She is tempestuous, unpredictable, and highly toxic. Yet, serene, admired, and revered.
I am of course referring to Mount Etna, the icon of the island of Sicily, the largest in the Mediterranean. Bellowing steam is her resting state, mostly. She is restless at the minute. Paroxysms, or eruptive episodes of lava fountains have been happening more often recently. The locals know what comes after she roars, lava flows and rain of black ash turns everything an ominous hue, until she settles again.
At her foot, perched precariously on an outcrop between the rocks and the sea, rests Taormina. A masterfully designed coastal town, 206 metres above sea level, shrouded in history so prolific you can reach out and touch the very amphitheatre that Greeks rejoiced in during the third century BC, or in more recent times, the blood splattered walls of Roman gladiatorial battles.
Taormina rose to fame when the G7 was held here in 2017. Allegedly, the American secret service asked the city to widen the street from the heliport to the venue as it was deemed too small for Trump’s motorcade. Request mercifully denied, what you experience today is originality at its finest, old mixed with new, the pearl of the Ionian Sea.
Navigating the steep cobbled streets from the coast is an adventure. Classic mopeds scurry past, bobbing and weaving through each chicane with ease. Alas, car drivers have a harder time, ensuring there is enough of a turning circle to maintain pristine paintwork is no mean feat.
They manage the task skilfully and before long you arrive at the gates. These are the historic town gates that signal cars are no longer welcome. Pedestrians prevail. That is of course unless you are staying at the Grand Hotel Timeo. Then permission is granted to leave guests at the door. Depositing you neatly by the wrought iron gates, up lit by Victorian streetlights, and draped in vibrant pink gardenia that guide you to the entrance.
Them and David
David is the doorman, super helpful with a hidden talent that would put Pavarotti to shame. If you time it right you can hear David sing, as he leans purposefully on the piano in the bar, a mood enhancer if ever there was one, no alcohol required. Not that your mood needs much enhancement here. When you step into the world of Belmond, nothing is too much, leave your troubles at the door and escape, far from the maddening crowd.
The hotel has its own intriguing tale. Local man Don Franceso la Foresta sold a large orange orchard and bought a derelict house. This derelict house. He restored it and opened it to occasional guests. Word soon spread and before long it had the ear of Richard Wagner, Oscar Wilde, and Andre Gide. All visited, all fans. In 1920, DH Lawrence moved in to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s came to stay and did not leave for two years. If that is not a resounding endorsement, I do not know what is.
Luxury abounds. Ornate rooms with golden headboards, mirrors, and lamps. Local artwork and curated furniture. Suites have a seating area, furnished with a writing desk, let the author in you shine. Bathrooms with a perfectly placed bath, beneath the wide shuttered windows overlooking the garden and the Bay of Naxos. Aqua di Parma toiletries, exclusively for Belmond are on hand. Tall white framed doors swing open onto a terrace, your terrace. Take a seat, gaze through the lush greenery and manicured treetops to the Mount, best to keep an eye on her.
History remains important to the hotel. The corridors are decked with maps of the island and pictures of Greek and Roman muses. Cast iron lamp shades, some resembling crowns, finish off the look, that, and bespoke tiled floors. Dark wood gives it a rich mysterious feel. Cream interiors add that perfect contrast and the greenery showcases the fertility of the island, black ash does have its uses.
Then there is the scent. The scent is memorising. Citrus and sunshine. The Aria di Sicilia perfumery supplies candles to the hotel. You can purchase these, joy in a glass bottle.
Literature is a theme that you cannot escape from, nor would you want to. The literary terrace is the perfect spot for relaxing and enjoying a cool glass of prosecco, an Etna Spritz or a warm sullen glass of red. Stare intently over the Bay of Taormina as the sun sets or a thunderstorm rolls in, one can never tell.
It was an inspiration for DH Lawrence and Tennessee Williams, join the greats and indulge.
Dinner is an event at Ristorante Timeo. Again, be prepared for swift changes, mainly the weather though, not the wonderful flavours, service, and knowledge of the staff. Thundery skies make for a spine-tingling extravaganza as you dine in what can only be described as one of the most beautiful windows to the world. If you are cold a pashmina will be provided.
Sit back and let the story unfurl. The sommelier will take you through each act with grace and understanding. Understanding of the lack of knowledge of Sicilian wines, or dare I say it, confusion with Italian ones. Luca, one of the waiters, has an integral role. He was born in Taormina. He ventured to Colombia and fell in love, bringing his chosen one back, revelling in the place he gets to call home. He delighted in explaining that the macaroni is based on a recipe perfected by his grandfather.
Deftly work your way through each course, sampling dishes such as fried squash blossoms with goats’ cheese, Pasta “alla Norma”, otherwise known as Luca’s grandfathers’ macaroni pasta with tomato sauce. Fried eggplant and salted ricotta cheese, rack of lamb glazed with mustard, artichokes, and Sicilian pecorino cheese. The finale is the Canolo Siciliano, this delicious pastry hails from the commune of Caltanissetta in central Sicily, now eaten across the island, unsurprisingly after nearly every meal.
Breakfast is served on the terrace, weighted silverware, freshly squeezed orange juice, homemade pancakes and if you wish another glass of prosecco, add orange if you chose, or not, live a little.
The grounds are a marvel, 6 acres of private parkland, terraced gardens, roses, and cypresses. The pool and surrounding area are a haven for relaxation. The pool is heated, perfect for taking that initial chill off the toes, Evian water sprays are available should the heat from the sun become too much.
If you fancy being by the sea, there is a private shuttle that will take you to the Belmond Timeo’s sister hotel, Belmond Villa S ‘Andrea where you can hire a luxury beach cabana and dip your toes in the unfortunately not heated water of the Bay.
The choice is yours
Ernest Hemingway described the island as being so pretty “it hurts to look” at it. Very true, and anyway, its best to keep an eye on her.
More information is available at: Grand Hotel Timeo, A Belmond Hotel | Luxury Hotel, Taormina, Sicily