Sicily: The clue to everything
Etna is its key drawcard but, as Andrea Smith discovers, there is a lot more to Sicily than a volcano and Mafia legends
IT was like something out of a horror film. I had been basking in the warm Sicilian sun only an hour earlier, but now a thick, cold mist and eerie silence swirled around me, causing my holiday companions to keep disappearing out of sight. A blessed relief in some cases, some might say, but not me, of course.
We were at the Silvestri craters, 2,000 metres up the sulphurous slopes of Mount Etna, the most famous volcano in Europe. At least it was until that damn Icelandic Eyjafjallajokull stole its crown earlier this year.
On our way up to the viewing point, we drove by desolate black scrubland, and saw houses that were buried up to their roofs in lava. Once we were liberated from our mini-bus to explore the lava-covered terrain on foot, the atmosphere was spookily strange and bitterly cold.
Although the adverse weather conditions ruled it out for us, it is possible to go much higher by cable car and jeep. So was I worried about the fact that Etna erupts every few years, and did so as recently as 2009? No sirree, it didn't scare me one bit, because the volcano seemingly gives sufficient prior warning before it showers you in boiling lava. Gulp!
The 18th-Century German writer Goethe said that, "To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything." It is an autonomous region of Italy, set just off the "toe" of the mainland, and Etna is its biggest tourist attraction. It is very beautiful, with spectacular views, and its economy is heavily based on agriculture, in particular orange and lemon orchards.
On our way back from Etna, we made a quick visit to the Murgo Winery for something to steady our shattered nerves. Then we headed to Taormina, Sicily's most popular holiday resort, and oh my God, it is beautiful. It was no surprise to learn that Hollywood A-listers regularly flock there, and it was where a jealous Elizabeth Taylor broke a guitar over Richard Burton's head.
We travelled by cable car to Taormina by cable car. The view from the resort's main piazza, IX Aprile, is quite spectacular. During the day, you can look down at the amazing Ionian Sea views, and at night, you will be seduced by the sight of thousands of twinkling lights, some from as far away as Calabria.
As we strolled around the twisty pedestrianised main street, Corso Umberto, we were equally taken by its gorgeous boutiques and chic cafes. The famous open-air Greek theatre, Teatro Greco, is also situated there, and Elton John recently performed at it.
Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr regularly extols the virtues of Taormina, and has said that it is "the most romantic place, it is magical, and it belongs to another world altogether". He loves it so much that he opened a hotel there with a friend, called Hotel Villa Angela. (www.hotel villaangela.com)
We stayed at the gorgeous Santa Tecla Palace hotel near Acireale. It is set into the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. From the minute I first stood at my balcony, looking at the clear blue sky and the waves crashing onto the shore below, I could feel all of my stresses evaporating. This was quite a disconcerting experience for someone like me, who thrives on angst and drama.
It was with some reluctance, therefore, that we left the comforts of the Santa Tecla Palace to go to Milazzo's harbour, which is the departure point for visiting the Aeolian Islands. We went by hydrofoil to Lipari, which took an hour, but you can also visit the other islands of Stromboli -- where Kate Moss is reported to be keen to buy a place -- Vulcano, Panarea, Filicudi, Salina and Alicudi.
On Lipari, we wandered around cute, winding little streets, where we met an awful lot of men called Barto. They were named after the island's patron saint, the missing apostle, Bartholomew, whose body was allegedly discovered here by fishermen. As the locals were dying for us to sample their speciality, lunch was polpo, or octopus, which came complete with tentacles. It tasted like rubber, in my opinion, and while it made all of the women in the group queasy, most of the heroic males in our party manfully claimed to have enjoyed the delicacy.
Happily, a delicious blue cocktail was also proffered, which was a great deal more palatable.
There is an abundance of cultural things to do in Sicily, including visiting Syracuse and Nota. I am the biggest philistine in the world when it comes to trawling around ruins and architecture, so while I loved it for its ice cream, the rest of you will love Nota for its unique Sicilian baroque buildings.
Speaking of ice cream, we had the nicest hazelnut ice cream ever in Sinagra on our way to Floresta, the highest village on the island. At Syracuse, we visited the archaeological zone and Roman amphitheatre, where a set was being constructed for the summer's open-air activities. We also visited Marzamemi, a typical fishing village on the east coast of Sicily, where we had lunch at Giramapau, a well-known local restaurant specialising in fish-based dishes.
As the Mafia originated in Sicily in the mid-19th Century, Godfather fans will enjoy visiting the town of Savoca, where some of the scenes from the 1972 film were shot. Given the island's history, I was a bit put out that the Sicilian men we met were all polite, pleasant and unthreatening. It's most disappointing when a visiting gal can't even get a frisson of excitement from encountering a few dangerously brooding Mafiosi types. Perhaps the Sicilian Tourist Board might like to address that?
There are a thousand good reasons to visit the island, not least for its stunning views, gorgeous weather, excellent food and friendly people. To paraphrase Don Corleone, you should definitely visit Sicily -- it's likely to make you an offer you just can't refuse!