|Ironically, although Taormina is Sicily's most famous resort, it has no beach. It has stunning views of the east coast of Sicily and panoramic vistas of steaming Mount Etna, but no beach, owing to its location 1000 feet above sea level. Conveniently, however, there is a cable car at the north end of town which will carry you down the bluffs to the village of Mazzarò, where the waters of the Mediterranean lap softly at the pebbled shores of gently rounded coves.|
Mazzarò and its upstairs neighbor Taormina are year-round resorts which began their hospitality careers as winter destinations. Late in the nineteenth century, wealthy Europeans sought refuge from the rigors of winter on the shores of the Mediterranean. Russian royalty headed for the French Riviera, German nobles for Sicily. The Riviera became more famous and certainly glamorous, but Taormina and its environs attracted the more artistic, from early photographer Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden to English author D. H. Lawrence. Visitors still come year-round to the Sicilian resort but "high season" has come to designate the warmer months from April to October.
|The beach at Mazzarò is really two coves separated by a large rock which rises 50 or so feet out of the water, making a dramatic centerpiece. Rather dense foliage grows all the way down to the edge of the beach and camouflages the small hotels and restaurants which face the main street of the village. The cable car, or funivia, lands across the street, just steps from the beach. Mazzarò can also be reached by car or bus, but given the narrow, curvy roads which approach, cable car is the best choice in the crowded summer season.|
The beach at Mazzarò is covered in very fine pebbles, small enough to walk on barefooted. They are evidence of Sicily's volcanic birth, which was recent, at least in geological terms. Varying in color from nearly black to dusty gold, the pebbles give a texture to the beach almost like that of an English tweed jacket. No wonder Lawrence lived nearby.
April is not likely the cruelest month in Sicily but it may be the most fickle. My recent visit there was marked by sunny but decidedly cool weather, certainly not the sort in which one would sunbathe or swim in the ocean. Still, it was pleasant enough to enjoy an afternoon beside the sea. One of best recent additions to the Taormina scene is the newly renovated Hotel Villa Sant'Andrea (pictured here). The hotel, situated at the south end of Mazzarò's beach, is a bit hard to find at first: there's just a gate, a small sign and lots of trees. "Where is the hotel?" one invariably asks on the first visit. Through the gate and down the driveway, hiding in the greenery, is a cream-colored stucco complex not visible from the road. "Ah, there it is," you think. And you are right.
Terraces and patios punctuate the stroll down to the hotel. There is a temptation to linger in the gardens. The hotel itself is a multi-level structure with numerous terraces and patios of its own, almost all with views of the sea. There are colorful tile floors, white stucco walls, dark wood trim, and carefully chosen antique and modern furnishings with a soothing mix of patterned fabrics in cool blues and greens. The overall effect is that of a large private villa.
The dining room of the Villa Sant'Andrea offers a panoramic view of Mazzarò's beach, from the south end looking north. On a clear day, the mainland of Italy is visible near Reggio di Calabria. On the menu are sophisticated interpretations of the regional cuisine, which as you might imagine, is seafood-oriented. A recent lunch began with swordfish carpaccio and asparagus soup. The carpaccio was garnished with blood orange sections and finely sliced wild fennel, which is more aromatic than cultivated fennel. The asparagus soup was a bright green puree garnished with lightly grilled scallops.
Next we turned to pasta, which was freshly made in the hotel. First, spaghetti alla chitarra ("spaghetti on the guitar") with bottarga (preserved tuna roe), garlic and olive oil. Spaghetti alla chitarra is made by pressing thin sheets of pasta dough through a rectangular wooden frame across which lengths of closely spaced wire have been tightly strung. When the pasta is pressed against the wires, strands of square spaghetti fall out the bottom. The other pasta we sampled was maccheroni alla norma, fresh curved tubes of pasta with roughly chopped, roasted eggplant and tomatoes. Fresh maccheroni has an extra "toothiness" due to its shape. One imagines this is where the term al dente came from. The norma in the name of this dish is the same as our word "normal," as in a normal, everyday pasta.
For dessert, we savored an excellent cassatta, the signature Sicilian dessert of sponge cake and ricotta with marzipan decorations, and a very unusual gelatina alla cannella, most simply described as cinnamon Jello. I think most people would be surprised that neither dessert was very sweet. In fact, both were light in texture and played delicately on the palate with interesting flavors.
While sipping coffee and enjoying the view, we spied 5 or 6 teenagers with backpacks making their way up the beach. At the middle of the southern cove, they sat down for a chat. Moments later, one of the boys was removing his clothes. One of the girls was animatedly talking to him, presumably trying to persuade him to reclothe. The whole group became very lively. The young man went into the water, much to the horror of the girls. Another boy followed him in. The first swam out and began trying to climb the big rock in the center, without much success. April being the month of young love, I imagine a sociologist would describe these kids as engaged in a primitive mating ritual. The Italian couple next to us dismissed the incident as tourist misbehavior. Given that the kids were probably on "spring break," both assessments were at least partially true.
The beach at Mazzarò is reported to be very crowded at the height of summer's heat when people from all over Europe escape to the sea. I think I might prefer it in cooler months, when you can appreciate the setting quietly and the only crowd is a small band of intrepid teenage boys and their would-be dates.
Hotel Villa Sant'Andrea, Via Nazionale 137, 98030 Taormina Mare; tel. 0942/23125, fax 024838. Very Expensive.