Benvenuto, ladies and gentlemen, to chapter two of my Sicily adventure! This one's less wordy but more visual. Yeah, that's right...you should brace yourself for an absolute onslaught of photos, people. Don't say I didn't warn you.
So when I left you at the end of chapter one we were settling into our modern villa, perched on top of a hill in Avola, near Noto. Booked through The Thinking Traveler, this was an ideal base for six adults, with a pool, excellent views, two fridges, a TV for watching all three installments of The Godfather (of course) and even yoga mats. And it doesn't hurt that the design of the place is just stunning, contrasting beautifully with the rolling hills and thick olive groves all around the property (which are home to a few hares, which we spotted near the pool!) The accommodating hosts who live next door welcomed us with champagne and had very kindly stocked the fridge with basic groceries on our request.
On our second day in the south we ventured further east to Siracusa, and in particular to the island town of Ortigia, where we braved the bustling market to pick up pecorino, tubs of sundried tomatoes in olive oil, ricotta and fresh almonds, snacked on arancini and cannoli and gaped at the fusion of Classical and ecclesiastical architecture evident in the temple of Athena, repurposed into the town cathedral.
As I said in my last post, the cannoli we had in the south-east were far superior to the ones in Palermo, pretty much everywhere we went. The ricotta was packed more tightly instead of running everywhere and the flavour was much more fresh. Just superb.
On our way back to the villa we stopped off to admire the view into a canyon that plunged far below - the perfect way to get a head for the heights that we would have to face the next day on Etna!
We were advised that it was best to tackle Etna fairly early in the morning so you're not climbing in full sun. Luckily, the heat wasn't a problem for us as it was overcast when we headed volcanowards, but the early rise wasn't all for nothing - it meant I got to watch the sun coming up! I know I sound like a city mouse when I enthuse over open skies, but it's so incredible to see them completely unencumbered by skyscrapers or blocks of flats. Seeing these made me realise why Italian Renaissance painters were so excellent at rendering fluffy, gold-tinged clouds. Just imagine waking up to sunrises like this every morning...
Blissed out from the 6AM sunrise, we arrived at Mount Etna to see that most of the mountain was shrouded in cloud, which was good news as it meant that walking was bearable. Oh, and it's such a cool sensation to walk through clouds and see them part to reveal the landscape below. It's recommended that you bring good walking shoes to walk up the mountain as it is incredibly steep in places. You can rent hiking boots halfway up the mountain, but to be honest the first stage is the most taxing.
Walking around the caldera was a surreal experience. I picked my way over the rusty red rocks to peer down into the smoking crater with the smell of sulphur hanging in the air and hot air escaping from small holes in the ground around me, fully aware that the volcano erupted only a few months ago. Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and will almost definitely erupt again imminently. If not for the horde of tourists emerging on to its slopes from buses every ten minutes, I'd have thought I was on another planet, such was the hostility and bleakness of this alien landscape, devoid of any life but the ash-like midgies that flecked the air. But enough from me - I want to let the pictures speak for themselves.
After Etna, we rewarded ourselves with gelato in the nearby town of Taormina. Gorgeous but unfortunately plagued by tourists, I could see how enchanting this place must have been in its heyday, attracting artists and writers (such as D.H. Lawrence, who wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover here). We wandered up to the Teatro Antico, a beautifully restored amphitheatre on the cusp of a performance of Don Giovanni, which made me nostalgic, having put on a production of the opera on last spring at Cambridge; we all sang snatches of arias badly on our way back down to pizza, and home. Deh vieni alla finestra...
Well done if you managed to get through all of that! As you can imagine, we were absolutely exhausted after our day of hiking up volcanoes and hills, and took a few days off to relax and swim at the villa. In other words, dolce far niente, which was just perfect. In real time, I'm off to Santorini for a week, but when I'm back I'll show you around the hill towns of Noto, Modica and Ragusa - where I had some of the best - if not the best - ice cream I've ever had.