Sicily, the Mediterranean's largest island and only 3 kilometres from Italy, is simply a gem. Historic sites and pretty coastal towns sit comfortably with quiet inland villages and an active volcano. In our next lives, we will have a villa here. In October 2016, the wife and I spent a week exploring a few of Sicily's delights.
The UNESCO Heritage Site of Pantalica Gorge is home to over 4,000 burial chambers. Housed in a limestone ravine, the tombs date from the 13th and 8th centuries BC and are shaped rectangular or elliptical. Before Greek colonization, Pantalica was one of the main inhabited areas of the island by unknown races.
Pantalica Gorge itself has been carved by the Anapo and Calcinara rivers over thousands of years resulting in a stunning gorge abundant with flora and fauna. Giant fennel, wild sage and thyme thrive here, while holm oaks give welcome shade. If you're lucky you might spot kingfishers, porcupines, hares and foxes.
If undertaking this lovely walk, take a hat. Even the October sun was unrelenting.
Aeolian island of Vulcano
A short ferry journey from the north coast port of Milazzo is the Aeollian island of Vulcano or Vurcanu in Sicilian. This still active volcanic outcrop rises to 501m above sea level and was once an important source of alum and sulphur for the Romans. Named after the son of Zeus, Vulcan (God of Fire and Metalworking), the last major destructive explosion was only a century ago.
After a thunderous start to the day the sky cleared for our short ascent. This actually took a while due to the glorious panoramas of the surrounding islands – magical. Our guide, (he agreed with Brexit), led us down into the caldera. We could only stay for a while, sulphuric gas is not pleasant but it was one of those moments you never forget. It's hard to imagine the power, energy and force that came from this crater.
Too soon we're back on the crater rim dodging the fumaroles and trying not to stink of rotting eggs. It was fun though. A quick volcanic ash scree ski and we're heading back to the ferry and a fridge magnet – well, it would be rude not too. A fantastic day out. Try it if you get the chance.
The centre piece of this delightful clifftop town has to be the Graeco-Roman theatre, the Teatro Antico di Taormina, which is still in use today. Frequented by the likes of D. H Lawrence, Goethe and Edward Lear, it also boasts views of Mount Etna quietly smouldering in the background. Admission is a little pricey but, you are on holiday after all.
Dive into the numerous historic churches and their exquisite interiors take your breath away. Ornate is an understatement. Explore the pretty lanes and avenues, houses and shops make you stop and stare with their colourful pottery adornments and unknown succulents. If you're lucky like we were, the locals showed us how they do weddings – a very grand, social affair. For lunch, we invaded a local supermarket then found a shady spot with a tremendous panorama. All very civilised.
If time is spare, Taormina has a pretty beach with bars and restaurants and access to Isola Bella, owned by Florence Trevelyan, who turned it into a unique nature reserve. Taormina has to be on the to do list when visiting Sicily.
One of the most active volcanoes in the world, Mount Etna tops out at 3330m and is the highest volcano in Europe.
We spent several hours exploring the lava scree slopes dotted with spruce and fir. We set out at 1700m taking in the fissures of a 2002 eruption which swallowed the ski resort area of Piano Provenzana with black lava.
Sadly our trip did not take us to the summit, but in hindsight due to recent volcanic activity, it was probably a good thing. This is definitely one to tick off on Sicily's to do list.