Messina, a busy port town 200km (124 miles) east Cefalù, is where the eastern coast starts, leading south. It is within sight of mainland Italy, with Calabria across the Strait of Messina. This is often the first place where visitors set foot on Sicily, boats ferrying cars and trains across the strut pull in and out of the harbor around the clock. The town’s modern appearance and wide boulevards are the outcome of extensive rebuilding after earthquakes (the last one, in 1908, killed 85.000 residents, two third of the population) and massive World War II bombings.
While most visitors hurry on to more atmospheric places, Messina rewards a short visit. The Duomo in the town centre is a felicitous and determined reconstruction of the church that Roger II erected in the 12th century. The 1908 earthquake leveled the chuch and it was rebuilt in the 1920s, and when a 1943 firebombing laid waste to these efforts, the city built the church once again. From the heights of the campanile comes a quarter hourly chime accompanied by a theatrical show of revolving planets, goddesses and beasts, one of them, the town’s symbolic lion, roars at noon. The 16th century Fontana di Orione in front of the Duomo has miraculously escaped the ravages that have befallen Messina, and so has the simple, 12th century church of the Annunziata die Catalani.
Via Garibaldi and its continuation, Via della Libertà, lead north about 2km, (1,5miles) through the centre of town to its highlights, the Museo Rrgionale. The major collection has works by Antonello da Messina, Sicily’s Renaissance master, including his St Gregory polyptych. Two of the most stunning works in the museum are by Caravaggio, the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Resurrection of Lazarus.
Sicily’s most famous resort clings to a hillside high above the sea and, surrounded by luxurious tropical gardens that bloom year round, with Mount Etna as a backdrop. Taormina also retains the charm of a small, medieval hilltown. Pastel colored palaces and churches and magnificent Greek Theatre are tucked away on narrow, often stepped streets. These charms are not current news. D. H. Lawrence took such a shine to Taormina that he stayed three years, from 1920 to 1923. Taormina is popular with vacationers from early spring to late autumn and seethes in mid-summer. The main activity is strolling the length of its pedestrianized, narrow main street, Corso Umberto, shopping and visiting the cafés and restaurants.
Visitors arriving by taxi or bus enter the city at Porta Messina, the northern entrance that is stroll from the cable car that carries visitors up from the beaches below. The Corso starts here, lined with many 15th century palazzi. One of them, the Palazzo Corvaja in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, houses the tourist office, and this arrangement makes it possible to catch a glimpsed of its ornamentation of black and white lava, the great hall where the Sicilian parliament met in 1410, and the elegant staircase in the courtyard.
The Teatro Greco and Giardino Pubblico
From Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, the Via Teatro Greco leads to Taormina’s beautiful Greek Theatre. Though the Romans more or less rebuilt the structure, it is typically Greek in its splendid location, carved into the hillside in such a way that Mount Etna and the sea provide a permanent backdrop. As no less an observer than Goethe once exhaled into his diaries. “Never did any audience, in any theatre, have before it such a spectacle”. The acoustic are excellent, and the theatre hosts a summer arts festival, Taormina Arte, which presents drama, cinema, ballet and music from June to October.
Via Bagnoli Croce leads downhill off the Corso to the Giardino Pubblico, where stands of cypress and cedar frame views of the sea. From the top of the town, a steep path climbs uphill to the ruins of the medieval castello and even higher to the little mountaintop village of CAstelmola perched on a limestone peak.
But stroll along the Corso. Enjoy the shopping or refreshments. The airy Piazza IX Aprile is filled with cage tables and open on one side to views of the sea and Mount Etna. Through the Torre dell’Orologio, a 12th century clock tower that straddles the Corso, you come to the Piazza del Duomo, where the crenellated, fortress like cathedral backs a splashing fountain. Further on you come to Porta Catania, the town’s exit.
Europe’s largest and most active volcano soars 3,323m (10,920ft) above the Sicilian coast. Fiery Mount Etna has long fascinated residents of Sicily and visitors to the island. Pindar and Pluto wrote about it, Empedocles jumped into its gaseous crater. D.H. Lawrence and legions of other noted observers have waxed poetic about it.
Sicilians keep a close eye on the volcano for good reason: molten lava flowed through Catania in 1669 and regularly plunges down the mountain towards the towns on its flanks. Eruptions occur on an almost annual basis, wreaking substantial damage on roads, houses and the tourism infrastructure on the flans of the mountain. The volcano was particularly active in 2012, erupting dramatically several times during the year, though posing no threat to human safety. When the volcano is erupting, admirers are allowed to venture no further than Randazzo, Nicolosi and other towns and resorts in the green foothills; many can be reached on the Circumetnea railway, which leaves from Catania and skirts the mountain’s lower flanks. Conditions permitting, Rifugio Sapienza is the base from which to make an ascent to the summit on foot or by cable car (www.funiviaetna.com) an Jeep.