The Lights of Taormina

Book worm book count: 36 – a relaxed pace meant loads of reading. 

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He hears the chimes of history, Myths of gods and men forever ringing,  Ancient dreams in all their mystery,  Wars for Sicily and Spartan women,  In the mists of antiquity,  Ships set sail from Carthagina, Now he is sitting out the night, Looking down upon the lights of Taormina

The words are from the song, Lights of Taormina, written by Mark Knopfler.  The husband plays it often and whenever we listened to it, we talked about coming back to the sleepy Sicilian hillside town that we first discovered on a cruise in 2015.

On that day trip we wandered into the reception of the Grand Hotel Timeo, located right next to the famous (and still used) Greek Theatre at the edge of the town and just knew we had to come back and stay there.

And so, 2 years later, here we are.

It was one of the very best decisions we have ever made.

IMG_2060The hotel was the first in the town, opened by an orange farmer Don Francesco in 1874 who, on selling his orchard, bought a derelict home right next to ruins of a theatre in what was considered to be literally in the middle of nowhere.   People thought he was mad and told him so.

Initially the clientele were lost travellers and the occasional writer and painter.  But between 1896 and 1906, when his son, Giuseppe La Floresta inherited the hotel, 60 rooms had been added and the word had spread.  By now, the Timeo (“Timeo”, the name of the founder of the Greek city “Tauromenion” in 358 BC.) was a hotel of great standing, visited by emperors, kings and grand dukes of European courts who wanted to spend winter in a warm climate.

In 1920 D.H Lawrence lived here for four years and in that time wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  You can so see where the inspiration came from with her sweeping terraced gardens and elegant paths and walk ways (and cute Italian gardeners!!)

IMG_2022We have been very fortunate (again) to be given an upgrade to an executive junior suite and are staying in one of the original rooms that date back to 1874.  It is kind of awesome to speculate who has shared it before us?   Tennessee Williams? Truman Capote?  Ava Gardener? Elizabeth Taylor?  It is certainly a room with a view. Just take a look.

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IMG_1989If you are visiting Taormina, there is no better place to stay and whether you stay in the original hotel or in the more recently refurbished, and slightly cheaper Annex – Villa Flora, you will not be disappointed.  But if you can, upgrade and stay in the original hotel.  Soak in the history and the views.  They really are spectacular.

IMG_2058Located 206 metres above sea level, alongside side Mt Etna (Europe’s largest active volcano) Taormina offers some of the most magnificent views on the planet.  Across the bay of Naxos, the deep blue of the Mediterranean merges seamlessly into the horizon, Mt Etna bubbles away in the background and the township clings to the hillside below.  It is spectacular.  The pictures just don’t do it justice, but trust me when I say when you come here you will leave your heart behind.

IMG_2181Taormina was originally founded by the Sicels, before absorbing residents from the nearby Greek City of Naxos in the 4th century BC.  It was conquered by the Romans, , held briefly as a Byzantine province, before it was the last Sicilian fortress to fall under the Islamic empire. After the Arab conquest came the French, who restored Christianity. Then in the  Middle Ages it was held by the Spanish until the 19th Century when it was finally rediscovered by the artists and writers of the Romantic Age.

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So, history abounds and there is plenty to see and do.  Much to the small person’s consternation!

IMG_2133When you visit just for the day – you miss so much of it’s magic. It is night time that Taormina really shines; when the heat abates, the sun sets and the town’s 10,000 odd residents come out to stroll along her main street, to sit and drink and talk and reclaim her from the hoards.

And they have a market on Wednesday!!!!  So I finally got to tick that box.

The Greek Theatre is host to a numerous concerts from Elton John, to Santana, to, Spandau Ballet, to Duran Duran. Unfortunately, none of those acts were here when we were.

The views from the seats are amazing and you can only imagine the show in front of you and the show that goes on behind the performers.  We have heard stories of concerts going on while lava glows red and tumbles down the slopes of Mt Etna behind, all while the sun sets and lights up the night sky further.

IMG_2169The town itself comprises of a main pedestrian street, littered with small shops selling jewellery, souvenirs and fashion. It has a north and a south gate and at one point opens into a stunning piazza, offering yet more amazing views.

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Above Taormina, sits Castelmola at 500 metres above sea level.  It is the site of a roman ruin, another wee town with 1000 residents and the best almond wine.  (honestly!)

IMG_2077But be warned it is a steep and challenging climb almost straight up, that will take at least an hour if you’re fit. We chose to grab a taxi to the top and walk down.  (Blaming the small person obviously – Simon and I would totally have walked up otherwise – yeah right)

But this way you see the stunning views on your descent without the pain.  It was there that we bumped into our wonderful driver Vincenzo, who pointed out, thankfully, the best path home.

IMG_2068As you descend you can take see the Church of della Madonna Rocca (so called because it is built on the rock) it dates back to around 1640 and is quite amazing. The ceiling is the rock face of the cliff to which she clings.

IMG_2146You will also get close up to the Sanctuary of St. Maria della Rocca, a small monastery (of the order of the Basilian), now abandoned, in which religious retreated to pray and do penance as a hermit.  Unfortunately it is closed so we couldn’t go inside, but it is the ruin that you see most clearly from the terrace of our hotel.

IMG_2036The sister hotel of the Timeo is the Saint Andrea and you find her at sea level below Taormina, on a private beach accessible by cable car or by a free shuttle that ferries you back and forth.

IMG_2040Just as stunning but very different, we spent some time swimming by the pool and taking a complimentary boat trip around the area.  If you are here – that is well worth doing, but if time is short, make sure you book the boat before you arrive as places are very limited.

I loved diving in to the sea from the boat, swimming with the fishes (it is Sicily after all) and exploring the blue grottos in caves that we passed.  It also provides a very different perspective to life in Taormina.

One night we enjoyed a typical Sicilian meal as a family by the pool, with traditional shared dishes and music.  It was like taking a page from the Godfather (except nobody died) and reenacting it.  They put this on every Thursday night and again if you are here, you mustn’t miss it.

Sundowners on the terrace, with plump Sicilian olives and classical music is incredible, so even if your budget doesn’t stretch to staying in the hotel, do that at the very least.  Just sip your cocktail slowly. The prices are eye watering!

IMG_2004But if you are staying, then you’ll get to enjoy the best Italian breakfast, watching puffs of smoke billow out of the Volcano.  Order the Granita and Brioche and loose yourself in the history of those that have gone before.

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Stay 5 nights and the price comes down and they throw in half board, so eating each night at either hotel is included.  It’s worth every penny. The food is spectacular and the views….. did I mention the views?

I do not want this to end but least I have one more night, sipping Limoncello, and listening to Mark Knopfler singing of the lights below.

Highlights from small heights 

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Mark Knopfler singing of the the lights below? I thought from our angle they were above us right? Whatever.

IMG_2200Taormina didn’t really seem like TOO much to me. I mean, sure lovely beautiful streets, high mountain to climb or drive up and down, Ancient Greek theatre. But where’s the Eiffel Tower of this place? What’s its Colosseum? Why are we spending five whole days here? Not that I’m complaining.

For me Taormina was the perfect mix of stuff to do (so parents are satisfied) and possible relaxation. If you want lots to do then Taormina can provide but equally it’s easy to turn away from all possible sightseeing without feeling like you missed out.

Fortunately and unfortunately Mum and Dad decided to give both options a try.

IMG_2214Its Greek theatre had great views as well as interesting place to climb and explore.

The streets were a great place to have your head in the clouds.

And the mountain… well it was tiring to climb down but it was also fun and the gelato shortly afterward tasted ten times better than usual. Our hotel had a great swimming pool, lovely rooms and a beautiful garden. Taormina has loads of options and suits almost anyone so if you’re wondering, ‘why Taormina?’ then ‘why not?’

IMG_2224Taormina fun rating: 10 out of 10.

Improvement tip: None needed. (Mum: Wow! High praise indeed)

Charlotte’s two top tips: Do not climb up the mountain and pick a nice hotel (like  Grand Hotel Timeo), you’ll spend more time there than you think!

 

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