Destination: Italy: Sicily
Just Back From...Taormina
It’s day two of my trip to Taormina, on the Sicilian coast, and already I have savored 12 kinds of local seafood. There was the spigola (branzino), first as carpaccio, then baked with a crust of pistachios and fresh thyme; tiny, tender prawns with cantaloupe; mussels gratin; swordfish steaks with a delicate carrot and parsnip puree; unctuous raw sea urchins; thin strips of smoked tuna; sardines, served raw with sliced fennel, then roasted with cherry tomatoes; and of course spaghetti di mare, with clams, octopus, calamari, king prawns, crayfish and plenty of garlic. (I am with a group of six and when we walk into a restaurant, we just ask the waiter to bring us whatever he recommends, then we share everything.) For the most part, preparations are simple. Serena Malleo, a native Sicilian, tells me of her favorite trattoria just off the Mondelo beach near Palermo. Called da Calogero, for years it centered on a stove and a marble counter; the owner boiled fresh-caught octopus to order, chopped it up on the counter, and you ate it right there with just a squeeze of lemon.
There is an incredible natural abundance on this island, and it seems like everything tastes of the sea or the sun, be it the honey, wine, lemons, tomatoes, eggplants or olives, all of which thrive in the rich volcanic soil near Mt. Etna. Sicilians love to point out that they have been invaded by nearly every nearby country at one time or another (the Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, French), but each left behind a culinary legacy of new spices, vegetables, and preparations. The Greeks planted the first vineyards around 600 BC. The Arabs used to mix the snow from Mt. Etna with lemon juice to make a refreshing drink, now called a granita and considered a local specialty (it’s basically a frozen lemonade). They also introduced the eggplant. Today, caponata is an essential dish on any Sicilian menu (the one at the Grand Hotel Timeo is the best I have tasted anywhere).
Taormina is located in northeastern Sicily, so close to the toe of the mainland’s boot that you can see shore to shore. From rocky coves and wide, pebbly beaches, the land rises sharply to a series of hilltops with magnificent views that recall the Amalfi Coast. The highest point is Castelmola, an ancient citadel crowned by a heavily fortified castle. Atop a neighboring summit is the ancient Greek Theater, a stunning ruin that now hosts concerts and the Taormina Film Fest, held each June. From the entrance of the Greek Theater, a stone street leads into the pedestrian-only historic center of town, which is lined with shops, cafés and gelato stands, and bustling at all hours. (It’s better for people watching than actual shopping, as the shops are mostly geared to tourists.)
Despite these draws, until this year, Taormina’s hotel options were not as polished as those on the nearby Amalfi Coast. There are a few classics, such as the San Domenico Palace, a former 14th-century convent, but most are in need of refurbishment. (In part, this is due to the difficulty in getting permits to modify historic structures.) Then, in early 2010, Orient-Express purchased the hilltop Grand Hotel Timeo and the beachside Villa Sant’ Andrea, poured $15 million into renovations, and reopened in time for the summer season. I stayed at both, and they make a wonderful combination and a great base for exploring Siracusa (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Mt. Etna.
Situated adjacent to the Greek Theater, the Grand Hotel Timeo was built in the Belle Epoque when Sicily was a chic winter destination for Europeans from the mainland, artists and writers. It is terraced into the hillside, with gardens of bougainvillea, olive and cypress trees. My favorite spot was the expansive terrace, with views of the terracotta roofs and stone churches of town to the west, the Bay of Naxos to the east and Mt. Etna simmering in the distance. At night, the town lights twinkle. Down below on a small stretch of private beach is the more casual Sant’ Andrea, which used to be (and still feels like) a private villa. You can swim in the sea and you hear the roar of the surf from your room.
As I write, it is late September and the weather is gorgeous (sunny and warm enough to swim), the hotels are still full, but the crowds have thinned a bit in the surrounding towns. Coming from New York, it feels like experiencing the last vestiges of summer. You do not come here to shop (at most, you might return with some local honey, sea salt, or olive oil) or to go to museums. You come here to see ruins, eat a three-hour lunch under an arbor of grapevines, drink local rose on a terrace with a breathtaking view, and wander around beautifully preserved medieval hill towns. And to eat fresh seafood. In abundance.
Read our destination report on the Amalfi Coast
Read our destination report on Capri
Read our destination report on Santorini
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