“Years ago, when Taormina was a village that most travelers avoided in the summer because of the heat, I sought it out to feel the heat. Heat was everything in the poem, ‘Snake,’ that D.H. Lawrence wrote in Taormina. Great names and associations mattered to me, which was another reason, lingering in that steep town of old stone and fresh flowers, I stopped at the Palazzo D’Oro, loving that name, too. Beyond the gilded cast-iron faces on the spiked gateway to the terrace, I saw a handsome couple, dressed in loose white clothes enjoying a big Italian lunch. I imagined being seated at that table. I thought—I want your life.”
–Paul Theroux, The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro.
Hanging precariously off the top of a mountain, staring down 700 feet at the Ionian Sea, and graced by centuries of fluctuating architecture, bougainvillea and citrus blossoms. Taormina is, with good reason, among the greatest treasures of Sicily.
After visiting Taormina, most foreigners go back home telling everyone that it’s the most beautiful place that they’ve seen in all of Italy…maybe in the entire world. Meanwhile, some Italians might say, yes, it’s incredibly beautiful, but a bit touristy (probably the only place in Sicily where one would even consider that adjective). Well, to be fair, I think that’s because foreigners have been flocking to this precious little village for a long time, as it once was a stop on the Grand Tour.
To name just a few of the luminaries and historical characters have pledged their adoration for this tiny glimpse of paradise: Goethe, Nietzsche, Wagner, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Gustav Klimt, Alexander Dumas, Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud, D. H. Lawrence, Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and many more. They all have fallen in love with the panorama from Piazza XXI Aprile. And so have I. Then again, who wouldn’t want to be among THAT crowd?
The legend links its name to the Minotaur, a menacing creature that demanded the sacrifice of young, beautiful boys and girls to satisfy his bloodthirsty appetites. Indeed, the image of a Minotaur is found in the earliest coins minted here. However, the account of Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the 1st century BC, seems a little more likely. In the year 396 BC, the Sicels and Carthaginians founded the city on Mount Taurus, so called because of its shape. Soon after, Dionysus of Syracuse conquered the territory for Greece, where not much happened until the year 358 BC, when Andromachus settled here with the survivors of the nearby colony of Naxos. The site remained Greek until the Roman conquest.
Nowadays, visiting Taormina is a must on any trip to Sicily, but it’s also an important venue for art, cinema, literature, and much more. Every year, many cultural events take place here, like the Taormina Film Festival; plays, ballets, operas and fashion shows…all held within the breathtaking frame of its most famous monument, the ancient Greek theatre.
As the name suggests, the Teatro Greco, was built by the Greeks in the 3rd Century B.C. and it once held performances of works by none other than Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. However, what we see today is mostly what remains from the Roman reconstruction in the 2nd Century A.D., as evidenced by the brickwork. But if you’re not particularly engaged in the evening’s stage production, don’t worry; the panorama will hold your attention. Views from the theatre are spectacular, taking in the smoldering Mount Etna in the near distance and the Bay of Naxos down below.
The main street through town is Corso Umberto I. At the beginning of this charming pedestrian-only lane is a classic example of Taormina’s long and complicated history: the Palazzo Corvaja. As is common throughout Sicily, the architecture is a unique blend of Arab, Norman and Gothic styles.
The Arabs built the original tower inspired, it is believed, by the Kaabah in Mecca. In the 13th Century, the tower was enlarged by the Norman rulers who also added a wing containing a large hall. The Spanish added their contribution at the beginning of the 15th Century, expanding the structure to hold the Sicilian Parliament. The inhabitants of this delightful street take part in an annual contest for the most beautiful balcony, which are festooned with colorful flowers that cascade gently down those buildings of old stone.
Below the town is, of course, the Ionian Sea, reached by a cable car which takes you from the town center—along Via Pirandello, just outside of the Porta Messina—to Mazzarò Bay, the site of the major seaside resorts in the region. From sea-level you can look out across the waves and admire one of the most recognizable features of Taormina, Isola Bella (in Sicilian: Ìsula Bedda), a rock formation covered in vibrant foliage, floating like a mirage in the diamond blue water.
I Vini Siciliani
It has only been in the last two decades that the rest of the world has come to fully appreciate the wines from Sicily. Grapes that we were once used as “blending” wines in the North of Italy and France have since come into their own right. Sicily has long been Italy’s largest grower of wine grapes. But now people are actually seeking out Sicilian varietals such as the notable reds Nero D’Avola and Nerello Mascalese, and crisp whites such as Grecanico, Inzolia, and Carricante which enhance the enjoyment of any seafood dish.
Beyond these more well-known varietals, there are several particular types of wine only found in Sicily with some unique characteristics. Ever heard of the Malvasia delle Lipari? It’s a sweet wine, produced in limited quantities with the rare grapes grown in The Aeolian Islands. The fruit is first put to “shrink” – and therefore sweeten – under the warm Sicilian sun. These raisins are then pressed and the super concentrated juice is fermented into a divine golden nectar which is often paired with dessert.
The area that surrounds Taormina along the slopes of Mount Etna produces some especially good wines. The mix of temperature, wind, humidity, and fertile volcanic soil is so exceptional that the wines produced here are not only exquisite, but so particular that even an uneducated palate will easily learn to recognize their special accent.
For example, in Castelmola, a tiny little village built atop Taormina, a very special wine is made called Vino alla Mandorla. The ancient Greeks passed down the tradition of infusing wines with the fruit available in the region. The purpose for this practice was to bring the scents and flavors of those faraway exotic lands back to Athens —conveniently preserved in a bottle of wine.
In fact, this little village contains an infamous bar with a very particular theme. I’ll let the picture explain it to you. Or click on the photo to visit their site.
Going back to the Island
One of the most appealing things about Sicily is that—unlike large parts of mainland Italy—it has (so far) resisted the modernizing/homogenizing forces that transform a place into a carbon copy of every place else. (A few years ago, McDonalds futilely attempted to open a restaurant in Messina. It closed in less than a year.)
The traditions that form the core of Sicily’s identity remain intact. You still find all the elements that make Sicily uniquely Sicilian: a fervent commitment to family; that particular fusion of Catholicism, paganism, and superstition which influences nearly every aspect of daily life; and a healthy suspicion of any laws or regulations imposed on them by the politicians in faraway Rome. (And no, they don’t need Berlusconi’s ill-conceived bridge, grazie. The traghetto system has worked just fine for millennia).
I’m getting really excited about our upcoming trip this summer. I’ve been to Sicily several times, including Taormina, and of course Jessica grew up in Messina, just down the road. But this time we’re going to explore even further into this unknowable region, seeing and tasting and doing everything we can to introduce our guests to the very best of Sicily, while deepening our own appreciation for its many treasures. We still have a few spots open for anyone adventurous enough to step off the beaten path and see the real Italy. Join us, won’t you?