All roads lead to Etna! Libby Purves swaps the Radio 4 studio for a trip around Sicily
Bleary on a dawn flight, I closed my eyes on the last of Luton Airport and opened them on a grey peak above quilted cloud – Mount Etna! Welcome to Sicily, that lush triangle kicked out into the Mediterranean by the boot-toe of Italy.
As first-time visitors, with three hotels and cities over six nights, we were glad of Inntravel’s detailed directions, and artfully got hold of a Volvo automatic to minimise any right-hand-drive illiteracy.
First-time visit: Libby Purves was enchanted by the sights of Sicily
My husband Paul drove us out through the flat Catania countryside and towards the pretty south-eastern corner of the island and after a couple of hours we approached Ragusa.
This all seemed straightforward enough, until an abrupt turn plunged us into a narrow, curling, incomprehensible switchback of steep, cobbled and marbled streets – another world.
Like Venice, Ragusa Ibla, the old town, is a tribute to the Italian determination to build fabulous fairytale cities on unpromising sites. The whole thing was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt by aristocratic inhabitants who liked it there.
Everywhere there is peeling baroque plasterwork, towering town-houses, palazzi and arches hacked from the living rock, cave doorways with heavy ancient doors, glimpses of bell-towers and over it all looms the duomo. Humbler buildings cling – as if pinned by their iron balconies – to vertiginous cliff faces.
As we threaded confusedly towards our small, elegant hotel – the Locanda Don Serafino – up a cobbled slope, the town’s layered intricacies and faded gorgeous colours felt like an opera set. Operatic drama ensued.
The car caught a tyre on a rocky protuberance, fell awkwardly on to a stone step and did itself harm. Think of it as a particularly savage Verdi moment: Il Volvo Doloroso, with a dramatic aria from Paul (‘Alas! I am betrayed! Why is this happening to me?’).
A living fairy tale: The town of Ragusa Ibla is a tribute to the Italian determination to build fabulous cities on unpromising sites
Calmed down by a panini and a call to Avis, we reflected that we didn’t need a car for 36 hours, and took a siesta. Waking in the dusk, we roamed the dim, romantic alleys looking for supper when an amiable bar-keeper directed us.
Our Italian is minimal, consisting of school Latin and bits of Grand Opera. I could easily conduct a tragic love affair or small war but lines like ‘Return a conqueror’ and ‘Virgin of the angels, have pity on me’ rarely prove useful in the modern world.
The confusion was increased by a French couple (with no Italian or English) on the same terrified of the narrow alleys in case there were bandits. The barman and I assured her everyone in Ragusa is ‘très, très gentil’. He was, anyway, and so was the chap who eventually darted out from what looked like a closed-down bar and led us into his restaurant for superb spaghetti al’vongole.
The Don Serafino is peerlessly comfortable – our modern room was at the top of a winding staircase hewn from the cave rock.
The next day we roamed and climbed around Ragusa Ibla on a blowy, showery, fresh morning.
Child’s play: Libby signed up for a puppet version of Orlando Furioso at the Museo dei Pupi
Baroque churches drew us in to gaze at vast brutal Crucifixions and stately treasures next to naff virgins with electric halos. Then we dodged showers by darting into bars and shops.
The tragedy of the Volvo Doloroso temporarily forgotten, we followed our noses through the magically confusing town and our opera became a happy commedia – the sort of thing with a refrain of ‘we know not quite where we are, yet we laugh, hahahaha!’.
Inntravel specialises in walks, in the past having guided us across the Alps and Picos, and this trip offers detailed walking notes as an option.
So Paul set off into the lemon groves of the crevasse for a fourhour hike, while I climbed up to admire the sky profile of Ragusa stacked high to the horizon, higgledy-piggledy like pastel shoe boxes, and watched a wedding spill out of the duomo.
Next, we headed east and north via various sideshows (several hundred racing bikes and accompanying ambulances and an hour getting round the Modica ring road behind a Sunday procession of ambling horses and carts with everyone in medieval dress for San Giuseppe).
We then threaded through country roads to the remote coastal nature reserve of Vendicari, a strip of beach and marshland where, as a sort of sorbet to refresh the spirit between baroque alleyways, we walked sandy tracks and saw flamingos rise from a silent lagoon.
We headed on to Noto, another ancient jewel of a town but this time rebuilt in grand boulevard style on a grid of broad avenues and golden palazzi. Our guidebook had a picture of the venerable cupola of San Nicolo collapsing in 1996, but it’s back – rebuilt in 1997.
A violent shower found us under a cafe umbrella eating arancini and admiring aggressive stone griffins supporting a balcony overhead. Freshened by rain, the marble streets glistened beneath. And so to Siracusa – ancient Syracuse – conquered and reconquered repeatedly over 27 centuries.
It’s worth mentioning that had we chosen, we could have taken detours to hike down the Cava Grande canyon and explored the Pantalica Necropolis where Bronze Age cave dwellings open amid almond groves. But Syracuse was irresistible, and we checked into the marbly elegance of the Hotel Cavalieri, just inside the bridge leading to the jewelled miniature town of Ortygia.
An evening stroll found a ruined temple of Apollo, intricate alleyways and a magnificent marbled plaza beneath the astonishing cathedral. There is too much, even in this small south-eastern region of the island, to appreciate in days unless you behave like a crazy box-ticker, so we spent a morning walking up to the newer town – curiously half- Italian, half-Greek in atmosphere, part-chic and part ratty, with streets alternately named for saints and ancient philosophers.
The pride of Sicily: The famous Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano
At the top is the vast Greek amphitheatre and sinister caves where the tyrant Dionysius kept his captives. Back at Ortygia, we jumped on an open boat for an hour. The helmsman nosed in and out of sea-caves and showed us the Venetian splendour of the city from the water. We returned through a game of kayak polo.
At the Museo dei Pupi, we signed on for a puppet version of Orlando Furioso under a cramped archway, with much un-PC bashing of Saracens. We could have stayed there days, but had a date with Etna, the most active volcano in Europe, and pride of Sicily.
‘To us Etna is a parent,’ said one hotelier. We took a brief swing by the seaside to admire some rocks which the blinded Cyclops is supposed to have hurled at Odysseus as he fled, and found our last night’s lodgings at the Hotel Paradiso dell’Etna – a 1929 villa amid gentle gardens where Rommel had his HQ in the war.
With one day left, we eschewed the hikes and jumped into a Land Rover driven by impassioned geologist Sebastiano, of Geo Etna. This is a man who can date every different cascade of lava on the multi-coloured mountainside and who remembers perching overhead to watch the orange molten rivers of the 2002 eruption in full flow between the chestnut trees. He speaks of his mountain as a kind of living, bursting champagne bottle.
With him, we clambered round the rims of great craters and descended in miners’ helmets ten yards into a cave made by an old ‘lava tube’. We learned how army bulldozers laboured day and night to make new channels, and how in earlier centuries villagers raised a statue to Santa Agatha in thanks for the flow stopping 20ft short of houses.
To stand on this living, everchanging mountainside and watch the great plume of steam rising constantly against a bright blue sky at its summit is to feel you are getting a callingcard from the Earth’s still molten core. Immense, mysterious, thrilling.
‘Alive!’ cries Sebastiano. ‘Because when the heat stops rising from the heart of Earth we will be just a cold dead star. We are a young planet!’ It felt that way.
Getting there Inntravel (inntravel.co.uk, 01653 617000) offers a Baroque Riches Of Sicily holiday from £780 per person based on two sharing, including six nights’ B&B accommodation in three four-star hotels, two dinners, six days’ car hire, and self-guided walking route notes and maps.
EasyJet (easyjet.com) offers flights from Gatwick to Palermo with one-way fares from £29.74, and from Gatwick, Luton and Manchester to Catania from £33.84 one way. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Palermo with one-way fares starting at £28.99.