The past (and pasta) as a foreign country
THE village on the hill across from our hotel was used in the film The Godfather. and the day we climbed the grassy tracks up to it we could see why. This part of western Sicily has, scarcely been touched by the modern world. The alleyways and balconies and tiny piazzas in the villages that cling to the hills can't have changed much in decades.
Places like Motta Casantra are utterly untouched by tourism. Turn a corner at a tiny medieval church, make your way past the little crowd that has gathered to buy that day's dinner from the travelling fish-van, and step into the old-fashioned bar. Order a creamy cappucino and a slice off almond cake and you discover another advantage of being off the beaten track. This is Italy: but prices are about one-third what they are in Florence or Rome.
This Alcantara valley, in the foothills of Mount Etna, is the setting for a one-centre walking holiday run by the London-based Ramblers Association. The walking is graded D+, which means "Terrain moderate. Energetic days among hills, and easy mountain walking. Daily walking time will seldom exceed six hours
A group of about 15 people, together with a leader who knows all the local walks, flies from Gatwick to Catania airport, is driven up the coast and inland to the Hotel D'Orange d'Alcantara, and settles in for a fairly intensive week of walking. And intensive eating and drinking, in our case, anyway.
You don't have to walk, of course. You can always stay in bed or sit in a bar. But most, people who go on a holiday like this enjoy being up on ridges, even if it's a scramble to get there, and like fresh air, and like spacious views.
You put in more effort than on conventional holidays. But you get more reward, too. And walking is the best way to appreciate a landscape like this, where there is nothing particularly grand, but there is a lot of interesting detail. Bright orange, groves with satiny black cattle grazing in them. Wild narcissi. Walls and bridges made from volcanic rock. The occasional abandoned baroque church. The stumps of Norman castles on the peaks.
Fitting in with the group's timetable means getting down to the supermarket around 8 a.m. to buy fresh bread and salami or cheese or sardines for a picnic lunch.
Then back to the Hotel D'Orange for one of their excellent - very unItalian - breakfasts: fresh orange juice, basil omelette, tomatoes and ham, good coffee. Then - on the dot - off in a minibus or on foot for the day's walking. Most days, our group walked for five or six hours, before coming back just as it got dark, for a shower and drink, a briefing on the next day's walk, and a vast dinner.
When we were there over the New Year, one walk was curtailed by a storm, one brought us to the frivolous and charming little belle epoque resort of Taormina - famous on the gay male circuit - where we spent the afternoon, and one day was a given over to a full-day excursion to the marvellous Greco-Roman city of Siracusa. But we still did a lot of walking, and what with that and the wine and the good food - the homemade pasta courses in particular - we slept very well.
Some moments were special. On the second day, for instance, the misty rain lifted just as we reached the ridge of our own valley. having climbed up from the hotel on mule-tracks. And there, across a second rich valley, reared Mount Etna, its snowy cone sparkling in the sun, dark smoke pluming back from it as from a steam train.
Another day we were on a ridge to the north, and could look in one direction at vapour-covered Etna and in another on the north coast of Sicily and the Aeolian Islands and mainland Italy across the straits. Another delight was the serene village of Castiglione, a place of faded, forgotten beauty. In 1988, one Monsignor Gaetano, Alibrandi helped the Pope to upgrade its ballroom-like church to the status of a basilica.
Perhaps this has something to do with Castiglione being twinned with Killarney. Because otherwise, there can be few places as lacking in matching Greek temples, surrounding vineyards, nearby volcanoes and so on, as Killarney.
Best of all was Siracusa. This was the most important city in the western world for hundreds of years.
Everything happened here. Plato taught. Sophocles wrote. Archimedes discovered his principle. Paul preached. Later Caravaggio lived here, and his Martyrdom Of Saint Lucy in the perfect little museum is unforgettable. People visit Siracusa for its classical ruins which spread - a huge archaeological park - across a hillside above the old town.
But below it there is an enchanting peninsula called Ortygia where the sea sparkles at the end of each little street, and the 18th-century buildings make exquisite cityspaces in miniature, most unforgettably in the square outside the baroque Duomo. The Duomo itself blandly incorporates the great pillars of a Greek temple. And down at the end of a curving street ducks float on the clear water of the Fountain of Arethusa where, among other things, Nelson took on water for his ships before the Battle of the Nile. We ate pasta with a shrimp and fresh tomato and cream sauce, looking out on the boisterous bay where the Siracusans scuppered the Athenian fleet five centuries before Christ.
Ramblers Holidays are useful to single holidaymakers, and they have departures at Christmas and New Year which is also helpful. They are also, if this Western Sicily one is typical, excellent value. But there is the drawback for Irish participants of haying (at certain times of the" year) to get to and from Gatwick. We had to spend an outgoing and an incoming night at the Travel Inn there. The room was only £35, and it can sleep two adults and two children. But it was still a time-consuming and expensive extra.
The other difficulty can be the group itself. A few impatient walking fanatics can spoil everything for everyone else. It is important to be able either to put up with that, or to have your own resources - to go for example, with a group of friends - so that you can ignore it. Certainly, the two of us would have been happier with a more lighthearted approach to what is, after all, a holiday.
Alternatively, there is nothing to stop you from getting a flight to Catania yourself (though the scheduled fare is extremely expensive) and making your way to Francavilla - perhaps by the little railway that runs around the base of Etna - and staying at the Hotel D'Orange. It is pleasantly run, and its food is honest and fresh. And the house wines begin at about £3 a bottle.
The walking is lovely, but there are many, many other pleasures in western Sicily besides walking. ,The people are as friendly as they were in Ireland 20 years ago. The cuisine is delicious and inexpensive. And the Greek past is everywhere, so you get a Greco-Sicilian experience, a quite separate thing to other Italian experiences.
Ramblers Holidays are at Box 43, Welwyn Garden City, Herts. England AL86PQ telephone 0044 1707 331133.
The "Walking in Sicily" week, flights from Gatwick, transfers and half-board included, costs £428 per person sharing at New Year, but can be as cheap as £381 in the off-peak season.
Ramblers Holidays is not like a conventional travel firm. It is managed by a committee of voluntary members, and profits go to the Ramblers Association, which preserves and maintains footpath access to the British countryside.
If you would prefer to visit western Sicily independently, the Dublin-Catania fare goes up from £399 to £499 on March 31st.
The Hotel D'Orange is at Francavilla di Sicilia, Sicily 98034, telephone 942 981374. A single room with dinner and breakfast costs about £45.