Our exploration of the north of the island began by taking the road at the foot of Glen Rosa; the B880 known as ‘The String’. I have still not managed to track down how or why it acquired that name. It crosses the moors and divides – we took the road to Machrie, our first stop. Humans have lived on Machrie Moor for 3.500 years and farmed there until climate change made this impossible. Arran has numerous archaeological sites, but this is perhaps the most well-known and is also an excuse for a walk. The obvious remains are six stone circles of granite boulders and sandstone pillars but not all of the area has been excavated and there are other remains. If there are any concerns about the condition of the remains you are encouraged to send a photograph to the researchers: details on signs at the site. A track leads to them from the car park. It is just under three miles there and back and round all the stones. The first circle you come to is Moss Farm Road stone circle which is actually a cairn. The farm road used to run right over the centre.
Further on, near the derelict farm, are more circles with views over the surrounding countryside and the mountains. At one point we spotted a curlew in the distance.
Back in the car and after topping up the caffeine levels at the Golf Club Tearoom in Machrie, we continued north up the coast, spotting a seal and a rock full of shags en route.
By the time we reached Catacol, it had started to rain. Many people stop here to admire the row of cottages known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’ and they are depicted on many Arran postcards. Unfortunately, theirs is not a happy history. They were erected by the Duke of Hamilton in the 19th century to house the crofters who were cleared from Catacol Glen. It seemed appropriate that it was still grey when we arrived in Lochranza.
We visited visit the castle and spotted some red deer in a derelict garden. James had to make a pilgrimage to the distillery which was opened in 1995 and is definitely on the tourist map with coaches arriving and leaving during the short time we were there.
As we reached Corrie with its sandstone coastline, I went looking for something I had read about in The Scotsman last year: The Bath of Arran. It is carved out of the rock and dates from 1835. A Doctor McCredy who lived on Arran (but was originally from the mainland) is said to have used it to cure his patients with saltwater therapy, having been told it made you live longer. The bath is about 12ft long by 5ft wide and 5ft deep and could accommodate several patients at any one time.
It fills up daily by the tide and has man-made steps down into it. Apparently, some tourists have tried it, but we were not tempted. There is a video on YouTube of some swans enjoying it. I followed the instructions in the article: go to the southern part of the village: opposite the house with red railings stop in the passing place and drop down to the shore to your right. It was then time to head back to the cottage to relax and then enjoy our evening meal at a restaurant in Brodick
Breakfast was at 6am on Friday morning as we had to catch the 7.20am ferry back to Milazzo. The sun was rising as we arrived at the port, just in time to hit the morning rush hour but were were soon on the autostrada towards Taormina. The original plan was to walk from Castelmola to the top of Monte Venere, a limestone mountain nearby.
As it was forecast to be at least 32 degrees, a few of us decided that was too hot for the climb on bare rock and opted to explore Taormina instead. The walkers were dropped off close to 10am and it was already very hot. We were taken to the town and after a coffee, started to explore, coming across a photography exhibition of work by Letizia Battaglia. She documented life in 1970s Palermo and this exhibition was entitled ‘Rompere il muro de silencio’ (Breaking the wall of silence). She was one of the people interviewed by the author of a book I am currently reading: Midnight in Sicily – on art, food, history, travel and Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb who lived in southern Italy for 15 years from the late 1970s and returned in 1995 to write the book . Our walk around the town led to the discovery of an old portion of Hellenic mosaic, many intriguing alleys, old churches and an antique map shop. We found one to add to our collection: a French map of Sicily in the time of the Greeks published in 1806. The Teatro Antico was on a high point with views of Mount Etna and the coast and quite amazing despite being prepared for a concert.
There is also a large public garden with an interesting tale about its development by a woman banished from the UK by Queen Victoria as she was deemed an unsuitable mate for her son Edward. She later married the mayor of Taormina and created the gardens before dying at the age of 55. Things we did not expect to find in Taormina were an Irish pub and someone wearing a Manchester United shirt.
Afterwards,we met up with the others. They had got to the top of Monte Venere but had to take a bus back down because of the heat. A public bus took us down to Giardini Naxos which is less pricey than Taormina. It is very much a beach resort with hotels, stalls and a lot of tourists but on Saturday morning we found the archaeological park and museum which documented the earliest settlement here. It has the remains of houses outside and two museum buildings with the house contents and those of an early shipwreck. We met an Irish couple who told us about a large Roman villa in the centre of Sicily that has some very good mosaics and has taken several years to restore. That will need to be left to the next trip to this part of the world. The garden nearby provided welcome shade from the heat.
It was then time to head to the airport. We could have enough material from our time there to contribute to Little Britain’s ‘Come Fly With Me’. The staff at the bag drop desks were having a prolonged conversation despite the long line of people waiting. When we got to passport control there was no-one there. Eventually a dour-faced man appeared and spent ten minutes logging into the system. I got no response to my ‘buongiorno’ and he glanced at my passport and shoved it back to me without making eye contact. Fortunately we were soon in the air bidding goodbye to Mount Etna and watching the sunset over France.