Perched on a rocky spur at about 200m height, Taormina occupies a fabulous position, overlooking the sea and right opposite Etna volcano. It has been a popular destination for travellers since the 18th century, although only in the last decades it has developed into a well-known tourist resort. Many foreigners, notably British and German, have decided to build villas in the town and many illustrious figures fave sojourned there, including Emperor William II and King Edward VII, and such famous families as the Rothschilds and the Krupps.
A mild climate, a splendid landscape and serene outlook have made Taormina famous worldwide.
The town centre, now reserved for pedestrians, radiates from the main thoroughfare Corso Umberto I, from which it is possible to reach all, or almost all, the main sights.
Taormina’s theatre was built by the Ancient Greeks, then transformed and enlarged by the Romans. What survives today dates from the 2nd century AD. It was built in such a way as to exploit the natural lie of the land. Some of the cavea steps are cut directly from the base rock. The Greek theatre conformed with the correct application of the Classical orders; it included a semi-circular orchestra section reserved for musicians, chours and dancers. The Romans removed the lower tier of steps when converting the orchestra into an arena – circular, therefore –, a shape better suited to hosting circus games; they also added a corridor to provide access for gladiators and wild animals.
The red of the bricks, the white of the marble columns which still adorn the stage, the intense blue of the sky above are the predominant colors in this idyllic landscape. From the top of the cavea (auditorium), visitors and spectators can absorb the full impact of the glorious panoramic view spread before the majestic presence of mount Etna, its summit often capped with snow, sloping gently down and into the seam which, in turn, silently laps at the undulating coastline below. The magical prospect is extended all along the top of the cavea as far as the opposite left-hand corner where the outlook encompasses Taormina itself.
The theatre, which continues to be used, has hosted in the past the David di Donatello prize, one of the most prestigious events in the Italian film industry. It now hosts Taormina Arte, an International review festival of cinema, theatre, ballet and music, which takes place during the summer months.
CORSO UMBERTO I
What a pleasure it is to stroll along this peaceful street beginning at Porta Messina as it gently climbs up to Porta Catania, past its elegant shops, restaurants and cafés. Behind this front, extends an intricate network of side-street featuring unexpected sights and smells (like the sweet scent of marzipan fruits and almond paste wafting up from back-streets sweet-shop kitchens). Just beyond Porta Messina, at the entrance to the street, lies the Chiesa di San Pancrazio, believed to have been the earliest Bishop of Taormina. The church was built of the ruins of a temple dedicated to Zeus Serapis (note the remnants of the old wall incorporated into the building’s left flank). The main front is graced with a gracious doorway made of Taormina stone, framed on each side by niches containing statues of saints. Along the street there are three lovely piazzas.
Piazza Vittorio Emanuele – It occupies the site of the ancient Roman Forum. Behind the Chiesa di S. Caterina, with a fine Baroque doorway of pink marble and Taormina stone, the vestiges of the ancient buildings are still clearly visible. These red brick ruins belong to an Odeon, a small covered theatre from the Roman period (1st century AD).
Palazzo Corvaja – The main heart of the building which includes the square tower and the central section overlooking the internal courtyard, dates from the Arab epoch. The left wing and the staircase leading to the first floor were added in the 13th century, while the right wing dates from the 15th century. Having been abandoned and left to become completely dilapidated over the years, it was completely restored after the Second World War. A succession of styles are clearly discernible: the top of the tower is Arab, the two-light windows of the state room (13th century) and the elegant front entrance are Gothic-Catalan (the stairway before it is ornamented with shallow relief panels depicting scenes from Genesis; alas, badly damaged), the so-called Sala del Parlamento (in the right wing) is Norman – so-called because the Sicilian Parliament used to meet here in the 15th century. The offices located off the courtyard, on the right, are in part occupied by APT, the Sicilian Tourist Authorities; they also display various typical Sicilian puppets and splendidly ornate Sicilian carts, intricately carved and decorated with wrought-iron fixtures. On close observation, these examples of traditional folk art will reveal a host of minute detail which could pass unnoticed at a single glance.
Naumachie – In a side-street off to the left. The name technically refers to the simulated naval battles that the Romans so enjoyed watching for entertainment. In this case, it relates to a red-brick wall dating from the Roman period that has been reinforced by a system of blind arcading. In fact, it probably served as a supporting wall for a large reservoir of water and formed part of a rectangular building, possibly a gymnasium.
Piazza IX Aprile – It is a gracious piazza with a balcony overlooking the sea and offering wonderful views over the bay and across to Mount Etna. On the other sides are the bare façade of the Chiesa di San Giuseppe, (17th century), S. Agostino, now a library, and the Torre dell’Orologio, sitting on an open loggia that provides access to the 1400’s part of the town. The present building dates from the late 1600’s, when the clock was added, although it would appear that the foundations date as far back as the 6th century AD, when the tower formed an integral part of the town’s defences. The piazza serves as a meeting-place, then crowded with people happy to while away the time at one of the bars with tables outside.
Piazza Duomo – At the centre of the square, from a circular bases, rises a fine baroque fountain in Taormina stone. The largest basin facing eastwards at one time served as a drinking-trough. In the middle, raised up, it bears the symbol of the town, a centaur which in this case takes on a female form with, instead of the usual four legs, two legs and two arms holding an orb and a sceptre, the attributes of power.
Duomo – The cathedral, dating back to the 13th century, is dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Bari. It simple façade is ornamented by a Renaissance doorway flanked by two single-light windows with a rose-window above. The crenellations along the roof line have earned it the name of “cathedral-fortress”. The left lateral side has a fine entrance set into a pointed arch ornamented along the edge with vines; the rose-window is aligned with the transept.
Interior – The interior is gothic; the ground plan is a Latin cross; the nave is separated from the side-aisles by an arcade of pointed arches. These spring from column shafts of pink marble. The clerestory above comprises simple one-light windows that light the nave. Over the second altar, in the south aisle, sits a fine 16th polyptych by Antonello de Saliba.
The old town centre is dotted with fine palazzi which share various features: most are Gothic in style with Arab-Norman inflections and built of black lava stone and white Syracuse stone in a combination to provide geometric patterning and other decorative effects such as articulating arches, arcades and doorways. The application of such simple ideas animate the elevations of Taormina’s most interesting town houses.
Palazzo di S. Stefano – Turn left up Via del Ghetto just before Porta Catania. This fine building dates from the 15th century. It was Built for the Dukes of Santo Stefano, which formed part of the De Spuches family whose origins were Spanish. The bold rustication gives it the appearance of a fortified fortress. The most effective decorative element is the two-tone (black lava and white Syracuse) geometric frieze which runs the lenght of the upper storey. The two levels which articulate the elevation have two-light windows; those on the second floor are aset into elaborate arches. The palace presently accomodates the Fondazione Mazzullo, which hosts permanent exhibitions of sculpture and drawings by the artist Graniti (and the occasional temporary show, notably during Advent when a display of terracotta nativity scenes is arranged). A recurrent theme among the works in lava, granite and bronze, is the expression of pain: this is especially notable in a series of Executions by firing squad in which crumpled bodies are depicted as mutilated and incomplete, yet powerfully expressive, and in Wounded Cat, that is roughly hewn in stone. In contrast, what is striking about the female busts is their impenetrable facial expressions, portrayed through features that in some oare barely delineated, and in others are perfectly modelled – as in the Amazon and Sappho.
Badia Vecchia – 1 Via Dionisio. Its name may derive from the false impression that the building had been an abbey. Its solid proportions are reminiscent of the Palazzo di Santo Stefano as is the two-tone lace-like frieze between the first and second floors. Attractive two-light windows open above the frieze.
Palazzo Ciampoli – Providing a backdrop to the steps of Salita Palazzo Ciampoli, to the right of Corso Umberto I, just before Piazza Duomo. Despite its poor condition and an unsightly old discotheque sign (it having closed a few years ago and made way for a hotel), the front of this palazzo is composed of two levels separated by a decoratively engraved stone panel. The entrance is set into an elegantly pointed arch, and is surmounted by a shield bearing the date when the palace was built, that is 1412.
I giardini di Villa Comunale – Via Roma. The gardens are planted with a huge variety of plants and shrubs, ranging from the most common to the exotic. Here, the former owners also erected several unusual follies in an eclectic style with a touch of exotic. The most particular of all, consists of a conglomeration of arches and arcades which, at a glance, might resemble a beehive, that is its name, given by its owner, Lady Florence Trevelyan, an enthusiastic ornithologist, who used these follies for bird-watching purposes. The little road that runs along the seaward edge provides a beautiful view of Etna volcano and the south coast.
(Beaches) – Although perched high up its headland, Taormina has some beautiful beaches below. The little Mazzarò bay is enclosed by Capo Sant’Andrea on the south side, that is riddled with caves and grottoes, including the Grotta Azzurra (the blue grotto). The sound of fishermen calling visitors for a boat trip echoes across the beaches. Beyond the headland extends a gracious bay sweeping round to the Bella island which is linked to the shore by a narrow strip of land. The longest beaches, Spisone and Mazzeo, extend north of Mazzarò.
Castello – 4km along the road to Castel Mola. A track turns up to the right. It can even be reached on foot by following the signs for Salita Castello, up a series of broad steps, from via Circonvallazione (about 1km there and back), in Taormina, or by taking Salita Branco which starts in Via Dietro I Cappuccini. Avoid undertaking this walk in the midday sun or at the height of summer.
The castle stands isolated on the top of Monte Tauro (rising to 398m). Just below is the Santuario della Madonna della Rocca. From a little terrace before the church extends a fine view on Taormina’s theatre and the city. A footpath continues up to the castle, that consists of a medieval fortification built on the ruins of an ancient acropolis. The outer walls and the ruins of a tower are what remains of the trapezoidal-shaped building. Here, also, you can enjoy a fine sight of the theatre and Taormina.
Castel Mola – 5km north-west. Castel Mola is a small village perched behind Taormina, in a panoramic position, and developing around the gracious Piazza del Duomo, from which an intricate network of tiny street extends outwards an intricate network of tiny streets. Panoramic views of the surrounding landscape can be enjoyed from several places, especially from the Piazzetta di Sant’Antonino overlooking Etna, the north coast and the beaches at the foot of Taormina. Right of it, a staircase leads up the castle 1500’s outer walls with view of the mounts Venere and Ziretto.
The Chiesa dell’Annunziata, next to the cemetery, is of Norman origin. Re-built, it retains a portal finely decorated with white stone. A regional speciality typical of these parts is almond wine, a liquorous wine which, it is claimed, was invented by the local inhabitants of Castel Mola.
FROM LEGEND TO HISTORY
A legend relates how the crew aboard a Greek vessel that was sailing along the eastern coast of Sicily had the impudence to be distracted while making a sacrifice to Neptune, the god of the sea. This, outraged, sent forth such a strong wind that the boat was shipwrecked. Fascinated by the area, the sole survivor Theocles decided to return to Greece to persuade a band of compatriots to come to Sicily and found a colony, that was Nasso, the modern-day Naxos.
There is a seed of truth in the legend, for a Greek colony was indeed founded here in the 8th century BC, its people prospering quietly until 403 BC when Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, decided to extend his territory by including this part of the island. Following their defeat, the colonists were allowed to settle on the plateau of Monte Tauro (200m above sea level), which had been occupied by Sikel tribes. From that time, records begin to refer to the settlement of Tauromenion, modern Taormina. First allied with Rome and then conquered by Octavian, Taormina became the capital of the Byzantine Sicily upon the fall of the Roman Empire. Shortly after the arrival of Arabs in Sicily, it was destroyed and immediately re-built in 1079. It was taken by Norman Roger of Hauteville, under whom it enjoyed a long period of prosperity. In the following centuries, it saw the Spanish, the French and then the Bourbon occupation until the Unification of Italy.