Idyllically perched on a rocky promontory high above the sea, Taormina has been the most popular tourist destination in Sicily for a couple of hundred of years, ever since it became an integral part of the Grand Tour. Beautifully restored mediaeval buildings, breathtaking views around every corner and a giddy network of winding streets strewn with shops, bars and restaurants make for a perfect holiday spot.
Taormina’s past is Sicily’s history in a microcosm: Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, the French and the Spanish all came, saw, conquered and left.
Tauromenium, built on Monte Tauro, was founded by Andromacus at the behest of Dionysius the Tyrant of Syracuse in 392BC. The first Punic War saw Taormina falling to the Romans in 212BC and the town became a favorite holiday spot for Patricians and Senators, thus starting Taormina’s long history as a tourist resort.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines came only to be ousted by the Arabs in 962. They changed the name to Almoezia and set about introducing new agricultural practices (irrigation and citrus fruit farming) and other more cerebral pursuits such as philosophy, medicine and mathematics. Taormina continued to prosper both culturally and economically with the arrival of the Normans in 1079, who, under King Roger de Hautville, threw the Arabs out of Sicily.
After a brief period of Swabian rule, under Frederick II, Charles of Anjou was pronounced King of Sicily by the Pope. The people of Taormina refused to recognize this interloper as their king and, along with a great many other Sicilian towns, joined in the revolt against French rule during the Sicilian Vespers of 1282.
A hundred years of uncertainty followed before the Spanish took over affairs. Evidently impressed with Taormina, they chose Palazzo Corvaja as the seat of the Sicilian Parliament.
The rest, as they say, is storia.
As soon as you arrive in Taormina, you will feel the magical, mythical atmosphere spread all around which has enchanted visitors from all over the world for years and years.
Goethe wrote: “Without Sicily, Italy creates no image in the soul: here is the key to everything”.
In Taormina we suggest to visit the Greek Theatre the second-largest in Sicily after the one in Siracusa. Though originally built in the Hellenistic period, it was completely reconstructed by the Romans and used for gladiatorial shows. The theater is situated at the very top of a hill, leveled for the purpose, using the natural incline of the valley for the "cavea": the auditorium seating. The majestic panorama, combined with a spectacular view of Etna and the Calabrian mountains, renders this hollowed out hill a natural stage, as well as a stage for natural beauty. Then, the center of Taormina which radiates from the main thoroughfare, Corso Umberto I. Stroll along it beginning at Porta Messina as it gently climbs up to Porta Catania. Don’t forget the Fountain in Piazza Duomo, a Barocco style fountain, built in 1635, in Taormina marble; Palazzo Corvaja, which is one of Taormina’s historical landmarks. Its architecture is a mixture of styles (from Arabian to Norman to Gothic) due to the different eras during which it was built and extended. The Public Gardens, where there is a thick vegetation and a typically Mediterranean array of hedges and flower-beds with cobbled paths which lengthwise connect the almost three hectares of park. In the centre and on the north-east end of the gardens, there are some characteristic pagoda-style towers with arabesque designs, made of bricks and edged with lavic pumice-stone.
“If one has never seen oneself completely surrounded by the sea, one has no idea of the world and one’s own relationship with the world. As an artist drawing landscapes, that great simple line has given me completely new ideas.” (Goethe)
So, let’s enjoy Sicily beautiful coastline! A cable car links Taormina with Mazzarò on the coast. The little bay of Mazzarò is enclosed on the south side by Capo Sant’Andrea which is riddled with caves and grottoes, including the Blue Grotto. Beyond the headland is the delightful bay that sweeps round to Isola Bella, linked to main shore by a narrow strip of land. Very closed to Taormina is Giardini Naxos, the beach on which the first Greek colonists probably landed 2700 years ago, and which now accommodates thousands of tourists due to its charming position, the particularly mild climate, the long beach and the splendid scenery. Concerning the Alcantara Gorge, it is a part of a vast nature area formed by canyons of ancient lava flows traversed by the Alcantara river and dotted with amazing waterfalls and ponds!
Mongibello, as the Etna is also known, is the highest summit in Sicily. Cloaked in snow during winter, it is one of Europe’s best known active volcanoes. Its height, continuously modified by eruptions, is around 3,350m. With its dramatic volcanic displays, Etna is one of the island’s most interesting sites and the area also has a fascinating, artistic, cultural and culinary heritage, which includes Etna wine, pistachio nuts, honey, fragrant granite and warm brioche. Etna can be explored from the southern or northern slopes of the volcano, the two routes offer contrasting views and landscapes: the route up the southern side to Rifugio Sapienza runs to an unnerving and alien landscape dominated by black lava and relieved occasionally by white patch of snow or pink or yellow bursts of flowers in spring, while the northern side via Piano Provenzana wends its way through a lush larch forest. Arriving from Zafferana Etnea, just before Rifugio Sapienza, a sign points to the Crateri Silvestri, craters formed in 1892 and reached by a short walk through a lunar landscape.
There are pretty towns and villages surrounding the mountain, for example Linguaglossa, in the northern flank, whose name derives from the ancient term for “a big tongue of lava”. Perhaps this is a reference to its vulnerable “red-hot” position on the slopes of Etna, down which incandescent lava has flowed on several occasion. Sant’Alfio, a tiny village with a monumental church whit an unusual lava façade incorporating a campanile. Sant’Alfio’s main attraction, however, is a famous chestnut tree, over 2000 years old, known as the Castagno dei 100 Cavalli. Milo , one of the most lively towns perched on Etna with panoramic view of the coast, it has been destroyed by lava flows on three occasions (1950, 1971, 1979). Bronte, famous for its pistachios; Randazzo, very close to the volcano, called the “black town” due to its lava paving, arches and principal monuments in the attractive historical centre.
Sicily’s second city, Catania packs a powerful cultural punch. It’s a town where music, food, art and ancient cult dedicated to St Agatha are strictly mixed. Destroyed time and time again by volcanic eruptions, war, earthquakes and other disaster, Catania always manages to get back on its feet!
Catania’s history is a long chronicle of domination by a succession of people and dynasties that followed on from one another from the VIII century BC to the recent past: Greek, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabian, Angevins, Aragonese, Spanish, Austrians, Bourbons. Founded by Greek colonists around 724 BC, Katane flourished during the roman period, as revealed by its many surviving monuments. Tragedy struck in the 17 century when lava flowed into the streets, followed 20 years later by a terrible earthquake that destroyed most of its buildings. But the city rose from the rubble, complete with wide streets, piazzas and monuments. The brainchild behind the new design was the architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, who gave the city a baroque aspect!
The town is centred around Piazza Duomo, which is lined with an elegant baroque ensemble. In the middle stands the Fontana dell’Elefante, also called “u Liutru”, the symbol of Catania, designed in 1735 by Vaccarini. The lava elephant sculpture dates from the roman period and bears an Egyptian obelisk. On the south side of the square sites the more delicate Fontana dell’Amenano, named after the river that supplies it on its way past some of the principal monuments of the Roman age (notably the Theatre and the Terme della Rotonda). Behind it is the Piazza Alonzo di Benedetto, where a picturesque and bustling fish market takes place daily. The star of the square is the Duomo, the cathedral dedicated to St Agatha, patron saint of the city; it was erected in the late 11C by the Norman king Roger I and rebuilt after the earthquake of 1963. The façade is considered one of Vaccarini masterpieces. The remains of 3C Roman baths, the Terme Achilliane can be seen to the right of the entrance outside the church. Elegant palazzi surround Via Etnea, Catania’s best shops and boutiques, which runs through Piazza del Duomo, Piazza dell’Università and Piazza Stesicoro (where you can still see the ruins of an enormous Roman amphitheatre) before arriving at the front of Villa Bellini, Catania’s flowers-filled public gardens. When in Catania, don’t miss the Monastery, with its opulent decoration, and Via Crociferi, Catania’s baroque street par excellence. The area around via Crociferi is given over to a series of churches and the Museo Belliniano, dedicated to Catania’s most famous son, the composer Vincenzo Bellini. A short walk will take you to another building dedicated to his memory, the opera house Teatro Massimo Bellini. The opera season runs from around October to June and is well worth a visit if opera is your thing. The acoustic of this beautiful auditorium are among the fines in the world.
Not far from Catania is Acireale, a pretty baroque town set around the spectacular Piazza Duomo, enclosed by splendid buildings: the Cathedral, dedicated to the Annunciation and Santa Venera, the Basilica dei Santi Pietro e Paolo and the Palazzo Comunale, all graced with elegant wrought-iron balcony. Don’t miss Villa Belvedere with its lovely peaceful garden, complete with a panoramic terrace which provide a magnificent view of Mount Etna and the sea. But the main attraction in Acireale is the Carnevale! It is one of Sicily's most spectacular cultural events and one of the largest and most frequented carnivals in Italy. With its dizzying array of allegorical floats, dancing schools, concerts and confetti parades not to mention lashings of food and wine, the Carnevale di Acireale offers fun for all the family and a fascinating insight into how Sicilians have a good time!
Around Acireale you will find some lovely fishing town, like Acitrezza, known for the rocks of the Cyclopes (Faraglioni dei Ciclopi), jagged black lava rising from crystal-clear water. The Odyssey relates these were hurled by Polyphemus against Ulysses. Next to the rocks sits the island Lachea, now a biology research station; Aci Castello is a seaside village on a stretch of coastline dotted with lemon trees. In the main square you can visit the Castle, a Norman fortress built of black lava, which today houses a small museum with a collection of archaeological artefacts.