Sicily’s eastern Ionian coast draws the largest number of visitors, attracted by Taormina, most chic of the island’s resorts and famed for its remarkable Greco-Roman theatre, and Mount Etna, Europe’s highest volcano. Further south, out of the lee of Etna, Siracusa was formerly the most important and beautiful city in the Hellenistic world, its enchanting centro storico surrounded by water.
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MESSINA may well be your first sight of Sicily, and – from the ferry – it’s a fine one, the glittering town spread up the hillside beyond the sickle-shaped harbour. Sadly, the image is shattered almost as soon as you step into the city, bombed and shaken to a shadow of its former self by plague, cholera and earthquakes. The great earthquake of 1908 killed 84,000 people, levelled the city and made the shore sink by half a metre overnight. Allied bombing raids in 1943 didn’t help, undoing much of the post-earthquake restoration.
Today, the remodelled city guards against future natural disasters, with wide streets and low, reinforced concrete buildings marching off in all directions. Not surprisingly, it’s a pretty dull spectacle, and there’s little point in hanging around for longer than you need to.
Indeed, poor old Messina is the place to be only on the feast of the Assumption, or Ferragosto (Aug 15), when a towering carriage, the Vara – an elaborate column supporting dozens of papier-mâché putti and angels, topped by the figure of Christ – is hauled through the city centre, followed by a firework display on the seafront.
TAORMINA, perched high on Monte Tauro, with Mount Etna as backdrop, looks down on two grand, sweeping bays and is Sicily’s best-known resort. D.H. Lawrence was so enraptured that he lived here from 1920–23, in a house at the top of the valley cleft, behind the remains of the Greek theatre. Although international tourism has taken its toll, Taormina is still a very charming town, peppered with small, intimate piazzas. The single traffic-free main street is an unbroken line of fifteenth- to nineteenth-century palazzi decked out with flower-filled balconies, and there is an agreeably crumbly castle. The downside is that between June and August it’s virtually impossible to find anywhere to stay, and the narrow alleys are shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists. April, May or September are slightly better, but to avoid the crowds completely come between October and March, when it’s often still warm enough to swim in the sea.
As well as the Greek theatre, there are several vestiges of Roman Taormina around town, including a small Odeon (used for musical recitations) next to the tourist office. Really, though, Taormina’s attractions are all to do with strolling and window-shopping along the Corso. Centre of town is Piazza IX Aprile, with its restored twelfth-century Torre dell’Orologio and fabulous views of Etna and the bay from the terraces of its pricey cafés.
The bleak lava wilderness around the summit of Etna is one of the most memorable landscapes Italy has to offer. The volcano’s height is constantly shifting, depending on whether eruptions are constructive or destructive, and over the last century it has ranged from 3263m to the present estimate of 3340m. Whatever its exact height, Etna is a substantial mountain, one of the world’s biggest active volcanoes, and on a clear day it can be seen from well over half of Sicily. Some of its eruptions have been disastrous: in 1169, 1329 and 1381 the lava reached the sea and in 1669 Catania was wrecked and its castle surrounded by molten rock. The Circumetnea railway line has been repeatedly ruptured by lava flows: nine people were killed on the edge of the main crater in 1979 and in 2001 military helicopters were called in to water-bomb blazing fires. This unpredictability means that it is no longer possible to get close to the main crater. An eruption in 1971 destroyed the observatory supposed to give warning of just such an event, and the volcano has been in an almost continual state of eruption since 1998, the most recent being in late 2002 when the resort of Piano Provenzana on the northern side was engulfed with lava. If you do attempt the summit, be sure to heed the warnings.
There are several approaches to the volcano. If you have a car, you can enjoy some of the best scenery on the north side of the volcano by taking the circular road that leads up from Linguaglossa to Piano Provenzana, a good place to bring the kids to learn to ski or toboggan. Note that the ski season on Etna lasts from around November to March.
On public transport, you’ll just see Etna from the southern side, though this does at least get you pretty near the summit. Although there are frequent buses to Nicolosi from Catania, only one (around 8am from outside Catania train station) continues to the Hotel/Rifugio Sapienza at the end of the negotiable road up the south side of Etna.
There are two ways up the volcano from the refuge, by foot or cable car. Now open again after being destroyed in the last eruption, cable cars run between 9am and sunset, weather permitting. The price includes a minibus from the top cable-car station to just below the main crater, though many people prefer to walk. Walking up from Rifugio Sapienza will take around four hours. Arriving on the early-morning bus, you should have enough time to make it to the top and get back for the return bus to Catania – it leaves around 4.30pm from the hotel.
However you go, at whatever time of year, take warm clothes, good shoes or boots and glasses to keep the flying grit out of your eyes. You can rent boots and jackets cheaply from the cable-car station. Food up the mountain is poor and overpriced.
Bang in the middle of the Ionian coast, CATANIA is Sicily’s second-largest city, a major transport hub, a thriving commercial centre, and a lively, energetic place with a more international outlook than Palermo. Defined by Etna – even the city’s main street is named after the volcano – and the ubiquitous black-grey volcanic stone in pavements and buildings, there’s more openness and space than in Palermo, but far less to see, as the ancient and medieval city was engulfed by lava in 1669, and then devastated by an earthquake in 1693. Spearheaded by architect Giovanni Vaccarini, Catania was rebuilt swiftly and on a grand scale, making full use of the lava that had been the old city’s nemesis.
Under ancient Greek rule, Siracusa was the most important city in the Western world. Today it is one of Sicily’s main draws, thanks to its extensive archeological park, a Greek theatre where plays are still performed and a charming historic centre occupying an offshore island where Greek, Roman, medieval and Baroque buildings of mellow golden limestone tangle along a labyrinth of cobbled streets. In between the two, is modern Siracusa, a busy and functional city of undistinguished apartment-lined boulevards.
It’s hardly surprising that Siracusa attracted Greek colonists from Corinth, who settled the site in 733 BC. An easily defendable offshore island with fertile plains across on the mainland and two natural harbours, it was the perfect site for a city, and within a hundred years, ancient Syracuse was so powerful that it was sending out its own colonists to the south and west of the island, and soon became the power base of ancient Sicily’s most famous and effective rulers.
Syracuse assumed an almost mythic eminence under Gelon, the tyrant of Gela, who began work on the city’s Temple of Athena. It was an unparalleled period of Greek prosperity and power in Sicily, though this troubled Athens, and in 415 BC a fleet of 134 triremes was dispatched to take Syracuse – only to be destroyed. Those who survived were imprisoned in the city’s stone quarries.
In the fourth century BC, under Dionysius the Elder, the city became a great military base, the tyrant building the Euryalus fort and erecting strong city walls. Syracuse more or less remained the leading power in Europe for two hundred years until it was attacked by the Romans in 215 BC. The subsequent two-year siege was made long and hazardous for the attackers by the mechanical devices contrived by Archimedes – who was killed by a foot soldier as the Romans finally triumphed.
From this time, Syracuse withered in importance. It became, briefly, a major religious centre in the early Christian period, but for the most part its days of power were done: in the medieval era it was sacked by the Saracens and most of its later Norman buildings fell in the 1693 earthquake. Passed by until the twentieth century, the city suffered a double blow in World War II when it was bombed by the Allies and then, after its capture, by the Luftwaffe in 1943. Luckily, the extensive ancient remains were little damaged, and although decay and new development have reduced the attractions of the modern city, Siracusa remains one of the most fascinating cities on the island.