Frank Bough braves faulty showers, gritty beaches and Mount Etna for a cracking holiday in Taormina, Sicily,
Tell me something. Why do a couple in the spring time of old age (just over 60) and no longer encumbered by family, choose to go on holiday in August, when it's hot, expensive, and there are hordes of children everywhere? And how is it that any of the aforesaid children under 10 years old can move barefoot across a stony beach, when the aforesaid wrinklies need flip flops? Furthermore, why didn't the wrinklies read the bit in the guide book which told them that the beach in Isola Bella would play hell with their feet?

And while I'm at it, tell me something else. Why is it that those shower hoses clamped loosely to the wall in foreign hotels always fire straight through the gap in the shower curtain when you switch them on, and flood the bathroom floor?

From all this you wouldn't think that we had a cracking holiday in Taormina, Sicily. But we did. We spent a week on an island we'd never been to before, in a truly charming old town, with a passegieta to rival that of Barcelona. That's because the main street, Corso Umberto 1, is traffic-free and runs the whole length of the town. There are Roman gates at each end, and a necklace of palazzos, piazzas, churches and villas in between.

So numerous and pleasant are the distractions that it can take an entire morning strolling end to end. And since Taormina clings precariously to a steep, coastal mountain, the views at every intersection are stunning. They include old smokey himself, Mount Etna, of whom more later.

The best holidays, of course, develop a rhythm of their own, even in just a week. Ours certainly did. Our hotel was the three-star Villa Belvedene, bed and a simple breakfast, and fabulous views from our own small terrace. Each day, wherever we were going, started and ended with a walk through the town's public gardens, an absolute haven of peace and quiet and coolness. We also took to having an aperitif in the garden bar before our evening meal.

Early morning was for sightseeing, mostly up and down Corso Umberto. Then to the beach at about 11am or so for reading and swimming. Mazzars beach is so far below the town that a cable car takes you down and back again. We chose Mazzars over Isola Bella: grit instead of stones. We hired mattresses and a parasol. It's virtually impossible not to in Italy, the beaches are so regulated.

I've long since left this transaction to my wife, ever since I asked a plagiste in the south of France for "deux matelots" instead of "deux matelas". Mind you, he's probably never forgotten me.

And then a beach bar lunch. Prawns, mussels or squid with a bottle of rose - the only time we ever seem to drink it. More reading, more swimming, a little siesta perhaps, and after that, good heavens, it's time to do battle with the hotel shower and then recover with an aperitif. Recognise the rhythm, the pattern? I'm sure it sounds familiar.

As for dinner, the Sicilians say that the best food in Italy is in Sicily. There is a North African flavour added to it which makes it distinctly different. And the fish, particularly the fish, is mouthwatering.

There were two highlights to our week in Sicily. One of them, a day-long trip to Mount Etna was an extraordinary, fascinating day. This was due to the fact that at the moment Etna is very frisky indeed. At night, from Taormina, sparks were visible above one of the craters, and two short lines of glowing lava, as well.

A day trip, by coach, train, ski-lift and Jeep, takes you somewhat disappointingly short of the very top, though on the way up the streams of lava that in the past carved their way through woods and villages, are quite awesome.

But quite unexpectedly (and apparently this is something decided on a daily basis) we were invited further and taken to within a hundred meters of a crater that was catapulting hundreds of rocks high into the air, while the earth rumbled beneath our feet. Five minutes were all we were allowed, but it was fantastic, really terrific.

After that, a trip to the theatre seemed a bit tame, but none the worse for it. We went to an open air theatre - founded by the Greeks, rebuilt by the Romans, and cut into the hillside at the top end of Taormina. Its backdrop was a sensational view of the bay below and mainland Italy beyond across the straits of Messina, with Etna stage left. The largely Italian audience gave a noisy slow handclap as Aida started 20 minutes late, at 9.50pm. They applauded generously throughout. Curtain calls were taken at 1am, with the audience clapping on the way as they moved to the exits. A great evening under the stars.

How to get there

The most convenient airport for Taormina is Catania, 20 miles south. You can fly on Alitalia non-stop from Heathrow on Saturdays for pounds 211 (including tax) or on other days via Milan for pounds 257 through discount agents such as Trailfinders (0171-937 5400).

Who to ask

In London, Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (0171-408 1254). This office can give general advice about accommodation, and details of agencies which specialise in villas, apartments and family-run hotels. In Sicily, contact the tourist information office on Largo Paisiello 5, Catania (00 39 95 312124).

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