By Sean Sheehan
I’m wary of my own title — the prospect of searching for something attractive should generally be regarded with caution – for Sicily tends to be one of those luminous places invested with a traveller’s desire that cannot be met. There tends to be, as with destinations as dissimilar as Tuscany and Timbuktu, a fantasy at work that holds out the prospect of finding an indefinable, rapturous something that is experienced as missing in our lives, something lost and needed to be found again. Archimedes found it in Sicily, sitting in a bath in Siracusa and crying out Eureka, so why shouldn’t I discover it wandering down narrow, cobbled streets, gazing up at an ochre painted wall and a balcony languishing with age where a melancholy woman sits dolefully knitting in shade amidst climbing plants and drying laundry? Or seated in a street under a eucalyptus tree, sipping spumante and contemplating a smoking Mt Etna while fashionistas gander by. If not then, the next day while soaking up the sun on the Aeolian island of Stromboli, knowing this is where Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini enjoyed their illicit fling. Some places, do they not, tap into your soul, releasing a heady elixir of memory and desire?
The capital Siracusa (Syracuse) and its little island of Ortygia has drawn voyagers from bygone times and seems the right place to begin an odyssey. The goddess Leto stopped here to give birth to Artemis, ancient Greeks founded the city in the eighth century BC and their theatre was later turned by the Romans into a magnificent amphitheatre, replacing Aeschylus with agony, dramas of extreme lives proving less entertaining than spectacles of gladiators in combat. Caravaggio came here on the run in 1608, completed a painting (The Burial of St Lucy) and moved on. Ortygia today is remarkably restrained and, unlike some parts of Italy, mercifully free of scamps on scooters buzzing through the streets like demented bees running amok. And while its architectural beauty cannot compete with Noto, 32km to the southwest, it hits the spot for chic Baroque. The cathedral and its piazza are an aesthete’s heaven if opulent excess and the grandiose fire you up but a ghostly apparition in the form of imposing Doric columns moved me. They belong to an ancient Greek temple that stood on this spot and, surviving the earthquake of 1693, were incorporated into the walls of the newly built cathedral. Seen at their best inside, they haunt the Christian church with their enduring pagan presence.
I was staying in a smart modern hotel (Mercure Siracusa Promeeteo) but for olde-world charm you need a vintage establishment in Ortygia like the Grand, built in 1890 and overlooking the harbour, or the Roma in the heart of the old city. Climbing the supremely artful staircase to the restaurant at the top of the Grand to watch the sun go down from the balcony is a treat, as is eating al fresco at the Roma in a pedestrianized street by the side of the cathedral. Most of the restaurants in the main square in front of the cathedral are decidedly touristy but one of them (Regina Lucia) is tucked away at the side, opposite Santa Lucia alla Badia where the Caravaggio is displayed, and its tastefully converted basement has a suitably ancient ambience entirely suited to Ortygia but minus the Baroque trappings. Discerning Italians dine here to escape the crowds.
Two hours on a slow train, passing olive and orange groves while reading Jeremy Dummett’s Syracuse City of Legends, and Taormina’s charming railway station, one of the prettiest in Italy, is reached. The town’s setting is a patch of paradise – the Sicilian Riviera no less — from sweep of scalloped shoreline and cerulean sea to the sight of majestic Mt Etna resting inland. I was here as a literary pilgrim to find the house where D. H. Lawrence lived and wrote for three years and where he heard gossip about the love life of a female expatriate that provided the basis for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In one of his less sanguine moments, my trusty Rough Guide informs, Lawrence expressed the desire for Mt Etna to erupt and spew forth ’60,000,000 tons of boiling lava over the place’ but if he could see the shoals of ice-cream-licking day trippers that now clog Taormina’s narrow streets it is them alone he might wish to see cauterized. Faux naïveté aside, why do people want to herd themselves into the corralled streets of one tiny town? My escape route beckons high on a hill at a hotel (Villa Angela) with views to die for from bedrooms with spacious balconies, plus an outdoor pool and a breakfast terrace directly facing Mt Etna. Staggering views can also be enjoyed if you bag one of the tables facing the sea at the fine-dining restaurant in Grand Hotel Timeo; the Sicilian wine list here is the best on the island.
So, away to the Aeolian Islands that slumber off the north coast of Sicily and are easily reached by regular hydrofoils from Milazzo (a bus ride from Taormina); and one in particular: Stromboli and its violently active volcano. The island’s population of 400 is split between two small settlements and both are as well placed to avoid lava flows as it possible, though the signs pointing to ‘meeting places’ are not there for the benefit of tour groups. Another tale of passion piques one’s interest: not the class transgression of Lady Chatterley but extramarital goings-on between Ingrid Bergman and her director Roberto Rossellini when they came to the island to film Stromboli in 1949. The island’s schoolteacher at the time, Domenico Russo, assisted the film director with accommodation for his crew. This was the genesis of La Sirenetta hotel and Russo, now aged 91 is still there greeting guests. Meeting someone who has met Ingrid Bergman is probably the closest I’ll come to rubbing shoulders with a genuine Hollywood star. There are a few places to stay on Stromboli but Russo’s hotel is the dream getaway (outside of frantically busy August): leisurely meals, outdoor pool for sun worship, the sea almost at the doorway, slow walks and, of course, a trek up the volcano at night. This is the island’s paradox: a zen-like calm for weary travellers but with an explosive potential that gives it a dangerous edge; all in all, a realistic balance of life’s extremes.
Professionally organized treks up the volcano begin at dusk, reaching a vantage point that safely overlooks the summit crater in about two hours. The eruptions are for real – sudden giant fireworks, deep rumblings, booms and jet-fired hissings – a hair-prickling foretaste of what a powerful eruption would be like; a full monty I’d rather not experience on the top of Stromboli. The atmospheric descent is in darkness with the aid of torches and this is another highlight of a memorable trek. Famous people climb Stromboli (though apparently Bill Gates couldn’t be arsed and flew up in a helicopter) and Bono was taken up by our guide – though best if I don’t pass on his unflattering remarks about the experience.
Back on the mainland and a train journey along the coast to the home turf of the mafiosi. I arrived in Palermo half-expecting to see geezers in suits collecting protection dues from shops and restaurants, for Sicily has not yet let slip the moorings of its Cosa Nostra past. What I saw instead was horse-drawn carriages sedately taking visitors about — but ask the driver to speed up and he may noisily gallop down the main drag and overtake the buses. Palermo, I discover, has fizz. A bubbly Sicilian spirit, constrained by a street grid geometry foreign rulers laid down in the 16th centuries, plays itself out on the pavements: here, cutting a dash in life comes down to expressive body language, sexy colours, casual gestures like a jacket thrown over the shoulder in with studied nonchalance. This is tricky to achieve with clothes from M&S. Centuries ago, Palermo’s brio was sublimated into gaudy Baroque: witness Palermo’s church of Santa Caterina and its frenzied, gorgeously enriched interior where entablatures, medallions, twisting red columns, frescos and gilded stucco vie for space on every inch of the walls, floor, ceiling and alcoves.
Finding café bars in Palermo for a pizza or cornetto (the croissant not ice cream, though gelaterie abound) is easy but nice places to eat are not so obvious and it is worth heading up to Piazza Croci to the Cin Cin restaurant where some zest and novelty is added to home-style Sicilian cuisine. Swordfish, traditionally served with breadcrumbs, pine nuts and raisins, is cooked here, not grilled, with almonds, orange rind and honey. The result is a fishy dish that tastes mellow. Time permitting, I would have signed up for one of the restaurant’s cooking classes.
Whatever you are seeking in Sicily, senors and senoritas, let your search be a rewarding one. Beware, though: the object of desire may not be something simply lost; perhaps it never existed in the first place and cannot ever be found. Recall and ponder the online clip of Marilyn Monroe singing ‘After You Get What You Want’ from There’s No Business Like Show Business: after you get what you want you don’t want it.