Having a blast at Etna

For a special family celebration, only an 18th-century palazzo in the foothills of a volcano would do, decided Lucy Gillmore

Signora Barbagallo is incredibly house proud. Which is hardly surprising as the house in question is Villa Corte Antica, a magnificent Sicilian palazzo dating back to 1794. For the past decade it's been used as a location in the long-running Italian television series about the Mafia,
La Piovra, and last year it was the setting for a feature film - also about the Mafia. Other lucrative sidelines include weddings and fashion shoots. In fact, it's fair to say that this 18th-century villa in the foothills of Mount Etna has definite star quality. And for one week only it was ours.

Signora Barbagallo is incredibly house proud. Which is hardly surprising as the house in question is Villa Corte Antica, a magnificent Sicilian palazzo dating back to 1794. For the past decade it's been used as a location in the long-running Italian television series about the Mafia, La Piovra, and last year it was the setting for a feature film - also about the Mafia. Other lucrative sidelines include weddings and fashion shoots. In fact, it's fair to say that this 18th-century villa in the foothills of Mount Etna has definite star quality. And for one week only it was ours.

The huge iron gates clanked open. Bees buzzed around the overblown roses clinging to the crumbling gateposts and tiny lizards scuttled past enjoying the late afternoon sun. I swung the car into the driveway and inched past columns swathed in ivy. Reclining at the end of the track, replete in faded gold, dark shutters barring the Mediterranean glare, was the grand one-storey house.

Clicking up the stone-flagged steps in her high heels and oversized Jackie O sunglasses, Signora Barbagallo gestured for us to follow. The villa sits in state amid ornate formal gardens, a vision of balustrades topped with classic urns, manicured lawns and beds of carefully tended shrubs. The gardener, who has a little cottage in the grounds, clearly has his work cut out.

The view from the terrace at the front is of slopes of olive groves falling sharply towards the coastline far below. From the formal gardens at the back you can see Mount Etna, with patches of snow visible at its summit and tendrils of smoke twirling up into the sky.

Flinging open the shutters, the signora let in the Sicilian sun. Light washed over room after room, each opening into the next. In fact, so sprawling is the villa that halfway through the week we stumbled upon a room we hadn't known existed. The dark, echoey central hallway has rooms on either side, all of which have three or four doors leading into each other, the hall and out into the grounds. From reception room, to study, to dining room to boudoir-style sitting room and ballroom, each is decorated in a more flamboyant style. Off the ballroom was the master bedroom with its old brass bedstead, mahogany chest of drawers, marble-topped vanity unit with ceramic washbasin and jug, and religious oil paintings on the silk-covered walls. The floors throughout are original Majolica tiles in royal blue and white, while the domed ceilings of each room are covered with magnificent frescoes painted by Giuseppe Sciuti, an artist from Catania. In the dining-room, in addition to the ceiling frescoes, the walls are painted with murals of 18th-century rural idylls.

L'Antica Corte is obviously not your average holiday villa. For one thing there's no pool. But who needs a pool when you've got a ballroom? Recently restored, the floor is pale cream marble; the walls covered with striped silk of lime green and vivid red. The furniture, elegant Louis XIV in gilt, cream and pistachio, skirts the room while the ceiling is a sea of cherubs and pastoral scenes with portraits of Dante, Aristotle, Petrarch and Tasso at each corner. If you've ever wanted to jump over the ropes in a National Trust property and make yourself at home, this could be the place for you. If you've read Great Expectations, you'll be looking over your shoulder for Estella and Pip. The tiny square anteroom off the ballroom, with its apple-green walls, heavy rust-coloured slubbed-silk drapes and ornate chandelier has a definite tinge of Miss Haversham about it. As we sat on the terrace after our whirlwind tour, sipping a chilled glass of Sicilian wine, Signora Barbagallo's son Antonio outlined the history of the villa while his mother began absent-mindedly weeding the terracotta pots.

L'Antica Corte was built by Alessandro Gracie, an Italian government minister in the 18th century. The Prince of Italy, Umberto I, was one of his most illustrious guests. However, it was a subsequent owner, a priest, who bequeathed it to Signora Barbagallo's grandfather in the 19th century, a wealthy merchant from Riposta who made his money exporting wine to Malta. At the time, all the rich Sicilian families had estates in the country for the summer months and L'Antica Corte became the Barbagallos' holiday home. Today, the family still spends August and part of September here, high above the coast. However, for the past couple of years they've also been letting it out - to families such as us. It was my mother's 60th. And where better than Sicily for a family celebration?

Beyond the formal gardens lie rows of gnarled olive trees. In the kitchen a bottle of L'Antica Corte extra-virgin olive oil testified to yet another sideline. A second son, we learnt, farms the surrounding land. The slopes were once planted with vines, Antonio told us, taking us to have a look at the outbuildings I had wrongly assumed were for a coach and horses. As he pushed the huge wooden doors open and our eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, a dank musty smell from the earth floor wafted out. Inside was a huge stone press and vats where workers once crushed the grapes. Antonio pointed out stone channels which had carried the wine down to a lower level where enormous wooden barrels stood about 8ft tall. Wine production ceased, however, about 40 years ago and now olives are the only crop.

Grand tour over, mother and son left us to settle into their home. Finishing the bottle of wine, we soaked up the awe-inspiring panorama, Etna disappearing into a halo of rose-tinged clouds, the hum of scooters, cicadas and church bells drifting towards us on the night air.

L'Antica Corte is just outside the village of Piedimonte Etneo, a long, winding, hair-raising crawl up from the coast road in the north-east corner of the island. The village has wide cobbled streets lined with grand old buildings, yet a sleepy air of neglect hovers about the place. Sicily might have been heralded as the latest holiday hotspot over the last couple of years - pulling in the mainstream tour operators and this year seeing the launch of scheduled flights from British Airways and Air Malta, but Tuscan-style affluence has yet to follow. Apart from the island's most famous resort Taormina, of course, which has attracted a glamorous crowd for centuries.

Down on the heavily developed coast, life is lived at a much racier pace. Taormina was originally a little hilltop village no different from those on every other rocky knoll around here. However, the stunning Greek amphitheatre or Teatro Greco, which overlooks the Gulf of Naxos and Etna, catapulted it to stardom. In the 18th century Goethe gave it such a good write up that it became a stopping-off point on the Grand Tour, while DH Lawrence took a villa here in the 1920s. More recently, Woody Allen shot some of the scenes from Mighty Aphrodite in the amphitheatre while Jim Kerr, lead singer of Simple Minds, liked the town so much that he bought the stylish Villa Angela hotel. Today, Taormina is a polished little place packed with designer shops, luxury hotels and atmospheric trattorias. Its beaches, picturesque coves at Mazzaro, are a heady cable car ride away.

And as if sun, sea and a beautiful crowd wandering the well-kept medieval streets wasn't enough, Taormina also offers culture. The town hosts the Taormina Arte each year, a summer-long festival of dance, music, theatre and film that this year celebrated its 50th anniversary. We arrived just as the film festival was kicking off; Charles Dance was on our flight to Catania, adding a welcome touch of glamour to the baggage reclaim area.

Apart from Taormina, this part of Sicily has plenty to occupy visitors who want more from a holiday than lounger-choked beaches. Mt Etna itself is an obvious attraction, as are the little villages around its base like Zafferana Etnea, famous for its honey, and nearby Savoca where Francis Ford Coppola shot scenes for The Godfather: Part II.

But we were here for an authentic Sicilian celebration. The birthday dawned fine and sunny. After breakfast we headed down to the coast, veering south towards Catania. The little fishing village of Santa Maria la Scala is a far cry from the lines of lidos along the coast to the north. Painted boats bob in the harbour whose tiny beach is black volcanic rock, a reminder of Etna's pyrotechnics. The place is slightly off the beaten track, and the rustic trattoria, La Grotta, overlooking the bay, was packed with local businessmen enjoying the delicious fresh grilled fish.

In the evening we headed back into Taormina to mingle with the crowds. It might be touristy but the atmosphere, especially in the midst of the festival, is electrifying. After a glass of Prosecco in the bustling main square we had dinner at Al Duomo, a terraced restaurant overlooking the cathedral which serves mouthwatering local specialities. But first the Greek amphitheatre.

The arena was set up for a film-showing later that evening. As we clambered around the ancient theatre, the sight of Mt Etna framed by the crumbling walls was magical. But not as magical as our own floodlit extravaganza. Returning home later, the gardens bathed in artificial light, the view of Etna gradually disappearing in to the darkening gloom was even more haunting.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

L'Antica Corte can be booked through Cottages to Castles (01622 775 217; www.cottagestocastles.com). In mid-September a package based on five people travelling costs from £383 per person and includes return flights to Catania, accommodation and car hire. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Air Malta (0845 607 3710; www.airmalta.com) fly to Catania. Through Carrentals.co.uk (0845 225 0845; www.carrentals.co.uk), a week's car hire starts from £179.

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