The menu is in the shape of a penis and, feeling rather peckish, I eagerly open it. I am immediately confronted with an image of a courgette and two tomatoes, which happily sit side by side in the shape of the male organ. This could nearly be an Italian version of The Sun’s Page 3, I think to myself.
A group of middle-aged ladies giggle at a very large penis which royally sits in the middle of their wooden table, while their husbands uncomfortably shift in their seats, not knowing where to look.
At first glance this café – where wooden penis statuettes, stone male members and all manner of phallic memorabilia dot the premises – may seem vulgar. However, there’s a lot more to this laid-back spot in Castelmola, a small village perched on a hill just above Taormina.
Massimo, the café’s third generation owner, tells me more about the establishment’s curious history. “The bar was opened in 1947 by my grandfather” he tells me. “At the time, it wasn’t exactly a bar as it is now, it was more of a post-war bazaar, a souvenir shop-cum-cafe, where customers were served almond wine, traditional to this part of Sicily. This area was historically a winery for the Greeks, where wine was sweetened to be transported.”
I sip on my alcoholic almond drink, which nowadays is mostly produced using white wine. Massimo goes on: “In the mid-19th century, Taormina, and in general this area of Sicily, was far more progressive than many other parts of the country and even Europe”.
Indeed, poets, writers, painters and actors were attracted to the area for its natural beauty: the glistening warm waters of the Mediterranean; the Greek ruins; Mount Etna gracefully sloping in the distance, at times lit up by bright rivers of lava that gently snake its sides. In the mid 19th century, Taormina and the surrounding area became a magnet for artists wanting to retreat to a calm and peaceful location which would provide inspiration for their work.
“Painters looked back back to the Hellenistic period, depicting nudes, many of which were carried out here in Castelmola” he continues. “The German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden, for example, chose this area as the setting for many of his nudes of young boys. The lax liberal ways of bohemian artists and openness to sexual trends were a manner of life here, and my grandfather wanted to show this through the bar’s decor.”
The area certainly must have been a liberal corner of the peninsula. I couldn’t quite imagine my Italian grandmother sipping a coffee here in the 50’s, among a select collection of phalli pointing in all directions.
The furniture and objects displayed were all commissioned by the family and carried out exclusively by Sicilian carpenters and blacksmiths. Massimo reveals that an even larger collection remains behind closed doors. “Certain valuable objects are best not displayed. You’d be surprised to hear how many people try and steal objects here. I even had to install cameras last year”.
I soon learn that in the 1990’s, a regular client saw a group of men fleeing the bar with a rather large member – so large it was clearly not their own – and stuffing it into the car before quickly driving off. The witness took down the number plate and the police were soon called to the scene. The car was tracked down and the thief – a lawyer from Catania – soon returned the stolen object saying that he and his friends had been “taken over by the moment”. I chuckled at the thought of a Sicilian lawyer fleeing with a large penis in hand.
Indeed, the bar and the eclectic collection of phalli has gained such popularity that many have tried to recreate this atmosphere in other locations. However, removing the café from its historic context is impossible. “The café, with its decor, is rooted in a well-defined historical, social and cultural context. It was born here not by chance, but because there were certain factors which led to its creation, right here, and right then, in 1947.”
Behind me, a statue of the town’s patron Saint seems out of place, innocently standing out among a collection of erotic memorabilia. “This is Sicily, this is our history”, Massimo tells me, indicating above to an age-old wooden cart decorated with intricate arabesques which hangs from the ceiling.
A visitors’ book, a large tome, lies open on a stand. Intrigued, I flick through and read some comments. Most appear to be drawings. Customers, some more artistically skilled than others, express their delight with infantile drawings of the full package, some enriched with stringy hairs sprouting out of cartoon testicles. Clients and regulars have become such prolific artists since the first book was displayed in 1952 that Massimo now has over one hundred tomes stacked away.
Although Massimo despairs at where to place the next volume, he is grateful for his clientele’s comments and drawings. In fact, the café’s logo and menu cover were both inspired by clients’ art. Each little detail here seems to have been thought through. As I later wash my hands in the bathroom upstairs, my reflection looks back at me in a penis shaped mirror. Even the tap has been carefully chosen – the two round handles are testicles, while the water sprout is a perfectly designed phallus, which automatically spurts water in an accurate replica of bladder-emptying delight.
Massimo later presents me with a folded business card, which I slip into my pocket and forget about until a few hours later, when I reach for my hotel key. I flip it open and a small paper penis flings out towards me – it is, naturally, erect, and serves as a gentle reminder of Castelmola’s exciting history.
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