Sicily seems less an island and more of a continent that has shrunk in the wash. If it were flattened out it would be a whole lot bigger than 26,000 square kilometres. Its rugged hills are packed with enough interesting old towns, remarkable ruins and panoramic vistas to animate a much larger place.
Taormina, on the northeast corner of the island, is the dolce vida capital of Sicily (Palermo is the political capital). Taormina has attracted sophisticated travellers such as actors Judi Dench, Michael Douglas, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Before the Second World War it was a popular Mediterranean playground for English eccentrics. DH Lawrence, who lived for two years in a villa just outside Taormina, had his expatriate neighbour in mind when he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
The town is built on a narrow plateau between the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna and it’s all view: look up and there’s Europe’s most active volcano; look down and there’s the voluptuous curve of the bay. Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy, is a blue smudge in the distance.There’s a flowery fragrance on the breeze, sunsets and sunrises of outstanding beauty, the melancholy ruins of Roman and Greek civilisations, the still imposing palaces of the Spanish and French occupiers and the black tracks of lava from Etna’s sporadic eruptions.
Perhaps it’s this muttering volcano that gives the town a frisson – the atmosphere of a place on the edge; a place to eat, drink and be merry. While Sicily’s other problems include the mafia, summer’s brutal heat, barren highlands and poverty, these don’t normally intrude on holidaymakers, unless they are so unwise as to come in July or August.
Skipping the parched heat of summer, out-of-season tourists will have missed only the crowds. In late November my hotel was serving breakfast on the terrace, the grapes had just been harvested, the olives were being shaken into ground cloths and oranges hung like Christmas ornaments on the trees.Though a few restaurants were closed for annual holidays, the catch of the day was still being cooked to order in small family-run trattorias.
Small shops line Taormina’s one main shopping street, Corso Umberto I. It’s a cobbled pedestrian way that begins at Porta Messina and ends at Porta Catania, both circumstantial gates. Narrow staircases to the right and left of the Corso lead to alleys running uphill or downhill to hidden neighbourhoods. Corso Umberto is enlivened with picturesque squares, including the Piazza IX Aprile with its panoramic vista.
The best view of all, though, is from within the ancient amphitheatre of Taormina. A partial ruin, its brick arches frame views of the mountain and coast that look like 19th century engravings.The amphitheatre, built by the Greeks and rebuilt by the Romans for gladiatorial combats, is still used in summer for dramatic performances.
After looking at the volcano from a distance for a few days, you want to get closer. I arranged through the hotel for a car with a chauffeur guide. On the twisty drive up towards the cone we passed olive groves, then forests of pine and chestnut trees and from each curve there were new perspectives of the snow-topped mountain. As we drove higher, Etna seemed to get lower, to crouch on the horizon like a cheetah pretending to be a house cat. We stopped in the car park that serves both a chair lift (skiing is a popular winter sport on Mount Etna) and the cable car. The sloping ground around here was mostly ash with fist-sized lumps of lava here and there, and isolated patches of snow. Some of these were lightly dusted with soot. “Fresh soot – Etna was active last night,” the guide observed indulgently, as if referring to a restless, elderly relative. He asked if I’d like to take the cable car higher up Etna’s flank. From there a jeep would take me to the crater’s edge “if conditions permit”. I said no. Standing in the cold wind he pointed out various rivers of lava, like coal slides, giving dates for each as if they were battles in a history book.The one in 2001 had carried away the observatory, the refuge and the ski lift. A new refuge and ski lift had just opened, though not an observatory. Etna is monitored by satellite now.
Our way back down the mountain toward Taormina took us through the home of Etna Appellation Cotrolée wine, an ‘island on an island’ that collars Etna’s neck.
Here the grapes grow sweet in the lava-enriched soil. Near the town of Linguaglossa, we stopped at the Raciti-Gambino family’s vineyard. On the broad terrace overlooking their 18 hectares they offered a complimentary tasting of red and white wines along with bread, local cheeses and charcuterie to go with it. If you know wine, they’ll enthusiastically talk you through the technicalities. If, like me, you just want to choose a few bottles to remind you of Sicily, you’ll be in the right place, too.