Go with the lava flow in Sicily

by Mary.Novakovich

From walking up Europe's highest active volcano to people-watching on the chic streets of Taormina, Sicily has no shortage of riveting experiences

It’s a surreal sight to see snow on warm ground. Rivers of lava are adding vapour to the thick cloud that is engulfing Mount Etna, which resembles a moonscape. Snow in April isn’t unusual on top of mountains, especially when you’re close to the 3,329m peak of the highest active volcano in Europe. But the swirling steam comes as a bit of a surprise – as does the fact that you don’t need a clear day to be dumbstruck by the beauty of Etna.
Luckily you don’t have to be super fit to get close to the summit. Buses travel regularly from nearby towns and cities, including one of Sicily’s largest cities, Catania, to the Rifugio Sapienza. But that’s still 1,400m below the summit, so if you still don’t want to walk you can take the cable car that normally transports skiers in the winter. And then you can get into a rugged four-wheel-drive minibus to take you close to the summit’s crater.
The smell of sulphur hangs heavily in the cold air. “The sulphur is good for the skin,” says Antonio, one of the official Mount Etna guides. He’s not joking: he’s in his 70s but looks 20 years younger. He switches easily from Italian to French to accommodate the typically mixed bag of European tourists making their way gingerly along this bizarre monochrome landscape.
There’s something a bit spooky, even unsettling, about the terrain that makes you watch your step more carefully. Part of the disquiet comes from knowing how very active this volcano is. We walk past the ruins of a restaurant that was destroyed when Etna had a major eruption in 2002. The volcano has had many small eruptions since then, which makes even more changes to this riveting landscape. The authorities can’t tell Etna’s exact height, because that changes with every eruption. In spite of the obvious dangers, people live and work on this volatile mountain, where the lava flows have enriched the soil to an amazing extent. You can even stay in Etna’s highest hotel, the three-star Hotel Corsaro, which sits at 2,000m on Etna’s southern side.
Some prefer to have their feet a bit closer to sea level. Just outside the national park boundary is the hamlet of Sant’Alfio, home to the intimate and charming Case Perrotta agriturismo. The farm hotel started off as a convent in the 16th century, and its surrounding fields now produce wonderful olives, fruit and vegetables that go straight on to the plates of its lively restaurant. Like all good agriturismi, there’s no menu; you get what you’re given. This usually means a delicious risotto made from asparagus or fennel, pasta with pistachio sauce and grilled meats infused with rosemary. It’s obvious that it’s a favourite with locals as well as hotel guests.
After a few days of feeling pleasantly rustic walking in the countryside around Case Perrotta, it comes as a bit of a jolt to explore the area’s chicest resort, Taormina. Time to take off the dusty walking boots and put on something more in keeping with this incredibly glamorous town, perched on a cliff overlooking the Ionian Sea. The Corso Umberto is the main pedestrian thoroughfare that runs between the two historic gates standing guard at both ends of the town. Tiny alleys and streets that come off the Corso offer inviting diversions, with restaurants and cafés squeezed into unlikely spaces. The Corso is thronging with people most of the time, and don’t even think of walking it if you’re in a hurry. A stroll is the fastest pace you can take, usually interrupted by visits into the shops and gelaterie en route.
At some point you must tear yourself away from people-watching and head down towards the cliffs to the Greek theatre, Taormina’s best-known landmark. As usual, the Greeks had the right idea in building a theatre using the sea as a naturally dramatic backdrop. The Romans thought differently and carelessly bricked up the spaces between the graceful Grecian columns. Nature is taking revenge on the Romans, however, as the bricks have been falling out over the centuries, slowly restoring the views of the sea. It’s fitting that in a place as chaotic as Sicily can be, with its long history of being overrun by countless enemies, time has the last laugh.