THREE DAYS IN TAORMINA
How to pack the most into your time at this pretty Sicilian hilltop town
THE ANCIENT GREEK THEATRE IS PERCHED ON TOP OF TAORMINA WITH AMAZING VIEWS OF ETNA AND THE CALABRIAN COAST
You can happily spend a week in the Sicilian resort town of Taormina. The clear blue waters will call you, majestic Etna beckons and cinephiles will want to take a tour. But if you’re low on time, here are the highlights.
Skip the hotel buffet for a traditional Italian breakfast; granita and brioche at Bam Bar. Yes, really.
Order your granita with panna, cream, scoop out the centre of the sweet brioche, fill it with granita and panna, put the top back on and eat it like you would a burger. It makes a great afternoon snack, but they don’t do takeaway and you can wait up to an hour for a table.
Rise early to enjoy the Corso Umberto – the main drag – and get a chance to take a picture in front of the archways that line either end of the pedestrian thoroughfare, Porta Catania and Porta Messina. As a resort town, Taormina stays up late to party and doesn’t get going until 11am. This gives you time to wander unencumbered rather than bouncing off fellow tourists.
Local driver Vincenzo, 48, has been taking tourists in the open-air mini Ape Calessino, a car/Vespa hybrid that’s unique to the area, for the past 15 years. With a cigarette in hand, his entertaining commentary will cover whatever it is you’re interested in, from the best places to eat, how often Mount Etna erupted, the last time it snowed in Taormina, what happened during the G20 last year, the history of the area or
movie trivia. Stop at Belvedere Lookout to take in Naxos, the first Greek colony in Italy, Isola Bella and Savoca, where Al Pacino’s character met his girlfriend in movie. Then it’s time for a local delicacy, spremuta di limone. Vincenzo believes the mix of lemon juice, seltzer water and salt is refreshing and sates thirst better than a glass of water.
On the way up the mountain to Castelmola, a medieval village 550m above sea level, visit Madonna della Rocca, a small church carved into the mountain in the 1600s and Vincenzo pulls over to point out the capers growing from the cliff walls and to pick wild figs.
The motor of the little ape chugs uphill, like a tourist that has indulged in too many plates of pasta, but downhill it’s just the whip of the wind as you glide down the mountain.
Taormina town is set on a hillside and the beach is at the bottom of the mountain. For a seaside lunch, the cable car, €6 (about $9.30) return, is the easiest way to get down to the Bay of Mazzaro, head to Porta Messina and follow via Luigi Pirandello. Il Barcaiolo, on the northern end of Mazzaro, is considered the best seafood restaurant in town. Book ahead here.
Isola Bella pebble beach is the next one along from Mazzaro, a short walk to help you digest lunch. Meaning “Beautiful Island” in Italian, it takes its name from the house in the middle of the bay. Perched on a rocky outcrop, it was built in 1890 by an English gardener, Florence Trevelyan. In low tide, you can walk to the island.
Aperitivo, pre-dinner drinks and accompanying snacks, is one of the great Italian traditions. While the Aperol spritz is one of the best known, it makes sense to indulge in an Etna spritz – a mix of Campari, Amara blood orange liqueur, prosecco and soda – at the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo seeing as the magnificent volcano looms in the distance.
The gambero rosso, or red prawn, is a specialty of the region. Fished in the southern Mediterranean waters, the raw prawn has a ruby red hue, the flesh is firm and sweet and the head is filled with roe during July-October. To really savour it, eat it raw. At the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo Restaurant it’s served ceviche-style, with onion, garlic, tomatoes and olive oil.
To avoid the throng and the midday sun, get to the Greek Theatre when it opens. If you’re not impressed by its position, perched on top of Taormina with views of Etna and the Calabrian coast, then there’s no romance left in you. Built by the Greeks around the third century BC as a theatre, the Romans adapted it to house gladiatorial battles. It’s still used today, showcasing everything from opera, to ballet to rock concerts and the annual Taormina Film Festival. There’s also a secret passage between the theatre and the Belmond Grand Hotel, used by Donald Trump during the G20 Summit.
Don’t let the fear of overweight baggage stop you stocking up on a host of colourful ceramics. It’s also hard to go past a pair of hand-made sandals. At Il Sandolo Caprese (“the Capri sandal”), Riccardo Canti, 28, sits at the front of the store, toiling away. The process takes about half an hour and costs from €60 . Choose your wooden base, pick the coloured leather straps and Riccardo will set it. Then try it on, stretch or loosen the straps to fit and he fixes them in place with little gold nails.
Take a break from all that shopping along Corso Umberto and find the doorway to Vecchia Taormina. The unassuming corridor opens up into a set of intersecting staircases that work as the dining room. Order gnocchi with prawns and pistachio.
Casa Cuseni is dedicated to English artist Robert Hawthorn Kitson, who built the property in the early 1900s. Overlooking the Gulf of Naxos, this artists’ refuge housed luminaries such as Picasso, Tennessee Williams and D.H. Lawrence who wrote
here. There’s a historic English garden and museum.
Make like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who favoured Wunderbar Caffe on the main square. Waiters in white jackets and black bow ties can be stuffy and you’ll pay €5 for a coffee, but the people watching is priceless.
Pizzeria Villa Zuccaro, surrounded by flowering bougainvillea and palm trees, serves seriously good pizza. It straddles the middle ground of the pliable Neapolitan and crisp-bottomed Roman versions.
Handily located below Pizzeria Villa Zuccaro, Daiquiri is ideal for a post or pre-dinner pit stop. The rum-based drink is the specialty