Sicily Part One: Taorima and Castiglione di Sicilia – Sunny Ancient Lands

The clickity clack of our suitcase wheels reverberated through the Porta Catania, the ancient gate through a defensive wall that once encircled the town, as we pulled them past the 14th century Duomo of Taormina, over cobblestones polished smooth by centuries of use and time.  Adorned with crenelations, the church looks more like a fortress than sanctuary and seems at odds with the playful Baroque fountain in the plaza across from it.

Lined with colorful shops Corso Umberto, barely wide enough for a horse cart, connects the two old entrances to the city and is pedestrian only. The adjoining steep, staired alleys were sized just right for the width of a donkey.

Meeting us at the corner, our young host graciously carried our bags up the passageway and to the third-floor room we had rented in a newly renovated guest house.  It was a compact space, but it would work if we sucked in our stomachs. Effortlessly, he trotted up two more flights to the rooftop where he showed us the kitchen, as well as distant views of the Teatro Antico di Taormina, the castle above town, and Mount Etna, all bathed in the last of the sun’s rays. 

The next morning, before the day became too hot, we followed a steep switch-backed trail up the side of Mount Tauro to the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca and the Saracen Castle.  The Arab fortress is believed to be built over an ancient Greek acropolis. Unfortunately, it was closed due to disrepair, but the panoramic view of Naxos on the coast with Mt Etna in the background was phenomenal.

Sicily’s history follows Mount Etna’s turbulent eruptions – quiet for long periods then thrown into turmoil by foreign invasions.  Hanging off the toe of Italy, its large land mass pinches the Mediterranean Sea to the point that the island is only 372 miles from North Africa’s Tunisian coast. For ancient mariners sailing East to West or South to North it was unavoidable, and they collided with it.  Its easy location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean brought Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, British, and Spanish for varying lengths of conquest and cultural influence. It’s an interesting gene pool for sure. 

Appreciating a good beach when they found one, the Greeks rowed ashore and established their first colony, Naxos, on the island in 734 BC.  Later siding with the city state Athens in a war against Syracuse, upon defeat the city was completely destroyed in retaliation. The survivors fled to the high ground and founded Taormina.  Visitors continue to be dazzled by their vision to dramatically construct an amphitheater on the edge of a cliff towering over the sea with Mt. Etna, an active volcano, in the background.  

Finally, Piedmontese volunteers, the red shirts of Northern Italy, invaded to unite Italy. Commanded by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the army defeated the Kingdom of Sicily whose territory extended across the boot of Italy and North to Naples.

But before that Taormina with its multiculturalism was a required stop on the “Grand Tours” of the 18th and early 19th centuries once it was mentioned by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Journey to Italy. Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples and Pompeii, Athens, Istanbul, Cairo and Seville were also treasured destinations.  Remember, this was the time when all land travel was by horse-drawn carriage and water crossings by sailing ships. Think of it as an extended gap year, when young aristocrats were sent abroad for two to four years to sharpen their sensibilities and further their knowledge of the arts, antiquities and the classics.  Taormina’s big draw though, over those other sophisticated cities, was its clifftop location high above the Mediterranean that caught the cool breezes blowing in from the sea during the summer.

The Nordic invasion continued with landscape painter Otto Geleng. Exhibitions of his paintings in Paris and Berlin left critics saying such landscapes couldn’t exist and that he had an “over-active imagination.” He encouraged all his doubters to see Sicily for themselves, then returned to Taormina and opened the town’s first hotel, Timeo, in a renovated palace. His vision inspired a wave of artists, writers, and actors to visit.  In the 1920s D.H. Lawrence lived there. The books In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s were written by Truman Capote during his stay on the island.

The town can really name drop some famous visitors: Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, John Steinbeck, Cary Grant and Tennessee Williams have all worked on their tans in the golden rays of the Mediterranean sun here. 

The Taormina Film Festival, now in its 67th year, still premieres movies every June on a large outdoor screen set up in the 2300-year-old Greek amphitheater.  It attracts a new generation of sunscreen-wearing A listers: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crow, Leonardo DiCaprio and Salma Hayek. Imagine watching Spiderman: Far from Home there, as Mt. Etna sputters trails of lava into the night sky in the background. Aside from the film festival, the amphitheater hosts a vast number of concerts and stage productions throughout the year.

Not being on any lists, including Interpol’s or the FBI’s most wanted, we enjoyed a still warm early November day as we wandered through the Giardino Storico Ex Villa Trevelyan, now the town’s public formal garden, but once the grounds of a villa owned by a Scottish noblewoman. Lady Florence Trevelyan fled rumors of an affair with King Edward VIII, settled in Taormina and eventually married the mayor.  During our visit, intricately stoned paths along the cliff edge, with views of the sea, were still lush with blooming bougainvillea and hibiscus. Eventually they led to fanciful, ornamental architectural constructions called Victorian follies.

Rambling on, we passed an antique Rolls Royce being readied at the Grand Hotel Timeo to whisk the bride and groom away after their destination wedding. 

From the top row of seats at Teatro Antico di Taormina, the views continued to be enthralling; Mt. Etna was perfectly framed by the ancient columns of the stage. 

In the other direction, the coast toward Spisone dazzled in the afternoon sun.  Inland, the homes of Castelmola were precariously balanced to avoid sliding off their treacherous slope. 

A stay isn’t complete in Taormina without multiple strolls along Corso Umberto in the mornings for café and pistachio pastries, and later in the day for pistachio Aranchino or gelato.

The broad expanse of Piazza IX Aprile, adjacent to the Porta di Mezzo clock tower and the elegant Baroque Church of San Giuseppe draws a large crowd at sunset to admire the view, and is the perfect spot to enjoy a classic Aperol spritz. 

Located in the foothills surrounding Mt. Etna, Castiglione di Sicilia is on the list of most beautiful villages in Sicily. Less than an hour from Taormina, it beckoned us to visit. The scenic drive along SS185 through the Alcantara Valley was uneventful.  The fields were dormant now and farm tractors were parked to await the spring planting season. The multiple arches of Ponte San Cataldo, a historical railway bridge, graced one curve of the road.  It was now a bridge to nowhere, the train tracks at both ends long ago removed for scrap. Villages we passed showed barely any signs of life beyond a barking dog or two. 

Numerous signs for campgrounds and agrotourism farms along the route promised outdoor enthusiasts escape from city life.  Turning onto SP7i we eventually passed the rustic 12th century Norman Chiesa Di San Nicola, then crossed a small bridge over the Alcantara River, within sight of Castiglione di Sicilia.  Fed by snow melt from Mt. Etna and Nebrodi Mountains, the Alcantara River is one of the few rivers in Sicily that flows all year-round.  Over the millennia the cool waters of the river have carved a dramatic gorge through lava fields left from Mt. Etna’s volcanic eruptions.  Hiking trails above the gorge and swimming in its cool natural pools are popular summer activities in the region.

Commanding the high ground helped increase your chance of survival in the days when pillaging and plunder ruled the land.  Defenders hoped that attackers would tire and move on to an easier target. From the road in the valley, Castiglione di Sicilia looked formidable, with Castello di Lauria commanding the promontory like the rock of Gibraltar. 

Driving into the center of the village, mid-week in the off-season, we nearly had the whole village to ourselves. It felt deserted, almost as if the village had been sacked and the residents had been taken captive. We followed a warren of narrow alleys and stairways around the upper village until we reached Castelluccio, the ruins a of Byzantine tower, in a small park with an overview of the village. 

From here we spotted the belltowers of six ancient churches and monasteries that dot the hilltop. The oldest, Chiesa San Pietro, dates to 1105. Castelluccio, slightly lower than Castello di Lauria, would be our highest point in the village, since the castle was closed in the off-season. That’s the one disappointment we experience when traveling in the off-season – many points of interest are closed due to a lack of tourists.  It’s the old double-edged sword, less crowding versus less accessibility.  For the most part we are okay with this and enjoy wandering to soak up the ambiance of a locale.

A looping around the huge monolithic rock, Via Edoardo Pantano brought us to the foot of Castello di Lauria, the 12th century Norman fortress built upon earlier Greek and Roman battlements. The views of the Alcantara Valley were beautiful from this vantage point. Farther on the Basilica of Maria Santissima della Catena stood atop a wide staircase at the end of a quiet plaza. The patron saint of the town, she is believed to have saved Castiglione di Sicilia from the wrath of Mount Etna on many occasions.  Her feast day is celebrated every May with a procession through the village. 

It was mid-afternoon by the time we were ready for lunch, and our options had dwindled dramatically since arriving.  Only La Dispensa dell’Etna was still open with all the inside tables taken by a large party.  Interestingly, part of the floor of the restaurant has glass tiles that allow you to look down onto artifacts discovered during a renovation. It was a little chilly for outside dining, but we enjoyed, with the guidance of our waiter, several specialties of the Alcantara Valley. The addition of wonderful home-made house wines from the regional grapes, Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, native to the slopes of Mt. Etna, combined with the delicious food made this one of our most pleasurable meals in Sicily.  Following the Etna Wine Path might be the catalyst for future visits to Sicily. 

Till next time, Craig & Donna