Words by Jane Myers, Travel Writer
Everyone should visit Sicily at some time. From its rich history, dazzling landscapes to its volcanic excitement and glorious food. It offers as much to disabled visitors as Giovanni promised, and the trip to Stromboli to see the lava eruptions was just one of its highlights. The best times to visit are April to June or September to October, so this is a great time to contemplate if 2018 might be the year you discover it for yourself. We unlocked just a few of its treasures but you will find many more and although the mafia might still be alive and kicking, they won’t get in the way of your enjoyment.
As we neared Taormina with its breathtaking coastal scenery our eyes glanced to the mountains. Mount Etna was easy to spot but nearer to us houses clung like limpets to other lofty pinnacles. “Fancy living up there?” we mused. The sat nav directed us away from the coast and onward to our first location. We knew Castelmola was set above the town, but we did not expect the narrow twisting road to finally arrive at that group of houses set high on that mountain top. The views from here were breathtaking. From the apartment balcony Mount Etna peeped between the houses opposite and as we dined outside at a local restaurant later that evening, Taormina twinkled far below us in a clear night sky. We seemed so high that I doubt whether it would have appeared any different had we still been airborne!
The bright light reflected by the vast salt pans to create a feeling of space and a kind of serene quietness. The sun shone and the crystals sparkled in the sun light. Standing proud from the flat white landscape old windmills and mountains of salt reared up. We climbed one of these windmills to get another perspective. In the afternoon, we took a boat out onto the shallow lagoon to visit the ancient remains on a number of off shore islands. There were flamingos, spoonbills and black heron. A great way to relax before our journey home.
This is the largest active volcano in Europe and one of the world’s most frequently erupting volcanoes. It is 10,900 feet (3,329 metres) tall with a base circumference of about 93 miles (150 kilometres). On the southern side cruise boats gorge thousands of visitors into a vast over-commercialised area to ‘experience’ Etna. A cable car and a specialised vehicle take you towards the main crater but I am sure these visitors miss so much. We explored on our own due partly to bad visibility at a higher level. The landscape is eerie – black dust is everywhere and the giant black lava flows from past eruptions abound.
Nothing quite prepares you for witnessing a real magma eruption from an active volcano and when we rounded the Aeolian island of Stromboli in the early evening the following day to witness the brilliant scarlet lava tossed into the air in the dark sky we were delighted.
The day started early with an hours drive to Messina, followed by an hours boat trip to our first stop on the island of Panarea with its white buildings clustered around a black sandy beach. Here, colourful fishing boats were drawn on shore after the early morning catch. Bars, restaurants and cafes offered plenty of refreshment and time to sit and soak up the awesome view. We opted to take the opportunity to explore with the aid of a golf cart and driver – around 30 euros. After another hour back on board we reached Stromboli. We stopped off shore to witness the bubbles from under water eruptions and smelt the sulphur before we cruised between giant islands of basalt, thrust up during activity many years ago. We spent an hour ashore and then as dusk fell, we boarded the boat again to sail round the island to witness the pulsating pyrotechnic display that Stromboli offers its visitors.
There are many tours on offer but we hired a car to explore the Godfather trilogy ourselves. At the Bar Vitelli, we sat and drank a lemon Granita. It was the location where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) met Mr Vitelli (the bar owner) to ask his permission to court his daughter Apollonia. It was also the location for the official engagement and the party after the wedding ceremony. Some of the interior was stuffed with memorabilia and images and opposite the view showed the Church of Santa Lucia where the wedding between Michael Corleone and Apollonia took place. Next stop was Forza D’Agrò, then back to Taormina where we met our host for our Sicilian gourmet food and wine tour.
We left Taormina for Syracuse taking the coastal road which took us through Catarina. Our location here was very central with views over the city. Its old mellow baroque architecture is shabby chic but inside sophisticated and elegant. It echoes with the feel of ancient civilizations – the Romans and Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, Swabians and Aragones have all left their mark.
A long early morning drive ensured we were on the steps of the opera house in Palermo for 10:30 where several tour groups were acting out a scene from the Godfather trilogy as dogs lay sleeping – they had seen it all before! We walked through old narrow walkways where washing hung out to dry overhead and where the bread boy delivered loaves by placing them in baskets so that the women could haul them up to their balconies. Men pushed carts with chimneys in which they roasted chestnuts and the ‘lottery man’ sold tickets for a box of fresh fish.
We found the Sicilians great at adapting activities to meet the needs of disabled people and they made us feel that we had no disability at all. A phone call ahead was all that was needed to ensure our needs were taken care of. Many activities may seem beyond limits but as Giovanni proved on our trip to Stromboli, everything is within your grasp.