Fly to Catania, where the mighty Mount Etna waits to greet you, and transfer to historic Syracuse, where we stay two nights at the four-star Hotel Mercure Siracusa. The hotel sits between the archaeological park, with its Roman and Greek ruins, and the eerie catacombs that lie beneath the San Giovanni basilica. After settling in we'll enjoy welcome drinks and dinner. An evening stroll is a wonderful way to relax and take in the air so enticingly scented by jasmine and orange blossom.
During our coach tour of Syracuse this morning, we’re introduced to the city’s striking architecture, notably the columned Art Deco-style Pantheon overlooking manicured gardens, and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Tears with its towering spire and Madonna statue that is said to have wept in 1953. On exploring the cobbled city streets lined with shuttered villas in faded cream, peach and terracotta, you may be surprised to learn that the historic centre of Syracuse lies just across the water. Passing white fishing boats bobbing on the marina we come to beautiful Ortygia, Syracuse’s island heart jutting out into the Ionian Sea. This tiny island is filled with more than 2,500 years of history encompassing Greek and Roman remains, Norman buildings and fine Baroque landmarks. We'll explore Ortygia’s charming labyrinth of narrow alleys on a walking tour, pausing at the occasional piazza boasting a fountain, elegant palace or Baroque church. The cathedral is especially interesting as it was originally a Greek Doric temple whose massive columns can still be seen inside. As we reach the tip of the peninsula, the Fountain of Arethusa sits shrouded in myth and mystery. It's unusual to find a freshwater spring so close to the sea, and even more unusual to find the papyrus plants that grow there. A narrow promenade, lined with cafes and trattorias offering sea views, leads to the 13th-century fortress that stands guard against any approaching threat. After our tour you may choose to take a boat trip around the peninsula. Ortygia's honey-hued stone buildings look especially striking from the water and you may spot local fisherman and egrets competing over the spoils of the sea. Or you may choose to explore further at your own pace. You may find yourself in the thick of the lively street market, where the cries of vendors, bright piles of fruit and vegetables, and the unmistakable smell of the catch of the day merge to overwhelm the senses.
Today we travel to the pretty town of Noto, which sits on a hilltop surrounded by olive groves and thick woodland. Almost entirely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693, Noto is the home of Sicilian Baroque and its cathedral is its centrepiece – the dome was recently rebuilt after its dramatic collapse in 1996. Climb the twisting narrow stairs to the bell tower of the Church of San Carlo for incredible views. Much of Noto's architecture has an ethereal golden glow due to the yellow limestone for which the town is known – the effect is especially magical when illuminated by the sunshine. From Noto we journey to Modica through a patchwork of citrus groves and meadows covered with wildflowers. It's the rural Italy so many travellers envision, brought to life before our eyes. The first impression of Modica is dramatic, as it clings to a hillside in a jumble of Baroque churches and palaces, whitewashed villas and a medieval old town, all watched over by a castle perched on a rocky ridge. During your free time here, you may wish to visit the medieval San Nicolò Inferiore, Modica’s oldest church and a remarkable example of rock architecture. Carved into rock, this tiny hidden gem was discovered by chance in 1987. Ring the bell outside and wait to be let in – the subterranean atmosphere and astonishingly preserved Byzantine frescoes are simply superb. A rather delicious and lasting legacy of Spanish rule over Sicily is the chocolate still made today in Modica using traditional methods that follow an old Aztec recipe. We visit a sixth-generation local chocolatier to witness the unusual 'cold chocolate' process and sample the result – a uniquely grainy texture left by the unmelted sugar. We continue to Ragusa, where we stay for three nights at the four-star Mediterraneo Palace. The dining room has stunning views over the deep gorge opposite – look closely to spot swallows swooping between the trees and under the bridge.
After breakfast we embark on an adventure to one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, the ancient Greek Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. Here we find the ruins of seven Doric temples dating back to the 6th-century BC, which remain in excellent condition, thanks to Sicily’s gentle climate. Situated on a rocky ridge overlooking the surrounding valleys and across the sea towards Tunisia, these temples must have dominated the skyline in an incredible show of power. Even thousands of years later the ruins are an impressive sight, especially the almost perfectly preserved Concordia with its tapering columns that bring to mind the Parthenon in Athens. We’ll explore the intriguing ruins among the almond trees with our guide and visit the archaeological museum before returning to our hotel in Ragusa in time for dinner.
Today we explore Ragusa, a city divided into a historic old town and a ‘new’ town, which sit on adjacent hills. Following the 1693 earthquake that devastated this part of the island, Ragusa Superiore was built. However, many locals simply couldn’t leave Ragusa Ibla behind and decided to rebuild. As we explore the tangle of sloping streets and winding alleyways of the old town with a local guide, we’ll come to the Piazza Duomo, where faded pastel buildings are overlooked by a beautifully adorned Baroque cathedral. Just beyond sits the San Giuseppe Church, topped with an ornate cupola holding a trio of bells. If you wish to rest over a freshly squeezed orange juice or an ice-cold Sicilian lemonade, you’ll find plenty of pavement cafés offering shade – it’s hard to imagine a more enchanting backdrop than the decorated palazzos dominating this historic centre. As the winding ascent to Ragusa Superiore begins, the streets gradually widen into a leafy grid-system lined with elegant villas housing boutiques, minimarkets and cafés. There’s free time after the tour so perhaps explore Ragusa further. Pause outside the Santa Maria church for a spectacular view over the old town, or try a hearty bowl of Pasta alla Norma – a homage to Mount Etna with tomato ‘lava’, aubergine ‘cinders’ and ricotta ‘snow’. Alternatively, you may wish to join your tour manager for a leisurely visit to two of the key locations of the Italian detective series, ‘Inspector Montalbano’. Fans of this crime drama will surely recognise the detective’s seaside home of ‘Marinella’, the idyllic fishing village of Punta Secca, and the police station in ‘Vigata’, the Town Hall of picturesque Scicli.
Today we discover one of the most extensive and best-preserved collections of Roman mosaics in the world at the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. During our guided tour of this 4th-century Roman villa, we’ll see the Great Hunt mosaic with its leaping lions and roaring tigers, and the famous ‘Bikini Girls’ mosaic depicting ladies playing sports in skimpy togas. Others tell stories of giants and gods, rural hunts and embracing lovers, providing an incredible insight into the life, culture and mythology of the island’s Roman residents. Extraordinary faded frescoes can also be seen adorning this palatial villa, which is so grand that many believe it was the home of one of the Roman co-emperors of the Diocletian era. With columns of pink Egyptian granite, a marble-lined hall and a glorious formal dining room, it’s obvious this villa was the home of someone of exceptional status and wealth. As we wander the atmospheric maze of rooms we’ll also learn the history of this UNESCO World Heritage site, which owes its incredible preservation to a landslide that covered many of the mosaics, thus protecting them from the island’s earthquakes. The villa lay partially buried for hundreds of years, before its rediscovery and excavations during the 19th and 20th centuries. This evening we transfer to the four-star Hotel Baia Taormina where we stay two nights. This charming terraced hotel climbs up the cliffside in a quiet coastal position just north of Taormina offering fantastic views of the bay below.
This morning you may choose to explore Taormina, a town perched on a jutting hilltop some 250 metres above the coastline, with the sea to its front and magnificent Mount Etna to its back. A coastal retreat merging medieval charm with elegance and glamour, its appeal is such that DH Lawrence made it his home for several years. Despite its typically Sicilian buildings in pale stone, colour livens every corner of this town. Streets are festooned with flowerpots and window boxes brimming with blooms, while citrus and almond trees dot the squares. Locals exchange pleasantries at street-side stalls, which groan under the weight of a rainbow of Mediterranean vegetables, from tomatoes to courgettes and aubergines. The result is a feast for the senses, as the mingling scents hang deliciously heavy in the air. If you'd like to shop for souvenirs then follow the Corso Umberto, Taormina’s pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare. You'll pass an array of tempting window displays featuring designerwear, colourful ceramics and sparkling jewellery, along with gelaterias, pizzerias and patisseries. Peach-hued townhouses give way to the Piazza IX April, which looks down the tree-covered hill to the sea. Why not look for a family-run ‘minimarket’ with tiny tables and sample some Marsala wine? In the afternoon we depart for Sicily's crowning glory, Mount Etna, the highest volcano in Europe. As we ascend the winding road to the cable car station, the greenery of the lower slopes disperses to reveal a barren lunar-like landscape with jutting black crags and contorted lava rocks. You can take the cable car up higher and, if you wish, a jeep to the very top, but even from the station the views of this powerful colossus of nature are awe-inspiring. Our adventure on Mount Etna continues at a winery set on its verdant and fertile lower slopes dotted with farms and vineyards. The views, in the shadow of Etna with the sea sparkling beyond the green, are truly breathtaking and can be enjoyed during a wine tasting on the terrace. The silence is both soothing and striking, with only birdsong and the occasional sound of a nearby farm to be heard. A tour of the vineyard and winery, which have remained within the same family since 1772, offers a fascinating insight into the advantages of this unique position – here, the volcanic soil and fluctuating temperatures combine to grow a grape unlike any other. We'll also learn how wines aged in chestnut barrels produce a flavour that's different to the more typical oak. Our tour concludes most fittingly with a final dinner in a wonderful vineyard setting, where local dishes will be paired with the perfect robust reds or fragrant whites. We say farewell to Sicily and new friends, no doubt clinking glasses to toast an unforgettable tour.
Transfer to Catania for your return flight.