The view from my balcony at Hotel Villa Angela, Taormina, looks like a Picasso painting. The ramshackle jumble of houses tumble randomly down the hillside, and much of your sense of perspective is lost in the muddle. Further out, Mount Etna thrusts upwards and is to the towns of east Sicily what Mount Fuji is to Tokyo – beautiful, forbidding, sporadically disappearing yet a constant looming presence.
Taormina has numerous hotels, many of them exuding ludicrous degrees of luxury. But Villa Angela (Via Leonardo da Vinci s.n., tel: +39 094 228 513, www.hotelvillaangela.com) benefits from a number of characteristics that make it one of the best choices in town. First, the commitment to customer satisfaction borders on the supernatural, with stylishly appointed rooms, seafood feasts aplenty and shuttle services carting you back and forth into town at your leisure.
Second, its position high up above the bustle gives guests a breathtaking view over the city. Cradle a glass of wine while standing on the balcony at sunset and watch the beautiful natural landscape fade from view only to be replaced by the man-made lights of the city below as the sun disappears – it’s one of the loveliest sights you will ever see.
But the town below beckons, so off you go! Given the drama of the landscape, Taormina has its work cut out if it wants to compete. But somehow it does. Taking the road downhill you wind back and forth towards either Porta Catania or Porta Messina – two remaining vestiges of a fortification installed by the Romans that bracket the old town, with Corso Umberto I stretching from one end to the other.
Walking down Corso Umberto I, the visitor is immediately struck by the overpowering charm of the town. Perhaps it’s the almost complete absence of any modern construction – the town exudes a time-worn nobility – or perhaps it’s how the narrow streets and undulating slopes seem to beckon you to explore every nook and cranny? Or perhaps it’s how the tables outside the restaurants, bars and cafés are arranged in cascade formation up and down multi-level staircase side streets, echoing how the town seems to scatter itself down the hillside?
Then there are the sights and smells of the food. The commodity from which the locals wring as much work as possible is the almond, which is used in the preparation of tiny cakes, wine (like the intoxicating vino alla mandorla) and marzipan. The marzipan in particular makes a visual impression on you as you walk the streets, with fruits, fried eggs, houses and boats expertly fashioned from the stuff. To all those who claim not to like marzipan, I was like that too – but the stuff from Sicily must be how it is intended to taste, because it is excellent. Drop into Pasticceria Etna (112 Corso Umberto I) for proof.
If any venue in Taormina qualifies to be called legendary, it is Caffè Wunderbar (7 Piazza IX Aprile, tel: +39 094 262 5302, www. wunderbar.it). It was here that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were first spotted together as a couple after they escaped the set of Cleopatra to conduct their affair. Situated almost precisely halfway between Porta Catania and Porta Messina, the setting was surely good enough even for them, as the awning-covered tables overlook the plunging drop down the hillside to the sea, and musicians serenade diners.
Just beyond Porta Messina, Licchio’s (10 Via Costantino Patricio, tel: +39 094 262 5327, www.licchios.it) serves top-quality seafood in a garden setting, where you could quite easily work your way through a bottle or five with friends. Casa Grugno (Via Santa Maria dei Greci, tel: +39 094 221 208, www.casagrugno.it) is where the food gets extremely modern, courtesy of Austrian chef Andreas Zangerl. Sicilian ingredients get the molecular treatment before being presented to the guest in such delicate arrangements you feel guilty actually eating it.
Taormina’s most famous landmark is the Greco-Roman amphitheatre, or Teatro Greco, an immaculately preserved theatre with a stunning view of Mount Etna. The Greeks and Romans saw the allure of this part of Sicily, and its position has meant that approaching peoples from all sides – Greek, Turkish, African, Maltese – have found themselves on Taormina’s shores, lending it an illustrious mixture of architectural styles and influences.
To get out and soak up some of this history, take a trip with SAT Group (73 Corso Umberto I, tel: +39 094 224 653, www.satgroup.it), a company that offers multiple excursions around the island, including many to Etna. SAT will also take you to Syracuse, Sicily’s most ancient town, with an even larger amphitheatre. For Etna trips by jeep and guided treks with a volcanology focus try Geo Etna Explorer (Catania, tel: +39 34 096 109 957, www.geoetnaexplorer.com). Stay for sunset but return to Taormina as the nightlife gets going.
In the evening, Corso Umberto I darkens and takes on a different aspect – having previously been warm and inviting, by night it is mysterious and exciting to explore. Morgana Bar (4 Scesa Morgana, tel: +39 094 262 0056, www.morganabar.it) is the most ostentatious, with Fashion TV on the screens, massive white thrones to drink regal cocktails in and ultraviolet lighting to make everyone glow with an otherworldly light.
For convenience, get yourself down to Piazzetta Garibaldi, where three of the town’s top bars are situated. Déjà Vu Cocktail Bar (2 Piazzetta Garibaldi, tel: +39 094 262 869, www.dejavucocktailbar.com) is a sumptuous lounge with stylish black and gold seating and Romanesque brick archways from section to section – an homage to the town.
White Bar (6/7 Piazzetta Garibaldi) next door is just that – a blindingly white bar, with reflective surfaces and a cool, buzzing atmosphere. Q Lounge Bar (6 Piazza F. Paladini, tel: +39 094 221 296) is right on the other side of Déjà Vu and is more laid-back and less intimidatingly trendy. For something a little different, check out Hammameth (Salita Badia Vecchia, tel: +39 094 262 8000), a relaxed, Moroccan-style lounge with innovatively designed tables climbing up the staircase outside.
However, of all the bars here, one just has to be visited. Just above Taormina is Castelmola, a small and extremely pretty town that boasts the world’s only penis-themed pub, Turrisi Bar (Via Pio IX, Castelmola, tel: +39 094 228 181, www.turrisibar.it). No, it’s not meant to be rude or titillating; it is presented with a completely straight face. As you enter, it feels like you are in a completely normal bar – normal drinks, normal music, normal clientele. However, on a second glance, the entire place is decorated with statuettes, paintings and furniture crafted into, erm, suggestive shapes. Good clean fun – much like the rest of Taormina!INSPIRE ME!Despite its size (or perhaps because of it), Taormina is Sicily’s most popular town, and seems to inspire literature, art, film and romance in all who visit. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their adulterous affair here after escaping the set of Cleopatra (1963) in Rome. And speaking of scandals, DH Lawrence allegedly based Lady Chatterly’s Lover on an affair between a local farmer and a wealthy English lady.
In recent years, the chorus scenes in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite were filmed at Teatro Greco, and Luc Besson’s diving masterpiece The Big Blue was set in Taormina. Going further back in time, German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe offered effusive praise to the small town.
However, what can safely be said to have kick-started its popularity as a tourist destination came from German artist Otto Geleng, who visited the town aged 20. When he returned a year later, with paintings of Greek ruins, fortified town walls and steep hills, incredulous German art critics accused him of fabricating the dramatic scenes. He responded by asking them all to visit the town and offered to pay all their expenses if his paintings were not accurate.
He didn’t have to pay.
City Cents Taormina1. DON CORLEONE JUG
You’ll find lots of pottery and ceramic work on display in Taormina, but the most inventive stuff is from Don Corleone Objects (www.doncorleoneobjects.com). The shop’s colourful crafts are eminently “ownable”, like this small jug – you pour water in under the base, and when you turn it back up the liquid stays inside! €152. ZAGARA DI SICILIASicily’s native scent is apparently not in fashion any more, but was formerly the quintessential smell of the island.
So if you fancy smelling like the past – for whatever reason – this is definitely something you should pick up. The scent is derived from extracts of orange blossom, lavender and jasmine. €12.503. ETNA KEY RINGWith a whopping great volcano nearby, it’s no surprise that an Etna industry has emerged to seduce unwitting tourists. Less conspicuous than most of these souvenirs, this key ring is actually made from rock taken from the volcano it depicts and is a subtle homage to the island. €44.
ETNA DVDIn fact there was so much Etna-related stuff for sale on the streets of Taormina that you felt they could support the town’s entire economy. Why not make your own contribution to Taormina’s wellbeing by buying this DVD all about its fiery neighbour, Mount Etna, produced entirely in the local area? €155.
SICILIAN COAT OF ARMS
This distinctive coat of arms is truly a logo for the island. The three-legged “triskelion” appears on other emblems like the Isle of Man flag, too, but the Sicilians have really run with the idea. It’s also called a trinacria, the ancient name for Sicily, and was first made part of the autonomous region’s flag in 2000. €7.506. VINO ALLA MANDORLAAn inventive use of the local almonds comes in the form of this liqueur. Winston Churchill loved it and that should be good enough for you.
Luckily, it seems he liked it because it is delicious – a potent and sweet almond wine produced on the island and served with marzipan. €207. OLIVE OIL SOAPEtna-based cosmetics company Etna Cosmesi (www.etnacosmesi.com) produces soaps and toiletries made from natural, local ingredients. This artisanal olive oil soap foregoes any other fats or oils in its recipe. Whether that’s an important quality in a soap is a mystery to us, however. €48. BISCOTTISicilians like nuts, especially almonds – from which they make everything from alcoholic drinks to these delicate biscotti. The flavour is shaded by the inclusion of pistachios, honey, orange and lemon.
A perfect accompaniment to Marsala wine or just a coffee, while you lazily watch the people walk by. €99. ETNA ASHTRAYWhoever invented this is a genius! Perhaps an evil one. Fashioned out of volcanic rock from Mount Etna itself, this ashtray is shaped like a volcano. But here’s the clever part: place your lit ciggy in the holder, and the rising smoke emerges out of the top like an ominous sign of imminent eruption. Exceeeeedingly tacky! €910. ORANGE CHOCOLATE
These smartly packaged and flavoured chocolate bars (the orange was our favourite) are produced by a popular Sicilian brand by the long-winded name of Laboratorio Dolciario Artigianale Don Giuseppe Puglisi (www.laboratoriodonpuglisi.it). €3.80City Lives Taormina“I love the Mediterranean, and one of the great things about being in a band is that we’ve travelled all over the world to places I never imagined we’d be playing. Twenty-five years ago, we came down here to play and I just bonded with the place. I bought the land [for Hotel Villa Angela, which he runs] 10 years ago and we opened five years ago.
“When I first came, it was July and people say ‘Oh, it’s the worst because it’s so busy’. But that’s the time of year that I fell in love with the place. Having said that, now that I know it well I like the shoulder seasons – October is lovely and you can get a great March. I like hiking, I like trekking, but you can’t do that in the summer months.
“One of the reasons I am here was through the hospitality of a great friend of mine, a fellow called Antonio Chemi. He has a fantastic family restaurant called La Botte (4 Piazza S Domenica, tel: +39 0942 24 198, www.labotte1972.it). It’s been going for 40 years and has a cosy interior and a lovely terrace.
“Taormina’s golden age was after WWII in the 1960s, and if you go to one café in the centre of Corso Umberto called Mocambo (Piazza IX Aprile, tel: +39 094 223 350, www. mocambobar.com), they’ve got these great pictures of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Sophia Loren. It’s a wonderful place to sit and watch the whole parade that Corso Umberto is.
“We [Simple Minds] will be touring for six months this year. So far we’re having the best reaction for two decades from the media. But Sicily even played a part in that because I wrote a lot of the early seeds of the songs here. And this is one of the effects if you go to a place and if you have a good holiday.
“People go on holiday for different reasons, but there’s usually one common reason and it’s that, unless it is an adventure holiday, you’re going for relaxation – and where there’s relaxation, there’s rejuvenation.
“I think our band seems to feel there’s real rejuvenation going on and if that’s so, then I think Sicily has played a big part in that.”Simple Minds’ new album Graffiti Soul is out now. Catch them live at the Teatro Greco On 27 July, as part of their European tour This Summer. For More Details, Visit www.simpleminds.comCITY MAP TAORMINAHotels1. HOTEL VILLA ANGELAVia Leonardo da Vinci s.n.,tel: +39 094 228 513,www.hotelvillaangela.com
2. EXCELSIOR PALACE HOTEL8 Via Toselli,tel: +39 094 262 8968,www.excelsiorpalacetaormina.it
3. HOTEL VILLA TAORMINA39 Via Tommaso Fazzello,tel: +39 094 262 0072,www.hotelvillataormina.com
4. HOTEL VILLA DUCALE60 Via Leonardo da Vinci,tel: +39 094 228 153,www.villaducale.com
5. HOTEL VILLA SCHULERVia Roma, Piazzetta Bastione,tel: +39 094 223 481,www.hotelvillaschuler.comCulture/Shops6. TEATRO GRECOVia Teatro Greco,tel: +39 094 224 291
7. DON CORLEONE OBJECTS4 Salita de Luna / 5 Salita Melivia,tel: +39 094 224 967,www.doncorleoneobjects.com
8. VILLA COMMUNALEJust off Via Bagnoli
9. BENEDETTO129 Corso Umberto I,tel: +39 094 223 851,www.taorminabenedetto.com
10. SAT GROUP73 Corso Umberto I,tel: +39 094 224 653,www.satgroup.itRestaurants11. WUNDERBAR7 Piazza IX Aprile,tel: +39 094 262 5302,www.wunderbar.it
12. LICCHIO’S10 Via Costantino Patricio,tel: +39 094 262 5327,www.licchios.it
13. VECCHIA TAORMINA3 Vico Ebrei,tel: +39 094 262 5589.www.vecchiataormina.com
14. GRANDUCA172 Corso Umberto I,tel: +39 094 224 983, www.granduca-taormina.com
15. CASA GRUGNOVia Santa Maria dei Greci,tel: +39 094 221 208,www.casagrugno.itBars16. HAMMAMETHSalita Badia Vecchia,tel: +39 094 262 8000
17. MORGANA BAR4 Scesa Morgana,tel: +39 094 262 0056,www.morganabar.it
18. DEJA VU COCKTAIL BAR2 Piazzetta Garibaldi, tel: +39 094 262 869,www.dejavucocktailbar.com
19. WHITE BAR6/7 Piazzetta Garibaldi, tel: +39 094 223 767
20. Q LOUNGE BAR6 Piazza F. Paladini, tel: +39 094 221 296