Italy’s Sicily Really Sizzles

The golden columns of the majestic Doric temple, built more than 2400 years ago to honour the goddess Concordia stand basking in the sun on this perfect June day. A few hundred metres away stands another equally magnificent structure that dates back to Greek times.

In fact, in the Valley of the Temples, you’re surrounded by Greek artefacts. It is as if we’ve been parachuted into the heart of ancient Greece.

Discovering these temples outside the city of Agrigento was just one of the many splendid surprises on our tour of Sicily, the romantic island that sits at the toe of boot-shaped Italy and whose own history dates back to the 11th century BC.

Wanting to explore Sicily on our own terms, my husband and I rent a car at Palermo airport and begin our drive around the perimeter of this enchanting island, the largest in the Mediterranean.

Before hitting the coast, though, we have to first navigate our way through the wild streets of Palermo – with a sticky stick shift. Nothing prepares you for the chaos in Sicilian cities like Palermo or Catania, whose kamikaze-like drivers think nothing of overtaking you on blind corners, blasting their horns for no apparent reason or zooming into intersections with barely inches to spare before coming to a screeching halt.

So we are happy to see the island’s open roads, which take us past lush vineyards, fields teeming with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and grain, colourful towns where quaint inns and restaurants encourage us to pull over and sample some of the local cuisine.

Remembering that Sicily is known as the ‘breadbasket of Italy,” we expect some memorable dining experiences and are never disappointed.

Owing to its strategic location between Europe and Africa, Sicily was tramped across by half of the ancient civilized world and its cuisine retains hints of its invaders: Greek, Roman, Spanish, French and Arabs.

The Greeks brought wine, the Romans, pasta, the Spanish, chocolate and the French arrived with their sophisticated chefs. But the Arabs had the greatest impact on Sicilian cuisine; they introduced spices and showed the locals how to enhance their dishes, a tradition that continues today.

Sicily is blessed with some of the most fertile soil in Italy, thanks to the eruptions and lava flows of Mount Etna.’ Add the subtropical climate and surrounding seas and its no wonder that the island has an abundance of exceptional fruits, vegetables and seafood.

With food comes wine and according to legend, Bacchus was the God who “brought wine to Sicily, but until the 1960s, the only wine worth a second sip was sweet Marsala. Now, however, today’s innovative winemakers are turning out world-class offerings. The elegant, refreshing white Grillo and the hearty red Nero d’Avola are our favourites.

On the fourth day of our drive, we round a corner and there, dominating the horizon, in all its majesty, stands Mount Etna. Rising 3,300 meters above sea level, the mountain covers a staggering 1,200 square kilometres.

Etna is in an almost permanent state of eruption and smoke billows constantly from its main crater – the plume serving as a weather vane for residents of the nearby city of Catania, who sometimes must resort to umbrellas to keep ash off their Ferragamo loafers.

But Etna is quiet this day and the drive to Rifugio Sapienza, 1,400 meters below the summit, takes half an hour.

The twisting road is bordered by immense brown lava fields that stretch away as far as the eye can see.

Unexpected clumps of bright wildflowers dot the lava scape and the drive is quite breathtaking.

When we reach Rifugio Sapienza, we leave our car and take for a cable car and a 4-wheel-drive minibus that delivers us as close to the crater as any person is allowed.

The sheer power of the mountain is overwhelming, as are the spectacular views of Catania and the azure Mediterranean below. Amazingly, in spite of the obvious dangers, people live and work on this volatile mountain, which last erupted in 2001.

We spend our last day at Taormina, the romantic seaside resort that was made famous as a vacation spot for Hollywood stars in the 1940s and ‘50s. (Many still come to the annual summer film festival). Taormina can get very hot (and very crowded) in the high summer, but in June, the weather is very pleasant.

In the early evening, we meander up Corso Umberto, the picturesque main street lined with designer shops, in search of a good restaurant. We come upon Ristorante Cinque Archi and a waiter escorts us to a balcony table overlooking the square.

Below, a three-piece band and a visiting opera singer from Istanbul serenade passersby with Italian love songs.

It is an invitation to dance beneath the setting sun. And we do.

Ah Sicily. That’s amore!

Travel Life 2013