There is more to Taormina than what you can see at street level. Look up and there are lots of very pretty balconies to see, often decorated with flowers, or the majolica pots shaped like heads, which are a local speciality.
The Odeon is a small Roman theatre, dating from the first century AD. It was discovered in 1892.
Part of the site is covered by the church of St Catarina, but the visible part of the ruins can be visited free of charge. The site is open from 9.00 a.m. until sunset.
You have the choice of either walking up to Castelmola or taking the local bus. In the summer heat, I would recommend the bus (just under 3 Euro for a return ticket in summer 2012).
Once you reach Castelmola you can admire the views over the bay, and sample the local speciality of almond wine (very sweet for me, but I'm sure it makes wonderful trifle!)
The beach at Taormina is quite small and rocky. It's not the place to go for solitude and wide expanses of sand.
On the plus side, it is also very picturesque, and being in Italy, it is extremely well-run with various lidos offering sun lounger and pedalo hire, showers and WCs, snack bars and restaurants. This suits me fine, as I just like to go there to eat some nice seafood whilst looking at the sea, but it's not really the place to go if you are a real beach lover.
At the base of the massive rock that Taormina sits on is the coast of Sicily and the small town of Giardini Naxos. Our first couple days in Sicily were based out of Giardini Naxos located along the coast between Catania and Messina. It was from here that we made our day trips to Mount Etna and Taormina. We enjoyed beautiful sunrises and stunning views of Mount Etna from the town.
Giardini Naxos was founded in 734 BC (yes, BC) by Theocles of Naxos and was the first Greek colony on Sicily. It was destroyed in 403 BC by Dionysius of Syracuse who was afraid of revolt. But the location of the town was a draw in the Middle Ages for fishermen, which still are out in their boats each morning. Giardini Naxos would later become a fashionable resort (in the 1900s), paired with its high dwelling neighbor, Taormina.
Today, visitors can relax on the beach and enjoy the views. We were there at the end of November and it was very peaceful – although our hotel assured us that the summers are rather crowded. I think I like November the best!
For more details about Giardini Naxos, visit my weekend in Giardini Naxos page.
“Never did any audience, in any theatre, have before it such a spectacle.” ~Goethe, 1787, on a visit to Taormina’s Greek Theatre
The showpiece of Taormina is the Greek theatre the overlooks the sea and provides stunning views of Mount Etna (when the clouds aren’t obscuring the volcano). This was the site I was most anxious to visit while in Taormina.
It is called the Greek theatre because it was originally built during the Hellenistic age (4th century BC). Over time, it would decay but then would be rebuilt by the Romans some 500 years after the Greeks built it; the Romans rebuilt the theatre in 2nd century AD). It is the second largest ancient theatre on the island of Sicily, with the one in Syracuse being bigger. The plan and arrangement of the theatre is in the Greek style, but the stone work is Roman. No matter what – consider how they built this so high up on this rock!
The theatre is located at the end of the street Via Teatro Greco. There are signs that lead you there and, as expected of a tourist attraction, the road is lined with shops where you can buy anything from beautiful handmade ceramics to cheesy plastic knick-knacks to collect your dust in.
At the end of the street is the ticket booth where we paid our €8/per person to enter the theater. Near the ticket booth is a sign with a map of the theater. You will want to look at this because that is just about the only signage that you will see. We had brought along my favorite guidebook for art and architecture, The Blue Guide – Sicily so we used that to learn about what we were seeing.
Note: The site is not designed for those that have difficulty walking or climbing. The ground is rough and to really appreciate the theatre and its views, you need to be able to climb up the rocky steps.
You enter the theatre and arrive at the stage area, looking out at the seating. It is said that this theatre had near perfect acoustics, making it easy for the actors to be heard from the stage area anywhere in the theatre – a plus since this was before electricity and microphones. In its heyday, the theatre would seat 5,000 people. The venue is still used for occasional performances today.
There are still some of the Corinthian columns that remain from the Greek era and at the top and back of the seating you can see the wall with niches where statues would have been placed.
We made our way up to the top of the theatre where you can walk to an overlook of the Ionian Sea for some spectacular views. Then we wandered back to the theatre and sat in the stone seats – not very comfortable – and looked down on the stage area and up towards Mount Etna. We wondered what it would’ve been like 2300 years ago to watch a play in this theatre.
While the price was steep given that there was so little descriptive material on the site, I think it was well worth a visit to the Greek theatre.
Open daily from 0900 to 1 hour before sunset.
In the Piazza del Duomo, across from the façade of the cathedral, is the interesting fountain that has become a symbol of Taormina. The top of the fountain has a unique creature that looks like a cross between an angel and a bull. While this is most likely a Baroque piece of art, some believe it to have been found in the Greek Theatre ruins. Around the sides of the fountain are horse-like creatures with serpent tails that spew water from their mouths. The fountain dates back to 1635.
Well, it wouldn’t be a trip to Italy without tasting the gelato! After visiting the Greek Theatre, we made our way back down Corso Umberto I and stopped at a gelato shop that had seats outside. Hubby got a double of some chocolaty deliciousness and we settled down outside to enjoy. As it happened, beside us were a family with two cute little girls and we struck up a conversation. We enjoyed about 30 minutes at the gelato shop before it was time to move on.
Gelato comes in so many flavors that there is something for everyone; although Hubby usually favors the chocolate ones. Gelato prices can vary but overall seem inexpensive for what you get.
Standing as a backdrop to Taormina is the ever present and looming volcano, Mount Etna. It is an easy day-trip from Taormina for those that wish to get a better look at Etna.
Parco dell’Etna was a must-see stop for us on our holiday in Sicily. Mount Etna is Europe’s highest volcano and one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The park encompasses more than 59,000 hectares and should not be missed when traveling to Sicily.
We spent the day touring the north side and the south side of Etna. We drove from our hotel to the northern Piano Provenzano where we saw the most recent lava fields from the 2002 eruption. Later we would drive around Etna to the southern side to have a look at one of the craters from 1892 and explore around it.
The vegetation on Etna changes with elevation and depending on the side you are on. The northern side had more trees – and different types than the southern side. As you went higher up, you were sometimes in the clouds that move quickly near the summit. The temperature drops the higher you go. The winds pick up. It is a different world altogether at the top than it is at sea level.
There is something for just about everyone at Parco dell’Etna. For the adventurist, there are excursions and hikes designed for those fit enough to endure them. For those unable or unwilling to indulge in that kind of fun, there are things to see that don’t require the level of exertion as some of the long trails. If you are interested in flora and fauna, there is a variety of new types on the slopes of Etna. Photographers will relish the various views and angles one can get at the different levels. Children will enjoy running up the slopes and playing on the hardened lava fields.
Enjoy Etna – but be careful to remember that this is nature in progress. Some areas are strictly off limits for safety reasons – be sure to adhere to these warnings. Be careful with the new vegetation and allow nature to take back what the lava took away.
However you get to Etna and whatever you do while on Etna, you will bring back memories of a wonderful experience.
For more details about visiting Mount Etna, visit my weekend at Mount Etna page.
As you are walking along the main street of Taormina, Corso Umberto, the path will lead you under a 12th century tower. This beautiful clock tower was built with stones cut by the Greeks (most likely culled from the theatre). Inside the arch of the tower where pedestrians walk is a beautiful Byzantine looking mosaic of the Madonna.
If you are walking west-east from the Porta Catania, you will exit the clock tower at the Piazza IX Aprile, which provides spectacular views of the Ionian Sea and the Sicilian coast. On your left as you exit the tower is the café Wunderbar, a favorite hang-out of Winston Churchill.
Taormina’s cathedral is located near the Porta Catania on the west side of the city. The Duomo was founded in the 13th century, although later additions in the 15th and 16th centuries have added two side portals. The stone façade of the cathedral faces the Piazza del Duomo and the city fountain. The façade has a portal from the 1600s and a rose window.
We entered from the side portal that runs along Corso Umberto. The nave has six massive pink marble columns, a wooden ceiling, and a number of altars, paintings, and sculptures of Mary around the sides of the nave, none of which were created by significant artists but still worth a visit to see. Some of the pieces have descriptive signs in both Italian and English.
The cathedral is free to enter and the doors were wide open. Please remember that this is a place of worship and, especially in Italy, you are expected to dress appropriately (no bare shoulders, midriff, or short shorts). Photography was allowed but please be mindful of anyone there to pray so you don’t disturb them.
We stopped by Santa Catarina on our way back from the Greek Theatre as it is located right at the crossroads. This 17th century church’s most interesting feature is its foundations that date back to the Hellenistic period (circa 300 BC). The floor has been cut open so that visitors can see these ancient foundations. Otherwise, the church has a panel painting by Taormina artist Jacopo Vignerio of the Martydom of St. Catherine, which is in really bad shape. Behind the church are the remains of a Roman theatre, the Odeon or Teatrino Romano.
Not to be confused with the very large and impressive Greek Theatre rebuilt by the Romans down the road, the Teatrino Romano is the ruins of a very small Roman Theatre, the Odeon, found behind Santa Catarina Church. To get to the ruins, simply walk around the right side of the church from the façade and head up the street. There is an opening in the fence and you can enter the ruins.
The ruins were built in the 1st century AD using parts of the earlier Hellenistic structure of Santa Catarina Church. When it was being used, the theatre could hold up to 200 people. Nearby excavations have found Roman baths and parts of the forum.
My guide book said Taormina has one of the narrowest streets in Italy; so we set about to find it. Actually, we walked right past the street and had to turn back. It looked more like a staircase than a street, but sure enough, there it was. You can walk up this very narrow street, Vicolo Stretto, which is only 52 cm (20 ½ inches) wide. It can be found between No. 133 and 135 on the Corso Umberto.
Taormina's Greco-Roman theatre, which dates from the third century BC is the second largest largest Greek theatre in Sicily, after Siracusa.
Architectural purists may be concerned about the Roman alterations to the original Greek building, but for the majority of visitors what matters is the fantastic setting with views of Mount Etna.
It is still occasionally used for concerts. Note that during these periods, parts of the structure may be partly obscured by the staging, as it was on my most recent visit.
Admission costs 8 Euro, with a reduction for teachers from anywhere in the EU (but not social workers, as the lady in front of me in the queue discovered).
Unlike tourist attractions in the UK, the gift shop is not right by the exit, but at the top.
There is also a small (air-conditioned) epigraphic exhibition in an adjoining room, displaying items found locally, including public accounts found in the area where the public gardens now are, which was probably the site of a public building. The accounts were inscribed on the walls of public buildings so that they could be read by all citizens. Those displayed here were the accounts of hieromnamones, priests of magistrates responsible for the revenue of the sanctuaries; sitophylakes, responsible for the supply of corn and other foodstuffs; city treasurers and officers in charge of the purchase of foodstuffs.
These inscriptions have enabled the months of the calendar of Taormina to be reconstructed: Artemisios, Dionysios, Hellokios (?); Damatrios, Panamos; Apellaios, Itonios, Karneios, Lanotropios, Apollonios, Dyodekatios, Eukleios.