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September 20, 2017

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Sicily’s superlative southeast

A short tour of antiquities and beaches on Italy’s largest island

Italy is one of my favourite countries, but Sicily wasn’t on my horizon until recently. About 18 months ago, I came across the BBC series Inspector Montalbano. Based on books by Andrea Camilleri, the show stars Luca Zingaretti as a brusque, shaven-head detective who keeps an eye out for the less fortunate. It feels very authentic, helped enormously by the fact that it’s in Italian with English subtitles.

The show is filmed in Punta Secca, a village on the beach on the island’s southeast coast. I was a fan the instant I saw the inspector enjoying breakfast on the terrace of his villa with its balustrade on the sand only metres from the Mediterranean. The plots are terrific too, of course, giving an intimate glimpse of life among Sicily’s classes, high and low, not forgetting the staggering history of the place or the power of the church and its mafia friends. You can get a taste of the drama on YouTube (youtube.com/user/mhzmystery).

Sicily’s location on the major trade route between Europe and the Middle East has made the island one of the most fascinating places on the planet. There’s history hidden under every rock. The Greeks were here over 3000 years ago and Syracuse, on the Ionian Coast, famously defeated Athens in 413 BCE. Under the Romans, the island was an important source of resources for the empire and a gateway to eastern conquest, and they too left many villas, temples and amphitheatres. During the Crusades, northern Europeans, on their way to liberate the Holy Land, occupied Sicily. The city of Messina was held briefly by England’s Richard the Lionheart and, over the next century, became an important exporter of products to markets in northern Italy, the Byzantine Empire and Egypt, only to decline.

The new millennium finds Sicily on a cultural upswing, this time fed by tourism. There are recently opened boutique hotels all over the island, a cornucopia of hip new restaurants and the most promising up-and-coming wine region in Italy. What’s more, Sicilians know how to eat. Fruits and vegetables, olive oil, cheeses and seafood are outstanding and bountiful. The mushrooms, the sauces, the pasta, the pastry! Oh my! It’s hard to get a bad meal anywhere in Italy and that goes double for Sicily.

To great dining, and important Greek, Roman, Arab and Christian sites, add the rugged beauty of the large island, three-quarters the size of Vancouver Island, including 3300-metre-high Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes on earth. Toss in fabulous beaches and a climate that’s more North African than European with balmy temperatures from March through November, and the question becomes: where to begin? For these purposes, perhaps not where you’d expect — not Palermo. Instead, consider a meander down the east coast and either take in the island’s capital at the end or leave it for another visit. You’ll almost certainly want to return. The trip outlined here, down the Ionian Coast, requires only short drives and combines visiting key sites with beach time.

Taormina with love

Begin your visit by flying to Catania. Stay more or less where you are by booking into a hotel overlooking the sea and slopes of Mount Etna. Antico Borgo Petralia (anticoborgopetralia.it; from €100 a night) is one of many boutique hotels in the area. There’s a pool, the food comes highly recommended, and the views of both sea and volcano are everything you could want. Spend a day exploring Etna on one of the many tours offered by Etnaround (etnaround.com from €60) including trips by jeep, donkey and shank’s mare.

With Etna under your belt — and after sampling a glass or two of Etna Rosso, the region’s highly considered red — you’ll be ready to move on to the island’s best-known resort town, delightful Taormina, a 53 kilometre drive up the coast. With its medieval, twisting streets and sudden sea vistas, it’s long been popular with the English, including author D. H. Lawrence who penned his naughty novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.

Get the lay of the land by visiting the spectacular third-century Greek amphitheatre with sea vistas to distant Mount Etna. Seriously consider a stay at the Villa Carlotta (hotelvillacarlottataormina.com; from €179 a night), which has been the home away from home for the better classes for eons. Elegant yet friendly, the service and food are among the best you’ll find anywhere. Rates vary widely depending on the season and are higher in September and October when you can pay around €250 a night. Given the loveliness of the setting though, you might even want to splurge to a terrace room. Explore the town, shop, eat, enjoy the cafés and take the cable car down to the beach at least once.

Syracuse wonders

When it’s time to leave Taormina, retrace your way down the coast through Catania and continue south for 60 kilometres to Syracuse. In Roman times, Cicero called it “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful.” At its height, Syracuse was home to 300,000, including Archimedes and many other luminaries.

The Parco Archeologico features the dazzlingly white, 15,000-seat, fifth-century BCE Teatro Greco, an amphitheatre where Aeschylus staged his last tragedies including The Persians, his most renown. Over the ridge, the old stone quarries are beautiful, replete with lemon and orange trees. It was not always so. They housed over 7000 prisoners during the Athenian War. The Ear of Dionysius, a 23-metre-high grotto, has such good acoustics that the tyrant was said to use them to eavesdrop on prisoners.

For a contrast of Roman and Greek styles, call in at the nearby third-century CE Anfiteatro Romano, a140-metre-long amphitheatre where countless gladiators and wild beasts once fought and died. Leave time to take the bridge to the island of Ortigia where restaurants and cafés ribbon the waterfront.

With over 2500 years of history, there’s a lot to see, but start with the abundant market at the entrance to the island. You’ll be tempted to stock up on goodies you can cook yourself. If you have access to kitchen facilities offered in many rental apartments and Airbnbs great; if not, look for Burgio (fratelliburgio.com) on the edge of the market, a sort of upscale, open-air grocery store and restaurant in one. Burgio serves sandwiches, craft beer and local wine, and features flavourful small plates of cheese, fish, sausages and salamis with accompanying sauces. Or try restaurant DiVino Mare (divinomare.it) for grilled fish at affordable prices.

By now it’s likely getting dark so go back to town to the beautifully lit Piazza del Duomo and its Cathedral with its Doric columns once part of the Temple of Athena. After that, let your instincts be your guide.

Combining history and beaches is easy in Syracuse. The Musciara Siracusa Resort (siracusaresort.it; from €140 a night) is near the pier and has a small private beach inside the breakwater. The rooms are small, but elegant. The waterside terrace restaurant has an excellent menu. One thing to note: no kids under age 14.

Ragusa’s world heritage

Time to move deeper into the south and to the adjoining mountain towns of Ragusa and Modica, a short 129 kilometres away. The whole area was rebuilt under the Spanish in honey-coloured sandstone after the destruction of the 1693 earthquake. Ragusa and Modica offer visitors yet another helping of history. A train links the towns and, if you have time, plan to visit both.

Ragusa Ibla is a compact city with fully 14 UNESCO World Heritage buildings in less than one square kilometre. Visit the Cathedral of St. George, climb the stairs to the new town and take in the architecture at sunset from the terrace of the Church of Santa Lucia. As twilight falls, if you feel like splurging, dine at the superlative Duomo (cicciosultano.it), celebrated for its wine pairings. If you’re looking for simpler fare and are ready for bit of adventure, set out down the hill to La Capinera (ristorantelacapineraragusa.it) near the old train station. The food, the view and the other diners will give you a sense of the real Sicily.

Modica, just 16 kilometres away, continues the theme. Set between steep hills, it’s a busy Sicilian city. Head for the tourist office on Corso Umberto. Elegant buildings line the street and the museum is here as are dozens of cafés and shops selling Modica’s famous chocolate. Visitors typically use this as a starting point for exploring. Put on your walking shoes, the narrow streets climbing above are full of surprises, but steep.

To continue the sea and history combo, stay in the nearby village of Marina di Ragusa which has gorgeous beaches and lots of night life. The Miramare (hotelmiramareragusa.com; from €130 a night) is one of dozens of offerings. With 23 modern rooms, six with sea views, and an excellent restaurant, you won’t be disappointed, but book early — it’s a popular place especially in the warmer months which extend well into October.

But wait, why stay in Marina di Ragusa when you can sleep where Inspector Montalbano slept just a few kilometres farther down the coast in Punta Secca? La Casa Di Montalbano (bed-and-breakfast.it/en/sicily/bb-la-casa-di-montalbano-la-dimora-del-commissario-punta-secca/628; from €90 a night, including breakfast) is right on the beach with wonderful water views and a breakfast that gets applause.

For more info on Sicily’s southeast, visit the Italian Tourist Board (italia.it/en/discover-italy/sicily.html) or the excellent site Italy Heaven (italyheaven.co.uk).

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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