Monday 23 October 2017

In search of the real Sicily

Golden beaches, crumbling ruins, smouldering volcanoes... the Med's largest island has something for everyone, says Thomas Breathnach -- but the mafia is never far away

Isola Bella beach in Taormina
Isola Bella beach in Taormina
The food market in Catania
Thomas Breathnach

Thomas Breathnach

When is Italy not really Italy? When it's Sicily! Perhaps no destination in Europe can match the ancient island's sense of intrigue and caprice.

Pastoral images of a Dolmio-like grandma whipping up an aubergine ragú in the Sicilian countryside collide with scenes of 'Godfather'-esque racketeering on the streets of Palermo.

But for the tourist's sake, there seems to be a merry medium between the two. Mafia tourism is alive and well. On the Med's largest island, there's barely a holiday market which isn't accounted for, as I discovered on a package break to the resorts of Taormina.

We flew into Catania 'watch-your-pockets' airport and hit the autostrada north in our Topflight coach, to yells of "Andiamo!"

As we zoomed out of the city's suburbs to the resorts of the Ionian coast, the local drivers paid a blood-rushing salute to 'The Italian Job', while beyond, serried apartment blocks draped in laundry gave way to mega markets and IKEA.

Far from my preconceptions of a rolling arid landscape with silver olive groves, Sicily's Ionian coast is a prima facie portrait of the lush valleys, jagged hills and dense forests.

And then you see her, Mount Etna, in all her smouldering glory.

Looming over palms, cacti and bourgainvillea -- even the botany hints at Sicily's marbled history of invasions.

Our guide Rosa is a zesty, born-and-bred Sicilian with a New York drawl picked up during her adolescence Stateside.

She is quick to set out her stall with comic gusto, treating her bus aisle address like an open-mic night at a Brooklyn comedy club: "So guys, let's get this straight, I'm a Sicilian -- I'm only really Italian every four years!"

Sadly, her World Cup soccer schtick comes all a bit too early for a muted Irish crowd yet to acclimatise from a 6am check-in. And when her valiant attempt at audience participation goes belly up ("So who here likes olive oil?!"), Rosa resigns herself to her seat for the remainder of the ride.

The grandiose-sounding Hellenia Yachting Hotel in Giardini Naxos is our base for the stay. The reception area boasts more marble than a Taj Mahal minaret, and my Italian Baroque room with gilded bed, drapes and ottoman, is classical splendour. And what's that? A pillared balcony overlooking the Med. Che bello!

Behind its Greek pavilion is Hellenia's private lido -- a perfect pebble strand sheltered with basalt rocks. It's just the nook to soak up some tranquility.

I follow the beach to Giardini village, where scores of colourful fishing dinghies bask on the harbour beach, as Vespas and Bambinos tick and zip around the town's piazzas.

While next-door Taormina is known as the pearl of the Ionian, Giardini is perhaps its fake Bulgari watch equivalent. It's cheaper, almost as pretty, and none of your friends are likely to know the difference when you tell them.

Lazy sun-lounging and pistachio gelato later, I venture further up along the coast.

Taormina is a chic, tiered town with districts perched along the steep terraces of Monte Tauro. On the bay is Isola Bella -- an exquisite rocky inlet connected to the beach by a narrow split, where scuttling lizards only add to its exotic allure.

The charming village centro meanwhile, is reachable by cable car (€1.50) and is a people- watching paradise.

Families and friends gather for dinner as rumblings of Berlusconi's defeat in the Milan elections undulate across the tratoria with gesticulated delight.

Sicily's Greek ruins are one of the island's biggest draws. Rosa leads us to Taormino's 7th-century BC Teatro Greco (€8), said to command the finest panoramas of all the theatres of the ancient world. It's simply spectacular.

Beyond the skene lies Mount Etna and the rugged coastline; behind, long-legged Italy and the coast of Calabria.

"Being just two miles away, was the bridge over the strait ever a runner?" I ask Rosa.

"What? Are you kidding me?" she gasps. "The Mafia would never allow it!"

It seems despite police attempts to crack down on corruption, Cosa Nostra can still calls the shots on this sultry island.

Off the beaten track, on the peak of Monte Tauro, lies the stunning mountain hamlet of Castelmola. Take the bus (€1.70) if the infinite staircase doesn't take your fancy.

Legend has it that trendy Taorminans have long viewed the poor folk of Castelmola as a bunch of mountain muckers.

And so, in the 1800s, the people of Castelmola went on a curious odyssey to achieve autonomy from Taormina: by bumping up their local population.

Needing 1,000 villagers to achieve town status, they eventually reached the magic mark, also winning the appellation as the most fertile town in Italy.

A rather kooky homage to this tale is Bar Turrisi (barturrisi.com), where locals slurp margaritas and chow down on rigatoni, unperturbed by the phallic lamp-shades, menus and pretty much every thing else around them.

We climb to their spectacular roof bar for a glass of their local speciality; vino di Mandorla (almond wine). Unfortunately my taste for almonds doesn't extend to its fermented form, but if you're a marzipan lover, this is your elixir of life.

All roads in Sicily must lead to Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano. "She only just exploded yesterday!" Rosa informs us. Under a canopy of chestnut forests, we ascend a spaghetti mountain trail hemmed by wild broom, until a charcoal lunar desert lies above us.

At the cable-car station 1,900m high, Alpine chalets and ski lifts offer a bizarre aura, lost somewhere between the 'Sound of Music' and 'Apollo 13'.

The trip isn't cheap -- if you go it alone the cable car and jeep ride leaves little change from €45.

But considering the last station was covered in lava 10 years ago, somebody has to cop the bill.

Despite poor visibility, the experience is immense. At the summit, ash spews out of the mountain's craters like a witch's cauldron. It may be nippy, but this has to rank as one of Europe's most dream-like landscapes.

Our journey ends in the city of Syracuse, which culminates in a visit to the magnificent town cathedral.

Rosa is in fine fettle for the history lesson, pointing us to its ornate iron gates, from the Spanish era, and the dome -- remnants of its former period as a mosque.

But it's only when we're directed to the massive pillars lining the cathedral that we realise the magnitude of the site.

"Twelve for the Gods and one for Zeus!" gasps a woman on my group, like she'd just cracked the 'Da Vinci Code'. "Eureka!" cries Rosa.

We were parked in the 2,500 year old Temple of Athena.

But go figure. Sicily seemed to leave breathtaking surprises at every corner; hidden coves, ancient ruins, exploding volcanoes -- it's little wonder it went down a hit over the millennia. "You see they've really all been here!" concludes Rosa. "The Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans -- the only ones who haven't invaded us yet are you Irish guys!"

All in good time, Rosa.

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