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.
mild climate, a splendid landscape and serene outlook have made
Taormina famous worldwide.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
– 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.
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.
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.
– 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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
– 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
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
LEGEND TO HISTORY
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.
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.