Taormina, Part I (Sicily)

Taormina, Part I (Sicily)

This was, by far, my most favorite part of the trip and the city I’d visit again.

Our arrival was a little rocky initially because our shuttle driver took us to the wrong hotel at first. When we arrived at the hotel where we DID have a reservation, we discovered it to be a gorgeous hotel, The San Domenico Palace, a 15th (16th?) century monastery-turned-luxury-hotel. And my, was it luxurious. You can see from the pictures itself– there were garden courtyards  at every turn (picked some delish kumquats in some of them…), old stone steps, luxurious rugs, statues and antique wood furniture, and seemingly endless hallways lined with doors where monks would retire for solitude or sleep. The pool was gorgeous, as was the outdoor garden, the sea view from our room was amazing to wake up to every morning, the bathroom was uniquely decorated, the breakfast buffet was delish, and service was impeccable. SDP certainly lives up to its 5-star rating, except for the fact that it had poor air conditioning and limited WiFi, two really basic and expected American commodities, but I guess “you win some, you lose some,” right? And despite those two things, this was my favorite hotel by far.

The SDP was a personal mansion owned by a Dominican friar named Damiano Rosso, a descendant of the Altavilla family and prince of Cerami. When he became a friar, he donated all his possessions to the Dominican order and the mansion was converted into a Dominican monastery. A few centuries later, the monastery was apparently returned to Rosso’s heirs, who converted it into a hotel. The chapel part of the monastery-hotel was destroyed in WWII bombings, but the rest of the hotel, including the 50+ cells (hotel rooms) were not. The hotel is high atop a cliff and has a view of Mt Etna (next post).
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Our first day in Taormina, we spent with a tour guide named Marcello, who was fantastic at his job. We learned a lot about Taormina from him, and he didn’t mind our incessant questions (I think what was supposed to be a two-hour tour turned into a 2.5-3h tour!).

One of our first stops was the town square, of course, where we saw the “minotaur” statue atop the fountain. The minotaur is Taormina’s coat-of-arms, but the reason why it’s “minotaur” with quotation marks is because the statue is half horse (/bull), half woman, which has never been shown before in any records of Greek mythology. It is unknown why a female minotaur is depicted here, but what makes this statue and even more unique is that she only has two hind legs, despite her body position of standing on four. Taormina was hit with bombs during WWII and miraculously, the female minotaur atop the fountain survived but lost her two front legs. Her two front legs were left unfixed and missing in memorial of Taorminian lives lost during that bombing.
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We then walked over to see the ruins of the Greek theater in Taormina. I never thought much about these theater/amphitheater ruins when I’d seen them on TV or read about them in history books, but in person, they are quite an impressive sight. The one in Taormina is the second-largest one in Sicily and was originally built by the Greeks (and rebuilt by the Romans when they came), but Marcello was careful to note that this was a theater and not an amphitheater–the Greeks mainly used the semi-circular theater style for operas and plays, building specialty arches behind the audience for improved acoustics. The Romans used amphitheaters for chariot races, gladiator fights, animal fights, and executions, and the Roman amphitheaters are more circular/oval. The theater was well thought out; it has side hallways for actors to enter and rooms for them to get ready in, and it also has an orchestra chamber allowing musicians to contribute emotion to the plays. When the Romans came, they converted this theater meant for plays and operas into a fighting ring, bringing in exotic animals to fight brave (but stupid) people. Marcello explained that they know this because the Romans had dug out a chamber and a drainage trench (underneath and behind the stage, respectively) for disposing for animal carcass/blood/guts, and archaeologists have found animal bones in those areas.
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While walking the streets, I noticed this three-legged, body-less head symbol everywhere. Marcello explained that the trinacria is the symbol of Sicily. Sicily has a lot of Greek and Roman influences because it was under their rule for a long period of time. Sicily has a very complicated history, and what makes it interesting, I think, is that Sicily has been taken over and ruled by numerous countries, and it wasn’t a part of Italy until the early 1860s. In short, the Sicani were the first settlers in Sicily, then the Greek settled north and southeast regions, from Messina to Syracusa, and the Carthaginians (Phoenicians) settled the west, and then the Romans came and conquered and killed (as they are known to do), then Muslims came and took control awhile, then Normans (crusaders of the pope), Bourbons (Spanish), then French (?), then somewhere along the lines, Sicily became part of the Neapolitan, then part of Italy after WWII/Italy Unification.

So, back to its flag: the head in the middle was originally the Greek goddess of wheat (what Sicily is known for), Demeter (Roman: Ceres). Now, the head has snakes surrounding it, more akin to Medusa. It’s unclear why a Medusa is on the flag, but perhaps her appearance and history of turning enemies into stone was used as an intimidation tactic, seeing as how war-prone Sicily is. The three legs represent the triangular shape of Sicily and the three extreme points of the island capes: Cape Pelorus, Cape Passero, and Lilybaeum head (Messina, Siracusa, and Marsala, respectively), the wheat sprouting from Medusa’s head retains some of Demeter’s symbol of the fertility of the land, and the red-yellow color block represents Palermo and Corleone, the two cities who founded the confederation to overthrow the Sicilian Vespers (more here).
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This may be a future post on its own, but one of the reasons why I really like Sicily is because of their mindset and identification as independent of Italy. I knew ahead of time that Sicilians to tend to consider themselves to be Sicilians, not Italians, and the general response of Sicilians when we asked them about this confirmed it. Sicilians all have a island identity, where they first identify themselves as Sicilians, and then Italians (“I am Sicilian in my heart!”). For a reason I am unable to put in words at the moment, I am attracted to that sort of independence (“rebellion”?), and perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to Texas as well! Indeed, being in Sicily is a really different feeling, atmosphere, attitude than being in the boot of Italy.
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My next post (Taormina Part II) will recount our hike on Mt Etna, a winery we visited, the importance of pine cones in Sicily and artichokes in the Mafia, the Sicilian Mafia, and why we measure gold in carats!

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