Taormina has always been renowned as a destination for British visitors ever since the 18th Century with many leaving a legacy of history and romance giving the town a quintessential British touch. From the Grand Tour to poets, writers, movie stars and pop idols you can find evidence of the British Isles everywhere.
It all started with The Grand Tour … In the 18th Century the British aristocracy would embark on what was known as “The Grand Tour” visiting all of continental Europe enjoying the culture and embarking on purchasing fine works of art and antiques. Taormina was an obligatory stop on The Grand Tour and has played host to foreign visitors ever since. Being the last stop on the tour many decided to stay and make their home. Visitors chose the town for its peaceful location and beautiful landscapes with many drawing inspiration for paintings, poems and novels. They enjoyed Taormina’s glamourous way of life, with afternoon teas and soirees in beautiful villas and lush gardens. One of the first visitors to Sicily partaking in The Grand Tour was a Scottish man called Patrick Brydone, the tour formed the subject of his book ‘A Tour of Sicily and Malta’ which was composed from letters that he had sent home to his travelling companion William Beckford. The book became a best seller, originally published in 1773.
D H Lawrence … From March 1920 to February 1922 Taormina became home to the author D H Lawrence and his wife Frieda living as guests of Don Cicco Cacopardo in a house called Fontana Vecchia. The writer fell in love with Taormina and once wrote in a letter to a friend “We love Taormina and in particular our house, I like this place more than any other, I love the sunrise over the open sea to the east”. It is said that he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover here after drawing inspiration from an English noble woman living in the town who it was said fell in love with her Sicilian gardener. Fontana Vecchia also played host to the English musical and playwright Howard Agg who recalled his stay in his book ‘A Cypress in Sicily’ which he wrote in 1967.
Casa Cuseni … this enchanting villa was designed and built for the painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson in 1905, his Taorminese house and its lush gardens are designed in an art nouveau way mixed with Sicilian style. The dining room was both conceived and designed by a friend of his Sir Frank Brangwyn who was a pupil of William Morris the famous member of the artistic movement ‘Arts and Crafts’ and also by Sir Aldfred East who at the time was the president of the Royal Society of British Artists. After his death Robert Kitson’s niece Daphne Phelps inherited Casa Cuseni and in order to sustain the enormous cost of the house started to rent out a few of the rooms to illustrious guests who came to write and paint. The house became the favourite place for D H Lawrence and his wife to have their afternoon tea. In later life Daphne wrote a book ‘A House in Sicily’. Today Casa Cuseni is a guest house and museum where you can see stunning frescoes in the dining room.
The Public Gardens … the public gardens of Taormina on Via Bagnoli Croci are one of the most loved and visited places of the town. The gardens were created by a Scottish lady named Florence Trevelyn who chose to settle in the town in the late eighteen hundreds after falling victim to its charm. It is said that she was invited to leave England after a rumoured romantic entanglement with Queen Victoria’s son the Prince of Wales, who was to be the future King Edward VII. Florence married a successful local doctor from Taormina and together they owned many properties and land including Isola Bella and Casa Silva. Florence was a nature lover and was always accompanied by her beloved dogs and animals. Her will stated that her numerous animals should be taken care of, in particular her parrots, peacocks, pigeons and canaries so she created the gardens. The bird feeder buildings that today make up most of the gardens were designed by Florence referring to them as “Apairy” (The Hives) using them as an observation point for birds and a serene place to enjoy her English afternoon tea. To the locals the buildings are referred to as the curious and eccentric Victorian follies.
Casa Silva … Casa Silva was built in the 1800’s and was once the property of Florence and her husband and was once part of the public gardens. The villa was named Casa Silva by two Austrian designers who arrived in Taormina in the early nineteen hundreds who established a form place in haute couture. Today it is home to ‘Babilonia’ Taormina’s language, culture and art school.
Isola Bella … Florence also bought Isola Bella in 1890, the beautiful rocky outcrop only attached to the mainland by a narrow sandy path off the coast below Taormina, she built a house and established a garden there. In among the Mediterranean plants, she planted non-native trees, rare shrubs and grasses. It also became the home of various sea birds and some interesting lizards. It is with thanks to her that we have such a beautiful island in Taormina. Isola Bella is now protected by WWF and it has been declared a Nature Reserve thanks to its beauty and untouched nature.
Miss Hill … In 1920 D H Lawrence sent home to England samples of embroidery made by the women of Taormina. Miss Mabel Hill, a daughter of a Welsh ship owner who arrived in Taormina at the end of the eighteen hundreds fell in love with their beautiful creations and started an embroidery school in the town known as ‘Miss Hills School of Lace’. There are today shops on Corso Umberto and Via Teatro Greco who still follow in her footsteps.
The Ashbee Hotel … In 1907 construction began on Villa San Giorgio now The Ashbee Hotel. The villa was designed by English architect Charles Robert Ashbee, founder of English Arts and Crafts and was commissioned by Colonel Thomas Bradney Shaw-Hellier who was once the director of the Royal Military School of Music. He chose Taormina as a quiet, secluded location for rest and meditation. The villa was built on a plot of land that Colonel Shaw-Hellier had purchased which had a view across the Straits of Messina behind the Church of San Pancrazio which is built on the ruins of a Greek temple. A collection of photographs showing the visit of Charles Robert Ashbee to Taormina and the design work and construction of the Villa San Giorgio is kept in the National Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Additionally original drawing and sketches of the villa are held in the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects as well as in the English home of Colonel Shaw-Hillier at Wodehouse in Womborne Staffordshire. It was here at Villa San Giorgio that Colonel Montgomery of the British Army made his headquarters during World War II and in his room you can envisage him standing looking through his binoculars across the Straits of Messina. Today the Ashbee Hotel is a gorgeous luxurious and elegant hotel oozing Englishness and you can eat wonderfully in it St. George Restaurant.
St. Georges Anglican Church … Situated on Via Pirandello you will find the Anglican Church of St George. Before the completion of the beautiful church in 1922 for the English speaking community of Taormina church services would be held in their private houses. Sir Edward and Lady Mabel Hill offered a private chapel which was in their house but it eventually became too small for the growing community so Sir Edward decided to purchase some land and build a church on it. English speaking services are still held there today and at Christmas the carol service is not to be missed. The church makes a perfect venue for destination weddings in Taormina.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton … The film Cleopatra is best remembered for the affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who fell in love on set. Whilst filming the blockbuster movie the couple snuck away and no one knew where they had gone. They were in fact sipping cocktails at the Wundarbar Caffe in Piazza Aprile IX and staying at the Grand Hotel Timeo where it is said that on another visit Elizabeth broke a guitar by smashing it on Richard’s head during a row. In a excerpt from his diary in Taormina on 30th July 1967 he wrote “A slow day, marking time, with a walk in which we bought sunglasses at a little shop. As we left the crowd which had gathered applauded us. Elizabeth thought it was sweet, which indeed it was. We dined in somnolence and some self-satisfaction as we compared our ancestors and former wives and husbands. Elizabeth has become very slim and I can barely keep my hands off her. She is at the moment among the most dishiest girls I’ve ever seen. The most, I mean the dishiest”.
Villa Angela … In the 1980’s pop stars were charmed by Taormina with one so much that he bought a hotel. Scottish singer songwriter Jim Kerr the lead singer of the band Simple Minds fell in love with Sicily when he visited whilst on tour and later set up Hotel Villa Angela on the hillside above Taormina. He was not the only one, Mick Hucknall the singer from Simply Red, bought an elegant country house at the foot of Mount Etna looking out over the volcano and the sea. Mick Hucknall first spent a holiday in Sicily and fell in love with the country house. He bought the property and cultivated the “Il Cantante” (translated into English “The Singer”) vineyard on the hillside around Mount Etna together with the wine grower Salvo Foti. Many British bands and artists have performed at the Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina, most recently Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Elton John, Boy George and James Blunt.
Villa Britannia … located in the front of Fontana Vecchia you will find Villa Britannia. The owners Anglo/Sicilian Louisa and her partner Marco have lovingly restored the villa with vintage, designer and antique furniture together with art and sculptures by local artists. The villa is surrounded by a beautiful garden which hosts an ancient Roman soldiers tomb. Villa Britannia is also home to one of the best Sicilian cookery glasses in Taormina. Aside from cookery classes the villa has two beautiful suites with one aptly named the D H Lawrence suite. Louisa and Marco are the perfect hosts and also offer wine tasting evenings creating ambient evenings reminiscent of the times of Taormina’s golden age.
Taormina Cult … Walking tours are the perfect way to discover the history and ambience of Taormina. Taormina Cult is a trail through Taormina showing “21 places where the muses found their home”. It is a thematic route through and around the town which includes culture, history, literature, cinema and art and gives honour to Taormina’s glorious past. For the less energetic you can follow the trail with a guide in a Ape Calesse, a three wheeled vehicle which is an icon of Italian style and design.