THE drive north along the Sicilian autostrada from Catania to Taormina is an exhilarating experience and a great introduction to Sicily.
The elation has nothing to do with macho pleasure in speed and everything to do with the sensuous delight in bowling along an expertly engineered piece of roadwork, with the light blue of the Ionian Sea on one side and changing views of Mount Etna, perhaps with smoke swirling from the summit, on the other. To add spice to the journey, there is a series of attractive villages, churches and castles perched on seemingly inaccessible mountain tops, with the most beguiling of all – the lonely castle of Calatabiano – now reachable by cable car and tastefully illuminated at night.
Tourist brochures take considerable liberties in locating Taormina, often including villages along the coastline below the town. Our flat accommodation was in one of them, Giardini Naxos, where the Greeks founded their first colony in Sicily and now a pleasant little town with oranges and lemons growing in profusion in the gardens and restaurants and cafés lining the promenade.
It was dark when we arrived, which meant that the following morning we were awakened by a morning light of incomparable purity and translucence. From the terrace, we had in front of us a turquoise sea and to the left the full majesty of Etna, surrounded by a circle of mountains, sand-coloured in the early morning sun. Taormina was a glimpse of rooftops. “So we’ll stroll uphill to Taormina,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could manage. “It’s only a mile and half and it’s a glorious walk.”
“It’s steep and laborious, and the temperature will be over 30 degrees by mid-morning,” said my wife.
“It used to be where the fishermen lived with their families when there were corsairs on the seas, and they made the journey up on foot with their catch. Can we not manage the same?”
We went by car. Later we discovered that the best idea was to take the funicular from Mazzaro, further up the coast. It stops near Porta Messina, the gateway to Taormina at one end of Corso Umberto, with Porta Catania at the other. The city has been the object of lyrical praise, age after age, but anyone taking a first look along Corso Umberto might wonder why. The central thoroughfare, which follows the lines of the Roman Via Valeria, is now an outdoor shopping mall bulging with shops touting tea towels showing maps of Sicily, puppets, ceramic plates and statues of the mythological Cyclopes.
The Corso retains evidence of past splendour in courtyards and palace facades. The palazzo Corvaia now houses a museum of popular arts, exhibiting cribs and pieces of decorated peasant carts, but the structure itself is interesting for the Arab details in the turrets on the central building and the Catalan staircase in the courtyard. Every people who came to power in Sicily fell in love with Taormina and left their mark in stone.
There is a small Roman theatre nearby, unvisited by people heading for the major attraction of Taormina, the ruin of a famous Greek theatre that stands on a ridge and commands a panoramic view of sea, sky, headlands, inlets, mountains and, most of all, of Etna itself. Etna has its own micro-climate, and on certain days, when the clouds hang low, the upper, snow-covered part of the volcano appears to be floating free, unconnected with the mountain.
The view from the Greek theatre is one of the greatest in the world, and faced with the celestial construction itself, writers either limit themselves to providing dull statistics of, for instance, the size of the stage, or else they abandon themselves to flights of poetical whimsy. There are no more romantic ruins anywhere. The nameless Greek architect who designed and positioned it ranks with the greatest of Europe’s artistic geniuses. Not the least of his attributes was the masterly eye that enabled him to enhance with his vision what nature had provided. The Greek audience must have found it taxing to turn away from these surroundings and focus on the drama.
Beautiful though the theatre is, the visit in the Sicilian sun is draining, physically as well as emotionally. Halfway along the Corso, there is a cut-off down Via Naumachia to a quieter area, which will give the unwary visitor the harmless illusion of having found that mirage, the ‘authentic, unspoilt’ pre-tourist Taormina. If you require a cultural excuse for not getting on with heavy-duty sightseeing, the Naumachia itself is one of the best-preserved Roman remains in Sicily.
There is no need of any such excuse to take a rest. Time seated in the piazza enjoying a granita, a glass of the cool south and a quintessentially Sicilian combination of ice and sorbet, is well spent. This fairly solid drink comes in a dizzying variety of fruit flavours, from the conventional orange and lemon to the more select myrtle, almond or even basil. It is multi-purpose drink, to be taken along with – or even instead of – breakfast, consumed as a dessert, enjoyed with a brioche as a snack or even sipped as a refreshment. Almond sweets, plentiful in these parts, make an excellent accompaniment, and an alternative to granita is almond-flavoured wine from Castelmola, on the hill above. Sicilians have a sweet tooth.
A more select place to eat or drink is the San Domenico hotel, once a powerful friary. Nazi chief Albert Kesselring chose it as his residence during the last phase of the war, which meant it was bombed by the Allies, but survived. Inside the hotel, austere religious paintings hang on the walls over fashionable drinks cabinets. It is incongruous to see fastidious waiters with trays of canapés float heedlessly about under plaques with sacred inscriptions in Latin.
The churches are attractive, but it is worth stopping in front of the cathedral to admire the idiosyncratic fountain, decorated with strange sea-creatures and a centaur that is, unusually, half-female. This being has been raised to the status of town symbol.
The open space of Piazza 9 Aprile, near Porta Catania, juts out over the countryside and gives one last opportunity to peer at the sea, mountains and Mount Etna – awesome, commanding and, from this distance, capricious and alluring. Perhaps this is the real theatre of Taormina.
It seemed a good idea to stroll downhill, but we had the car. And the sea is an alluring prospect.
EasyJet (www.easyjet.com), British Airways (www.britishairways.com) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) fly from London Gatwick and London Stransted to Catania, Sicily, from around £230 return, including taxes.
Car hire costs from around £13 a day through Auto Europe (www.auto-europe.co.uk).
• Joseph Farrell is the author of Sicily: A Cultural History, Signal Books, £12