It's not often that you catch your mum in Robert De Niro's bed. Before I go any further, I should explain that Mr De Niro knows nothing about it and the same applies to my 80-year-old mother.
She is accompanying me on a sentimental journey to Sicily. Last time we were here together, more than 20 years ago, we were backpacking, freewheeling – and tended to leave little details like accommodation to whatever the fates decided. Luck was rarely kind, often dumping us at day's end in the fleapit end of the market. This time we are in a different Sicily.
It seems highly unlikely that anyone could find themselves staying in the presidential suite of the Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina by accident. But accidents happen. We return to our room after a late passeggiata on the city's teeming streets to find the electricity in our room has taken the night off. The duty manager is mortified and, after failing to locate the problem, he wrings his hands and, while regretting the inconvenience caused to Signora, wonders if we would mind terribly if just for the night we might consider sleeping next door. Does he mean the presidential suite, recently occupied by Robert De Niro during the Taormina film festival? He does. It's not a difficult decision.
My mother is tired. She barges into the suite and makes straight for the master bedroom. The Hollywood stardust of the experience passes her by – like totally. "Who is this Roger De Niro?" she demands in the morning.
The Timeo, along with the gorgeous Villa Sant' Andrea (its sister hotel in the neighbouring Bay of Mazzaro), have been bought by Orient Express Hotels and are undergoing an €11m refit over three years. The two hotels are marketed very much as a split experience – reflecting dual aspects of Taormina. The Timeo is the grand hotel and cultural base, while the Sant' Andrea is the more relaxed beach experience at water's edge.
The original villa was built in the late 1800s by a Cornishman called Robert Trewhella. Since opening as a hotel in the 1950s it has grown, and after modernisation it will have more than 60 rooms and suites – many with airy balconies and terraces within feet of the lapping waves. The Sant' Andrea's trump, though, is Carlo, the polyglot maître d' who has the charm dial set permanently to 11. He seems genuinely made up when mum requests a Campari and soda. "Ah Signora," he enthuses. "Ees unbelievable! Ees my favourite! Everybody else likes Martini or Cinzano, but for me Campari is the best. Signora you are Italian." My mother is visibly fluffed up.
The quandary for the Orient Express designers at both hotels must be just how much to modernise such venerable properties and how much to leave well alone. The problem is sharper in the seriously grand interiors of the 1873 Timeo. By the look of the refurbished presidential suite the makeover will be sensitive and err on the conservative side; herringbone parquet, antique furniture, tassels and ruched drapery set the tone. The only jarring notes are the tacky repro artworks displayed in elaborate gilt frames. But such quibbles seem utterly niggling when you step out on the jaw-dropping private terrace.
Taormina is a town of views. It clings to the flanks of Monte Tauro and drops like a stone into the Ionian sea. The scalloped coastline guides the eye to the south west, while on the landward side the sky is interrupted by the brooding massif of Mount Etna. It is hard to conceive of any building in Taormina having a bad outlook, but the granddaddy of them all has to be this terrace. It is not just a matter of location, location, location – cheek by jowl with the Teatro Greco, the defining landmark of the town – but sheer, rampant, rub-your-nose-in-it size. The presidential terrace is 200sq m (more than 2,100sq ft) of shameless privilege. Forget your presidents, this is a tribune fit for an emperor or even Hollywood royalty – like the man Mum calls Roger.
The view from the restaurant one floor down is almost as boggling, especially as the sun sets and the ribbon lights of Giardini Naxos in the bay start glimmering in the thermal currents. A lounge pianist tinkles away, running through "As Time Goes By" and "New York New York". Mum makes approving noises about the warm salad of crayfish with citrus sauce, while my selection of marinated raw seafood is a series of little flavour bombs – the mouthful of orange sea urchin feels like I have swallowed the Mediterranean. It is a far cry from our previous Sicilian adventure when we made our way around the island on bread rolls and salami.
The pianist, emboldened by little ripples of applause, switches on a tinny drum machine and synth, and starts singing. This is a mistake. He commits culpable homicide on John Lennon's "Imagine" – sung with an endearing Italian tic that adds an "h" before certain vowels.
"Himagine," he croons, "no possessions." I feel the spirit of Travis Bickle stirring. Is he talking to me? IS HE talking to me? "Hi wonder if you can," he wails. Well no, frankly it's not easy imagining a dearth of possessions from the splendour of the erstwhile De Niro lodgings. "Hugh may say that ham a dreamer, but hi am not the only Juan," he continues as our evening ends on a merrier note than anticipated.
There is a secret entrance for bona fide emperors from the Timeo directly into the Teatro Greco but we have to use the more plebeian access next to the hotel. Most of what remains of the theatre is not actually Greek but a Roman remodel dating from the first century. Those ancients knew how to pick a spot. The theatre is sited in a natural amphitheatre sitting in the hillside, the ruined back wall, with its Corinthian pillars, frames the view perfectly. From the bleachers today, though, the star of the show is missing; Etna is shrouded in cloud.
However, we have an Etna of sorts. Down on the stage what looks like the local am-dram society is busy confecting the exploding volcano out of polystyrene, sheets of plastic gel and squeezy bottles. They are building the set for an entertainment called "Energheia" due for performance the next night – it is billed as "dance, projection, theatre about the meeting of the energies of nature with those of men". I fear another triumph of modern Italy's instinct for Eurotrash. Sadly, we are to leave before the performance.
It's only after Taormina that we get a true indication of Etna's terrifying majesty. At nearly 11,000ft it is substantial, but its notoriety derives from being a very live volcano. On our last visit, during one of Etna's periodic rumbles, we watched burning ash rivers light up the mountainside at night. This time the mountain is playing dead.
As we skirt the northern slopes, the road between Linguaglossa and Randazzo suddenly resembles a flimsy strip of sticky tape applied to the surface of a roiling ocean of black lava. The flow has been colonised by a shrub called the Mount Etna broom; the honey-sweet scent of its vivid yellow flowers is overwhelming. With just the rustle of the wind and the humming of bees, all appears peaceful. But the stark landscape still feels restless, unresolved. Nature has marked it out in black and yellow – the recognised colour code for danger. Less than 30 years ago, Randazzo itself came close to destruction; fingers of solid lava from that eruption still seem to be prodding the outskirts, testing the nerve of the inhabitants.
We make our way across the rugged centre of Sicily to our next stop at the Verdura resort on the south coast near the fishing port of Sciacca. At first view the low-profile buildings of the complex seem lost – sandwiched between the sweeping green sward of a golf course and the deep blue yonder of the sea. At closer quarters there is something very special going on – imagine the ascetic lines of Ludwig Mies van de Rohe's famous Barcelona Pavilion translated into a sprawling 230-hectare holiday playground.
Architect Flavio Albanese also acknowledges his debt to Mexican architect Luis Barragan, using bold ochre and terracotta to warm the minimalist lines. Interior designer Olga Polizzi has also deployed in-your-face floral patterns and fluttering fabrics to soften the edges of Albanese's buildings. But this is not just a bold design statement; it's also a lavish spa and sports retreat and it served as the German football team's pre-World Cup training camp. I complain to the management that, from an English point of view, they did too good a job.
The must-do excursion from here is to Agrigento's Unesco World Heritage Site known, somewhat counterintuitively (it stands on a ridge), as the Valley of the Temples. The drive through the industrial Porto Empedocle and the suburbs of Agrigento is a reminder that modern architecture can also be plain plug ugly.
Before finding the archaeological site we re-enact the car chase in The Italian Job by getting thoroughly lost in the ever-narrowing alleys of the old town. This is what happens when in Tom Tom you trust. After the icy calm voice of my satnav mistress directs me into a stone buttress, someone's terrace and numerous cul de sacs, I find myself reversing up a 45 per cent gradient from a dead end towards a hole in the wall no wider than a sofa.
The stress levels subside only when we are finally strolling along the ridge of the temples. The best time to go is in the evening (the site reopens at 7.30pm), when the heat has dissipated. The stand-out ruin is the Temple of Concordia, though "ruin" is unfair – it is in fine nick for a 2,440-year-old building. The six fluted Doric columns at either end still proudly support their pediments. The stone radiates warmth, first turning cadmium yellow, then orange-pink as the daylight fades. It looks indestructible. And, back here for the second time in her well travelled life, so does my mother.
How to get there
Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) offers a four-night stay at either of Sicily's new Orient Express hotels from £635 per person at Grand Hotel Timeo and £670 per person at Villa Sant Andrea, both based on two sharing, including return flights with British Airways from London to Catania, transfers and breakfast daily. A three-night stay at the Verdura Spa and Resort, part of the Rocco Forte Collection, costs from £755 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights with BA and breakfast daily.Reuse content