Not many things are more important to an Englishman than his garden. Fiercely proud and jealous of it, the garden is the first thing he misses when going abroad… apart from that cup of tea and pint of beer.
Italy also loves giardini inglesi (English gardens), and Sicily is no exception.
When Florence Trevelyan arrived in Taormina in 1884 she set about creating her own corner of England next to the Greek/Roman amphitheatre. She called it Hallington-Siculo, after the name of her hometown in England.
After being orphaned at an early age Florence was taken into the royal household at Balmoral, Scotland through family connections. Queen Victoria fostered her and imparted her passions for dogs and plants, among other things, onto Florence.
At the age of 27, Florence was however suddenly banished from court and given 48 hours to leave the country. It was rumoured that she had a bit of a fling with Victoria’s son, Edward VII. To keep her at a safe distance from home, the Royal Treasurer was ordered to pay Florence an allowance of £50 a month enabling her to embark on her own round-the-world tour. Considered a bit of a maverick for her day, she even sang in an opera in Melbourne, Australia.
After settling in Taormina, Florence married the wealthy mayor and Gran Maestro of Taormina’s Freemasonry Lodge. Adoring husband, he bought her all the mountains at the back of Taormina, including Castelmola where she is buried, and for a mere 5,700 lire (about $1000 at the end of the 19th century, or about $24,000 today) he bought Isola Bella too, the small island below Taormina. Particularly fond of this island, Florence built a house and planted many rare plants.
Life was lived between her gardens and the aristocratic social whirl. Many kings and queens and literary giants were invited to Taormina – even Edward VII but only after Victoria’s death. Not only was Florence benefactress to dogs, birds and penniless poets – she financed Oscar Wilde for a bit after his release for being imprisoned for homosexuality – but also to a whole bunch of local girls who were lucky enough to receive a dowry from her.
Known as a francisa, (the French lady, anyone from northern Europe in those days was automatically labelled as French), she was well-loved by the locals. Florence died of pneumonia due to her predilection for taking baths in freezing cold sea water. The funeral procession walked the 15 kilometers up to Castelmola. Escorting shepherds played Sicilian bagpipes – they had always reminded her of the Scottish ones from her childhood – while the dowry girls threw flowers over her coffin.
True to British eccentricity and her passion for dogs, not shared by the local population however, she created the first dog cemetery in the garden. One of the headstone inscriptions reads:
Jumbo Perceval (Terrier)
True Honorable Loving Little Friend and Helper
Murdered July 24th, 1904