Oh (God almighty), the hills of Taormina

So, it’s kind of a funny story. Before leaving for Italy, my good, patient friend, Gabagol (who you may known as Andy–just kidding, you only know him as Gabagol)–gave me stick-shift driving lessons. We’d meet up in Westbury, Long Island on Sundays, and he’d hold his breath while I started, stalled, and stuttered around a parking lot for an hour. Afterward, we’d usually go to the big Fairway (NY’s best grocery store), where I’d buy him little tokens of my appreciation, like artisanal blood peach jam.

I had about four lessons in total over the course of two months. I got better and better with each lesson, but often failed at the same point, again and again. When coming off the highway, I’d always stall. The exit was on an incline, and there was a stop sign. I’d usually forget to switch from sixth gear back to first before starting again. And once the stall happened, there was no guarantee I could prevent the car from stalling again, as my brain became clouded and panicked. Luckily, Gabagol was always incredibly patient (did I mention what a good friend he is?), and never let his panic show. I’d yell, “Why does it keep stalling?!” “Because you’re still in sixth gear. “Oh, yeah.” “Why isn’t the car moving?!” “Because you’re still on the clutch.” “Oh, yeah.”

So I kind of got the hang of driving manual, but knew I had far from perfected it. Yet, I still opted for the manual transmission Fiat 500 when booking a car for our (my husband, Jared, and me) Sicily trip. I figured I had to go for a manual because, otherwise, what good had the lessons been? I needed to give it a try.

I’ve had worse ideas. And I’ve had far better ones.

So, with Jared’s cautious support (“If you feel confident…”), we picked up the manual Fiat 500 (“cinquecento”–much more fun to say than “five hundred”) from Europcar. I may have gotten into an argument with two European ladies on my way to the counter (they didn’t understand the merits of a “take a ticket” queue). Once that was settled, we found our way to our cute, white 500.

Amazingly, I was able to get the car moving, and off we went. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad? I didn’t even stall when going through the toll booth (I remembered to downshift this time!). And I was even making nice with the maniacal Sicilian drivers, who, by he way, speed like demons, never use their turn signals, are more than happy to tail you aggressively, and pay no attention to the concept of two separate lanes. All was going well until we got to our destination: Taormina.

Taormina is widely considered to be Sicily’s best resort town. We were scheduled to stay for two nights at the Hotel Villa Ducale, which sat upon a hill atop of Taormina, with a stunning view of both the crystal coastline and smoldering Mount Etna, who, at 11,000 feet, mostly had her head in the clouds. The funny thing about staying atop Taormina is that Taormina is already atop of another hill. So we were staying on a hill atop a hill. Double hill, double whammy.

Following the directions provided by the hotel proved to be tricky. With one wrong turn, we found ourselves traveling uphill straight into Taorimina proper, rather than around it. On the way up the hill, I had to stop to yield for traffic, and promptly stalled. Flustered, I punched on the hazards and restarted the car and tried to proceed. When the rollback spooked me, I stalled again. Then the honking from other cars commenced. I restarted the car, gunned the engine and quickly let off the clutch until we jerked forward. The 500 emitted a burning metal smell (poor clutch!), demonstrating its annoyance.

And the fun didn’t stop there! Once we surmounted that hill, we drove through the medieval wall into downtown Taormina, which was teeming with cars and people. I pulled over, in full panic mode, and I looked to Jared with an exasperated, “Now what?” The only way out was to drive through the town’s narrow, winding, uphill roads. My manual driving nightmare had been achieved.

I stalled the car again and again. Lots of honking, lots of hazard signals, and lots of deep breaths (let’s be honest: I was taking shallow breaths, sweating and swearing). Jared supported me from the passenger seat, and never once screamed, “YOU’VE MADE A HORRIBLE DECISION AND RUINED OUR LIVES!” Although I think that’s what we were both thinking (or am I just projecting?).

We finally made it to the top part of upper Taormina, and found Hotel Villa Ducale. It was all worth it in the end; the hotel was magnificent and the view was spectacular. And we were able to enjoy Taormina without driving! Instead of ruining the Fiat’s transmission, we walked down 300+ stairs to the bottom of town. Much better, if you ask me.

After two days in Taormina, we embarked in the car again. While I narrowly missed hitting a motorcyclist (I was too focused on getting the car to go), we made it down the hill without issue. I stalled once at a toll booth, but didn’t stall at all when yielding at the thousand roundabouts we encountered, so all in all, it was a successful drive to our current location of Siracusa.

Hopefully, our luck will continue and I’ll avoid stop-and-go traffic on hills here on out. That’s likely, right? Haha, yeah right. Wish us luck!