Just south of Messina, this gorgeous Sicilian town sits on the edge of a mountain, looking out over the Ionian Sea towards Calabria. It's population is just over 11,000, but it gets vastly more tourists every month. Indeed, Taormina has been a fashionable travel destination for a few hundred years now. Yes, you read that right—we're talking centuries of tourism here. Believe it or not, it has been a tourist destination since the the late 1700s. This is thanks to a book called "Italian Journey," published by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1786. By the early 1800s, Taormina had a small but stable tourist economy. Interestingly, it was rumored to have been something of a destination for gay men and for artists. In this respect, it often draws comparisons to Capri, which was also known for its tolerance during this time period. During these years, many notable people came to visit Taormina, including Oscar Wilde. By the time the 1900s rolled around, Taomina was well-known amongst the more well-traveled members of society.
However, the history of this area stretches back MUCH further, predating even the Greeks. This area was originally inhabited by an Iron Age tribe called the Sicels, but Taormina (its earliest form) was officially founded in 734 B.C.E. by colonists from the Greek island of Naxos. At that point, it was known by the name Tauromenion. This settlement quickly became prosperous, and played a minor but regular role in all of the region's geopolitical chronology. For a large part of pre-history, Tauromenion was a semi-autonomous city-state, situated between the Kingdom of Syracuse and the budding Roman Empire. Ultimately it would be absorbed by the Romans, and like the rest of Sicily, would eventually come under the rule of the Arabs and the Normans (among others) before joining a unified Italian state. Here's a map to give you some context...
On the map above, note how close Taormina is to Reggio Calabria. (If you don't know, Calabria is the region of Italy that formed the "toe" of the boot). I was surprised that, when we arrived in Taormina, Calabria was clearly visible off in the distance. Looking at the map prior to my arrival, I assumed the distance would be greater, but behold!
But let's back up a little bit and start with the drive into Taormina...
Arriving In Taormina
The first thing we realized about Taormina as we made the steep ascent into town was that the mountains around here are no joke. The town of Taormina sits on rocky cliffs that tower nearly 900 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. Winding our way around this mountain side, we took a few wrong turns before eventually finding our way into town. And that's when the cliff-side search for parking began. The roads were narrow but smooth, and driving around the Taormina area, we frequently passed lavish houses that must have had incredible views. This place was already shaping up to be great day-dream material.
Looking south back down the Sicilian coast, Mount Etna was a dominating presence. Indeed, Taormina is even closer to Etna than Catania. And in the bright mid-day sun, the smoke billowing out of Etna's caldera was clearly visible, sending ash trailing off over the Mediterranean. You'll see Etna in a number of the photos below.
From our parking space a few hundred meters away, it didn't take us long to find our way into the main stretch of town. The sun was blindingly bright, but as soon as we turned down an alley that wasn't facing due west, Taormina unfolded before us like a post-card come to life. Everything was colorful. We stopped into a few modest churches during our walk, before eventually stumbling down into a narrow in-between space separating adjacent blocks of buildings. And when I say "down," I mean DOWN. This urban crevice seemed to run off into the distance as part of some sort of ancient grid system. The ancient stone of this little canal clearly dated back much further than the chic Sicilian face of this city. Moving forward, I began to notice these ancient Greek-era artifacts occupying the spaces between cafés and restaurants. This was a place with some interesting layers to it.
I should mention that the most notable site in Taormina is the ancient Greek theater. This place was built in the 3rd century B.C.E. and still stands more or less untouched to this day at the northern end of town. We really had intended to come here, but by the time we walked over, it was closed for the night. So let that be a lesson! The Greek theater closes to the public exactly 1 hour before sunset. Plan accordingly! Honestly, morning is the best time to visit anyway because of the angle of the sun.
So there's a lot to see and talk about here in Taormina, but alas, we were only here for about 10 hours. It was a quick stop-in. Taormina is small enough a place that you can get away with that, but I definitely would have appreciated more time here. Oh well. I'm going to have to leave you with these fleeting snapshots.
The main plaza of Taormina is Piazza IX Aprile. The decorative stone tiling of this square goes right up to the edge of the cliff, with a long metal banister where tourists and locals alike come to look out over the cosmos. After a few hours of walking, we had more or less covered the whole town. We were taking a quick pizza break here in Piazza IX Aprile, enjoying life on the edge of this cliff, when I looked up and saw an even higher cliff hanging directly over the town—and happened to also notice that there was a little castle perched precariously up on this cliff.
I decided to climb up to that castle.
Climbing Up To The Saracen Castle
Sitting atop of 400-ish foot cliff overlooking Taormina (which already sits on an 900-ish foot cliff), is the Saracen Castle. "Saracen" was a widely used term within the Christian world during the Middle Ages. Saracen, quite simply, meant Muslim. Remember that Sicily was briefly ruled by the Arabs. For this reason, there are many sites around the island that are Arab in origin. The Saracen Castle, however, is thought to have originally been the site of a Greek acropolis, later reinforced by the Romans. But in 902 C.E., after a siege that lasted a staggering 2 years, the town fell to Muslim forces, who rebuilt the castle in its current form.
This castle still sits, exactly as it was, in pristine condition, clearly visible from nearly all of Taormina. On a whim, I decided that there had to be a way to climb up here. Starting at Piazza IX Aprile, I walked upward, through a few narrow alleyways, crossed a larger, paved road, and then, next to the church of the Madonna della Rocca, I found the staircase. Honestly, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to locate this staircase—my route here had been a complete guess.
I started my upward climb, but quickly realized that this was going to be a LOT harder than I first thought. 10 minutes of climbing later and I was panting and sweaty. This didn't say much for my level of physical fitness, but in my defense, these stairs were really steep. Slowly, I saw my elevation over Taormina change. It wasn't long before I was looking out over the rooftops of the town, with the Greek theater clearly visible in the distance. And finally, gasping and sweaty, I reached to the top. Here are a few pictures from my ascent...
The Saracen Castle actually sits on a ridge. The drop on the other side of the castle turned out to be almost as severe as the cliff I had just climbed, but with one big difference. On this side, people had found a way to build houses almost all the way up the hillside. Looking over the other side of the ridge, the colorful houses quickly gave way to green cascading agricultural terraces. It reminded me of some of the rice paddies I've seen in East Asia. But of course, the defining landmark over here was Mount Etna, which was clearer than ever. The smoke continued to billow eastward as the late afternoon sun slide further downward towards the horizon line.
The castle itself was, unfortunately, closed when I got up there. From what I could tell, it was a functioning religious site—probably some sort of small Christian monastery or temple. I peeked through the windows of the doors, but everything was dark. Meanwhile, the gentle wind continued to whistle all around me. I took pictures on both sides of the ridge, and eventually, walked back down. But I knew that I would be coming back up here to catch the sunset. There was a road that came all the way up here on that other side of the ridge. Thank God we rented a car!
The Saracen Castle At Sunset
After more food and coffee, as well as a long walk back to the car, we were ready to catch what I was sure was going to be an epic sunset. I pulled out my maps app, and we were off! The cliff-side roads surrounding Taormina were not any easier to navigate in the dimming light, but against all odds, I was able to successfully direct us around the cliff and up the other side of the ridge. Let me tell you, this was about a million times easier than walking.
The light was already beginning to change. I could tell we were not far from that sweet spot in between golden and blue, so I wasted no time getting my ass back out onto this ridge. With the Saracen Castle behind me, I began to snap away, playing with settings and angles. In mid-January, the winds were rapidly growing colder. I eventually was forced to retreat to the car to dig out another layer of insulation. The cold didn't both me too much though; I was running on an endorphin-high as I soaked in these views.
Below you will see a progression of photos as the light over Taormina changed. The wind was really whistling up there, carrying the sounds of cars and church bells gently up the mountainside. Then, a little ways into this shoot, we began to hear loud opera music wafting up the mountainside as well. It put a smile on my face—how fitting.
Here are a few more shots from the Taormina side of the ridge, including an attention starved cat who popped out and did its best to get me to pet him. I gave him a little love.... but I had pictures to take. Here you will also see Reggio Calabria off in the distance, as well as a shot of the castle with the sunset in the background. The castle itself really wasn't much to look at but the views were out of this world. And yet, we were the only ones up here. No idea where everybody else was, but they missed out!
On the other side of the ridge, the clouds, smoke, and ash hovering around the snowy peak of Mount Etna were beautifully illuminated by the setting sun, which cast a golden mane around them. Off in the distance, the lights of the roads stretching south, back towards Catania were reflected off the water. As the sun disappeared over the horizon line, this scene was colored with bright hues of orange and purple. It was one of the prettiest things that I'm likely to see this year—and I count myself lucky for that. This same scene occurs here every 24 hours, but I'm glad I just got to see it once.
Sigh! This sunset was something else. I would often catch myself thinking back on this scene in the weeks that were to follow. Here's actual footage of me daydreaming about this place:
From here, we had to make the trek back to Catania—this time in the middle of the night. The drive back down from this ridge was a bit of a nail-biter, but once we were back on the level ground, the driving was smooth. Thanks to a few missed turns, we ended up taking small roads most of the way back to Catania before finding our way to highway. Watching small-town Sicily fly by out the window made for interesting driving, even though these places were clearly getting ready for bedtime.
Next we'll be making our turn westward, towards Palermo. But before we get there, I have a surprise for you somewhere in the middle of the island. Get your hopes up.
So I'll finish with our track of the day. I'm really making a point to use mostly Italian artists for this series, and I am loving hearing all of their voices. When it comes to singing, it's clear that nobody in Italy is phoning it in. Their voices are all just so EPIC! It's no wonder that this was the birthplace of opera. So here's another awesome Italian song, with just a *little bit" of dissonance for those cliff-side roads.