Perched on a clifftop, Taormina dominates all around, valleys of almond, olive and cypress trees that sink into the dancing Ionian Sea.
On clear days, the view is to Italy’s tip, the peninsula of Calabria, and behind, the looming smoky presence of the majestic volcano, Etna. There you stand with a truly momentous feeling between the mountains and above the sea.
Africa is just 80 miles away and, for us, the September sun blazed above the beach at the Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea, a hotel with so much charm and beauty you find yourself utterly bewitched. It sits in its own cove in the Bay of Mazzarò, a rather secretive world of splendour set apart from the tourists who come searching for legendary Taormina.
If not for my wandering nature, I would gladly spend a year in this stylish hotel, having a granita for breakfast, lounging in my shorts among the elegant gardens, with sweet smells of jasmine and lemons, sipping cocktails on the rose-hued terrace, fresh fish and seafood barbecues on the beach served by white-jacketed waiters, a life utterly easy and indolent… under the spell of the Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea.
My friend, Diana, sketching the bay, had me, arm extended, swimming every morning in the cobalt sea. Beneath the arch of Porta Messina, you enter this extraordinary town where each wave of conquerors left their legacy.
Ancient Greeks built the amphitheatre rivalling Rome’s Colosseum, and captured in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite, now the setting for concerts and the annual Taormina Film Festival.
Romans, Spaniards and Normans left their temples, palaces and golden cathedrals, and Arabs their sweet cakes and brightlycoloured confectionary. First impressions are exuberant, chaotic, but Taormina also has many quiet corners, serene courtyards, alleyways, hidden villas, and inconspicuous trattoria.
Top of my list were Da Nino, La Malvasia and Vicolo Stretto. Nino knows how to cherish every table and his home-made pappardelle from the bay below were so delicious that they are now lodged in my dreams. La Malvasia, a nostalgic family restaurant, where the charming mama has been cooking for 43 years, served us such a delicate and intense plate of pasta Norma that I was forced to ask for seconds and then, of course, the luscious semifreddo.
Vicolo Stretto, off the town’s main street, Corso Umberto, sits at the top of the narrowest stone staircase, which becomes difficult after you’ve devoured a plate of pasta and then the elegantly-flavoured fresh fish.
We sat outside, overlooking moonwashed spires and the faded red rooftops of medieval Taormina, mysteriously silent and intensely romantic. I loved the luxury of staying at two hotels, because once you’ve left beachside Villa Sant’Andrea and gone up to the town, its sister Grand Hotel Timeo welcomes you. Richard Gere spent his holiday between the two just weeks before us, while Susan Sarandon and other Hollywood names stayed at the Timeo for the film festival.
The dramatic and panoramic view from the hotel’s terrace, especially in the changing light, mesmerised me with that same wonder and sense of peace I feel standing before a Turner landscape.
We couldn’t get enough of it, heading there at sunset to sample delicious Etna wines, and on our last night eating in the lavish restaurant where wonderful Sicilian dishes are rooted in the soil and tradition.
Strolling through Taormina, sampling another creamy ricotta cannoli or buying dazzlingly bright ceramics, we bumped into a wedding party spilling out of the church, Visconti style, a real-life piece of cinema straight out of the 1950s.
There was an array of buxom women in short, shiny, skin-tight skirts teetering on stilettos, men with slick backed, black hair and sideburns, sharp suits and sunglasses, handsome, mysterious, brimming with Italian vitality. The priest, la famiglia, but no Cosa Nostra guns, thank goodness.
Looking up, Diana noticed stars of David carved into the lovely terracotta municipal building, scattered remnants of a once thriving Jewish quarter, its narrow streets with names such as Via del Ghetto and Via Salita Ibrahim. A hundred thousand Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1492 and later invited to return, although only very few responded. After the town’s throng, Villa Sant’Andrea’s Oliviero restaurant is utterly relaxing, with soft piano music floating over the water.
Gracious manager, Giovanni Nastasi, who has ruled over the hotel for 15 years, is masterful at keeping a keen eye on every detail. Taormina is special, legendary, and mythological. D H Lawrence called the Villa Fontana, his home here, “the greatest find of my life” and later Truman Capote moved into the same rosecoloured house and penned The Dogs Bark.
Leaving Taormina, Lawrence wrote: “Ah, dark garden with your olives and your wine, your medlars and mulberries and many almond trees, your steep terraces ledged high above the sea, I am leaving you, slinking out.” Our departure wasn’t quite as poetic, although it was with a real sense of having glimpsed something extraordinary.
Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea: www.belmond.com/villa-sant-andrea-taormina-mare
Grand Hotel Timeo: www.belmond.com/grand-hotel-timeo-taormina
Easyjet to Catania from Gatwick and Luton: www.easyjet.com
Viccolo Stretto: www.vicolostrettotaormina.it