Explore Sicily with a Cicerone guidebook
Walking in Sicily
Short and long-distance walks by Gillian Price
This handy guidebook contains detailed route descriptions for 46 graded routes in Sicily, including the Madonie and Nebrodi mountains and Mount Etna. The routes range from easy strolls suitable for all the family to walks akin to Alpine treks. The terrain varies considerably from river valleys to ancient ruins to volcanoes and mountain peaks. More...
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1 Taormina and the Castello Saraceno
Distance: 3.5km/2.2 miles
Map: Town map from Tourist Office
Start/finish: Taormina railway station
Access: Taormina’s railway station (Taormina-Giardini) is served by all Messina–Catania trains. Buses (Interbus) also stop here before proceeding uphill to the town, where it is feasible to slot directly into the upper part of the itinerary if desired. A novel way to access the town is by cable-car (funivia): from Mazzarò on the coast it ascends the mountainous eastern flank, to terminate a short distance from Porta Messina. Drivers on the A18 autostrada will need the Taormina Sud exit, then the SS 114 coast road, and are advised to seek parking on the outskirts of town.
This popular scenic route makes use of old winding trails on the picturesque hillsides around the erstwhile Graeco-Roman settlement of Tauromenium, now a charming tourist attraction. The site was originally occupied by the native Sicel population and is set in a dominating position high over the sea in a series of spacious recesses and terraces on the flanks of lofty Monte Tauro. The actual town was founded in the 5th century bc by refugees fleeing from the destruction of nearby Naxos, the pioneer Greek colony in Sicily; in fact, Taormina’s landmark, an unusual and beautiful theatre ensconced in the mountainside, dates back to that period. The thriving settlement was eventually seized by the Arabs in the 10th century, only to fall to the Normans some time afterwards, as happened all over the island.
Taormina enjoys a marvellous Mediterranean climate with mild winters, long ensuring its fame as a haven for foreigners of a literary penchant, such as Goethe, D.H. Lawrence and Lawrence Durrell. A must for all visitors to Sicily, the town offers attractive, stately buildings set amid lush vegetation – the likes of the ornamental palm from the Canary Isles shade many a garden. Bougainvillea adds splashes of colour, while omnipresent orange trees thrive in this sun-blessed climate, their divine perfume wafting down back-streets and alleys.
The walk itself follows well-graded mule tracks and, once the town has been traversed, continues uphill to a photogenic sanctuary and Saracen castle. Magnificent views range over the sparkling Ionian Sea and coastline and take in the majestic spread of Etna. An easy route for anyone who can deal with gradual climbs from sea level to 400m in altitude. It is however unsuitable in the central part of the day in summer as shade is scarce, but highly recommended at other times of the year, preferably late afternoon to catch the sunset from the castle. Naturally Taormina has no lack of opportunities for refreshment or accommodation.
The route starts from the beautifully restored Art Deco-style railway station, enveloped in heady orange blossoms that are nothing short of overwhelming in spring. Take the road northeast in the direction of Taormina and after some 300m, where it squeezes through a row of houses, turn off left, following the signpost for the ‘centro’. Right past a grotto-cum-shrine, a ramp leads to a pathway for the winding ascent through scrubby vegetation. Views over the sea are impressive from the word go. After the modest church of Madonna delle Grazie is a stiff but short climb to the verge of a sprawling hotel complex – go left up the stairs to Via Roma.
Resume the uphill stretch on a broader flight of steps alongside Hotel Villa Schuler, then it’s left at the subsequent fork and up in a matter of minutes to the town’s main street, Corso Umberto 1°, close to Piazza IX Aprile (45min from the railway station). In terms of height, you’re halfway now, as Taormina stands 200m above sea level.
Directly across the road, squeezed between an antique shop and a gelateria, is the narrow arched alleyway Vicolo Stretto, all of 60cm wide. It emerges at a lane in the residential area, where you go right for a brief stretch, then take the next flight of steps uphill. Busy Via Circonvallazione is crossed, and close by (left) is the start of the old mule track for the Castello Saraceno and Via Crucis.
Climbing gradually above town, a series of steps and ramps passes through a lovely profusion of wild flowers, majestic agave spikes and wild fennel, not to mention the prickly pear outlined on the rocky mountainside. Needless to say there are good views down onto the town’s famous Greek theatre.
Twenty minutes from the square will see you at the well-placed scenic sanctuary of Madonna della Rocca, a 16th-century church partially built into the limestone bastion, as its curious uneven rocky ceiling reveals. Outside, a vast expanse of the Ionian coast stretches into the distance, with a curve of Calabria on mainland Italy to the northeast. Below, set in the gentle sweep of the bay at modern day Capo Schisò, are the scanty remains of the first Greek colony in Sicily, namely Naxos.
Just around the corner from the church is drinking water, a modest souvenir stand and the start of the final but brief leg to the castle. At the commanding height of 398m on the very top of Monte Tauro, the 12th-century Castello Saraceno (1hr 15min) occupies the site of the acropolis built in classical times. Several extant lengths of defensive walling, a tower and remains of a cistern can be seen, but the best thing is the panorama: the solemn spread of Monte Etna lays southwest, while the bird’s-eye views over the coast, Taormina and environs are breathtaking. If the castle is closed, enquire at the souvenir stand, as the custodian may be on hand to let you in.
Return the same way to Taormina’s centre and the Corso to join the locals on their traditional evening promenade, and from there continue to the railway station (grand total 2hr).
Tourist Office: Taormina Tel. 0942-23243
Accommodation: Affittacamere Il Leone Tel. 0942-23878; Casa Grazia Tel. 0942-24776