Taormina, SicilyFrancis Ford Coppola may have helped put Sicily on the map when he chose to film parts of the "Godfather" saga there, but first-timers to the destination will find far more to interest them than references to the Mafia.

The popular resort city of Taormina on the island's east coast had been drawing visitors, and more than its share of conquerors, for thousands of years before the fictitious Corleone family ever came on the scene. In fact, a key attraction is the ancient Greco-Roman theater, which is perched dramatically on the cliffs in the village center, overlooking the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna beyond.

The beautifully preserved arena, originally built by the Greeks, who founded the city in 735 B.C., is a huge draw for tourists, but in recent years, tourism officials have transformed the space into a venue for a host of concerts, operas and dance performances.

I had always been told that theater was used by the Romans for bloodthirsty, gladiator-style games, but our guide suggested that the carefully constructed arches, which amplify sound from the stage, were created with more benign theatrical entertainment in mind.

But while the theater hasn't changed much in several thousand years, the streets around it have, even just since my last visit about a decade ago.

The boutiques that line the tiny streets display T-shirts from the "Godfather" films alongside such regional products as brightly colored ceramics, local olive oils, artisanal honey and, of course, gelato in every possible rainbow hue. Emblems of the Trinacia, a three-legged Medusa symbolizing the three corners of Sicily, are for sale everywhere.

Despite the cheerful bustle in the streets, however, our guide told us that tourism is actually down in Taormina by as much as 40% since the economic downturn, resulting in shops closing earlier in shoulder season and for even longer stretches in winter.

That said, the town and its surroundings pack a punch in terms of appealing attractions, cuisine and climate, so much so that locals predict it is poised for a tourism boom among repeat visitors from the U.S. eager to move on from such better-known Italian destinations as Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast.

Attractions

The Greco-Roman theater in TaorminaTaormina is best explored on foot, and the place to start is at the ancient theater. From here, visitors can wander along the Corso Umberto and its offshoots, which are bracketed by two ancient portals, the Catania and Messina Gates.

The narrow, winding streets open up in the Piazza IX Aprile, where visitors can stop to admire the view from the promenade or from one of the city's many open-air cafes.

Beach lovers can take the public funicular to Taormina Mare, where they can find a smaller number of shops, services and hotels as well as watersports facilities for windsurfing, snorkeling and fishing.

The nightlife is hopping in Taormina, which has a history of being a haven for artists and writers and for gay and lesbian travelers. Famous visitors to the town over the centuries include Johannes Goethe, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, D.H. Lawrence and Truman Capote.

Day trips

Although some local tourism officials would like to distance themselves from the "Godfather" mystique, a popular day trip is the tour of Savoca, about an hour outside of town. The tiny village boasts a statue of Coppola in the main square across from the Bar Vitelli, where a key scene with Al Pacino from the first movie was filmed. Here visitors can enjoy a lemon granita (a cross between gelato and a snow cone) before walking up to the Chiesa di Santa Lucia, where the wedding scene was filmed.

Although there is no movie connection, a stop worth making in Savoca is the Cappuccini crypt, where the mummified remains of local dignitaries standing upright are stored in clear cases.

The tour continues in the nearby, picturesque village of Forza d'Agro, which boasts a medieval church where portions of the wedding scene were also shot.

During our tour, we paused for lunch at Da Nino restaurant in Letojanni nearby, where we sampled some of the staples of Sicilian cuisine, including mussels, swordfish and eggplant caponata.

Another popular day trip from Taormina is Siracusa, the fourth-largest city in Sicily and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Once a powerful city-state, the nearly 3,000-year-old Siracusa boasts the remains of a Temple of Apollo, which, over time, became a Christian church and a mosque.

Temple of ApolloOn the other side of the temple are streets with such trendy shops as Zara and Benetton, opening into the Piazza Archimede, presided over by a fountain with a statue of the goddess Diana. Visitors can walk from there to the Piazza Minerva, a central square that boasts a cathedral built around the foundation of a Greek temple.

In the adjacent Basilica of Santa Lucia, there is a painting by Italian artist Caravaggio called "The Burial of Saint Lucy" as well as a glassed-in portion of the floor that showcases the catacombs underneath the church.

The city has its own Greek theater, dating from the fifth century B.C., as well as a lively waterfront bustling with restaurants and cafes. Papyrus grows along the water's edge, and a thriving paper business still exists a block from the water on Via Capodifili.

The skyline in eastern Sicily is dominated by Mount Etna, and several half- and full-day excursions are available from Taormina that take visitors to the summit. Most tourists ascend the volcano via the southern slope, where there are Jeeps that transport them to a cable car, but for a more private experience, the north face offers an easy 20-minute hike to the summit, where you can peer into craters and enjoy the above-the-clouds view of the countryside.

Aside from being the largest active volcano in Europe, Mount Etna influences that part of Sicily in other, subtler ways. Grapes grown in the volcanic soil produce distinctly flavored wines, and the regional fruit and honey also benefit from the minerals in the ground.

One of the biggest changes in Taormina this year was the opening of two Orient-Express properties, the Grand Hotel Timeo and the Villa Sant'Andrea, which offer the high-end accommodations that the destination previously lacked (see "Roominess the result in Orient-Express refurb of Sicily hotels"). 

Looking forward

Even in high season, the percentage of tourists to Taormina from the U.S. is lower than in such A-list Italian destinations as Tuscany and Umbria, as many Americans are still unfamiliar with the destination.

"At the [Orient-Express] Villa San Michele in Florence, half of our guests are American, whereas in Taormina, it's 20%," said Luca Finardi, general manager of the Grand Hotel Timeo.

That said, there is an increasing buzz about the destination, he said, in part because of the Taormina Film Fest. The festival, held each June, was big in the 1960s and '70s and is regaining its clout.

"Taormina is becoming the place to be for a week to 10 days, but we need to get rid of the association people have with Sicily and the Mafia," Finardi said, adding: "It's very safe here."

Finardi is also lobbying for a marina, which he said would help draw more upscale clients who want to combine yacht stays with overnights on land.

Visit www.italiantourism.com.

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