28 July 2015

Taorrmina is neither ‘one long parade of junk
shops’ nor ‘quite as boring as Bournemouth’

The lights in Taormina begin to fade over the Bay of Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

As I left Taormina last night, the moon was almost full above the Bay of Naxos, the sun had set, purple lights were filling the clouds, and they were reflected in purple hues across the Mediterranean waters below.

The village of Taormina is perched on a cliff above Giardini Naxos, where I am staying this week, and looks down on the east coast of Sicily and out to the Ionian Sea. A cable-car carries tourists from Giardini Naxos up to Taormina, with its old churches, lively bars, fine restaurants, tourist shops and classical ruins.

Taormina is a romantic place, and it is celebrated by Mark Knopfler, who evokes the town in his song Lights of Taormina on his latest album Tracker (2015).

Knopfler told Billboard magazine that he started writing the song “where I was actually sitting on this beautiful terrace, looking down at Taormina.” He played at Taormina’s ancient Greek theatre just two years ago [16 July 2013], and wrote the song probably as he was looking down on Taormina from Hotel Villa Angela, owned by Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. Kerr fell in love with Sicily when he visited on tour.

Taormina has had a mixed reputation among English-speaking visitors and tourists. The writer and dilettante Harold Acton said Taormina had become “a polite synonym for Sodom” in the mid-20th century. Acton inspired the character of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945).

Later, when Acton returned to Taormina with Waugh after World War II, they saw a sign advertising “Ye Olde English Teas,” and Acton sighed, declaring Taormina “was now quite as boring as Bournemouth.”

Before Acton, another English visitor who was not impressed by Taormino was DH Lawrence, who lived here for three years in 1920-1923. Much of Lady Chatterley’s Love is supposed to have been inspired by the tales of an English woman living in Taormina who fell in love with a local farmer.

But in one letter back to England, Lawrence wrote disparagingly of Corso Umberto, now one of the most expensive shopping streets in southern Italy – he described as “one long parade of junk shops … If only Etna would send down 60,000,000 tons of boiling lava over the place and cauterise it away.”

Antique shops and chic boutiques line the streets of Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The English writer Daphne Phelps was much happier when she lived here for over half a century, from 1948 to 1999. She had inherited the Casa Cuseni, with its spectacular views of Mount Etna and the Bay of Naxos over the rooftops of Taormina, and described life here in A House in Sicily.

Her many friends who were her guests here included Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, Henry Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Caitlin Thomas, the widow of Dylan Thomas.

Stepping into Taormina is like stepping into another world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Taormina first became a popular tourist resort in the 19th century. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one the first celebrated tourists and he dedicated parts of his book Italian Journey to Taormina. Other early ‘celebrity’ visitors included Oscar Wilde, Czar Nicholas I, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra while he was here.

In the early 20th century, Taormina hosted a colony of expatriate artists, writers, and intellectuals. Albert Stopford grew roses in his Edwardian garden, DH Lawrence stayed at the Fontana Vecchia, and 30 years later, in 1950-1951, the same villa was home to Truman Capote.

The balcony in the Palazzo Corvajo is like a scene from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Taormina stands on an ancient site on the hillside of Monte Tauro above Giardini Naxos, mid-way between Messina and Catania. A steep, almost isolated rock, crowned by a Saracen castle, rises another 150 metres higher.

The Palazzo Corvajo, with a balcony that could be a setting for Romeo and Juliet, was the location of a rebellious “parliament” of Sicilian nobles who met here in 1410 to elect a new king. It now houses the Sicilian Museum of Arts and Popular Crafts.

Next door, inside the Church of Santa Caterina, we saw part of the surviving ruins of the Teatro Romano.

The most remarkable surviving monument at Taormina is the Teatro Greco or classical theatre. But it was closed off last night because of a concert by the Irish singer and songwriter Damien Rice. I must return again later this week to explore classical Taormina.

The Teatro Greco was closed off last night for a concert by Damien Rice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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