Life Travel

Friday 29 August 2014

Smouldering Sicily

A magical retreat, but I wanted the majestic sleeping beauty Etna to wake up

Sophie Campbell

Published 21/07/2013 | 05:00

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The ancient theatre of Taormina
Sicilian Cassata with ricotta cheese

There was a note on the kitchen table. It said: "Mount Etna has been erupting this week; you can see where the lava has flowed from the window. Have a wonderful time in Sicily".

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We rushed to the terrace and peered across the night sky at the cone in the distance. From its clouded top, a narrow ribbon of orange-tinged smoke arched across the sky towards Taormina.

Isola Bella island, connected to the mainland by a sand causeway.

We felt as though we were viewing it practically at eye level, though, of course, we weren't: Etna towers almost 11,000ft above the ridges and valleys of north-east Sicily and we were at a measly 1,600ft, one valley south of the popular hilltop town of Taormina.

But the drive from the coastal town of Giardini Naxos still took 30 minutes of bumping upwards on vertiginous hairpin bends in the dark, following a local guide in a car. Luckily, some food had been left for our arrival: there was no way we were bumping down again in search of a supermarket.

The benefits of our eyrie became clear in the daylight. I got up to find my friend, Nico, sitting outside, silhouetted against a glittering morning sea. North of him were high promontories of rock, covered in grass and flowers. South was Etna, which, he said, had revealed its smouldering shoulders completely before veiling over again.

The villa was a converted farmhouse with an almond tree, laden with blossom, growing through the patio roof. There was a pool, and below us the landscape lurched down towards the blue sea, to the busy, snaking roads linking coastal town after coastal town.

It was sunny, so we made for Etna, about 20 miles away, and drove around the base. The road followed the charming little railway line called the Ferrovia Circumetnea. I've been on this before and loved it: the trains are tiny and used by Etna residents as well as tourists. It passes old lava flows and jumbles of prickly pear in the fields.

Driving is nothing like as relaxing, but after an hour of bumping into kerbs, avoiding people on tiny pavements and believing the road signage, you get into the swing of it.

Lava is everywhere. The ash-grey roads develop a patina with age, so they feel oddly intimate, like driving across a ballroom floor. Lava blocks edge the windows and doors of houses, soar skywards in churches and pave piazzas, sparkling in the sun but giving everything a sombre mien, as if death is never far away.

We stopped in Linguaglossa for coffee and asked if it was OK to park. "Si!" said a cheery man. "The traffic wardens are all asleep. Or dead!" The lone open coffee shop supplied pastries – no plates, only napkins – volcanic cones of almonds or pistachios, gleaming almond brittle and spoglia con crema pistachio, a sort of millefeuille turnover stuffed with rich pistachio cream.

We strolled in peace around the dark lava town of Randazzo, which has three distinct districts – Greek, Lombard and Latin – and some buildings that were Norman-Swabian, going back to the 13th century. We stood in a silent piazza to gaze at the black lava facade of San Nicola, starkly infilled with white plaster, and the bifore windows – two arches divided by an elegant column – on nearby buildings.

We pottered up and down narrow alleys where washing and potted plants burst out of the backs of houses. Without the car we couldn't have got to Lord Nelson's estate at Bronte, north-west of Etna – he never went there, but it was in his family until the Seventies – which lay dreaming under scaffolding with no one around but a languorous dog.

The barn of a church had a Norman nave and a strange combination of restrained Britishness and hectic Catholicism: one of the abbots lay under the altar in his coffin and a polychrome figure of Christ lay bleeding in a glass cabinet, while across the church were the discreet tombs of naval officers.

A road wiggled up the south side of Etna, which looked like a giant cow. Sometimes the way had been sawn through a flow of rock. Woody Etna broom glowed yellow and birds trilled. The cable car wasn't running, but we went for a walk as high as we could before driving back down to reality.

The best way to see Taormina is from the Greek Theatre, which – before the Romans enlarged it – must have grown gently out of its surroundings. The stage is set in a natural semicircle of rock, framing the town on its steep slope and above it the even steeper hamlet of Castelmola.

This corner of Sicily is near the mainland, so invasions were frequent: inhabitants tried to build their towns out of reach. Just off the Corso at Taormina, with its designer shops and glittery bars, we came across the remains of a Roman cistern, more than 100 yards long, now a quiet public garden.

A chance meeting with a Bostonian sent us to the Osteria da Rita, where they produced platters of steaming seafood and a Mount Etna pizza hot with chilli, and prepared the misshapen lemon or limone cedro we had bought, sliced, pith, peel and all, with olive oil and salt.

That night on our mountain top the shutters began to bang ominously and a storm howled in from the sea, hurling thunder and lightning until the early hours. We woke to find everything intact, bar a small puddle under the front door. You never would have guessed: the sky was rinsed blue, the sun came out and we set off on a jaunt north-west, to see the Cappuccini Monastery at Savoca, where the crypt contains the bodies of local dignitaries, still in frock-coats and lawyers' suits.

For lunch, we ate at La Gabbiano ("the seagull"), whose light-filled terrace had views across a bite of dancing blue sea to the mysterious island known as Isola Bella, connected to the mainland below Taormina by a sand causeway.

Our villa, we decided, was a magical retreat for anyone who loved reading and walking and sensational views, though possibly not near enough to coastal action for teenagers, and probably not for anyone with vertigo.

I wish we'd had time to do the walk to Castelmola or to explore the flowered hills and some of the beaches below. And I'd love to see a teeny eruption on Mount Etna.

Sicily: Need to know

Getting there

Aer Lingus (0818 365000; aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Catania, a short drive south of Taormina. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Palermo from Dublin.

Sophie Campbell stayed at Villa Etna Mare, which sleeps up to eight. From €1,100 pw, pureholiday homes.com.

Where to eat

Osteria da Rita, via Calapitrulli 3, Taormina (0039 0338 520551), serves home-cooked Sicilian food, costing from €8 for pizza. Seafood platters cost €30 for two people.

Bar Vitelli, Piazza Fossia 7, Savoca (0334 922 7227; barvitelli.it), is pricey – four coffees cost us €12 – but fun. It has a little exhibition and a fabulous terrace looking down from the mountains to the sea, with a figure of Francis Ford Coppola and his movie camera.

Ristorante Il Gabbiano, Via Nazionale 115, Taormina (0942 625128; ilgabbianoristorante.it), charges about €30 for two courses with wine – we had local fish, "Sicilian cake" and almond and pistachio parfaits.

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