Date: 31 May 2016.
Location: Isola Bella beach, Sicily.
On paper, this seemed like a great idea. 'You have to have a car in Sicily!' everyone said, right after making a longing expression and a comment about the food. 'Ohh, the food. You will love the food!'
They weren't wrong. The food is divine. Things I have eaten and drunk in the last 24 hours include: melon and prosciutto followed by baked tagalatelle with Sicilian seafood and rose sauce in a sunny piazza in Catania; a lot of home made bread with olive oil from olives grown on Mt Etna; Aperol spritz and appertivo in a little courtyard on the cliffs above the Med; prosecco overlooking the same sunny bay, grouper baked with red and green tomatoes and capers, more crusty bread, more wine, tiramisu, prosciutto again.
They were equally right about the car. Sicily, of course, is a big island dotted with ragged-edged mountains that rise severely out of pretty vineyards and a diverse array of blue-green beaches. Seeing it by train would really be possible and the day tours are so limited. So, Paris and I rented a car from Catania with the intention of dropping it off three days later in the island's capital, Palermo.
Our adventures started in the airport cark park. Our black Peugeot, as well as perhaps being the only car with automatic transmission on the whole island, was a touchy little minx. Factor in not a lot of sleep (midnight finish at work, 3.45am wake up call), driving on the wrong side of the road, the fact that Italians see traffic lights as 'a guide only' and are overly fond of the horn, add the sharp adrenalin of our holiday excitement and the mood swings of / sulky unclear directions from our evil GPS-man Tim … and the experience was nerve-fraying. Nerve-shredding even.
However, once we'd extricated ourselves from the town of Catania — no mean feat, as the combination of Paris's navigational expertise and moody GPS-Tim managed to navigate me on to a touristy 100% pedestrian piazza — driving on the autostrada was fine. Then, an hour or so later, we took the exit to Taormina.
I haven't been to Cinque Terre but I imagine it's a little like Taormina. That is, a town of narrow, twisted, steep streets clinging to a cliff side: divine to look upon; diabolical to drive. It's around here that our GPS basically gives up and Tim — who we never trusted anyway — gives up even pretending to make sense. I get creative and use my iPhone map tethered to my work blackberry but it's manic and a little frightening. There is no stopping for you'd block the whole road. There is no turning around as the roads are too narrow for U-turns. There are no street signs. And we struggle with a map whose simple 2D guidance bears no apparent resenblance to the multidimensional tangle of snakes and ladders streets before us.
The climax of our adventure comes when Google maps confidently guides us down a tight, steep turn and we get a few hundred meters down before we realise that it's one way. Really, really one way. I panic. We panic. I swear a lot. It's basically what you'd expect a scene with two Aussie girls in a little Italian town to look like. There are impatient Italian drivers yelling and gesturing furiously, an old man watching as he smokes from his balcony, horns bleating, lots of nervous sweat, a dog. Miraculously we manage not to shout at one anther and, by some miracle and a lot of teamwork, Paris manages to extricate us. Finally we find our tiny Hotel Taodomus and, blessedly, it is divine.
Our room looks out onto a pedestrian corso and just around the corner is your classic piazza complete with duomo. Gerlaterias abound. Best of all is the breakfast we discover the next morning. It's served on the hotel roof, from where one has a panoramic view down the stepped town of Taormina and the tumbling cliffs that plummet into the Mediterrean blues and, of course, the mysterious and dominating form of Mt Etna. All of the guests at breakfast on the terrace are smiling — for it's simply impossible not to. Breakfast itself consists of a full buffet of Italian delights: formaggio of all sorts, panini, pancetta and prosciutto, yogurt, fruit, pastries, cake — even tiramisu! In addition, the little ladies behind the bar will make you coffee (naturally) and cook eggs or crepes to order. When we were first seated Paris and I scoffed at the triple plate setting. 'Who has three courses for breakfast? Honestly!'
Turns out: we do.