With my eyes closed I would know I was near Mount Etna. When the season is right, the delicious scent of la zagara - the blossom from thousands of citrus trees growing around its base - hits you as you step off the plane in Catania. In winter and spring, the east coast breezes are delicately fragrant, in chromatic contrast to the area's lava-black streets and buildings. There is such fertility in the volcanic soil that orange trees and wisteria grow wild along the autostrada to Taormina.
I've become a volcano-lover since moving to Italy. Mount Etna is Europe's largest active volcano and, like Vesuvius, it always conjures images of Grand Tour travellers overcoming every physical inconvenience to chronicle its fiery workings, by pen or paintbrush. Today's digital camera-bearing trippers have an easier time. Though I would love to have been carried up to the craters in a sedan chair in all my finery, as women in Dickens's era were, it's a lot simpler by Jeep or cable car, wearing comfy old sneakers and a warm windbreaker. Then, after an exciting but dusty day on the volcano's moonscape, it's heaven to swim in a smart coastal hotel before venturing out for an aperitivo. This part of Sicily has long been geared to discerning tourism, so pick from family-run farms (agriturismo) or comfortable hotels at the seaside or in Taormina.
It's no wonder D H Lawrence found inspiration at Taormina for Lady Chatterley and her lover. The very pretty high town, with its idyllic Greek amphitheatre and Roman ruins, offered a picturesque blend of sea and multicultural exoticism, with the volcano as its dramatic backdrop. The Sicilians turned a blind eye to the antics of liberated literati and émigrés. Or did they? Word has it that Lawrence's "gardener" was based on a Sicilian farmer who taught the British woman a thing or two about freedom of expression.
Today's Taormina is distinctly touristy, yet holds its charm: the narrow winding streets and staircases are set out on the hillside like a game of snakes and ladders, to be explored on foot, as traffic is always congested. Flowers are everywhere; Gothic villas and vast palm trees in the Giardini Pubblici recall North Africa more than Italy.
As for the food, it's colourful and varied, with the sun playing a central role in every dish. Sicily's vegetables and fruits are so intensely flavoured that even simple preparations make them shine. At Ristorante al Duomo, facing the Norman-Arab church in Taormina's central square, Flaviana Ferri cooks traditional recipes: vinegared cauliflower with olives, braised field greens, roasted aubergines with garlic, a light, sweet-and-sour caponata, fava bean soup, and fish dishes to eat like tapas.
If you're into street food, just below that piazza, at Via Strabone 2, try Foccaceria Murabito's escarole pizza or an arancino - an orange-shaped, crunchy deep-fried rice ball stuffed with meat sauce or béchamel: the cost, only €1.70 (£1.15). Or for more sophisticated fare and surroundings, Casa Grugno, at via Santa Maria dei Greci, is the town's Michelin-starred option. Chef Andreas Zangerl matches local fish, raw or flash-cooked, with intriguing taste partners and fine Sicilian wines.
If you haven't hired a car, you can take a guided day trip from Taormina to see the volcano, or explore the options of the Circumetnea train line. If you do have wheels, set off early armed with a good map (the Touring Club's green series is best) towards Linguaglossa, a handsome volcanic-stone town that marks the entry into the mountain's hinterland. From here, everything changes: you'll see shops selling salt cod (baccalà), rather than fresh fish, as you enter an enchanting rural world of small farms, woods and solidified lava flows. The scenery is breathtaking, as are the variations on the theme of black in soils where peach trees and lemons share paddocks with prickly-pear cactus, olives and sheep. Unlike Vesuvius, which is akin to a pressure cooker, Etna is a "strato" volcano, with numerous vents and a less aggressive behavioural pattern: it erupts fairly often but slowly, with little threat to human life.
Etna's draw is not purely brimstone driven. "It's amazing to think of the Greek underworld, of Cyclops, being beneath the volcano," says Mick Hucknall, lead singer of Simply Red, "but it's the wine that really sold me." Hucknall has just presented his first Etna wine, Il Cantante, made with Salvo Foti, a key local wine-maker. With the Catania Viagrande winery Benanti Foti launched a revival of the volcano's grape varieties, especially the red Nerello Mascalese. Several of Italy's top wine producers have followed suit.
"Nerello Mascalese is a perfect example of bio-diversity, as it only grows well around Etna," explains Marc De Grazia, long a champion of Italy's crus, or best vineyards, who makes thrilling Nerello Mascalese wines at his Tenuta delle Terre Nere. "This was once Sicily's most abundant wine-producing area," he says, pointing to what remain of the terraces that climb the mountain. "It was lauded by the ancient Romans and is finding approval again." At their best, Nerello wines offer complex perfumes and elegant structure in what could be described as a cross between pinot nero and nebbiolo. Like his neighbours on Etna's north side, Andrea Franchetti, Cottanera, and Frank Cornelissen, De Grazia is rebuilding the terraced vineyards and attracting international attention.
Wine enthusiasts should not leave Sicily without visiting Salvatore Geraci's "heroic" vineyards, up the coast towards Messina. His characterful Faro Palari was recently described as one of Italy's 50 most influential wines. It's harder to carry bottles now by plane, so enjoy these wines in situ.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE
British Airways (0870 850 9 850; ba.com) offers return flights to Catania from £160. Sixt (08701 567 567; sixt.co.uk) offers seven days' car hire from €300 (£215). Carla Capalbo was a guest of Villa Ducale(see captions for details).
Ristorante Al Duomo (00 39 0942 625656); Casa Grugno (00 39 0942 21208); Catania Viagrande winery, Benanti (00 39 095 7893438). For more information on Sicilian wines go to assovinisicilia.it.
1. Santa Venerina
Santa Venerina is home to Pasticceria Russo (00 39 095 953202; dolcirusso.it), Via Vittorio Emanuele 105, a great pastry shop. Stay at Tenuta San Michele Murgo (00 39 095 950520; murgo.it), Via Zafferana 13, a wine farm and b&b with a restaurant that serves authentic country fare. Doubles start at €90 (£65), b&b.
The 1970s Hotel Monte Tauro (00 39 094 224 402; hotelmontetauro.it) at Via Madonna delle Grazie, 3 is fun. It has a cool pool and a panoramic lift. Doubles from €360 (£250) b&b. For a cosier atmosphere, try Villa Ducale (00 39 094 228 153; villaducale. com), Via Da Vinci 60. Doubles start at €225 (£160) b&b.
3. Greco-Roman Taormina
Taormina's roots as a Greek colony are to be seen in the memorable Greek amphitheatre with its panoramic views of Mount Etna. There's a smaller Roman theatre behind the church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria, near Palazzo Corvaja, seat of Sicily's first parliament and now the museum.
4. Taormina by the sea
If you prefer your hotel with a private beach, Villa Sant'Andrea (00 39 094 223 125; framon- hotels.com), Via Nazionale 137, offers pretty rooms with sea views. Doubles start at €268 (£190). Eat at Ristorante La Capinera (00 39 0942 626247), near the autostrada entrance on Via Nazionale-Spisone.
5. Mount Etna
From Taormina, Sicilian Airbus Travel Group (SAT) (00 39 094 224653; sat-group.it) organises day trips up the volcano every day, departing at 8.30am. Visitors are taken by bus with a guide to Sapienza at an altitude of 1,900m, then transfer to more rugged vehicles. Prices start from €27 (£19).
On a drive to Randazzo, you pass through vineyards and vegetable gardens. Randazzo has a lively Sunday market, a trattoria in San Giorgio e Il Drago (00 39 095 923972), Piazza San Giorgio 28 and a pasticceria, Da Arturo (00 39 095 921068), Via Umberto 73.
This town beyond Randazzo is home to the Europe's fine-skinned, small, intensely green and most exclusive pistachios. Taste the best pistachio-based confections at Conti Gallenti Pietro (00 39 095 691165), Corso Umberto 275.
8. North Etna wines
The north face of Etna is home to top-rated wine-makers, working on estates from Linguaglossa to Randazzo. Vineyards to visit include Cottanera (00 39 0942 963601); Tenuta delle Terre Nere (00 39 095 924002) and Passopisciaro (00 39 0578 267110).
9. Eastern slope of Mt Etna
The eastern slope of Etna runs down to the sea. Take the high road from Linguaglossa via the villages of Milo and Zafferana, and you pass through woods, and can go up to the Sapienza 'rifugio' in good weather. Take the lower, coastal road, and visit Riposto, Giarre-Riposto's well-run port for sailboats.
10. Wine and ice cream
For two unforgettable taste experiences, make an appointment to visit garagiste wine-maker Salvatore Geraci's cellar outside Messina, the Villa Geraci (00 39 090630194), Santo Stefano Briga. And don't miss Sicily's finest gelati available at Gelateria di Stefano.Reuse content