Sicilia - Places to Visit - Taormina
If you're looking for a long glimpse of Sicily's beauty and history from many angles in a single place, Taormina is a good choice. The city is located on a plateau below Mount Tauro, for which it is named, where there are the ruins of a medieval fortress. Taormina's ancient Greek splendor, medieval charm and unique views of Mount Etna and the Ionian coast afford the visitor a lasting impression of this island.
Taormina was settled by the people of nearby Naxos, an older Greek settlement, around 395 BC, on a Siculian city. These early residents had fled the tyranny of Dionysius the Elder, who eventually conquered Taormina anyway, in 392 BC. The city was named Tauromenion in 358 BC, and figured prominently in the regional politics of the next two centuries.
The city supported Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, against Syracuse in 278 BC. It was from Taormina that he conducted his Sicilian campaign, with the aid of some ten thousand troops. Yet, Taormina was one of the first Sicilian cities to support Rome during the Punic Wars. Eunus took the city during the slave revolt, and when the Romans finally occupied the city they massacred thousands of slaves.
Taormina flourished in the time of Julius Caesar, only to suffer under Octavian, who retaliated against the city for its support of Pompey by expelling most of its inhabitants and offering their homes to Roman soldiers. Prosperity followed for the Romans of Taormina.
Ovid wrote of the "sweet mullet and tender eel" of Taormina's waters. Writing in the first century, Pliny the Elder praised Taormina's wines. The city's splendor, so evident even today, survived the fall of the Roman Empire, but her importance diminished. The castle atop Mount Tauro was probably built by the Saracens on an older Byzantine structure, and later enlarged by the Normans.
Though it is only about 200 meters above sea level, Taormina seems much higher. The Greek amphitheatre was built in the third century BC, and expanded by the Romans, who enlarged the stage and added a partial roof (now destroyed). Reserved seating existed even in Greek times; a seat bears the inscription of the name of Philistide, wife of Hieron II of Syracuse. The view of Mount Etna and the sea beyond the theatre is breathtaking. The theatre is the site of dramatic performances during Summer; the seasons alternate with those of Segesta, the site of Sicily's other large Greek amphitheatre.
The odeon (odeum), a much smaller Roman theatre, is located near the Church of Saint Catherine (Santa Caterina), which obscures it. Beneath the church was a temple dedicated to Zeus. Such temples were gradually converted to churches with the introduction of Christianity; the cathedral of Syracusa is another example of this phenomenon.
Indications of Taormina's ancient street plan are evident, and Roman mosaic floors have been found in the ancient villas in the area. Even Palazzo Corvaia, built during the fourteenth century, was constructed on Roman foundations. Taormina has a good archeological museum (near the amphitheatre), though many of the city's more important finds are housed elsewhere.
Taormina's streets retain much of their medieval flavor, as do several of the churches and villas. There are also some charming Baroque and recent structures. There has been a British presence, and a charming Anglican church, at Taormina for many years. D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) lived nearby, and based his novella "Lady Chatterly's Lover" on local events.
The castle (in the Castelmola district) overlooks the city. It affords a spectacular view, though it is somewhat distant from Taormina and is not particularly well preserved.
The scenic Alcantara Gorge is located about a twenty minute drive south and west of Taormina on the Alcantara River off Route 185. Volcanic activity created the beautiful basalt formation.
Naxos, one of Sicily's oldest Greek cities, is located just a few kilometers from Taormina (in the locality known as Giardini-Naxos) near Cape Schis. Little remains here except for structural foundations and the pavement stones of ancient streets, but Naxos was once a flourishing city much larger than ancient Taormina. It was founded by the Chalcidensians as Sicily's first Greek colony in 735 BC.
For Visitors: There are a number of restaurants that offer seafood and other local cuisine. Taormina's main streets are full of places to buy craft items, especially, ceramics, mosaics and puppets. Though few of these items are actually made at Taormina, many are of the highest quality. The beach at Giardini-Naxos is a few kilometers away, and there are plenty of hotels in the area. If you arrive at Taormina by train from Messina or Catania, you can take a bus up to the town from the station.