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Taormina: Introduction

Sicily's greatest resort, Taormina, and its fiercest attraction, Mount Etna, can be combined in one powerful trip. Such writers as Goethe and D. H. Lawrence, besotted with the glories of Taormina's panoramic views of the bays beyond and Mount Etna looming in the background, spread word of the area's charm.

Taormina was built on a cliff, Monte Tauro, overlooking the sea. To the surprise of many first-time visitors, Taormina has no beach of its own. To reach the sands, you must take a steep cable-car descent down the hill. But the medieval charm of Taormina makes a stay high on the hill well worth your time.

The official high season lasts from April to October. If you're seeking a holiday by the beach and prefer to enjoy Taormina only on day trips, then Giardini-Naxos is your best choice. It has more style than many beach resorts in Sicily, which, frankly, tend toward the tacky. Seen from the terraces of Taormina, Giardini-Naxos opens onto a wide, curving bay with a beach that is justifiably one of the most popular on the island.

There are many possible excursions from Taormina, including a visit to the even loftier Castelmola and to the Alcantara Gorges. But nothing lures visitors quite like Mount Etna, the highest volcano in Europe. It's a potential menace, however: The entire coast of eastern Sicily is dominated by this volcanic peak, which continues to blow its top, sending deadly lava flows in all directions. The main crater is still dangerously active. At press time, Etna was at it again, opening up a new crater near Catania and spewing mile-high columns of smoke and ash into the air.

53km (33 miles) N of Catania, 53km (33 miles) S of Messina, 250km (155 miles) E of Palermo

Taormina was just too good to remain unspoiled. Dating from the 4th century B.C., it hugs the edge of a cliff overlooking the Ionian Sea. The sea and even the railroad track lie below, connected by bus routes. Looming in the background is Mount Etna, an active volcano. Noted for its mild climate, the most beautiful town in all of Sicily seems to have no other reason to exist than for the thousands upon thousands of visitors who flock here for dining, bar-hopping, shopping, and enjoying the nearby beaches.

International visitors stroll back and forth along the one main street, Corso Umberto I, from April to October. After that, Taormina quiets down considerably. In spite of the hordes that descend in summer, Taormina has remained charming, with much of its medieval character intact. It's filled with intimate piazzas and palazzi dating from the 15th to the 19th century. You can dine in a different restaurant for every day of the week, linger at the many cafes, and browse the countless stores that sell everything from souvenir trinkets to antiques for well-heeled visitors. Hotels here tend to be pricey, but the good location can be worth it, as everyone gravitates to the top for dining and diversion -- and those side roads from the bottom are quite steep to navigate.

You can always escape the throngs during the day by seeking out adventures: perhaps climbing Mount Etna, walking to the Castelmola, or making a day trip to Syracuse. In summer, you can hang out at the beaches below the town (although Taormina itself isn't right on a beach). At night, enjoy jazz and disco music or just spend time in a local tavern or restaurant.

Lots of people contributed to putting Taormina on the map. First inhabited by a tribe known as the Siculi, it has known many conquerors, such as the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Saracens, French, and Spanish. Its first tourist is said to have been Goethe, who arrived in 1787 and recorded his impressions in his Journey to Italy. Other Germans followed, including Wilhelm von Gloeden, who photographed not only the town but also nude boys crowned with laurel wreaths. His pictures sent European high society flocking to Taormina. Von Gloeden's photos, some of which are printed in official tourist literature to this day, form one of the most enduring legends of Taormina. Souvenir shops still sell the pictures, which, considered scandalous in their day, seem tame -- even innocent -- by today's standards. In von Gloeden's footsteps came a host of celebs hoping to see what all the excitement was about: Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, and Greta Garbo. In time, another wave of stars arrived, including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Cary Grant, and the woman who turned Grant down, Sophia Loren.

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