Life Europe

Thursday 18 September 2014

The Big Read: Sicily, where good things come in threes...

Published 07/07/2014 | 02:30

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Volcano: The spectacular Mount Etna, near Taormina in Sicily, is the tallest active volcano in Europe
Kamarina: Mary O’Sullivan pictured on one of the streets at the Club Med resort which resembles a typical Sicilian village
Map of Italy

'If someone flicks the tips of his fingernails under his chin, it means he does not like something, or if he presses a finger into his cheek and twists it, it means yes, he likes very much," my new Sicilian friend Mauro is demonstrating to me how gestures and signs are very important in his country.

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"Our hands are never resting", Mauro explains.

He goes on to tell me all about the Sicilian flag, the emblem of which is three legs. "The three legs stand for many things, the three corners of our country, the three seas around us, and of course our three seasons. We don't have any winter, just spring and autumn and a very long summer," the silver-tongued twenty-something assures me. It is early June and already temperatures are in the delightful mid-thirties with even the lizards moving faster to get into the shade, so maybe Mauro is right.

Another important emblem here in Southern Sicily is the three pronged trident. It's the sign adopted by the founders of Club Med when they set up their popular holiday resorts throughout Europe over 50 years ago and one of these resorts, Kamarina, near Comiso in Sicily is my home for a week and that of over a thousand other holidaymakers, mainly families from France, Italy, England and a sprinkling from Ireland.

When Club Med first shot to fame back in the 1960s, there was a lot of talk about straw huts for sleeping in and beads for currency, a real hippy dippy vibe. The beads have been replaced with a discreet ribbon worn on the wrist - which ensures free entry to all the restaurants, pools, sports facilities, shows and clubs - and if there were ever straw huts here they've been long ago replaced by the current vernacular-style architecture. Set on some 200 acres, Kamarina looks for all the world like a typical Sicilian village with single and two storey terraced houses built of biscuit coloured stone on both sides of the narrow streets leading to the Agora. This is the hub of the village around which are the restaurants, the pool, the shops and the organisers offices.

The streets of the village are beautifully landscaped and everywere the brickwork is softened by splashes of colour provided by the typical Mediterranean-style planting - giant cacti, ferns, lilies, lavender, hydrangeas, bougainvillea and hibiscus.

The trident of course was adopted as an emblem of Club Med because the sea was a crucial principle of its founding philosophy and that hasn't changed; Kamarina is on the sea and has magnificent beaches, and watersports are a huge part of the holiday. Sailing and kayaking are all part of the package with daily classes in both, with scuba-diving also available.

The beaches are manned by lifeguards as are the pools so swimming is extremely safe. However, if you don't like the water, there are a myriad other sports on offer including soccer, mini golf, mini squash, tennis, archery, beach volley ball. And there's even a circus school with lessons in trapeze artistry!

The day's activities start every day with jogging at 8.03am and continues with power walking at 9.00am.

We slept through both and our own exertions usually only amounted to some laps of the excellent pool twice daily and maybe a dip in the azure sea in the late afternoon as the heat of the sun lessened, but that was fine too. You can do as much or as little as you want at Club Med. We enjoyed the daily aerobics at the pool at 11am which continued until noon - enjoyed watching everyone else do it, that is.

One of the other key aspects of Club Med is the GOs as the young organisers are called - Club Med is a French organisation and GO stands for gentil organisateur. The GOs in the main are gorgeous, talented, young people who can sing and dance, have wonderful personalities and are terrific with kids, and come 11am every day, a team of them was dancing at the pool's edge to great dance tunes and exhorting everyone to get in the water and copy their moves. You'd be surprised at the large number of guests who joined in every day and if it sounds too much like regimented fun, it's not at all. The pool is huge and those of us who wanted to continue sleeping, reading, sunbathing, doing our laps, whatever, that was fine too.

Adults and kids could join in the water aerobics but in the main the activities are segregated into the different age groups. And one of the joys for kids and parents is the kids' club which goes on all day and includes all the usual activities - swimming, tennis, circus school, arts and crafts - which means parents could enjoy their holiday without nagging kids at their sides. I met an Irish couple with a four year old son who told me all three of them loved the holiday and the four year old had a ball even though most of the kids spoke a different language; he loved the GOs and he loved the activities.

There is even a kids' restaurant so, again, the parents can enjoy their meals happy in the knowledge that the kids are also enjoying theirs but without bugging them. Kids could also eat in the main restaurants and many did and in fairness they were extremely well behaved. Maybe they, like us, were just too busy enjoying the fine food on offer. It's all included in the price, so it was hard not to make complete pigs of ourselves. There are three restaurants, Les Dunes, Cavallo Marino, and Trinacria and very quickly we developed a routine of Les Dunes for breakfast, Cavallo which overlooks the sea for lunch and Trinacria which is located in the resort's hotel for dinner.

Meals in all three restaurants were buffet-style but if the word buffet conjures images of over-cooked artificially-coloured stodge, banish them. Everything was freshly cooked, much of it as you watched. Breakfast consisted of cereals, freshly baked breads and pastries, fresh fruits, prosciutto, cheeses, omelettes made to your specifications, and pancakes tossed from pan to your plate. Cavallo Marino prides itself on its Sicilian specialities so locally cured meats, pizzas straight out of the oven and freshly made pastas are the order of the day there. Typically, Cavallo would serve four different pasta dishes daily; on our last day we had spaghetti alla vongole (clams), ravioli with spinach in butter, bucatini with tomatoes and basil, and pacheri puttanesca. Yes, I tried them all and yes, all were delicious. Did I put on weight during my week there? About a stone I'd say.

Trinacria at the Hotel though still buffet style is a slightly more dressed up affair, the room and table settings are more formal and sophisticated than the other restaurants and the food more fine dining. Highlights included oysters, prawns, fillet steak and the best fish I've ever eaten. The red snapper garnished with a smear of balsamic sauce and lightly roasted chopped apple was to die for.

And if that wasn't enough, slices of fresh pineapple and watermelon are on offer on the beach as you relax on your sun lounger while snacks are provided at the bar pre lunch, mid afternoon and before dinner. The resort was big into locally produced foods, so salamis, olives,and local cheeses were high on the agenda at the bar. The bar which overhangs the pool was a great place to hang out, with brilliant banter from the baristas as they brewed perfect americanos, macchiatos or whatever you wanted. And then there were the daily complimentary cocktails called after the great wonders of Sicily; Etna was made up of tequila, grenadine and orange juice.

Kamarina is such a complete world in itself - with the days passing beautifully in eating, reading, swimming, watching other people exert themselves on boats and the trapeze - that it's easy to forget that there is a whole other world to explore in Sicily. There are atmospheric medieval villages with bustling markets a short drive from the resort and organised trips to the volcano at Mount Etna, the many Greek and Roman remains at Syracuse, Agrigento and Taormina, many of which are Unesco-designated world heritage sites, and the baroque town of Noto. These trips can be day long affairs but we were always back in time to enjoy the dinner and the show afterwards.

I haven't mentioned the circus tent where we had a night-time circus performance with Remy, the chef de village, acting as ring master while another night in the open air amphitheatre, there was a Great Gatsby night with the GO team dressed in 1920s costumes dancing to the music of the era. We were all encouraged to get up and join in and the atmosphere in the warm night as adults, teens and kids threw themselves into the fun was electric.

I can honestly say I only ever heard a child cry once and that was on my last day. And you know what, I felt like crying too.

GETTING THERE:

Mary travelled to Club Med Kamarina in Sicily courtesy of Sunway Holidays. Seven nights in Club Med Sicily on an all inclusive basis including flights, airport transfers, 20kg bag, full board and sports activities and all taxes starts from €867 per adult and €523 for a child under 12 and €299 for child under 5 valid for travel in September 2014. Contact www.clubmedsunway.ie 
or phone Sunway 01-2886828.

TAKE THREE:

Noto

An earthquake in 1693 destroyed many towns in Sicily including Noto. The  enlightened ruler, the Duke of Camastra recreated the entire town in a slightly fantastical baroque style.  Now a Unesco-designated site, it has  50 churches and 15 palaces, all carved in the local sandstone, and unusual street styles including some only of steps.  Noted for its granita. Try the lemon flavour .

Taormina

Taormina is worth a visit for many reasons - its stunning location on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea, its medieval streets, its Greek Amphitheatre and its fabulous shops and restaurants. Day trips also take in a trip to Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe.

Syracuse

Syracuse  is home to The Temple Of Apollo - admittedly all that remains are a few stumps of Doric columns but it does date from 700 BC. Syracuse has a fascinating history  and there’s much to see including  the home of Archimedes, the Jewish ghetto and baths,the Duomo which houses the temple of Athina and paintings by Caravaggio,the Francis Bacon of his day.

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