Two things dominate Sicily: Mount Etna and the Mafia - and Sicilians are shrewd enough to know the value of both to their tourist trade
The dark and dapper men with wraparound shades and Gucci loafers sitting at the Bar Mocambo in Piazza IX Aprile in Taormina looked just like members of the Mafia, but they turned out to be merely local Romeos of the preening variety.
The Mafia still broods over Sicily, but the Sicilians are shrewd enough to recognise the power and the pull of the gangster tradition and they are proud of their efforts to rid themselves of “The Honoured Society”. Before the Coso Nostra appeared, however, there had been others who tried to subdue the Sicilians - Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Teutons. All at different times had laid claim to Sicily’s strategic harbour; all left their mark on this beautiful, intractable island before it shrugged them off and became what it is today - an Italian island with Arab overtones, a dazzling mix of architectural styles and a cuisine that leans heavily towards the East.
Sicily’s other dominating factor is Mount Etna. The smoking volcano is impressive, the best views being from the 3rd-century BC Greco-Roman theatre on the hillside high above the town of Taormina, sited so that snow-capped Etna and the distant views of rocky bays and turquoise seas would form the backdrop to the stage.
Taormina town has two beautiful, sweeping bays. The traffic-free Corso Umberto I, which bisects the town, is Taormina’a hub. It is lined with 15th-century palazzi, the ground floors of which have been converted into smart shops and restaurants, and off it are sheer-stepped alleys leading to miniscule piazzettas, where locals mingle with tourists to eat ice creams and drink the robust local vino rosso and bianco.
A bus from Taormina takes you up a winding road to the village of Castelmola, 550 metres above the sea, with a piazza and a few bars and restaurants. To spend an evening in Castelmola on the terrace of the Hotel Panorama with a glass of the locally made almond wine, is one of the great experiences that Sicily has to offer. The views are magnificent and the silence is broken only by birdsong.
Driving is the best way to see Sicily, but beware: Sicilians drive suicidally, with a fine disregard for such namby-pamby things as traffic lights, stop signs, and non-smoking signs at petrol stations.
Outside the villages and towns, fields and mountains are awash with jasmine, wild lupins, broom, poppies, cornflowers and white wistaria. The fertility derives from the lava-rich soil bequeathed by Etna, which can be seen in the black fields and the remains of once grand farmhouses that stand in a sea of petrified lava. Black walls line the roads, and Randozzo, the nearest town to the volcano, is built almost entirely of lava.
Savoca lies along a winding mountain road and was the setting for many of the Sicilian scenes in The Godfather. The 18th-century Bar Vitelli was the scene of the wedding of Michael Corleone and Apollonia, and the walls of the inky-dark room behind the bead curtain are covered with photographs from the shoot. Just up the hill from there, the Cappuccini catacombs has a display of gruesome mummified corpses dressed in fine 18th-century clothes.
Agrigento has many temples, but Siracusa, a city whose past is central to the history of the entire Mediterranean region, has much more to offer. At the height of its glory Siracusa was the supreme power in Europe, seen in the architectural diversity of buildings, churches and monuments, spanning Hellenic, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras. Its heart is Ortygia, predominantly medieval and Baroque in appearance, with two natural harbours, around which are grouped bars and restaurants
Unlike Siracusa, the town of Messina is disappointing but it is worth a visit if only to sit in the port and watch the men fishing for swordfish in the specially designed boats that cruise up and down the Straits. Messina was almost totally destroyed in the great earthquake of 1908 and the rebuilt city lacks charm. Messina’s drivers are considered by the rest of Sicily (no slouches when it comes to driving) to be nearly as crazy as those in Catania, a gloomy looking city built from black-grey volcanic stone, where the central streets are dark with the shadows of tall churches and Etna broods at the end of each vista.
For relaxing after hectic sightseeing, make a visit to the magnificent Gorge of Alcantara, a vast geological cleft in the hillside with a greeny-grey river at the bottom. Thigh-high boots can be rented for serious gorge-wading or you can just paddle in the cool, refreshing waters.
Restaurants excel in the island’s seafood alongside the usual pizzas and pastas. The food is spicy, with an Arabic influence that extends even to the use of flowers in cooking. Arabic-like sweet almond pastries, orange and lemon peel coated in rich dark chocolate and the ubiquitous cassata di Siciliano add a lingering finish to a meal. And the fish is to die for!
Citalia offers flights, hotels, car hire or packages to Sicily. British Airways flies direct to Catania.
WHERE TO STAY
A former aristocratic Sicilian country house, now a small, elegant hotel run by Andrea and Rosaria Quartucci. To stay in the Villa Ducale
is to experience the real Sicily. With a Mediterranean garden with sun beds and a terrace where breakfast is served, it is hard to tear yourself away from the place.
Set in the centre of a spectacular natural amphitheatre and built upon an ancient cliff, the hotel is unique. Monumental wrought iron gates, a lush park and a façade covered in bougainvillea lead you in to a sumptuous hall of marble and mirrors. It offers a perfect balance between history and sophistication.
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurant Gambera Rossa, Taormina
Looking out on the Tyrrhenian Sea through the glass windows of the dining room, while sampling the exquisite food for which the Gamberra Rossa has become known, is a true gastronomic experience.
Restaurant Don Camillo, Syracuse
Near the historic centre of the city, on the foundation of a 15th-century monastery. An atmospheric restaurant with beautiful vaulted ceilings and a sophisticated local clientele. Serves lighter versions of Sicilian cooking and the sea urchins served here are reckoned to be the best in Sicily.