How ‘everything in Sicily is more’ by Petronella Wyatt
From the light being clearer, the sea being bluer and the colours being brighter: How 'everything in Sicily is more'
- Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, just off the Italian coast
- The impressive Taormina theatre features the striking Mount Etna behind
- Oscar Wilde, Edward VII and Audrey Hepburn were all fans of the island
22:34, 15 August 2015
01:23, 16 August 2015
The great poet and philosopher Goethe remarked in the late 18th Century that Ã¢Â?Â?no audience in the world had a better viewÃ¢Â?Â?.Ã?Â
Sitting on one of the original limestone benches in the Ancient Greek theatre in Taormina, which overlooks the glowing rim of Etna and the translucent, moon-dappled sea below, it is difficult to disagree.
Can there be a more perfect and harmonious conjunction of man and nature than is to be found in Sicily? I think not.
Dramatic backdrop: The impressive theatre at Taormina with Mount Etna serving as a powerful backdrop
A tour of CondÃ?Â© Nast's 3rd most beautiful island: Sicily
More or less shunned by the have-yacht set since the 1970s Ã¢Â?Â? chiefly for its association with the Mafia and poverty Ã¢Â?Â? Sicily is on the cusp of a much-deserved revival.
Once, this island that forms the broken toe of Italy was the year-round destination for every luminary from Plato and Euripides, who had his first nights here, to Oscar Wilde, Edward VII, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and Audrey Hepburn.Ã?Â
Sicily later lost out to flashier and more sanitised resorts on the Amalfi Coast and FranceÃ¢Â?Â?s Cote dÃ¢Â?Â?Azur. Yet this small island is so full of beauty that it bursts forth on every corner.
It was first conquered by the Greeks (the theatre is from the 5th Century BC), who imposed a benevolent tyranny.
Under the Roman Empire, the patrician class holidayed here in order to imbibe Greek culture and engage in more libertarian behaviour than was acceptable in Rome.
Senators would dress in Greek tunics and eat fresh fish from the markets before getting fresh with the locals, who were renowned for their good looks.Ã?Â
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Indeed, in its early days as a resort, Sicily was not only a cult for the cultured, but a centre of homo-eroticism, one appreciated by later visitors such as Wilde and the German photographer Baron von Gloeden, who took the first Ã¢Â?Â?eroticÃ¢Â?Â? photographs of men and displayed them in Taormina to the shocked delight of the late 19th Century beau monde.
There remains in Sicily a sense of freedom, openness and daring, in everything from the unspoiled landscape, the young men who will dive off dangerously high cliffs to please a pretty girl, the happy indolence of most native Sicilians, and the astonishing eclecticism of the food.
In Syracuse, the town built by Greek tyrant kings from pure white limestone, there are markets teeming with hams as pungent as any to be found in Spain, with traditional sweet cassata and other Arab dishes eaten by the Moors who raided the island, and the local speciality, raw shellfish.
Sitting in the Piazza Duomo as the moon turns the limestone paving a pearlescent silver, I ponder an adventurous main course comprising raw prawns, raw sea urchin and raw sea bass.Ã?Â
It is delicate and exquisite, making Japanese sushi seem stolid and unrefined. Archimedes, who was born in Syracuse and who built its stone defences which remain intact today, would have had such a meal every day.
Beguiling: An early morning stroll through the stunning ancient city of Taormina
Even the Sicilian pasta has a unique distinction, with cooks adding lemon-flavoured breadcrumbs, exotic spices and a rich vegetable sauce I see on every restaurant menu.Ã?Â
Ã¢Â?Â?What is sugo alla Norma?Ã¢Â?Â? asks my puzzled travelling companion as we observe it on our menu for the fourth time in two days.Ã?Â
Ã¢Â?Â?Is it named after Norma Major?Ã¢Â?Â?Ã?Â
It turns out this delicious sauce of tomato, red peppers and aubergine is named after the opera by Bellini, which had its first night in SicilyÃ¢Â?Â?s baroque opera house in Palermo.
Then there are the famous cannoli, also a legacy from the Arabs Ã¢Â?Â? hollow tubes of pastry bursting with cream and candied fruit, and covered in rich chocolate.
Everything in Sicily is more. The light is clearer, the sea is bluer, the earth more vivid in its colours, almost flaunting its tropical palms and flowers as they blend with bougainvillea more purple than I have ever seen.
The villa in which I am staying is a 15-minute drive from Syracuse. Villa San Tomasso, at the end of a remote avenue of cypress trees, belongs to a local man.Ã?Â
The cook is female and temperamental. She serves you dinner when she pleases.Ã?Â
As the food is excellent, especially the chilled tomato and basil soup, I do not mind.
Meals are eaten late here. During the summer, the heat never slinks away into the night and the houses are built to keep their inhabitants cool.Ã?Â
Early fashion: A mosiac of the first Roman bikini seen on the trip toÃ?Â Piazza Armerina, (left) and Petronella (right)
The large sitting room has a high ceiling and windows placed strategically for a through breeze. In the centre of the room is a huge stone flour mill from the time when the villa was a farmhouse.
When Sicily was discovered by European writers and artists in the late 18th Century, and then European royals shortly afterwards, it was primarily a winter destination.Ã?Â
(In those days, a sun tan was considered lower-class.)
In Taormina, a Faberge box of a town where no cars are permitted in the main street, two hotels were founded to accommodate the tourists.Ã?Â
One, the San Domenico Palace Hotel, is a converted 15th Century monastery.Ã?Â
You can see the photographs of the film stars who came here in the 1950s and 1960s: Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Sophia Loren, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner and Paul Newman.Ã?Â
Now it is in sad decline.Ã?Â As I sit in its garden restaurant, I notice that the four other diners are all over 80.
Thankfully, the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo, which is next to the Greek Theatre, is more lively.Ã?Â
It opened more than 180 years ago as a small villa offering winter accommodation to wealthy tourists.Ã?Â
It began to expand when Kaiser Wilhelm arrived one Christmas on a battleship, with his whole family and entourage in tow.
By the 1930s, US writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler were stalwarts of the Art Deco American bar and terrace that looks Etna straight in the eye.Ã?Â
Truman Capote bought a house that had once belonged to D. H. Lawrence and swore he saw LawrenceÃ¢Â?Â?s ghost at the foot of his bed every Tuesday night, complaining of toothache.Ã?Â
In Taormina, the Faberge box of a town where no cars are permitted in the main street
And playwright Tennessee Williams arrived in 1950 in the middle of a Ã¢Â?Â?werewolf scareÃ¢Â?Â?.Ã?Â
The Ancient Greeks believed in werewolves and it continues to be a Sicilian superstition. Williams went missing for three days, and was found drunk and complaining he had forgotten his hotel room number.
Close to the Timeo is the Belmond Villa SantÃ¢Â?Â?Andrea, its sister hotel which sits in a cove with breathtaking rock formations.Ã?Â
Bathing huts line the beach and fishermen are more common than day-trippers. No wonder Sicilian-born fashion duo Dolce & Gabbana film their advertisements here.
Explosive downhill bike riding over active volcanoes in Sicily
Another attraction is the cost of living. A four-course meal in the most expensive restaurant in Syracuse will set you back no more than Ã¢Â?Â¬50 (Ã?Â£35) a head, including wine.Ã?Â
Sicilian wine is not only new to me but a delight. Grown on volcanic soil, it has a rich mineral quality all of its own and is free from acidity. Sadly, very few Sicilian wines are exported.
It is this stagnation of enterprise that makes Sicily an untrammelled joy and a minor frustration to its devotees.Ã?Â
A joy for the fields and hills uncluttered by symbols of modernity, the chance to feast like a Greek king on a studentÃ¢Â?Â?s budget, and the freedom to experience its heritage sites without security guards or roped-off areas.
In the 2nd Century Villa Romana, an hour from my own villa, there is a vivid and important mosaic that depicts the first-ever bikini.Ã?Â
I stare in fascination at the modern-looking ruched Ã¢Â?Â?bottomsÃ¢Â?Â? and bandeau tops illustrated in this scene of young women in an Ancient Roman fitness class.
Majestic surroundings: The ancient theater of Taormina is also known as Teatro Greco (Greek theatre)
But I am concerned by the lack of care given to many of SicilyÃ¢Â?Â?s ancient sites. The Greek amphitheatre in Syracuse is used for pop concerts and the original seats have been drilled into in order to erect plastic seating on top.
Syracuse itself, which has seven Caravaggios in just three of its churches, is a mixture of sublimity and exquisite buildings that have simply been left to rot.
The bustling night-time markets are not only safe but an AladdinÃ¢Â?Â?s trove of treasure.Ã?Â
I buy wild strawberries for Ã¢Â?Â¬1 (70p) a box, whole hams for Ã¢Â?Â¬5 (Ã?Â£3.60), and exquisite coral necklaces for Ã¢Â?Â¬30 (Ã?Â£21.50).
Back at my villa, I watch The Leopard, the Visconti homage to 19th Century Sicily.Ã?Â
Many of the hunting lodges and farmhouses featured in the film are now available to rent from Think Sicily, and at a more affordable rate than in Tuscany.Ã?Â
As I watch the sun set between the palms and sample the cookÃ¢Â?Â?s garlic and anchovy bruschetta, I think Sicily, with its warm winter climate, is the one agreeable and affordable place in Europe I would wish to live out my declining years.
I will happily live the life of a fisherman in Taormina with raw shellfish on my table and volcanic wine in my cellar. Centuries of writers, statesmen, kings and painters canÃ¢Â?Â?t be wrong.
As Capote said: Ã¢Â?Â?Sicily is more beautiful than any woman.Ã¢Â?Â?Ã?Â
Whether or not there was a touch of homo-eroticism in this remark, once again, I cannot disagree.
Travel Facts: Plan your own trip to SicilyÃ?Â
British Airways Holidays offers a seven-night fly-drive package to Catania from Gatwick from Ã?Â£329pp.
The Thinking Traveller (020 7377 8518) offers seven nights at Villa San Tommaso from Ã?Â£3,800 based on two people sharing one bedroom, or Ã?Â£5,420 based on seven people sharing three bedrooms.
The price includes electricity and gas, linen, bath towels, pool and beach towels, and a comprehensive guide to the villa and the local area.Ã?Â
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