Another port, another tour. There were eight of us on this tour and we started from Catania, Italy where our cruise ship had docked. We set off up the highway to Taormina, an ancient Greek colony perched on the rocky promontory of Monte Tauro, high above the sea. But first we continued up to the village of Castelmola, a small and enchanting village just above Taormina, with an amazing landscape and wonderful views of Giardini Naxos bay.
Castelmola gets its name from the castle at the top of a rocky outcrop. Since it was quite a steep walk up, we gave it a miss. For such a little town, there is a surprisingly large Duomo (cathedral) as well as several other churches. We walked around the narrow lanes for a short while, taking time to check out the risqué decorations of Caffè Bar Turrisi, before being driven 5 minutes down to Taormina. The décor here has a certain phallic theme, from door handles, chair arm rests, lighting fixtures and bottles holding the local sweet almond wine. Apart from the views, I suspect this was the main reason we were taken there!
Before heading to Taormina, we stopped at the Piazza Sant’Antonio lookout for great views over the town and the beaches below, including the beautiful bay with its island and nature reserve of Isola Bella. There had been a home built there in 1890 that later became an elite hotel, now abandoned, but still of significant historical interest.
Over the years Taormina has been a favourite of writers (DH Lawrence springs to mind), artists, actors, aristocrats and royals. It is still a popular spot for tourists, and the streets were brimming with them even though it was mid-October.
The tour company we used, Sicily with Mario, had good reviews on TripAdvisor and they were well deserved. Our driver was very accommodating and made sure we got lots of great photos and information on all the places we visited. There is a rule in Italy that tourists may only use guides from the town they are visiting, so our driver was unable to accompany us on our wanderings around town. However, he bought us the little local pastries the town is famous for — cannoli with citrus peel and ricotta — before we set out through the town.
The main street, Corso Umberto I, stretches from Porta Catania in the south to Porta Messina in the north, vestiges of the ancient walls. It is lined with high-end designer shops, souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants. We also stopped for the wonderful locally made gelato to fortify us!
Midway along the street is Piazza IX Aprile, the social heart of the town, bordered by the church of Sant’Agostino and the Baroque San Giuseppe church, restaurants and a reconstructed 12th century clock tower (Torre dell’Orologio), while to the east a balcony afforded great views over the coast. In the square we found buskers and stalls selling souvenirs and children’s toys, so we bought a few to take home to the grandchildren.
Fittingly, nearby we found the Piazza Duomo, with the cathedral of San Nicolò di Bari, who is the same Saint Nick of Santa Claus fame, patron saint of children. The cathedral was commenced in the 13th century, and is unusually adorned with fortress-like crenulations. The entrance is Renaissance but the interior is essentially Gothic. The Baroque stone fountain (1635) at the centre of the piazza is crowned with a strange, mythical figure, a two-legged female centaur: the symbol of Taormina.
The Greek Theatre at Taormina is one of the most celebrated ruins in Sicily, on account both of its remarkable preservation and its beautiful location. Thought to have been originally built by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC, it was then renovated and expanded by the Romans with columns and statues, thus explaining some confusion over its name.
They enlarged the original orchestra section to use it for games and gladiatorial battles. The auditorium area was able to hold 5,400 spectators. It certainly took a bit of effort to climb to the top row to get our photos. It is still frequently used for operatic and theatrical performances and for concerts, since it has such good acoustics with most of the walls preserved. The outlook onto Taormina, the bay of Giardini Naxos and Mount Etna in the distance provides such a magnificent backdrop.
After a couple of hours in Taormina, we drove back to Catania for a quick independent tour of the centro storico on foot. Catania is a wonderful example of a Baroque city, with an amazing cathedral, an enormous number of churches and excavations of many Roman theatres and baths right in the heart of the city.
It had the misfortune, being at the base of Mount Etna, of having been badly damaged many times from volcanic eruptions over the course of its history, however in 1693 the city was then completely destroyed by a heavy earthquake and its aftershocks. The city was then rebuilt in the Baroque architecture that nowadays characterises it. Consequently, the city centre of Catania is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, if Mount Etna has been the cause of Catania’s destruction, it has also been a vital source of the construction of the city, as much of the black volcanic rock, which characterises Catania’s beautiful Baroque architecture came from those eruptions. It also made the land around very fertile for farming and vineyards.
The Piazza del Duomo is the first and main square we reached through the arched Porta Uzeda entrance to the harbour side of the city. On one side is the Duomo — the Cathedral dedicated to Saint Agata, the city’s patron saint. A number of imposing Baroque buildings frame the square which contains a black lava rock Elephant Fountain, the elephant being the symbol of the city.
Elegant Via Etnea is the main shopping street. This has most of the city’s imposing buildings and lots of churches. It leads past Piazza Stesicoro, the original centre containing the ruins of the larger of two Roman Amphitheatres in the city and another one of many churches in this city dedicated to Saint Agata who, legend says, was martyred (burned to death) on this spot.
Unfortunately this was too brief a look at the old city, which contains magnificent gardens and the Opera House dedicated to composer Vincenzo Bellini, who was born here and whose home is now a museum. We wished we had longer to explore them. Perhaps another visit is in order?
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