The Publisher’s tour departed Sardinia and flew to Sicily, where the next leg of their journey brought them to the largest island in the Mediterranean and the glorious town of Taormina.
Sicily has countless locations where the rich history and culture of the island come alive. Among the loveliest spots to visit is Taormina. Since the end of the 19th century, it has been a world famous resort whose visitors revel in its charming atmosphere, natural beauty, ancient history and wonderful climate. Located on the northeast coast of Sicily, about 20 miles south of Messina, the city is situated on the hillside of Monte Tauro. Taormina dominates two grand sweeping bays below, while on its southwestern side is the great Mount Etna.
The Publisher’s Tour has made several trips to the city and it has become apparent that walking through Taormina is the best way to become immersed in its fabulous culture. Each winding street and alleyway reveal antiquities with fascinating stories behind them. The Romans conquered Taormina in 212 BC and constructed numerous civic and religious buildings whose foundations are still visible today.
In ancient times, Taormina was protected by a series of walls. The north of the city faced toward Messina, while to the south was Catania. Traces of these walls can still be seen today in the center of town, adjacent to the clock tower. Visitors will also find remnants at the two furthest ends of the town where there are two entrances. To the north, the entrance to the city was restored at the beginning of the 19th century and officially named Porta Ferdinanda. It was opened in 1808 by Ferdinand IV of Bourbon. A tablet commemorating the occasion sits atop the gateway’s arch. Locals completely ignore the official name and may even appear confused when queried about the location of Porta Ferdinanda; to them, the arch is Porta Messina. The other entrance, Porta Catania, underwent numerous changes and restorations, dating from the Romans through the 15th century. The last changes were made in 1440 by the Aragonese, who had ruled the city since the 13th century. At the uppermost part of the portal, visitors can still see the noble family’s coat-of-arms sculpted in relief above the city’s own coat-of-arms.
The ancient Greek theater of the city is undoubtedly the most important feature for sight-seers in Taormina. Its natural setting offers a remarkable view of the gulf towards Calabria, with the spectacular cone of Mount Etna majestically rising in the distance. The construction of the amphitheater began in the third century BC and after Siracusa, it is the largest such ancient theater in Sicily. Since the 1950s, it has been the setting for various forms of entertainment, including theater, concerts, symphonies, opera and ballets, making it among the world’s best known and most admired.
A walk through town brings visitors to Corso Umberto, the city’s main thoroughfare. It is dedicated to Umberto I of Savoy, Italy’s king from 1878 to 1900. The street was part of the Roman Via Valeria which crossed through the city before following a route along the coast connecting Taormina with Messina (to the north) and Catania (in the south). Whether by car or by foot, traveling along the Corso reveals an evolution of styles and eras where structures show influences ranging from Byzantine to Norman and Gothic to Baroque. The presence of palazzos and churches all along Corso Umberto remind tourists that this is the historical center of Taormina. Its many shops, restaurants and cafes welcome those from all over the world.
Over time, many of the Greco-Roman monuments have been replaced by newer construction. As an example, the Temple of Jupiter Serapis has been replaced by the Church of San Pancrazio, while upon the remains of the Odeon was built the Church of Santa Caterina. It is easy to overlook the latter, Santa Caterina projects a rather somber façade, but as anyone who has knowledge of 17th century Sicily can attest, this was the height of the Baroque movement. The interior of the small church is a jewel box of ornate ornamental styling, where one will marvel at the artistry and intricacy of its stone and plasterwork.
Another church that is well worth the visit is the Church of Varò, which dates back to the early Renaissance period of the 15th century. However, the interior crypt has far more ancient origins, dating back to the Roman era of Christian persecutions. The inside of church has a single nave that houses a papier-mâché statue of the Madonna Addolorata, while behind the main altar is a magnificent fresco depicting the Triumph of the Cross.
The weather during the fall in Taormina is glorious and was the perfect time to tour the Duchi Park of Cesaro. Planted in the second half of the 19th century by Florence Trevelyan Cacciola, a noblewoman whose husband was a renowned professor, its statues, terraces, views and vistas are a must for anyone who comes to this enchanting town. It was voted the most beautiful park in all of Italy in 2013.
One of Taormina’s emblems is the Baroque-style fountain located in the Piazza Duomo. Constructed in 1635 from Taormina marble, each of the elaborate fountain’s four sides have small columns supporting basins decorated with figures from mythology. The town’s coat-of-arms is also featured, but curiously, the sculptor changed the central figure from the traditional male centaur, to a female centaur and a two-footed one at that. Such are the interesting and unexpected features of Taormina!