by Elizabeth Warkentin, The Independent, May 24, 2017
Taormina has been dealing in drama for thousands of years. Founded in the 4th century BC, this posh Sicilian resort town is home to the second largest Greek theatre in Sicily, after the one in Syracusa. Then there is Taormina’s geographic position at the foot of Mount Etna, the still active volcano that erupted twice in March 2017, nearly killing a BBC filming crew. In the 18th to the mid-20th centuries, the town was a must-see destination on the classic Grand Tour circuit, with notable celebrities and royals like D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Goethe, Alexandre Dumas, Tsar Nicholas II, Elizabeth Taylor and Greta Garbo leaving their mark.
The drama will escalate once again when Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump, along with the other leaders and VIPs of the word’s seven most important economies descend on Taormina for the 43rd G7 Summit this weekend.
Prices in high summer can be prohibitive and accommodation nigh on impossible to nab, but plebeians can make like Trump and experience the dolce vita in Taormina, too — albeit on a decidedly tighter budget with far looser security that won’t cause a volcanic reaction or a “security nightmare” for the locals.
Here are 10 suggestions for what to do in Taormina.
Take in the view at the Teatro Antico
Sicily is awash in ancient ruins and rivals Greece for ancient Greek architecture. Built in the 3rd century BC, the well-preserved Teatro Antico is perched atop steep cliffs plunging 250m down to the Ionian sea, with panoramic views of Mount Etna. To allow for its spectacular hilltop location, over 100,000 cubic metres of limestone had to be removed from the mountain. Under Roman rule the theatre was altered to make room for games and gladiatorial battles. Today it is still used in summer as a venue for operas, film screenings and rock and classical concerts. Tickets €10.
Explore Mount Etna
At 3,329m, Mount Etna is not only one of the most active volcanoes in the world, it also the highest in Europe. In winter you can ski the volcano, but most visitors go in spring or summer to take part in guided excursions of the Parco dell’Etna. The park’s varied topography ranges from snowcapped mountains to lunar deserts of barren black lava, beech woods, golden wheat fields and lush vineyards. Depending on the type and the length of the tour, tourists can hike or do 4WD tours of the park, taking in homes surrounded by hardened lava, exploring volcanic caves and tasting products of the Etna terroir. There are many guided excursions available, but the easiest way to explore the volcano is to do one that combines an ascent by cable car, a 4x4 bus and a guided walk.
Hit the beach
If President Trump or any of the other G7 dignitaries make it to the beach, it will likely be by helicopter, as the winding roads into town are impossible to secure. Mere mortals, however, can either walk down the steep stone stairs by the belvedere off the Via Guardiola Vecchia, ride the bus down the hill or pay €3 for a one way, 10-minute trip by cable car. The most beautiful beach is the one at Isola Bella, but space is limited and you’ll have to sit on a towel. Fronting Isola Bella there is the larger public beach, Mazzarò. Letojanni beach, about 6km away but easily accessible by bus, has a long, fine and golden sandy bay where you’ll find plenty of fully equipped lidos with sun beds and umbrellas.
Learn the truth about the mafia
While the Cosa Nostra’s reign of terror has subsided in recent years, the mafia does continue to exert influence on honest Sicilian businesses who are forced to pay a pizzo, or “protection money”. Tourists can help Sicilians who have suffered at the hands of the mob by joining an anti-mafia tour with Addiopizzo Travel. Addiopizzo guides take participants around the Catania and Etna regions on myth-breaking, responsible tourism excursions to see restaurants, shops and hotels that have signed an anti-extortion charter and visit villas, farms and vineyards that were once owned by crime bosses before being confiscated by police. Taormina is not typically part of these tours unless specifically requested, but guests can be collected from and dropped off in the resort after touring the nearby Catania and Etna regions.
Cool off with a granita
As gelato is to Italy, granita is to Sicily. Consisting of sugar, thin flakes of ice and various flavourings made of crushed fresh fruit, this Sicilian drink/dessert is served in every café, bar and gelateria on the island. Legend has it that the Sicilians developed granita centuries ago when the Arabs who ruled the island introduced the idea of sorbet. The term granita originated from the nevari, or snow dealers, who hauled blocks of snow from the slopes of Mount Etna. The snow would be sweetened with local fruit, such as lemon, to keep people cool in summer. Today the popular treat comes in a riot of flavours and colours, but the most common are lemon, mandarin orange, strawberry, coffee and almond (made from almond pulp). Some of the best granita in Taormina is found at Bam Bar, where you can savour the usual flavours as well as melon, pistachio and Nutella.
Hang out in Piazza IX Aprile
Dubbed Taormina’s most elegant living room, Piazza IX Aprile is the town’s main square, built as a terrace with vertiginous views of the Ionian Sea and surrounding villages. Marvel at the rose-tinted exterior of the 17th-century baroque church of San Giuseppe that sits atop a double balustraded staircase, with the towering rock peaks of Castelmola providing the ultimate backdrop. The piazza is an ideal place to sip a glass of Sicilian wine and watch the world go by while seated at one of the many cafés and restaurants lining its perimeter. On hot summer evenings hundreds of tourists pass through the piazza as children play, vendors sell tacky balloons and artists draw caricatures.
Get back to nature (reserve)
Just off the coast of Taormina lies Isola Bella, purchased in 1890 by Lady Florence Trevelyan who embellished it by building a house and cultivating rare plants. Today it is a UNESCO-protected nature reserve administered by the Italian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature. The island is connected by a narrow strip of shingle beach and thus can be easily reached on foot (with plastic shoes) from the mainland. The fee to enter the reserve and museum is €4. Fifty-minute boat excursions around the island cost about €25 per person.
Sample the best arancini
You’ll certainly be stuck in a queue, but it will be well worth the wait as Da Cristina, on Via Strabone, makes the best arancini (stuffed rice balls coated with bread crumbs) in town. The sheet pizza is also superlative, or “il top” as they say in Italian, as are the cheese-filled sfoglie pastries and other savoury treats.
Escape the crowds
One of the loveliest, most whimsical finds in Taormina is the lush gardens at Villa Communale. Like Isola Bella, the gardens, once owned by Lady Florence Trevelyan, are a Mediterranean paradise of palm trees, cacti and delicate flowers, interspersed with Victorian architectural follies, as well as a children’s play area.
Go wine tasting
Sicily is something of an “emerging” wine region; though, of course, winemaking in Sicily dates back to the days of the Caesars. Until about a decade ago, the wine apparently tasted like turpentine because the government was more interested in selling quantity over quality. Now visionary vintners have been returning the island to its proud winemaking heritage. Like Santorini, the Etna region’s volcanic soil and distinctive climate create grapes imbued with intense minerality and flavours.