My Trip To Europe. Day 11. Tuesday, October 14. Taormina and Etna

Today I visit a tourist trap, and a mountain that goes Kaboom!

The Coin of the Day is a denarius of Augustus.

Coin of the Day:  Denarius of Augustus.

14-001 14-002

This year marks the 2000th anniversary of the death of Caesar Augustus, known earlier in life as Octavian.  He reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE, a remarkably long time.  And a remarkably stable reign, given the instability and even chaos that had preceded it.  The Roman Republic had fallen apart, perhaps due to the fact that institutions designed for running a city really weren’t suited for governing an empire that spanned the Mediterranean, and something new had to take its place.  What Augustus did was to preserve, in name, many of the Republican forms, but he was the First Citizen, the Priceps (pronounced prin-keps), and many of the old republican elected offices were held by him, for life.

(Imagine how the tenor of this country would change if a president were elected for life…even if every other part of the Constitution stayed exactly the same.)

I know people who condemn him and Julius Caesar for destroying the Roman Republic, but I have to disagree.  The Republic was on auto-destruct; it was just a matter of seeing who would pick up the pieces.  And by all appearances, Rome could have gotten far worse than Augustus.


14-003The key thing to remember about Sicily–about a lot of places in the Mediterranean, for that matter–is that it lies on a “plate boundary.”  The African plate is sliding under the European plate at the rate of centimeters per year, about as fast as your fingernails grow, and that causes seismic activity, in other words, volcanoes and earthquakes.

Many of the places I have visited so far were destroyed by earthquake.  I’ll be seeing some later that were nailed by volcanoes.

Sicily has the grand-daddy of European volcanoes, Etna.  Etna is constantly simmering, and only rarely gets truly destructive, so the people who live here tend to just regard it the same as others would regard weather.  One of the guides we had here was an American expatriate; she told the story of her mother freaking out every time she heard that Etna had belched or hiccuped, and she had to explain that all of this was perfectly normal here, and to quit being a worrywart.


We left Catania heading north.  I took multiple pictures of Etna through the window of the bus during this part of the trip, and one of them didn’t have obnoxious glare off the glass.

14-004I am not sure if the “cloud” trailing off the top of the mountain is a cloud or volcanic activity.

In case any local residents don’t get the point that this mountain is potentially bit rambunctious, here’s a smaller cone:

Volcanoes can be hazardous of course (here in Colorado, our mountains don’t go Kaboom!) but they tend to have very fertile soil; in fact one theory for the origin of the name “Sicily” is that it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root word meaning “fertile.”


The first stop was Taormina, a town that, frankly, is a bit of a Euro tourist trap.  It’s expensive to even take a breath here.  The bus had to park in a garage, and we had to get on a much smaller shuttle to take us to the middle of town–it’s one of those places on a hill with very narrow roads.

14-006We were met here at this gate by a guide whose accent was strong enough I had trouble with it, especially with the number of people riding by on loud motorcycles.  Eventually I just stopped trying.  I’ve had to reconstruct a lot of this off Wikipedia, et. al.

14-007And this is the Corvaja Castle, apparently dating from the 10th century (CE).

14-008Remnant of an odeon.

There is (I found out later) a Greek style theater, of Roman construction (we know this because it’s done in brick), with the peristyle and stage proscenion and skena still mostly standing, here in Taormina.  THAT would have been worth seeing, just for the sheer novelty of it.  There are a lot of Greek theaters around the Mediterranean, but most have only traces left of the peristyle skena.  (Our word “scene” derives from skena.)

14-009This is a narrow street more like a staircase, but note the patterning of the pavement.

14-010The beach, which is probably the fundamental reason this place attracts tourists.

14-011This is the center of town.  Clock tower on the left, off frame to the right, the cathedral.

14-012Closeup of the clock tower.

14-013And the cathedral, a tiny affair.

14-014The artwork above the door.

14-015And this proudly announces the date of construction, 1536. (Correction: 1636–boy do I feel stupid.)

When the guide announced this, some of the people in our group oohed and aahed.

My thought bubble was “there isn’t even a minus sign there.”

In Colorado, a building from the 1800s is old.  But my perspective changed five days ago as I looked at a Mycenaean fortress that really did date to 1500 BCE, if not earlier (that is what you get with the minus sign), and the day after that, a date range of 2000-1500 BCE got tossed around casually at Knossos.  A full three thousand or even 3500 years older than this church.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 CE) is closer to our time than it is to the end of Mycenaen civlization (1200 BCE).

Admittedly, this church is in much better shape than Mycenae, though the “Treasury of Atreus” is certainly holding its own, in its big, megalithic way.

14-016Prickly pear grows everywhere in Sicily.

OK.  I don’t get it.  Admittedly I’m not a resort town type of person, but even trying to put myself in the headspace of someone who is, why is this place a big deal?  What’s here that simply cannot be had in a hundred other seacoast cities?


It is possible to drive partway up Etna to the Sapienza Refuge at 1910 m (6266 ft), and eat lunch there.  Which we did.

Then you can take a cable car to 2500 meters (8200 feet).  From there it’s possible to take ATVs or even walk to the actual summit at 2920 m (9580 feet).  Which I might have undertaken, if we had had time; I’ve never seen an active volcano, and they are sort of a hobby of mine.  (Hawaii and Yellowstone are on the bucket list–I should be able to do Yellowstone any time I am willing to brave the crowds and expense.)  (Oh, and yes:  If you haven’t been to Crater Lake in Oregon, what the heck are you waiting for?)

I did get to do the cable car.  I have to say the top of that cable car run was the first time on this trip that I was actually comfortable with the ambient air temperature during the daytime.  It was maybe three degrees cooler than perfect.  Maybe after half an hour, or if the wind had picked up, I’d have wanted to put my jacket on.

The altitude was fairly congenial too; 8200 feet isn’t that much over the 6900 feet I am accustomed to.


On the way down, in the cable car,, I snapped the following pictures of smaller craters (apologies for the reflections off the plexiglass).



At the bottom of the cable car, the bus was waiting.  On the way down, it stopped for a minute so we could see this.  Someone had a very, very bad day a number of years ago…


It would have been nice to make it to the summit, but I realize under the circumstances it was impractical.  It also would have been nice to see that theater, but I didn’t know until today (the “real” today, 10 November) that it was even there.

[Edit 15 Feb 2015.  I just heard yesterday how pivotal Mt. Etna was for getting geologists to realize that the earth was millions of years old, not thousands, back in the 18th and 19th centuries.   One geologist estimated/calculated an age for Etna itself based on the number of parasitic cones (like the ones pictured above) that had formed and were now dormant, another realized that Etna overlay strata filled with recent fossil species and thus realized how old that set of recent species (90 percent in common with what’s alive today) had to be, and was able to extrapolate that older strata, with fewer familiar species, had to be correspondingly lower.  They ended up estimating the end of the age of dinosaurs at 80 million years ago, not too badly off from the 65.5 million years we get with modern methods, given that there was a lot of estimation and assumptions made with this process.]

Well, this group is a group of diverse interests.  I knew in advance that for me, today would be “meh.”  But Syracuse is going to be the payoff.

The bus then went south, through Catania, to Ragusa.  Specifically, Ragusa Ibla.  My dad has picked out a hotel there, that is halfway up a very steep hillside.  I think “Ibla” must be Sicilian for “Mountain Goat.”

It is an interesting place.  The hotel is quite plainly a retrofitted building centuries old.  My room seems pretty nice, other than the air conditioning being gutless.  And with this abnormally hot weather in Sicily, that’s not a good thing.


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