Exploring Greek ruins on Sicily's scenic coast. Village of Taormina offers history and charm
Tiny Taormina looks like a watercolor illustration in a book of fairy tales. This town of pastel-painted houses with pointed red tile roofs literally perches atop a small mountain, hugging and almost spilling over its cliffs.
As you approach it from the south on the autostrada, you can see the miniature city for miles, and you wonder how anyone can possibly get up to it. When you arrive at the base of the cliff, however, you discover a winding road - the Via Pirandello - with it's series of hairpin and hair-raising switchbacks, which motorcoaches, autos, and motorcycles adeptly maneuver.
At the top, you're rewarded with not only the ambiance of a quaint Italian village but also a bird's-eye view of the Sicilian coastline, both north and south. There's also a panorama of the intensely blue Mediterranean and spectacular Mt. Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. (While not dangerously close to Taormina, the mountain has been erupting recently, and tourists are advised not to visit it now.)
Taormina's storybook setting, dazzling flowers, and mild climate make it one of the most popular resorts on the Mediterranean.
We came by motorcoach on an excursion from the Swan Hellenic cruise ship, MTS Orpheus, whose ports of call are chosen from among those that feature ancient Greek or Roman ruins. Our day trip up the coast originated in Syracuse and ended in Messina, with Taormina as the focal point.
Since Sicily lies just off the toe of the boot of Italy at a pivotal Mediterranean crossroads, it has felt the influences of many cultures from the Stone Age to the present. Back in the 8th century BC, the Greeks began to colonize Sicily, and some excellent examples of ancient Greek and later Roman art, mosaics, and architecture are still to be found here.
We came especially to see the Greek theater built in the Hellenistic period (3rd century BC). Its ruins stand just 10 miles north of Naxos, the site of the first Greek colony on Sicily.
The theater, rebuilt by the Romans as an arena for gladiators, is the second largest ancient theater (119 yards in diameter) in Sicily, after the one in Syracuse. In the usual Greek way, the horseshoe-shaped seating ``cavea'' is carved into the mountainside. The seats command not only a view of the stage but of Mt. Etna high on the right and of the coast to the left - a most remarkable backdrop.
Seated here, it's easy for a visitor to be transported back in imagination to a performance of a Greek drama or a dusty Roman spectacle - complete with armed gladiators and wild animals. Our guide spoke to us from the floor of the arena to demonstrate that the excellent acoustics haven't diminished over the centuries.
Parts of the outer Roman-built walls as well as the inner brick walls still stand at the rear of the theater. Portions of the foundation for the stage and wings remain, as do pieces of the entrance portico. In 1955 the site was partially restored, and now visitors can safely negotiate the site with the help of wide cement walkways, steps, and handrails - amenities many of the Mediterranean's ancient sites lack.
On the hot Sunday afternoon of our visit, stage crews were shouting orders and hammering away on a mammoth plywood screen that would be used in the annual July International Film Festival a few days later. The theater is also used for a variety of summer concerts and performances.
In addition to the theater, Taormina offers other Greek and Roman ruins. In the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, not far from the theater, one finds the church of Santa Caterina and the the Theatro Romano, a music hall.
No cars are allowed in Taormina during the day, so tour buses and cars must be parked in lots three or four blocks below the village center. A cable car connects the town with the beaches and hotels hundreds of feet below. And there are footpaths for the very energetic, with cable-car stops along it.
Taormina is often swarming with tourists. In fact, the village population quadruples between May and October. Small shops and open stalls line the main street, Corso Umberto, and the side streets. Most of the shops offer the usual variety of local crafts: hand embroidered blouses and dresses, pottery, shell jewelry, carved wooden figures and faces, traditional Sicilian puppets dressed in metal armor, and brightly painted wooden toys.
Some boutiques sell more expensive Italian-designed resort clothing in fabulous colors and fabrics, beachware, jewelry, silk scarves, and the leather shoes and bags for which Italy is renowned.
The hotels range from the elegant five-star San Domenico Palace, located in an old monastery, to reasonably priced pensions. The coastal village of Mazzar`o, some 820 feet below, also offers an abundance of attractive beach hotels that are said to be the best in Sicily. Some are seasonal, and prices vary.
With Taormina's ancient history, dramatic setting, brilliant flowers, quaint shops, and friendly people, many of us decided this is a spot we want to go back to.
Taormina can be reached by train, bus, or automobile in an hour from Messina, which has an airport and regular ferry service to Reggio di Calabria on the mainland. Donna Franca Tours in Boston and other tour operators include Taormina in some of their tours of Italy. Contact your travel agent for information or bookings. But don't expect to stay overnight in August unless you make reservations in advance.
Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.