Puglia & Sicily, 2017 travel blog

Students at dinner, Babilonia school

View from my apartment, Taormina

Colourful pottery and plants as window dressings

Typical laneway with restaurants, brightly coloured pottery

Beautiful tiles, the Bam Bar - which is famous for its granitas

San Stefano pottery

Pottery version of Trinacria, symbol of Sicily

Giro cyclists passing through Taormina

Ocean view, Taormina

The 'Beehives', public gardens, Taormina

Piazza, students playing ball games

Piazza, dancing lessons for young boys

An Italian wedding, Taormina

I am at the 'work' end of my trip and have just finished my first week of Italian classes in Taormina (I'm studying here for two weeks). The Babilonia language school is in a lovely setting with its own private garden and restaurant/bistro, only two minutes walk from my AirBnB apartment. In addition to the classes, the school organises social activities including a film night (in Italian with Italian subtitles), seminars (recent topics have included slow food and Sicilian literature), a dinner on the first night and Friday night aperitifs. One of the photos shows my fellow students enjoying dinner in the garden of the school. The students range from 20 somethings to 70 somethings! Many more women than men. Mainly European, with a very tiny smattering of native English speakers. About 25-30% are German or Swiss German speakers, quite a few Dutch, Spanish speaking (including a young Argentinian woman), Belgian, Swedish, Norwegian, 2 Japanese, 1 English, 2 Americans, 1 from Sydney and me. (I'm simultaneously improving my Dutch and understanding a few words of German!). The class sizes are small - I have eight students in each of my two classes - and students are assessed on the first day to determine the right class level.

My classes start at 9.30 each day and finish at 1.00, similar to the Italian lifestyle that encourages an afternoon siesta (or in my case doing the homework that we are given each day). The first 1.5 hour class focuses on language analysis and grammar, while the second class focuses on communication. The classes are very well crafted to improve our ability to listen/understand and speak in Italian. One day we were given pictures of about 15 geometric shapes and concepts (like a circle, spiral, right angle) for which we first had to individually write the Italian names next to as many as we recognised, then compare with a study partner. The challenge came with the next stage: we were each given different line drawings of objects such as a car, a computer or a tree. Then, we had to instruct in Italian another student (who had not seen our picture) how to draw the unknown 'thing', using the shapes and concepts we had just learned (for example, draw a big circle, then draw a short horizontal line that starts at the top of the circle, etc). Believe me, this is hard in English, but even more challenging in Italian! We've also had lots of sessions where we are either given a page of Italian text or listen to a short audio story. After two minutes, we have to tell our study partner what we thought we understood about the story. We then get another two minutes to listen or read again. After repeating this about 4 or 5 times, it's amazing how much you can understand of something that was initially a complete mystery. My brain hurts, but in a good way!

Taormina is a very pleasant town in which to be based for two weeks, although it is quite touristy. In my travels in Sicily before arriving here, many people told me that Taormina was the most beautiful place in Sicily (and some even went so far as to make this claim for the whole of Italy). It is, indeed, breathtakingly beautiful - a small village perched three quarters up a mountain with magnificent coastal views. Another feature contributing greatly to its charm is that it is incredibly lush and semi-tropical. Especially now in spring, there are masses of hibiscus trailing along stone walls, flowers bursting from beautiful pottery window plant boxes, and birdsong everywhere. My apartment building (3 stories high) backs onto a gorgeous park, which is the private grounds of the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo - the five star luxury hotel where most of the G7 will be staying in less than two weeks time. I am really lucky as even though I am centrally located, I have a very peaceful view from my lounge dining room - gum trees, fruit trees, yukkas, with not a building, person or car in sight. There is also a beautiful public garden near my apartment, established by an eccentric English woman, Florence Trevelyan in the late 1800s. The gardens are dotted with strange stone and timber structures that are called 'beehives', some of which you can still climb up to get good coastal views.

Taormina is also big on pottery and tile paintings (somewhat similar to the Spanish tradition of tiled wall art). One of the photos shows the famous Bam Bar, well known for its granitas, with some of the lovely tile paintings adorning its walls. Another photo shows a pottery version of the Trinacria, the symbol of Sicily. The Trinacria is in the triangular shape of Sicily; it has the head of Medusa, three bent running legs and three stalks of wheat. This symbol was used on Sicilian, Roman-era coins as far back as the 4th century BC and post WW2, it was included on the Sicilian flag (Sicily is an autonomous region in Italy). There are several towns in Sicily that are famous for pottery and ceramics including Caltagirone and San Stefano, with all these different pottery styles represented in the many, many shops of Taormina. As usual, I will be bringing home some gorgeous pottery in my hand luggage.

On Thursday, the Giro d'Italia bicycle race went through Taormina. Fortunately, this occurred in the afternoon when my classes were finished, so I could line up to watch them whizz through town on a warm, sunny day. The cyclists took less than five minutes to pass through town, with most of the action being the advance vehicles and cars selling Giro souvenirs. This was Stage 5 of the Giro and I learned later that night that at the end of this day in Messina (north east coast of Sicily), the lead cyclist stopped one lap too early and so was relegated to about 147th place for the day!

Most days, I make a passeggiata (or stroll) along Corso Umberto, the pedestrian shop-lined main street of Taormina. There are several piazzas or squares that provide great viewing points of Etna (more in next blog) and the hills and coast of Taormina. There is always something happening in the main piazza - musicians playing outside street cafes, students playing soccer, one day a young man teaching three small boys dance moves. I have also been in the crowds watching wedding parties emerge from church. Check out the last fun photo for a gorgeous bride, an extremely handsome groom (with very dapper shoes), and a wedding party including a lace-dressed baby almost dangling from the balcony!

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