herald

Tuesday 17 July 2018

The Sicilian connection

Basking off the toe of Italy, Sicily has been invaded by practically everyone who passed.

Greeks, Romans and Normans came to pillage and plunder -- and now it's the turn of the Irish to invade to enjoy gentler pursuits. Growing numbers are being enticed by the unique blend of culture and culinary delights of this jewel of the Med.

Sicily is a melting pot of history and cultures, architecture and art, an island of beauty and beaches -- but never boredom. There is so much to do and so little time -- packing it all in on a three-day flying visit to the north of the island alone is a feat.

You arrive in Catania on an Aer Lingus flight at lunchtime. The relief of not having to encounter airport staff who act as if they were kicked out of the Gestapo for cruelty gets a short break off to a stress-free start.

We bypass the town of Catania on our arrival but, thankfully, pay it a visit on the return leg of our trip. It has myriad streets, a beautiful marina and an open-air fish and veg market.

The island's past and future is dominated by volcanoes -- and Mount Etna in particular. She has erupted several times, the last serious one in 2001, and has spawned some 400 'children' or craters. Etna is the island's 'Mama', the matriarch whose name is spoken in reverential tones. After all, she seldom spews ash, instead she spews vast amounts of cash into the local economy.

Trips to Mount Etna are a must. You can travel by bus and cable car before completing the journey in a caterpillar-wheeled vehicle. Be prepared for a significant change in temperature -- leave the high heels at home and take a fleece and sensible walking boots.

The view is described by guides as resembling the surface of the moon. A tour guide once asked rhetorically, in a throwaway line, if anyone had been on the moon. To the astonishment of all, a man at the back of the visiting group put up his hand and said: "I have." It was Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin -- and he confirmed that it did indeed look like the surface of the moon.

The other must-see in this area is Taormina-- a village perched on a cliff top where vertigo sufferers fear to tread -- with cobbled pavements on winding streets and a magnificent Greco-Roman amphitheatre where events across the arts are still staged.

Incredibly, there is a village even further up the cliffs: Castelmola, a village from another era, sits on what is called a natural balcony. Visit the Turrisi Bar, with its bizarre phallic theme, which proves an attraction for some, but go upstairs to the balcony at dusk to view the spectacular vista of Mount Etna, the Ionian coast, the gulf of Giardini-Naxos, the Cape of Sant'Alessio, the straits of Messina and the Calabrian coast.

Afterwards relax back in Taormina over a first-class dinner in the four-star-plus Hotel Villa Diodoro, before returning to earth, down the spiralling corkscrew road -- with your eyes closed.

We stayed at the four-star-plus Hellenia Yachting Hotel in Giardini-Naxos. Away from the hill country, this is a location on the flat. Walk out from the piano bar, past the hotel pool and down a handful of steps to the Med. That's the life.



Boutique

A short stroll brings you into the town centre, alive with restaurants, shops and boutiques and an ice-cream range that can't be licked.

The Sicilians are hospitable and very child friendly. But they are also fiercely nationalistic. They are Italians for a few weeks only every four years -- for the duration of the World Cup. The rest of the time they are Sicilians.

Visiting the island -- even without venturing South to Palermo -- is not complete without mention of the Mafia, horse heads left in the bed and The Godfather. Our guide tells us she will tell us more in the privacy of the bus. But she never brings up the subject again.

They say in Italian, 'Omerta'. It's the Irish equivalent of 'whatever you say, say nothing'.

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