luggage cry out loud, I find what I was looking for: The Fern Pit Cafe & Ferry, which not only promised Lobster and Chips on their website, but also ‘arguably the finest views in Newquay.’ And who am I to argue? The views from the tranquil outside seating area are lovely and a perfect setting for my Lobster and Chips, which don’t disappoint. While eating, I people-watch small figures in the distance, paddling in the low tide River Gannel below. I also do a bit of birdwatching when two seagulls fight over leftovers on a nearby table.

I give the tired wheels on my small suitcase a chance to rest and take a cab back to the hotel for a Covid-friendly check-in, fully masked and socially distanced. I spend the rest of the afternoon at Tolcarne Beach – conveniently located five minutes walk from the hotel – exploring a cave or two, but mostly just enjoying the sand and saltwater between my toes and the sound of crashing waves ringing through the salty air.

Catching a Wave on a Corona Holiday.

The following day, it’s time for another long walk. With my suitcase firmly in place in my hotel room I walk east out of Newquay town centre towards Watergate Bay, where I will take my midday surf lesson from the Westcountry Surf School. It’s grey and hazy, and it doesn’t look particularly promising for a day spent on the beach, but I leave in good spirits, excited about the surf lesson – my first time on a surfboard. I walk past the Tesco Express, which will cater to my snacking needs for the rest of my stay here. I continue along the deliciously named Lusty Glaze Beach, and past the luscious Porth Beach. Then along the coastline, high above the sea’s noisy crashing waves, which I can’t see because of the foggy haze. I do see lots of green grass and yellow and white flowers.

Finally, the fog lifts just in time for my arrival, overlooking Watergate Bay, and suddenly I see dozens of surfers in wetsuits in the waves down below.

The surf school is located in a parking lot, where a couple of trailers function as office and locker rooms. I buy a coffee at the small makeshift cafe and sit down to watch the morning-class surfing on the beach below while waiting for my class at noon. When the time comes, I realise the first challenge is just getting the wetsuit on. The wetsuits live up to their name and are still quite moist when my group of six people struggle to shimmy into the clingy fabric. With a bit of help from each other and a lot of wiggling and pulling, we sort it out. Then it’s time to follow our surf instructor on the ten-minute walk down to the beach. Our instructor is recently back from the Bahamas (he says he returned because of Covid), and he looks the part of a proper beach-bum-surf-dude, which suits the occasion perfectly.

We pick up each of our massive surfboards and carry our boards for a few minutes down to a quieter part of the beach. I catch myself thinking that carrying the board will wear me out before we even get in the water. It’s not that heavy, but it’s bigger than me and difficult to carry properly. Once we find our spot, our instructor informs us of safety measures and takes us through the motions on land; we all have to jump on our boards and land in the proper position. Then it’s time to do the same in the water.

Pushing the board through every aggressive wave charging towards us proves to be exercise enough in itself. My arms are already tired before I even try to catch my first wave. About thirty meters from the shoreline, I stop and plot the action. I point the surfboard towards land, turn my back on the waves and look back for the next appropriate wave coming my way. I miss the first one – I’m not ready. I struggle to hold on to the board as it so desperately wants to glide along with the wave as it was meant to do.

Another wave is coming, and I decide this is the one. I walk a few steps with my board, and when the wave is close enough, I hold tight and jump on, landing perfectly on the board, lying down on my stomach, pushing up with my arms in a perfect Yoga Cobra Pose. The wave pushes the board, and as it surges forward, I jump up, landing on both feet, and I’m surfing. I’m SURFING!!!

Not for long, though. In about seven or eight seconds, I reach the shoreline, and I have to jump off the board. But I surfed. And I did it on the first try. I get a shout of acknowledgement from our instructor, who is helping one of the others out in the waves. I go back out, and for the next hour and a half, I catch a few more waves, sometimes they knock me down the moment I get on the board, and sometimes, I don’t even bother getting on the board when the wave comes, because I’m so exhausted.

But that’s life. Sometimes the sea will be calm, and sometimes you will find yourself in the middle of a storm. Waves will come and go. Some of them will knock you out, but sometimes you get to ride the wave. Sometimes you are ready when the wave hits, and you get to ride it out. And standing there in the middle of an onslaught of incoming waves, I feel calm in the knowledge that some waves will glide right through me, some will sweep me off my feet, and once in a while, I’ll get on top and triumphantly ride along. I know this won’t be my last surf session.

The Aftermath.

My body is beat after the surf lesson – without a doubt, the best workout I’ve had all year and a reminder that I need to exercise more to be better ready for the next time I go surfing. For the last two days of my stay, I walk with sore limbs high up on cliffs and way down at sea level, and I’m pretty sure no beach between Fistral Beach and Watergate Beach is left untouched by my feet.

Though the water here is good for surfing, it’s not as inviting for swimming. A bit too cold and a bit too wild. So paddling it is. I lunch twice at my ‘local,’ The Colonial, on Tolcarne Beach, where I read and people-watch, sip a Pina Colada or two and eat seafood (Seafood Curry, Catch of the Day). 

Every day I’ve been here, I’ve woken up to grey, misty weather, which has lifted after midday, giving way to a bright sunny afternoon. On the last day, I have a train to catch around noon, so my final impression of Newquay is shades of grey. The view out of my hotel room window is so hazy that I can’t see the water, which is quite a contrast to the evening before, with a glorious sunset of yellows, oranges and reds settling over the calm sea.

Check-out is at 11 am, and I find a bench in a parking lot across from the train station, overlooking Great Western Beach. Well, it would have if it hadn’t been so foggy. The seagulls have their own conversation above me as I talk on the phone to a friend in Australia. I wonder if I’ll get to surf down there one day. We chat until it’s time for me to catch my train.

The train ride back to London is uneventful. For most of the trip on this Friday afternoon, there are fewer than ten people in the carriage, making social distancing as effortless on the way back to London as on the way to Cornwall. As I arrive back in London and disappear into the Underground for the tube that’ll take me back home, I know that this will not be the last time I return home from Cornwall.

Stats
Population, Cornwall: 565,968
Population, Newquay: 22,000
Warmest month: July (average 17.8C)
Coldest month: February (average 8.6C)

Naples, Italy

I land in Naples – Napoli – before midday and get a cab from the airport to my hotel to make the most of my brief time here. My hotel, San Francesco al monte, turns out to be a good choice, located on the top of a hill. The room is nice, old-fashioned but pleasant, with a view of the city below and Mount Vesuvius in the distance.

In hindsight, this was at the beginning of the Corona pandemic, where we were still allowed to travel but recommended not to go to northern Italy. This is southern Italy, and there’s no sign of the pandemic yet. Whether it’s because I’m travelling out of tourist season, or the creeping, sneaking coming of the pandemic spreading, I can’t be sure, but I do appear to be the only guest at the hotel where I’m staying.

Leaving the hotel, I walk down a steep flight of stairs leading to one of many narrow veins that pulsate down towards the heart of Napoli. I go with the flow and soon find myself in the city centre, which bustles with noisy liveliness. I consider going on a tour of underground Naples late in the afternoon, but since I have very little time in the city, I prefer to stay overground and walk around to get a feel of the place. And get a pizza, of course. Napoli is the home of pizzas, after all.

I get a seafood pizza at Pizzeria Brandi, which has excellent reviews on Tripadvisor. The pizza is decent, but I’m not convinced I couldn’t have gotten better and cheaper elsewhere. Well, at least now I’ve had pizza in the town where this dish originated.

Back outside, I walk around the Spanish Quarter, a colourful and gritty neighbourhood with trash thrown in the streets left to rot on the ground and laundry hung to dry in the air. The grid of narrow streets and steep stairways is an enchanting place to get lost in, and I catch myself wondering on several occasions how someone managed to park their car in such a small space, as is often the case around here. 

Down by the seafront, the fabulous view of Mount Vesuvius is breathtaking – even more impressive than the birdseye view from the hotel. It’s so much closer to the volcano down here, where angry waves attack the rocks on the shore and paint a dramatic scenery, which adds to the enjoyment of the view.

I sit down at Gran Caffe Gambrinus. I’ve chosen this cafe because it’s where the underground tour starts at 5 pm and I’m still considering whether to join the guided tour or not. I order an espresso, a Negroni and a small cake, but I also get crisps, another cake, focaccia, and olives. When I point out I didn’t order these extras, the waiter says, ‘That’s fine.’ But it’s not ‘fine.’ My table looks ridiculous with all those little appetisers on it, and I soon realise I’ll have to pay for them. This is a lesson in how you can be conned even when trying to avert the situation. I wonder if it happens more often to solo-travellers and even more so to solo-female-travellers. I have to grin it and bear it, making a vow to myself never to return to this cafe and under no circumstances leaving a tip – my silent revenge. Va fa Napoli, indeed.

There is a cemetery with thousands of skulls in the northern part of the city, the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle a Napoli. It’s free to get in but not within walking distance from where I am. I take a cab up there, which seems to take ages. I’m glad I didn’t attempt to walk – I can’t always tell from Google Maps how far it is, and have in the past thought somewhere looked close enough to walk when it wasn’t. 

I walk around in the impressive caves full of skulls and bones for about 20 minutes before getting another cab going back into town. I ask to be let off at Piazza Municipio, where there’s an installation of 100 iron-statues of wolves by Chinese artist Liu Ruowang. It’s impressive to see all the wolves in the same space, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly.

I’ve seen signs of Granite di Limone throughout the day, and I suddenly get a hankering for one, so when I walk past Monidee Cafe, where I see they make them, I go inside and order one. The ice-cold taste of lemon cleanses and refreshes.

Soon enough, I’m back in the backstreets of central Napoli and find the Diego Maradona mural I’ve read about. I spend a few minutes looking at all the pictures, graffiti and artefacts of the controversial but much loved and universally esteemed football legend who was such a popular fixture in this town in the 1980s. Then I continue up the steep stairs to my hotel’s street.

I walk around the hotel, an old monastery, and the remainders of the convent show when I go on a walkabout trying to find the hotel restaurant. I don’t see one other person on any floor other than the receptionist on the ground floor. At first, I can’t even find the restaurant. My search leads me down several empty hallways and lonely staircases, leading to nooks and crannies, several rooms with exhibitions of artworks, and a basement with what looks like a conference room but might just as well be a ballroom. The emptiness makes the place seem perfect for making a horror film. A Neapolitan version of The Shining, perhaps? I’m relieved when I find the restaurant without encountering two twins in the hallway.

Not surprisingly, I’m the only person in the restaurant. A waiter emerges from nowhere, and I order what sounds like a good meal; chestnut and red prawn pasta. Unfortunately, the pasta is too al dente by about 30 seconds, and it’s way too salty. I eat it without complaint, but this is a stark reminder that it’s usually not good to eat at the hotel and better to go out and find something in a restaurant or a stall in the street. Anyway, I’m done with this day. After my salty meal, I go outside and inhale the salty air from the sea instead. I sit on the vast, empty terrace on the top floor for a while, watching Napoli at night from above and the backdrop of Mount Vesuvius towering over it all.

Many people go to Napoli specifically because they want to visit Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, but Napoli itself is definitely worth visiting. Since I was only there on a layover for just about 20 hours – before continuing to Palermo the next day – I didn’t have time to travel out of town. My brief stay has made me realise that the hard city with the tough reputation has many endearing attributes worth returning for.

Stats
Population, Italy: 60,000,000
Population, Naples: 2,187,000
Currency: Euro
Warmest month: July (average 24.5C)
Coldest month: January (average 9C)

Sicily, Italy

Palermo.

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. 

Taormina.

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’.

Stats
Population: 4.9 million
Palermo: 676,000
Taormina: 11,000