Wednesday 11 December 2019

Sicilia, you're breaking my heart: A trip to Taormina and Palermo

Tom Sweeney lives the dream for a few days in Sicily, where the weather is shirt-sleeves warm.

Isola Bella, Taormina, Sicily. Photo: Deposit
Isola Bella, Taormina, Sicily. Photo: Deposit
View of Palermo with old houses and monuments, Sicily. Photo: Deposit
Taormina. Photo: Herald
Taormina and Etna
The romantically pretty town of Cefalu, in Sicily, is dominated by it’s magnificent 12th-century, twin-towered cathedral
Meridiana Hotel, Taormina
Spot the visitors! Mount Etna, Sicily

Tom Sweeney

During the long, monotonous months of the midnight sun in far northern Sweden, people set their alarm clocks to go to sleep.

"At 1am it looks like lunchtime, so we need a reminder when it's time for bed," says Laplander Johanna Siljehagen, over a nightcap on the terrace of the Meridiana Hotel in Taormina.

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"But look at the sky here over the bay - it's black and full of stars. I used to dream of such skies. Now I'm living my dream, night and day."

In 2006, while channel-hopping in her hometown, 200km above the Arctic Circle, Johanna happened upon an episode of whimsical police drama Inspector Montalbano, which is set in Sicily.

So impressed was she with the scenery that, next day, she booked a flight to go and investigate.

Twelve months later, she moved to Taormina and now runs a successful business exporting organic produce (johannasiljehagen.com).

Johanna's friend, Trina Cria Laurent, who's from Mauritius, lived in Dublin before relocating to Sicily four years ago.

"I adore Dublin, but coming from an Indian Ocean climate I missed the sunshine," says tour organiser, Airbnb host, model and cook Trina (trinaeventsandtours@gmail.com), during a stroll the following morning through Taormina's pristine streets.

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Taormina. Photo: Herald

"My Sicilian friends in Ranelagh were always urging me to come here. When I did, I fell in love with the place. It's beautiful, and it's always sunny. I'm living my dream too."

It's only 11.30am, but already 23˚C - in early October - and the gelatos we bought a couple of minutes before are melting rapidly as we admire the views from high up in the third- century BC Teatro Greco.

The hilltop amphitheatre is the venue every June for open-air screenings during the star- studded film festival (taorminafilmfest.it) and hosts big-name concerts - Elton John, Sting and Andrea Bocelli have played here in recent years.

Trina points through an ancient archway that frames the reassuringly distant Mount Etna (below), from whose 3,350-metre peak a plume of dark volcanic ash billows.

A half-day excursion (satexcursions.it) involving a coach trip, cable car ascent and truck ride takes visitors close to the summit, where the air is chilly and the earth only a few centimetres beneath the soles of your runners is oven-hot.

Europe's tallest active volcano isn't the only thing that's rumbling. After a wander through the gorgeous communal gardens, we head for an early lunch on the shaded terrace of Gourmet 32 (31 Via Bagnoli Croci, gourmet32.it).

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Taormina and Etna

At nearly €70 for two courses each and a bottle of locally-produced red, it's far from cheap, but Taormina is posh and restaurant prices reflect that - no one holidays here on a tight budget.

It's a couple of minutes' walk from Gourmet 32 to the always-busy Bam Bar (43 Via di Giovanni), where we're meeting Trina's pal Rita for a granita, a blend of coarse-crushed ice and fresh fruit that comes in a variety of flavours.

Alarm bells ring when Trina says Rita Curcio (ritacurcio.it) is one of Sicily's top dress designers - I'm on the run from the fashion police in a mismatched mix from Penneys.

(There's a gents' boutique on Taormina's main street, Corso Umberto, with a light blue linen jacket in the window for €540. You can get flights and a week in a hotel for less.)

Mercifully, my garish get-up and farmer's tan go unremarked upon, though Trina, who's wearing one of Rita's creations, waxes lyrical about her friend's collections.

"Her colours and designs reflect the warmth and vibrancy of Sicily," she says. "Wearing Rita is like wearing summer year round." To which I reply: "Oh, yes, absolutely."

I leave them to it and dawdle off for a swim at tiny Isola Bella island (top), passing on the way a newly-married couple posing for photos.

Taormina, with its beautiful backdrops, is a top spot for tying the knot, and I learn later there were two Irish weddings during my visit.

Hotel Meridiana owner Romano Piazza and his wife Olga - a couple clearly very much in love - wave me off next morning after a delightful stay in their guest cottage.

Having flown from Dublin to Catania, I'm returning from Romano's home city of Palermo, a three-hour drive from Taormina, where I'll spend the night in a palace with Trina and her boyfriend, Francesco Cazzaniga.

Palazzo La Bella Palermo is Francesco's uncle's bachelor pad, and it makes the Shelbourne look like a middling B&B - it's magnificent.

To help with the upkeep, Uncle Massimo allows paying guests to live like royalty beneath his roof while he's away, which is often.

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View of Palermo with old houses and monuments, Sicily. Photo: Deposit

There are five en-suite bedrooms, all replete with antique furniture, works of art and curios, several grand salons, a library and a huge Downton Abbey kitchen.

My room, like the others, is the size of an apartment, and it's undoubtedly the first time a €3 pair of Penneys boxer shorts have touched the silk sheets on the four-poster bed where I'll lay my head after a night out with Trina and Francesco.

I'm eager to repay their hospitality by treating them to dinner in Bisso Bistrot (bissobistrot.it) and, with Taormina prices in mind, resign myself to living on cornflakes until pay day.

When the bill arrives, I nearly collapse. For three starters, three mains and two carafes of house red it's €460.

That's without my glasses on. With them, it's €46, which would explain why the place is packed day and night and reservations are a must in the evening.

It's late, but still shirt sleeves-warm, as we wander back to the palazzo through narrow streets full of bars and cafes teeming with young people enjoying some midnight fun.

We have a nightcap on Uncle Massimo's terrace, beneath a black sky full of stars. I don't have to set the alarm to go to sleep - I'm exhausted with exhilaration.

I've lived the dream for a few days, and now, reluctantly, it's time to say arrivederci.

Ah, Sicilia, you're breaking my heart.

Get there

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Meridiana Hotel, Taormina

Flights from Dublin to Sicily are seasonal. Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Catania and Ryanair (ryanair.com) to Palermo. Regular bus services operate from Catania airport to Taormina and buses and trains run from Palermo airport to the city centre.

Stay in Taormina

The four-star Hotel Meridiana in Taormina (meridianahotel-taormina.com) has nine en-suite rooms with furnished terraces overlooking the bay, an outdoor pool and hot tub and a guest cottage sleeping two with a full kitchen.

It's a mere five-minute walk to the historical town centre (there's a hill that isn't great for dodgy knees or ankles, but owner Romano, who never stops smiling, is always happy to offer a lift to the top).

Breakfast is a buffet affair, though freshly-made omelettes are always on offer. See the website for special offers or call Olga on +39 0942 625616.

Stay in Palermo

Palazzo La Bella Palermo (labellapalermo.com) has to be seen to be believed.

A self-catering property in the historical city centre, it sleeps a maximum of eight guests, and the whole house can be rented by a group of family or friends (rooms are not available individually) for €1,700 a night.

When the cost is split between eight people, it works out at €212.50 per person - the price of a decent hotel.

Reserve through the website, or call Francesco on +39 335 1778 973.

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Herald.

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