Ok there’s nothing particularly secret about the biggest volcano in Europe but I liked the alliteration and if you’re planning a trip to Sicily, I hope you’ll discover some nuggets in here that you won’t find elsewhere – to make your trip extra special.
It’s busy, it’s touristy and it’s the most expensive place on the island but you’ve still got to visit Taormina because it’s so damned cute!
It has a fantastic main street with lots going on but go for restaurants in the side streets. The views over the sea are beautiful. Go for dinner or a drink up to el Jabel to see one of the best.
There’s a Greek amphitheatre that has regular performances throughout the year. We saw La Boheme there, tickets were just €23.
Down the hill to Mazzaro via cable car will take you to good beaches with really expensive sun loungers.
It’s dormant right now but that doesn’t mean Mount Etna is dead. Far from it. As recently as December 2015 there was an eruption that threw lava 1km into the air. But don’t let that put you off a visit. We drove there and all the way up to the cable-car station. You can grab some lunch before taking the 20 minute ride up. From there we got on an impressive 4-wheel-drive bus that took us across a moon-scape of cinder and ash and past steaming pits of recent activity. From there we joined a guide who walked us up to one of the vents from the big 2002 eruption. He was really knowledgeable, spoke good English and talked us through the geology and history of this massive feature which dominates the whole of South-East Sicily. Give yourself half a day to a day for this adventure depending where you start from and remember that the stuff you are walking on is some of the newest bits of the surface of the planet. Respect!
3. Alcantara Gorge
More geology here but it’s nice and cool and solid this time. The Alcantara gorge is made from solidified lava flows from about 8,000 year ago and the hexagonal vertical and horizontal ‘pipes’ are very impressive.
You can explore yourself to a certain extent but we chose to take the guided tour and it was a lot of fun. You get kitted out with waders and are lead down the river and over rocks and into pools. The water is surprisingly cold so the waders are for insulation as much as protection.
There is a park at the top with some fairly comical animated animals and dinosaurs and a cafe and bar. Remember to take your swim suits (unlike us) or you’ll be getting some clothing wet!
A little further south is the charming town of Syracuse. If you like Italian churches, boy, have you come to the right place. We visited just two, both in Ortigia, the ancient heart of the town connected to the mainland by a small bridge: The Cathedral of Syracuse (Italian: Duomo) is an impressive white Baroque building that dominates the top end of the square and The Church of Santa Lucìa alla Badìa, another Baroque edifice built after the 1693 earthquake. It houses the Burial of St. Lucy by Caravaggio. Find it at the bottom end of the square.
The square itself is beautiful, all white marble and not too busy out of season. Stop off for a coffee or a specialist hot chocolate at the hotel opposite the Duomo. Just one mind, there’s enough cocoa in there to keep you fizzing all morning.
5. Catania Fish Market
If you are staying in the South East, it’s likely you will fly into Catania but there’s more to it than just the airport. The fish market here is an experience you won’t want to miss. Dozens of fishmongers, fishermen and guys with just a box of fish trade here and it’s a sight and sound to behold. You’ll probably hear it before you see it as the sellers are very loud in advertising produce!
There were some varieties of fish here that we’d never seen before but don’t let that put you off. If you are here to shop for dinner you will not go home empty handed. If you just want to soak up the spectacle of something that has been going on pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years then just stroll around and take pictures. It’s nice to ask before you shoot the but they are a friendly lot and you might get them to strike a pose.
6. Villa Romana del Casale
This Roman villa is still being excavated but what’s been uncovered so far will take your breath away.
The Summer home of a high-ranking Roman (maybe even Caesar himself), the Villa Romana del Casale is unlike any Roman ruin you’ve ever seen. The buildings are interesting but what you have come to see are the mosaics; lots and lots of mosaics. In a really good state of repair, they depict what life was like for the well off in the later part of the Roman Empire. You’ll see how they lived, played, hunted and explored.
You’ll also see how they dressed. The Bikini Girls are famous in their own right. It’s as close to a time-machine as we’ll get to those days and life looked very good. It’s tucked away so use your map or SatNav. There’s a hotel at the junction to the main road which is very good for lunch.
Emma’s added secrets:
- Sip a cocktail on the roof of the El Jebel hotel in Taormina (mentioned above). All white and terracotta, it has to be one of THE most romantic places to sit under the stars with a view of the sun setting behind Etna and the sea laid out in front of you. If I wasn’t already married to John, I would have fully expected him to propose here!
- If you get the chance to see a performance at the Greek amphitheatre in Taormina, go for it. But remember to take a cushion or towel with you if you’re sitting in the ‘cheap’ seats. You are literally perched on the old stones.
- Try delicious pistachio ice-cream on the island. These nuts are grown locally and used in lots of dishes. However only try cannoli if you happen to like a lot of sweet cream cheese stuffed into what looks like a giant brandy snap and then dipped in chopped pistachios.
- Trip Advisor now has a rental service well-worth trying. We booked our apartment in Mazzaro with them – a lovely, modern and newly-renovated two bed flat over a restaurant. From the balcony you could watch the busy main road and just glimpse the seaside too. This resort is not the most picturesque but it is cheaper than staying in Taormina itself, has a nice bay and is a good base to see other parts of south-east Sicily.
- Take the train. We went from Mazzaro to Catania this way. It was quick, cheap and easy. You just need to know you must get your tickets stamped for each journey before getting on the train. We narrowly avoided a fine on our return leg after a kindly Sicilian passenger stepped in to help explain our error to the rather cross ticket inspector.
Emma’s recipe video for Caponata, inspired by our trip.
The upcoming exhibition ‘Sicily; Culture and Conquest’ at the British Museum.