#33 Hedonistic Taormina
A house in Sicily
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If you are new here, I think I'll take a second to say hello and introduce myself. I am Rochelle Del Borrello, an Italo Australian writer, ESL teacher and mother to a precocious Italian teenager (who incidentally is preparing for his big Italian middle school thesis and exam- which is his first significant examination, so he has been slowly driving me insane with his procrastination and lack of interest, as most teenagers are prone to do.)
I have lived in small town in Sicily for the past two decades, so I can safely say I am an expert on the island. I have written extensively about Sicily and contributed to various travel guides and online magazines for many years.
I share my experiences about the island on my blog Sicily Inside and Out (I am currently answering your random questions about Sicily if you want to go over and read or ask something via email: email@example.com .)
I have written a travel memoir about my time in Sicily titled: Sicilian Descent about my family origins and my experiences in the first year of living on the island full time.
If you subscribe to the paid version of this newsletter, you will get weekly extracts from this memoir. What you are reading right now is the free version with a special postcard from Sicily.
I also love creative writing, reading and music, which I hope to do more of and share here with you and also on my creative writing blog A Babel of Words and my new author's blog, rochelledelborrello.blog
Well, that's enough about me for now.
Benvenuti to everyone once again.
Let me get to this week's postcard from Sicily.
I love Taormina, but in the humidity of a Sicilian summer, I'd prefer to avoid the crowds either by visiting in winter or hunting down more secluded places around the city, away from the main streets and all of the tourist traps.
The enchanting public gardens below the theatre are always great to explore beyond the crowds. They are filled with rare plants and characteristic stone structures distributed through the gardens like little fortresses. I prefer to bring a panino for lunch, sit in the shade and soak in these magical gardens.
Taormina's endlessly winding medieval streets and tiny passages are beautiful to explore, each with its secrets --great restaurants, cafés and ice cream bars.
Some intriguing places are secluded gardens hidden by stone walls; others are set on terraces overlooking the coast or in more public but equally pleasant squares, not to mention the chic boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts that line the road climbing up towards the town from Giardini Naxos.
The town is beautiful by day, but in the evenings, its atmosphere is enchanting, whether you stroll the illuminated streets or indulge in the coast view over a seafood dinner.
The Odeon or Odeum, a much smaller Roman theatre, is located near the Church of Saint Catherine, which obscures it. On the site of Saint Pancras Church, just beyond Porta Messina outside the medieval city walls, was a temple dedicated to Zeus, a division incorporated into the present structure. Saint Pancras is believed to have been an early priest or bishop of Taormina's Christian community. Another Sicilian example of temples being converted to churches with the introduction of Christianity is the cathedral of Syracusa.
There are indications of Taormina's ancient street plan, and Roman mosaic floors have been found in the old villas in the area. Even Palazzo Corvaia, built during the fourteenth century, was constructed on Roman foundations. Taormina has an impressive archaeological museum, though many of the city's more important finds are housed elsewhere.
The city's Duomo is not a cathedral, as its name implies, but this Norman-Arab church was built over an earlier Paleo-Christian structure and dates from the twelfth century. The Badia Vecchia is a fourteenth-century construction. A medieval Byzantine mosaic icon of the Theotokos, or Mother of God, is perfectly preserved in the archway passage under the Clock Tower along Corso Umberto I leading into Piazza 9 Aprile.
Sicily will be well and truly open this summer, so I hope to drive to one of my favourite places in my hometown province of Messina. But I'll try to do it this month rather than wait for the busy summer ahead. I want to hunt down two places I've heard about and fantasised about visiting but still haven't found the opportunity.
One of the first books I read about Sicily, and probably the one that made me fall in love with the place, is Daphne Phelps's biography A House in Sicily. The book tells how burnt-out Daphne, a psychiatric nurse inherited her uncle's house in Sicily after the second world war.
British artist Robert H Kitson had built the palatial villa in an isolated countryside way outside of Taormina (at the time there wasn't even a road to get to the estate).
Kitson designed and built the house at the beginning of the 1900s, and he filled it with his own art, an extensive collection of antiques and constructed an elaborate English garden filled with precious rare plants and trees.
On his death, he left it all to Daphne, who gradually fell in love with Taormina and never left until she passed away in the 1980s.
A house in Sicily tells the story of her time living in the villa known as Casa Cuseni, which she turned into a bed and breakfast, hosting many famous writers and artists of the 19th century, including Picasso, Greta Garbo, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, Lord Bertrand Russell and many more.
Today Casa Cuseni houses a museum and is a luxury bed and breakfast.
I'm always telling everyone about this spectacular house, but I'm yet to visit. I want to soak in the light of the gardens and look out from the terrace and feel the healing energy that Daphne fell so deeply in love with.
The second place I want to hunt down is nowhere nearly as romantic as Daphne's house in Sicily; it's more of a place you'd think was the product of urban legend, something you've heard from a friend of a friend and hardly believed is real.
Above Taormina is the town of Castelmola, an ancient medieval neighbourhood filled with suggestive medieval streets, spectacular views, quaint shops and bars that sell locally made almond liquor.
One of these bars is the infamous Bar Turrisi, founded in 1947, which has always been decorated in a very particular motif. It may sound like I'm joking, but the place is dedicated to the phallus. Everything from the decor to the bathroom taps is carved out and decorated in erect penises.
The bar owners say that their decor uses the phallus to symbolise luck and prosperity. It has become quite popular for visitors to have their photos taken surrounded by endless dildos. It would be a hilarious place to visit; even to say you visited would be the best story.
The decorations of Bar Turrisi may seem totally bizarre but quite natural when you realise Taormina was once considered an ancient Hellenistic and modern Sodom and Gomorrah. In this place, anything was possible.
German aristocrat and photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden came to Taormina in the late 1800s, searching for a mild climate to help him cure his bad health. He bought a house there, and apart from being interned as an enemy alien during the first world war, he remained in Taormina until he died in 1931.
Von Gloeden took more than 7,000 images, mainly known for his nudes, he was also famous for his landscape photography which helped popularise Italian tourism, and he extensively documented the damage from the 1908 Messina earthquake and tsunami.
His photographic glass negatives were left to his partner and lover, Pancrazio Buciuni. In 1933 some of his negatives were confiscated by Mussolini's Fascist police under allegations they were pornography, and many were destroyed. Later Buciuni was cleared of pornography charges, and today most of the negatives are housed in the Fratelli Alinari photographic archive in Florence.
Von Gloeden's photography is generally considered some of the best of the early 20th century, even though the accusations of pornography never left his work.
Most of his photos are beautifully classically inspired landscapes and studies of local people, yet there are more explicit photos that depict young boys in sexually suggestive poses.
Many wild parties marked Von Gloeden's time at Taormina that local rumours suggest were actually orgies. So his photography was buried for many years under the weight of scandal and controversy.
As you can see from all of this history, Taormina is a rich place to discover, from the more superficial beauty, the ancient art and architecture to the different layers of history and an underbelly of hedonism.
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here for now.
I'll keep trying to write something worthwhile here every week, perhaps more often if I get in some karmic writing zone.
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Speak again soon.
With love and light from RDB
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