The term “tourist trap” gets used a lot, including by this blogger. But not all tourist traps are equal. Some places simply attract swarms of tourists, with little to offer aesthetically or culturally. For example, you’re not going to see many coffee table photography books of Wisconsin Dells – the town, anyway, as opposed to the natural bluffs along the river nearby. It’s just not a pretty town. And yet, every summer, throngs of tourists pack its streets, ready to ride water slides, gamble at casinos, and buy tacky t-shirts or “Native American” knick knacks. It’s a fun entertainment destination, but judging by the universal standards of beauty you and I both know exist, it’s ugly.
Other tourist traps are so because they’re beautiful. You know going in you’re going to be tolerating other tourists, but it’s worth it because visually the place will be stunning. Yellowstone is like that, and though I’ve never been there, I’m sure parts of New Zealand are too. And in eastern Sicily, Taormina is like that. When you walk around there, you feel as touristy as a fanny-packing father at Disney World. But because Taormina is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, you’re okay with it. Everybody is.
Our first stop after dropping off our bags at Mamma Maria B&B was the Villa Comunale, a free public garden at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Ionian Sea. Quite simply, Villa Comunale looks like a slice of heaven, if you’re like me and believe that heaven has volcanic islands and cannoli.
Within the gardens, which also border some charming (but private) tennis courts, you’ll find plenty of birds of paradise, like those seen here.
Neatly trimmed hedges surround fountains and birdbaths, while animals sculpted from plants trot nearby (or appear to).
But earthly delights aren’t all that you’ll find in Taormina. This being Sicily, there’s plenty of man-made beauty to take in. The town itself is a great work of medieval art, with narrow side streets to get lost on and main drags lined with historic churches, gelaterias, and high-end stores to keep you busy. Tourists are everywhere, and Taormina can feel more like a Riviera hotspot than a hilltop burg in Sicily. But you don’t have to blow your money on leather and sunglasses to have a good time here.
Naturally, you’ll find plenty of great food in Taormina, especially desserts. One of the most interesting is marzipan, the almond-based confection made to look like just about every kind of food you can think of: fruits, vegetables, cheeseburgers, etc. I don’t really enjoy eating it, but it’s interesting to look at the displays in the stores. (We see plenty of this back on Court Street in Brooklyn, too.)
We moved from devilish confectionery art to something God-inspired, at the Church of San Giuseppe, in Taormina’s stunning main square.
San Giuseppe is a baroque-style church dating to the 1600s. If you really want to see some history, make your way to Teatro Greco, the Greek Theater, built in the 7th Century B.C. Amazingly well-preserved and still in use today, the theater has a 120-meter (394 foot) diameter, making it the second-largest Greek theater in Sicily after Syracuse’s. And today as in Greek times, any show in the theater better be entertaining, because it’s constantly competing with powerful Mt. Etna in the background.
Etna has played its own role in the theater of history. An eruption in 396 B.C. was enough to make the Carthaginians reconsider their invasion plans, and in 122 B.C. it destroyed nearby Catania, prompting the Romans to give Catanians a 10-year tax holiday while they rebuilt. Other devastating eruptions have occurred in 1669 and 1928. In October of this year, another phase of low level “Strombolian” explosions was reported. But even while dormant, if that’s the right word for something constantly belching smoke and ash, Etna dominates the landscape (and no doubt the psyches) of Taormina and eastern Sicily. Here it is again from our guesthouse balcony, where we awoke that morning to a fresh dusting of black ash on the floor.
Moving back to man from nature again, another brilliant piece of architecture is the Taormina-Giardini train station, situated at sea level far below Taormina proper. Built in 1928, it’s a triumph of wrought iron trim, marble floors, and beautiful frescoes, inside and out.
The station house was designed by architect Robert Narducci and decorated by painter Salvatore Palmero Gregoretti in the Art Nouveau style, with an obvious nod toward Sicily’s Arab-Norman past. But there’s a little more to the story than that. In feudal times, a castle called San Martino was built near here by the Marquis of Spuches, and passed down through various aristocratic families through the years. But it wasn’t just a nice place to live; San Martino’s occupants also controlled water and road access to the area. Apparently obsolete by 1913, it was demolished (with certain treasures within salvaged and moved elsewhere). With the expansion of Taormina’s train station (opened in 1867), Narducci and Gregoretti decided on an homage, of sorts, to the town’s former commercial gatekeeper. Narducci in particular incorporated two large towers, battlements, and arched windows which mimicked Castello San Martino.
With that, we said “Ciao” to Sicily, and boarded the train to Palermo. Below is a photo from the interior of the train, which we practically had to ourselves. It was modern, clean, and comfortable, as you can tell from the seating and design. In fact all of the trains we took in Italy were fantastic, and reminded me (as if I needed to be reminded) how sorely terrible and inefficient Amtrak is. (Maybe that’s why Italy’s economy is in the toilet?)
Train interiors are nice and all, but the real views were outside, in Sicily’s pastoral center. Our journey cut through Sicily’s northern third, and we relaxed and took in scenery for a good three hours under the late afternoon sun. My favorite trips are the ones that vacillate between natural and man-made beauty, and I’m obviously not alone. That’s what makes a place like Taormina such a great tourist trap.