x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sicily isn't quite so little

The volcanic splendour that characterises the Italian island provides a dramatic landscape in which to explore its diverse wildlife, impressive and world-famous food.

The trademark black beaches on the island of Stromboli.
The trademark black beaches on the island of Stromboli.

June is bumblebee season in Stromboli. For a month, these jewelled insects are everywhere - in thickets of hibiscus and bougainvillea, at the island's trademark black beaches, following small electric cars and pedestrians through the narrow winding streets. Even at 924 metres - the summit of the volcano, which dominates this tiny island's skyline - there are bees, trying to match Stromboli's explosions with their own buzzing.

Stromboli is Europe's youngest and most active volcano, and part of the archipelago that makes up the eight Aeolian Islands. When you arrive here by boat, you will see gusts of stone and ash shoot out of the volcano's mouth like towers of light welcoming you. Every 20 minutes or so, the volcano stirs, reminding you that it's still there. It's impossible to forget, really. Even if you are tucked away in a pebbly grotto by the sea or lunching in Ginostra, the south-west part of the island, which until 2004 had no electricity or running water - everything in the area is dominated by Stromboli's eruptions.

My goal here is to climb the volcano - a six-hour walk to be made partly in the dark. I've come prepared with hiking boots, a CamelBak, chocolate biscuits and a torch attached to my head. By dusk, a band of us scaling the side of the volcano are watching the port shrink to the size of a toy village. My lungs feel like the wings of a giant butterfly flapping inside me. My eyes hurt. All along the slopes there are bright yellow ginestra flowers. Strombolicchio, the original volcano, is a small nub of stone in the distance, poking out of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

I think of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini falling in love here in 1949. Explosions. So many explosions. No wonder the people fled. Only 400 remain on the island now. When we finally get to the summit, I am grateful to sit in the dirt and watch the craters below blast lava and ash fireballs into the night. Bees hover around my ears. It's calm and noisy, beautiful and violent, all at once. The perfect prelude to my Sicilian adventure.

The next morning, I'm on a hydrofoil to the Sicilian port of Milazzo with my fiancé and his nine-year-old son, Teo. We're pretending to be volcano hunters, going from Stromboli to Etna to Vesuvius, thinking that we will vanquish them, when, actually, it's almost certain that we will be the vanquished ones. It's impossible not to feel something primordial standing at the feet of these giant cones of magma. During the great waves of migration, northern Italians used to call people from the south "terramatta" - a derogatory word that can still cause a brawl. Terramatta: people from a crazy land of earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.

It's hard to say where the south begins. Is it something in the air? The vegetation? For centuries, writer-travellers from Montaigne to Stendhal to Goethe have recorded this north-south divide. My first impressions of Sicily are mixed, like the landscapes that I see juxtaposed in front of me: desert and sea, sweet breezes and violent heat, cactus groves and lush orchards of lemon, olive and orange. It's always the contrast that surprises.

From Milazzo, we drive south through Randazzo to see the Church of Santa Maria, made entirely of black lava stone, and for cannoli, those wondrous Sicilian pastry tubes oozing with ricotta sweetness - our first of many. We stop for the night in Bronte, a town perched on the periphery of the Parco dell'Etna, famous for giving the English novelist sisters, Emily and Charlotte, their surname, and also for its pistachios. So many of the small towns that dot the east coast of Sicily are renowned for something food-related. Pachino has the most divine cherry tomatoes; Modica's Antica Dolceria Bonajuto has been driving chocolate lovers crazy since 1880; and the fish market in Portopalo di Capo Passero is legendary. In true Italian fashion, we talk about other kinds of food while eating dinner to double our gustatory pleasure, while Etna smokes and fumes on the horizon.

The next morning, we're on the road early, heading towards the Rifugio Sapienza, the base camp for Etna. We drive down to Adrano, on through Segreta, of the illustrious "secret" wines. Lush vineyards and woods slowly give way to a haunting landscape - a glacier of black lava, which looks to be a wasteland, but actually nurtures a staggering variety of insects and flowers. Yellow everywhere: ragwort, Sicilian tansies, Etna broom and Sicilian chrysanthemums called "dona vita" ("life-giving"). In the middle of all this yellow and black there are green explosions of beech and birch, and pink cushions of soapwort and lichens - all sustained by rich lava minerals.

To get to the base of the central crater, we take a cable car that takes us up to 2,500 metres, and then clamber into a fleet of strange cross-country vehicles with hundreds of other tourists. There's none of the intimacy of the Stromboli hike, but once we're let loose along the edge of the crater, it's like being on the surface of a distant moon. Hot and cold. Snow from the last eruption lies trapped in black ridges, wind howls about us, and when we put our hands under the crunchy layer of lapilli, there are stones 60°C hot that have been steaming for a decade. The strangest thing is the wild abundance of ladybirds. Our guide tells us that they float up with the ascending currents and feed on bacteria. One of them attaches itself to Teo's trousers and follows us back to the car.

From the hallucinogenic lunar-scape of Etna's peak, we drive down to sea level, tropical colours seeping slowly back into our frame - stout palm trees and hints of royal blue ocean, past Catania and farther south, to Avola, another exquisite wine region. The adults unilaterally decide to give volcanoes a rest and to take up the culture trail instead, by exploring the famous Baroque towns in the area - Noto, Ragusa Ibla, Modica, Scicli. The landlady at our B&B tells us that this is where the decadent counts were sent to decay along with the buildings that they inhabited. There's still a sense of deterioration in these places, but the towns have received a considerable fillip from a Unesco World Heritage listing, bringing in enough funds to restore the buildings to their original medieval splendour.

Of them all, Noto is the real jewel. Although we go there to feed our eyes, it is our stomachs that lead us to Caffè Sicilia, self-proclaimed best gelateria in the world. Given that we don't know when we'll be back through these parts again, we decide not to discriminate between delicacies and try one of each. Our table is soon weighed down with casatina, cannollo, three different flavours of granita and at least five flavours of ice cream. It is a pure and intense sugar orgy. The only question is: how do the waiters remain so skinny?

Afterwards, we stumble onto the corso and into the blinding light of the afternoon like drunken fruitflies, only to realise that the famous Noto Cathedral also resembles a giant, golden marzipan cake. The entire street is lined with pastry-style buildings - all twirls, creamed tops and opulent flourishes. There are imposing stairways, hidden theatres and churches - all grand and triumphant. Most triumphant of all is the Nicolaci Palace - whose owners, we're told, made their fortune in tuna fishing and bought their title. The house features a one-of-a-kind spittoon, among other treasures. But it's the balconies that (forgive me) take the cake. Held up by mermaids, horses and gargoyles, these wonderfully curvaceous cast-iron structures were made to accommodate the generous shape of women's skirts at the time, enabling them to lean over delicately without crushing their silks.

Over the next few days, we alternate between the beach and Baroque. During the day, we go from one hilly, rock-cut village to the next, marvelling at the never-ending supply of beautiful churches and fountains. At night, we eat like kings by the sea. Before sailing north to our final volcano stop, Vesuvius, we anchor for a few nights in Syracuse - where Archimedes was born and the poet Sappho was exiled. The streets of this ancient fortressed sea port are lined with majestic North African palms, and there are scatterings of pillars and amphitheatres around every street corner. Eighteen metres below our hotel, there are 2,000-year-old Jewish baths. Even the old men who sit under trees and shoot the breeze - a feature of all Sicilian towns - look like they've been sitting there for centuries. Syracuse is a mythic place, layered with stories and civilisations - Roman, Arab, Byzantine, Greek - a kasbah of cultures all speaking to each other.

A traveller can never be sure what they will remember of their journeys, no matter how devotedly they record them. The names of places and the experiences soon begin to blur. There are certain smells that take root - lemon and orange blossom, bergamot, almond. But the Sicilian memory that I treasure most is driving in those late summer hours from town to town in that ravaged light, the farmhouses and bales of hay, the sea always at a distance, enticing you to forget.

The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Rome in six hours from Dh2,900 return including taxes. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) offers direct flights from Rome to Palermo from €66 (Dh322) return including taxes

The hotels In Stromboli, the B&B Casa Carlotta
(www.casacarlottastromboli.it) costs from €80 (Dh390) per night including taxes. Near Catania, the Agriturismo Badiula (www.badiula.it) costs from €38 (Dh185) per person per night. In Syracuse, the Alla Giudecca (www.allagiudecca.hotelsinsicily.it) costs from €120 (Dh586) per night, all including taxes

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