Travel: Sicily – September / October 2012

Sicily

Photo Temple of Concordia with fallen Icarus statue - Valley of Temples Sicily by David J Rodger

Temple of Concordia with fallen Icarus statue

SICILY: Not Italy. That’s the way they view it.  I was in Malta back in May.  Toured around various archeological and city-based sites, hired guides, did the whole thing. Bloody amazing place. Getting back I was hungry for more of the same-same but different.  Whilst visiting some of the neolithic temples on Malta the guide stated that the people who settled there 5,000 years ago came from Sicily. Bingo, great excuse to go there then.  Booked the flights and accommodation near Agrigento and in the heart of Taormina.

Taormina was actually the primary reason for going to Sicily.  I’ve never been there before in reality, but back in 1997 and again in 2004 I went there for a long period of time in my mind and imagination: I used the cliff-based town as a location for major scenes that take place in two novels, Dante’s Fool and Iron Man Project.  So I was super excited about the chance to finally go there in the flesh and walk in the footsteps of some of my favourite characters: Natalya Dorganskya, Vincent Brent and the ubiquitous Jean-Luc Korda.

Flew into Catania and caught a ride to just outside Agrigento.  Not much happening there but it’s right next door to the Valley of the Temples and provided an opportunity to switch-off and chill out with a reasonable (and slightly random) hotel.  Down-time was a big need, for taking a break from the punishing writing regime I’ve been under for several years.

I’m also delighted to find the Return of the Mood (my weird scrambled sensory phenomenon that occurs every few months).

Day One

Valley of the Temples (Vaddi di li Tempri in Sicily) isn’t a valley at all, but is a series of temple structures that hug a rocky ridge not far from the town of Agrigento.

Oj and I had a fabulous guide called Claudio – although he later admitted he prefered to be called Claudius, as in the Emperor. He certainly had a larger than life personality and the deepest baritone voice I ever heard in reality; cracking consonants like the sound of giant bones snapping.

Valley of Temples is an epic stroll that takes you through some stunning remains of classical Greek architecture.  Here are three that struck me (words from Wikipedia):

Temple of Juno, built in the 5th century BC and burnt in 406 BC by the Carthaginians. It was usually used for the celebration of weddings.

Temple of Concordia, whose name comes from a Latin inscription found nearby, and which was also built in the 5th century BC. Turned into a church in the 6th century AD, it is now one of the best preserved in the Valley.

Temple of Zeus Olympic, built in 480 BC to celebrate the city-state’s victory over Carthage. It is characterized by the use of large scale atlases.

Took a trip to Agrigento, a tiny place but very pleasant and definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area checking out the temples.  Especially a tiny street trattoria called Manhattan where I had the best spaghetti I’ve ever tasted. Delicious. Divine.

Photo Valley of Temples - Juno - Sicily by David J Rodger

Temple of Juno

Photo Temple of Concordia - Valley of Temples Sicily by David J Rodger

Temple of Concordia

Photo remains of a Titan at Valley of Temples - Sicily by David J Rodger

Remains of a Titan

One of the original Titans found and re-assembled

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Photo showing how Titans would have looked at Valley of Temples - Sicily by David J Rodger

How Titans would have looked at Valley of Temples

What the Titan’s would have looked like in situ, holding aloft the massive roof structure between the giant pillars.

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Photo showing artistic impression of a Titan in Sicily by David J Rodger

Artistic impression of a Titan

Photo statue of female form without arms - Sicily by David J Rodger

Statue of female form

Day Two

We had planned to take a road trip to Palermo but decided it was better to spend a whole day by the amazing pool.  Palermo is probably better done as part of a dedicated trip there; fly in, explore and then splash across to Taormina for a few days.

The hotel pool was this vast expanse of crystal blue water with barely anybody there until late afternoon when the majority of other guests came back from their excursions. I spent the day finishing reading DEEP STATE by Walter Jon Williams, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Hotel Kaos.  The hotel has very random service in the dining / breakfast area; not very good but not terrible either.  But there’s a nice open bar area upstairs and a large space with a small amount of seating to lounge around. We had a decent enough room, no view to speak of but it was clean and comfortable; in fact, with all the moulded plastic extrusions and bright orange colours, it reminded me a little of being on set of the TV series, SPACE 1999.  The bathroom was amazing, a large walk-in wet room, enclosed by thick plate glass. There wasn’t a shower head. The whole ceiling WAS the shower. A large rectangular area of perforated holes that blasted water down onto me as I stood there, arms outstretched, grinning in the luxury of it. The floor was wooden boards, which allowed the water to drain away into some kind of system below.  Very simple but effective, bare feet on wooden boards. Lovely.

Travel Photo swimming pool of Hotel Kaos Agrigento Sicily by David J Rodger

Swimming pool of Hotel Kaos – Agrigento

Day Three

Leaving the hotel Kaos we travelled to a Villa Romana del Casale .  The remains are incredible in size and their state of preservation, more so the beautiful mosaics which are beyond anything I’ve ever seen before in my life. Our guide walked us through the entire place and using the mosaics as vivid visual reference, he truly brought the villa and it’s occupants to life in our minds.

Finally, early afternoon, it was time to drive to Taormina.

A coastal highway and the huge bulk of the volcanic mount Etna dominating the horizon on our left, and there in the distance the hint of steep cliffs and crags.  And nestled among the natural fortifications of rocks and near-vertical ascents, rooftops and church spires and the potent sense of ancient history woven amongst the threads of modern-day life. Taormina, 200 metres above the immediate coastline, folded in amongst the mountainous terrain against the edge of cliffs that tumbled away sharply into the wonderfully green blue sea.

We drove past and beneath Taormina, then circled round on modern roads held aloft on huge concrete pillars, climbing, climbing, climbing, curving back and forth, like driving up some insane scalextrics set laid out by a deranged child with track hanging in space between large structures (rock). And then we’re there.  Hotel – Excelsior Palace. Right on the edge of the town proper. Victorian construction.  Chique without the shabby.  And sprawling palatial gardens stretching away from the main building, cascading down stairways and terraces, out to  the ocean-facing cliffs where there’s a small swimming pool and amazing sun area to spend time lounging, gazing at the vast horizon from this elevated position. A small shack with a man mixing cocktails if you want them.

Although the hotel was fabulous, the initial room was very disappointing. We’d paid extra for a view. The choice was, view of the volcano or view of the sea. We’d opted for the volcano but sadly we also had a view of the “motorway” beneath the hotel that spirals up from below to reach town… it was noisy, ugly, not good. I complained and we were taken to a new room. This one was utterly beautiful, atmosphere and light, with a medieval portal looking out over the edges of Taormina and the sea.

The service at Excelsior Palace is impeccable and the staff are very friendly.

Before the sun set, I sat on the wide steps that led from the entrance of the hotel down towards the private gardens. They’d placed comfortable cushions and stunted tables there, so people could sit on the steps like terraced seating.  A man came out and impeccably took my order. He brought back the most refreshing G&T I’ve ever had in my life, and then proceeded to lay out a Smörgåsbord of olives, nuts, tapas and other tasty treats. It was perfection itself. I glanced to my right and stared at mount Etna, a vast bulk despite being over a dozen miles away. I just shook my head and chuckled, grinning broadly with delight.  This was an amazing moment.

Later I went for a walk through the main drag, Corso Umberto and found loads of spots I’d researched back in 1997 and 2004 – and found the location of scenes where Dorganskya, Brent and Korda had various actions. Surreal in a way because I was overlaying people and actions on the locations that have never ever occurred in reality: just inside my head.  Good though.

Late night drinks at Carpe Diem.

Travel photo Sicily - Villa Romana del Casale the gymnasium

Villa Romana del Casale – the gymnasium (nearly 2,000 years old)

Sicily - Villa Romana del Casale mythological mosaic

Villa Romana del Casale – mythological mosaic

Travel photo sicily  first glimpse of Mount Etna and Giardini Naxos looking down from Taormina - by David J Rodger

1st glimpse of Mount Etna and Giardini Naxos looking down from Taormina

Travel photo - Sicily Taormina - Corso Umberto by David J Rodger

Taormina – Corso Umberto

Travel photo - Sicily Taormina - fountain in Piazzi Duomo by David J Rodger

Fountain in Piazzi Duomo

This is where Vincent Brent has an altercation with Joachim Marlow in the novel Iron Man Project.

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Travel photo - Sicily Taormina - detail of fountain in Piazzi Duomo by David J Rodger

Detail of fountain in Piazzi Duomo

Day Four

Walked directly up from Taormina, taking steep narrow steps that cut between buildings until suddenly I’m on a steep path that zig-zags up a massive hillside towards Madonna in the Rocks. Popped out on a small road that overlooked the backside of Taormina, a lot of open hilly landscape, and one solitary crag of rock sticking up like a fang, with an entire town perched on top, clinging to the sides like something from a medieval fantasy. There was a water fountain that I gulped thankfully from.  The solitary crag held my gaze. How the heck does anybody get up there.  Called Castelmola I set off and found a route.  Bloody hell. It nearly killed me. The sun had burned through the early morning cloud and I wasn’t carrying a water bottle.  But it was an amazing hike, solitary despite passing a handful of houses on this lonely route.  And then I clambered over the shoulder of the town and I was suddenly surrounded by people and medieval buildings. Another water fountain. I nearly drank it dry.  I had a wander around then found a cafe with seats on the very edge of the crag, overlooking the castle below, Madonna in the rocks and then Taormina below that, with the nearby sea pressing in close on many sides.  Stunning.  I could also make out the vast semi-circular form of the Greek amphitheatre on the far edge of Taormina, furthest from my hotel.

That’s where I went when I got back down from the crag into Taormina. Had a spot of lunch at the wonderful Le Quattro Fontane – great service and great food, and me sitting next to the very spot where Vincent Brent confronts Joachim Marlow in Iron Man Project.  The amphitheatre is a must-see.  Jo and I spent ages there, just wandering around or sitting on the ancient rows of seats gazing down into the theatre or out, beyond it, at the sea, and the town and the bulk of mount Etna.

That night there was a dry thunder-storm. A staggering procession of lightning and booming thunder in the next valley from Taormina, lighting up the clouds and echoing off all the cliffs and mountainsides.  But no rain.

Travel photo Sicily clouds hovering over the Ionian Sea by David J Rodger

Clouds hovering over the Ionian

View of large clouds hanging low over the sea in the middle distance. Elevated view as I climb to Madonna in the Rocks.

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Travel photo - Sicily Taormina - plantpot head David J Rodger

Plant pot head over Taormina

Travel photo - Sicily Taormina - roadsign for Castlemola by David J Rodger

Roadsign for Castelmola

Travel photo - Sicily - looking down on Taormina from Castlemola by David J Rodger

Looking down on Taormina from Castelmola

I climbed on to Castelmola- which nearly killed me, but was rewarded by the most staggering views! Looking down from Castelmola… in the foreground you can see the cafe I went to later, which hangs over the edge of the staggering craggy cliff drop. In the middle-distance is the castle, close to Madonna in the Rocks, and is the first ascent Jo and I made from Taormina which you can see down far below. You can also just made out the semi-circle of the Greek amphitheatre.

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Travel photo Sicily - Taormina - Greek Ampitheatre by David J Rodger

Taormina – Greek amphitheatre

Travel photo Sicily - Taormina - Greek Ampitheatre - David J Rodger

David J Rodger at the Greek amphitheatre in Taormina

Travel photo Sicily - Taormina - Greek Ampitheatre and steep ascent towards Madonna in the Rocks by David J Rodger

Greek amphitheatre and steep ascent towards Madonna in the Rocks

This shows the scale of the ascent to the Madonna in the Rocks. That massive crag in the mid-ground, just beyond the amphitheatre walls… that’s the first part Jo and I climbed up together. Beyond and behind it is the even steeper climb to Castelmola. The photo really gives you a sense of how Taormina is squeezed in between the blunt walls of the mountainous terrain. Fabulous.

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Travel photo Sicily - Taormina - side street of Corso Umberto by David J Rodger

Side street of Corso Umberto

The main road in Taormina in the very narrow Corso Umberto. Leading off it, cutting sharply upwards into the base of the looming cliffs, are even narrower alleyways like these… the steps showing you how rapidly everything rises. Beyond the first terrace the steps begin to zig zag left and right, carrying you ever higher until the town stops, pressed up against the vertical walls of the cliffs above.

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Travel photo Sicily - Taormina - view of Giardini Naxos  from swimming pool of Excelsior Palace hotel by David J Rodger

View of Giardini Naxos from swimming pool of Excelsior Palace hotel

Lounging by the pool. The hotel has this incredible private garden that sprawls away from the main building, tumbling down terraces with sweeping paths and steep steps until you come to a private swimming pool. And you’re still 200 metres above the immediate coastline. It’s amazing. The pool and surrounding sun-chairs filled a space that was perched on the edge of a mighty rocky outcrop. Sitting there with a G&T in the 35C sunlight… you could gaze off into infinity. Looking down on Giardini Naxos. And there to the right, the volcanic Mount Etna looming above everything.

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Travel photo - Sicily - Taormina -  warning light against sea horizon by David J Rodger

Warning light against sea horizon

An iconic image for me – invokes vivid recollections of standing “on the edge of the world” smiling, blissfully happy despite everything going on back in the UK (some career stress).

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Photo black and white male hand by David J Rodger

My hand reaching for the sky out of sheer happiness

Day Five

Drove down to Syracuse. Very different to Taormina or anywhere else I’d been to in Sicily so far.  Actually very nice.  Has a slightly Napoleonic vibe, a little bit of Malta too, but still with a unique identity.  Did a boat ride around the Grand Harbour, this is where Archimedes fought of the Athenians and to some extent the Romans before being killed, using his fantastic inventions of military technology.  Wonderful to be floating around on a boat there.  Met our guide Renato who took us on a walking tour of the city, bringing buildings and historical figures to life.  The church, built on the site of an ancient Greek temple, demonstrable by the fact embedded into the structure of the church itself are the ancient pillars from that temple:  thousands of years old. You could reach out your hand and touch them. Connect directly with ancient history.

Travel photo Syracuse Sicily - Grand Harbour where Archimedes helped fight off Athenians by David J Rodger

Syracuse – Grand Harbour where Archimedes helped fight off Athenians

Travel photo Statue of Saint Paul outside Syracuse Cathedral, Piazza Duomo, Ortygia, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy by David J Rodger

Statue of Saint Paul outside Syracuse Cathedral, Piazza Duomo, Syracuse.

Travel photo Syracuse Sicily by David J Rodger

Syracuse

Travel photo Christian Basilica in Syracuse built on existing site of pagan temple

Christian Basilica in Syracuse built on existing site of pagan temple

Built on the site of the greatest ancient Ionian temple known to the Western Grecian Empire, the remains of which are fused into this structure; the perfect blend of pagan and Christian. The Doric columns, visible on the left nave of the cathedral, date from when a Temple of Athena stood on the site. In the 7th Century, when converted into a Christian structure, the columns were incorporated, linking the worship of the past, with the present.

The Roman philosopher and statesman, Cicero, narrated tales of the temple’s ivory and gold doors decorated with the goddess’ shining shield; being visible from afar, it acted as a landmark and guide to navigating sailors in ancient times.

When converted into a Christian Basilica the space between the pillars was closed, the interior reused, and it became this Cathedral. During Norman times the walls of the naves were decorated with mosaics, parts of which remain to this day.
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Travel photo fountain in Syracuse Sicily by David J Rodger

Fountain in Syracuse

Travel photo Sicily - Columns and architrave of south peristyle near SE corner of Temple of Apollo  Syracuse by David J Rodger

Columns & architrave of south peristyle near SE corner of Temple of Apollo Syracuse

Day Six

Woke up early and watched the sun rise from the edge of the bed; a view facing directly east, the horizon a flat line of the sea… colour bleeding into the sky and then the blazing blister of the furnace sun sliding up and over.  Beautiful.  Drove to mount Etna. Paid 60 euros to ride the cable cars up and then grab a ride in one of the many jeeps to the top. Next time I’ll probably do the cable car but then walk to the top, probably a good couple of hours at least but fun to do I think, especially as there is usually pockets of cloud drifting across. No view of Taormina, obscured by the cloud hugging that shoulder of the volcano, but otherwise perfect views for miles all around.  Being up there, clambering, slipping and sliding over volcanic scree, standing on the edge of vast and beautiful formations, sweeping curves of scree like dunes or pyramids, I felt utterly alive.  Wonderful. I adore mountains.  As I adore forests and the sea.

Coming down to the cable car station I sat outside, in the chilly high-altitude air, at a bright red Coca-Cola table and supped strong coffee and munched on this massive ball of rice, meat and cheese wrapped in deep fried breadcrumbs.

Travel photo Sicily Taormina stunning view from hotel window Excelsior Palace by David J Rodger

Sunrise – view from hotel window Excelsior Palace Taormina

This is the window of our hotel room (107) at Excelsior Palace, a magnificent structure perched on the edge of a large craggy outcrop. Waking up in the morning, facing east, I was greeted every day by the beautiful pastel colours of the early dawn sky followed by the rapid flood of furnace fire above the horizon. A great way to start any day.

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Travel Photo Sicily view of mount Etna from Taormina

View of Mount Etna from Taormina

It’s still early and I’m getting ready to head out to my next destination, the peak of the active volcano, Mount Etna. In a couple of hours I’m going to be up THERE!

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Travel Photo alien landscape flanks of mount Etna Sicily by David J Rodger

Alien landscape on the flanks of mount Etna

Travel Photo Sicily - cloud formations over mount Etna by David J Rodger

Cloud formations over mount Etna

Reaching the lower gondola station we’re about 1,900 metres up. I stop and snap a photo of the beautiful view – and the rapid and surreal cloud formations rushing into existence as the warm air from the sea rises up and cools against the obstinate bulk of the vast volcano (3,345 metres high at peak). The photo shows the nearby edge of this modern lava flow, and then the distant coastline.

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Travel photo Sicily Mount Etna two figures stagger through clouds at 2500 metres from gondola station towards Torre del Filosofo by David J Rodger

Two figures stagger through clouds at 2500 metres towards Torre del Filosofo

From the lower gondola station you climb up to 2,500 metres – and from there you can either catch a ride on a jeep up to 3,000 metres or walk it. Walking it looks like a lot of fun although there are moments when clouds slither over the shoulder of the volcano obscuring your path: you can see the figure in the background stooped over trying to catch bearings – and avoid walking into any active craters.

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Travel photo Sicily Mount Etna figures clamber along ridge of volcanic crater 3000 metres Torre del Filosofo by David J Rodger

Mount Etna, figures clamber along ridge of volcanic crater Torre del Filosofo @ 3,000 metres

I reach 3,000 metres and get out of the jeep. I’m in another world – in a world above the world and I can’t get H.P.Lovecraft’s dream quest novellas out of my mind. This is where the old gods dance and sing beyond the dark the of the night, hidden by the clouds and steam from the prying eyes of mortal men. Talking of which. That’s men and women you can see on the upper ridge there; that isn’t the top of the volcano, that’s just the edge of one crater. Big, isn’t it.

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Travel photo Sicily mount Etna alien landscape by David J Rodger

Mount Etna – more alien landscape

Like being on the surface of Mars. It could almost be a black and white photo but it’s actually full colour.

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Travel photo Sicily mount Etna - inukshuks built from volcanic pebbles and stones creating alien landscape on side of Torre del Filosofo by David J Rodger

Mount Etna – inukshuks built from volcanic stones on side of Torre del Filosofo

Travel photo Sicily - mount Etna - ridge leading up to volcanic crater Torre del Filosofo by David J Rodger

Mount Etna – ridge leading up to volcanic crater

Travel photo Sicily clouds sliding over the shoulder of Mount Etna by David J Rodger

Clouds sliding over the shoulder of Mount Etna

You can see one of the large cloud formations sliding up and over the shoulder of the volcano. And down there is the dirt track we took to get up… see how it slips in and out of the dense cloud. Scroll back and see the photo I took of mount Etna earlier, when I was standing in the town of Taormina. That’s where I am now. All the way up there. Stunning.

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Travel photo Sicily Mount Etna - jeep driving through clouds up towards Torre del Filosofo by David J Rodger

Mount Etna – jeep driving through clouds up towards Torre del Filosofo

One of the transports taking people from the upper gondola station to the top of the volcano. It’s about a 15 minute drive, at speed, ascending sharply at times with the terrain sliding away like granules of ice. Cloud formations drift across the route without warning reducing visibility to a few metres, if that.

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Travel photo - British Sci-fi Dark Fantasy Cyberpunk Horror author David J Rodger stands on Mount Etna Sicily

David J Rodger on Mount Etna

Here’s a view of the volcanic crater I’d been using in many of the previous shots, but now in context and you can see how enormous it actually is: called Torre del Filosofo.

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Travel photo Sicily Mount Etna lone figure sits on volcanic rock gazing out at distant horizon by David J Rodger

Mount Etna, lone figure sits on volcanic rock gazing out at distant horizon

Solitary figure was sitting there for ages just gazing out at the curve of the world. Interestingly, being up at 3,000 metres the wind was strong and bitingly cold, but sitting on the rocks…. they were warm, in fact some of them were hot, thanks to the volcanic activity going on below our feet. When I sat down on one I touched the souls of my boots and they were hot and soft! Weird.

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Travel photo Sicily looking up at Taormina and Castlemola from Giardini Naxos by David J Rodger

Looking up at Taormina and Castelmola from Giardini Naxos

The photos taken from the hotel pool area often look down onto this nearby bay. I’m standing there now looking back up at the hotel – or rather, at the vast rocky outcrop that clasps Taormina in its palm, you can see the light colour spread of the town around the lower edges. You can also see the mighty fang of Castelmola rising up behind and above it – that’s where I walked (climbed!) to reach the small town clinging up there.

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Day Seven

My final day.  I’m  due to fly back tonight.  I didn’t want to leave.  Here was so beautiful. I sat on the edge of the bed again and photographed the sunrise. Jaw-dropping.  Then a day by the pool, lounging, reading, staring at the surrounding cliffs and hills and the raw beauty of Taormina.  It’s been so great to have finally visited the place in reality rather than just through the fictional scenes of my novels.

travel photo Sicily Taormina watching the sunrise from hotel room Excelsior Palace

Taormina watching the sunrise from hotel room – Excelsior Palace

travel photo Sicily Taormina watching the sunrise from hotel room Excelsior Palace 1

Taormina sunrise

travel photo Sicily Taormina watching the sunrise from hotel room Excelsior Palace 2

Taormina sunrise

Travel photo Sicily  gyrocopter very James Bond hovers over Taormina by David J Rodger

Gyrocopter hovers over Taormina – very James Bond moment

I spent the final day down by the pool. Had a very strange Bond moment when I looked up at the sound of a small motorised aircraft and gazed out at a gyrocopter zipping around the coastline. The guy flew right past me and waved. If I’d reached out I could have slapped his hand as he went past.

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Travel photo Sicily swimming pool at Excelsior Palace hotel Taormina - beautiful hotel amazing service friendly staff

Swimming pool at Excelsior Palace hotel Taormina

The pool. You can see why I didn’t want to leave. At the rear of the pool a couple of paths wind and climb steeply up through terraces and private gardens (owned by the hotel) towards the hotel proper. In the far distance you can see the fang like crag of Castelmola.

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Travel photo Sicily view of Castlemola from Taormina by David J Rodger

View of Castelmola from Taormina

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Iron Man Project - a cyberpunk thriller by British sci-fi cyberpunk author David J Rodger

Available in paperback or kindle

Paperback : from LULU & kindle: US ($), UK (£), DE (Euro)

IRON MAN PROJECT { novel with major scenes set in Taormina } Ex-special forces man, Vincent Brent, is tough, ruthless and highly trained; he’s now using his skills for whoever will pay him without cashing in the bounty on his head. In this world of the near future, the UN has failed. Wars are fought in boardrooms through attorneys and politics, and on our streets with private armies of military or criminal assets. In Sicily, the Chief of Security for one such corporate alliance struggles to survive as hidden forces attempt to manipulate him for their own ends. Both these men find their fates intertwined. In the cross-hairs of powerful adversaries, they must both make decisions of life and death in a choice between command and conscience. David J Rodger’s trademark unforgiving rendering of brutal reality, and relentless narrative pace, are here in palm-sweating abundance, delivered in a complex novel that will keep you turning pages until the end.

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