Words from Sicily: Taormina

Taormina has long since been Sicily’s most favourite resort town, perched on a coastal bluff that looks out to the Tyrrhenian Sea between Messina and Catania in the north east of the island. Its ancient narrow streets are full of little specialist shops, cafes and restaurants, which are an invitation to step into the spell cast by this intriguing town.

This romantic town has inspired writers and poets alike, including D.H Lawrence, who lived in the village for several years. He wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover while living in Taormina and based several of his stories on local events. Lawrence also found time to appreciate local literature, translating the short stories of the century Sicilian realist Giovanni Verga into English.

Taormina always seems to have attracted English ex-pats; a testament to this is a charming Anglican church near the entrance to the town, which was constructed by the Anglo-Sicilian community.

The town’s history is vibrant and complicated and dates back to the Ancient Greek period. Taormina was settled in 395 BC by residents from the nearby city of Giardini- Naxos, Sicily’s oldest Greek established city dating back to 735 BC. Giardini Naxos was where the Greeks established their colony during their domination of Sicily.

The early Greek settlers had fled the tyranny of Dionysius the Elder, who eventually conquered Taormina anyway, in 392 BC. The city was named Tauromenion in 358 BC and figured prominently in the regional politics of the following two centuries.

The settlement supported Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, against Syracuse in 278 BC. It was from Taormina that he conducted his Sicilian campaign with the aid of some ten thousand troops.

Taormina was one of the first Sicilian cities to support Rome during the Punic Wars. Eunus took the city during the slave revolt. When the Romans finally occupied the town, they massacred thousands of slaves.

Taormina flourished in the time of Julius Caesar but suffered under the Roman Emperor Octavian. Octavian retaliated against the city for its support of Pompey, expelling most of the inhabitants and offering their homes to Roman soldiers. Prosperity followed for the Romans of Taormina.

Ancient Roman poet Ovid wrote of the ‘sweet mullet and tender eel’ of Taormina’s waters. Writing in the first century, Pliny the Elder praised Taormina’s wines. The city’s splendour, so evident even today, survived the fall of the Roman Empire, but her importance diminished.

The Saracen castle atop Mount Tauro was probably built by the Saracens on an older Byzantine structure and later enlarged by the Normans. Another fortress stood on still higher ground in the Castelmola district. Taormina’s medieval and ancient city walls remain very much intact in the old city.

Taormina survived the fall of the Roman Empire even though its importance was scaled down after later invasions by the Arabs, Byzantines and Normans. Each of these dominations left its mark on the city with their fortifications above the town.

The ancient quality of the town is palpable. Even a simple walk through the main street will transport you back in time. Taormina makes me recall the first time I ever visited Italy. As a teenager in the early 90’s, a friend asked me what Italy was like and said it’s like a living, breathing museum. For a person like me who grew up with minimal tangible history, Italy was like exploring Alladin’s cave of stories and monuments. Even though Australia is a geographically ancient place and the indigenous history is very rich, there weren’t many buildings to marvel at. Because Europe has been constantly inhabited ever since man has been in existence, there is a never-ending layering of artefacts and histories.

Looking out from Taormina’s Greek Amphitheatre, into the crystal clear the Tyrrhenian Sea towards Mount Etna, you get a real sense of Sicily’s ancientness.

The view is timeless, and apart from a few more buildings with the natural expansion and growth of the city, very little has changed over time.

History becomes a very tangible thing when you see a place that has maintained its identity through the passing of centuries.

The Greek theatre at Taormina was built in the third century before Christ by the Greeks and is still has a very active performance schedule today. If not for the current pandemic, it would be hosting an endless stream of Italian and international artists throughout the year, including an international film festival.

The Romans expanded the arena, who enlarged the stage and added a partial roof, which unfortunately was destroyed. Reserved seating existed even in ancient times as some seats bear the inscription of the name of Philistine, wife of Hieron II of Syracuse.

The world-famous view of Mount Etna and the sea beyond the theatre is breathtaking. The theatre seasons alternate with those of Segesta, the site of Sicily’s other large Greek amphitheatre.

If not for the current Covid pandemic, Taormina would be hosting an endless stream of tourists. Too many tourists, to be honest. Hordes of them like swarming armies of ants that are offloaded in tourist buses by the hundreds.

To be frank, I love Taormina, but in the humidity of a Sicilian summer, I’d prefer to avoid the crowds. So I either put off a visit until the winter when there are fewer people or seek out secluded places around the city, away from the main street and all of the tourist traps.

Taormina has endlessly winding medieval streets and tiny passages, each with its own secrets –great restaurants, cafés and ice cream bars. Some of these intriguing places are secluded gardens hidden by stone walls; others are set on terraces overlooking the coast or in more public but equally pleasant squares. Not to mention the chic boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts that line the road that climbs up towards the town from Giardini Naxos.

The enchanting public gardens below the theatre are always great to explore beyond the crowds. They are filled with rare plants and characteristic stone structures distributed through the gardens like little fortresses. I prefer to bring a pannino for lunch, sit in the shade and soak in these magical gardens.

The town is beautiful by day, but in the evenings, its atmosphere is simply enchanting, whether you stroll the illuminated streets or indulge in the view of the coast over a seafood dinner.

The odeon or odeum, a much smaller Roman theatre, is located near the Church of Saint Catherine, which obscures it. On the site of Saint Pancras Church, just beyond Porta Messina outside the medieval city walls, was a temple dedicated to Zeus, a division incorporated into the present structure. Saint Pancras is believed to have been an early priest or bishop of Taormina’s Christian community.

Indications of Taormina’s ancient street plan are evident, and Roman mosaic floors have been found in the old villas in the area. Even Palazzo Corvaia, built during the fourteenth century, was constructed on Roman foundations. Taormina has an impressive archaeological museum, though many of the city’s more important finds are housed elsewhere.

The city’s Duomo is not actually a cathedral, as its name implies. Still, this Norman-Arab church was built over an earlier Paleo Christian structure and dates from the twelfth century.

The Badia Vecchia is a fourteenth-century construction. A medieval Byzantine mosaic icon of the Theotokos or Mother of God is perfectly preserved in the archway passage under the Clock Tower along Corso Umberto I leading into Piazza 9 Aprile.

With a little bit of luck, Sicily will be opening up over this summer. So I hope to take a drive to one of my favourite places to visit in my hometown province.

Always with the hope we are at least a yellow zone as with the current orange Covid zone we can only go about thirty kilometres away from home unless we are travelling for a good reason, some how I can’t justify a trip to Taormina right now.

I’d like to hunt down two places I’ve heard fantasised about visiting but still haven’t found the opportunity to visit.

One of the first books I read about Sicily, and probably the one that made me fall in love with the place, is Daphne Phelps’s biography A house in Sicily.

The book tells how burnt out Daphne, a psychiatric nurse inherited her uncle’s house in Sicily after World War II. British artist Robert H Kitson had built the palatial villa in the isolated countryside outside of Taormina (there wasn’t even a road to get to the estate).

Kitson designed and built the house at the beginning of the 1900s. He filled it with his own art, an extensive collection of antiques and constructed an elaborate English garden filled with precious rare plants and trees. On his death, he left it all to Daphne, who gradually fell in love with Taormina and basically never left until she passed away in the 1980s.

A house in Sicily tells about her time living in the villa known as Casa Cuseni, which she turned into bed and breakfast. Over the years, she hosted many famous writers and artists of the 19th century, including Picasso, Greta Garbo, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, Lord Bertrand Russell and many more.

Today Casa Cuseni houses an international museum and is a luxury bed and breakfast.

I’m always telling everyone about this spectacular house, but I’m yet to visit. I want to soak in the light of the gardens and look out from the terrace and feel the healing energy that Daphne fell so deeply in love with.

The second place I want to hunt down is nowhere nearly as romantic as Daphne’s house in Sicily, it’s more of a place you’d think was the product of urban legend, something you’ve heard from a friend of a friend and hardly believed is real.

Above Taormina is the town of Castelmola, an ancient medieval neighbourhood filled with suggestive medieval streets, spectacular views, quaint shops and bars that sell locally made almond liquor.

One of these bars is the infamous Bar Turrisi, founded in 1947, which has always been decorated in a particular motif. It may sound like I’m joking, but the place is dedicated to the phallus. Everything from the decor to the bathroom taps is carved out and decorated in erect penises.

The bar owners say that their decor uses the phallus as a symbol of luck and prosperity. It has become quite popular for visitors to have their photos taken surrounded by endless dildos. I think it would be a hilarious place to visit, even just to say you saw it would be the best story.

The decorations of Bar Turrisi may seem totally bizarre but quite natural when you realise Taormina was once considered an ancient Hellenistic and modern Sodom and Gomorrah. In this place, literally, anything was possible.

German aristocrat and photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden came to Taormina in the late 1800s while searching for a mild climate to help him cure his bad health. He bought a house there. Apart from being interned as an enemy alien during the first world war, he remained in Taormina until he died in 1931.

Von Gloeden took more than 7,000 images, mainly known for his nudes. He was also famous for his landscape photography, which helped popularise Italian tourism. He extensively documented the damage from the 1908 Messina earthquake and tsunami.

His photographic glass negatives were left to his partner and lover Pancrazio Buciuni. In 1933 some of his negatives were confiscated by Mussolini’s Fascist police under allegations they were pornography; many of them were destroyed. Later Buciuni was cleared of pornography charges. Today, most of the negatives are housed in the Fratelli Alinari photographic archive in Florence.

Von Gloeden’s photography is generally considered to be some of the best of the early 20th century, even though the accusations of pornography never left his work. Most of his photos are beautifully classically inspired landscapes and studies of local people.

Yet, there are more explicit photos that depict young boys in sexually suggestive poses. Von Gloeden’s time at Taormina was marked with many wild parties that local rumours suggest were actually orgies. So his photography was buried for many years under the weight of scandal and controversy.

As you can see from all of this history, Taormina is a rich place to discover. Apart from appreciating its beauty, there is ancient art and architecture, many layers of history and a hedonistic past.

6 thoughts on “Words from Sicily: Taormina

  1. Fascinating history and very well written. If I’m not mistaken I believe Taormina is on the north east side of the island.

    1. Thank you very much. The history is just wonderful and so very rich. Yes Taormina is on the north east of Sicily in Messina province.

      1. Check the first paragraph of your post about Taormina. It states Taormina is on the north west coast.

    1. I think it’s excatly what I need right now, something to revive the spirit. It just goes to show you should never put off any visits or holidays! As soon as we can! Thanks for your comment.

Comments are closed.