If you don’t have a car, getting to Castelmola can be problematic. There is a set of stairs and a path starting from Taormina, but at 500 meters above sea level, it’s steep and you need a good set of lungs and lots of water. Interbus, the regional bus line, goes there, but its schedule is spotty, with buses over one hour apart and sometimes more (for a 15 minutes trip). Taxis are an option but they are very expensive, and it is advised to settle on a price before entering the cab (drivers tend to be creative with the rate, as most don’t have meters). One of the best ways, although pricey (20 Euros per person), is to take a hop-on, hop-off bus that takes you through Giardini-Naxos, Taormina and Castelmola.
As mentioned earlier, for us Taormina wasn’t the greatest, but the trip to get there was definitely worth it: the bus goes gradually up and lets you see ocean vistas with miles of beaches and turquoise sea on one side and sheer cliffs going impossibly up on the other side. The hairpin curves convince driving yourself might not be a good idea -the traffic is intense, both ways- and everyone can enjoy the view instead of the driver concentrating on the road. In addition, there are no lookouts where you can stop and admire the views, except at Taormina Capo, which is a third of the way to Taormina itself.
Castelmola’s origins can be found in the pre-hellenic period. It sits on a rocky formation called at the time Mylai or a “mola,” meaning stone. The first settlement dates from the Iron Age (eighth Century BC) by the Sicels, who later gave their name to Sicilia. This was confirmed with the discovery of a necropolis halfway between Castelmola and Taormina, in which they found remains that helped them date the area.
In 367 AD, in order to resist invasions, Andromachus built new fortifications. But the small town has followed through the years the story of Sicily’s constant invations, from the Greek, to the various tyrants, the Romans, then passing under the Byzantine influence. In 902, the Saracen breached the town’s defences and destroyed the town. Only the castello resisted the Moors’ attacks.
The Arab influence ceased with the ascension to the throne of the Norman Ruggero (Roger I). He rebuilt the town and called it Mola. It became Castelmola in 1928.
One of the most charming sites of the town is its piazza, the Piazza Sant’ Antonio. The piazza is a belvedere looking down on Taormina and has a pavement made of distinctive black-and-white mosaics, with tree-lined sidewalks dotted with stone benches. On the right is an arch that defines the entrance to the town.
On the piazza is the cafe San Giorgio, founded in the 1700s by the monks. Now the owners, today Vincenzo Blandano, have been welcoming visitors since 1907 and have been collecting comments and signatures from guests in a collection of albums that people can look at. Castelmola is also well known for its “vino alla mandorla,” or almond wine, which Blandano has invented. Using ancient greek techniques of infusions, the wine flavored with almonds, called “Blandanino,” is a mysterious concoction in which you can find the various smells and tastes of Sicily.
Not much remains of the castello, but it offers gorgeous views onto the piazza below, Taormina, the ocean, and the Etna, whcih we barely saw. It was encased in clouds, but we couldn’t escape its majestic size. The streets of the town are narrow and winding, and most have not been touched by the gaudy signs of tourism: the vendors, the kistch, the noise. Walking in the streets of Castelmola, surounded by ancient stones, you realize that “real” people live here, that they go about their daily lives, even though they are surrounded by beauty and history. This is what was missing in Taormina, and what we found in Castelmola.