If you’d asked me what I knew about Sicily before going there, I’d have mentioned two things: the mafia and Mount Etna. Both cast intriguing but dangerous shadows over the island. But after a long weekend in Taormina, I have a different picture – Baroque churches, narrow streets with flower-filled balconies and sun-dappled café terraces, and, if you look carefully, traces of a wave of British visitors who came to Taormina in the 19th century on their grand tours and never left, building elegant homes and gardens with a view of Etna’s snow-capped peak rising above the Ionian Sea.
The town of Taormina tumbles gracefully down a slope so steep that a cable car and a funicular have been built to connect the centre of the old town to the beach below. I spent two nights on the beach in the Villa Sant’Andrea and one night at the top of the hill in the Grand Hotel Timeo.
Both establishments are owned by Belmond, which specialises in recreating a gentler, grander age of tourism, recalling a time when people travelled by boat and train (it owns the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express). Checking into the hotel, I felt I should be travelling with a timber trunk and staying for a month. The Villa Sant’Andrea was built by a Cornish engineer called Robert Trewhella who came to Italy in the mid-19th century to build bridges and railways. He and his wife fell in love with the island and built the beachfront villa with its terraced gardens as their summer residence. Some of the original palm trees they planted on the terrace are still there, as are bits and pieces of the family furniture. Numerous extensions have been added on to the villa since it was turned into a hotel in the Fifties, giving it a higgledy-piggledy feel that doesn’t distract from its charm.
Film director Francis Ford Coppola stayed in the Villa Sant’Andrea while shooting The Godfather trilogy. He asked them to build a kitchenette off his suite so he could cook pasta for the cast and crew. Belmond now offers tours in a vintage Fiat 500 to two of the hilltop villages that served as film locations.
I was tempted, but I’m not great in small cars on winding roads. Instead, I opted for a trip to Catania starting with a visit to the fish market, which has been going since the 1600s. Apart from admiring some swordfish hanging like works of art from iron hooks, I nibbled on deep-fried squid in a brown paper cone and a delicious plate of fresh anchovies with olive oil, chilli and parsley.
The Catania tour included lunch inspired by another of my favourite films, Visconti’s The Leopard, in which Burt Lancaster plays a Sicilian aristocrat at the time of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily. Belmond hotel guests can request to eat a “Leopard menu” in a 19th-century mansion belonging to a grand Sicilian family who hire out part of their home for special events. The four-course lunch with local wines is based on what the nobility would have eaten before the revolution, with recipes sourced from cookbooks of the time. It takes days of preparation because complicated dishes, with numerous rich ingredients, were how they showed off their wealth. As we tucked into the Leopard timbale (ragout, pasta, peas and mushrooms encased in a sweet pastry) the chef informed us how it was set as a challenge on MasterChef Italia and none of the contestants managed to pull it off.
No trip to Taormina is complete without a visit to the Greek amphitheatre, probably built in the third century BC. Set high up on the hill facing Etna, it has the best backdrop of any theatre in the world, with the volcano perfectly framed centre stage. Goethe made it famous with travellers after stopping there on his grand tour in 1787. He was later followed by the German painter Otto Geleng, whose stunning watercolours caused people in the art world to wonder if such a magical place really existed. I recommend going at sunset or booking to see an opera or concert as the theatre is still very much in use.
My Sunday morning was spent walking around Isola Bella, a rocky outcrop next to the Villa Sant’Andrea connected to the beach by a narrow sandy path. In 1890 it was purchased by the Victorian botanist Florence Trevelyan, who built a garden with winding paths, follies and grottos in strange volcanic rock formations.
It’s now a national park but looks sadly neglected. Local legend has it that Trevelyan, having married a wealthy local, had an affair with one of her gardeners. Novelist D H Lawrence, who rented a villa in Taormina for five years, is said to have based Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the story.
Trevelyan’s other garden is now a lovely public park just underneath the Grand Hotel Timeo. As I wandered through on a late-afternoon walking tour, the guide whispered conspiratorially in my ear, “See that small house in the trees? It belonged to Lady Trevelyan’s gardener so we call it the House of Scandal”. Whether any of this is true is debatable. Portraits of the dour-looking Victorian grande dame would suggest otherwise.
Warming to his theme of scandalous Britons and their impact on Taormina, my guide suggested I pay a visit to Casa Cuseni, built by the British watercolourist Robert Kitson in 1904 for himself and his Sicilian male lover. The entrance is through a steep, overgrown garden with steps up to the villa. Arriving at the porticoed terrace I turned to admire the view of Mount Etna spewing huge plumes of smoke.
The villa is worth visiting for the dining room, which contains a fresco telling the story of how the couple (depicted in ancient Greek tunics) adopted a little boy orphaned in an earthquake and raised him as their son. When Kitson died in 1947, his niece Daphne Phelps, who inherited the villa, kept the dining room locked for decades. She even wrote a memoir called A House in Sicily without mentioning the fresco. Casa Cuseni is now a guesthouse and museum and there are guided tours at 11am every day.
When the British and Americans landed in Sicily in 1943, they had to dislodge the Wehrmacht. The Villa Sant’Andrea had been requisitioned by the Germans as an officers’ mess. In a delightful twist of fate, the British officer who “liberated” the villa was Major Ivor Manley, a son-in-law of the owners. Scratch the surface of Taormina and you find a treasure trove of stories. No wonder so many artists and writers have been drawn there.
How to do it
The nearest airport to Taormina is Catania, which is served by EasyJet (easyjet.com) with flights from Bristol, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester.
Kirsty Lang was a guest of the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo (0039 0942 627 0200; belmond.com/grandhoteltimeo) and Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea (0039 0942 627 1200; belmond.com/villasantandrea), which each offer double rooms from €600 per night.