A Day in Ancient Taormina
The Island of Sicily is definitely a place to return to as soon as we can. Visiting Taormina as part of a cruise excursion allowed for just a teasing glimpse into the beauty of this place. Our cruise port was the port of Messina, but again we jumped on a bus for a pre-arranged excursion. We were soon on the coastal highway heading for Taormina. As we sped along, I could see the seaside resorts lining the azure blue water. Eventually our bus climbed and climbed until we reached Taormina perched at the apex of the steep hillside. When we finally trundled off the bus, the feel of hot white sun and cool sea breezes on our bodies added to our anticipation. It was a movie-perfect Sicilian day and we were about to join the local festival.
Taormina in the summer is pretty busy, so if you are looking for peace and quiet, go off season! As we entered the old city gate, we were accompanied by hundreds of others and the main street, Corso Umberto, which climbs gradually up through the Medieval town was crowded with tourists like us.
Fortunately, Jim and I are pretty good at tuning out the annoying parts of travel and focusing in on the really great experiences to be had. First of all, we weren’t there just to have an all day shopping spree, though we did find time for that later! We really wanted to delve into the rich history of Taormina, so after finding out where everyone was to meet for the bus trip back to the ship, we ditched our guide (whom we could barely hear anyway), and started our journey in the piazza at the bottom of the hill just inside the city gate.
The geographical area of Taormina was originally inhabited by a people called the Siculi. They were here even before the Greeks arrived in 734 BCE to found a town called Naxos nearby. Colonists from Naxos subsequently founded Tauromenion which later became Taormina. The city was used as a fortress location during Greek wars and later, beginning the 3rd century BCE, Roman wars. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Taormina was overrun by the Arabs in 902 after a long 2 year siege. Muslim rule lasted until 1078 when the city was captured by the Normans. After the Normans, Taormina was dominated by an assortment of European rulers, the Hohenstaufens, Angevins and the house of Aragon. In 1410 they elected their own Monarch, King Martin II of Sicily, but even so, ended up under Spanish and then French rule. Taormina’s long turbulent history can be seen throughout city in its ruins and the many styles of its architecture.
Just beyond the entrance of the old city, in the Piazza del Duomo, a tall Baroque fountain topped by a centaur, the symbol of Taormina, was in the center of the piazza. The sun glinted off the white stone of the fountain and we came face to face with a stone sea-horse creature sitting beside it which welcomed us into the city.
Past the fountain, framing one side of the square, is the Church of San Nicola, which is built in the defensive style of a fortress. This is not surprising considering it was built in 1400 over an older church, after centuries of uprisings, sieges, and occupations. The entrance portal was rebuilt in 1636 and is crowned by a Renaissance style rosette.
We walked up the Corso Umberto which was lined with shops overflowing with antiques, pottery, designer clothes, and bars where patrons sat watching the tourist parade. The shop fronts were soft shades of pastel and the balconies above were draped with green ivy and flowering vines and edged with window boxes of red and pink geraniums. We resisted the siren call of those shops and bars, and soon the lane opened up into the Piazza IX April. With all of its restaurants, the piazza is the people-watching center of Taormina with great views of the Mediterranean.
The Piazza is also the location of the beautiful Baroque church of San Giuseppe. Its graceful façade glows white against the deep blue sky and delicate molding with curling wedding cake designs laced the satin walled interior. I am known to be one of those people who must go inside every church I see. So I managed to find my way into almost every church along the Corso Umberto, including a quick peek intrusion into the earlier mentioned San Nicolo where they were preparing for a wedding. It really brings home the awareness of these as sacred places when families are milling together among flower decorated pews waiting for the entrance of the bridal party. That was the fastest picture I have ever taken as I snapped my guilty photo and took in as much as I could in one brief glance before ducking back out into the piazza.
At the elbow of the corso is the Palazzo Corvaja, a mixture of Arab, Norman and Gothic architecture with arched and pointed windows, battlements and a tiny courtyard. The original tower was built by the Arabs as part of the town’s defenses. The ornate staircase and a wing was added in the 13th century by the Normans and a second wing was added by the Spanish in the 15th century to house the Sicilian parliament. It hosts a small but interesting history museum. Inside the museum is a chorus line of large antique puppets decked out in military uniform.
Across from the Palazzo Corvaja is a small Roman theater from 21 BC where the elite would have viewed plays and musicals. Following the elbow turn and continuing on up to the top of the steep corso took us to the main attraction of Taormina, the much larger Greek Theater built in the 3rd century BC. We explored the ancient ruins where citizens would have watched plays by Sophocles and Euripides and we took in the views of Mt. Etna and the sapphire expanse of the Mediterranean Sea which was sprinkled with yachts which looked like tiny white dots as they rested inside the protected curve of the distant bay of Naxos.
After taking in all the impressive history of Taormina our growling tummies told us to find a place for refreshment. We found seats with a view at the Café Wunderbar. Sitting right next to the railing overlooking the azure bay far below, I indulged in creamy mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil drizzled with olive oil, briny olives, and buttery crackers while Jim had a large toasted sandwich stuffed with turkey and ham. All of this was washed down with icy white wine and beer. I would recommend Café Wunderbar to anyone who wishes to relax with a good meal and amazing view. If you get tired of looking at the Mediterranean, you can turn your chair around and people watch because the café is located right on the Piazza IX Aprile.
As I mentioned, we did get back to shopping and bought a few colorful pieces of the famous Sicilian pottery crafted in the lively Baroque town called Caltagirone. The name Caltagirone mean “Castle or Fortress of Vases”. The typical colors of this pottery are sage green and yellow and have been used for centuries to decorate churches, streets and piazzas.
With my treasures safely in bags, we headed back to the bus and our trip back to the ship, but we already dreamed of being able to come back for nice long stay.