Syracusa to Taormina - Springtime Spin in Sicily 2018 - CycleBlaze

May 30, 2018

Syracusa to Taormina

The fishermen were already up and selling fish from the dock by the time we got up and looked out from our balcony. A slow steady stream of cars drove up to pick up their daily catch.  At 8am, we headed to the breakfast room where Ersilia had laid out a beautiful breakfast spread for us. We loaded our coffee, juice and breakfast goodies onto trays and took them to our balcony to enjoy the view as Ortigia came to life.

Morning view from our balcony
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Our room was the one in the middle with the chocolate umbrella.
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Our plan for today was to meander through Ortigia in the morning and then take the train to Taormina where we had reserved a hotel for 3 nights. In doing so we would intentionally miss Catania, the second largest city in Sicily. I’m certain there are many wonderful things to see and do in Catania however we had read and heard from other travellers that it is a difficult place to travel by bike or even car, for that matter. Again, it boils down to choices and decisions that you have to make while you’re on the road. Similarly, we were not going to have time to visit the Roman amphitheatre or the Orecchio di Dionisio, a limestone cave shaped like a human ear.

We packed up and made our way along the waterfront into Ortigia, passing by a working boat named Patti (your name is popular here!). 

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The traditional colours for boats are blue with orange and white accents, however each town has its own variation and so sometimes the blue is replaced by green.

This boat had just received a new coat of paint and was on blocks to dry.
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Ortigia is ancient city that has one or two straight streets and the rest of the place is a maze of little alleys and lanes. It’s small enough that we decided to just follow our noses this way and that to explore the sights and no doubt we would see its beauty along the way. 

In the Piazza Archimedes is the Fountain of Diana. This is a modern fountain built in 1906 dedicated to the myth of the nymph Arethusa who tried to escape the erotic pursuit of Alpheus the river god. She asked for goddess Diana’s help and this led to her metamorphosis into a spring.  Surveying from the top is Diana, the goddess of the hunt while at her feet, Alpheus looks on in amazement as his beloved Arethusa turns into a fountain. Mythological nymphs, Tritons and Nereids, prance about on seahorses.

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A Triton riding his seahorse.
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A Nereid riding a seahorse.
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It didn’t take long for us to stumble upon the large Piazza Duomo. The Church of Santa Lucia all Badia with its mix of Baroque and Rococo features, faces east into the piazza. Notice that there are only a few people in the large square, which allowed us to soak in the beauty from every angle.

Church of Santa Lucia all Badia
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This enthusiastic accordion player had the cutest guard dog.
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The highlight of the piazza for us (after the super cute puppy) was the Syracuse Cathedral. It was built in the 7th century on and around the Greek Temple of Athena, a Doric temple originally built in 5th century BC. The exterior facade was re-constructed in Baroque style following the 1693 earthquake. The facade of the duomo is breathtakingly beautiful. They say you either like or hate the Baroque style but I can say for sure that I’m a fan.

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Most of the doric columns of the original temple were left standing and were incorporated into the cathedral so they are visible on the exterior and interior walls of the cathedral. Earthquakes and conquerors have all made their mark on the cathedral during its lifetime. If you look closely, you’ll notice the columns are no longer perpendicular, which is to say they were rattled during the big shakers but managed to remain upright. Underneath Syracusa is a maze of tunnels, making me curious to know if these might have contributed to their lean. 

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Main altar Syracusa Cathedral.
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We continued our slow meander through the streets of Ortigia, with one last look at the seawall.  It’s a warm day today but not sweltering by any means... a perfect day for the beach. The water here has been crystal clear like this every time we’ve seen it. We live next to the Strait of Juan de Fuca (near the Pacific Ocean) but in our part of the world, the littoral area supports a plethora of intertidal sea life and it’s not possible to see into the depths. This is remarkably different and so beautiful. 

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The streets of Ortigia are a mix of residential and commercial with many small restaurants to tantalize any and all passers by.  And to satisfy the tourists there were many artisans working outside small storefronts, making their leather purses, carvings, jewellery, tea towels, etc. This added a personal touch to the souvenirs on offer and added to the ambiance of the old town.

Small restaurants abound. The trinacria flags brighten up the alley.
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The streets were clean and and invitation to explore.
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We were aiming for the 1:30pm train so we mounted our steeds and made our way across the rough cobbled streets to the train station. We hopped off and walked when our teeth started to rattle, made it past all the decrepit, half finished concrete buildings and arrived at the station in plenty of time.

Somewhere in all that italian, it says our train leaves at 1:30pm.
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Here’s a typical Sicilian train. They are not the svelte trains of the mainland but they get the job done.

Notice the weeds growing on and between the tracks in the station.
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These engines look like they could stand some TLC.
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There’s the wheelchair symbol...
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OK, this train is looking fine and will have no trouble making it to Taormina. And there’s the bike symbol on the last car, just what we were hoping to see. There is a large luggage storage area on this car where we can stash our bikes. And we didn’t have to jump quite so fast to get everything onboard as we do on the French trains.

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Our train left on time at 1:30 and made its way along the coast towards Catania. We passed by an enormous polluted industrial area along the coast between Syracusa and Augusta where we saw waterways with medium and large ships, some tied up to docks but many that were sunk in the mud. Thank goodness we chose the train for this section. It turned out to be the petrochemical complex of Augusta-Priolo. The industrial port, one of Italy’s biggest, spans petroleum, petrochemical and cement production, handling more than 31 million tons of liquid bulk cargo a year. When it was developed in 1956, it was seen as a golden opportunity to a struggling poor region, but nowadays the pollution of air, land and water has turned it into an environmental disaster and it is having severe health impacts on the citizenry. We had come across another of those long complicated stories. 

As we neared Catania, the flanks of Mt Etna came into view. It was only when we passed Catania and made our way closer to Taormina that we could see Etna from bottom to top. Clouds form and linger at the top of the volcano and it leaves you wondering if you’re seeing steam coming from the volcano or simply swirling clouds. Thankfully, I think it was the latter. The coastal strip became narrower as we closed in on the small coastal town of Giardini-Naxos, where the train station was located. 

We hopped off and were relieved to be riding our bikes again. However, the ride to Taormina was all uphill, 210m uphill over 2.1km to be specific. This turned out to be the quiet but very steep serpentine road into Taormina. Normal people take the route that’s a little further up the coast but we didn’t know about that route at this point. At this point in the tour, a hill’s a hill’s a hill so off we went in our smallest gear. When the grade got stupid we hopped off and walked until it smartened up. Then we’d hop on again and pedal on. We were approaching one of the silly sections when we passed a group of tourists labouring up the hill on foot and I heard them say --- they’re Canadians. They had seen our Canadian flag luggage tags on our panniers. Now, how could I jump off my bike after hearing that? Pride kept me on the saddle until the next crazy section. Soon enough we were entering  Taormina through the Porta Catania, the southern entrance to the city.

We quickly located our hotel, the Hotel Victoria, as it was right on the main drag in the heart of town. We were welcomed by Pietro who told us we were welcome to leave our bikes on the landing on the 2nd floor. He or his twin brother man the front desk 24hrs a day and he assured us it would be safe to leave them there. We had a beautiful room on the 2nd floor, again with a balcony, overlooking Via Umberto.

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Our bikes were stored on the 2nd floor landing...look familiar, Scott?
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Scott AndersonThanks for saving me some research. I was just going to reread our entry to confirm that we stayed at the Victoria also. Good choice!
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3 years ago

We cleaned up, rested and then headed down to check out Taormina. It’s one of the must-see towns in Sicily and just happens to also be a popular stop on many cruise ship itineraries. Lucky for us, it was not too packed when we arrived. We headed to a bar for a cooling drink and at about 8pm headed to the outdoor patio of the Ristorante La Zagara. I’ll let the food pictures below tell the story of our dinner. Needless to say, there were moans of satisfaction with every bite.

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How’s this for a caprèse salad?
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Pistachio and almond crusted sea bass.
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Scott AndersonOoh! I have to make sure Rachael sees this. We’ve talked about this dinner for two years. It’s reason enough all by itself to go back to Taormina.
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3 years ago
Oops, I ate swordfish.
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We strolled back to our room the long way, passing by many different restaurants and doing a little window shopping along the way. Taormina is a tourist town but from my first impressions, I’d give them top marks for how they approach tourism. It’s a real pleasure to be here in this jewel of Sicily. Tomorrow, we will attend a cooking class. Can’t wait!

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Today's ride: 14 km (9 miles)
Total: 693 km (430 miles)

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