Travel: As recommended by Cicero: Frank Barrett finds Sicily is a land of good and bad myths

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The Independent Travel
WITH all the news in the past 12 months about the activities of the Mafia, you would be forgiven for thinking that the prospect of a holiday in Sicily is an offer you could quite easily refuse.

It's not as though you can pretend that the troubles are confined to Palermo. By flying to Catania on the island's east coast, you will not succeed in avoiding the problems of crime. Catania's reputation is in some respects as bad as the island's capital.

Car crime is a problem in Britain, but at least in this country people stealing from your car do you the courtesy of waiting until you have got out of it. In Catania, while you are waiting at the traffic lights, kids on motorbikes and scooters will smash car windows to grab handbags and cameras and then speed away. Another ruse is for them to pretend that that they have fallen off their scooters on the road in front of you, while you are thinking of rushing to their aid an accomplice will pop out of the bushes to relieve you and your car of valuables.

However, nobody will wish to linger in Catania. Pick up your hired car, lock the doors from the inside and head north to Taormina, south to Syracuse or west towards Agrigento and Selinunte. Away from Catania, crime is much less of a problem.

Taormina, about an hour's drive from Catania, is the best known and most stylish of Sicily's resorts. It would be hard to find a more handsome town: it has a superb position high above the sea with a magnificent view of Mount Etna (usually dispensing a picturesque column of steam). Taormina is near the sea yet far enough from it not to have the usual naff characteristics of a seaside place. There are smart shops, fine restaurants and a large collection of good hotels (including some very, very expensive ones - see below).

Taormina's most famous sight is the Greek amphitheatre, where plays and concerts are still staged (Luciano Pavarotti performed here last year). The trip up Mount Etna is a good half-day outing - you don't get right to the top but near enough for comfort.

If it's just a beach holiday you want, head for nearby Giardini Naxos (two miles south of Taormina), which has plenty of resort hotels and a good sandy bay.

Syracuse, an hour's drive south of Catania, was one of the most important cities in the classical world - Cicero reckoned it to be the most beautiful. As you might have expected on an island where planning decisions are frequently in the gift of men with machine guns, Syracuse's beauty has dimmed slightly since Cicero's day. It can still boast some fine baroque squares and a notable collection of archaeological treasures.

Sicily's least-known delight is Agrigento, two to three hours' drive west of Catania. Once one of the most important cities on the Mediterranean, Agrigento has a stunning collection of Greek temples - the four-kilometre-square Valley of Temples is the most extensive Greek site in Sicily. Seeing this valley at sunset provides a memorable experience.

Selinunte has Greek treasures as magnificent as Agrigento's but, a further hour's drive east of Agrigento, it appears to attract far fewer visitors.

One of Sicily's greatest charms for the independent traveller is that the mass-market tour operators have never been able to colonise the island. There are charter flights (see below) but these service the VFR (visiting friends and relatives) market and a handful of upmarket specialist holiday companies.

Getting there: Scheduled flights require a change of plane in Rome: charter is cheaper and quicker - expect to pay from around pounds 169 return. For example, Lupus Travel (071-287 1292) and Italy Sky Shuttle (081-748 1333) both offer return fares for pounds 169; until 10 July Sicilian Experience (071-828 9171) has return deals for pounds 169.

Car hire: All the above agencies can arrange car hire: expect to pay from around pounds 180 for a week, including unlimited mileage and all extras.

Accommodation: If money is no object, the hotel to choose in Taormina is the wonderful San Domenico Palace (010 39 942 23701), part of which is a 15th- century monastery: a double room here costs from around pounds 180 per night. There is a good range of cheaper accommodation nearby: for example, a double room in La Campanella (942 23381) in Taormina costs from around pounds 45 per night bed and breakfast. In Syracuse, the Gran Bretagne (931 68765) on Ortygia offers reasonable bed and breakfast accommodation from around pounds 25 per room per night. In Agrigento, the Villa Athena (922 596288) is the most highly rated and best-placed hotel with good views of the temples. Selinunte offers a better range of cheaper accommodation: the Hotel Garzia (924 46024), handily placed for the beach, offers double rooms from around pounds 40 per night.

Books: Sicily: A Traveller's Guide (John Murray, pounds 16.95) by Paul Duncan is a wise, literate source of information on the island's history and main attractions.

Money: Readers may recall a long-running correspondence last year on the dangers of paying by credit card in Sicilian restaurants. In the world of organised crime, copying credit cards is big business - hand your card over to pay for a meal and someone can have copied it in a couple of minutes. Within months phantom transactions can crop up on your statement. Wherever possible, you would be best advised to pay with cash (but don't carry too much in case your pockets are picked]).

Further information: The Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (071-408 1254).

(Photograph and map omitted)

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