I’d never heard of Florence Trevelyan before I visited Sicily. But her story has become one of my abiding memories of my time here, beginning with wandering around the Isola Bella.
Florence Trevelyan was an upper-crust Englishwoman who became the talk of the town in Edwardian England after she had an affair with famous womaniser Edward VII, and not in a good way. In those days it was disgrace, and in her case she chose exile rather than the social repercussions of scandal.
She travelled through Europe for a couple of years and eventually settled on Sicily as her new home in the late 1870s.
Florence and Isola Bella
Isola Bella is a lump of rock just off the coast below the stunning Sicilian town of Taormina. Set in a tiny curve of a sandy bay it is a jewel in a bright blue sea. It is reached by a steep stone staircase, a walk along the pebbly beach, and wading across a few metres of water. Florence bought bought it for 5,000 lira, which is only a few pounds in today’s money.
She built a house and began her lifelong passion for gardening, planting a rich spectrum of native and non-native vegetation. You can probably guess that Isola Bella means ‘beautiful island’ but it is also called the ‘Pearl of the Ionian Sea’.
Nowadays Isola Bella is a designated nature reserve maintained by the World Wide Fund for Nature. The waters surrounding it are crystal clear and although it was a bit too early in the year for snorkelling we saw beautiful sea life right from the beach as we paddled around the rocks.
Florence and Taormina’s Villa Communale
She cemented her happiness in Sicily when she married the local mayor of Taormina in 1890 – Dr Salvatore Cacciola – and moved into the town. Once again she bought land and created a garden, which after her death became the beautiful public Villa Communale gardens of Taormina.
They are famous for their views of the coast and Mt Etna, and also for their lovely ‘follies’ – fanciful buildings created from architectural salvage material that set off the exotic garden perfectly.
She was a passionate conservationist and as well as creating aesthetically beautiful environments she pioneered bird habitat conservation in Italy.
I would love to have met her and think she did jolly well, building a wonderful new life for herself in gorgeous Sicily. I’d take Taormina and Isola Bella over stuffy, hypocritical Edwardian England any day!!
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited Isola Bella in Sicily?