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Sicily: Eastern seaboard spoils visitors with versatility

Nestled on the side of Mount Etna, Europe's largest -- and still active -- volcano is the quaint terracotta-colored town of Castiglione di Sicilia, one of several mountain towns known for producing excellent wine. Experts say the wine is so good because of the lava in the soil used to cultivate the vineyards.

The eastern seaboard of the island of Sicily is as versatile as it is storied.

From mountains to the spectacular waters of the Ionian sea, the island spoils visitors and residents alike. There’s body rafting through frigid waters of the Alcantara Gorge, shopping the quaint streets of Taormina, sunbathing on the rocky beaches of Fiumefreddo or strolling into the tapered teardrop-shaped “Ear of Dionysius” in Siracusa.

And that’s just a 73-mile stretch along the eastern seaboard of Italy’s largest island.

Here are some of highlights:

-- Mount Etna, Europe’s highest and most active volcano, lately has awed viewers with spectacular spewing lava. More than 25 percent of the island’s population lives on the volcano’s slopes — and residents jest it’s due to the quality of the wine.

-- Castiglione di Sicilia: The charming, terracotta-colored town is dubbed “the town of wine.” Residents say the vineyards yield some of the nation’s best-tasting inebriating nectar because of the lava-rich soil used to grow the grapes, a combination producing rich, full-bodied wine.

(And while, yes, quite tasty — and economic — the brunellos of Tuscany still hold first place for me.)

-- Visitors are blown away by the spectacular views from “upper” Taormina, which towers above popular beaches and is famed for ceramic souvenirs, leather goods and marzipan treats that are works of art themselves. Artisans usually craft the sugar-and-almond paste into such realistic-looking fruit that some fail to realize the difference.

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-- A trip to the eastern side of Sicily wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt into Catania, the island’s second largest city after the capital of Palermo, and about a 30-minute drive from the U.S. Navy base of Sigonella.

The duomo, or main cathedral, juxtaposes dark lava stone of the region with white baroque-style limestone and marble.

In the main piazza, or square, stands the goofy “Fontana dell’ Elefante,” or Fountain of the Elephant. Want to sound like a local? It’s ‘o Liotru in the Sicilian dialect.

The origins of the elephant fountain vary, depending on whom you ask: One legend is that a traveling magician could turn people into animals and opted for the hefty elephant; while others say it is a tribute to the Egyptians who managed to travel from Africa to Sicily and brought the behemoth animals with them.

Residents often seek respite from the hustle of the busy downtown by slipping into the public gardens of Villa Bellini, named after the city’s native son Vincenzo Bellini, an opera composer.

-- Farther south is the charming city of Siracusa, which, in its heyday some 3,000 years ago, rivaled Athens in power and prestige. While under Roman rule, it once served as the capital of Sicily.

In Siracusa, visitors can enter the tapered, teardrop-shaped “Ear of Dionysius,” a man-made cave carved out of limestone that once served as the city’s public well and water source.

And on steaming days, visitors can take a dip in the frigid waters at the Gola dell’Alcantara, gorges created when lava from Mount Etna hit the cold waters and splintered the basalt.

Hike down steps to the river from the main roadway for free, or pay 8 euros per person to ride the elevator. The gorges are closed during most of the winter months — in part due to the water’s cold temperature and in part because of the risk of flash flooding.

jontzs@estripes.osd.mil

Directions:

From mainland Italy to Sicily, ferries from Villa San Giovanni in Calabria to Messina leave every 40 minutes between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m.; during off-peak hours, ferries leave at midnight, 1 a.m., 2:20 a.m., 3:40 a.m., 5 a.m. 6:40 a.m., 8 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. From Messina to Villa San Giovanni, ferries depart every 40 minutes between 8:40 a.m. and 10:30 p.m., and at 12:30 a.m., 1:30 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 4:20 a.m., 6:10 a.m., 7:20 a.m., and 8 a.m.

Costs:

Ferry ticket prices for vehicles are 23 euros for one way. If traveling without a vehicle, pedestrians can ride the hydrofoil boats for 2.50 euros per person, with departure times of 2:30 p.m., 5:25 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. between June 1 and Sept. 16, or at 8:55 a.m. and 1:25 p.m. from Sept. 17 to May 31. If traveling by train, check trenitalia.com for schedules, as they vary. The rapid train from Naples to Messina, for example, is 5 ½ hours. Several trains travel between Messina and Siracusa throughout the day. For the boat tour, the key word is “negotiate.” Boat tours don’t have set prices, so be prepared to bargain for the best price.

Food:

There are numerous eateries at these destinations.

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