Text & photos by Cheryl Levitan
For all our travels throughout the mainland of Italy, we had never given a moment’s thought about traveling to Sicily. An island just a few miles southeast of Italy’s boot-shaped “toe,” this autonomous region of Italy might as well have been kicked to the other side of the world. It wasn’t until a recent trip (which by happenstance included multiple days in northeastern Sicily) that we discovered what we had been missing.
We began in Taormina, a town of 12,000 residents perched 800 feet above the Ionian Sea on the projecting point of a coastal mountain ridge. Originating as a Greek colony in the 4th century B.C., it had a “rediscovery” after German author Johann Goethe traveled there in the 1700s. In his book, “Italian Journey,” Goethe wrote, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”
Leaving his highest praise for Taormina, Goethe’s lyrical prose drew other authors and artists who were similarly captivated by this remarkable setting. Their stunning descriptions and renderings soon put Taormina on the map as a routine stop on the “Grand Tour“ — a coming-of-age ritual trip throughout Europe by young European aristocrats. Entrepreneurs followed, and the town’s first and still finest hotel, the Grand Belmond Timeo, opened its doors in the late 1800s. Taormina and the hotel quickly became the destination for the “aristocracy” of America (writers and stars of stage and screen). Truman Capote was a guest … for two years!
Now considered Sicily’s most beautiful town and No. 1 destination on the island, it seemed as if Taormina’s population had been matched by nearly as many tourists by the time we finally made it there this past October. Fortunately, most visitors are in town briefly on morning tours from cruise ships anchored 20 minutes away at Giardini Naxos. While guides corralled them to and from the magnificent Greco-Roman theater, the rest of the town (of which there is much to see) is relatively crowd-free. And the enchanting sunsets from the terraces, public gardens and beaches that Goethe wrote about so beautifully? Those are for the sole pleasure of visitors who remain long after the ships have sailed toward their next port of call.
Walking through Taormina — ruled successively by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Germans, Spaniards and French (not even a complete list!) — is like taking an international journey through 2,500 years of archeology and architecture. The town’s main drag, the cobblestoned pedestrian-only Corso Umberto, is lined by three-story tan and golden-hued buildings with balconied facades and street-level art galleries, boutiques, ceramics fabricators, cafes, restaurants and pastry shops (think marzipan and sheep’s milk ricotta-filled cannolis).
Fine palazzi (palatial buildings and palaces) and piazzas (public squares) crop up intermittently to the left and right, as do narrow pathways leading to villas, churches, niches for artists selling their creations and jaw-dropping views. This town is a photo-taking, shopping and noshing dream — my trifecta of destination activities.
The town’s landmark is the Teatro Greco, a spectacular semi-circular, 5,000-seat open-air theater. Dean happily joined me in the search for the perfect photo, only to find each view or angle topped by the next. Originally built in the 3rd century B.C, by the Greeks, its size, brick construction and use of cavea (seating sections) divided by social class is proof of a Roman “rebuild” in the 2nd century B.C. Whoever gets the credit, this spectacular theater is confirmation of real estate’s mantra regarding location. Built on a high point, which juts ahead of the town, places the view of Mount Etna directly behind the stage. Further utilizing the natural lie of the land, many of the seating steps were cut directly into the base rock. Built to stand the test of time, this theater is still in regular use and the site for a large annual international film festival. To watch a concert on the same stage where gladiators once fought nearly 2,000 years ago? Surreal!
The sight of Mount Etna from a distance is impressive, but nothing beats actually going there. A few days later and we were on our way. The 17-mile “as the crow flies” view of the volcano from Taormina translated into a 90-minute drive, which was an experience all its own. We passed through towns built right up to the edge of the road, often so narrow that the thought of opposing traffic could only mean a game of chicken with one winner. The inevitable happened. We confronted multiple vehicles, including a bus, all going in the opposite direction. But with skills clearly honed through practice, the utterance of a few “choice” words and an unfathomable understanding (at least to us) for which vehicle had the right of way, our driver proved adept at the fine art of backing up and squeezing through openings seemingly narrower than we were wide. As a passenger, do you look? Do you close your eyes? Neither choice was good.
The real sight was yet to come, however, and that was our first sighting of Etna through the window … much larger than expected … and erupting. Already aware that we were going to an active volcano in the midst of a series of eruptions was exciting; I had hopes to score a summit crater photo with a little puff of white smoke from summit degassing. But I hadn’t counted on a volcano spewing out enough dark ash to obscure a portion of what we planned to ascend. Despite its reputation as a “safe” volcano (low incidence of violent eruptions, one of the most studied and monitored volcanos, slow-moving lava that a sloth could probably avoid), the ash and/or cloud cover had me wondering if we’d be able to see anything at all.
Arriving at Rifugio Sapienza (the starting point for Etna tours located at 6,350 feet), the sunny 85-degree weather of Taormina was but a memory. Greeted by variable clouds, light winds and 55-degree temperatures, we were thankful for our jackets and gloves.
There are options from this point. Visitors can walk or take a 4-minute drive to the Silvestri Craters to see the lava flows and bowl-shaped depressions (caldera) formed after the 1893 eruption and lava flows. But to get the full experience, we chose to take the Funivia cable car to 8,200 feet, where a jacket rental shop does a brisk business for those still dressed for Taormina. It’s joined by a small cafe (whose Sicilian pizza caught my eye) and a shop (with tastings of pistachio nut spread from local orchards). Retail on a volcano was a surprise, but we appreciated the edible fortification as we exited the building to temperatures in the 40s, limited visibility and stiff winds.
Climbing into a Unimog 4×4 (included in the 60-euro cable car fare), we made the winding drive up black volcanic-gravel and ash to Torre del Filosofo (elevation 9,850 feet) to meet our volcanologist guide and hike to the summit (almost 11,000 feet above sea level). Miraculously, the clouds vanished as we walked, but the temperatures dropped and the wind gusts increased to 30-40 mph. Trudging along, I looked up and, to my amazement, there it was! A summit crater emitting white smoke against suddenly clear blue skies. And at that moment in the unlikeliest of spots, I had an almost magical moment, an epiphany of sorts. I finally accomplished something I had yet to achieve anywhere else in the world. I took my first decent selfie! And now I understand the secret (but it’s unclear how often it can be replicated). I need to wear polarized sunglasses (making a cellphone screen impossible to see), cover as much of my face and hair as possible, have blind faith that I’m standing in front of what to capture (it helps if it’s really big), freeze my smile (no choice there) and start snapping away.
In the end, Sicily was one of our favorite travel destinations. Everyone we met was generous and friendly, always willing to share a laugh (even when it was directed toward themselves). Taormina itself was a magnificent profusion of activity and color, an abundance of sights and sounds (albeit at times rather too abundant with tourists). Yet all directions led somewhere wonderful, with surprises and views so special that they seemed placed just for us to find.
This town’s history and architecture have undergone faithful restoration and are found around every corner. This town beckons all to share in what has transpired to make this already beautiful setting such a remarkable place.
Mount Etna was the polar opposite (literally). Its black, otherworldly moonscape was devoid of much color, yet it was starkly beautiful. And despite the pleasant smells of the seaside and bakeries now replaced by whiffs of sulphur, no number of tourists could possibly make the vastness feel crowded. As one of the world’s largest volcanos with four prominent summit craters, its shear mass inexplicably seems to absorb the sound; you feel singular in Etna’s immenseness and realize your insignificance. The volcano challenges to find footing on that loose volcanic gravel (and then pushes with a gust of wind just as you thought that you had found your stride). You feel the power and energy of that place; the air is cold yet just under the gravel surface, you feel the heat. Etna lets you know that it’s alive.
Capriciously changing the weather at will, it gifts the lucky few with skies gloriously blue. And history? Taormina’s 2,300-plus years are dwarfed by Etna’s. Formed 35,000 years ago at the convergence of two tectonic plates, it has one of the world’s longest documented records of eruptions at both its summit and flanks. Infrequently dangerous, that volcanic soil supports extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards surrounding the volcano. Even the Sicilians refer to it as beautiful mountain.