Sonntag, 4. Mai 2008

un pezzo del paradiso, a piece of paradise

By Mary O'Sullivan
Sunday May 04 2008

WHEN you hit a certain age, you realise there are particular qualities a holiday destination has to possess before you consider it your kind of place. I may not be cash-rich, but like most people nowadays, I am time-poor, and there comes a stage when it can no longer be a case of trial and error. It must hit the spot at once.

Certain prerequisites such as sun and sea are easy, others such as charming environs, good hotels, classy shopping, easy-to-absorb culture, an interesting, indigenous population and, above all, superb cuisine are trickier. You rarely find the lot in one place, yet one small island in the Mediterranean ticks all the boxes -- and it's all available so effortlessly that you almost take it for granted.

As you tour Sicily, its spectacular volcanic landscapes, its charming hill-top villages, its evocative market places and its sweeping seascapes will all seem familiar, and that's because they are; the beautiful island is a favourite among filmmakers. Parts of The Godfather were filmed there -- Sicily is, after all, the birthplace of the Mafia -- but many other movie-buff favourites were shot here too, including Il Postino and Cinema Paradiso.

But no movie can quite capture the full experience of Sicily: all around you is beautiful scenery, yet never far away are the sounds of the Vespas idling in the narrow streets, the snatches of conversation as locals roar greetings over the hum of the traffic, the mingling scents of orange groves, bread-baking and garlic-roasting, the sight of contented old men languidly sipping their expressos at kerbside cafes, while graceful girls hurry along arm in arm.

It's all so alive. And maybe that's because it has been for a very long time -- cave paintings on the island show traces of human settlements as far back as 10000BC.

The historic sites that attract most visitors, however, are of Greek and Roman origin. These powers occupied the island at various times between 900BC and 500AD, and there are some some fascinating remains of their occupation. Agrigento, Syracuse and Selinus have some of the world's finest examples of traditional Greek architecture -- but no matter where you go on the island, there'll be some interesting ruin or other to see, and all have fascinating stories to tell. Taormina boasts one of the world's finest amphitheatres. It certainly has the finest setting of any amphitheatre: perched high on Monte Tauro, with only the clear skies above, it towers over the stunning blue bay below with views across to the volcanic Mount Etna. It has much of its original brickwork, staging and seating, and is still used as a dramatic setting for concerts and other outdoor events.

There are loads of superb resorts in Sicily but my favorite has to be Taormina -- small enough to negotiate very easily yet with enough nooks and crannies to keep you interested, and it's within easy reach of lots of the island's main attractions -- for example, a visit to Mount Etna is a must.

Beware though, Taormina is seductive -- and once you establish a pattern there, it's hard to deviate.

For me, the day always begins with freshly-squeezed orange juice on the bedroom balcony while we marvel yet again at the view below, where the sun is dancing on the water. Then it's down to the dining room for the hotel Monte Tauro's superb buffet breakfast, then the pool and the book. That's followed by the shortest of strolls to the town for lunch -- usually a selection of antipasto from one of the town's superb delis.

We are creatures of habit, so our purchases always included the sublime sun-dried tomatoes which, of course, tasted nothing like anything you'd buy here, and on our last day, to our delight, the gorgeous shop assistant insisted on giving us a bag with full instructions on how to prepare them. Sated with our picnic lunch, usually taken in one of the town's many piazzas or the lush public park, we'd head to the beach below by cable car (you can walk there but the descent is a tad steep) for more sun-bathing, lounging and a swim. Then it was back to the hotel for a short siesta and then the highlight of every day -- dinner at one of the many restaurants in this tiny town. It boasts every kind -- cheap, expensive, indoor, outdoor, sedate, noisy.

Before we went to Sicily, we'd been given loads of recommendations, so many that we realised that really every restaurant in Taormina has its own USP. It was one restaurant's parmigiana (slices of aubergine layered with parmesan cheese -- yum) another's cassata (a to-die-for dessert made of ricotta, fruit and nuts, which bears no relation to the ice cream called cassata here), in yet another, it was something as simple yet as precious as their welcome -- if we went to the same place twice we were practically family. Sicily's industries are fishing, olives, almonds, oranges and fresh vegetables, so you can imagine the fresh, seasonal delights, the signature pasta dishes and pizza they concoct for their diners on a nightly basis.

After dinner, sated, bloated even, it's time for the passeggiata, for which the centre of the action is the main street, Corso Umberto, which runs from the top to the bottom of the town. And the posing and parading goes on until well after midnight. As well as lots of beautiful people partying, there's plenty to admire in terms of architecture. The street, which is broken in the middle by a 12th-Century clock tower, is lined on both sides with gorgeous crumbling biscuit-coloured medieval palazzos, which these days house restaurants, cafes, gelateria and designer shops.

With my dangerous (for me) sweet tooth, the endless pasticcerie are an unavoidable magnet. Sicily is famous for what they call frutta di martorana -- fruit (and vegetable) shapes sculpted out of coloured almond paste. Apparently, in the middle ages the monasteries, the most famous of which was La Martorana in Palermo, earned their living by making them. Now they're made everywhere, including Taormina, and the displays are stunning.

More stunning are the jewellery shops: treasure troves of the kind of jewellery -- lots of cameos and big showy gold pieces -- that looks marvellous on Mediterranean types but often too bold for fair-skinned northerners like ourselves. Happily, I did find a little something that suited me -- a turquoise cross on a chain of turquoise beads. Every time I wear it, I am reminded of my holidays in Taormina and how I really need a Sicilian tan to show it off properly. And now is the perfect time to go back.

Sicily for You travel and enjoy