Sat, Mar 2, 1996, 00:00 NUALA O’FAOLAIN
THE village on the hill across from our hotel was used in the film The Godfather. and the day we climbed the grassy tracks up to it we could see why. This part of western Sicily has, scarcely been touched by the modern world. The alleyways and balconies and tiny piazzas in the villages that cling to the hills can’t have changed much in decades.
Places like Motta Casantra are utterly untouched by tourism. Turn a corner at a tiny medieval church, make your way past the little crowd that has gathered to buy that day’s dinner from the travelling fish-van, and step into the old-fashioned bar. Order a creamy cappucino and a slice off almond cake and you discover another advantage of being off the beaten track. This is Italy: but prices are about one-third what they are in Florence or Rome.
This Alcantara valley, in the foothills of Mount Etna, is the setting for a one-centre walking holiday run by the London-based Ramblers Association. The walking is graded D+, which means “Terrain moderate. Energetic days among hills, and easy mountain walking. Daily walking time will seldom exceed six hours.
A group of about 15 people, together with a leader who knows all the local walks, flies from Gatwick to Catania airport, is driven up the coast and inland to the Hotel D’Orange d’Alcantara, and settles in for a fairly intensive week of walking. And intensive eating and drinking, in our case, anyway.
When we were there over the New Year, one walk was curtailed by a storm, one brought us to the frivolous and charming little belle epoque resort of Taormina – famous on the gay male circuit – where we spent the afternoon, and one day was a given over to a full-day excursion to the marvellous Greco-Roman city of Siracusa. But we still did a lot of walking, and what with that and the wine and the good food – the homemade pasta courses in particular – we slept very well.
Some moments were special. On the second day, for instance, the misty rain lifted just as we reached the ridge of our own valley. having climbed up from the hotel on mule-tracks. And there, across a second rich valley, reared Mount Etna, its snowy cone sparkling in the sun, dark smoke pluming back from it as from a steam train.
Another day we were on a ridge to the north, and could look in one direction at vapour-covered Etna and in another on the north coast of Sicily and the Aeolian Islands and mainland Italy across the straits. Another delight was the serene village of Castiglione, a place of faded, forgotten beauty. In 1988, one Monsignor Gaetano Alibrandi helped the Pope to upgrade its ballroom-like church to the status of a basilica.
Perhaps this has something to do with Castiglione being twinned with Killarney. Because otherwise, there can be few places as lacking in matching Greek temples, surrounding vineyards, nearby volcanoes and so on, as Killarney.
Best of all was Siracusa. This was the most important city in the western world for hundreds of years.