Words and Photos by Veronica Lavenia
Photography by Guiseppe Giustolisi
THE PRAISE OF BEAUTY
In 1885, the French writer Guy de Maupassant wrote in La vie Errante: «If somebody might pass only one day in Sicily and asked: “What should I visit?” I would answer without hesitation: Taormina. It is only a landscape, but a landscape in which you can find all that seems to be created on earth to seduce the eyes, mind and fantasy.»
It is not “just” the intensely blue of the sky and the sea that compete to catch the eye. It is not “just” the nature in bloom, the scent of orange blossoms and bougainvillea, that colors and smells every corner of the city. It is not “just” the scent of Mediterranean food flavor, that makes you fall in love with Taormina.
It is, above all, the essence of Sicily enclosed in a piece of land rich in landscapes and settlements. On the one hand, the coast where the view is lost is near Syracuse. On the other hand, the strip of land that separates Sicily from Calabria Region. Behind such splendor Mount Etna, the highest volcano in Europe and one of the busiest in the world.
WHERE HISTORY HAS LEFT ITS MARK
The origin of Taormina dates back to the mid-fourth century BC, at 358. Established by Andromachus, the city was born with the name of Tauromenium, which means dwelling on “Tauro”, indicating the mountain where it was built. Taormina became an important trading center for the Romans who endowed it with a huge tank for water supply.
The Arabs, during their domination, reclaimed land, rationalizing the irrigation system according to criteria that are still in use in modern Sicily and captured by modern hydraulic engineering. Conquered by the Normans, Taormina was inhabited, during the period of Aragon, from some important feudal families.
After a century of decline, Taormina regains its splendor since the eighteenth century, when, in the footsteps of Goethe, who spoke enthusiastically of it, the Pearl of the Ionian Sea, as it is called, became a destination for aristocrats, artists, intellectuals and wealthy Northern Europeans patrons who spread its image of haunting beauty throughout Europe.
THE LONG YEARS OF THE DOLCE VITA
From the end of the Fifties of the last century until the Seventies, Taormina has lived its most flourishing period. The International Film Festival at the Greek-theatre was an appointment to which were invited the world’s greatest personalities of international cinema. Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando, Federico Fellini, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton have been the lifeblood of the Dolce Vita in Taormina.
Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams are two of the charismatic personalities who have lived in Taormina. In the two years he lived there, Truman Capote lived like a bohemian. Famous were the turbulent evenings in the salons of the luxury hotels or at the tables of the historic coffee-bar “Mocambo”. The chronicles of the time tell that he walked with shorts even in winter and turned to Taormina with a straw bag.
He loved to go to the fruit and veg market, fascinated by the ability of fishermen and farmers to sell, at a great price, their goods. Equally eccentric was Tennessee Williams. Arrived in Sicily in the same period of Capote but with fame and wealth much more consolidated, Williams spent his holidays in Taormina at the “San Domenico Palace Hotel” (ranked among the ten most beautiful hotels in the world) where, according to the writings of the time, he paid very high accounts for cocktails and lunches offered to friends, leaving big tips
WHAT TO DO
From June to August “Taormina Arte”, a summer-long festival of concerts, theatre and dance. “Taormina Film Fest”, in June, one of the most important festivals in Italian cinema, with international guests. In the magnificent public gardens setting, anyone can play tennis (clay courts) at the Taormina Sporting Club” (founded in 1925), surrounded by exotic palm trees and colorful flowers. In summer, the nightlife in Taormina is very lively with pubs, discos and nightclubs open until dawn. One of the most famous, that marked the “Dolce vita” of Taormina is “La Giara ”.
WHAT TO EAT
Taormina has many restaurants (also Michelin-starred restaurants), Trattorie and Pizzerie. Although a Trattoria is a cheaper and simpler place than a Ristorante, in Taormina they both serve excellent Sicilian meals: cold dishes as Insalata di mare (seafood salad tossed in olive oil, lemon and herbs), vegetables, salami, olives, stuffed artichoke hearts, anchovies and aubergines in various guises, Pomodori ripeni (stuffed tomatoes).
Eggplants are offered in many dishes: grilled, fried, stuffed or baked in a cheese and tomato sauce (Melanzane alla parmigiana or Parmigiana di melanzane). A must stop in the bar-cafè of the city for the tasting of typical Sicilian specialties. Not only cannoli, cassata, granita, gelato but also arancini (called arancine in Western Sicily), the famous stuffed fried rice balls with many different filling (ragu sauce, butter sauce, spinach, eggplant or other vegetables).
WHEN TO VISIT
The mild climate of Sicily makes Taormina an ideal destination all year round. From April to November, the city enjoyed its heyday, with the typical colors and scents of orange blossoms and flowering bougainvillea.
WHAT TO VISIT
The main street of Taormina, named after the King of Italy Umberto I of Savoy, and characterized by a succession of fashion shops, souvenir shops, food and cafes, is a busy pedestrian promenade where, every day, passing thousands of visitors from all over the world. In addition to being an elegant shopping street, Corso Umberto is full of architectural and artistic works from different eras.
Taormina’s main Cathedral was built around the year 1400 on the ruins of a small medieval church.
-PIAZZA IX APRILE
The most famous square in Taormina opens onto the main city street (Corso Umberto), with its outdoor cafes and the crowds of tourists enchanted by the spectacular views of the bay and Mount Etna.
Stunning villa in the center of Taormina, from 1538 to 1945, was the residence of the noble family of Corvaja. Now, it is the seat of the Local Tourist Board.
Second-largest in Sicily after the one in Siracusa (Syracuse), the Greek theatre is one of Taormina’s main at- tractions. It offers a spectacular view of the sea with outlook of the coast of Calabria, the city of Siracusa and the steaming summit of Etna. The Greek Theater hosts a number of events and “Taormina Arte ”, an International Festival that lasts the whole summer period and includes film, theater, ballet and concerts.
The Odeon, or small theater, was built by the Romans when Taormina became a military colony in 21 BC under Caesar Octavian Augustus, the first Roman emperor. The small theater, found by accident in 1892 by a blacksmith while he was digging in his land, is located next to Palazzo Corvaja.
-VILLA COMUNALE (PUBLIC GARDENS)
Entitled to the Duke of Cesarò, public gardens were originally a private garden, created by the will of Lady Florence Trevelyan, the Scottish noble woman who lived in Taormina since the beginning of 1884 after marrying Mr. Cacciola, mayor of the city.
Built as a typical English garden, the park was filled with a great variety of flowers and plants from all over the world, but also exotic taste of unique buildings used by Lady Florence, passionate ornithologist, and bird-watching. Ideal for walking and enjoying the fresh, the gardens of the Villa Comunale also offer a wonderful view of Mount Etna and the coast.
Praised by Goethe and Byron, it is composed of small terraces connected by stairways surrounded by greenery. Gifted by Ferdinand I of Bourbon to the city of Taormina in 1806, the island after having long been the object of purchase by private individualism 1984, has been declared fit to relevant historical and artistic interest, and in 1990 the Region of Sicily was able to regain possession by purchasing it.
THE ART OF SICILIAN GELATO
Despite having ancient roots (Arabs and ancient Romans), the invention of the gelato is due to a Sicilian chef, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. Procopio inherited from his grandfather a rudimentary ice cream maker that he tried to improve. Tired of the fisherman, he decided to move to France.
Arriving in Paris, Procopio translated into French his name to François de Procope Couteaux and made a huge fortune. In 1686, in Paris, Procopio opened the cafe “Le Procope ”, the oldest of the French capital, still exists. The success of the coffee-bar was due to the “gelato” of which Procopius, after several experiments, was able to improve the texture, thanks to the use of sugar as a sweetener instead of honey.
Today, the ice cream is very different from that of Procopio. In Sicily, aspiring ice-cream makers come from all over the world to learn this profession from the local ice-cream makers. In truth, just look at an ice cream to notice if the quality is good or not. A good ice cream, especially on the cone, must remain creamy.
Gelato does not have to give a cold sensation on the palate because this would mean that there is an excessive presence of fats. Finally, a fresh ice cream should not contain any fragments of ice crystals. The presence of ice crystals indicates that the ice cream is not fresh, that has not been processed or preserved well.
HOW TO GET THERE
BY PLANE: The Catania “Fontanarossa International Airport” is the nearest and most convenient, about 55 km from Taormina. It makes several flights from major Italian cities and many international flights from most major European cities and overseas. From Catania, Taormina can be reached in less than an hour by car, through the direct highway A 18 (direction Messina, exit “Taormina”).
BY CAR: Taormina is accessible by car from all the Italian cities. From Northern Italy, you can take the highway A1 to Naples and Salerno, then from Salerno (Amalfi Coast and Capri area) along the highway A3, towards Reggio Calabria. Take the exit “Villa San Giovanni – Sicily” then get to the ferry port that connects the mainland to Sicily 24 hours 24. Once in Messina, take the A18 direction Catania and then take the exit “Taormina”. If you are coming from Catania, take the A18 towards Messina and take the exit “Taormina”. If you are coming from Palermo to Messina take the A20, then the A18 direction Catania and “Taormina” exit.
BY TRAIN: The train station in Taormina is considered one of the most beautiful in Italy for its Sicilian charm and elegant Art Nouveau; every train coming from Northern Italy to Sicily stops here.
Read more of Veronica Lavenia in Amalfi Coast and Capri