Information on the Catania area (the east)
Sicily's northern and north-eastern shores are beset by beach-going tourists in the summer, who all but swamp the handful of pretty towns. Notable among these are Cefalù, with its narrow streets and cathedral built by Norman king Roger II, and Taormina, facing east, the island's undisputed beauty queen in the form of a hill town overlooking a bright blue sea.
The cloud-ringed summit of Mount Etna is visible all along the eastern coast of Sicily during the day, and often as a brightly glowing aureole at night. In spite of its more or less constant activity, when the flanks aren't covered in snow one can generally climb to the summit; when they are one can ski on them from two mountain resorts. The less energetic, or daring, can travel around the volcano, visiting the villages at its base, on the Circumetnea Railway or by car.
West of Edna
West of Etna, and just off the scenic and efficient highway that bisects Sicily east-to-west, is one of the sights I like best on the island, the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. One hardly notices the walls of this 4C BC Roman villa because of its marvellous mosaic floors depicting birds and animals, gods, nymphs, angels and mortals, including a team of bikini clad female athletes.
Syracuse, or Siracusa in Italian, was one of the most important cities in the western world under the Greeks. It has not only retained quite a few of their sites but, together with its satellite village Ortigia, was embellished, spectacularly, in the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods. At Pantalica, north-west of Syracuse, some 5000 tombs dating from 13C BC to 7C BC nestle in a deep gorge.
The late 1600s were a miserable time in eastern Sicily, with two natural disasters, the eruption of Etna in 1669 and a massive earthquake in 1693, the latter flattening many cities. While the Aragon (Spanish) rulers barely reacted to alleviate the suffering, their influence is evident in the fanciful Baroque style in which the cities were rebuilt. Catania, the island's second largest city, and much smaller Acireale particularly benefitted from this. Residents of destroyed Ragusa Ibla were resettled in a new planned city nearby, known simply as Ragusa. Many, however, chose to rebuild their lives at the old site and the two Ragusas existed side by side for a couple of centuries, the wealthy new town and the poorer, more traditional, old one. Fifteen or so years ago, an EU-funded facelift turned ugly duckling Ibla into a veritable swan: it's now shiny, charming and full of B & Bs.
Módica has a similar duckling/swan story but began with better bones: larger and richer than Ragusa before the earthquake, it dwindled into a backwater thereafter. But it lost neither its lovely Baroque buildings nor its beautiful setting, draped over two hills, which recently earned it a UNESCO heritage designation. Architecturally, the town that benefitted most from the disaster was Noto, rebuilt from scratch by a Sicilian- Spanish aristocrat with top local architects and craftsmen. Along the coasts of the south-eastern tip of Sicily is a string of quite charming fishing towns, including Marzamemi and Portopalo di Capo Passero. Some distance to the north is Caltagirone, where post-earthquake buildings bear ceramic decorations produced in the town's famous workshops.
Sicily is best known for its sweet wines but the area around Ragusa and Módica has become known in recent years for its reds based on the Nero d'Avola grape. Top producers include Milazzo and Planeta. The seven Aeolian (or Lipari) Islands are tiny volcanic dots made famous by films such as Roberto Rossellini's 1949 Stromboli. Many have become fashionable summer resorts where dolce far niente is the order of the day, along with walking, boating and diving. Cars are banned and the islands are tricky to reach, but that makes them all the more appealing...