Discovering the island through eyes of college set By Gay Nagle Myers / October 13, 1999 Share 1 -- Senior editor Gay Nagle Myers explored an island whose antiquities outnumber trattorias, whose motorists seem bent on anarchy and whose gelato is possibly the best on the planet. Here is her report:TAORMINA, Sicily -- Mamma Mia exists. I found her here in her tiny shop on a street barely wide enough for a Vespa scooter. She spoke little English. I spoke less Italian. We gestured and smiled. She looked at Jenn, my college-age traveling companion, connected us as mother and daughter and pointed to a photograph on the wall of her grown children.We purchased panini (sandwiches) and took pictures.I saw her several times after that. On my last visit, she wrapped up a hunk of cheese and a bottle of wine and thrust them at me for my daughter and her friends.Mamma Mia typified the Sicilians I met during my nine-day visit last spring. The word "exuberance" does not begin to do them justice.I was part of a spring-break college tour and I knew from the get-go this would be no ordinary tour. I was right.By hanging with the students, I felt far more connected to the Sicilians I met and the experiences I had than if I'd been on my own or in a press group.Together we tramped kilometers of ruins and several hillsides of blackened lava rocks, toured a few museums and churches, spent a day at a fishing village and several late evenings in bars and cafes and ate at least 20 different versions of artichoke.We also concluded that laundry day is every day but Sunday in Sicily, judging from the clothes flapping off balconies from Messina in the north to Siracusa in the south.I wasn't prepared for Sicily, nor were the kids. I'd read some historical stuff, but in truth, we all were initially more curious about the Mafia connection than the Mediterranean influence.This place grabbed me, from my first encounter with Mamma Mia to my last grazie to the hotel maid who created order from chaos in the room I shared with Jenn.Sicily is especially recommended for travelers who already have visited Italy but have overlooked this chunk of history hanging off the toe of the boot.Our headquarters was the Hotel Ariston in the hillside resort town of Taormina, on Sicily's east coast, overlooking the Ionian Sea.It's midway between Messina to the north and Catania to the south, in full view of the die-hard smoker Mount Etna, continually sputtering and always snow-capped.During this trip, the glow from Etna's newest lava trails was visible at night from the town's plazas.Taormina's location pleased us all -- no packing or unpacking, easy access for day trips and plenty to do on the free days, including a cable-car ride to the beach far below town.The town's most pleasing sites included bougainvillea- and lemon-scented squares, cafes, the new Museo d'Arte with European art spanning the centuries, a Greek theater dating to the third century B.C., churches, a clock tower and a pedestrian-only medieval center with cobblestone streets.Within walking distance of the hotel were trendy boutiques, an ample supply of bars and clubs and several Italian versions of fast-food outlets that certainly delighted my traveling companions.Our first excursion took us north to coastal Tindari, which dates to 396 B.C. and is famous for its Sanctuary of the Black Madonna.After a stop in Forza d'Agro, Siracusa was next, a full-day jaunt to the southeast coast past groves of peach trees in bloom and fields in multiple shades of green.The Greeks founded Siracusa (Syracuse on some maps) in 734 B.C., and in its heyday, it rivaled Athens in power and splendor.I sat in the sun on crumbling stone steps in the Teatro Greco, the most intact Greek theater surviving from antiquity, and marveled at its construction -- without benefit of power tools and backhoes.Our guide, Rosa Rizza, led us into towering caves and quarries, carved by thousands of slaves. She wove a good story and held our attention. The archaeological park is mammoth, and we explored just a small portion that day.The chaotic open-air fish market in Catania was next, a place the guys in our group liked far more than the girls did. Burly fisherman dangled squirming gelatinous masses of sea life in our faces. I'm glad a brisk breeze was blowing.Another full-day excursion crisscrossed Sicily's interior to reach the fishing village of Cefalu on the north coast. With beaches, sun and bare feet, I felt right at home here. Some of the group climbed the Rocca, a massive peak behind the town. I opted for grilled artichokes at the Bardel Molo outdoor cafe.Later the same day, I discovered Porta Pescara, a fishermen's hangout fashioned from an arch in a stone wall, whose interior held nets, poles and Salvatore, a local fisherman, holding court.A half-day excursion to Mount Etna the next morning was cut short because of a sudden whiteout that closed the ski lifts and reduced visibility.Although lava was flowing in one section that was off limits to all but volcanologists, tourists were free to move about Etna's foothills with ease.We visited wineries, had a pasta-making lesson, helped a farmer herd some wayward cows, sampled Italian coffee and beer and photographed castles, ruins and laundry.One afternoon, our bus crept up the hillside far above Taormina to Castelmola and its views of southern Italy. It was here the group discovered a bizarre shop that sold chocolate condoms. The proprietor made a killing that day.The Piazza Armenia in southern Sicily, a Roman villa discovered in 1950, is on most itineraries here because of its 10,000 square feet of mosaics. It did not impress our group much beyond five minutes, after which we retreated to a cafe full of music and Italian students.It was that kind of trip.