Day 1 Our hotel room in Catania is a little hidden treasure. Hidden, because we can’t find the door for looking! The locals look at our bags and eagerly point us to the nearest taxi/ hotel/ airport, but not Hotel Etnea where we have our reservation. Eventually we spot the sign in an archway, and climb the stone staircase to the reception, where we are greeted and ushered into a simple but lovely room, with huge high ceilings. It feels more like staying in a friends house than a hotel and has an unmistakable European feel, with large shutters on the window, which look out onto a little courtyard. We dump our stuff and hastily set off to explore, munching on deep fried rice balls (a gooey mass of rice and tomatoes and cheese held together in breadcrumbs) from a little wine bar on the corner, before strolling round the streets. The white marble, which frames the dark volcanic rock of the buildings, gleams in the streetlights and cuts into the inky night sky.
Day 2 The sun is shining and the students are protesting! A few hold up a banner enthusiastically, but the rest are along for the ride, and it feels more like a
festival with most students simply enjoying the sunshine! Away from the high street we explore the busy markets, made up of stall up on stall of colourful vegetables at one end, trinkets, cheap tat and trainers in the middle, and a fabulous fish market to finish. In the fish market, red blood seeps into the puddles of ice,
camouflaged by the red reflections of the canopies above. Men with large cleavers dissect their catch, each with their trophy glassy eyed swordfish head in pride of place. Moving away from the markets, we make our way past the ancient columns of the roman amphitheatre, to the station, and in search of the Aeolian islands.
Day 3 At Hotel Villa Augustus we breakfast in the hotel courtyard, at one of the tables which has been set up between an incongruous collection of antique brick-a-brack including an old post box, one of the famous Sicilian puppets, and a collection of water carriers. The traditional breakfast seems to be cake which is great, in contrast to the ‘yoghurt’ which is cold frothy milk blended in a slush puppy machine. We clamber in the a mini van, between the locals and their shopping bags, to get to Quattropani. Despite a false start, we navigate away from the village with its cultivated gardens of fruit trees, to the coastal path, dodging some yellowing fumeroles and edging down through the scrub towards the sea.
From the coast we have beautiful views across towards the island of Vulcano, the water is smooth like glass, and the sun is getting hotter. In the shade of the trees, the islanders set out their rugs and harvest the salty, oily black olives, which are everywhere. In the evening we taste some, when we order some of the rich red wine, which is served with a selection of appetisers (nuts, cheeses, pepperoni and bread -almost a full meal). Clearly it is not the done thing to go hungry when one drinks in Lipari! We finish off with a slice of pizza and some pear and ricotta ice cream!
Day 4 Vulcano towers above the water. Once inspiration for Greek and Roman gods, it still belches out smoke, like a dragon with very bad breath! We climb Vulcano in the morning when walking is cooler. At the summit we edge round the crater’s edge, avoiding breathing too much of the sulphuric gases that spew from it. Back at the base again we admire ladies in large bathers, wallowing in the sulphuric yellowing mud, like hippos, hoping to benefit from the medicinal qualities of the warm water! We choose to swim in the more picturesque beach nearby, where the crystal clear waters bubble gently from hidden fumeroles. Fabulous, until the wind blows in the wrong direction, when the sulphuric gasses become a bit overpowering! In the evening we try and order a glass of wine, and inadvertently end up feasting on canapés and melon covered in swathes of delicate parma in the local bar, whilst we are entertained by the fantastic light display in the sky as the heavens open and lighting strikes.
Day 5 Today our trip to Stromboli is thwarted by a grim weather forecast so we walk to a local beach and watch the rain come down from the comfort of a local taverna, where we test out the local ice cream. We take the time to buy mosquito repellent to ward off the mozzies that have so far made my scalp into a 3D replica of the volcanic islands- with large welts oozing out all over it- bleurg! (Ed: No photos of this sorry, even with my awesome macro prime). Despite a grim forecast, the early evening is clear and we enjoy our evening promenade with the locals, watching them gathering in the town square for the evening gossip before dinner.
Day 6 Today we get up early to walk on the south tip of Lipari, discovering pretty villages with tasty orchards full of orange, lemon and olive trees. We are slightly unnerved by erratic black snakes in the undergrowth, but arrive back unscathed in time to get the boat back to the mainland. (N.B. later research suggests the snakes were actually harmless!). Getting on a train in Sicily is a bit like going on a heritage rail trip- the worn carriages have huge comfortable leather chairs, which are perfect for sinking down into and having a good snooze (which is fortunate because it tends to take a while to get anywhere!).
Giarre Riposto is at the foot of Mt Etna, and the buildings look as though the volcano has just sneezed on them- a bit sooty, like they need a good clean. We try and explore but are thwartedby the busy road and lack of any pavements, so revert to the hotel restaurant (Hotel Etna) for our dinner. The dinner is fantastic- we try the local speciality, pasta with sardines and raisins, and choose tomorrow’s dinner from the menu whilst we are at it!
Day 7 Today a taxi takes us into the hills, a winding journey through grey stone villages, some small and shabby, and some fantastic and bustling with pretty churches and friendly village squares. We are dropped off in a town square amongst some villagers who looked a bit baffled by our walking gear. The first leg of the walk is a trudge up a hot road, through the farmland, mainly orchards! We are intrigued by a crab, which we find half way up the mountain in the middle of the road! After that we spot little else except oranges, figs, and a few lizards around. Over the ridge of the hill we drop down into a woodland area, more like England in the spring, with delicate colourful woodland flowers. However, we are brought to a halt at a farm where we are growled at by some man-eating (probably) dogs, dubiously restrained by old rope, so hastily retreat to the road! Following this, we make our way up to the summit with fabulous view of the coast line, Castelmola, and Taormina below.
Castelmola is a beautiful town on the hill overlooking the coast, perfect for tourists on their way out of Taormina, and full of lovely lace and aprons with dodgy pictures on ! We search for a much needed cold drink and find ourselves with a shot of deliciously sweet almond wine to taste and bottle for the journey home!
Day 8 Today the Circumetnea (train) takes us to Lingualossa, in carriages which may be older relations of Annie and Clarabel! As we bounce up and down in the battered leather seats, we are surprised by the abandoned olive groves and graffitied stations along the route, quite different from sparkling Taormina. The black volcanic rock of Lingualossa reflects its mood. Our suggested walk takes us through littered allotments, with barking dogs and we spot a few poisoned rats lying around.
We walk up and into a grim valley of burnt out trees, littered with a few abandoned houses and cars. There is not much else apart from a few shotgun pellets and an old skeleton of a cow. The views of Etna hide stubbornly in a grey shroud of cloud. Not trusting the route we retrace our steps and look for comfort in the local churches and cafes before returning to our hotel.
Day 9 and 10 Today we take the train back to Taormina. Our modern hotel nestles into the coast line and smiles over the pebbly beaches and glistening blue sea. The town is a fabulous maze of surprises and we discover the beautiful park with its follies, the ancient amphitheatre, and church after church between the boutique shops and restaurants. We dress up and promenade the cobbled high street in our evening finery, stopping for a glass of bubbly, and admiring the sunset before finding a restaurants hidden in the maze of narrow streets for dinner.
Day 10 Our last adventure, we take a coach to the coast and a boat to Panarea. Panarea is the island for the stars, with beautiful whitewashed houses and a lovely sandy beaches. The air is hot and we cool off in the water, spotting the fish (and a few jellyfish which have washed up). Clambering back on the boat again, we sail on to Stromboli, our final destination. Here, in the early evening, the air is cooler and more refreshing. We escape the tour group and start a walk up the black sandy mountain side, between the huge tall grasses, until the light begins to fail and we return to the harbour. Boarding our boat again we have dinner and watch the sunset with our wine. Finally, as the light fails we are treated to a fantastic natural firework display as the volcano shoots out red hot lava, which tears into the sky before rolling down the sides of the mountain.
Day 11 It is finally time to relax by the pool on the roof of our hotel (Panoramic Hotel), and enjoy the sunshine before dressing up for our last meal in Taormina. Tonight we splash out on the catch of the day, whole fish in a lovely sauce of tomatoes and olives- divine.