As much as I love Taormina I never get the chance to experience it is as I wish. We are always in a rush visiting with guests, walking up and down the main streets and doing souvenir shopping as that’s what all tourists want to do.
If you have time you should be doing things like catching the train along the coast from Messina, (here in this photo we see the autostrada leading along the coast towards Messina) then take the cable car up from Mazzarò on the coast.
(Even if it is temporarily out of action thanks to a minor landslide caused by last weeks torrential rains, but it should be functioning again for next summer)
Then there are the towns of Giardini Naxos down below and Castelmola above Taormina to explore.
I’d stay in one of the many historical houses turned B&B, my favourite being Casa Cuseni the house inherited by Daphne Phelps in 1947, built by her Uncle the British painter Robert Kitson. The house and its famous artistic guests were the inspiration for Daphne’s book, A house in Sicily.
Please do wander around the side streets, get lost in the gardens, hidden art galleries. Stop to devour a sumptuous pizza, arancini rice balls or seafood meal from a secret little trattoria.
Defiantly watch a show at the Greek amphitheatre (there is everything from contemporary music to opera) and end your stay with a cocktail out on the balcony watching the sunset from an exclusive restaurant or club.
Daphne’s house: Giardini Naxos, Castelmola and Taormina
Taormina is a beautiful town to explore but it is terribly touristy and there are many other things to see in the vicinity.
Be sure to visit Casa Cuseni an historic house which became like a real character in one of the best books around about Sicily by the late great Daphne Phelps titled A House in Sicily. The book is a wonderful love letter to this Sicilian villa which became Daphne’s home after she inherited the grand old house built and designed by her talented Uncle, painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson from 1905 to 1907. It has been converted into a luxury bed and breakfast and museum.
Be sure to see a show at the Ancient Greek amphitheater at Taormina as it is one of the most famous postcard views of Etna and it will be an unforgettable memory to see an open air summer show of contemporary music or opera depending what may be on offer. Take the chance to do this now as the Taormina festival is suffering some major cuts in funding.
Be sure to explore the nearby towns who are just as beautiful as Taormina and with a lot less tourists Castelmola is above Taormina with positively vertiginous views. While Giardini Naxos below on the coast near Taormina, easily reached by cable car with some great beaches and cute little ‘Trattorie’ restaurants who offer great seafood at more reasonable prices than the tourist traps at Taormina!
Three Sicilian Cathedrals: Monreale, Palermo,Cefalu
If you love churches in the grand Norman style I suggest you do a mini tour of three of the most amazing cathedrals you will ever see.
The Cathedral of Monreale, outside of Palermo has the most spectacular mosaics including a giant depiction of Jesus Christ which covers one Dome of the grandiose church, filled with precious stones and gold.
The Palermo Cathedral is a mixture of Norman,Gothic,Baroque and Neoclassical styles with extensive mosaic decorations and art treasures.
The Cathedral- Basilica of Cefalu’, dates from 1131 and was originally built-in the Norman style. The building was erected by Roger the second the King of Sicily after he escaped from a storm sheltering on the Cefalu beach. The fortress-like character of the building, which, seen from a distance, rises above the medieval town and is a powerful statement of the Norman presence in Sicily.
Along the theme of mosaics is the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina which is an ancient Roman villa so well preserved you can walk through the different rooms and marvel at the beautiful mosaic decorated floors. It has recently been restored and as of 2006 there are new archeological excavations underway.
Visiting Piazza Armerina will give you an opportunity to explore the belly button of Sicily which has its own unique character, be sure to take a drive around the ancient towns like Enna, Piazza Armerina,Nicosia and Mistretta which will give you a sense of the timeless quality of Sicily.
Santo Stefano di Camastra
The most spectacular souvenir to take home from Sicily are the ceramics. There are many tourist traps around the island who claim to sell authentic pieces but you really cannot go wrong visiting the ceramic factories at Santo Stefano di Camastra.
Stores in the town vary in price and style but if you stick to the big warehouses on the other side of the town away from the autostrada exit you will be buying directly from the producers, with wholesale prices and international shipping!
Castello di Maniace (or Castello Nelson) is in the fertile countryside between Randazzo and Bronte.
An historical English property which was given to Admiral Lord Nelson as a gift after he rescued the Bourbon king of the two Sicilies, after Nelson helped him to escape certain death during a revolution in Naples in 1796.
I have blogged here about this places history before but to be honest and I am yet to make it out to see its beautiful grounds and museum, but can’t wait to get there this summer!
All tourists who visit the island must go to Mount Etna!
There are many ways of experiencing the volcano and the national park that surrounds it, from taking a tour bus from Catania to see the more touristy spots closer to its peak or take one of many walking tours.
You can go up via cable car, riding on four-wheel drive buses or on Sicilian donkeys. For the less adventurous types there are many places to explore away from the main peak like old extinguished craters and shopping at higher altitudes for retail therapy.
If you are staying at Catania a wonderful day trip would be to catch the Circumetnea railway which takes you from Catania around the base of Etna all the way to near the coast at Giarre or if you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus and see the landscape in the opposite direction towards Catania. It is a wonderful way of seeing Etna (here is some great information on TripAdvisor.)
I’ve always loved Randazzo at the foot of Mount Etna, it is a beautiful town made of suggestive lava stone, filled with historic buildings, castles and museums.
On Sundays there is a hug market which I love to visit with a bit of everything from local cuisine, antiques, to fashion.
My favorite gem at Randazzo is the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. It’s exterior is a contrast between intricate white lace and charcoal lava stone while inside is filled with art and the most outstanding stained glass windows.
The Aeolian Islands are a popular way of passing the summer at the beach. There are seven islands along the Tyrrhenian coast in the province in Messina, all of volcanic origin including: Alicudi, Filicudi, Panarea, Stromboli, Salina, Lipari and Volcano.
Lipari and Volcano are the most popular and biggest islands with great beaches and spas to explore even if food and drink can get costly as everything is imported from the mainland.
The smaller islands are less touristy and just as spectacular. There are many mini cruises available to explore them even if it can get uncomfortable in the summer humidity, it is defiantly worth the trouble.
Ancient Tyndaris became a Greek colony in three hundred and ninety-six B.C but had been settled during the Bronze age in about fifteen hundred B.C. Its strategic location looks out on to the Bay of Patti along the northern coast stretching up to Cape Milazzo which made it a perfect post to maintain control of the waters between the Eolian Islands and Messina.
The Basilica of the Madonna of Tindari is modern, work on it began in nineteen fifty-seven after the old church was unable to cope with the influx of pilgrims to the site. The main attraction is the miraculous statue of the Black Madonna. The sculpture itself is quite modest yet history has given it a mysterious past and has bestowed upon it many colourful legends.
According to the tradition it was brought to Tindari by a cargo that ship was returning from the east filled with precious merchandise and treasures. The statuette had been salvaged from the Iconoclastic wars which saw the destruction of many religious icons. As the ship sailed through the Tyrrhenian sea its journey was interrupted by a powerful storm, which forced the ship to stop in the Marinello bay near Tindari.
It is said the statue chose it’s own home, the ship remained trapped in the bay and became free only after the sculpture was unloaded.
The statue has a magnetic quality to it. The whole church draws you towards the sculpture and it is the main focus for pilgrims. For me it is its ancient quality that creates an undeniable mystique and well worth the trip to this somewhat isolated spot along the coast from Messina.
During the summer the road up to Tindari is closed but there is a bus every ten minutes or so and there are loads of souvenir shops all the way up. If you want to buy religious items like rosary beads the first shop directly next to the church is run by the religious community and profits go directly to the church.
Messina is a lovely place to visit, in the summer it is not as chaotic and confusing as other Sicilian metropolises and there is always something to see and do. There are many museums and art galleries to visit and it is easy to stroll around the historical centre and discover many churches and beautiful palaces. I recommend climbing the bell tower near the Duomo, visiting the permanent exhibition downstairs in the Duomo which features wonderful historical artworks and treasures associated with the church and the celebration dedicated to the Virgin Mary which has a particular strong attachment with the city.
Messina is friendly for pedestrians and there is a tram service through the main part of town. Piazza Cairoli is an oasis in the confusion of peak hour traffic and is also the best place to rest and do some high-class shopping, the boutiques begin in the square and continue either side of the tramline. Don’t forget to visit the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele which is practically next door to the town hall for a surprising glance at an original fresco by Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso depicting the myth of Cola Pese on the theater’s inner dome.
The best bookstore in town is Libreria Ciofalo on the other side of the Town Hall (municipio) and has a tempting array of Sicilian travel, history and literature.
It’s also easy to catch a ferry over to Calabria to explore Reggio Calabria and the main continent of Italy. Catching the ferry back over to Messina during the night is a magical experience.
Val di Noto
A wonderful way to while away your time in Sicily is to simply get out on the road. Why not hire a car and explore southeastern Sicily visiting the eight baroque cities which make up the Noto Valley. Create your own itinerary through Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania,Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli who are all UNESCO world heritage sites.
I’m a huge fan of the do it your self road trip and this area is easily enough navigated by car and there are endless resources online for suggestions on what to see. I suggest to do your research and try to book local bed and breakfast for memorable experiences as b&b owners will give you the best advice on what to see and where to eat. I have recently discovered Airbnb a great site with links to locals from all over the world who rent out rooms, houses and apartments to visitors which is a wonderful resources for travelers.
Another great idea for those who love theatre is to check out the summer program at the Syracuse ancient greek theatre, every year they offer a wonderful array of ancient greek classics, this year for example there is a lavish production of Verdi’s Aida.
Yet another UNESCO heritage site in Sicily is The Valle dei Templi or Valley of the Temples it is an archaeological site in Agrigento in southern Italy and contains outstanding examples of ancient Greece art.
The archaeological park and landscape of the Valley of the Temples is the largest archaeological site in the world with some 1,300 hectares.
The Valley includes remains of seven temples all in Doric style including: the Temples of Juno, Concordia, Heracles, Accra’s, Zeus, Castor and Pollux, Vulcan, and Asclepius.
The best way to experience The Valley of Temples is to buy yourself some local delicacies like cheeses, bread, olives, fruit and vegetables and a nice bottle of red wine and enjoy a rustic picnic beneath these wonderful ruins of the ancient world.
The western coast of Sicily is filled with wonderful seaside towns to explore from Trapani with it’s windmills and salt producing artificial lakes, to Marsala where the dark sweet wine of the same name originated, up to the mountain top castle like fortress town of Erice. From the hills you can glimpse the Egadi Islands, Tunisia and Africa.
This part of Sicily is an agricultural region filled with grape vines, olive trees, wheat and cotton fields which dominate the countryside and the coast provides salt, tuna and mackerel for consumers all around the world.
Summertime is the perfect time of year to explore this part of Sicily, enjoying the sea air and sipping mildly chilled Marsala.