We were advised to avoid Taormina and – to not miss it; it would be spectacular, we were told, but crowded; awash with tourists but with a Teatro Greco [which is actually Roman but never mind] not to be missed. We decided to take a look but side-step, if it were possible, what makes Taormina famous and Mission Control managed this with huge success; the Hotel Villa Belvedere is outside the main centre on Via Bagnoli Croce and tucked away beside the peaceful and shady public gardens, so it allows guests to avoid both people and traffic but still enjoy the precipitous views. Driving up to find the hotel meant going through the town and then looping back on narrow, one-way streets. Murderous drivers made that a hair-raising and uncomfortable experience but the streets – all polished, ancient stone and secret stairways – had plenty of character. They were also filled with a slow-moving and apparently aimless mass of humanity that ebbed and flowed from alley to parapet. Neither of us was quite prepared for the shock and immediately regretted our decision to visit. Taormina’s capitulation to the tourist is quite awful and, I thought, a little sad but the hotel rescued us. Villa Belvedere was actually about as good as it could get and, if we were ever to visit the town again – most unlikely – it would be the only place to stay. It’s small
and has an intimacy that makes staying there very personal. The attitude of the staff was immense whether it was just gossiping or volunteering tips and advice that helped us navigate the multitudes in our own way – it exuded what you might call good, old-fashioned service. This sounds like a promotional brochure but the point is no sane person could stay in Taormina without a bolt-hole of some kind. The hotel was ours but even so, it did cater for groups so despite breakfast being more sumptuous than the Italian tradition of coffee and cornetto there was an air of ‘Cruise Mediterranea’ about it. The cappuccino was superb even if we were surrounded by American accents and elastic-waisted leisure suits.
The centre of Taormina is wholly given over to tourism. It has form, after all, and was on the grand tour in the 1800s when visitors came to escape the winter in northern Europe. Cheap air travel in the 1970s brought changes and the season now runs from spring to autumn. We were supposedly ‘out of season’ and were led to believe that it was quieter than at other times and if that’s the case then heaven help it. It was full enough for me and although there is clearly a certain quaintness to the winding paths and hazy vistas Taormina, at least in the centre of town, has long-ago sold its soul. We did find some little alleys and rows of private gardens that conjured-up visions of al fresco lunches and DH Lawrence in the shade of lemon trees but then we’d suddenly be confronted with a baying throng looking for souvenirs, pizza and cheap ice cream. I’ve read some awful tales of cruise ships unloading hundreds of visitors at a time and a local resident told me how shops will lurch from having more people than they can handle to closing in winter because they can’t afford the electricity bill.
The spectacular location does provide a few photo-ops and it’s easy to see why figures from the arts and the world of literature have waxed lyrical about Taormina down the years. The hotel concierge advised us to be first into the Teatro Greco in the morning as it would be least crowded and cooler than later in the day and so it proved. That didn’t prevent us from being hustled by street traders along the way, probably because it was a new day and the strength-sapping efforts of turning a tourist buck hadn’t then taken its toll. The dilemma now, of course, is that its economy is a monoculture, demanding ever increasing numbers of visitors and the more people that visit the less pleasant it becomes. Even the shoulder-to-shoulder perambulators are exploited; brochures list ‘people watching’ as a visitor activity, which says more or less all you need to know about the place.
We were tipped in England to have dinner at L’Arco dei Cappuccini where the food was very good and the chatty staff entertaining – try googling it. But our experience was mixed and didn’t rank with the rave reviews that this highly-recommended restaurant usually receives. I ate marinated baby shrimp to start and it was simple and superb but the scorpion fish [scorfano] that followed and which was a recommendation from the waiter was, although good, very overpriced; Mission Control had tuna carpaccio, also excellent but her swordfish [spada] cooked with wild fennel arrived as a thin pasta sauce with little actual fish in it although she had ordered it grilled. At that point the staff had disappeared so trying to get it changed would have dislocated the meal completely. We had waited something over an hour between courses and acquiesced only because we could take time to enjoy the excellent vino rosso from Etna. Diners on adjacent tables were far less patient and there were a lot of frayed tempers and raised Sicilian voices by the time the evening drew to a close. Of course, charming waiters and the ambiance of a balmy evening in ancient surroundings make for a memorable occasion but if you’re not local and not a regular when something goes awry, as it clearly did on this occasion, you become very aware very fast that you’re just another tourist.
When we travel we tend to follow the mantra of keeping things simple and trying to stay within the limits of what can be screwed-up least; it’s saved us from disappointment many a time. So we stayed out of town, swam off the shingle beach below – which has wonderfully clear water but is crippling if you walk on it – and enjoyed a very passable lunch at Mendolia Beach. With Isola Bella shimmering before us Mission Control got her grilled spada and for a lot less than they were asking further up the hill, too.
Taormina must have been wonderful before the masses descended and when it embraced DH Lawrence as he wrote The Lost Girl. Well, we can say that we’ve seen it and if I need to know anything more I’ll read Truman Capote’s Fontana Vecchia and imagine myself back in the heat and elevated views across the Straits to Calabria. I was very glad to have Taormina behind me even if it meant having to deal with Messina and its traffic.