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Taormina – the city connecting our times with ancient Greek and Roman past offers incredible charm, remarkable monuments, view on Ionic Sea and majestic Etna ….

Taormina - … “A landscape where you find everything created to seduce eyes, mind and fantasy…”

Guy de Maupassant

      Words written by famous French writer more than hundred years ago are not an exaggeration. Taormina, thanks to its location on the hillside of Mount Tauro some 200 meters above the sea level offers stunning views in all directions. Cliffy coastline giving way to sandy bays washed by waters of the Ionian sea (to the East), “hanging” village of Castelmola tightly nestled on the top of narrow ridge and ruins of Saracen Castle hovering the city- seemingly still “on guard” ceaselessly overlooking nearby hills and sea (to the West), and on the backdrop – the majestic Mount Etna (to the South) – whenever you look it’s spectacular view taking your breath away.  

The mild Mediterranean climate and spectrum of colors from all shades of blue extending as far as an eye can reach to lush greens of vegetation made it the paradise “appreciated” by all great conquerors – Greeks, Romans, Arabs (Saracens), Byzantine, Normans, Spaniards who left here still visible traces. 

View on Taormina

View from Taormina on the coastline of the Ionic Sea

Taormina: View on the Etna (at the first plan ruins of the Greek-Roman amphitheater...

View on the city of Castelmola (seen from the amphitheater)

Map of Taormina

      Actually it was here at the Bay of Naxos where in 735 BC ancient Greeks established their first settlement in Sicily! And although not much of it outlived the time, Taormina preserved several world-class historical sites spanning following millennia. Greco-Roman Theatre, Naumachia, mentioned earlier Saracen Castle, Palace Corvaja, Palace of Dukes of Saint Stephen, Cathedral and numerous churches, magnificent City Gates (Porta Messina and Catania)…. the list can really go long. 

But what Maupassant couldn’t fully experience during his visit to Taormina is the atmosphere on the streets. The streets did not change much – mostly narrow, winding, many in form of stairways spreading out left and right from the main prospect of Corso Umberto.  What dramatically changed however is the presence of cafes, restaurants, hotels, colorful shops and resonating vibes of “life” omnipresent at every corner, plaza….. 

Points of Interest

Messina Gate marks the entrance to the old city from the North

Seen from the opposite side it is "a bit" less impressive

Upper fragment of the Catania Gate (southern entrance)

Gate(s)

       Like most strategically located medieval cities, in the past Taormina was protected by the system of fortifications. Nestled on the slope of the cliffy hill, Taormina’s main axis formed by the street Corso Umberto extends from north (facing Messina) to south-west (facing Catania). Although most of the walls did not survive the time, the entrance gates located at the furthest ends of the old town still stand out. Not surprisingly today they are called Messina Gate (Porta Messina) and Catania Gate (Porta Catania) reflecting importance of the millennia’s old commercial tract. In the past entrance gates were rather named after powerful rulers, so for example Porta Messina was known as Porta Ferdinanda (after Ferdinand IV Bourbon) and Porta Catania as Porta Aragonese (relief of Aragon’s coat-of-arms is still visible on the top of the gate). Both gates having roots in Very Remote Past underwent several modifications and restorations efforts throughout the time, and although not necessarily in great shape (especially Messina Gate when seen from the back) fortunately they preserved their medieval character. Today, contrary to their past functions, both gates “open” the city symbolically greeting visitors entering the old town. 

Palazzo Corvaja

Palazzo Corvaja - Interior entrance

Palazzo Corvaja

      The origins of the palace go back to 10th century when Arabs conquered the city from Byzantine Imperium re-naming it as “Al-Muizzia” in honor of Fatimid Caliph. The imposing structure of the palace reveals the strategic position of the city at those times. Although throughout the following centuries the palace was expanded and modified to address growing needs of consecutive rulers, its Arabic origins can be still seen in courtyard and in characteristically arched windows. At the beginning of the 15th century the palace housed the Sicilian Parliament, but its destiny was determined by Taormina’s family of Corvaja (hence the name Corvaja Palace). This powerful aristocratic family owned the palace from mid-16th through mid-20th centuries giving it its final shape.

Today the Corvaja Palace (located) right after crossing the Messina Gate is home to the local Museum displaying artwork and objects of everyday use made by Sicilian craftsmen. And the most important news for visitors to Taormina: on the ground floor you will find the Tourist Information Center!  So definitely, it is the first place in Taormina you must visit!

Facade of the Church St. Catherine

High Altar in the church of St. Catherine

Church of St. Catherine 

       The church is located next to the Palazzo Carvajo and in a way it is overshadowed by its enormous structure so many may pass-by without noticing its presence.  The Church consecrated to St. Catherine of Alexandria was built in mid-17th century on ruins of old Greek temple dedicated to Aphrodite and an Roman Odeon.  Inside of the church there is a little “open area” exposing what is believed to be part of the ancient constructions.  Interior holds several works of art of great value (paintings, sculptures and sacral objects….)

The unpretentious facade blends typical at those times baroque style with classical one having Greek roots.  The niche in tympanum holds the statue of St. Catherine of Alexandria holding branch of palm and sword with two angels on her sides. The statue of the saint is a work of famous Sicilian sculptor Paolo Greco. The central portal is enhanced by two Corinthian columns from Taormina’s pink marble…….

Ruins of the Greco-Roman Amphitheater

Amphitheater: Fragment of the structure

Plan of the amphitheater

Greek-Roman Amphitheater

       It is the most recognizable historical site of Taormina was built in 2nd century BC by Greeks and later expanded and adapted to new challenges by Romans. To keep it short – Greeks used theaters mostly for cultural events while Romans mostly for “muscled’ ones (remember the movie Gladiator?). The Taormina Greco-Roman amphitheater is the best example of what means “location”. Overlooking the azure waters of Naxos Bay at “its feet” and all-powerful underground world peaking at Mt. Etna with smoke and from time to time with ashes and lava, the theater combined the scenery of  “most dramatic” forces of nature with sometimes similarly dramatic events on the stage….

With its diameter of 120 meters (almost 400 feet), the Taormina amphitheater is the 2nd largest in Sicily (after the one in Syracuse).  And given its age it is also “relatively” well preserved with major parts of the surrounding walls, passages, seats as well as main stage and its appendages still existing in forms giving fairly good ideas about what it used to be at its peak times. 

Today Taormina’s amphitheater is used for open-air theatrical performances, film festivals and concerts and truly, given the settings it will be difficult to find better and more “heavenly” place for such events.

Once upon a time it was busy Roman place, today it's rather a surprising oasis of peace

Naumachie

       Hidden behind the narrow passages of Taormina’s medieval streets are the remains of Greek’s Gymnasium. For some not well understood reasons the place got misleading name “Naumachia” (referring to the place where ancient Romans were staging the “entertaining” sea battles).  According to some theories, the name comes from a nearby ancient cistern that was holding the water for the city. However the existing facts are quite convincing - Taormina’s 400 feet long Naumachie’s brick wall containing 18 niches lives no doubts. It was part of Greek’s center for physical and general (civil, religious…) education for young men. 

Today it is just one more site bringing tourists to the past of Ancient World…. and surprisingly a place for rest (and little sandwich) to workers of nearby restaurants lining the main streets.

Church San Giuseppe: Facade

Church of San Giuseppe - Interior

Church of San Giuseppe (Salesiani)

        It is a large religious complex including the church of St. Joseph and the Institute of Salesian Fathers is located on Piazza IX Aprile in the heart of Taormina’s old town. Double staircase ramp with stone balustrade leads several steps up from the square level to the church main entrance. From there, either way you look, the “heavenly” worlds unfold: spiritual interior behind the entrance doors, rocky hills in the backdrop and in the opposite direction over the plaza – the spectacular Naxos Bay. 

The church San Giuseppe was built at the turn of 17th and 18th century in baroque style. The imposing façade includes impressive portal made from white, pink and grey marble.  Above the doors there is a shield with inscription: "Dominus Faciat vobiscum misericordiam, sicut cum fedistis mortui” (Have you Lord the merci You have had for the dead”.  Inscription together with the skull and crossbones above the shield and at the top of the façade as well as two vases flames and the statue of Christus Regnat (Christ the King) reflect the fact that for long the church was the seat of “Brotherhood of the Souls in Purgatory”. The symbolic language of mentioned “decorations” signifies the cleansing and purification from the sins that each “departing” sinful soul must undergo in the “life-after-life”…. 

Next to the church stands Taormina’s largest bell tower. 

       The church has single nave with transept crowned by the dome.  High and side altars as well as inscriptions reflect on the “Spirit of Souls of Purgatory” (motifs of flames) so clearly depicted on the frontal façade.  Numerous paintings, frescos represent the scenes from the life of prophets and from the Gospel. 

The ceiling of dome displays the fresco of St. John Bosco Child standing between Mary and Jesus. This pious boy through revelations appearing in his dreams became later in his life the patron of poor children. Hi was also the founder of the Salesian Order.

Basilica of St. Nicholas

   .. and its facade

Virgin Mary and Child by Antonello de Saliba

Basilica Catedrale San Nicolo di Bari (Basilica of St. Nicholas - Cathedral of Taormina) 

        This is one of the oldest well preserved churches in Taormina. Actually just few decades ago in 1980 the church was elevated to the ranks of Minor Basilicas opening the new bright chapter in its long history. From the outside its imposing structure has clear characteristics of the defensive medieval fortress (hence it is sometimes called “Cathedral Fortress”). Narrow windows, large bell towers that in the case of danger can be used as military bastions, unusually small cross topping the main façade – all these architectural elements may cause confusion to unsuspecting visitors to Taormina. 

Basilica of St. Nicholas was built in in 13th century on the ruins of small church dedicated to the same patron. In early 1400’s the structure underwent expansion while following reconstructions brought it to the current form. The beautiful portal at the frontal façade dates from 16th century and together with two rosette windows and the side doorway are the only highly decorative elements seen from the outside. The blue coat-of-arms above the door is the latest addition indicates the status of the Minor Basilica. 

       Interior has the Latin cross layout and consists of three naves supported by rows of columns and three apses. Decoration includes elements representing different “epochs” and school of arts. Columns from Taormina’s pink marble seem to originate from nearby Greco-Roman theater, corbels supporting ceiling’s wooden beams are carved with Arabic motifs, large rosette-style window has certainly inspiration in Renaissance, other architectural elements point to Gothic style….

Six altars display not only spiritually but also artistically highly valued paintings by famous Sicilian artists like 15th century master Antonino Giuffre de Messina and his collaborator Antonio Saliba. BTW – the painting ”Visitation of the Virgin Mary with SS. Joseph and Zechariah” from 1463 is his only known surviving work by Giuffre. The paintings of Madonna and Child with SS. Jerome and Sebastian, and the Pieta with St. Lucy and Agatha are works by Antonio de Saliba from 1504.

But probably the most precious and oldest object of art and veneration kept in the Cathedral is the Byzantine Madonna. It is an Eastern-Orthodox-style oil-painted icon covered with a layer of silver incrusted with semi-precious stones. 

Symbol of Taormina

Close view on the Symbol of Taormina

Monument  of Piazza Duomo

       The fountain on the Piazza Duomo is a “symbol” of Taormina. Built from Taormina’s marble in 1635 the fountain had dual purpose. The obvious task reflecting those times was watering animals (for that purpose was used the largest fountain’s basin at the base). But certainly highly decorative design with multiple basins supported by statues of mythological characters and numerous reliefs indicates was underlining the status of Taormina. The basket of fruits on the highest basin symbolizes Taormina’s prosperity and fertility of surrounding land. On top of the basket stands the symbol of Taormina – the centaur, however unlike its personification known from city’s coat-of-arms (and Greek’s mythology), the place on the top of the fountain is taken by a “female” centaur! And if that was not enough to shake popular believes, this one is a “two-footed” centaur. 

Palace of the Duke of St. Stephen 

Palace's garden: Exposition of art by Giuseppe Mazzullo

Palazzo Duchi di Santo Stefano

         This medieval structure built at the turn of 13th and 14th centuries was initially part of Taormina’s fortification system included in south-eastern section of the defensive walls. Like almost everything in Sicily, its architecture is a mixture of styles ranging from Arabic through Norman to Gothic “softened” by local influence.  The true highlights of Medieval facade are arched, mullioned windows – examples of beautiful stone-carving art with extra rosette windows under the arches. Another highly decorative element is the decorative frame topping the structure. These decorative elements clearly point out that the structure was not only part of the defensive system, but also the residence of the powerful and rich family. Indeed, the palace belonged to De Spuches – the Dukes of St. Stephen with Spanish origins.

In 1964 the palace was bought by the city of Taormina and subsequently renovated. Since 1981 it is home of the Foundation of Giuseppe Mazzullo – a 20th century Italian artist that was living and working in Taormina. Today the palace holds permanent exposition of his works displaying large collection of sculptures and drawings. Part of the permanent exposition is also planted in the adjacent garden…..

Pond in the Public Gardens

Public Gardens - Fairy-Tale world

Taormina Gardens (Parco Duca Di Cesaro' - The Public Gardens)

      Taormina gardens are relatively new addition to the cityscape. Taking the shape in 1920’s thanks to the donation by the family Cacciola-Trevelyan they are no match to the historical monuments from Greek period. But by no means are Gardens less precious for inhabitants and tourists than historical jewels of Taormina. Perched along the edge of the cliff with breathtaking views on the cost this almost three hectares large parks offers what at some point everyone will need: peace and serenity of Mother Nature. Lush vegetation, exotic species of trees, bushes, flower-gardens, pond occupied by some colorful birds – all that helps to calm high flying emotions and give much needed rest to the body after hours of walking tours….

The little corner dedicated the Fallen in WW2 includes monument and relics of some “deadly machinery” … 

      Another park’s attractions are somehow strange, arabesque-like towers planted across the gardens. At first they seem to represent the Fairy-Tale world (actually it wouldn’t be a big surprise for visitors given the fact that Taormina is an example of the “out-of-this-world” town…). The reality is more down-to-earth; mentioned structures reflect the passion of Florence Trevelyan, who as a zealous ornithologist needed them to study birds.

Needless to say that the Gardens with their long walking winding paths and “hidden” areas are the paradise for lovers (of all ages)

Location, location, location - Hotel Metropole lounge bar

Restaurant Romeo and Julia

Colorful streets

Beautifully decorated balcony...

Public Gardens - "Wings of love"

Cafes, Restaurants, Hotels……

      Much of the lovely atmosphere filling the streets of Taormina comes from streets cafes lining Corso Umberto and all major squares. The fact is that Taormina is a magnet for tourists, a jewel in Sicilian Crown and what comes with it – it is “a bit” expensive place to stay. Luxurious restaurants, hotels are literally dotting the town…

But hey, how often can you seat at the lunge-bar like the one in Hotel Metropole?  Sipping freshly brewed “Italian” coffee at the terrace with the spectacular view on the Ionian coast, Bay of Naxos, or Mt. Etna? Well, we all know, it does not happen very often, may be only in Taormina, may be even only once in a lifetime, so what the heck…

Being in Taormina you may want to visit two nearby attractions, both representing the best of Mother Nature:

--> La Isola Bella

--> Alcantara Gorge and River


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