I am sitting on the balcony of the Grand Hotel Timeo eating almond-flavored granita (a kind of Italian sherbet) for breakfast and thinking about Lady Chatterley.
More accurately, I am thinking about the real-life inspiration for Lady Chatterley — an upper-class Englishwoman who had come to Taormina and carried on a steamy (think R-rated behavior in an olive grove) affair with a Sicilian farmer. Part of the reason I am thinking about this uninhibited British woman is that D.H. Lawrence wrote part of his frequently banned novel while staying at this very hotel. Another is that eating granita for breakfast feels precisely like something the woman behind Lady Chatterley would have done.
Apparently, Lady Chatterley's inspiration wasn't the only foreigner to indulge herself in Taormina. The German writer Goethe might have been responsible for putting this coastal Sicilian town on the itinerary of wanderlust-y northern Europeans in the 18th century, but it was expat artists and writers, such as Lawrence and his muse, who flocked here in the early 1900s who were responsible for transforming Taormina into (as the writer Harold Acton put it) "a polite synonym for Sodom."
Which more or less explains the granita for breakfast and the posh hotel. I do not usually eat something so close to ice cream for breakfast or stay in hotels that have "Grand" in their name. There's just something about all the clear blue light, about the rocky hillsides sloping down into the even bluer Mediterranean, about Taormina in general, that compels you to indulge yourself. That's my plan for the next few days.
Beginning with breakfast. It doesn't technically count as an indulgence, because in Taormina a bowl of icy granita accompanied by a still-warm, butter-scented brioche is considered a traditional breakfast, although having it served to you on a balcony with a perfect view of a curved coastline and a purple-tinted volcano might be veering into the indulgent category. Still, as fabulous as this setting is, the true iconic view of Taormina is from the ruins of the Greek Theater just above my hotel, so after I have eaten every last sweet, ice-crunchy morsel of granita, I decide to indulge myself by walking up there to see it.
The Greeks originally built this open-air amphitheater in the 3rd century BC. Five centuries later, the Romans covered the walls with brick and filled it with gladiators. These days, the entertainment is a little tamer — an annual film festival and a music series that features performers such as Tony Bennett and Michael Bolton. But most of the time, the Greek Theater is all about the view. Stand just right and you can see the blue, blue Mediterranean languidly stretching between the crumbling columns. Look to the west and you can't miss Mt. Etna, contemplating eruption.
Once I finished admiring the landscape, I stroll down the Corso Umberto, the main shopping street of Taormina. The shops are crammed with "Godfather" T-shirts (the movie was filmed in the nearby town of Savoca) and way too much Sicilian pottery. As I poke around in them, I am close to agreeing with Acton's revised opinion of Taormina, formed when he returned to the town after World War II and declared it "now quite as boring as Bournemouth."
Not being in the market for a T-shirt with Marlon Brando's picture on it, I detour off the Corso Umberto and wander down the narrow, stair-stepped streets to the Giardino Pubblico. This lush — and quirky — public garden was the creation of Lady Florence Trevelyan, who, in the 1880s, was invited to leave England after word got out about her dalliance with the future King Edward VII.
Besides her passion for about-to-be monarchs, Lady Trevelyan was also an avid botanist and ornithologist. Hence the garden's dovecote, parrots and exotic tropical plants. Lady Trevelyan also liked follies — that particularly English indulgence of filling a garden with odd buildings that have no actual purpose. The follies here are built of brick and lava rock, as well as ancient Greek and Roman stones and tree trunks — the kind of thing Robinson Crusoe would have constructed if he'd washed up in Taormina.
One of the best things about the Giardino Pubblico (also called on some signs the Villa Comunale) is that it is almost completely untouristed. This is where local Taorminans come to stroll along the sea front and let the bambini run wild in the tiny playground. I sit in the sun, listening to the throaty sound of the parrots, then walk back up the hill to Bam Bar. I have been told that this cafe, where every wall is painted with suns and Sicilian lemons, makes the best granita in all of Taormina, and I'm planning on some for lunch.
The next day, I head about three miles straight up from Taormina to the tiny hilltop town of Castelmola, known for its views and its vino alla mandorla, or almond wine. From the castle at the top of town, I get a 360-degree view that includes Mt. Etna, the pastel-colored villas of Taormina, and an almond and olive tree-covered mountainside.
After I've soaked it all up, I wind down the narrow streets, past restaurants with vertiginous terraces hanging off the cliffside, to Antico Caffe San Giorgio, at the edge of Castelmola's main piazza. Here I sit on the open-air terrace, listening to church bells and sipping a glass of almond wine, which is ice cold, slightly syrupy and tastes like the best cream soda I have ever had.
I top off my morning with a dip in the sea. As with the beaches in most Mediterranean towns, Taormina's are pebbly and small — especially the public one. Fortunately, the Timeo's sister property, the Villa Sant'Andrea, has its own private beach and a shuttle to take me there .
The original buildings of the Villa Sant'Andrea were built in the late 1800s as a private villa for Englishman Robert Trewhella. Although his conduct was hardly in the same scandal-rich category as that of Lady Trevelyan or Lady Chatterley's muse, there is some juicy gossip about his death. Both he and his wife died when they tumbled off a wall into the path of an oncoming train. Some say Trewhella fell in the attempt to save his wife. Others swear she pulled him down with her.
Either way, the pale yellow hotel that's been fashioned out of their former residence is lovely, and the Mediterranean lapping its beach is warm and ideal for floating. From a hotel lounge chair, I watch an eel fisherman poke around the large flat rocks with his sniggler (a kind of sea-going shepherd's crook). When he manages to snag a wriggling eel, he shouts in Sicilian up at the Villa Sant'Andrea balconies, just in case anybody missed it.
After my swim, I return to the Timeo for my Sensazioni di Sicilia (Sicilian Senses) spa treatment. The first thing I must do when I arrive at the hotel's Wellness Center is choose between anise salt or volcanic lava pumice for my foot bath. Then I am required to decide whether I'd like the handmade olive oil soap used for my body cleansing to be scented with sweet almond, aloe or prickly pear. And last, I must render a decision about the aroma of the oil for my full-body massage. Tangerine, lemon or orange flower? The brochure in my room describes this treatment as an "indulgent Sicilian wellness experience," and if anything, that's understating it. There is something seriously decadent about having somebody else wash your feet.
Limp and smelling like the Sicilian landscape, I wind up on the Timeo's Literary Terrace for a sunset cocktail. I begin with a Shakespeare (prosecco and watermelon), followed by an Etna Fire (vodka, vermouth, Campari and Tabasco). Between bites of fried zucchini blossoms, I sip the drinks and watch the sky change color above the Greek Theater. There is a soft breeze caressing my (tangerine-scented) skin, the trill of nightbirds calling to each other, and the buttery taste of flowers in my mouth. I am contemplating granita for dinner.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times