By Simon Calder
Within minutes of my starting to hitch-hike around Sicily, a friendly local had put me right about a thing or two. "There is no Mafia in Sicily - that's just a story from the government." Because he looked barely 19, was driving a pristine white Mercedes convertible and wore deathly black sunglasses, I just smiled.

The only crime I was aware of while in the benign care of the island's motoring community was wilful neglect by other tourists. Sicily's reputation as galactic headquarters of the organised crime industry means far too few British visitors investigate the Mediterranean's largest island.

Scenically, it is more muscular than anywhere in mainland Italy, a Gothic souffle of lava oozing down from Etna. Culturally, its role as the maritime crossroads of Europe has ensured that everyone has left a mark, from Carthaginians to Catalans. But the first concern of the hungry traveller is to find how it rates in culinary terms.

You smell, then hear, Catania market long before you see it. Delving into the oldest innards of the city, you discover what looks like an experiment as to how many dead creatures can be crammed into a hectare. The noise is generated by a loud, ritual dissection of a shark-sized tuna, amplified by a cacophony of conflicting advice and a chorus of gulls after a slice of the action.

The smallest measurable distance in the world between market and meal can be yours when you step inside the Trattoria Tripoli. A workman-like cafe has occupied this site, squeezed between the stalls, for a thousand years. You look in vain for a menu, so must be content with whatever is carried through the narrow doorway - dead or alive.

Replenished, you set off to have your preconceptions confirmed. An easy first hit in a shabby side street: proof that if you leave a car - even a wretched little Fiat 500 - sitting around too long, and it will be efficiently stripped of all its removable parts: doors, windows, down to the numberplates and engine. Catania itself has the air of being similarly dismantled over the years, but unlike the Fiat the city still works. And in parts, it has kept its youthful good looks. A public garden adopts an air of moral, as well as altitudinal, superiority over the splutterings of the city.

Yet even the highest point in Catania cowers under Etna. The timid traveller may survey the volcano before attempting to scale it, on the splendid Circumetnae railway, a narrow-gauge track that plods tactfully around the foothills of Mount Etna.

Before climbing the volcano, you must sign a form: "The undersigned excursionists ask the guides to lead us to the summit area, agreeing to make no claims of any unpredictable events that may happen."

The experience is painful, and painfully slow, like climbing a mountain of solid slush. A couple of thousand feet from the summit, recent seismological activity has put a stop to excursionists: a fence stops you abruptly in your crunchy tracks. But a consoling coffee at the mountain shelter turns out to be cafe corretto (laced enthusiastically with grappa), which relaxes your mind and your muscles for the scamper down.

I fretted about the capital, Palermo, but by now from a touristic rather than terror point of view. My guide book advised "All right for a few hours, to see the cathedral and some grand buildings of faded beauty, but there are better places for a holiday." The book does not specify which places these might be, but I would argue strongly against the assertion on behalf of the Sicilians, and the people of Palermo in particular.

Palermo is jolly temperamental, mind. Indeed, she screams at you. A whine of Vespas tears through the hot, still air, mingling with the growl of Alfa Romeos, while grandmothers yell at their bambini. Gems are strewn casually around: semi-derelict palaces by the swag-bag full, a tree whose roots are busily merging with its branches sprawls over the once-glorious Piazza Marca. Even a simple tobacconist's kiosk has the proportions and pomposity of a cathedral as it presides over the pavement.

At last, in my crumbling old hotel, the long arm of the law reached out. A notice that began yellowing long before the war warned "Foreigners are bound to present themselves to the police authorities within three days of entrance to the kingdom". I didn't, but I think I got away with it.

How to get there

Simon Calder paid pounds 275 (including tax) for an "open-jaw" ticket on Alitalia, flying London-Palermo and Catania-London, through Trailfinders (0171-937 5400). If you are able to travel on the new lunchtime flight from Gatwick via Rome, the fare falls to pounds 192.

How to get around

Hitch-hiking is excellent throughout the island, but is not recommended for women. Buses are faster and more frequent than trains. The Circumetnae railway, often erratic and always slow, costs pounds 4 for a round-trip.

Where to stay

In Catania, the writer stayed at the Pensione Ferrara (00 39 95 31 60 00), which costs pounds 13 per night; in Palermo at the Albergo Piccadilly (00 39 91 617 64 70), pounds 12.