Most people would presume you need to race around Paris darting from one patisserie to the next to find the world’s best croissant, but it turns out all you need to do is climb almost two thousand feet above sea level up the steep hillside of Monte Tauro in the north eastern corner of Sicily.
Spectacularly perched on the side of a mountain, Taormina is one of Sicily’s most popular summer destinations, a chi-chi resort town popular with holidaying high-rollers and those wanting a taste of Sicilian dolce vita.
The last leg of my impromptu exploration of Sicily was spent in a patch of paradise where morning, noon and night, everybody was wearing their holiday best. I was surrounded by men in white suits wearing eye-blinding wrist bling, flashy sunglasses and panama hats. Women effortlessly gliding over cobbles in high heels and polka dot mini dresses with perfectly rouged lips.
My Lonely Planet guide was right – Taormina was unashamedly touristy.
In the height of summer, waking before the dawn is the only way to see the town’s cobbled streets empty. You only have early morning moments before the gelaterias roll up their shutters and the coffee shops begin to entice people out of bed, wafting their bittersweet aromas through the warming air.
It was just after six and the sun had barely risen over the horizon. I headed down the steep hill from my hotel, through the archway of Porta Catania and into the Borgo Mediavale, the old town.
I wandered along, peering in shop windows and looking up at the lemon and biscuit coloured buildings with beautiful flowers hanging over their cast iron balconettes.
Beams of sunlight were shining in through the gaps between the walls and the old fashioned street lamps were fading. Tiny birds ducked in and out of their rooftop nests and others sang out their morning chorus from trees nearby.
The streets were deserted; even the famous Corso Umberto, Taormina’s boutique-lined thoroughfare which was usually teaming with crowds by the afternoon, was silently still.
I made my way out of the town through the northern gate of Porta Messina and along a road that wound left around the corner.
It led me up past quaint cafés and whitewashed walls draped in bougainvillea and along to the bottom of a never-ending staircase with huge pale stone steps reaching up and up and up towards the sky.
I stood at the bottom taking a sip of my water as stray cats twirled around my legs purring. Then, stretching my feet one in front of the other, I started my climb.
For the first twenty minutes or so, my path was enclosed on either side by tall, dark green trees and all I could see was the steps in front of me and the hundreds of lizards that scurried out of my way as soon as they heard my stomping footsteps.
I moved forward meditatively taking long, deep inhalations and focusing on the ground in front, until half way up the hillside, the steps stopped and a road appeared.
The road wound up towards the right hand side of Monte Tauro, taking me past tiny little countryside houses and fields of chickens and hens and then along to the start of another footpath. More steps to the sky.
With the sun rising up behind me the air was getting warmer but a sea breeze began to come in from the south to keep me cool. And this time, there were no trees block my view, so every time I stopped for a sip of water or to give my aching legs a rest, I’d turn around to admire the breathtaking views of the coast and say “wow” out loud.
Antico Caffè San Giorgio
Another fifteen minutes of plodding upwards and I’d reached the top, stumbling out on to Piazza Sant’Antonio; a mosaic tiled square with panoramic views of touristy Taormina below.
Antico Caffè San Giorgio was opening its shutters, the waitresses were putting ashtrays out on the tables and opening up the parasols. The scent of coffee lured me in through the large wooden door on the left.
It was small inside with faded salmon coloured walls and tall wooden cabinets stacked with bottles. Near to the door was a tall, white empty hat stand and an antique standing lamp with a pearly beaded shade.
And in the far corner there were a few local men sat at a table together, all wearing grey tweed blazers and white shirts, all with their heads tucked away in newspapers, squinting through dark-rimmed glasses and smoking their pipes.
I stood beneath the huge golden chandelier leaning on the dark wooden counter top, staring through the glass at the freshly made pastries.
The World’s Best Coffee
I ordered myself a cappuccino and handed over my five euro note, my eyes still fixated on the pastries. I took my change and stood there for a moment or two, deliberating the calorific in take while quite obviously and salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
I pointed at one of the croissants in front of me and said un croissant per favore in my best Italian accent.
It’s funny how I’d spent all of my childhood summers in France, I’d lived in Aix en Provence for a year at university and I’d often visited Paris for work, yet it was up there on the hill of Castelmola that I first fell in love with croissants.
After taking a sip of my cappuccino, leaning over the railings and looking out onto the miles and miles and azure allure below, I bit into the delicate flakes of pastry, letting the unexpected taste of marmalade tickle my tongue.
There was something fun about feeling the textures passing my lips.
Crisp, buttery layers were breaking into pieces as they entered my mouth and melting onto my tongue like snowflakes. The marmalade poured out with every bite. It was cold and fresh with a jelly-like in texture and tiny crunches of Sicilian zest teasing my teeth.
My eyes were wide awake, my legs were aching and my taste buds were being tantalised with every mouthful. The whole world was down there below me. The Mediterranean sea was twinkling. The air was fresh and olive-scented. I was sipping my cappuccino and nibbling on the best croissant in the world.
This really was la dolce vita.