07 JUN 2018: From Greek mythology to the writings of Homer.  From an ancient proverb to modern political jokes. From a multitude of paintings to an opera.  This and much more can be attributed to the mere 5km expanse of water that separates mainland Italy from Sicily known as the Straits of Messina.  The sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters sited on opposite side of the Strait, representing the maritime hazards posed by this stretch of water, namely a shoal on one side and a whirlpool on the other, leading to the idiom 'having to choose between two evils'.

But this stretch of water seemed far from evil as we boarded the ferry in Scilla (yes, named after Scylla) on a calm morning in mid-February.  Not a shoal or whirlpool in sight ... just the receding hills of Calabria and the view of the city Messina as we approached across the water.

The whole exercise could not have been easier.  The ferry is clearly marked on the mainland's A3 highway from the north, purchasing vehicle and passenger tickets was straightforward and soon we were on board, en route and enjoying the views.  The trip takes about half an hour.

Our plan was to drive around coastal Sicily, taking side trips into the interior when the guidebook told of a site of interest, or our map marked a road as scenic.  And there are plenty of both on this fabled island.

On our arrival day our drive was to be short, heading south to a spot within bus-ride distance from the ancient site of Taormina.  Sicula fit the bill and we were soon settled in a pleasant motorhome site facing the black-sand beach and the ocean.  We were not alone here, a few winter-escapees were already well established and keen to welcome newcomers and share tips on the region.  There was a grocery store, a bakery and wine shop available in the little town, plus the bus to take us to Taormina.

The bus was, apparently, rather necessary to reach Taormina.  Yes, the bus makes it regularly, as do hotel buses and, presumably, residents' vehicles.  But this hilltop town is reached by a tortuous drive with very little parking available once one does arrive.  As with many other places we had visited in Italy, it was the news of lack of parking that had made us decide not to take a motorhome to such a destination.  In any case, the bus ride made it possible for both of us to enjoy the scenery.  And enjoy we certainly did on the winding coastal and hill drive to Taormina.

What a spectacular town.  It lies on a narrow terrace sloping down to the ocean with far-reaching coastal views and a steep hillside rising behind.  In the distance we caught our first glimpse of snow-capped Mount Etna, the active volcano that casts a spell over eastern Sicily. There are the remains of a beautiful Greek theatre here, a superb example of the ancient Greeks' ability to choose spectacular settings for their theatre arts.  Taormina is obviously for well-heeled tourists with its charming small hotels and boutiques, bars and restaurants where the menus were displayed in a variety of languages, often including Russian and Arabic.  It makes for a great day trip.

Travelling on down the coast, we found a beautiful terraced campsite outside Acireale.  Beneath us waves crashed on the rocky shore, behind the land rose gently, carpeted with yellow wild flowers and studded with lemon trees.  A gorgeous site.  Our camping neighbours were an Austrian couple whose trip included skiing and we watched them prepare for a day on the slopes of Mount Etna as we enjoyed our morning coffee in the sun.  For our non-skiing trip to the mountain we hoped for a clear sunny day, which dawned on the morrow. We drove through the lava-coated foothills to the terminus car park on the mountain and from there took the cable car to the snowy ski lodge. Here we purchased tickets for the snow-cat ride higher onto the volcano's many slopes.  An English-speaking guide was full of information and statistics as we rode up and later our small group walked through the snow around one of the old craters while the main volcano spewed smoke and rocks into the air behind us.  It was a memorable experience.

The city of Catania, next on our route, did not seem to offer much of interest, so we negotiated the busy streets out of town towards Syracuse which is, indeed, a very pleasant and historic town, once wealthy and glorious.  Its history is full of tales of Carthaginians, Etruscans and Athenians, of tyrants and democrats, architects and artists.  It was once one of the most important cities in the whole of the Mediterranean region.  We took in many of the sites, enjoyed a harbour side patio lunch and found a small museum that was hosting a display of Sicilian treasures from Oxford's Ashmoleon Museum which we found interesting.

Beneath the hilltop town of Noto, which was on our itinerary, we found a lovely campsite in a lemon grove where our only neighbours were a British couple with a tame rabbit!  Here we made lemon juice!  The following morning the signora from the campsite drove us up to Noto as arranged where we enjoyed this spectacular small town with its massive cathedral and small cafes and boutiques.

From Sicily's southern coast we headed inland to the town of Piazza Armerina, famous for the Villa Romana del Casale, which stands nearby.   Once a grand hunting lodge for the noble families of the Roman Empire, this villa dates back to the 4th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  What makes it so very special is the fact that its entire floor, in every room, is covered with a series of extraordinary mosaics, the work of Sicilian and North African artists.  They depict hunting scenes, mythical creatures, flora and fauna, chariots and games, including a unique rendering of some young women playing a ball game dressed in what can only be described as bikinis!

The car park for this Villa is vast, so perhaps this is a good time to mention the seasons and tourism in Sicily.  When we arrived mid-morning there were only a few cars and one tourist bus in the car park, yet the mansion itself seemed quite crowded and there were often short waits to climb onto the viewing gantries.  This was not the first, and certainly not the last time while in Italy that we said to each other "Imagine what it must be like in the high season".  We found mid to late February an ideal time to explore this island, the weather was mild and the countryside looked beautiful.

A short drive north lies the city of Enna.  Well, 'lies' is hardly the right work for this bustling urban centre that, from the valley, appears to be perched on a cliff ledge!  We could hardly believe this was our destination as we followed the signs and negotiated the heart-stopping road to the top.  This memorable drive and the views of Sicily spread beneath us made the trip well worthwhile.

One of our guidebooks had recommended an agro-tourism inn nearby which provided space for a couple of motorhomes, so after Enna we plugged in the relevant co-ordinates and set off, soon finding a charming farmhouse with cabins, a swimming pool and the site we needed set in the pretty garden, with most welcoming hosts who spoke good English.  

It was the perfect place to relax after our challenging drive.  Time-wise we were now about half-way through our Sicilian trip, geographically we were in the heart of the island.  Many pleasures and treasures still lay ahead of us, which will be the subjects of my next column.

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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