An English Lady and her Garden… in Taormina

April 2, 2014 / Local Interest
Taormina, Sicily

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.

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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.

Florence Trevelyan

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.

Queen Victoria and 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.

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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.

Isola Bella Taormina

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.

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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.

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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
Never Forgotten

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by Marian Watson-Virga

Marian has lived in Sicily for longer than she can remember. British by birth, Sicilian by marriage she loves all things Sicilian, even pani ca’ meusa!   For the past few years she has been collaborating with Carmelina Ricciardello of www.sicilianexperience.com, developing responsible tourism and discovering Sicily on walking and car tours. Marian’s blog page is here.

29 Responses to “An English Lady and her Garden… in Taormina”

  1. Angela Finch

    Yes, I have been there but was not aware of Florence’s story. She appeared to have kept up the English tradition of attractive eccentricity and her love of dogs. Great pictures too.

    Reply
  2. Wondeful note today, we definitely need more people like Florence in our increasingly homogenized and conforming world. Another reason to spend lots of time in Sicilia!

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  3. Pat Egner

    Fascinating story! Florence sounds like a woman who would have created a home for herself anywhere. Thanks for sharing….

    Reply
  4. mary jane

    Just love the stories of the eccentric expats who preceded us to Italy: Florence’s gardens in Taormina is a perfect place for a cool rest after exploring the amphitheatre. Havnt made it up to Castelmola yet.

    Reply
  5. Paula (Giangreco) Cullison

    Thank You for the memories of hours spent in the lovely garden and park. I was in Taormina for a week in 2008 … part of my month of traveling through Sicily by myself (using public transportation) in search of my roots. I also covered the film festival while there.

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  6. Jayne Austin

    Great to see such lovely pictures in the middle of our Scottish winter! Thank you x

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  7. Lex DiSanti

    A story very well written of a life so well lived. Thank you.

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  8. What an awesome and romantic story!!! Wonder if you have an up close image of the house she built on the island?? thanks for letting me wander close to Sicily this afternoon!!!
    (also love that Jane Austin..Jayne…left a comment. History is all around us today!!) hahaha…

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  9. Yes, I have experienced Sicily, Taormina, Isola Bella & the view from the top at Castelmola is unforgettable, but we did not know the story of the gardens by Florence Trevelyan; as she was a visionary in her own time leaving such a legacy for all to admire who travel to Taormina. Thank you for the story.

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  10. James Canning

    Great story. The Trevelyans were seated at Wallington, in Northumberland (England). Wonderful gardens there. The estate was given to the National Trust in 1942.

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    • Marian

      Yes James, there is a bit of confusion over Wallington/Hallington. I knew the family seat was Wallington so perhaps they just made a spelling mistake on the inscription under her bronze bust.

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  11. Thank you for writing a story on beautiful and spectacular Taormina. There are several biographies written about Florence Trevelyan, they make for some very interesting reading.

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    • Marian

      Can you give me the titles of biographies please, Maria? ……..and your surname interests me a lot!

      Reply
  12. Marianna Raccuglia

    Thank you for such an interesting story and beautiful photos.

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  13. Lisa Tavelli Feinberg

    Love this story. Want to come to Sicily to see. Thank you so much!!!!

    Reply
  14. Richard Newton

    Perhaps the readers wouldn’t be quite so impressed if the author had mention the minor detail that Florence had the Greek theater dismantled to build her pigeon houses and other structures. After viewing the garden, be sure to go look at the huge holes in the theater.

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  15. Anne Cousins

    The bagpipes would have reminded her of the Northumbria pipes; the Trevelyans played those until very recently. Much sweeter and less raucous than Scottish ones.

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  16. Great story! I just watched the railway program of
    Italian on TV. Happy to know a English lady created her garden in Maormina.

    Reply
  17. Mrs Valerie Ekin

    My husband and I have just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary in Toarmina and learned about Florance Trevelyan. Also enjoying the beautiful tranquil gardens which were right next to our hotel. A very interesting woman.

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  18. Lana Bienvenu

    Thank you for this history. My husband and I stayed in the suite named for her at The Villa Sant’Andrea earlier this month. Would like to chat privately at your convenience. Grazie.

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  19. Adrienne

    I have a painting by Charles Reid (American Watercolorist) of the Folly – painted in September 2014 – I treasured my time there – the gardens are magnificent….

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  20. Valerie Cottle

    Fascinating story – but sorry, NO way is that Queen Victoria in the photo of the two women. It doesn’t look remotely like her!

    Reply

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