To get your week off to an exotic start we thought we would share some writing from our Italy issue. Please enjoy Etna Moments, written by Ed Henry and Photographed by Renae Smith. You can buy the Italy issue here.
On an island off Italy’s boot you quickly learn that if it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it.
When you think of Sicily, what comes to mind?
The answers I received were split between those who hadn’t travelled there and those who had. The former would mumble something vague or hesitant – “it looks nice,” or “the birthplace of the Mafia right?”. The latter would gush a living eulogy for an island that captures the imagination and remains lodged there well after the holiday’s end. Now that I was visiting, I was suddenly a member of this club, the cognoscenti if you will. And in keeping with the island’s own warmth and generosity I will extend an invite, or provide a window at least, into this rocky triangular mass in the Mediterranean.
A whiff of context: Italy and I have history, from a grandfather who called it home to friends scattered across the North. I have had the privilege of seeing this country from many angles and so my objectivity is questionable. But this was my first jaunt to Sicily, and for my (much) better half, her first trip anywhere south of the Alps.
Sicily is a place that Italian mainlanders very consciously visit, such is the distinct identity that the island enjoys. Not forced, it is forged through the rich history that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. Sicily is distinctly Italian, and the architecture and gastronomic traditions are on full display, alongside other axiomatically Italianate amusements. But it’s been combined and entwined with Greek flavours and Arabic influences, not to mention Spanish rule, and much more besides. I say this not to intimate a deep knowledge of the island but because it’s there for you to see, smell and taste. To the visitor more accustomed to the waterways of Venice or the sleek Milan cityscape, Sicily offers a warm, rugged and almost rough embrace.
Trains do snake their way around the island, but your own set of wheels is thoroughly recommended. For a fully immersive experience, we plumped for a Fiat 500 (new model), but it wasn’t available, so they gave us one with a retractable roof. Oh fine, if you must. A less composed traveller would have squealed with excitement.
From Catania on the Ionian Sea we pointed the car north and meandered up the coast to our first base: Taormina, which is in no way defined by its undoubtedly touristy centre. We used the town as a launchpad for the surrounding area, and were handsomely rewarded. I do caveat that point, and indeed all of this article, by saying that we travelled in June. Intentionally so, as the temperature is a happy 30oC at this time of the year, rather than a sweltering 40oC plus. More crucially, we avoided the period between late July and the end of August which sees the mainland descend upon the island for tanning and indulgence.
Once installed in our apartment (more immersive than a hotel), we spent days visiting nearby beaches, sunning ourselves on Spisone, sea kayaking around the grottoes and walking up Isola Bella. Later we trundled down the coast to Siracusa, a functioning commercial city. Whilst it does have spots for archeology enthusiasts, and some top eating experiences, the big draw is the historic centre, Ortigia. To be blunt, it’s stunning. An afternoon walking around Ortigia’s backstreets is sheer joy, the main square a deep white, dominated as it is by the Duomo – I didn’t think places like this existed anymore. Ortigia itself is an island off an island, so if you walk for much more than ten minutes in any direction you’ll come upon the azure abyss that surrounds it.
At this point you think you’re aesthetically there, at the apotheosis, and that you can relax with a cool beer. Not so, or Noto so – if you will. A winding 40 minutes’ drive away is Noto, which would scream UNESCO heritage site, if only it weren’t so tranquil. The cathedral gleams in the Mediterranean light, the numerous supporting cast of churches and palaces resplendent under the sun. It’s a visual feast, and if you’re into architecture, it will probably satisfy more needs besides.
The best way to wind down from such an experience is to step into one of the local ice cream shops. Not just any gelateria, mind. Where do you think the best gelato is? That place in Soho? Don’t joke. San Crispino in Rome? It’s up there. But the number one and number two are within 50 metres of each other in Noto. A locale called Caffè Sicilia sounds like a tourist trap, but it’s not. It does to your mouth what the rest of the town does to your eyes. I’ll leave it there, and say to you go. Go.
The inner island is matched in beauty by what you find on the coast – picturesque beaches lapped by clear blue waters. They all deserve a mention, but only one gets that honour. Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari, as the names suggests, is a nature reserve, one where you can walk through ancient ruins, jump (cautiously) from rocks into the cooling waves below, or tiring of that, find your own spot on the pristine stretch of coastline.
Subsumed in the beauty of the landscape, we avoided Sicily’s cities apart from a brief drive through Catania. This city has more to offer than suicidal driving, but it’s a different trip. Its vibe is long weekend, not a week unwinding in the sun. The single greatest thing about the city however, is the elephant in the room of this piece so far. Mount Etna, which stands behind Catania, dominates the skyline up and down much of the coast, which means that you can have your own Etna moment no matter where you are as it’s visible from, well, everywhere. The classic way to take it in is from the amphitheatre in Taormina, although others prefer to see it in contrast with Catania’s urban grit. We found our Etna moment when looking down at the valleys and beaches from picture- perfect Castelmola, a hilltop town you wouldn’t believe existed until you saw it. The only thing towering over us? Etna herself. The millennial traveller is accustomed to mountains, au fait with tropical climate and quite frankly used to white sand. A volcano is a treasure of nature not often seen. If you leave Sicily in any doubt, you won’t arrive home with it; as the plane climbs into the sky it skims Etna just above her peak.
The food. Oh yes. I’ve saved the food for the end so as to contain it, for memories of my trip, as with much of life, are marked, or should that be stained, by what I ate at the time. The food here excites and subverts and is as much of an experience as any of the vistas. You farewell Sicily with a new found love of aubergines, you’ll remember how wonderful tomatoes can actually taste and best of all, you’ll discover that fish needn’t be dry, bland and deep-fried.
Sicilian food is independent of mainland Italian cuisine. The two styles are not unrelated, but think of Sicilian food as a proud cousin. The same historical and imperial forces responsible for Sicily’s formation, have brought similar import to its cuisine. This is not to say that classical Italian strands are not evident: my travelling companion’s dish of the tour was the definitive Pasta alla Norma served at La Piazzetta in Taormina. Named after the work of one of Catania’s most famous sons, this dish became almost a standard for restaurants up and down the east coast.
Not every meal can be indulged in print, but it would be remiss not to pull out a couple of highlights. Osteria da Carlo was a gem hidden in Ortigia. We had the legendary six- course fish menu, for the grand sum of €35, washed down with the best bottle of €5 house plonk I’ve ever swilled. If it swam in the sea nearby, then it was on that menu. You order sea bass, and not one, but two of the fullest, freshest fillets turn up, naturally served in the juice of the finest fruit Sicily has on land: lemon.
Flavours on the island, like the setting, shall not date. Consistency, textures, even viscosity are all different, all exciting. Entirely Sicilian. As Sicily’s perhaps most prominent literary son, Giovani di Lampedusa, proffered: “Sicily is Sicily – 1860, earlier, forever”. Long may she be, and proudly too. More’s the better for me, as I will be back soon.