Taormina, Sicily: A historic amphitheater, a sky high village, and wedding bells
Updated: Jan 17, 2022
We traveled to Sicily from Malta on a super early flight. When we landed in Catania our driver met us at the airport and whisked us up the coast toward Taormina, regaling us the entire way with stories about Sicily, its political history, and how he would one day run for President of Regional Government and fix everything that ailed this gorgeous, but not financially thriving, island. Boy could he talk...and it was only 7am! But he totally had us convinced that he could not only run for office, but solve all of Sicily's economic problems, too. He'd get our vote! It was a really fun, informative introduction to the joys and contrasting challenges of life as a Sicilian.
An hour later we found ourselves at the front door of the Excelsior Palace Hotel, our home for the next several days. Since 1904 this grand landmark hotel has welcomed visitors to the cliffside town of Taormina, as it sits right outside the stone entry to the (primarily) pedestrian zone.
But even more amazing than the historic gateway to the town is the view from the hotel, which is situated on a promontory jutting out toward the Ionian sea. The hotel includes a stunning Mediterranean park with flowers and plants bursting with colors and a canopy of trees leading to the pool. You could get whiplash trying to take in the views from the sea to the park to the village of Castelmola perched atop a mountain in the background. See that tall mountain in the distance behind the pool? There's a tiny little village on the tippy top!
It was barely 9am when we arrived and we needed some breakfast so we entered the town to find an outdoor cafe. The street (yes, there's only one main street running across the whole center, the Corso Umberto) was so empty and quiet! We later discovered that early in the day and later in the afternoon were the best times to explore the town because the tourists had all returned to their groups and cruise ships, and the town was once again just a small medieval village without all the hustle and bustle.
One of the first things we immediately noticed as we walked the silent streets of Taormina was the scent...it smelled so good!
We still don't know what it was exactly, but it was felt like we were inhaling the most fragrant flowers everywhere we went. Before we departed for home we actually went in search of a way to bring the smells of Taormina home with us and we did, with a room spray that perfectly captured our time on the island.
After breakfast we strolled the Corso Umberto, which is lined with boutiques and amazing little shops - there's a reason Taormina’s nickname is the Sicilian Saint Tropez - and bakeries and cafes until we reached the Piazza IX Aprile, which provides a stunning viewpoint of the Sicilian coast and the sea.
The piazza's name commemorates April 9, 1860, when, during a mass in the cathedral of Taormina, a rumor spread that Garibaldi had landed in Marsala to begin liberation from the Bourbons from Sicily - it was totally false but the people of Taormina wanted to remember the date by dedicating the most beautiful square in the town to it. That morning, artists were setting up watercolors and canvasses in the piazza, a musician was strumming a guitar, and the outdoor cafes in the piazza were serving morning cappuccinos as the town started to awaken to the bluest of skies.
We'd been traveling since 5am so it felt like mid-day to us and we were ready to see more! Next stop: Taormina's Greek theater, which, even centuries later, can still accommodate more than 5,000 people. This amphitheater dates back to the 3rd century BC and continues to host theatrical performances and concerts under the stars.
The stage has the most incredible background - a staggering view of the sea! In this photo you can see the can lights set up for a concert... which we missed by a day. When we saw the poster for the performance that occurred the night before we were kicking ourselves for not getting to Taormina a day earlier: British Pink Floyd had played a concert.
Brit Floyd in a Greek amphitheater in Sicily would have been a serious bucket list event, and it taught us a good lesson: Before planning trip dates for a destination, check to see if there's anything special scheduled that you don't want to miss!
Our first day in this magical place was spent enjoying the winding streets strewn with shops, bars and restaurants. We even found ourselves meandering through the public gardens, known as la villa, an area that stretches along the hill's edge and is filled with local and exotic plants and stone fountains. You can also get a vista of Mount Etna, one of the world's most active volcanoes, in the distance (fortunately it was silent and sleepy during our visit).
Sicily is hot, and we had worked up quite a thirst so we stopped at a few spots on our way back through town. Later that day, on our way to dinner, we passed by this little window serving local wine, which we felt obligated to experience.
A dinner eating fresh fish, and enjoying cocktails way into the late night with newfound friends, topped off our first day.
The next morning was the big day - not only our anniversary but a ceremony where we would be renewing our wedding vows. But that wasn't until 5:30, and we had the whole day to explore! We knew exactly where we wanted to go, up the mountain to Castelmola, a small village of just over 1,000 people. Sure it was a 3km vertical hike, but once we reached our destination we'd find unparalleled views of the Ionian coast, Mount Etna, the Bay of Giardini-Naxo, and the strait of Messina.
We'd also find something else that we had heard about and wanted to see for ourselves...the Turrisi Bar. For some strange reason this bar has a bizarre phallic theme - everywhere. From the paintings and sculptures and art that seemed to cover every inch of the place, to the faucets in the restrooms. All of the phallic art is supposed to represent the fecundity and virility of man...okay. That's a sink below.
As odd as the decor was, the view from the balcony table we ate lunch from was beautiful and we enjoyed bruschetta with a view of Mt. Etna to our right. Of course we tried the almond wine, a house specialty since 1947, because we love anything almond. After our meal we strolled around this charming village that was once considered the acropolis of Taormina. There isn't a ton to do up there other than enjoy cocktails, the view, and being surrounded by medieval buildings - which was fine with us! Eventually it was time to descend the mountain and prepare for the ceremony back at our hotel. The officiant was meeting us in just a few hours and we needed to get ready!
As we were getting dressed for the ceremony the phone in our room jangled...the front desk was letting us know that we had visitors. It was time! But when we got to the lobby it wasn't just our Italian officiant waiting for us, she was joined by the couple we'd stayed up with until the wee hours of the morning at a local bar the night before - they'd come to celebrate with us! (By a stroke of luck they happened to to be traveling to Taormina from a friend's wedding in another part of Italy so they were dressed in wedding guest attire and gown and perfectly ready to join us).
We recited the vows we'd written and celebrated with some prosecco and the Ionian sea behind us, a pretty nice way to say I Do again. We eventually said goodbye to our new friends and walked to dinner through the town, people calling out Auguri (well wishes) and clapping for us the whole way. A dinner on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Timeo, with twinkly lights, a view down the coast, and music wafting through the warm night air, capped off a truly amazing and memorable night. Another anniversary in the books!
On our last day in Taormina we took a cable car (or funivia in Italian, which was actually just like a ski gondola only no snow) down from the center of Taormina to Mazzaro, which has beaches and the very cool Isola Bella.
Now a protected nature reserve, Isola Bella (a tiny island that you can actually walk to from the beach - only about 20 yards off shore) was originally gifted to the town of Taormina in 1806 by Ferdinand I of Bourbon, King of Sicily. Isola Bella
was eventually the home of gardener and conservationist Florence Trevelyan, who built her stone house on the island and cultivated all sorts of flowers and plants.
While her home is now empty and nothing more than stone walls, it was obvious this woman had quite the imagination for both architecture and flora!
We spent most of day enjoying a seaside lunch and our final hours in this incredible place, on this indescribably beautiful and storied island.
Our last time walking through town on Corso Umberto we inhaled the scent of Taormina, committed the colors around us to memory, and knew that this place where we renewed our vows would always hold a special place among our travels. There were so many other places to explore on the island of Sicily, and we will definitely make our way back.
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