Old Hollywood glamour, sherbet for breakfast and active volcanoes — Faye Bartle enjoys a mind-blowing break under the sun in Sicily
Holidaying within spitting distance (almost) of Mount Etna, one of the biggest active volcanoes in the world, certainly adds a small element of danger to what would otherwise be a classic mix of sun, sand and sea in the Med. Sicily’s landmark attraction has an explosive history, most recently ‘waking up’ in May this year with an eruption that created clouds of ash and sent flowing trails of red-hot lava down two sides of its New Southeast Crater. Its fiery displays have captivated people through the ages. As legend has it, the Greek philosopher Empedocles threw himself into the crater in an attempt to discover the secrets of its eruptive activity, while Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, ended up being dragged in by his skittish horse. Like a moth to the flame, I too could not resist the mountain’s magnetic pull, which is how I found myself careering over the rocky landscape in a four-wheel drive one crisp spring morning.
“We consider Etna to be a female mountain – she throws out lava every once in a while, but she rarely kills anyone,” jokes my driver Alberto, as he parks up to allow his passengers to explore on foot. “My father brought me here after one particularly large eruption when I was just eight years old. I remember it well, as the lava hadn’t quite cooled down yet and I burnt the soles of my shoes.”
Of course, the locals have grown savvy to Etna’s temperamental ways, taking the good with the bad. The volcanic landscape that surrounds the peak is covered in hauntingly beautiful fireweeds: vibrant red, pink and yellow flowers that are a result of the mineral-rich lava that has hardened on the ground.
The mountain is also home to thriving vineyards, including the family-run Fischetti, which is best reached by boarding the historic carriages of the Ferrovia Circumetnea railway, a 110-kilometre line that almost encircles Etna. Designed to connect Catania and Riposto, the concept was presented by British civil engineer Robert Trewhella in 1885, with its first part inaugurated in 1895. Today, it offers visitors an eye-pleasing trip around the mountain, with its characterful steam train popping out on rare occasions to transport people on foodie tours of the area.
Fischetti, nestled on the North-Eastern side of Etna, looks just like the house that Vito Corleone retired to in The Godfather – no stretch of the imagination considering many scenes for the acclaimed mob drama were filmed on the island. Covered in lush green vines and surrounded by fruitful gardens (pomegranates, aubergine, and artichoke were all ready for plucking), it’s a warm and welcoming place to go for an intimate feast of delicious Sicilian dishes washed down with the aged results of Fischetti’s best harvest. From cherry tomatoes rich with flavour to gambero rosso (red prawns) caught fresh by the local fishermen and the must-try arancini (a ball of creamy risotto rice that’s breaded and then deep fried), meals are an art form here.
“Mamma mia!” exclaim my Italian companions, as they sample the simple yet utterly delicious delights. While I’m no foodie, I took this as a sure sign I was onto a good thing. One thing I can assure you, is that you haven’t tasted the real Sicily until you try granita. This classic dessert, also a staple breakfast dish eaten with brioche, is thought to have been inspired by Arab culture during the Muslim conquest of Sicily from 827 until 902 CE.
“They brought citrus and sugar cane with them and, essentially, they taught us how to make sherbet,” says chef Giovanna Musumeci, as she rolled up her sleeves to show us how it’s done in the small but lively Pasticceria Santo Musumeci in Randazzo.
Just like sorbet, but crunchier, granita is made by blending water, sugar and fruit juice and freezing it in a metal pan, scraping off the crystals that have formed around the sides and mixing them together to make a refreshingly semi-frozen treat. Simply tear off a chunk of brioche and use it to scoop the granita straight into your mouth. All manner of flavours are added, from mulberry to lemon, but for breakfast you can’t go wrong with coffee or almond flavoured granita – the latter is typical to the region of Catania. Speaking of which, the pistachios are a must-try. Again, I am assured with great gusto by the Italians that the little green nuts here are like nowhere else on the planet – “mamma mia!” they all cheer in unison.
Dining in Sicily is a social affair and if you’re eager to sit down with the locals, you must check out the Le Mamme del Borgo experience. The brainchild of a group of mothers in the charming village of Motta Camastra, you’ll be whisked away for lunch or dinner served in the homes of these talented matriarchs. Each course is served in a different home, giving you the chance to taste authentic dishes with a side of motherly love. It’s a fantastic way to learn why Sicilians are so passionate about cooking.
Each course is served in a different home, giving you the chance to taste authentic dishes with a side of motherly love.
I’d ventured to Sicily for more than just good food, however. For me, the sparkling coastline was the draw card. The Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea, where I was staying, was certainly a feast for the eyes. Set on its own private beach in Taormina Bay, the views are simply stunning. In snagging a suite with a balcony facing the Bay of Mazzarò, I’d found my temporarily child-free happy place where I could read for hours while colourful boats bobbed in the water, brave swimmers jumped from the rocks, and explorers made their way along the narrow pebble beach to the lush Isola Bella. As the famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said of Taormina in 1787: “We could not tear ourselves away until after sunset. To watch this landscape, so remarkable in every aspect, slowly sinking into darkness, was an incredibly beautiful sight.”
Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea tells a gripping tale, with all the glamour you’d expect of an exclusive Sicilian retreat. Built by an aristocratic family in 1830, the villa was bought by the Trewhella family in the 1920s (the same Englishman who’d come to help develop the Circumetnea railway). They set about expanding the villa, adding palm trees to the gardens and filling the house with antiques and oil paintings. Following a lockdown period during WW2, the family reopened the villa as a small hotel in 1950. The place quickly became known as a celebrity hotspot, welcoming a roster of high-profile guests, including Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Al Pacino and Francis Ford Coppola. And while the Trewhella’s waved goodbye to the property in 1985, this stunning hotel, once just a small house in an olive grove by the sea, still exudes star quality. You don’t have to look far to find the party – even the chefs are at it, regularly transforming the kitchen into a nightclub for foodies, complete with DJs in chef whites. Indeed, sparkling fountains and evenings spent dancing along the shore comprise a standard night ‘in’ here.
The estate is just as alluring during the day. The aromas of orange blossom, neroli and jasmine fill the air (a trademark so cherished that Belmond has introduced three dedicated suites inspired by the scents). Eager to seek out my own keepsakes, I made the short stroll to the base of the Taormina Cableway, which whisks passengers up to the town centre in just three minutes. And while this creaking communal zipline may be bad news for those with no head for heights, it is by far the fastest route to the top – and costs just US$6.8 (€6) return. This picturesque hilltop town has plenty to discover, including an ancient Greek theatre that’s still used today. Tourists come to soak up the sweeping Ionian seascapes and, in my case, to shop. Follow in the footsteps of Orson Welles, D. H. Lawrence and Truman Capote and browse the bustling main thoroughfare and narrow backstreets lined with shops selling gorgeous mementoes to those with money to burn. From beautiful ceramics to vintage travel posters, I was very quickly relieved of all my euros.
There’s plenty to distract you from spending too much, however. From private walking tours of the town to catching an opera at the amphitheatre. For something a bit different, the Belmond-organised Ape Tour of Taormina takes you on a whistle-stop tour of the sights in a three-wheeled Ape Calessino (imagine a European- style tuk tuk). You’ll visit Casa Cuseni, a beautiful honey-stuccoed residence built by British painter Robert Kitson in the early 20th century, go for a picnic on Isola Bella beach, and stop for a drink at Wunderbar, one of Tennesse Williams’ favourite watering holes.
Plot a course for Lipari, the largest of the UNESCO-protected, ruggedly volcanic islands that grace the coast.
If you’re eager to explore the sparkling sea, a boat trip to the Aeolian Islands is sure to impress. Plot a course for Lipari, the largest of the UNESCO-protected, ruggedly volcanic islands that grace the coast.
Suitably relaxed, I couldn’t help but wonder if life would be richer in Taormina. Admittedly a dramatic change of pace compared to Dubai, the idea is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. In January this year, the town of Mussomeli launched an initiative inviting foreign investors to buy a historic home there for just US$1.1 (€1) – talk about making me an offer I can’t refuse. No joke, however, the Case1euro.it initiative was designed to help regenerate and breathe new life into the area, which is situated just a few kilometres from the beach and is home to just 11,000 people. The only catch? You must renovate the house within three years of buying it – a task that could rack up a six-figure bill, according to my Italian friends. So while I may not have found my permanent slice of Sicily’s serenity just yet, the seed has definitely been planted.
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