TAORMINA, THE ISLAND IN THE SKY
Piazza IX Aprile
Teatro antico di Taormina
"If someone were to spend a single day in Sicily and asked what to see, I would answer without hesitation Taormina" (Guy de Maupassant).
Taormina is one of the most fascinating destinations of international tourism, a real corner of paradise thanks to its beautiful landscapes and monuments. It is built 205 meters above sea level and it is therefore called "the island in the sky": from this privileged position, it looks to north from the Ionian coast up to Messina, to the south the majestic Etna volcano and it dominates uncontested over the fertile Valley of the Alcàntara River. This position allowed it to defend itself in wartime, and to build a world apart in peacetime.
The city was founded in the mid-fourth century B.C. from a group of Greeks from Chalcis who were fleeing from nearby Naxos (the first Greek colony in Sicily of 734 B.C.), that was destroyed in 403 B.C. by the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I. So, as the historian Diodoro Siculo of Agira describes, this group of survivors led by Andromaco (father of the historian Timaeus) settled on the slopes of this hill, which was bull-shaped. Thus, the Greek name of the city would come from this similarity: Tauroménion consists of the terms "tauro" (bull) and "menein" (to stay) which together give life to "I stay on the bull".
The visit of the historic center of Taormina, which winds along the main Corso Umberto, between two gates in the walls of the Arab fortifications (Porta Messina in the north, and Porta Catania in the south), gives the opportunity to admire architectural ruins from different ages, often overlapped, that create an evocative mix of styles: Greek, Roman, Arabic, Norman-Swabian, Aragonese, up to the seventeenth and eighteenth century Baroque.
For example, the church of San Pancrazio, Patron of the city, was built in the Baroque period on an ancient Greek temple dedicated to Jupiter Serapis; the Ancient Theater, of Greek origin, was then enlarged by the Romans; the Roman Odeon was built on the structures of a Greek temple but later it has been partly incorporated into the baroque church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria. Palazzo Corvaja is also the result of many architectural overlaps: it was originally a cube-shaped Arab tower, built where the Greek agora and the Roman forum once stood and then it has been enlarged in the Norman-Swabian and Aragonese age, becoming the seat of the ancient Sicilian Parliament. A cultural walk in Taormina also includes a visit to the Roman Baths of the Imperial Age, and the so-called Naumachia, a Roman structure for water supply.
Continuing along Corso Umberto, you reach Piazza IX Aprile, from whose terrace you can admire the marvelous view of the Ionian coast, with the gulf of Giardini Naxos and the majestic Etna volcano; the square houses the seventeenth century Chiesa di San Giuseppe and the Porta di Mezzo or Torre dell'Orologio, from which the medieval village begins. In Piazza Duomo, with the Baroque fountain dedicated to the biped centauressa (mythical figure half bull and half woman), symbol of Taormina, there are the eighteenth-century Palazzo dei Giurati, which is the Town Hall, and the Chiesa Madre dedicated to St.Nicola. The church, of Norman origin and then modified in the Aragonese and Baroque period, is rich in precious Renaissance paintings and sculptures. At the end of Corso Umberto, just before Porta Catania, you will be charmed by the fourteenth-century Palazzo dei duchi di Santo Stefano, a masterpiece of Sicilian Gothic art, with a mixture of Arab and Norman elements.
At sunset, the charm of Taormina is more breathtaking: the friezes, the Gothic arches, the flowered balconies, the romantic alleys, the elegant antique shops and the wonderful view over the sea and Etna volcano, are an irresistible attraction for who loves beauty and fun.
Taormina is also synonymous with sea and nature: a visit to the enchanting Isola Bella Nature Reserve is not to be missed, where scuba-diving lovers will be amazed by the suggestive seabeds and it will be possible to reach beautiful sea caves by boat.
A few kilometers from Taormina, you will find Castelmola (550 meters above sea level), one of the most beautiful villages in Italy that, over the centuries, has preserved the magic of the Middle Ages. You will not miss to taste the famous and precious almond wine (made with almonds and orange essence) created by Don Vincenzo Blandano, the historical owner of the first tavern of Castelmola (the eighteenth-century Caffè San Giorgio).
About twenty km from Taormina (towards Francavilla di Sicilia), there is the Alcàntara Fluvial Park, one of the most interesting naturalistic destinations in Sicily, where you can admire a awesome lava canyon, with basaltic walls up to 50 meters high, dug over the millennia by the river Alcàntara (one of the main Sicilian rivers, 53 kilometers long). A true natural monument, the so-called "Alcàntara Gorges" originated around 2400 B.C. during an eruption of Etna. Then, the seismic movements have created a sinuous longitudinal slot in the rock, ie a "gorge" (about 500 m long, 70 m deep and 5 m wide), furrowed by the waters of the Alcàntara river. Visiting its particular columnar basalts, icy waterfalls and black beaches will be a truly unforgettable experience.