Hello From Sicily – A Hike to Castelmola and a Taste of Sicily

A rainy morning had provided a great opportunity to get the owners of my hotel a bit better. After my interview with the Sciglio family I took a leisurely stroll through Taormina and headed back to the Babilonia Language School to use the Internet and get ready for an excursion at 4 pm. Along the way I met the owner and director of the School, Alessandro Adorno, and I had an opportunity to get to him a little better.

Alessandro originally hails from Catania and went to a high school that specialized in business and foreign languages. He realized he liked languages, but did not want to study literature so he went to Florence to study interpretation studies in English and French. During his last year of university he worked in an Italian language school called ABC School in Florence – Tuscany is a very popular destination for language study travel.

After university he faced a very critical turning point as to whether he would stay in Florence or move back to Sicily. The event that changed his future was a vacation to Sicily that he went on with the director of this language school who said “Why don’t you start a school right here in Taormina?”

After some back and forth, Alessandro decided to give language teaching in Taormina a shot and found a location at a local guesthouse called Pensione Svizzera. Lessons were taught in the terrace garden and language students would have their accommodation there as well. On a trip back to Florence Alessandro printed 60,000 stickers which he put on ABC School’s brochure to promote his new school in Taormina. During the first year of 1992 he had 12 to 18 students for the whole summer. Today there are at least 12 new students starting a course every Monday.

Despite initial challenges Alessandro decided he wanted to continue, he was stubborn and finally found a new location for his school – Babilonia’s current location in the Via del Ginnasio. As any new entrepreneur he was a jack of all trades at the beginning: he handled the teaching, answered the phone, played secretary, and was responsible for marketing, PR and cleaning.

As a result of distributing his brochures to various foreign consulates and Italian departments at different universities he was able to attract a bigger clientele. All the extra revenue went into advertising and Alessandro attributes his success to one secret: don’t try to get rich immediately, simply be happy with your job.

Today the Babilonia language students come from all over the world and various European travel agencies sell language study trips to his school in Taormina while American students are mostly approached through academic organizations.

Promoting Taormina as a language study destination was originally a bit difficult since there was a wide-spread perception that Sicily was closely associated with crime and the mafia. Contrary to widely held notions, students that have completed his program can indeed attest that Taormina and Sicily in general are very safe travel areas. I certainly was looking forward to learning Italian in this beautiful town.

4 pm rolled around and my scheduled excursion was about to begin: Peppe Celano is Babilonia’s social activities coordinator and he had planned a hike to the mountain-top village of Castelmola. Nine language students from countries such as Sweden, Germany, Austria, England, Norway and Canada were waiting in front of the school until Peppe, an athletic Italian teacher and former sprinter, started to take us on our hike. Off we started on the tiny narrow streets of Taormina that continued to climb up the mountain. We passed by many restaurants, souvenir shops and other local retailers until we reached the highest part of town.

From there on we went on the Via dei Cruci, a steep path that takes you up past different Stations of the Cross to a small church called Madonna Della Rocca, whose interior is carved into the rock, from where we had an absolutely gorgeous view over Taormina and the coastal area in front of it. The next higher mountain holds the ruins of an ancient Saracen Castle which proudly overlooks the area from its promontory. Unfortunately the weather was a bit hazy, but I can only imagine what this view must be like on a gorgeous clear day of sunshine; the view of Taormina from up here was truly breathtaking.

After a brief rest we continued our hike to the next higher mountain top which would be Castelmola. Peppe continued to explain the local plant life to us, and in spring time there were certainly many beautiful flowers and shrubs in bloom. About another 40 minutes later we arrived in the old hill-top town of Castelmola. This town was originally named “Mola” which means “millstone”. It was not until 1862 when the name was changed to its current version. This town has a long history: after being founded in the 8th century B.C. it was destroyed by Dionisio I of Siracusa in 392 B.C. After its rebuilding in 350 B.C. it was later conquered by the Romans, around 900 A.D. by the Arabs and in 1078 by the Normans. Virtually every civilization that came through Sicily left its mark in this tiny mountain town.

Because the castle was closed we took a stroll through town. We went straight to the main piazza which features the Church of San Giorgio, built in the 17th century. Next to this church on the Piazza Duomo is a famous bar, called the Bar Turrisi. When we inquired why this bar is so famous Peppe took us inside, and the exhibits and objects on display throughout the three levels of this establishment are indeed very unique. Most noteworthy of all is a wooden sculpture of a man with a very prominent, how shall we say, male member. Similar themes populate the establishment from top to bottom.

After the novelty value of Bar Turrisi we visited a smaller church and started to make our way through the narrow alleyways towards a path that opened up another gorgeous view over the coastal area. I approached Peppe to get a bit of a better understanding of the area. Upon my inquiry he gave me a brief overview of local history and the origin of the famous mafia.

He explained that at the end of the Spanish rule, the Italian aristocracy owned major agricultural estates called “latifundios” throughout Sicily. The administrators of these country estates subsequently developed into the mafia, particularly given the absence of organized state power and organization. Political and economic circumstances have always shaped the face of the mafia.

Even today Sicily faces an unemployment rate of about 18{363bd2a98d15c88227082edbeda0d5f103110265c93869472e5f1256b705561e} which gives rise to some criminal activity. Taormina itself is a rather unique economic environment since its 10,000 local residents are eclipsed by about 80,000 tourists in the peak summer months. A simple apartment of 50 square meters (600 sf) will cost at least 500 to 600 Euros. So Taormina’s popularity with tourists has created a special economic environment.

I was also interested in finding out whether a town as beautiful as this has become a magnet for foreign residents as so many coastal areas in Southern Spain and France have become. Peppe indicated that this phenomenon has not touched Sicily or even most of Italy as of yet, most of the foreign real estate investors have focused on buying properties in Tuscany.

After about a 40 minute climb back to town we had reached Taormina again and were ready for dinner. Babilonia regularly arranges culinary experiences for its students, and tonight we were to meet at a local bar called “Bistro”, run by a brother and sister team. Again, an entire rainbow of mostly central and northern European language students was assembled and we received a smorgasbord of Sicilian tastes with a variety of local cheeses, salami, and tomatoes. For dessert we enjoyed a sweet treat made of ricotta, sprinkled with chocolate and nuts. Wine was flowing and great conversations were had. A scrumptious ending to an action packed day.

The excitement will continue since tomorrow we’ll go on an excursion to the ancient town of Siracusa.

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