Mediterranean Islands: Rabbit stew, woodsmoke and an Emperor's villa

Staying in a cottage in deepest rural Sicily was always going to be unpredictable - but the surprises were all nice ones.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHEN THE waiter and the cook ducked behind the counter as the car screamed past, the open restaurant doorway illumined by the glare of headlights, we thought the obvious. Sicily. The Mob. Watch your back. Say nothing. After a few moments they rose, held each other's gaze and then shrugged and got on with the meal. Seeing their relief, we and the other diners shrugged too and reached for the jugs of wine.

The tiny Trattoria del Goloso ("the glutton"), where we'd gone for a quiet dinner, is tucked away in one corner of the main square of Piazza Armerina, a tightly packed Sicilian hill town miles from the sea. We had decided on a self-catering holiday in rural Sicily, but this was one evening when "self-catering" had been suspended. The meal was delicious (macaroni, tomatoes, aubergines, olives, onions, and tender chunks of local stewed rabbit) and the rest of the evening passed boozily by without further incident.

After arriving at the small but crazy airport at Catania, it had been a relief to drive west into the mountainous hinterland. When the distant sight of Etna's smoking cone finally vanished from view, we knew we were really off the beaten track. Piazza Armerina, some 30km south of Enna in the heart of Sicily's southern interior, covers the summit of a large hump-backed hill. At the top sits the medieval Duomo, resembling a Gothic galleon up in the sky and, below, the town is a warren of steep cobbled streets, sudden corners and cars impossibly parked in the tightest of spaces.

We drove out of town in a hire car and down into the woodlands beyond. Though not a particularly cheap option, at least we had the comfort of knowing that the suspension wasn't our own. A bumpy, potholed road led us through 10km of shady eucalyptus forest and into a remote valley to Il Glicine ("wisteria"), our farm accommodation.

The cottage next door to the 100- year-old farmhouse, was all beams and rustic furnishings, one of everything and everything worked. And there were animals. "More than 10, but fewer than 20," guessed Santi, the farmer. If you like animals, this is great. We do, and it was.

Santi trades principally in olives, but aubergines, peaches, lemons and almonds are also grown on his abundant orchard slopes. His Welsh wife Yvonne runs Buddhist classes in an outbuilding high up on the hillside. This seemed incongruous in such a Catholic haven, but after a day or two, tranquil contemplation came to seem appropriate in such a place. Walking along the valley roads we felt centuries away from urban life and only the distant crack of a hunter's gun punctured the peace as more rabbits headed for the pot. The smell of woodsmoke hung permanently in the air.

From Piazza Armerina, some of the most historic sites in Sicily are within easy reach. The ancient Greeks left their colonial mark everywhere and you sometimes have to pinch yourself at the names that crop up: Archimedes at Agricento, Hippocrates and Aeschylus at Gela, Plato at Syracusa. You've heard of them all, and whatever they did, they did it here. One old man at Enna told how Pluto, god of the Underworld, abducted the nymph Persephone at a nearby lake. He pointed out the shining surface of the Lago di Pergusa in the plain below, as if it had all happened yesterday.

Much-conquered Sicily was also a popular playground for the Romans. Only 3km south of Piazza Armerina, at the top of a secluded vale once famous for its honey, awaits possibly the best-presented Roman villa site you'll ever see. Once the private hunting lodge of an emperor, the Villa di Casale was buried by a mud-slide. Now uncovered, it is the biggest draw for tourists in this part of the island. A large black moustache with a man behind it waved us into a car-park, and a short walk brought us to the villa itself. Getting in should have been simple, but the ticket clerk had no change for our 10,000 lira note. I persisted. "Do you have a 5,000 note? If I give you 13,000..." As if my optimism amused him, he handed me two tickets and waved us through saying we could pay him on the way out.

Once inside, among ancient walls still 15ft high in places, amazement set in. When he was feeling good about himself, the Emperor Maximianus imagined himself to be the incarnation of Hercules and he had every one of the 52 rooms floored with rich mosaics to celebrate this delusion. Fashioned by North African craftsmen, the mosaics are unforgettable. Gods, nymphs, animals, dancing girls, music and feasting: all are laid out like pages in a book, fantastic in detail and bursting with colour.

Today, temptation takes the shape of a well-stocked bar; it is hot work touring the villa under its "greenhouse" roof. Outside, prickly pears and grapes were being washed in iced water by a man with a cigar clinging to his bottom lip.

As we left we came upon our trusting ticket clerk. I again offered to pay but he declined, gesturing towards the locked door of his office. He waved us out and we left feeling lucky. Dreaming of ancient bacchanalian revels in that sunlit valley, we took the meandering road back to our own woodland retreat.

Peter Griffiths paid pounds 1,567 for a fortnight's self-catering for two people through Long Travel, Church Stretton, Shropshire (01694 722193). The price included return flights on BA and a hire car. Otherwise, the main approach is on Alitalia (0171-602 7111). Expect to pay nearly pounds 300 for a flight from London to Palermo or Catania.

For more on Sicily, contact the Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254)

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