Our Favourite Countries in Europe

From mountain hiking to art gallery hopping

Before we were jubilados (Spanish for retirees) we holidayed in France, Greece, Italy and Great Britain so now we’re visiting other countries


Taormina

Is there a place you’ve been that’s inextricably entwined with a special song?

When I hear “Taormina,” the song in my head automatically rewinds to “Lights of Taormina.”

Though not our love story, the music is inseparable from our visit—travelogue lyrics wistful in the elegance of guitar and voice of the legendary Mark Knopfler, Phil Cunningham’s accordion emphasizing the nostalgia.

For transcendence to the most romantic place in Sicily, just listen to Lights of Taormina:

“Lights of Taormina”

There’s laughter in the darkness
Music floating in across the bay
He’s half listening and wondering
How he could have let her slip away
So long ago but still he wants to know
If anyone has seen her
And he’s sitting out in the night
Looking down upon the lights of Taormina

They were young and love was shining
Like the colours of the rainbow
Desire felt like choking
Love was smoking under the volcano
He can still taste her kisses
Sweet as the red wine from Messina
Now he’s sitting out in the night
Looking down upon the lights of Taormina…

On volcanic rock high above the Ionian Sea, Taormina has been romancing artists and royals, celebrities and tourists for centuries. (Mark Knopfler toured as Bob Dylan’s opening act in Europe in 2011.) The island’s most popular destination still harbours an aura of elegance, its views of Mount Etna a smouldering reminder of passion, its siren song calling you to Sicily.

Magellan and I began with the famed attractions. A visit to Teatro Greco, its panoramic 360° views the city’s drama queen since the third century BC.

A walk down Corso Umberto, where once-lived-in 15th-century palazzos have been refashioned into shops selling jewelry, name-stitched aprons, Sicilian ceramics shouting out colour, cones of slushy lemon granita. Imagine raising your bodiced skirt to step up to Vicolo Stretto—a street only 60 centimetres wide. Now it’s Monday-morning busloads of tourists, outdoor bars flogging overpriced drinks, eager shopkeepers. Enjoyable, yes. But accompanied by a sense of loss in Taormina—the feel that resonates from Mark’s song.

We ate an orange salad with leeks and olives for lunch at Rosso Peperoncino and returned that night (something we rarely do) for spaghetti and anchovies. We strolled through Giardino Publico, lush peacocked gardens bequeathed to the city, and past the villa where D.H. Lawrence lived in the 1920s.

On the terrace of our hotel the next morning, we ate a starred breakfast—Greta Garbo crepes. In the past a lot of movie stars sought the magic of Taromina.

Amidst patches of wild sweet peas, we hiked to Castenol, then on to Monte Veneretta over the old mulattiera, “mule tracks,” where Frieda Von Richthofer, the wife of D.H. Lawrence, had a steamy affair with a mule driver gifted with a sexy name, Señor Peppino D’Allura, a romance Lawrence fictionalized in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Darkness was deepening as we returned from the mountains, following the pathway, “Looking down upon the lights of Taormina.”

The lyrics are of a wanderer, in his jubilados years, an atmospheric longing for a love that long ago slipped away. Often, always in listening to this song, I am reminded of our story, how lucky we have been in love.

How much longer can we be this happy before one of us is gone I wondered?

Seems like another lifetime
When they rambled along the shore
Seems like another lifetime
She used to call him her sweet señor
Maybe in another lifetime
On a pathway to the sea
Maybe there they’ll be

After dinner my señor and I sat on the rooftop terrace of Hotel Taodomus with its views of Mount Etna and the Mediterranean, each of us sipping a Negroni from the honest bar. The humming in my head, the liminal space between time past and time passing, slipping away, softly, like the lights of Taormina.

Navigation

Knopfler, Mark. “Lights of Taormina,” Tracker. Great Britain: British Grove Studios, Mercury and Verve labels, March 2015.

Taodomus, a quiet little ten-room hotel we highly recommend. Their Facebook site has the webcam view of the lights of Taormina that we’ve used in this post.

 

You can get a dose of bibliotherapy just by visiting certain bookstores—and Portugal’s Livraria Lello may be the world’s ultimate bibliobalm.

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Noto, emphasis on the “o”  I remind myself. That’s because my brain wants to call it Nota, as in Nota Bene. But hey, it gave me a way to tell you about Noto, our favourite town in Sicily.

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To be astonished by art is surely one of the most satisfying delights of travel, of life, yes?

For our first blog of the new decade Magellan and I were wavering: Norway’s Edvard Munch (The Scream) or Altamira (“The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory”)? A cartoon in The New Yorker swayed us to the latter, the first discovery of art from the Upper Palaeolithic—carbon-dated to 35,600 years ago—unique for its high quality and magnificent conservation.

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The Snøhetta Pavilion

“Why did you love Norway so much?” friends ask. I’ve been wondering myself, searching for a simple answer, for the finest example of Norway’s transcendence. In Calgary’s new public library, it came to me.

The awesomeness of Norway can be found in a single place, the Snøhetta Pavilion, the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Centre.

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When people ask, “How was the food in Norway?” they often follow it up with “Did you eat at that famous restaurant in the Faroe Islands?” “Did you get a reservation at Noma?” “Did you go to Fäviken in Sweden?” Super foodies specify the chefs: Poul Ziska, René Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson, respectively.

No, we did not.

Years before these men became world-famous chefs, a woman chef in Norway quietly pioneered New Nordic Cuisine—Heidi Bjerkan at Credo, the restaurant she opened in 1999.

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