Taormina: In The Shadow Of Mount Etna
Feature by: Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller

It’s six in the morning in Taormina and I can’t sleep. I pull back the drapes and step out on our terrace at the first blush of light, fully expecting a sweeping view of the Ionian Sea below. Instead, Mount Etna steals the show. The night’s dense cloud cover has totally vanished, exposing 10,925 feet of smoldering majesty. I am in awe. At my fingertips is Europe’s most active volcano, still snow-capped even in early May, a faint plume of smoke wafting at its summit. “You have to see this!” I call my husband, who jumps out of bed grabbing his camera

Towering Mount Etna dominates the landscape of eastern Sicily. Continuously effusing gas and steam,
it is a far less dangerous volcano than Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples.
After five days of touring Sicily on our own, we are comfortably ensconced at Villa Angela, a boutique property on Via Leonardo da Vinci, 800 serpentine meters above the center of town. Our touring activities here are being supervised by Chiara, a resourceful Florentine who is mothering the small group we have joined.

Perched at the foot of Mount Taurus on Sicily’s northeastern coastline, Taormina has been a resort destination for millennia. Here came the Greeks who had settled in nearby Giardini Naxos, followed by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards. Centuries later, after a long period of decline, the town was rediscovered by travelers taking a “Grand Tour of Europe,” and soon after its palaces and villas were converted to hotels. Today, Taormina is decidedly upmarket, with tastefully restored medieval buildings and elegant shops clustered on and around Corso Umberto, the central pedestrian street. The town’s storied past is also distinguished by a long list of writers and film stars who came for its crystalline sea and fell in love with the ambience. Among the many were D.H. Lawrence, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor, each adding a layer of legend to the local mystique.

Our afternoon is free and the four of us can’t wait to explore. The hotel shuttle deposits us near Catania Gate, the southern entrance to the Corso crowned with the coat of arms of Aragon. Even at three o’clock the town is teeming: raucous school groups on their annual May outings, artists sketching, cafes and gelaterias with long waiting lines, pasticcerias brimming with lifelike marzipan fruits, tourists loading up on Godfather T-shirts and ceramics, or fingering designer handbags and jewelry. Two street musicians are actively soliciting participation from a growing audience of admirers. “Si prega di danza,” please dance, they encourage the crowd. On the Corso it’s always a party!

On Piazza IX Aprile, Taormina’s large central square,
an artist sketches a young girl amid a crowd of tourists.
Taormina’s restaurants and pizzerias are exuding competing aromas: Osteria Nero d’Avola looks tempting with its rooftop terrace and a long list of seafood, Al Duomo showcases seasonal produce, and tiny trattorias offer up popular Mediterranean fare. “It’s going to be hard to decide which one to try,” says my husband. We turn down a lane filled with tiny shops showcasing artisanal foods: blood orange and lemon preserves, Mount Etna honey, jars of olives and capers, locally-grown herbs and hand-made pasta. “Signora, our ground pistachios are delicious sprinkled on cannoli,” hypes a nut seller, placing two bags in my open hand.

When we gather the next morning, the crowds seem to have doubled. “A cruise ship undoubtedly slipped in,” says our friend Eric. “Indeed, the whole world comes to Taormina!” Chiara concurs. “Please welcome our local guide, Melina. She will be taking us to the top attractions in town.” We follow Melina to a lovely garden behind Palazzo Duchi di Santo Stefano, a magnificent Norman watchtower that was converted to a family residence centuries ago. After World War II it was purchased by the town and turned into a cultural foundation, hosting art exhibitions and municipal events. In recent years it has also become Taormina’s favorite wedding venue. “Can you notice some recycled ancient Greek elements in the exterior walls?” asks Melina. “And how about those mullioned windows outlined in lava stone?”

A former Norman watchtower, Palazzo Duchi di Santo Stefano incorporates
numerous architectural elements from the town’s layered history.
Our group convenes at Piazza del Duomo next to an unusual Baroque fountain with a statue of a female centaur, a mythological creature that is part human and part horse. “The centaur has become the symbol of Taormina and is our favorite rendezvous spot,” Melina divulges. Dominating the north side of the square is the 13th century cathedral of San Nicola, built like a fortress, complete with battlements and a monumental Renaissance door. Inside the dim church, I can make out three naves with pinkish marble columns, a Celtic cross and a delicately carved wooden ceiling, a remnant from the Arab period. ”San Nicola has been rebuilt several times over the centuries,” Melina explains. “Nonetheless, it has managed to maintain its amazing acoustics. Christmas mass here is quite an experience.”

Porta di Mezzo, the town’s middle gate with a tall clock tower, serves as a gateway to Piazza IX Aprile, so named for the day the Taorminesi got word that Garibaldi had landed in Marsala in 1860, launching the liberation of Sicily from the Bourbons. “Check out the view from the piazza,” Melina points to the east. “You can’t get enough of this panorama of the coastline and Mount Etna.” Fronting the clock tower is the infamous Wunderbar Caffé, the favorite haunt of artists, writers and celebrities. “Here you can sit and relax for hours, going from cappuccino to cappuccino, and watch all the tourists pass by,” she teases.

“Where do the local people hang out?” I ask Melina, who stops to think for a minute. “Actually, there are two Taorminas,” she discloses. “There is this one on the Corso, with its shops and noisy crowds of tourists. And there is the real Taormina, the one with small side streets and balconies filled with geraniums, or in the Public Gardens where families stroll in their finest clothes and children play. Or you an experience it when you can take the funicular down to the pebble beach near Isola Bella and have an aperitif in one of the seaside villas.” I realize at this moment that “the second Taormina” will have to wait for our second visit.

“We are now in the oldest part of town, where the Greeks and Romans first settled,” Melina announces. She points to Palazzo Corvaja, a remarkable 10th century building originally built by emir Al-Kalbi over the Roman Odeon. Here the Museum of Popular Arts houses its collections of costumes, ceramics and Sicilian carts. We continue down a long street lined with souvenir stands, not unlike the Plaka in Athens, past an elegant palazzo hotel with manicured gardens, finally reaching the jewel of Taormina, the Teatro Greco.

Taormina’s magnificent Teatro Greco is a blend of original Greek design and later Roman alterations.
The Ionian Sea and Mount Etna provide a visual extension to the stage.
“There is not a more beautiful theater in the entire world,” brags Melina as we take in the dramatic setting of the Teatro scaling the hill to take advantage of the view of the azure sea and Mount Etna. “When it was first built in the third century BC, it was much smaller. Five centuries later, the Romans expanded it, adding the aisles and seats at the top, removing the wooden stage and digging tunnels so that gladiators and animals could enter.” Today the theater can seat up to 10,000 people, and preparations for its summer season of plays, operas, ballets and concerts, not to mention the annual film festival, are underway. “Imagine how it looked 2400 years ago, lit with torches and oil lamps,” Melina comments. “Each play lasted three hours without intermission. All the actors were men, but the chorus was mostly made up of women who chanted in rhythmic cadences. The Greek plays had a spiritual quality, but the Romans preferred gory spectacles. Thankfully, by the 4th century AD, all the brutal acts were abolished,” she says in parting, leaving us to climb the theater for photo ops.

It’s time to sample the cuisine that has made Taormina famous. On Naumachia, a narrow side street off the Corso, the sign at Ristorante Taverna Al Paladino lists the cucina tipica Siciliana we have been craving. It is a feast from the sea: spaghetti with sea urchins, cuttlefish in black ink, orecchiette with sardines and a shrimp risotto with baby asparagus. We linger over our lunch, admiring two tables of locals who are relishing their meal, erupting into storytelling enlivened by dramatic hand gestures. Later that night, our appetites reawakened, we hike above Villa Angela to a recommended restaurant overlooking the sea, Al Saraceno. “Shall we try their pizza?” asks Eric. Toppings of artichokes, mushrooms, olives and prosciutto are soul-satisfying, not to mention the crusts: crisp, flavorful, with a hint of smokiness from Saraceno’s wood-burning oven.
Agrigento, or ancient Akragas, was the largest city-state of Magna Graecia, reigning over a ridge on Sicily’s southern coast. To visitors arriving by sea, its swathe of temples proclaimed the power of the Greeks in a glance. Agrigento is on our “do-not-miss list” and we head out early in the morning toward Enna, the farming center of the island, through vast stretches of prickly pear cactus, turning southwest to the site. “When we get there we will be closer to Africa than to Europe,” Chiara announces. “The coast of Tunisia is only 180 miles from Agrigento.”

The city founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC, known today as the Valley of the Temples, was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Out of some 21 temples here, only the remains of half have been found. “It’s too bad we can’t be here at night when all the temples are illuminated,” says Chiara. “But before we take our passeggiata archeologica, let’s set the stage by visiting the museum. We are lucky because our guide, Giovanna, is considered the top expert on Agrigento’s antiquities.”

The museum is a treasure trove, tracing the history of the site from the earliest human settlement through its Greek and Roman heydays. Giovanna stops in front of a beautiful Attic pot depicting a scene from the Odyssey with Patroclus, beloved by Achilles, heading to the underworld: “This crater traveled to Athens during the recent Olympics.” We gather around a marble sculpture of a young soldier. “Notice the movement and the physical detail in this statue,” she comments. “It is less severe than the archaic style, as if life has entered the stone. This piece was recently returned to us by the Getty Museum in California.” We continue to a scale model of the destroyed Temple of Olympian Zeus, once the largest Doric temple in the world. “This is a telamon,” Giovanna explains, pointing to a crude human statue used as a column to support the roof of the temple. “Next to the rubble at the site, you will see its replica laying on the ground.”
Before touring the temple area, at a restaurant suitably named “Acropolis,” we savor Catania’s famous pasta alla Norma, a medley of eggplant, basil, garlic and tomatoes infused with ricotta salata and dedicated to Bellini, the great opera composer. Chiara sighs as we linger over our semifreddos: “How I wish we had enough time to see the modern town! It has a quaint medieval center made up of steep alleys and stairs. There is also an unusual church, Santa Maria dei Greci, which is built over a sunken temple to Athena,” she enumerates. “Here, Luigi Pirandello, the Nobel prize winner, was born.”
At the eastern end of the ridge stands the honey-colored Temple of Hera Lacinia, the protectress of childbirth. “Notice the huge sacrificial altar where burnt offerings were made to the goddess,” says Giovanna as we begin our walk through the massive park. “The power of the Greek city is represented by the number of temples on a site. There are 11 remaining here and there is no other place in the world that compares,” she emphasizes. We walk past a gnarled olive tree reputed to be at least 800 years old, by tiny indigenous palm trees and Christian graves with frescoed niches, toward the 430 BC Temple of Concordia, one of three extant Greek temples in the world so magnificently preserved. “It was built according to golden ratios,” Giovanna continues, “around the time same the Parthenon was erected. In the 6th century the temple was turned into a church and that saved it. Notice how the columns taper and curve. The Egyptians invented columns, but the Greeks invented style!”

In Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, Concordia, one of the world’s great Doric temples, owes its amazing
state of preservation to an early Christian church once housed within its colonnade.
We continue to the circular Temple of Hercules, its eight Doric columns standing today thanks to restorations made in 1923. It is the oldest structure here, built to honor the slaying of the winged Chimera. Nearby lies an enormous pile of shattered stones and pillars, all that remains of the great Temple of Olympian Zeus, heavily damaged by repeated earthquakes and pillaged for centuries. Its huge altar can still be seen, big enough to sacrifice 100 oxen at once. Just as Giovanna promised, a replica of the museum telamon lays on the ground, evoking the disasters that befell the site. In the distance we can spot four golden columns, part of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers who became the constellation of Gemini and protectors of sailors. We are humbled by the size and scope of the park. “Pindar wrote that Akragas was the most beautiful city ever built,” Giovanna comments as we leave. “I think that what you saw today truly brings to life the grandeur that was Greece.” “She is right,” says my husband. “You don’t have to be a philhellene to be bowled over by this place.”
On our last morning we journey south on the road to Mount Etna. Bordered by the Alcantara and Simeto Rivers, the mountain is a huge national park that dominates eastern Sicily, attracting thousands of visitors the year round. “Etna is an effusive volcano, unlike Vesuvius, which is explosive,” Melina speaks into her microphone. “That means it is less dangerous. You can even visit it during times of minor emissions of ash and lava. But today it’s pretty quiet,” she assures us. “You won’t be seeing any Strombolian explosions hurling lava into the sky. We will be approaching the volcano from the south, and we’ll go pretty high up, well above the tree line.” The lower parts of the park, layered with rich volcanic soil, are extremely fertile, perfect for beekeeping and growing grapes that yield exceptional wines. We wind through endless lemon groves and fields of Scotch broom in full bloom. Here and there are sizable apple orchards and tracts of mature chestnut and eucalyptus trees. I can spot clumps of tiny violets and assorted wildflowers blooming underneath their branches.

Zaffarena Etnea is a historic town named for its cultivation of saffron. In spite of being in the path of frequent lava flows, the town has prospered by servicing visitors to Etna. It is built around a lovely Baroque cathedral off Piazza Umberto where today a funeral procession is taking place. We stop at Donna Peppina, a pasticceria famed for crispy hazelnut and almond wafers, the perfect snack for a stroll on the piazza. Every Sunday in October Zaffarena holds its annual Ottobrata Festival here and hundreds of stalls offer up all the produce grown in the region--from porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and pomegranates to prickly pear fruit, many varieties of apples and honey, grapes, herbs, and wine. “Some of the local people wear regional dress and sing old songs in their colorful Sicilian dialect to the accompaniment of guitars and tambourines,” says Melina. “It’s really something to see. There is always a huge crowd at the booth selling apple risotto!”

As our bus climbs higher, the visibility deteriorates and soon we are driving in a thick fog. “Etna is constantly releasing gas and steam which relieves its internal pressure and minimizes violent explosions,” Melina explains. She is quite the volcanologist as she details the chemical composition of the soil and the viscosity of the magma. Coming out of the clouds, I notice that the tree line is now behind us and the terrain has become moonlike. We continue to Refugio Sapienza at about 6500 feet, the starting point for expeditions to the craters at the top. Here are several tourist shops and eateries where gratis shots of Limoncello can be quaffed and kitsch lava ashtrays and other memorabilia are sold by the thousands. The air is cold and damp and the bold taste of Limoncello is an explosion of liquid sunshine. From Sapienza those who want to get closer to the summit can take a cable car which rises to nearly 8000 feet.

At Crateri Silvestri, an inactive pyroclastic cone punctuates Mount Etna’s lunar landscape.
”Who wants to get up close and personal to a crater?” asks Melina as we head toward Crateri Silvestri, two inactive pyroclastic cones that erupted back in 1892. “You can walk all around them and even climb inside if you wish,” she says. “Zip up your jackets and keep moving.” We join dozens of tourists of all ages who are swarming on the rims of the large cones. A few have descended into a smaller crater and are fingering red and charcoal lava rocks. In all directions the vistas are breathtaking and evocative. I suddenly remember what Homer said, that the bowels of Etna housed the fiery crucible of Hephaestus, where the weapons of Achilles were forged. Here too lived the evil Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops tricked by Odysseus and his men.

Near the road to Taormina, in the hamlet of Giarre, Agriturismo Codavolpe is a working citrus farm with views of the sea and one side and snow-covered Etna on the other. The name means “tail of the fox,” also referring to a local variety of golden grapes that yield full-bodied white wines. We stroll through lemon and mandarin groves, past loquat and cherry trees, around trellises laced with kiwi vines, toward the old farmhouse where Elena Asciutte and Angela Scuto offer rustic rooms and local specialties to tourists who want experience authentic Sicilian living. “Benvenuti,” murmurs Elena, leading us to the vaulted dining room hung with farm implements and family photographs. In no time our feast arrives: fragrant antipasti, followed by pasta with pistachios and cream, all lovingly prepared in their kitchen. “This is yummy!” says our friend Kathy as she empties her plate. Indeed, the cooking is so self-assured and fresh that we are convinced Codavolpe has a monopoly on regional flavors. “It has be the volcanic soil,” I conclude.

It’s our last night at Villa Angela and we’re gathered in the dining room for a festive farewell to Sicily. Stashed in my luggage, ready to hang on our kitchen wall, is a just-purchased Trinacria, the symbol of the island and an enduring icon of our visit. I am filled with regret that we are leaving. “But the trip isn’t over yet,” my husband consoles me. And so it isn’t! Tomorrow we cross the Straits of Messina to the mainland, continuing to Puglia, the “heel of the boot,” a region less visited, yet filled with wonders.