Taormina’s streets are steep as staircases, and they are open alleys! They lead to things hidden by palm trees and bougainvillaea — pastel villas, tennis courts, antique shops, and cafés where the windows are swung open to the sea, and the lace curtains, as Lawrence Durrell wrote, “breathe softly in and out, like the lungs of the universe itself.” And the air is so perfumed you want to follow it around.
In the summer, it’s packed with people. They come to water-ski the Mediterranean, or drink Camparis at the Greek Theatre, in the same subterranean room (now a bar) where gladiators once waited to fight wild beasts. In the fall, when the people leave, the sunny weather stays behind. That’s when you can really wander the San Domenico, and feel you’re walking, quiet as a monk, back in time.
To wander the countryside of Sicily — in an indigenously madcap way — rent a Fiat. Immediately out of Taormina, the view changes. You’ll pass crumbling villas, olive groves, cactus plantations, and wrought-iron gates that lead, elegantly, to uninhabited land. The towns are difficult to find and fortresslike. Some are clay red, others white as old Athens or, near Mount Etna, volcanic ash-gray. Etna’s towns, they say, are an example of Sicilian diplomacy. Over and over, they attempt peace with a volcano.
Others have attempted more than peace. Plato climbed Mount Etna; the Greek philosopher Empedocles lived among its craters; and at one time there were monasteries on its slopes (called “hotbeds of holiness”), where the power of prayer was tested against the power of nature. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, travelers, many from England, took to climbing Etna. Theirs was a journey, not a hiking trip, to a place with scenery straight out of ancient woods, black lava fields (like walking on burnt toast), and smoking craters. But the worst part was the weather. Mist chased and circled climbers; hail flew rather than fell. Though today there are chairlifts, observatories, even restaurants, on Etna, climbing to the top remains mythological.
Sicily was invaded by the Greeks twenty-eight centuries ago, and later by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans, and Spaniards. This is why Sicily has such an amazing assortment of architecture. In Palermo, on the western coast, simple wooden mosques are within walking distance of wildly baroque cathedrals. In Agrigento, there are Greek temples, built to the gods in 5 B.C. and still partially standing, in all their giant simplicity, by the sea.
However, much of Sicily’s ancient architecture has been buried — by time, or lava, or the Saharan dust that blows in overnight. To Goethe, Sicilian ground “undulated like waves over hidden ruins.” Every parking lot, every wheat field, is suspect. Outside a town called Piazza Armerina, about a hundred miles from Taormina, in what appeared to be an everyday forest, archaeologists once unearthed an ancient Roman villa. Buried in the ground were long colonnaded hallways, fancy fountains, and room after room paved in marble mosaics.
The mosaics tell stories: in one room, there’s a hunting scene with men sitting around campfires, their horses tied to trees and the moon full; in another, children ride chariots drawn by pheasant and peacocks. Down the hall, a row of women pose in third-century bathing suits remarkably like the twentieth-century bikini. In fact, many things about this lodge resemble the twentieth century. Around campfires, in bikinis — what, after all, has really changed?