A Sicilian mystery
Imagine the isolation. You are on a Sicilian hillside, lying under a line of mid-height pines, and the scent of resin fills the air. In the background is a whiff of oregano. Beside you lie several parallel lines of vine, their leaves rich and green. You listen. Nothing. No traffic, no human voices. In the distance is the tiniest, fluffiest cloud, and the weather is as you might envisage. Warm, with the gentlest breeze to make leaves flutter. In the distance is the sea, scattered houses far beneath you, but dominant is a volcanic Mount Etna spewing an off-white stream of vapour.
This is the resting place and mausoleum of a great Englishwoman. Someone who was a mystery, and for whom the nearby Sicilian town of Taormina has much to thank. Her name was Florence Trevelyan.
Born in 1852 and brought up in the northern English village of Hallington, Florence was soon immersed in tragedy, as her father committed suicide when she was barely two. Yet Hallington taught Florence much about gardens, their design, and how to make them last a century. It was a skill she kept honed.
By 1877, Florence’s mother died. Thanks to family links with the British monarchy, Queen Victoria housed the now orphaned Florence in Balmoral Castle. The Queen blinked, her son Edward, the future king, had an affair with Florence, and in no time the orphan was expelled. Off she went, on Europe’s Grand Tour, accompanied by her cousin, Louise. In Florence’s pocket was a 50-pound monthly allowance from the Queen.
In 1881, the pair arrived in Sicily’s Taormina and stayed for a fortnight before heading onwards. They liked what they saw, as four years later they returned to make Taormina their home. By 1890, Florence had married the local mayor, and Louise had returned to England.
In modern-day Taormina, Florence Trevelyan lies hidden, yet her influence is impossible to escape. Her town-centre gardens, which she opened in 1898, are said to be based on her experiences in England’s north.
It was in Taormina I met the talented Beate Lemp, that guide of guides, multilingual, and an information treasure trove on legs.
“She called her gardens Hallington Siculo,” said Beate, as we wandered slowly along the tidy paths and avenues that make up the Trevelyan gardens. “They are somewhere to think.”
Beate was right. The gardens, which overlook the island’s Naxos Bay, are shaded yet bright, open yet private, dry yet with the sound of running water. Outside their perimeter, visitors walk shoulder-to-shoulder through Taormina’s crowded streets, but the gardens ooze relaxation. I was miles away in moments, analysing the problems of home, yet never finding a solution.
“The peace is why many writers have lived here,” said Beate. “Dumas, Wilde, Capote, Lawrence. Heard of them?”
I nodded. Somehow, I doubted I would ever feature on such a list of literary fame.
Near the gardens lies the tiny island of Isola Bella. It, too, was once owned by Florence Trevelyan. The island, whose name was coined by Wilhelm von Gloeden, the German photographer of male-nude reputation, is now a well-visited nature reserve, and another oasis of daydream.
When the story of Florence Trevelyan is narrated, the tale seems simple. Yet as I trod in her Taormina footsteps, question-marks multiplied in my mind. She died in 1907, aged 55, apparently from pneumonia acquired from a cold bath taken ten days earlier. I wonder. Cold baths and pneumonia do not go together, whatever folklore encourages. In the spring of 1906, King Edward VII anchored the royal yacht off Taormina and visited Florence in her home. At almost the same time, Florence wrote her Will. She died the following year, as if she knew what was coming.
Perhaps an explanation lies with the two medallions that hang around the neck of Florence Trevelyan’s much-photographed bust, just inside her gardens.
“The one at the top is alpha inside omega,” said Beate, pointing at the figure. “Or, maybe it is the Eye of Providence, a secret sign. The medallion below is the head of Hermes.”
Hermes, I thought, who was not only the Greek god of travellers, but of thieves and trickery. And secrets? Sicily hides them better than many with its Beati Paoli, Teutonic Knights, Mafia, and freemasons.
My brow furrowed as I pondered. There is much hidden about Florence Trevelyan, secrets that history will not reveal and may never do so. Take a stroll through her Taormina gardens with Beate Lemp, gaze at the glorious Naxos Bay beyond, look at the medallions, and decide. Mystery or not, ask any local and they will say that Florence, the remarkable Englishwoman, did well for Taormina and its people.
Taormina Tourist Information: Palazzo Corvaja, Piazza Santa Caterina – Tel. +39(0)94223243; [email protected]
Look no further than Beate Lemp, licensed tourist guide (German, Italian, English), Via Francavilla 387, 1 – 98039 Taormina; Tel. +393356133786, +393407991901; [email protected]
British Airways has summer-only flights from London Gatwick to Catania.
EasyJet flies from Luton to Catania.
Please check with above airlines for latest information.
Taormina is a busy tourist town, so there is plenty of choice. Try:
The Ashbee Hotel
Villa Giannina B&B
La Bottega del Formaggio
Osteria Pizzeria Le Tre Vie
Do not miss
Ancient Theatre of Taormina: Via Teatro Greco 1, 98039 Taormina (ME)
Corso Umberto: The most important street in Taormina, very historic, and well worth a wander
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Sardatur Holidays for visits to Sicily.