Gathering memories in the Sicilian town of Taormina


The waters of Mazzaro Bay wash the shore in front of the Mazzaro Sea Palace.
By Kenneth Bagnell

It’s been called the most picturesque place in Italy. Taormina, a Sicilian town of cobblestone streets, set high above the Ionian Sea, from which you see some of Europe’s most magnificent views including puffs of smoke from Mount Etna.

It was first settled around 730 BC, the population is still only about 11,000. In the 20th century it became popular with celebrities: Orson Wells, Greta Garbo, John Steinbeck and Cary Grant. Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood while in Taormina.

My wife Barbara and I settled steps from the beach of Mazzaro Bay, 250 metres beneath the heart of Taormina reached easily by a “funiva,” cable cars that climb and descend all day. Taormina’s livelihood comes from tourism so we chose to go in one of the “shoulder seasons” — autumn — when hotels and streets aren’t crowded. Our hotel, the Mazzaro Sea Palace was serene; its buffet breakfasts varied and generous; its waiters efficient and poised.

One of the town’s sites is profoundly historic, the time-encrusted Greek Theatre, in summer the setting for great drama as it was in the third century BC when the Greeks created it. Today the remains of Teatro Greco still astonish. Its acoustics are phenomenal: a performer can speak on the stage and be heard by people in the highest row of the 5,000-seat amphitheatre.

One calm sunny morning, we boarded a bus driven to the base of one of the world’s major volcanoes: Mount Etna. (Two days earlier it had erupted but quickly settled.) For us it was a day to walk around the base and slope of the largest active volcano in Europe and explore what’s known as the Crater of Silvestri at Etna’s southern base. There are enviable views of Etna from Silvestri, and a panorama of the surrounding landscape. From there, we could look up toward Mount Etna’s peak and the minuscule dark figures of daring climbers.

Next morning, from our room’s sun-washed balcony, we looked out over the small peaceful cove of the Bay of Mazzaro. Families swam in its calm waters. A boatman drew near shore, his motorboat with a sign inviting visitors to cruise the coastal waters. Soon we were climbing aboard for a 90-minute trip over waters he knows well.

The boatman, Sebastiano Valentino, headed out over calm waters to show us a land and sea that are now painted upon memory: from the bay we followed the shores of Capo Sant’ Andrea, pausing to peer into its Blue Grotto, then circling lush Isola Bella, then navigating around Capo Taormina, into the broad Bay of Villagonia, then the Gulf of Naxos. We were never far from shore and its hilly, lush landscape where mansions and modest homes peaked out over green trees. As we went Sebastiano told us about the sea and the communities on its edge.

I’ve been to Italy often but I can’t remember who told me that it’s impossible to eat badly in Italy. The saying truly applies to Taormina and not just in refined eateries, but humble ones.

For example, we had dinner just a brief walk from our hotel at the small dining room of Da Andrea, a ristorante of such authenticity that the back door opened upon an alleyway where we could see local people walk by.

The owner said he was sorry his wife, usually the chef, was home, having had a new baby. The cuisine was a testament to Sicilian cooking: pasta with the freshest of vegetables, fish from the sea that day.

Naturally we had local wine as is our custom in travel, this one a Nero D’Avola, fragrant and smooth, made from grapes grown on the western slopes of Mount Etna. It went well with a choice I often make in Italy, Lasagna al Forno. Barbara had pasta a la Norma, a dish familiar to Italian menus, but this one draped with long slices of freshly grilled eggplant.

Some of our most enjoyable dinners were in front of the window in our room overlooking the sea. They were purchased from a small pizza shop in Taormina called L’Arco and put a new word in our food vocabulary — scacciata.

It’s round shallow bread enclosing some savoury ingredients: potatoes, onion, cheese, sausage, tomatoes, basil, eggplant or cheese. One pie-shaped wedge of this delicacy is a meal, accompanied by arancini (stuffed rice balls) and an economical wine from a small market nearby. Dessert consisted of pistachio-flavoured sweets tantalizingly displayed in shop windows on Taormina’s Corso Umberto.

I’m often asked for my favourite destination. I never pick one because what appealed to me may not appeal to another. But, I have no doubt whatever that as the years recede, Taormina will remain special for its setting, its history, its artifacts and people. I can understand why no less a literary figure than D.H. Lawrence lived there during the 1920s, and wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover there. He’s said to have called Taormina: “the dawn coast of Europe.”


Special to The Hamilton Spectator