Lava at first sight!
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Lava at first sight!

Stephen Oryszczuk explores the charms of this colourful Italian island, explores its ancient Jewish quarter and visits the awe-inspiring Mount Etna

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Taormina city and Etna volcano during a dramatic sunset in Sicily, Italy
Taormina city and Etna volcano during a dramatic sunset in Sicily, Italy

After spending a week on the Mediterranean’s largest island, just off the toe of Italy’s boot, I’ve come to realise there’s something of a cultural match when it comes to Sicilians and Jews.

With a shared love of food, gestures, family, debate and interesting driving, I think it would be love at first frittata. If the Sicilians like committees, we’re sorted.

This year is the perfect reason to visit: Sicily’s capital Palermo is soon to open its first new synagogue in 500 years.

The frenetic, colourful city of food markets, curious alleyways and courting couples had my wife and I spellbound, as we sat on a balcony in the centre after a day’s walking, watching a cast of larger-than-life characters jabber and gesticulate their way into evening.

As the sun slowly settled over the cathedral dome and the mountains beyond, the city grew ever more alive.

Jews have long played their role here. Evidence of their presence dates back to 590AD, in a letter from Pope Gregory to church authorities, ordering their possessions returned after a spate of expropriations.

By the year 1,000, Jews had settled in a neighbourhood now known as La Giudecca, just outside the southern walls of the city, where they lived happily until their expulsion in 1492.

The Jewish quarter is still here, hidden under several centuries, so we went for a wander, having been told that “finding these traces today, amidst the chaos of the modern city, is difficult but not impossible,” by Francesco D’Agostino of the Istituto Siciliano Studi Ebraici, based in Palermo.

“By wandering through the streets of the old centre, observant visitors can rediscover the magic hidden in the small squares and alleys, and with a bit of imagination, conjure up the atmosphere of ancient times.”

We tried. You need a lot of imagination. But officials are trying to bring it back to life. Authorities have signed over a disused church to become a synagogue, and road signs in the old Jewish quarter are written with Hebrew translations, hinting at where you are.

It’s too early to call it a renaissance, but given that Palermo has most of the island’s 3,000 Jews, who knows what may happen in years to come.

On the other side of Sicily, in ancient Ortygia, an illustrious and fascinating district of the famed city of Syracuse, things are a little more distinct, with several buildings still retaining the vestiges of a once-thriving Jewish community before it was expelled by the Catholic King Ferdinand.

Today you can see that community’s spirit in the well-preserved mikveh baths and architecture around Via Giudecca. Like in Palermo, this was never a ghetto – Jews chose to settle here. It was the Radlett of its day.

Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea

After our dose of history we headed henceforth to the gorgeous resort town of Taormina, sat proud on the side of a mountain with full-frontal views of Mount Etna, the highest volcano in Europe and among the world’s most active.

We stayed with the ever impressive London-listed Belmond hotels group, which has two hotels in Taormina: Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea, by the sea, and Belmond Grand Timeo, in the centre of town.

After several days of towns, we opted to stay by the sea, but guests of one get free entry to the other, the hotels’ luxury shuttle taking visitors between the two every hour.

Arriving at Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea, our shoulders relaxed, our eyes softened and our nostrils opened as the car glided down a driveway heavily scented with orange blossom, as gardens tiered off into a cascade of flowers and pools.

In its prime spot, towering cliffs above and private beach below, fronting the gently lapping Ionian Sea, the hotel sits like an aristocratic old dame, facing a beautiful bay of sea stacks and calm crystalline blue waters.

The hotel is among the best we’ve ever stayed in, but I couldn’t help thinking that the property looked… well, a bit British!

Sure enough, we discovered on our last day through the wonderful Alessandra, that it was once the home of an English engineer who came to build Etna’s railway and fell in love with this delightful cove so much that he built his summer home here.

Family members, who remember playing here as children, still visit every year. They must be proud of how well Belmond has retained its character, charm and features.

If you treat yourself to a stay, I recommend Room 111, with its wraparound stone balcony and panoramic views, but all the offerings are of exceptional quality, with classy furnishings and lashings of good taste.

Mrs O always says it’s a good sign if you want to take the toiletries, but she has never before asked house-keeping for extra for her mum (apparently they only sell this make in Liberty’s and it’s ‘a thing’). So it’s an A+ there, then.

This being Sicily, the food and drink are the stand-out performers. It starts at breakfast on the terrace overlooking the sea, with the most extravagant selection I’ve seen in eight years of travel reviewing.

In the evening, the restaurant staff serenade your palate with a combination of the familiar mixed with the weird and wonderful, with sweet and sour vegetables sprinkled with cocoa powder one of many surprise successes. Somehow it all seems to work brilliantly, and the waiters expertly pair wines to dishes.

The new chef is from the west of the island, where there are more African influences, but he told us that he takes his best recipes from his mother. Don’t we all?

The next day we were whisked up to see our first volcano up close and personal, the hotel arranging a superb guide who knew both Etna and her fruits. At the top, on the edge of a crater, we were surprised with a private picnic put on by the hotel.

Sat there, surveying the solidified lava flows amid the lush greenery, sipping a lovely local fizz and munching on fresh strawberries and almonds, we’d have gone out on a high had Etna been feeling twitchy.

Thankfully she wasn’t. And yes, Etna is a ‘she,’ according to our lovely and very Sicilian expert.

“It’s because she gives birth to life,” she said. “And occasionally gets very angry?” asked I, to the sternest of stares from Mrs O.

Stephen stayed at Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea, where prices start from 400 Euros plus VAT, based on two sharing a double room on a bed and breakfast basis. To book, call 0845 077 2222 or visit belmond.com. For more details about Sicily’s Jewish heritage, email Istituto Siciliano Studi Ebraici at infoisse@libero.it

 

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