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It was a magical moment at Taormina’s al fresco theatre, being serenaded by a spine-tinglingly good soprano as the sea glittered under the light of a full moon.
Built-in the 3rd-century BC by the Greeks and later expanded by the Romans, this magnificent amphitheater is the second-largest in Sicily after Syracuse. It is still used for summer performances under the banner Taormina Arte, including the annual film festival, operas, and concerts, with a backdrop as captivating as the performances.
Taormina makes the perfect introduction to Sicily, with its sublime location perched on a rocky promontory between the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna about halfway between Messina and Catania. And it’s the island’s history in a microcosm: invaded by the Greeks, Romans, French, and Spanish, among others, who all left their mark.
Artists, writers, and celebrities followed in the 18th century when Taormina became a stop off on the European Grand Tour. Its fans have also included writer D H Lawrence and Hollywood icons, including Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, and Sophia Loren, who have all been drawn by its beautiful medieval buildings, chic boutiques that line its narrow streets, and the breathtaking views at every turn.
The next morning, after I’d grabbed an almond milk granita – a semi-frozen dessert that originated in Sicily – from Bam Bar, and sampled the calorie-laden cannoli at Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto – arguably the best in town, I took a walk through the town. Taormina’s main thoroughfare was once part of the ancient Roman road, the Via Valeria, and it still showcases the town’s rich history with its mix of Arab, Norman, Baroque and Gothic architecture.
Today it’s lined with boutiques, cafés, and traditional pastry shops. I stopped off at Kiseki Jewels, where covetable jewelry is made from natural materials, such as shells, lava and semiprecious stones, and Parisi, which opened in 1959 as a family-run tailor’s shop, and today stocks the latest from Italy’s top designers, including Gucci, Prada, and Dolce&Gabbana.
The design duo has shot several advertising campaigns in Taormina, including in the Piazza IX Aprile, the striking main square. I paused to take in the stunning views from its terrace before passing through a gate into the medieval part of town, dipping down alleyways under flower-laden balconies, and stopping off for local specialties such as arancini con ragu – deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with meat, tomato sauce and mozzarella at Da Cristina.
Off the Corso Umberto, a long flight of stone stairs leads to Casa Cuseni sitting high above the town’s terracotta-tiled rooftops. British painter Robert Kitson began building in 1903; now it’s an Italian National Monument, B&B, and living museum, offering daily guided tours.
The honey-colored villa became Europe’s first hotel for artists in 1948 and the five bedrooms are named after some of its most famous visitors, including Greta Garbo and Pablo Picasso.
It appeared suspended in time, with a rare Frank Brangwyn mural decorating the dining room, and the fascinating objet d’art that fill the living room and library: a 15th-century Tibetan rug, dolls that belonged to King Ferdinand IV – a favourite of Greta Garbo, and a Picasso ink drawing.
Pathways lead through the villa’s beautifully designed Italianate terraced gardens, filled with tinkling fountains, citrus trees, and wisteria-draped pergolas, as well as 13 terraces with panoramic views over the dazzlingly blue Bay of Naxos and Mount Etna’s perfect cone, that echo its theme of fire and water.
The best way to explore the idyllic coastline is by boat and I spent an afternoon sailing past the intensely blue waters of the mysterious Blue Grotto, the beach of Mazzaro – reached by cable car from Taormina, and Isola Bella, a diminutive rocky islet and a haven for rare flora and fauna attached to the mainland by a narrow sandbar.
For a closer look at the constantly changing lava landscapes of Europe’s tallest and most active volcano, I followed a road that became enveloped in mist as it wound ever higher, before emerging into bright sunshine and seemingly endless blue skies. I hiked along an ancient shepherd’s trail through the lunar-like terrain of the Sartorius Mounts, seven ancient craters on Etna’s northeast flank that were created during the 1865 eruption, before stopping off at a boutique winery on the way down for a tasting of some volcanic terroir wines.
Just a 40-minute drive away, Catania’s boisterous morning market is a must for foodies. Nibbling on spicy pecorino and smoked provola, I wandered around the ancient pescheria, or fish market, where swordfish heads sat among slabs of tuna and piles of silver anchovies, before indulging in a large platter of fritto misto at a traditional trattoria.
Taormina has been the star of several films, but perhaps the most famous is The Godfather. Scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic film were shot in the sleepy hilltop village of Savoca – dubbed ‘Italy’s prettiest village’ – and the equally picturesque Forza D’Agro, 20 minutes to the north.
I followed a guide around hair-raising hairpin bends behind the wheel of another Italian icon, a bright red vintage Fiat 500 to a soundtrack of cheers and honking horns from passers-by. Film buffs will recognize Savoca as the fictional Corleone, and you can visit the sets of real-life Bar Vitelli and the 14th-century Church of Santa Lucia, where Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone marries Apollonia.
That evening, I dined on the terrace of Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo, where the menu is classically Sicilian with a fine-dining twist, with signature dishes like a steamed lobster on a foie gras croquette with Syracuse potato mousse and the Sicilian chef’s reimagined family recipes such as pasta alla norma, macaroni with a rich tomato sauce, fried aubergine and salted ricotta cheese.
The wine list is equally loyal, and the sommelier chose the best regional wines to complement each course and I toasted Taormina’s dolce vita with a superb Grappa, while marveling at a rare performance of Etna’s lava pyrotechnics.
From $12,080 pp
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