Eternal Confusion of the Infinite Bus- Sicilian Holiday Part Two

First things first: because we are inept travelers who love their pint or three of something, we generally skip the hire a car part, which, as you shall see, is particularly irksome in Sicily. This also implies that our mobility is somewhat limited by the quirks and whims of local transportation companies, and we therefore cover less of everything- I would love to say that we do it more thoroughly in exchange, but this statement might not be that valid either. So the scientific review below will thus concentrate on the Ionian coast of Sicily, as it extends from Messina (where we haven’t been) to Syracuse (where we have).
How to get there.  Flying is probably the best option irrespective of whether you are already in Italy or abroad, as a quick perusal of the Trenitalia connections to Rome and Milan uncovers a world of meandering rails, uncertain timetables and most probably massive discomfort.  Our experience with buses wasn’t all that inspiring either, so the top tip is to avoid them as long as you can.  The main airport in the area is Catania Fontanarossa, also poetically named Vincenzo Bellini. Italians love an artsy touch, don’t they, not that many others would know that, for example, Roma Fiumicino is also called Leonardo Da Vinci, nor does the state of the contraption live up to the might of its namesake.

Catania Fontanarossa is however a not overly grand, but pretty clean and functional terminal, and it has flights connecting it to most of the major European destinations- Wizzair has services from Budapest, Bucharest and both Warsaw and Katowice in Poland, while Alitalia, should you trust them with your luggage, offers several transfer options through Rome and Milan. Those of incredibly adventurous disposition can also travel by car and catch a ferry to Messina from Reggio Calabria on the continent- several Italian governments have harboured pipe dreams of building a majestic bridge over the straits, but every now and then a desperate Italian scientist will bludgeon some sense into them referring to delicate details about how the area is infested with active volcanoes and pretty earthquake prone. Or, more realistically, they simply realize they can’t embezzle enough money and leave it at that.
How to get around. The answer is simple: by car. It seems everyone of driving age has one, usually some slightly battered Fiat model, with a few of them looking like they served well their first owner, a Roman centurion who catered for them alongside a horse and a donkey. Trips to the greengrocer’s, butcher’s or the children’s kindergarden located on an adjacent street will all be done aboard a vehicle, more often than not with a gesticulating arm flailing through the open window. Should you ask directions and confess that you wish to make the dangerous five minute journey on foot, much referencing of Jesus and the Madonna will ensue and your counterpart will then admit with a sigh that the thought never crossed their mind, therefore they can be of no help whatsoever. Scenes of absolute despair unfold in front of ubiquitous mechanic’s shops, where harassed gentlemen run around informing devastated owners that the car might just be ready by tomorrow’s mass or outing to the cemetery. Might, but not for sure. In Sicily, nothing is really quite sure. Car rental offices are therefore plentiful, both around the airport and in all major resorts, and prices are generally fair- it’s best however to ask a local beforehand and most hotels will have a list of recommended places.
Should you, for no good reason really, opt for a car-less holiday, like we did, you will have to rely on buses and trains. Transport in Sicily has a generally fragmented nature- two major cities relatively close to each other will be connected directly, but in case you want to embark on a more complicated undertaking, you will most probably have to switch rides at some point. Sticking to the Ionian coast you will however be pretty well catered for by the Interbus network- it even runs almost on time, with the occasional quarter of an hour delay on longer connections. In such situations the most important thing is not to panic or wish for clarity- nobody knows why the bus is late, nobody knows when it will arrive, but it will be soon (the local definition of which might be slightly different to yours) and you should just calmly accept your fate. Tickets are available for purchase from the drivers, but it’s advisable to buy them in advance and you should also be prepared for popular connections to be completely full when they arrive at smaller stops. A good option for the Taormina-Giardini Naxos area is the daily 10 euro ticket, which allows you to travel between several beach areas and all the way to the gorges of the Alcantara river.
Certain longer connections, for example the Messina-Syracuse one are, ideally, better by train. Fragmentation is a major factor here as well and due to the rail network being focused mostly around the coast, some trips will take you on detours along less modern lines. Regional fast trains (RV- Regionale Veloce on Trenitalia boards) are pretty comfortable and affordable but could, might, and will be late. In smaller stations the ticket counter will often be closed according to whimsical schedules, but you can nevertheless buy tickets from the self-service counters and, naturally, the café-bar. Tickets must always be validated prior to travel at the designated machines: should you board the train with an untouched ticket you will most likely be fined- a recent campaign aimed at cutting down on people re-using tickets has made controls stricter and train conductors are reluctant to be lenient even when one claims touristy folly.

Although they are rather handsome devices, RVs will however malfunction every now and then, generally when you’d most need them not to. And thus it happened that, already a bit prickly about an hour long delay on a two hour connection (reasons, evidently, unknown), we were unable to leave the train at Taormina station due to the door not working. The allotted time of maneuvering in and out of the carriage at that particular stop is of 30 seconds, and I really wish to offend no one, but I find it hard to believe that the Swiss or the Germans would be able to complete this operation successfully, so Italians stand really no chance at all. But, due to some wishful thinking from Trenitalia, 30 seconds it was, and by the time we made it to another, possibly functional door, we were already hurtling through the scenic coastal region towards Messina. Led by a boundlessly revolted Northerner we located the capotreno who, with a Cheshire cat grin, informed us that we are essentially morons who can’t operate primitive systems such as doors and that we shall therefore be unceremoniously disembarked at Letojanni, from where we should find our stupid way back home.

Thus we learned from a completely bewildered local that taxis are unheard of in Letojanni- naturally, since everyone is aboard their own private minute Fiat, and we should just pray to the Madonna that late buses are still running as during high season. They were- or weren’t, since the bus driver, equally bewildered by our presence gave us a ticket which had ‘Bus 99-Infinite’ written on it and hoisted us up to Taormina, from where we could take the normal connection back to Giardini Naxos.

This long odyssey of mysterious names might require some explanation: the jewel of the Ionian coast, Taormina, to the further bewilderment of tourists, Italian and foreign alike, is actually not by the sea, but perched on the rocks above the shore. It therefore has no beaches itself- this role is fulfilled by the beaches of Letojanni, approachable by bus, and Mazzaró, which is connected to Taormina by cable car- the trip lasts a five minute maximum. These beaches are however pretty expensive, so a safe bet is to choose the homelier sister village of Giardini Naxos instead- accommodation and food are both cheaper here, and there is a long stretch of enjoyable sandy beaches as well. Even higher up the rocks you can find Castelmola, the sole real purpose of which is to provide great views of Taormina and Etna on the horizon.
Where to Stay.  There are plenty of options for accommodation and the mid-range ones are particularly good when it comes to value for price. Generally speaking, Sicilian prices are affordable- scared by the decrease in tourists during the crisis, locals opted to keep them down in the hope of attracting more people, which seems to have worked out quite well for both sides. Most international booking sites will have a handsome list of small hotels, many of them family run (‘bed and breakfasts’ typically have a maximum of four rooms, while a ‘pensione’ is somewhat larger, but still not a full blown hotel).

Taormina is of course the priciest, the affordable options being usually hidden away in small alleyways without the best of views- for that, one might opt for Castelmola instead, whereas Giardini Naxos provides views of the Etna and the closeness to some fine beaches. You could probably choose to stay in Messina or Catania as well, but why would you really- they are both worth a one day visit in case you have plenty of time on your hands but for a one week stay they are cities you can skip without deep regrets. 

















































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