“Here the past is so much stronger than the present, that one seems remote like the immortals, looking back at the world from their otherworld.” So wrote D H Lawrence in a letter from his house in Taormina in eastern Sicily, dated June 1, 1920.
It was the one place where the author always seemed to feel at ease and settled – and it’s not hard to identify the qualities that singled it out. Taormina, a town of barely 11,000 people even today, is situated high up on a clifftop overlooking rocky bays of the dark blue Mediterranean. Approaching Taormina by taxi from the nearest train station, down by the coast at sea level, it is not hard to see why Lawrence felt so moved – you zigzag queasily up and up from the coast, through precariously perched lemon groves, until finally you reach what feels like a higher plane altogether, remote and removed from ordinary life.
The immortals of the ancient past seem to dominate the landscape, and consequently the entire atmosphere, on Sicily's eastern coast. Scattered there remain the stone ruins of Greek civilisation, and looming over them all, Mount Etna. Still a regularly active volcano, Etna is impossible to ignore, and inseparable from life in Taormina and its surrounding towns. It has always has been the source of awe, majesty and terror: in Homer's Odyssey it was the home of the Cyclops; when Odysseus fled after their battle, the one-eyed giant sent pieces of molten lava hurtling after him.
The beaches of the eastern coast, underneath the watch of Etna, are formed not of anything so easy or humane as sand, but gigantic black lava rocks, the jagged remnants of a natural force that mere mortals can do little about. The volcano’s last devastating eruption, in 1669, destroyed parts of the largest city in the east, Catania, and most of the smaller villages. This stretch of coast is called the Riviera dei Ciclopi, scarred by the Cyclops’ wrath.
Lawrence was not alone in being seduced by its atmosphere. Over the past two centuries Taormina has lured a seemingly unending series of writers (and artists, royals and aristocrats) in search of a new muse, or perhaps just the replenishing strength of the air, the views, and the ineffable aura of the immortals. From Cervantes to Truman Capote, Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams, the landscape of the coast, and Taormina in particular, has hosted and inspired writers down the generations. It is Lawrence whose connection is perhaps the strongest – it is thought that his years living in Taormina with his wife provided the sad inspiration for Lady Chatterley's Lover, after he was cuckolded by a local Sicilian mule driver. The house where he (and later Capote) lived, Fontana Vecchia, up a series of steep hilly roads, 15 or so minutes outside of Taormina's centre, has become notorious to locals as "the Lawrence house" or "the writer's house". At first it appears unremarkable from the outside; it is only on very close inspection of the wall that you at last notice a subtle stone engraving commemorating Lawrence.
Much more striking is the sense that you are – as Lawrence was – barely clinging on to human civilisation in the midst of all-powerful nature. You are precariously balanced on a steep hill between the hills and the deep blue sea, and surrounded by the most stunning pink and purple blossom, growing wild by the side of the road. The views from the Teatro Greco, the Greek amphitheatre, the well-manicured public gardens, and the famous five-star Grand Hotel Timeo, are simply breathtaking. Johann Goethe felt that a seat in one of the theatre’s top rows provided the greatest vantage point any theatre audience could ever hope for; in light of this, it was a bit of a shame to note that the next coming attraction there was the pop star James Blunt.
For all that Taormina became famous for attracting the monied and the elegant, the landscape is less a picturesque oil painting than one of visceral melodrama. Wherever you go along the coast, Etna is always looming portentously, a reminder of mortality, of big themes, dramatic downfalls and explosive possibilities. Intellectual complacency is hard to come by, when the land beneath your feet might conceivably be a torrent of molten lava at any minute. With this in mind it was unsurprising to discover that it was on the extensive patio-balcony of the Hotel Timeo that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote portions of Thus Spake Zarathustra.
For Ernest Hemingway, another visitor to Taormina, the spectacular surroundings did not invoke the same sense that man must strive to conquer nature – he was happy just to enjoy the relaxed southern Mediterranean attitude to life and its pleasures. The town makes an appearance in his short story The Mercenaries, where he extols the gentle pace of life "under the orange trees, jasmine matted on the walls, and the moon making all the shadows blue-black". Graves, the protagonist of the story, is a wizened old adventurer who marvels that everything in this part of Sicily is "all colour", and the countryside "so pretty that it hurts to look at it".
It was hard to argue with Graves, or indeed Hemingway – these impressions, fictional or otherwise, have been handily collated in a very readable new compendium called Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers by Andrew and Suzanne Edwards. The book also provides some amusing reflections on how the influx of tourists over the decades – literary or otherwise – may have changed Taormina:
“The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s continued to see visits from the rich and famous, but these were more likely to be due to the Taormina Film Festival. The rough edges of bohemian life were gradually being polished by the glamour of Hollywood money. Even in the 1950s, Evelyn Waugh and his travelling companion, Harold Acton, had noted a difference … His is the bewailing tone of any elite who find they no longer have the space or time to indulge their whims.” He goes on to complain that Taormina has lost its shady reputation and is now “quite as respectable as Bournemouth”.
Of course, there is another part of Sicilian life which has been alchemised into cultural wonders: the Mafia. All the Sicilian scenes in The Godfather films were shot in and around Taormina and the Riviera dei Ciclopi. (The real life town of Corleone is situated in western Sicily, and was deemed too developed and modern-looking by the Hollywood producers.) Instead, to get the old world atmosphere they wanted, the films were shot in pretty hillside villages like Savoca, half an hour up the coast from Taormina – where "the past is so much stronger", indeed.
To visitors in 2014, the Mafia are present mostly by their absence. Read deeply into local newspapers and you will find discussion of the now relatively long-standing anti-Mafia movement; on one street in Catania I spotted some anti-Mafia graffiti, in among more important, larger daubings about the relative merits of the island's two main football teams. The anti-Mafia movement encourages businesses to sign up to a publicly declared list announcing they have not paid pizzo or protection money. Those clinging to the old ways do so with increasing difficulty, and not just because of anti-Mafia judges, political pressure and social modernisation: the ultimate humiliation, perhaps, is the rendering of these ancient power hierarchies in kitsch gifts. The bathos of the cheap, knock-off Simpsons T-shirt sold in Sicily's tackier tourist shops, where Homer Simpson appears dressed in a black and white suit like Don Corleone, must be almost too much for any real life mafioso to bear.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.