Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



December 1, 1993 -- Last month, I told you about a vacation that proved once again that Italy’s eternal pleasures aren’t spoiled by the country’s eternally turbulent politics. What’s more, any recent drop in Italy’s tourism only gave U.S. vacationers more elbow room--even while the dollar was strengthening against the lira. Florence and Rome, as I wrote, more than met my expectations. Now, let’s move on to Sicily.

An Alitalia subsidiary flew us from Rome to Catania in little over an hour; the drive to Taormina took about the same time. This wonderful resort, which appears from afar to have been painted on its mountaintop perch by a miniaturist, looks out on the Ionian Sea, with grand, unobstructed vistas. Its main drag, the Corso Umberto, attracts tourists for a half-mile stroll along storefronts displaying pottery, as well as outdoor cafes and trattorias. Narrow alleys, steep stone staircases, several medieval arches and cathedrals, as well as an ancient Greek theater, circa 358 B.C., all add to this town’s appeal.

We stayed at the San Domenico, a 12-th century cloister that became a hotel at the turn of this century. Marvelous grounds, an endless parade of elegant public rooms and a worldwide reputation make this 121-room property the top hotel in southern Italy, and probably its most expensive. During World War II, the German high command, like military brass down through the ages eager to occupy the most luxurious digs, moved predictably into San Domenico. The U.S. subsequently bombed and damaged the hotel. Reconstructed after the war, the hotel bears no visible scars today.

Syracuse lies two hours due south along a divided highway decorated with multicolored hedges of flowers--blazing red bougainvillea was particularly favored. Syracuse’s ancient history can be revisited at the 6th-century B.C. Grecian Temple of Apollo. As noteworthy is the present-day church of Santa Lucia, which was originally a Greek temple dating to the same period. Santa Lucia endured many changes through the Roman occupation, then during Byzantine and Muslim dominance, among others. There’s evidence that both the Normans and Spaniards dropped in, as well. Even so, the current Catholic Church retains most of the original Doric columns.

Also in Syracuse, the Greek Theatre and nearby Roman Amphitheatre still represent contrasting cultures. The Greek arena was used to stage tragedies and comedies; the Romans preferred brutal contests among gladiators. Both partially salvaged stadiums are still used for performances on summer nights--but now seldom with thumbs down and cries for blood.

Despite its attractions, Syracuse is in trouble on the travel front. Our guide cited such factors as the 1992 murders in Sicily of two crusading anti-Mafia judges; two hotels that face the Grand Harbor, which have been empty for more then 40 years, despite interest by U.S. and other hotel chains, because they’ve been declared national monuments; and the recent loss of car-ferry service to both Naples and Malta due to lack of demand. Sad situation; it’s a great old town. (The guide also stressed that no tourist has ever been hurt or done in by the Mafia in Sicily, despite the island’s reputation from The Godfather movies and book.)

The next day we drove up the massive and picturesque slopes of Mt. Etna, an active volcano. The three most recent, large-scale eruptions were in 1542, 1693 and 1908, when lethal rivers of lava engulfed a good deal of real estate. On the way up the south side we stopped at the town of Zaffarana, the site of a recent “miracle.” From November 1991 to June 1992 a subsidiary crater spewed lava that crawled straight for Zaffarana, but stopped cold within yards of a house on the outskirts.

Mt. Etna has four major craters at the very top (10,902 feet up). When pressure builds, Etna often vents and disgorges magma from lethal craters. We drove up to about 6,000 feet, where we walked the circumference of the six Silvestri craters, which have been dormant since the late 19th century. A cable car takes visitors further up Etna’s face, where there are rough-terrain vehicles for the hardy who want to approach the summit (You’re not allowed all the way up.). We had a pleasant three-course tourist-menu lunch for about $9.50 at a modest year-round restaurant, Esagonal. In the winter, you can ski on several of Etna’s flanks.

On the way back, we chose an alternate route from Zaffarana, driving down through scented groves of ripe pears, hazelnuts, kiwi (yes!), oranges and lemons, olives and vineyards. We rode through Castiglione, a farm center for the Alcantara Valley, situated like a stunning still life in these enchanted foothills. Only there’s a catch. An Italian proverb says: “Small town, big hell.” Since the 1950s, opportunities have dwindled for young people who don’t want to work the fields. Despite a population of only 5,000, Castiglione has sent its sons as far afield as Germany, the U.S. and Argentina. A different guide told us the same story the next day in central Sicily as we admired the fabulous mountain town of Pietraperzia. I remember a Holiday magazine article in the 1950s about a young man from the idyllic medieval hill town of San Gimignano near Florence, whose only aim was to get out. The grass is always greener.

The following morning we left Taormina for Piazza Amarina, driving south along a costal highway for two hours, then swinging inland into a desert-like scene, silent and empty, a total departure from the bustling shore communities, but nonetheless striking. Primarily agricultural, this central region is blanketed by symmetrical wheat fields, relieved by an occasional olive grove, a cluster of trees, a farm town.

Piazza Amerina was a 12-th century Arab fortress, built atop a high hill, and it retains a North African aura. After a pleasant lunch at a local trattoria, we toured the nearby Villa Romana del Casale, a 12,000-square-foot mansion dating back to the 3rd century B.C. and world-renowned for its mosaics. A tour of this 2,300-year-old home of a Roman bigwig makes for an absorbing hour or two.

From the Villa, we drove 90 minutes to Agrigento, past the medieval mountain village of Pietraperzia, another of those picture-postcard framing centers from which young people can’t wait to escape. As we neared Agrigento, I was jolted by my first sight of the Greek temples; I thought I was seeing a miniature Athens. Fittingly, our hotel was named Villa Athens, and the balcony had a cinematic view of a trio of Doric temples. In the morning, we spent three hours touring the well-preserved ruins of the major temples, including the impressive Concordia. We also spent time at the well-organized Archaeological Museum, with its fine collection of antiquities.

In the afternoon we drove to Palermo, where we checked in at the Jolly Hotel on the harbor. The following morning we toured some of the city’s main attractions, including several early medieval cathedrals, and we also swung past the Palestine Chapel and the Norman Palace. Then we continued just beyond the city to Monreale, to see the fabulous cathedral built in 1174 by William II, also known as William the Good, who was one of the more enlightened Norman rulers. The mosaics there are especially impressive, as are the charming cloister and the dramatic views of the surrounding mountains, valleys and harbor. Monreale is well worth a half-day side trip.

The next morning, on the way to the airport and home to New York via Rome, the driver pulled up for a moment at the residence of the late Judge Falcone, who was murdered last year, apparently for his vigorous prosecution of the Mafia. There a little chapel contains a larger-than-life image of the judge, in effect an act of defiance that the local citizens support. “The people loved Judge Falcone,” said the driver.

In sum, Sicily isn’t what people expect. The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is an under-promoted, underappreciated destination, at least for Americans. A prominent strategic gateway for commerce and conquest from antiquity through the Middle Ages, Sicily today reflects a variety of diversions and cultures. And it has a great climate, wonderful food and a warm, friendly populace. Note that the Mafia’s presence doesn’t lessen a visitor’s feelings of security and comfort. By all means, include Sicily in your next itinerary.

A decision about a trip to Italy, whether on business or pleasure, is in your court. As for me, I wouldn’t trade those 15 days for a weekend with the Clintons at Camp David.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2006 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.