From the natural terrace built around the ruins of a Norman castle, you have a spectacular view of the Ionian coast, majestic Etna, Taormina, the Bay of Giardini-Naxos, the straits of Messina, and the Calabrian coast: on a clear day you can even see way beyond Catania, as far as Syracuse. You are nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, you are in Castelmola in Sicily.
Part of the attraction of Castelmola is gazing up at it from Taormina (as in the featured photo taken from the main square in Taormina, and above from another part of the town) and wondering how on earth you can get up there. It looks like the top of the world, this tiny village perched on a craggy hilltop above Taormina. Not so long ago the village was inaccessible, visited only by a few intrepid travellers who hiked up the seriously uphill mountain paths for about 90 minutes, or drove up the curving, almost perpendicular road, to the top. Nowadays a bus makes the 15-minute journey every hour from Taormina and things are changing, although slowly.
The result of this remoteness is that the people of the village have kept their dialect, their customs and their lives entirely to themselves.
Founded in the 8th century BC it was first conquered by the Greeks and afterwards by Saracens and its interesting mix of customs and traditions reflect this history. The entrance to the village is marked by an ancient arch of Greek-Roman origin, built in 900 BC, and this dominates the Piazza S. Antonino, the main square of the village. In earlier times the entry was through a gate carved into the rock which was moved to the front of the castle in 1927.
This relatively modern Piazza Sant’Antonio, built in 1954, is one of the main squares of the town and attracts the local elders who like to sit on the benches in the square to watch the village activity and the arrival and departure of the buses. From this Piazza of white and black lava stone, bordered by a white balustrade and tree-lined sidewalks, there is a panoramic view of Taormina, its town, beaches and islands.
From the Piazza, roads lead off to other parts of the village, every corner offering more spectacular views whether it’s over the velvety green mountains with their trails delineated as though someone had poured them in swirling patterns on the slopes or the craggy peaks of the barren side. The street names, numbers and signs are locally crafted in stone and wrought iron, and the pastel-coloured houses range from palest primrose to sky blues and apple greens. In fact, it is a typical Sicilian village, better preserved than most, as it has not lost all its inhabitants as have most of those in the interior of the island.
That said, a fair number of the inhabitants depart in the winter for the slightly warmer temperature along the coast but during the rest of the year, they man the restaurants, bars and lace and embroidery shops for which the village is famed.
One of the most famous and most eccentric attractions is the Turrisi Bar which has a bizarre display of phalluses in wood, clay and ceramic – a sign of abundance and a good omen as per the Hellenic tradition – in every size, from large stone sculptures to bathroom taps, paintings and wooden carvings. This ancient emblem of fertility is celebrated here in flamboyant style, and among the gifts available from the shop is the locally produced almond wine in phallic-shaped bottles, referred to, of course, as the “elixir of love”.
As so often in Sicily one passes from the profane to the sacred in the blink of an eye and in just a few steps you arrive at the Cathedral which dates back to the 16th century (rebuilt in 1935), known otherwise as the Church of St. Nicholas of Bari, in the Piazza Duomo. There isn’t a lot to hold your attention here but it has a rather beautiful pulpit and a wooden statue of Mary Magdalene which, I am told, is of the school of Bagnasco. I confess I had no knowledge of this sculptor but I found a reference to one Rosario Bagnasco who worked mainly in wood, and who was active mainly in Palermo, so I presume it is his work. Before you leave, look to the beautiful bell tower which offers a wonderful frame for a photograph of Mount Etna in the distance behind it.
So if you find yourself with a day, or even a half day to spare when you are in Taormina, or if you want to see one of Sicily’s loveliest medieval villages, then be sure to visit Castelmola where you will find narrow streets and quiet solitude in a community of just over one thousand residents. In fact, if you visit out of season and find your way up the mountain to Castelmola you may feel that you have the entire town to yourself.