Taormina, the Jewel of Sicily
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.