On the fifth day of our Mediterranean cruise with MSC Cruises we arrived at Messina in Sicily and took the excursion to the pretty town of Taormina which is known for its Greek theatre. Taormina is around 45 minutes drive from the cruise port and has a good view of Mount Etna, which is the most active volcano in Europe and can often be seen glowing or producing a natural firework display at night time. Just last year Taormina received a shower of ash from Mount Etna and our guide pointed out the peninsula of black rock below the town that was the result of a lava flow in ancient times.
View of Mt Etna from Taormina
Taormina has long been a strategically important point in Sicily, since it overlooks the shipping heading towards the Straits of Messina. The town was founded by the Greeks in 350BC and at the height of its wealth and importance had five temples as well as the theatre. Later the Romans dominated the area and over the centuries Taormina has been invaded by the Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish, creating a melting pot of cultural influences.
In Roman times, Sicily was known for its fine wines and the olive and almond trees that thrived here, while the Arabs brought aromatic plants, coffee, lemons and sugar. All these are used to create Sicilian specialties, such as lemon granita using the ice from the peak of Mount Etna, a sweet almond liqueur and the coloured marzipan fruits you can see in the shops of Taormina. The locals love to start the day in summer with a coffee granita for breakfast and you’ll spot the local pastries called cannoli on sale, which are a cone of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese.
The town of Taormina is in two parts, the area on the hilltop that we visited and Taormina Mare, which we could see below us by the sea. This is where the train from Messina stops if you plan to visit independently and a funicular connects the two towns.
We passed through the first gate of the old town, named Porta Catania, since it is the one that faces the city of Catania, the gate at the other end of town being Porta Messina, facing the city of Messina. We stopped in the first small square with a church and a central fountain that is topped by the symbol of Taormina, a centaur, half woman and half horse. Our guide pointed out the beautiful old town hall, flying the European, Italian and Sicilian flags, since Sicily has its own constitution and parliament. The symbol of Sicily that we could see on the flag and all around town has three legs representing the three points of Sicily, with the Medusa head at the centre.
We walked on down the narrow street Corso Umberto lined with many shops selling fashionable clothing, hand painted ceramics, pastries and marzipan sweets. Many of the old houses had Spanish style wrought iron balconies and our guide explained that this end of the town dated back to the Middle Ages. The second square is known as Panorama square, since from here you can get a wonderful view over the sea and lower town towards Mount Etna. This is the start of the original Greek area of town, leading towards Piazza Victor Emanuale that was the site of the Greek agora and later the Roman Forum or main public square. Since the whole street is pedestrianised, it made a very pleasant walk down a slight hill to the square where the Palazzo Corvaja was located. This building was built up over the centuries by the Romans, Normans and Arabs, being used both as a private residence and a parliament building, but now houses the tourist office and a museum.
From here, our group turned right up the hill to the Greek Theatre which is one of the main attractions of Taormina. The theatre was built by the Greeks in the 3rd century, but later rebuilt and enlarged by the Romans who added an upper story to increase the capacity from 5000 to 7000 people. The audience have the best view in town, looking over the sea towards Mount Etna, which is framed between the arches at the back of the stage. This is where Greek plays were performed and later the Romans staged gladiatorial contests and fights with wild animals. The theatre is still used throughout the summer season for opera, ballet and other musical productions, with well-known Italian and international artists coming to perform. The acoustics are so perfect that it is said that those in the cheap seats at the top can hear just as well as those in the more desirable front rows.
As our tour ended at the Greek Theatre, we had 45 minutes to wander back through the town, enjoying looking in the shops and stopping for a gelato, although I would have loved to have another hour for a better look.
On my return to the ship I was booked in for a relaxing facial treatment in the Aura Spa. I lay down on the treatment bed and was covered in a towel, while soft lights changed colour and soothing music and birdsong wafted around me. I must admit that it was very easy to drift off with only the occasional cool cream or hot cloth bringing me back and I left with my skin feeling beautifully soft and smooth.
Tomorrow we leave Europe and arrive in Tunis where we plan to explore the ancient site of Carthage and the pretty coastal village of Sidi Bou Said.
Tips for visiting Taormina on a cruise excursion
– The town of Taormina is around a 45 minute drive from the port of Messina
– The streets of the town are shady but the Greek theatre is quite open, so you may wish to bring a sunhat and put on your sunscreen
– Although I always carry a bottle of water, there are plenty of snack bars, restaurants and small shops along the route of your tour to buy food and drinks.
– If you need the rest rooms on arrival, there are some in the garage where your coach will drop you. There are also some in the panorama square half way along your tour and some in the Greek theatre where your tour will end.
– At the end of the tour we had about 45 minutes of free time, but this went very quickly as it takes 20-30 minutes to walk back to the coach.
Cruise Excursion Options for Messina
The Messina City Tour (3.5 hrs, £35 Adult) includes stops at many of the city’s ancient sites, with a chance to admire the famous jewel-studded Golden Mantle that covers the picture of the Madonna and Child. Popular alternatives are a visit to Tindari & the Sanctuary of the Black Madonna (4 hrs, £42 Adult) or Taormina (4 hrs, £45 Adult) for unique insights into early Grecian life. If you’re looking for natural beauty, visit Mount Etna (4 hrs, £42 Adult) and the otherworldly lava landscape of the Silvestri craters. Finally, the adventurous can choose the Jeep Adventure (4 hrs, £79 Adult) tour through 19th-century forts and old military roads and lovely coastal views.
Other articles in my MSC Mediterranean Cruise series
Join me on a week’s Mediterranean Cruise with MSC Cruise
All aboard at Barcelona – Day 1 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Bonjour Marseille – Day 2 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Palazzo and Gelato in Genoa – Day 3 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Naples and an excursion to Pompeii – Day 4 of my MSC Mediterranean Cruise
Thanks to MSC cruises who hosted Guy and Heather’s Mediterranean cruise. Heather and Guy travelled on MSC Splendida from Barcelona on a 1 week cruise calling at Genoa, Marseille, Naples, Messina, Tunis. Prices for a similar cruise start at around £700 per person. For more information, visit the MSC Cruises website or follow them on Twitter @MSC_Cruises_UK or on the MSC Facebook page.
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