PIAZZA IX APRILE AND ITS UNFORGETTABLE BELVEDERE
We always look for a high place from which we have a privileged view at any stage of a trip. It doesn´t matter if it´s a castle, a cathedral tower, a mountain or a lookout: the feeling of spaciousness and dominance that a bird´s eye view guarantees is something we never forget. And, apparently, neither do our Instagram followers. In Taormina, we won´t need to look for such a place. The entire city is built on a hill over 400 meters above the Ionian Sea and with a collection of unforgettable views of Sicily´s eastern coast.
There are several points in the city from which we can take memorable photos. Still, for this review, we have chosen the Piazza del Nuovo d´Avril, located halfway along Taormina´s main avenue, the famous Corso Umberto I. Corso Umberto I, known to locals as il Corso, is the axis on which Greeks and Romans built the city. Its route was part of the ancient consular road known as Via Valeria, and today it is the mile-long promenade that tourists and locals walk along while enjoying ice cream and window- shopping.
At both ends, Porta Catania and Porta Messina mark the beginning and end of the historic city, and between them lie three squares. The central square is called Nueve de Abril (April 9) and commemorates a mistaken historical event. Apparently, on April 9, 1860, the city´s inhabitants gathered in the square to celebrate the landing on the island of the liberator Giuseppe Garibaldi. However, the information was false, and Garibaldi would not arrive in Sicily until a month later. The square, however, has retained the wrong date. The place is an actual open-air hall crowned by two churches, San Giuseppe and Sant´Agostino and by the clock tower, known as Torre di Mezzo.
The terraces of the historic bars in the square are great options, although certainly not cheap, to sit and relax and enjoy the music that some band will undoubtedly be playing in the centre of the square. However, it is the eastern side of the square that will attract our attention the most. An extensive viewpoint occupies all that flank, and a railing is the only thing that separates us from the intense blue of the Ionian Sea.
At our feet, we will see the town of Giardini Naxos, the first Greek colony in Sicily and today a hotel and beach resort. If the day is clear and the summer haze does not prevail, on the horizon, we will see the region of Calabria, the tip of the famous boot that forms the Italian peninsula. If we follow the coastline to the south, we will see the imposing Etna, the highest active volcano on the European continent, shedding smoke indeed for our photo.
Piazza IX Aprile, 38090 Taormina
Knowing a land also means knowing its gastronomy. If there are some places where this is true, it is so in the Mediterranean, where food goes hand in hand with social life. The descendants of Greeks, Romans and Arabs, the Sicilians, knew how to combine every celebration with a feast. It won´t be an exaggeration to say that there is a dish for every feast and a feast for every dish on the island. However, the main danger for those who visit Sicily is leaving it with a few extra kilos. It is neither easy nor recommended to go without tasting at least some of its most iconic delights.
Sicilian gastronomy extends to all culinary areas, from its delicious fruits and vegetables and extraordinary fish to its range of internationally renowned cheeses and wines. But it is undoubtedly in confectionery that Sicilian gastronomic art is at its most outstanding. Just like those monuments that make up their artistic heritage, the Sicilians have managed to turn each dessert into a baroque masterpiece, a fusion of influences from their past. The sheep´s curd cheese of the shepherds of antiquity, the pistachios and almonds brought to the island by the Arabs, the sponge cake known around here as "bread from Spain" or the chocolate brought from America by the Jesuits, are combined in a wide variety of sweets.
In each village, you will find a different speciality that is worth trying.But the best known sweet on the whole island is the famous cannolo. Initially created for carnival week, today, it can be found in pastry shops all year round. The cannolo is a tube of crispy fried pastry filled with sweet ricotta. No one knows for sure the origin of this sweet, but we know that it has been consumed on the island for centuries. Until recently, the tube was rolled on the pastry chef´s table wrapped around a river cane, hence its name. Today the pastry, called scòrza in dialect, is rolled on metal tubes and then fried in oil at high temperatures to make it crispy. This pastry is filled with ricotta, the sheep´s ricotta cheese beaten and sweetened. The pastry is decorated according to the pastry chef´s taste: chocolate chips, crushed pistachio or candied oranges are the most frequent decorations.You can find this delicacy in any pastry shop or restaurant in Taormina, but I recommend that you choose the one where they prepare the cannolo in front of you.
Often, in the more touristy places, the cannolo is already prepared hours in advance and what is essential here is the contrast between the crunchiness of the dough and the softness of the ricotta.
TESTA DI MORO
Walking down the shopping street of any town in Sicily, it is almost impossible not to find a store selling ceramics. The manufacture and decoration of objects in terracotta are common anywhere in the world. Still, in Sicily, it becomes an art that perfectly embodies the island´s personality, formed over centuries of foreign domination. Sicilian ceramics evolved from techniques and styles that combine the influence of the ancient Greeks, the centuries of Muslim presence on the island and the Spanish domination. The city of Caltagirone is the capital of ceramics in Sicily. From its artisan workshops, they are sent to the whole island very carefully decorated ceramic products in the bright colours of the Mediterranean landscape.
In Taormina´s Corso Umberto I, the city´s main street, you can find several stores selling ceramics. Among the decorated jars, pots and plates, we are likely to be struck by some surprising figures that can only be found on the island: pots representing the heads of Muslim men and women adorned with jewels and turbans. These are the famous teste di Moro, Moorish heads. As we travel around the island, we will find these figures decorating the balconies and gardens of the houses, hotels and restaurants we visit. The testa di Moro has become one of the most famous symbols of Sicily.
Like almost everything in Sicily, behind these beautiful ceramic decorative objects lies a legend of bloody romance. According to a local legend, in medieval Palermo, during the centuries of Muslim domination of the island, there lived in the elegant neighbourhood of the Kalsa, a young woman who spent her days looking after the flowers and plants in her garden. Despite being one of the most beautiful girls in the city, she paid no attention to her many suitors and seemed to have no other interest than taking care of her garden. While she was watering the plants, a young merchant from Damascus passed by the park.
The young woman instantly fell in love with him, and they began a romance that was only interrupted when the traveller confessed to her that he had not been entirely sincere with her and that he should soon return home, where his wife and children were waiting for him. Surprisingly the girl told him that she wanted to spend one last night with him and when the merchant fell asleep in her arms, she slit his throat and cut off his head. To keep the man she had always loved within sight, she placed his head in the garden and filled it with basil, which she watered every night with her tears.
The Palermitans who visited the garden were captivated by the idea of a head turned into a vase and began to reproduce it in ceramics, and we can find teste di moro of all sizes and prices. From miniatures to be used as keyrings or kitchen magnets to authentic pieces that can be used to decorate gardens and balconies and are often delivered safely to your home by the stores.
Corso Umberto I
THE GRECO-ROMAN THEATER OF TAORMINA
If we could only take one picture of Taormina, it would be the one that can be taken from the top of the cave of the Greco-Roman theatre of Taormina. There is no other view like it in the whole city and probably not in all of Sicily. It is no coincidence that it has ended up on the cover of many tourist guides of the island. From the top of the cave, we will have a privileged view of the city´s best-preserved ancient monument, the Ionian Sea, the Bay of Naxos, with the town of Giardini Naxos Etna on the horizon. If we look north, we will see the villages on top of the Peloritan mountains and, on the other side of the Ionian Sea, the coast of the Calabria region, the southernmost part of the Italian peninsula.
A bit further north, although we can not see it, is the Strait of Messina. Goethe himself wrote that no spectator in history has ever had such a view as one who attends a show here. A bit further north, although we cannot see it, is the Strait of Messina. The theatre was built in Greek times, possibly by order of the tyrant of Syracuse Hieron II in the III century BC. However, what we see today is mainly its Roman reconstruction, first during the time of Emperor Augustus and then in the II century. In its period of splendour, the theatre could hold up to 10,000 spectators. The Romans were more fond of a spectacle than of the theatre itself and, for this reason, the stage was turned into an arena, and theatrical plays ceased to be performed here and gave way to confrontations between gladiators and animals.
Over the centuries, the theatre was abandoned and remained forgotten in ruins until the end of the XVII century, when the first European tourists arrived in Sicily in search of the masterpieces of classical art. The suggestive ruin of the theatre and its incomparable views made Taormina the first major tourist attraction on the island. Today, the theatre hosts the Taormina Film Festival and a concert season that has brought artists of all styles to the city, from Andrea Bocelli and Marta Argerich to Pink Floyd, Caetano Veloso and The Cure.
Via del Teatro Greco 1,
From January 1 to February 15 09:00 - 16:00
From 16 to 28 February 09:00 - 16:30
From 1 to 15 March 09:00 - 17:00
From 16 to 31 March 09:00 - 17:30
From 1 to 30 April 9:00 - 18:30
From 1 May to 31 August 09: 00 - 19:00
From September 1 to September 15 09:00 - 18:30
From September 16 to September 30 09:00 - 18:00
From October 1 to October 15 09:00 - 17:30
From October 16 to October 31 09:00 - 17:00
From November 1 to December 31 09:00 - 16:00 Price: 10€.
EU citizens between 18-25 years old: 5€
THE ODEON,THE OTHER ANCIENT THEATER OF TAORMINA
The Greco-Roman Theater of Taormina is undoubtedly the most famous monument of the city. It may also be the most visited of the whole island. However, it is precisely the fame of this imposing monument that has contributed to the fact that many travellers visiting Taormina are unaware that the ancient city had two theatres, a sure sign of its rich cultural life. The second theatre, commonly known as the Odeon, is smaller than the first and partially preserved. We can find it a few meters from Palazzo Corvaja, the tourist office and the Puppet Museum are housed here. To the Palace´s left, we can see a church, that of St. Catherine of Alexandria.
Although not one of the most impressive in Sicily, it should be noted that this church was built in the XVII century on the remains of a Roman theatre and a Greek Doric temple.Excavations inside the church allow us to see the foundations of both structures. If we go around the church, behind it, we will find the remains of the theatre built at the beginning of the imperial era, probably during Augustus. The building that was abandoned for centuries was accidentally discovered in 1892 by the local blacksmith Antonio Bambara.
A year later, excavations began, which uncovered the structure we can see today. The architecture of the Roman Odeon is almost identical to that of the main theatre, although in miniature, however, the monument has a different orientation. At the same time, the Greco-Roman Theater faces south, and the small Odeon is oriented to the northeast.It was built of laterite material, i.e. large clay bricks bound together with lime. Like all Roman theatres, it is divided into three main sections: the stage, the orchestra, the seating section, or the cavea.
Apart from theatrical performances, it is believed that this small Odeon, built in the centre of the ancient city, was used for musical recitals and auditions reserved for magistrates, and essential civil, military and religious personalities of Taormina, as well as for their families and important guests. Perhaps when the main theatre became an arena for more popular shows, it remained a superior and cultural alternative.
Via Timeo 31A, 98039 Taormina.
During our stay in Taormina, seeing the sea below, from every viewpoint, we are likely to feel the desire to go to the beach, even more so if we have heard about the famous Isola Bella, one of the most beautiful landscapes in Italy, located just below the city. There are several ways to get down from the historic centre of Taormina to the beaches. We can take a cab at the stops at Porta Messina and Porta Catania, or get off by the bus. But certainly, the most exciting and panoramic way to do it is using the famous cable car of Taormina, whose station is located near the historic centre and leads to the beaches of Mazzarò.
The cable car was built in 1929 to cater to the boom in tourism in the city, and the current installations are logically much more modern. They have been created by the Italian company Leitner, a world leader in the sector. The cable car drops some 170 meters over a distance of just over 725 m, and each cabin holds eight people.The ride takes less than five minutes, and the view as we descend is spectacular: with the lush vegetation of the region at our feet and the Ionian bays in front of us. Even if you are afraid of heights, the experience is worth it, and if you want to take a dip in the Ionian Sea, in front of the station where the cable car drops you off is the beach of Mazzarò. But my advice is to walk a little less than a kilometre south to reach the shore of Isola Bella.
It is one of the most beautiful beaches in Italy, with an island in the centre and a sandy path that allows us to reach it at low tide. The island is full of small caves and rocky beaches and is a sanctuary for wild birds since it was owned by the English aristocrat Lady Florence Trevelyan, of whom we have already spoken.
Via Luigi Pirandello, 98039 Taormina.
Opening hours. Open daily from 08:00 to 20:00, except Monday, from 09:00 to 20:00.
The cable car departs every 15 minutes. Price. 3€, one trip. 10€, daily ticket.
THE WHITE QUEEN OF NAVARRA IN TAORMINA
A mandatory stop during our walk along Corso Umberto I, the centrepiece of the city of Taormina, is the Palazzo Corvaja. Located in a square that today receives the very Italian name of Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II, but which the locals know as Piazza Corvaja, the Palace is one of the most emblematic buildings of the city. First built on the ruins of the Greek agora and the Roman forum, the building was initially created as a defensive tower by the decision of the Saracens, who dominated the city for centuries.
After the expulsion of the Muslims from the island, the building was extended by the Normans and Swabians and gradually became a genuine castle in the centre of the city. Frederick II ordered the construction of the so-called Hall of the Master of Justice and the staircase of the central courtyard, decorated with reliefs depicting the creation of Eve and the original sin. The story that interests us, less known than it should be, occurred sometime later when the Aragonese took control of Sicily. Queen Blanca of Navarre had been married to Martin I of Sicily, nicknamed the Younger, son of the King of Aragon.
The Pamplonian queen settled on the island, and when at his father´s request, King Martin had to leave to reconquer Sardinia for the crown of Aragon, Blanca was made regent of Sicily. The nobles and merchants of the cities of Catania and Messina, both just a few kilometres from Taormina, considered it an ideal moment to take advantage of the weakness of a female queen and take control of the island. But they misjudged; the queen was able to maintain control with a steady hand during her husband´s absence. Convinced that the big cities of Sicily were not safe places for her, Blanca of Navarre took up residence in the small town of Taormina, situated on top of an impregnable rock.
She settled in the Palazzo Corvaja, fortified by generations of rulers. She ruled the island from there and convened the nobles who formed the Sicilian parliament. From the heights, it was easy to anticipate and crush any attempt of rebellion. When she left the island to be crowned as the queen of Navarre, Blanca wanted to show her gratitude towards the Palace.
She did so by leaving a sign to commemorate how helpful the Palace had been to her during challenging times by leaving the inscription "ESTOMICHI LOCV REFVGII", which in Latin means "Let this be my place of refuge", engraved in the limestone of Syracuse and marked in the lava rock of Etna.
A WALK THROUGH THE HISTORY OF CINEMA IN TAORMINA
The entire island of Sicily is a vast open-air film set. Many directors and producers have chosen this fascinating island as the setting for their stories, including some great Italian films such as The Brown Cat or Cinema Paradiso to Hollywood hits such as Ocean´s Twelve, to TV series such as Commissario Montalbano and countless mafia-themed films. During your trip around the island, in cities like Palermo, Ragusa, Siracusa or Cefalù, you will find places you already know because you have seen them in movies or television. However, the undeniable capital of Sicilian cinema is Taormina. Its association with luxury tourism and its picturesque beauty have made it ideal for many film shoots. Its wide range of hotels and paradisiacal climate have made the big stars of the cinema choose it as their base of operations during filming.
The Taormina International Film Festival is held here every year during the summer to commemorate Sicily´s cinematographic importance. Primarily focused on Italian and Italian-American cinema, it is easy to come across big stars if you visit the city during the dates it is held. We are going to propose a tour of the city to recognize some of the places that have been used in film shoots and of course we will start with the famous Greek Theater. This is where the films of the Festival are screened, an incomparable setting for watching movies at sunset. Woody Allen chose it for some scenes of his fantastic film Mighty Aphrodite, and lovers of Italian comedy may remember it fromIntrigue in Taormina, a movie in which Ugo Tognazzi excelled. At the foot of the theatre is the Hotel Timeo, where the protagonists of the three parts of The Godfather stayed during filming.
Returning to the main street, we will reach IX Aprile square. Its legendary cafes, such as the Wunderbar or the Mocambo, are the favourite of the stars, and the older waiters still remember the discussions heated by alcohol with regular customers like Richard Burton and Elisabeth Taylor. In the square, the famous actor and director Roberto Benigni has set scenes of two of his best comedies: Johnny Stecchino and The Little Devil. If we continue along the Corso to the cathedral square and turn left, we will find the Hotel San Domenico, the most luxurious in the city.
Although it also appears in The Little Devil, this hotel is the setting for the last half hour of The Adventure, the masterpiece of Michelangelo Antonioni, starring the beautiful Monica Vitti. If we go down, either by cab or cable car, to the lower part of Taormina, we will find the beautiful train station. Although it has also appeared in the previously mentioned Benigni films, movie fans will recognize it as Corleone´s station in the Godfather saga.
The real Corleone, a small town in the Sicilian countryside, is not as charming as we see in the movies. Director Francis Ford Coppola built the fictional Corleone with remnants of the city of Taormina and two villages that are less than twenty kilometres from it: Savoca and Forza d´Agrò.
You can still visit the Bar Vitelli, where Michael Corleone asks for Apollonia´s hand in Savoca. The owners have taken care to preserve it as it appears in the movie. Forza d´Agrò provides the church and the square of the fictional Corleone. Less than half an hour from Taormina, these two villages are a must for movie buffs travelling on the isla.
THE VILLA COMUNALE, ALSO KNOWN AS THE ENGLISH GARDEN
In every sightseeing tour, there comes a time when we may feel saturated with distractions and need a place to rest, enjoy a few moments of tranquillity and regain our strength. This need can be incredibly intense in cities full of other travellers: the energy of these cities is an attraction, but sometimes it can be too much. That is why it is always great to know a less frequented place to sit and watch life go by. In Taormina, that place is undoubtedly the Villa Comunale, the Municipal Park, commonly known as the English Garden.
This wonderful garden was designed and created by an English lady, Lady Florence Trevelyan. Born into an aristocratic family in Northumbria, she was orphaned at two after her father´s suicide. She grew up in her stately home in the company of her mother with no other hobby than gardening so that the Hallington gardens became famous throughout England. In the early days of tourism, when the Grand Tourbecame fashionable among the European aristocracy, a tour to see the jewels of the art of Italy, Lady Florence Trevelyan also decided to make that trip, fell in love with Taormina and chose to stay and live here.
The rumour has it that she had been informally expelled from England by Queen Victoria because she had had an affair with her son Edward. There is no proof that this rumour is true, but, in any case, Trevelyan is the one who benefited from this exile, at least as far as the weather was concerned. In Taormina, she married a wealthy doctor, Salvatore Cacciola, who was the mayor of the city for years. At her residence, she decided to rebuild the Hallington gardens with the unbeatable view of the Ionian Sea and Etna.
Also a lover of ornithology, Lady Trevelyan left instructions that the parks should also be a haven for birds, and even today, tweets still fill the place. On her death, the gardens became public property, and today they can be visited freely. Its benches, kiosks and pavilions are an ideal place to sit and rest for a while and enjoy the exuberant nature created by the fascinating English lady. It would help if you took a street downhill from Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele II To reach the Via di Giovanni gardens.
Villa Comunale. Via Bagnoli Croci, 98039 Taormina
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