The dramatic resort town of Taormina – high on Monte Tauro – boasts Mount Etna as its backdrop and an ancient Greek theatre as part of the scenery, and has been likened to a Sicilian Monte Carlo.
The views from the town have inspired visitors for centuries, including DH Lawrence, who lived here between 1920 and 1923. One of the charming things about Taormina as a long-weekend destination is that there’s no real need to sightsee once you’ve seen the Greek theatre, and despite the proliferation of tourists, the town retains much of its late medieval character, dotted with intimate piazzas and 15-century palazzi.
WHERE TO STAY IN TAORMINA
Taormina is at its best when the day-trippers leave; so stay in the town rather than in Giardini-Naxos, its satellite.
THE GRAND HOTEL TIMEO
Via Teatro Greco 59 (00 39 0942 23801; www.framonhotels.com). This luxury hotel has the most spectacular position, just below the Greek theatre, with a panoramic terrace that fills up with movers and schmoozers during the film festival (in mid-June). Inside, it has antique style in bagfuls. £££
THE SAN DOMENICO PALACE
Piazza San Domenico 5 (00 39 0942 613111; www.thi.it). This hotel wins the hotel-garden contest, its parterres are ablaze with hibiscus, bougainvillaea and japonica, and – unlike the Timeo – it has a pool. The rooms, though comfortable, are reminiscent of the hotel’s convent past.The San Domenico Palace hotel was voted Best Overseas leisure hotel in Europe in The Readers’ Travel Awards 2002. £££
Via Leonardo da Vinci 60 (00 39 0942 28153; www.hotelvilladucale.it). This is an attractive, affordable villa conversion. The reception area doubles as library and salon-bar and bedrooms have cast-iron beds and frescoes. The gardens are a riot of colour; and although there’s no pool, there are a couple of outdoor Jacuzzis. £
Via Bagnoli Croci 79 (00 39 0942 23791; www.villabelvedere.it). This affordable, lovely pale-yellow villa has a decent pool and an old family-style hotel atmosphere with a personal touch. £
LE CASE DEL PRINCIPE
Near Trappitello (00 39 0942 577 137; www.alliatadivilla franca.it). This is an exception to the ‘don’t-stay-out-of-town’ rule, consisting of a group of four-room cottages, on Prince Gabriele Alliata di Villafranca’s estate on the coastal plain 8km south of Taormina. Self-catering rooms are basic but attractive, with bamboo roofing and naïve paintings; each has a veranda overlooking olive and citrus trees. At quiet times, guests can use the Prince’s swimming pool. ££
WHERE TO EAT OUT IN TAORMINA
This corner of Sicily is a land of strong flavours, as featured in perhaps the only pasta dish to be named after an opera, spaghetti alla Norma, with its sauce of tomatoes, fried aubergine and pecorino. There are plenty of restaurants in and around Taormina that serve this and other Sicilian classics such as pasta con le sarde (macaroni with fresh sardines, sweet cicely, raisins and pine nuts) and grilled or fried seafood secondi.
Via Bagnoli Croce 88 (00 39 0942 625 218). Ideal for a decent, low-budget meal, this unpretentious trattoria is situated opposite Taormina’s public park, the Villa Comunale. The decor is standard southern Italian, but the atmosphere is friendly, the Sicilian food tasty and the bill astonishingly low.
Via Santa Maria de’ Greci (00 39 0942 21208; www.casagrugno.it). More exalted fare, decor and service are on offer at this restaurant carved out of an aristocratic, Catalan-style townhouse dating from the 16th century, with a garden patio for summer dining. Austrian-born but Taormina-adopted chef Andreas Zangerl is ambitious, but dishes such as lasagne with grouper, seafood and mozzarella don’t always come off.
Graniti (00 39 0942 47047). Located in the village of Graniti, a few kilometres up the Alcántara valley from the coast, A Casitta offers authentic Sicilian food at a reasonable price. Host Pippo Lembo keeps the antipasti coming and after a couple of pasta tasters and a secondo of lamb or rabbit, you’re entitled to loosen your belt.
Corso Umberto 1 112. This jewel of a cake shop is on Taormina’s main street. Ask for a te freddo (cold tea), which comes with a dollop of lemon sorbet and fuel up for the walk to the (closed) castle with a torta di mandorla (almond cake).
WHAT TO SEE IN TAORMINA
IN THE TOWN
THE MUSEO SICILIANO DI ARTE E TRADZIONI POPOLARI
Try to see the entertaining exhibition of wacky folklore in the modest Museo Siciliano di Arte e Tradizioni Popolari, housed in the 14th-century Palazzo Corvaja in the centre of town. These naïve paintings, offered in thanks to the Son of God or His Mother for help in averting a tragedy, are charming. In one, a nun is stabbed by the sacristan in what looks suspiciously like a crime of passion. Even more intriguing is the ex voto offered up by a certain Santa Verga after she survived being thrown off a bridge by her husband and her lover (an eminently Sicilian solution). Best of all, though, is the ex voto that manages to spin a miracle out of the devastating eruption of Etna on 11 March 1669. Next to the volcanic fireworks and the glowing lava we read: ‘The lava flow, after having buried 18 villages, came to a halt, miraculously, in the sea’. Open Tues to Sun, 9am to 1pm and 4pm to 8pm.
OUTSIDE THE TOWN
Down below, the islet of Isola Bella is connected by a thin strip of sand to the mainland: no more than a beach towel across at its narrowest point. The coves below Taormina, north of the resort of Giardini-Naxos, are connected to the town by cable car, and in summer most visitors spend the day down there, returning for the evening passeggiata through the town centre.
THE ALCANTARA VALLEY
Spring or late autumn is also a good time to explore the Alcántara valley, which curls inland from Taormina around the northern edge of Mount Etna: a place of handsome, crumbling hill villages such as Castiglione di Sicilia, low gorges bordered by shiny gunmetal-grey rocks and invitations to buy local products such as Etna honey and a fiery, sulphuric red wine.
THE TEATRO GRECO
This is signposted from just about everywhere and can be found at the end of Via Teatro Greco. The theatre is carved out of the hillside and the magnificent views give a complete panorama of southern Calabria, the Sicilian coastline and snow-capped Etna. Despite its name, the existing remains are almost entirely Roman. Although it was founded by Greeks in the third century BC, it was rebuilt at the end of the first century AD, a period when Taormina enjoyed great prosperity under Imperial Roman rule and the reconstruction completely changed the theatre’s character. Open daily from 9am to one hour before sunset.
The view from up on Mount Etna is startling. Around you is a heaving sea, a vast congealed flow of dull brown-black fragments. The lava swallows light and sound, so you have to strain to hear your guide. The last eruption, in July 2001, warped some of the pylons of the cable car that carried summer visitors up to the 2,500-metre-mark and made Etna one of Europe’s more unusual winter-sports destinations. Visitors are now ferried in huge four-wheel-drive minibuses up to a point just below the Torre del Filosofo – supposedly built by the philosopher Empedocles just before he leapt into the crater to convince his followers that he was a god.
Taormina’s annual film festival takes place in June, when films are shown on a giant screen and stars such as Tom Cruise and Greta Scacchi turn up to receive their awards.
Giardini-Naxos was an obvious stop for ships sailing between Greece and southern Italy, and there was a settlement here by 734 BC, named Naxos after the Greek island from which the colonists came.
The resort constitutes a wide, curving bay, south of Taormina, and is a particularly good spot for swimming. The town of Giardini which backs the beach, is excellent for those after cheaper accommodationa and food that that found in Taormina. The beach is one of the most popular in Sicily, and large sections of it are sectioned off as private areas where sun loungers and umbrellas can be rented. There are also numerous water-sports facilities here.