The Museo Sicilian di Arte in Taormina looks like a hoarder's version of the ultimate Sicilian attic. The gallery's collection of folk art and cultural detritus seems to bulge with the leftovers of every area flea market, but even in the midst of its, um, eclectic (the polite word) haul, one exhibition redefines the overused word quirky. This is the wing devoted to paintings of local disasters, which includes some eye-popping art works. There is the portrait of a chef being mauled by a cat, his face eclipsed by a furious fur-ball, and another of a man trampled by bulls. There are images of a boy pulling a dart out of his eye and a woman attacked by feral dogs. Then there is the surreal painting -- half macabre, half camp -- of a woman plunging through the air, her skirt ballooning out around her while a crowd below runs for cover.
I found myself returning to the museum and that hall of domestic horrors over the course of a recent week in Taormina, although I wasn't sure why until the end of my visit. The museum's folksy-gone-freakish paintings, really local inside jokes, evoked something essential about Taormina -- the way it has stubbornly held onto it singular, authentic and sometimes inscrutable soul.
Soulfulness was the last thing I expected when I came to town. That's because Taormina is most famous as a resort luring waves of tourists since its birth in the 6th century B.C. as a Greek colony. It's easy to see why. Perched seductively on the northeastern coast of Sicily, overlooking a blue bay of the Ionian Sea, fringed by cliffs and popping with lemon trees, the town is difficult to resist, and few have.
After the Roman bachelor parties came and went, the beauty spot morphed into an Edwardian escape for Europe's dandies. This is where the German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden photographed the local youth, posing as neoclassical shepherds, playing flutes in draped togas and sometimes nude. Edward VII, Richard Strauss, Oscar Wilde, minor aristocrats and café society followed. Then the town settled into a life as a more mundane port of call until Sicily became chic again in the past decade. Taormina, renovating some of its star landmarks and never looking better, started attracting the stylemakers once more.
The result is a split personality. Is Taormina a tourist town or your chance to glimpse a genuine slice of Sicilian life? In fact it's both, and that means you can assume two roles, by turns tourist and honorary insider.
Sights include a Greek theater
I started my week as an unapologetic tourist, minus the fanny pack but tackling the easy three-step tour that lets visitors skim the best of Taormina's obvious charms. That meant beginning with the only absolutely essential attraction in town, the Teatro Greco, (aka the Greek Theater), which is one of Italy's most impressive, and most photographed, classical ruins. Sprawling on Greek foundations, the ruins of the Roman stage and amphitheater have recently started playing host again to some crowd-pleasing performances, including an Elton John concert. But what's remarkable about the place is really its setting and a view that Goethe called "the most beautiful panorama in the world." Like every travel quote, that's probably an overstatement, but I could see his point: The craggy amphitheater sits on a high point just above central Taormina so you look out on a sublime stage set, sprawling just behind the stage itself. There is the sweeping blue bay of Naxos, then snow-capped Mount Etna, and then the tumbling silhouette of Taormina itself, all red-tiled roofs and golden stone.
When other tourists started obscuring my view, it was a short walk to the second station of the tourist trek. Just below the theater sits the Grand Hotel Timeo, a classic grand dame property built in 1873 and recently purchased and seriously renovated by Orient-Express Hotels. The payoff is an exquisite 72-room property that wisely eschews the generic trendified, minimalist-meets-funky look of the moment for a note of Italianate grandeur (think wall sconces, gold-leafed mirrors, lots of plasterwork and draped chintz). If you can't afford the price of a stay, you can still admire another stellar sea view and down a limoncello (in my case, a fruit punch) on the hotel's Literary Terrace, which comes by its name honestly; D.H. Lawrence once holed up in the Timeo for four years.
Then, the third step: Descend by funicular to Taormina Mare, the town's long pebbly beachfront. I headed to the most scenic strip, the beach of the Isola Bella Bay, where lidos like Pizzichella offer sun beds, a diving center, boats for rent and casual seafood cafes. The real draw, though, was the Timeo's sister property, Villa Sant'Andrea, another recently renovated hotel that is becoming famous for its beachside terrace Ristorante Oliviero, complete with piano bar and ringside views of a Sicilian sunset. I ended up eating here almost every night, plowing through a master class in Sicilian signature dishes: pizza with eggplant, and then pizza with shaved parmesan and prosciutto; a sublime seafood salad thick with shrimp, mussels, octopus and squid tossed in olive oil; spaghetti with sardines crowned with bread crumbs; pasta dressed with a pistachio cream sauce; a perfect grilled scampi; lemon mousse with strawberries; a pistachio semifreddo drizzled with chocolate sauce. And maybe some more pasta in pistachio cream sauce.
A classic Italian promenade
And then I had enough of the tourist's life. I decided to devote the rest of my week in Taormina (except for my dinners at Sant'Andrea) to living like a local and that meant dropping the touristic circuit and adopting a different kind of walk. This is more of a shambling, loose promenade, the stroll of a native who doesn't have to tick off sights but can take the time to explore, wander aimlessly, stop, muse. The only requirement: The walk should always start and end on the Corso Umberto -- not just Taormina's central anchor but one of Europe's great streets, a combination Main Street, High Street, open air mall, local hangout and running smorgasbord. The street seems to run on forever, from one end of Taormina to the other. It is lined with mom-and-pop shops, al fresco cafes and medieval stone townhouses sprouting wrought iron balconies crammed with flower pots.
It's a street I came to know well and it never seemed less than dreamy, even when I settled on a routine. If it was midday, I would wait for the wedding processions that pile into the Corso Umberto's row of baroque churches. These are epic odes to the extended Sicilian family. You can always count on at least one elegant grandmother, a knot of brown-eyed brothers and a moon-faced flower girl, but the best part is the march of the bride, who invariably sweeps down the Corso dragging her white bridal gown through the swirling dirt of Taormina. The ritual feels like some sort of benediction and the crowds on the street always make way for the bride, as if they are part of her extended family, too. They probably are.
After the wedding, I usually stopped into the Minotauro Pasticceria, where the town hobby of turning marzipan into artwork has been perfected. Forget marzipan apples and oranges. The bakeries lining the Corso Umberto and its side streets construct entire marzipan baskets bulging with prickly pears and lemons, swirling vines and bunches of grapes.
Then I made a regular detour into L'Agora, an antique print shop where I debated, all week, between hand-colored engravings of a smoking Mount Etna, a complicated mythological scene involving gorgons and the image of an eight-armed cuttlefish waving all those busy appendages languidly in the air.
The flamboyant cuttlefish, of course, won out.
All of this, though, was really a prelude to my favorite stop of all. This was at Gelatomania, a perpetually crowded small gelato shop on the Corso. I started with the fruit gelatos: peach, apricot, mango, passionfruit, melon. Each distilled the essence of the fruit, with a tart, almost juicy tang.
But I finally settled, midweek, on a surprising favorite. It was the chocolate mousse gelato, a profoundly creamy, opulent scoop that somehow located a perfect, rounded chocolaty high note, not too sweet and never too bitter.
The cone was my talisman. By late afternoon, just when the sun starts to turn a bit dusky and golden in Taormina, every other person on the Corso Umberto is licking a scoop of gelato and I'd walk with my chocolate mousse held nonchalantly aloft, feeling like part of the spellbound crowd.
I know, though, that I wasn't even close to qualifying as a genuine insider. That won't happen until one of my own misfortunes -- the day I dropped that scoop of gelato into my book bag, or the morning my sun bed collapsed, or the evening I choked on a furry piece of frito misto -- gets included in the hall of minor tragedies. I'll probably have to aim at a more melodramatic disaster on my next trip to Taormina.
Raphael Kadushin regularly writes about food and travel for the Star Tribune, National Geographic Traveler, Conde Nast Traveler and other publications.