The film, ‘The Godfather’, brought my attention to the Italian island of Sicily in the seventies. Magical scenery; with a touch of mystery.
My husband and I perused a long list of holiday places, and it didn’t take long to decide upon this destination, although I never realised then, just how much it would mean to me.
Months later in our hotel room, I was drawn towards the arched opening on the balcony at Letojanni, and felt moved. I was so enchanted by the outlook across the bay of deep blue Ionian Sea, its water touching mountainous coastline with verdant trees.
A lot closer, was the dull hum of cars on a dual car overpass. A train track ran below, beside buildings leading to sand and glittering ripples.
After breakfast the following day we went down by the hotel’s funicular rail to explore. We soon located the Olimpo Parc’s private part of the shoreline at Lido Tropicana. No holiday is complete without a morning or afternoon on the beach, and we planned to go there another time, although the water looked very inviting, but so did many cafes. The iced coffee was delicious at one on the seafront.
The main venue for our first few days was by the swimming pool, and we preferred the one with terraces above greenery and facing towards the sea. Quite often, colourful hang-gliders drifting by added to the atmosphere. Poolside music was varied; early afternoon tunes best, mainly instrumental and tranquil.
The dining room was large, bright and clean. The central serving area displayed a Carretto Siciliano; a vibrantly painted two-wheeled cart, usually pulled by a horse or a donkey. We opted for a quieter part of the dining room and then selected from the buffet of Sicilian cuisine, which was plentiful, tasty, and predominantly healthy.
Entertainment was limited but enjoyable. A folk band played traditional music some evenings, where Italians danced in sequences we weren’t familiar with, although we did join in sometimes. Many Sicilian women dress flamboyantly, particularly their footwear and we were mesmerized by their flair.
Mount Etna was our first excursion. The coach picked up promptly and we headed up zig-zag roads, making stops on the way.
Gole Alcantara Botanical and Geological Park was first. On arrival, we descended in a lift to rocky steps leading to a river and volcanic gorge where the crystal water was meant to be icy cold, but that was by Sicilian standards. The hour we spent there didn’t do it justice; I picked up a brochure and map whilst there showing the size of it, including lots of focal points such as park trails, water activities, basalt columns, flower meadows, deer grotto, farm …
Back in the coach and further up the mountainside, we made another break. This time at Oro d’ Etna, a honey farm, where we listened to an extremely informative session delivered humorously about honey collection and production, followed by a sampling session. The gift shop had food, alcoholic beverages, beauty items and home products in abundance, but with limited baggage allowance back to the UK, we kept purchases to a minimum.
Onward with our journey; the view of Mount Etna was stunning. Unique cloud formations swirled around her noble peaks. Higher and higher we travelled, before pulling up outside a group of gift shops and cafes after being advised to eat and drink before ascending the volcano. Anticipation was building.
The cable car held six people; some felt apprehensive. I’m not too keen on heights or small spaces but felt safe and the thought of seeing Mount Etna in close-up dissipated any trepidation. After disembarking, there was time to see the yellow Sulphur smoking crowns, before being bumped along by four-wheel-drive minibuses up 2,900 metres, although the summit was at 3,300 metres.
The island sights were superb as we walked higher and around another lower crater where the landscape was lunar-like. Vents expelled vapour, some so close you could bend down and feel the heat on your hands. A strange contrast to the cool blustery breeze at such a height. All added to the experience of visiting Europe’s largest active volcano.
The day after, we lazed around at The Tropicana and recharged our batteries in preparation for the next trip.
The sun shone with the benefit of warm Sirocco winds blowing in from the Sahara. We planned to go to Taormina on the Interbus. Now that’s a good service. We found the bus stop outside our hotel and noticed another one across the road. Confusing; then a woman appeared, pointing out the Interbus logo on her tabard, she enlightened us and then produced a ticket machine.
When the bus arrived, it set off up rambling roads for twenty-minutes. On Sicily’s eastern coast, the hilltop town’s shops were interesting. With an abundance of antiques and art, it seemed a good idea to buy holiday presents. Some were decorated with Sicily’s trinacria, an emblem similar to the Isle of Man’s, except the three legs represent the island’s capes with a gorgon head in the centre. For the females in our family, we bought jewellery created with beads fashioned from Mount Etna lava and irresistible. Even more impressive was the shop, because these goods were made on the premises, and we were enthralled.
Traditional food and gifts were also on offer in tourist outlets, but we decided to find a residents’ supermarket where we could buy more authentic products at lower prices before returning to England.
After picturesque walks, refreshments in pavement café’s and ‘people watching’, we returned to the hotel so that we weren’t late for dinner.
A day or two later, the ‘In the Godfather’s Footsteps’ tour was popular. A small pretty town called Savoca was the first film location. After listening to the guide, we found our own way. Starting from the church at the top, where two of the classic’s characters Michael Corleone and Apollonia Vitelli married. We ambled down the cobbled road, and I was instantly transported back in time. I recalled the story’s wedding party walking and dancing to a country band behind the romantic couple. All scenes filmed from Savoca were preempted with an orange in the movie, so it would be interesting back home to go through the DVDs to see. We gave the catacombs a miss, but other people found them intriguing and we discovered a small museum set up in a grand rural building where we spent our time instead.
Bar Vitelli was full of nostalgia; Marlon Brando’s chair received lots of attention there. We drank lemon granita sitting in the shade of a shrub-covered canopy opposite a piazza. And it was fascinating to learn that these town squares are renewed in Sicily every six years because of their importance in Sicilian social circles.
Later we visited another town called Forza D’ Argo, and the camera was put to good use again. This time we saw the cathedral where the Godfather II and III church scenes were shot, and in each of these a donkey was included. After a wander around town, spellbound by the surroundings, we dined on pizza before the end of the mini escapade.
A second jaunt to Taormina was necessary because we ran out of time on the first and hadn’t seen Isola Bella. As soon as we left the bus station at Taormina’s town centre, we asked directions to the cable car and descended over hotels, houses, swimming pools, even a football pitch, down to the sea and Baia Delle Sirene, which is the busy little headland that we had admired from our hotel during the holiday. After strolling around, we took a right turn along a lively coastal road with a train track running parallel, which led us to Isola Bella, a model-like island that we had fallen in love with within an hour of arriving on Italian soil on our drive from Catania airport.
Slanted grey steps with stalls selling gifts, paintings, and beachwear set up on the sides meandered down by restaurants to the beach. We stopped for icy coffee granita; it smelt rich, the flavour strong and sweet.
Shoes off, we waded through turquoise waters across the pebbly bay of Isola Bella. It was even smaller than I envisaged, but this added to its charm and it was still worth the entrance fee. The narrow rocky pathways through follies with quirky doorways and windows led halfway up to an exhibition of photographs and artefacts. Sitting on stone seats we watched boats making swirly white lines in the Mar Jonio Sea lapping the shores opposite.
Imagine the owner’s delight living in their home set in the uppermost part of the island. To me, it seems like a dream come true.
An Aeolian Islands adventure describes the last outing. An early morning start, with a firework orange sunrise reflecting in the sea, set the mood.
Our guide captivated us with Greek Mythological tales based around Sicily as we drove along in the coach. One story was explained while we observed the sickle-shaped port of Messina. Facing left of Italy’s boot toe and over the sea, we visualised where two seas met. At certain times, whirlpools are created where the Tyrrhenian Sea and Ionian Sea converge, caused by the earth’s plates and different tides. Ancient Greek tradition sited mythical sea monsters, Charybdis and Scylla (noted in Homer’s Odyssey) in opposing waters between Sicily and the Italian mainland. On the Italian side, Scylla, a fearsome six-headed sea monster clashed with Charybdis, a powerful whirlpool off of Sicily’s coast. Their threat to sailors was hazardous and caused troubles. Avoiding Charybdis pushed the vessels into Scylla, the whirlpool. In the Odyssey, Odysseus chose to pass by Scylla and lose just a few sailors instead of sailing through Charybdis and losing an entire ship. His journey was aided by Aeolus, God of the winds and the namesake of the Aeolian Islands.
Further around the coast we boarded the ferry at Milazzo and cut through the waves to Lipari, the largest and most populated island. And thankfully, we didn’t meet any sea monsters or strange water anomalies.
We followed the guide on the first part of the visit, up a hillside road, past shops selling handmade goods and stylish casual clothes. Older children had set up little places on the pathways too, where they had collected pumice and obsidian, both products of volcanoes. Obsidian is a glassy black stone, which is solidified magma cooled by the sea, chipped from rocks below the water and often used in jewellery, but can be sharpened to make cutting instruments.
After seeing excavated ruins illustrating the many civilizations of Lipari, we went through the castle’s Norman gateway. Its architecture also a jigsaw of Lipari’s many invaders throughout history, and then beneath an arched tunnel of neo-gothic style.
Outside, capers grew on the pumice stone walls either side; surprising as the rock appears barren and dry, but the Capparis Spinosa shrub thrives on the volcanic nutrients. The caper flower bud is an island specialty and preserved in salt, wine, vinegar or olive oil, and flavoursome added to grilled salmon or to a pizza topping.
In a prominent position, on a circular walk back to the town, is St Bartholomew’s Cathedral with its regal bell tower. Inside, my eyes were immediately drawn to the decorated vaulted ceiling; frescoes depicting the Old Testament over a nave and two aisles.
The cloisters were recovered after being buried eight hundred years ago. Brilliant sunshine contrasted with the dark arched passageways edging a garden, a later construction of a bishop’s palace. Decorated columns and stonework from all eras stood side by side and restored after being hidden.
An early font was situated outside the cathedral door. At the time it was installed, baptisms were carried out before a person was welcomed into the cathedral. At the back was the statue of St Bartholomew. Everyone was beckoned over; our guide zealous to relate his tragic story.
Standing high on historic steps, the main street was pointed out. Our stomachs rumbled, and we decided to have lunch in a small open-air café and relished one of the best lunches of the holiday. Hot chicken and salad paninis – Sicilian style, which means it was huge. Sipping icy drinks, it was lovely sitting under a parasol watching Lipari life, until it was time to find our transport for the journey to Vulcano.
The boat sped through rainbow crested spray and was really comfortable, clean and spacious. The sea was like dark blue paint being swished as the captain circled us around incredible rock formations, caves and arches.
At only twelve miles away, Vulcano is the nearest island to Sicily. Admiring its beauty, we sailed closer. A gentle aroma of Sulphur greeted us on the breeze and to be expected, as Vulcanello is still active. At the port, the smell became stronger, but not unpleasant. Most of us wended our way along the road to the mud baths. The odour now blasted us, with an added back smell similar to ammonia. Some of our travel companions were eager to cover themselves in the mud. The baths were used as far back as Roman times and alleviate symptoms of rheumatism, arthritis and skin conditions. Underneath, it’s heated by fumaroles, vents of steamy Sulphur and carbon dioxide. Apparently, it is a unique experience to submerge yourself in the warm mud, but with the weather so hot, we didn’t fancy it. It can also remove a suntan, but most of all, the smell is off-putting. Some people didn’t seem worried and coated themselves face to toe in the chalky grey mud.
A walk was recommended to the crown of Volcanello, but yet again time was short, so we had a quick mooch around part of its base, and were captivated by the landscape, which was yellow layered with vegetation around one active, and two extinct volcanic cones.
Little shops and cafés reaching around to the beach were antiquated and the service slow, but that seemed to be the way of life as we passed through to the small black sandy beach, backdropped with a wooded area. It was pretty, boats bobbed close by, but other than swimming there wasn’t much to do. We hadn’t brought swimwear so we headed back to port. There was time to peruse the stalls along the promenade we hadn’t noticed earlier and ended the visit with a refreshing peach granita.
On the way back, we passed geological wonders including remarkable stratum and an old white rectangular based lighthouse. The captain swept the vessel by rocks towering magnificently through the waves, known as Valley of the Monsters. We really had been on an adventure, and after a close-up sail by Cavallo Cave, where smaller crafts could enter to see the grotto, we sailed back to Milazzo.
Letojanni is a friendly resort. We walked by the train station on the last evening, grumbling that there hadn’t been enough time to use it. Then down to the promenade, listening to music at Blue Sky, a gastro-pub and bar we had frequented most often over the two-week stay. It’s set on a traditional Sicilian square, fringed with palm trees. At one end there’s a church and clock tower, its buttery plastered walls spotlighted, adding to the ambience.
On a side road we had one last peek at a lit shrine in the wall before going under the dual carriageway to what we called, ‘cat island’. It’s the place where homeless felines live on a wedge of land enclosed by roads opposite Olimpo Parc’s entrance. A car slowed down, drove alongside us in the shadows, then braked, and suddenly, the dark space was bewitched with meowing cats. The car’s boot swung open and a man hauled out a carton full of tinned food. He filled empty trays; no wonder most of the clowder looked well cared for. We stroked them a fond farewell and then took our last ride up on the funicular to the hotel’s poolside bar.