“Should you only have one day to spend in Sicily and you ask me ‘what is there to see?’ I would reply ‘Taormina’ without any hesitation. It is only a landscape but one in which you can find everything that seems to have been created to seduce the eyes, the mind and the imagination.” — Guy de Maupassant, 1885.
We arrived in Naxos harbor off Taormina, Sicily, on April 26. Located on the eastern coast of Sicily between Catania & Messina, Taormina has been a favorite retreat of the rich & famous, particularly authors, since the early 19th Century. D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover while living in Taormina & Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra there. Goethe’s praise for the town in his Italian Journey as “a piece of paradise on earth” landed it on the standard itinerary for the 19th Century aristocracy’s Grand Tour of Europe. It was chilly & overcast the day we were there, but the place was spectacular anyway, just as these authors would have told us.
Taormina was originally founded in the 4th century BC by settlers (some say refugees) from the Greek colony of Naxos founded in the 8th Century BC, which was located on the shore beneath the hills where the modern resort town of Naxos is now. Taormina has a long and complex history that I won’t go into here (do I hear cheers?), having changed hands many times over the centuries, from Greeks to Romans, Arabs and Normans, among others.
The dominant landmark in eastern Sicily is Mt. Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe, which was clearly visible from Taormina. As you can see, we were lucky in that it was putting out impressive plumes of white & gray smoke when we were there (suggesting that a new pope was both elected & not elected at the same time, reminiscent of the quantum physics conundrum of Schrodinger’s cat). I was told by somebody that the gray smoke is an indicator that an eruption is coming &, sure enough, the mountain erupted the week after we visited (darn!) sending fire in the air and hot lava down its sides. At the spot where we tendered ashore at the edge of Naxos to meet the shuttle bus to take us up to Taormina the shore consisted mostly lava rocks.
The shuttle took us through Naxos & then up a narrow winding road with very sharp switchbacks to Taormina, which is at an elevation of about 600 feet. At some of the switchbacks it looked like a near thing when two buses passed each other going different directions, but I am sure the drivers are very experienced at it. I sure wouldn’t want to drive on that.
We entered Taormina through the Catania Gate & continued down the main drag, Corso Umberto I. The first square we came to was the Piazza Duomo, named after the cathedral that fronts on the square. In the middle of the square is a fantastic fountain built in the 17th Century called the Fountain of the Minotaur. The Minotaur is the figure on top, but to me it looks more like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland.
The Cathedral of San Nicolo was originally built in the 13th Century but the front portal was built in the 17th century. Lots of marble columns & altars inside and a good deal of very old art as well.
The streets of Taormna are pretty narrow, even the main street, & many of the side streets go steeply up the mountain, many with stairs. It doesn’t take many people before these narrow streets start looking crowded. But the streets are lined with 15th & 16th Century mansions, many of which now house shops, restaurants, cafes & bars. And there is a lot of interesting sculptured stone decorating the walls and brightly colored ceramic tiles.
The next square was Piazza IX Aprile, a large open plaza on the very edge of the cliff. Of course this gave some spectacular views, but this plaza also has the Torre del Orologio (a clock tower) next to the Church of San Giuseppe. There was also the Metropole Café with its fabulous view.
But that’s not all, because in the Piazza IX Aprile we found the library, housed in a 15th Century church called San Agostino. And through its back windows were, of course, more great views.
We continued strolling down the road heading vaguely for the Greek Theater, enjoying the ambience of the town that included a lot of colorful flora.
Taormina is full of expensive shops. We particularly enjoyed the colorful ceramics characteristic of Sicily & southern Italy. So here is some window shopping.
At the end of a side street called Via Teatro Greco is, you will not be surprised to learn, the Teatro Greco (Greek Theater). Originally built by the Greeks, probably in the 7th Century BC, it was completely reconstructed by the Romans on the Greek foundations (brick is characteristic of Roman architecture but not Greek), who used it for gladiator shows. It is the second largest ancient theater in Sicily with a diameter longer than a football field, but it is extraordinary more for its location on a cliff overlooking the bay with a view of Mt. Etna than for its size. As a bonus, the steep 6 Euro ($11) entrance fee was waived for those past their 65th birthday, so in effect the two of us were admitted for half price.
Of course, there were many spectacular views from the site of the theater.
From the theater we walked to the Messina Gate on the opposite side of town from where we entered. Outside the gate we saw the San Pancrazio Church, which is built on the foundations of a Greek temple. We had a closer view of the Saracen Castle on top of Mt. Tauro & we passed the Roman baths (I think) just inside the gate. We were tired, so we decided not to explore further outside the gate since it was all either up or down a steep slope.
And then we walked all the way back through the town to catch the shuttle back to the ship’s tender port, stopping on the way for some gelato (can’t miss that). We saw a lot of delicious looking food in the shop windows but, amazingly enough, it was all made of marzipan! Taormina is famous for its marzipan, but I’m pretty sure its not as good for you as the real thing.
As we sailed out in late afternoon we took a final look at Naxos then headed for the Straits of Messina, which separate Sicily from the toe of the boot of Italy. These narrow straits were reputedly the basis for Homer’s Scylla & Charybdis in The Odyssey and large whirlpools have been known to appear there (although we didn’t see any). The straits are narrow enough that there used to be a wire between electrical towers on either side that was the source of electricity for Sicily. The wire is no longer there but the towers have been preserved, apparently for historical interest. It wasn’t all that dramatic, although there were some nice views as the sun was setting.
After dark we sailed past Stromboli, a small inhabited(!) island with a very active volcano that has been erupting regularly for several thousand years at least. We weren’t close enough to get pictures, but we could see the reddish eruptions clearly in the dark sky every 10 or 15 minutes. It was cold & windy, so we had dinner & went to bed to prepare for another long day in Naples (not one of our originally scheduled stops, but that story in the next episode). But in closing, we have to catch up on the Prinsendam’s food sculptures and towel animals.