Sicily, the Mediterranean’s largest island, is well chronicled in history and literature as one of the most fascinating destinations in Europe. Her archaeological and historical sites delight visitors, but fortunately few of them explore the hugely varied landscapes on foot. Locals rarely indulge in country walking, and shepherds met on mountain paths are aghast that people choose to walk for a holiday. Yet walking can provide the key to understanding and appreciating this intoxicating island. We have included walks that are relatively unknown and countryside that is not easily accessible, but keeping in mind the principles of travelling less and seeing more, we hope to have designed an itinerary giving a fuller flavour of what Sicily can really offer.
Mount Etna, peaking as Europe’s highest active volcano at nearly 11,000 feet, and sitting within a designated regional park covering 224 square miles, demands attention but also respect. Volcanologists venture perilously close to the crater’s lip in the name of research, but for hikers there are remarkably varied and interesting paths to explore on the northern flank.
The distinctive climate and volcanic soils nurture a plethora of wild flowers, with orchids flourishing in both spring and late autumn. On the lower slopes, areas that were once covered with holm oak are now cultivated for citrus fruits and for wine, intensely flavoured reds and whites that are garnering approval throughout Italy and beyond. Above these, at 6,500 feet, Europe’s southernmost beech trees are thriving, as are birch, considered an endemic species. Another thousand feet and the thorny shrub known locally as spino santo (Astragalus siculus) covers the ground, and mountain flowers such as senecio, violets and cerastium flourish.
Twenty miles inland from Syracuse is the ten-square-mile Pantalica Nature Reserve, set on a plateau with gorges plunging through the limestone to the Anapo and Calcinara river valleys. It contains what is thought to be Europe’s most extensive open-air necropolis, where the earliest rock tombs can be dated to the thirteenth century bc. Later civilizations have also left their mark; the faint frescoed walls in an almost-hidden cave church have lasted remarkably well in this somewhat harsh environment.
A coastal walk alongside the salt-water lagoons of the Vendicari Nature Reserve provides another category of experience. The pantani are a haven for birds, and with luck flamingos can be spotted in all seasons. Mediaeval watchtowers, an old tonnaro (tuna cannery) and a fishery punctuate this landscape, highlighting the importance of sea-faring trade in this part of Sicily. Fifteenth-century merchants in Noto shipped carob, grain and almonds from the port of Vendicari, and until the 1940s tuna was caught and tinned here.
These walks have been chosen to make the most of the protected parks in Sicily, thus helping efforts to restore, waymark and maintain the paths in this remarkably unspoilt land on the edge of Europe.
Fly at c. 3.00pm from London Gatwick to Catania (British Airways). Drive to Syracuse in time for dinner. First of three nights on the island of Ortygia.
Vendicari Nature Reserve, Syracuse. Drive south to for a walk around the salt lagoons and nature reserve at Vendicari: 5 km, c. 1 hour 30 minutes. This is a mostly level walk along the sandy paths. Visit the Villa Romana del Tellaro, where a small but superb set of Roman mosaics depicting scenes of hunting has been beautifully restored at this former masseria. Return to Syracuse to see some of the highlights of sculpture and ceramics from Sicily’s Greek colonies in the excellent Archaeological Museum.
Syracuse, Noto. Visit the 5th century bc Greek theatre, the stone quarries and the Roman amphitheatre in Syracuse’s Archaeological Park. There is a short, easy walk exploring the Greek ruins at Palazzolo Acreide: 3 km, c. 1 hour 40 minutes. Continue to Noto, one of the loveliest and most harmonious Baroque towns.
Pantalica Nature Reserve. Today’s challenging walk takes place in Pantalica: 8 km, c. 3 hours. A series of paths within this spectacular reserve follow the Anapo river bed and former railway lines, or meander high along the plateaux; water levels in the river and local conditions determine the exact length of the walk. There is a difficult downhill section which requires sure-footedness. Drive north to Taormina, where the next four nights are spent.
Taormina. A moderate morning walk uphill on a stepped path to the Castello Saraceno, then returning to the town centre: 5 km, c. 2 hours. Perched on the hilltop at 400m above sea level, and thought to be the site of the lower part of Tauromenion’s Acropolis, the apex of the walk offers spectacular views of the town and the Ionic coast. Visit Taormina’s famed Greek-Roman theatre and the small Roman Odeon.
Mount Etna, Piano Provenzana. Less-visited and less-well known than the southern slopes, Etna’s northern flank nonetheless provides plenty of interest and atmosphere. A circular walk on the lava fields from the great eruptions of 2002 with a local volcanologist allows time to appreciate what was known as Mongibello, mountain of mountains: c. 5 km, c. 3 hours. Walking up and down on the stony and uneven lava can be slippery and requires care, making this a challenging walk. If you are used to walking with poles, they may assist you here. Lunch at a rustic restaurant, before returning to Taormina. There is an easy, optional afternoon walk from Castelmola to Taormina, mostly downhill on country paths: c. 3 km, c. 1 hour 30 minutes.
Forza d’Agrò. An unspoilt village with panoramic views of the Peloritani mountains and Etna, Forza d’Agrò is the starting point for a challenging countryside walk reaching 547m above sea level: c. 8 km, c. 3 hours. It follows shepherds’ tracks through olive groves and terraces; some terrain is very uneven on this path and requires sure-footedness. Return to Taormina for a tasting of some Sicilian wines.
Catania. Drive along the coast to Catania, with a fine Baroque centre. Visit the cathedral and a private palazzo. Drive to Catania Airport in time for the flight to London Gatwick, arriving c. 10.00pm.
Price – per person.
Two sharing: £2,780 or £2,560 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,210 or £2,990 without flights.
Flights (economy class, Airbus A320) with British Airways; travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 3 lunches (2 of which are picnics) and 4 dinners with wine; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Des Etrangers Hotel, Syracuse: elegant 5-star hotel on the island of Ortygia. All rooms have sea views. Hotel Villa Belvedere, Taormina: 4-star, charming, family-run hotel, in the old town, with its own garden (rooms vary in size and outlook). Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
This is a walking tour, graded challenging (please see here for more details). There are 7 walks, 3 are easy (of which one is optional), 1 is moderate and 3 are challenging. It is essential for participants to have appropriate walking footwear, be in good physical condition and to be used to country walking with uphill and downhill content. The walk on Etna involves walking at an altitude of c. 1,800 metres above sea level for c. 5 km. Average distance by coach per day: 34 miles.
Between 10 and 18 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
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