Sicilia, you’re breaking my heart

If you see a brightly-coloured plastic bucket on the beach in Taormina, it won’t be for making sandcastles. Rather, it will contain an expensive bottle of something bubbly chilling on ice. Chilling is what holidays are all about in this posh Sicilian resort, which gets more daily hours of sunshine year-round than anywhere else in Europe. While it has long been a playground for the rich, they’re greatly outnumbered by visitors of more realistic means who don’t mind saving a little longer for a week or two in a town Ernest Hemingway described as “so pretty it hurts to look”. From a master of fiction, that’s an indisputable fact.

Sunset as seen from high up in the Teatro Greco, Taormina’s top visitor attraction

During the long, monotonous months of the midnight sun in far northern Sweden, people set their alarms to go to sleep.

“At 1am, it looks like lunchtime, so we need a reminder when it’s time for bed,” Laplander Johanna Siljehagen tells me over a nightcap on the terrace of the Meridiana Hotel in Taormina. “But look at the sky here over the bay – it’s black and full of twinkling stars. I used to dream of skies like this. Now I’m living my dream.”

In 2006, while channel-hopping in her hometown of Kiruna, 200km above the Arctic Circle, Johanna happened upon an episode of whimsical Italian police drama Inspector Montalbano, which is set in Sicily. So impressed was she with the scenery that, next day, she booked a flight to go and investigate. Twelve months later, she moved to Taormina and now runs a successful business exporting organic produce (johannasiljehagen.com).

Enjoying a stroll through the streets of Taormina

Johanna’s friend, Trina Cria Laurent, who’s from Mauritius, lived in Dublin before relocating to Sicily four years ago.

“I adore Dublin, but coming from an Indian Ocean climate, I missed the sunshine,” says tour organiser, model, cook and cookbook author Trina (trinaeventsandtours@gmail.com) during a leisurely walk the following morning. “My Sicilian friends in Ranelagh kept urging me to come here. When I did, I fell in love with the place. It’s beautiful, it’s always sunny and I swim in the sea nearly every day. I’m living my dream, too.”

It’s only 11.30, but already 23C – in early October – and the gelatos we bought a couple of minutes before are melting rapidly as we admire the views from high up in the third century BC Teatro Greco, the town’s most-visited attraction.

The hillside amphitheatre, which was remodelled by the Romans and once hosted gladiatorial contests, is the venue every June for open-air screenings during the star-studded film festival (taorminafilmfest.it) and hosts big-name concerts – Tony Bennett, Elton John, Sting and Bob Dylan have played here.

Trina points through an ancient archway that frames the reassuringly distant Mount Etna, from whose 3,350-metre peak a plume of dark volcanic ash billows. In July 2001, during an especially fiery series of eruptions, Dylan told his crew to rearrange the stage so the audience would get the best views of the explosive action in the background.

A half-day Etna excursion involving a coach trip, cable car ascent and truck ride takes visitors close to the summit, where the air can be chilly while the volcanic earth only a few centimetres beneath the soles of your boots is oven-hot.

The Villa Comunale gardens

Europe’s tallest active volcano, whose upper slopes from December to March are covered in snow and full of downhill and cross-country skiers, isn’t the only thing that’s rumbling as we wander through the gardens of Villa Comunale on the way to an early lunch.

The gardens were created by wealthy young English woman Florence Trevelyan (1852-1907), who sprouted green fingers at an early age in her native Northumberland and became a noted botanist and conservationist. She was also noted for having had an affair with Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert, Prince of Wales, who succeeded his mother in 1901 and reigned as Edward VII until his death in 1910.

Florence was orphaned as a child, and through family connections was fostered into the royal household at Balmoral. Victoria was fond of her, but on learning she was jumping in and out of bed with playboy Bertie she banished her from court and, ultimately, from Britain. On the queen’s command, Florence was granted a generous monthly allowance of £50, and in 1879 set off on a tour of Europe and North Africa. For company, she travelled with her cousin, Louisa Perceval, a granddaughter of the late prime minister Spencer Perceval, who was shot dead by an aggrieved merchant in the lobby of the House of Commons in May 1812.

La Signora Inglesa, as Florence was to become known, first visited Taormina in 1881 and was immediately smitten. She told Louisa she would return and live here, and did so three years later. While she loved her new home, the often spice-rich Sicilian cuisine didn’t agree with her and she suffered terribly from acid reflux. In 1890, she married local doctor and mayor Salvatore Cacciola, who cured her ailment by changing her diet, for which the woman who was baptised in the hamlet of Hartburn was most grateful.

The Villa Comunale gardens, which became public property in 1922 and are free to visit, are a riot of native and tropical flowers, plants and trees. Pathways are bordered by hibiscus and magnolia and there are several sizeable follies and pavilions constructed in Gothic, Romanesque and rococo styles from salvaged building materials, including bits and bobs pinched from the Teatro Greco, and lava rock. Best of all, the bougainvillea-edged promenade overlooking the sea is perfect for a passeggiata, that most civilised evening tradition when couples, families and friends fare un giro (go for a stroll).

Entrance to Gourmet 32 restaurant.

At nearly €70 for two salads and two pasta dishes each, plus a bottle of house red, lunch on the shaded terrace of Gourmet 32 (Via Bagnoli Croci 31) isn’t cheap. Nevertheless, I return for dinner the following evening and tuck in again to pasta con le sarde – spaghetti cooked with fresh sardines, white fennel, pine nuts and sultanas – while reviewing three days’ worth of fabulous photos I didn’t know I was capable of capturing. Like the Hollywood stars who attend the annual film festival, Taormina knows how to present its best side for the camera.

It’s only a couple of minutes’ walk from Gourmet 32 to Bam Bar (43 Via di Giovanni), where we’re meeting Trina’s pal Rita Curcio for an afternoon granita, a blend of coarse-crushed ice and fresh fruit that comes in a variety of non-alcoholic flavours and is accompanied by a warm brioche. Lemon, peach, strawberry, kiwi, almond and pistachio are among the versions on offer, though Nutella has its devotees, and the whipped fresh cream topping is optional.

While Taormina isn’t short of cafes and bars serving granitas – the concoction was introduced by the Saracens who invaded Sicily from Tunisia in 827AD and was originally made with ice brought from Etna’s upper slopes – locals will tell you Bam Bar’s are the best.

Alarm bells ring when Trina introduces Rita (ritacurcio.it) as the island’s in-demand dress designer – I’m on the run from the fashion police in a mismatched mix from Penneys, where I bought four days’ worth of T-shirts, polos, shorts, socks and jocks for 60 quid (there’s a gents’ boutique on Taormina’s traffic-free main street, Corso Umberto, with a light blue linen jacket in the window for €540 – you can get flights and a week in a hotel for less).

Mercifully, my get-up goes unremarked upon, although Trina, who’s wearing one of Rita’s creations, waxes lyrical about her friend’s collections. “Her colours and designs reflect the warmth and vibrancy of Sicily,” she says. “Wearing Rita is like wearing summer.”

Totally out of my depth, I reply: “Oh, yes, absolutely.”

Granitas and a warm brioche in Bam Bar. Below, Isola Bella

I leave them to it and dawdle off to catch the cable car (€3) down to Mazzaro beach for a swim in the sea around tiny Isola Bella (Beautiful Island), passing en route a bride and groom posing for photos. Taormina is a top spot for tying the knot, and I learn later there were two Irish weddings during my visit and one a fortnight before.

When Florence Trevelyan first took up residence here, she paid 5,700 lire – the equivalent today of around €24,000 – for Isola Bella, which is accessible by way of a strip of sand when the tide is out. When it’s in, you can wade or swim to it, although it’s wise to buy a pair of cheap plastic sandals from one of the beachside shops as the seabed is a sole-destroying minefield of sharp rocks. A snorkel and mask from the same outlets will come in handy, too, as the clear water teems with colourful marine life.

Florence built a small house on Isola Bella, which is also known as the Pearl of the Ionian Sea, and planted all around with Mediterranean and imported exotic shrubs. The island has changed ownership several times in the 114 years since she herself was planted in a small private cemetery just outside the mountain village of Castelmola, which overlooks Taormina. In 1984, after many years of abandonment, Isola Bella was declared a protected natural site and is now looked after by the Italian branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Looking down from town on the pool of the Meridiana Hotel. Below, one of the grand salons in Palazzo La Bella Palermo

I’ve been well looked after by Meridiana Hotel owner Romano Piazza and his wife Olga, whose next-door guest cottage has been my des res for three nights. I’ve only actually slept and showered there as the days have been given over to exploring the town, tut-tutting at the prices in boutique windows, slurping granitas and stuffing my face. The fully-equipped kitchen has seen no action, but the power shower saw plenty when I returned from my trek on Etna looking like the cartoon victim of an exploding cigar – that black volcanic dust doesn’t half cling.

After a bye-bye breakfast in the hotel, my phone pings to tell me Trina is waiting at the top of the hill with the engine running. Having flown from Dublin to Catania, I’m returning home from Palermo, where I’ll spend the last night of my Sicilian sojourn in a palace with Trina and her boyfriend, Francesco Cazzaniga.

It’s a three-hour drive from Taormina, or nearly five hours by bus or train, to the island capital, where Francesco’s Uncle Massimo has a bachelor pad, Palazzo La Bella Palermo, that makes the 5-star Shelbourne Hotel look like a middling B&B. To help with the upkeep, art collector Massimo allows paying guests to rent his far-from-humble abode and live like royalty beneath his roof while he’s away.

There are five en suite bedrooms, all replete with antique furniture, paintings, sculptures and curios; several grand salons; a library; and a huge Downton Abbey kitchen. My room, like the others, is the size of a large apartment, and it must be the first time a pair of Penneys cotton boxer shorts have touched the silk sheets on the 200-year-old four-poster where I’ll lay my head after an evening out with my hosts.

The Blue Salon in Palazzo La Bella Palermo. Below, Bisso Bistrot restaurant, in the former Libreria Dante bookshop, Palermo

I’m eager to repay Trina and Francesco’s hospitality by treating them to dinner in the family-run Bisso Bistrot (Via Maqueda 172A/Piazza Quattro Canti), which specialises in the Sicilian dishes that mammas make, and, with Taormina prices in mind, resign myself to living on cornflakes until pay day. When the bill eventually arrives, I nearly collapse. For two starters, three mains and two carafes of house red it’s €460.

That’s without my glasses on. With them, it’s €46, which is why the defibrillator remained on the wall. It also explains why the place is packed day and night and reservations are a must after 7.30pm (if you let them know you’ll be having a drink in a nearby bar, they’ll send a text alert 10 minutes before your table is ready).

It’s late, yet still shirt sleeves-warm as we take our time walking back to the palazzo through crowded narrow streets full of bars hopping with young people enjoying some midnight fun. We have a nightcap on Uncle Massimo’s terrace, beneath a black sky full of twinkling stars. I don’t have to set an alarm to go to sleep – I’m exhausted with exhilaration. Like Johanna and Trina, I’ve lived the dream, albeit briefly, and in a few hours it will be time to say arrivederci. Sicilia, you’re breaking my heart.

Sunbathe or enjoy a swim in the sea at Isola Bella

GET THERE: Flights from Dublin to Sicily are seasonal. Aer Lingus flies to Catania and Ryanair to Palermo. A frequent bus service operates from Catania airport to Taormina and buses and trains run from Palermo airport to the city centre.

STAY: Taormina The four-star Meridiana Hotel has nine en-suite rooms with furnished terraces overlooking the bay, an outdoor pool and hot tub and a guest cottage that sleeps two. Breakfast is a buffet affair, although freshly-made omelettes are always on offer. See the website for special offers, but be aware the hotel is at the bottom of a steep hill.

Palermo Palazzo La Bella Palermo is a self-catering property in the historical city centre and sleeps a maximum of eight guests. The whole house can be rented by family groups or friends (rooms are not available individually) for €1,700 a night. When the cost is split between eight people, it works out at €212.50 per person per night.

Everywhere you turn in Taormina, there’s an alleyway or staircase full of character and colour

Author: Tom Sweeney

Chief sub-editor at Independent News & Media, Dublin, Ireland, and award-winning travel writer and blogger.

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