Brooding beauty

Sicilian journey: Fact, fiction and a restless volcano are part of the island's drama. John Woodcock reports

Among the postcards, souvenirs and travel guides on the island's most fashionable street is a booklet some consider essential reading for a visitor to Sicily.

It's published in several languages and entitled Mafia Explained. One chapter is headed: "Will it always exist?" The answer is as unknowable as that surrounding another constant in these parts: when will Mount Etna next blow her top?

In the meantime one of the world's most active volcanoes and images of organised crime are doing their bit for Sicily's tourist industry. On almost every medieval street in Taormina someone is selling T-shirts, pens, chefs' aprons and caps bearing the image of Marlon Brando as The Godfather. There are tours to locations used for scenes in the film and more than once its theme music provided a background to the holiday experience.

It can create unease. The Mafia as entertainment is challenged when a regional newspaper reports a court case involving corruption and real-life Cosa Nostra. Sicily really is beauty and the beast. There was another example of the paradox at Taormina's railway station. The Ionian Sea almost laps against the platform and set against the deepest blue a white-hulled cruise ship disembarked passengers for sightseeing, many of them heading for the ominous yet hypnotic place behind us.

The 11,000ft volcano is spoken of in human terms and in the female gender. "She's alive!" On a daily basis scientists seek to judge her mood and predict her next outpouring of rage. The first recorded eruption was in 475BC and she exploded several times during the 20th century, on one occasion killing tourists. In 2002, lava poured down, destroying restaurants, hotels and a cable car in a ski resort. Eruptions are not the only peril. During our stay a group taking an organised trip by four-wheel drive was forced to turn back in a thunderstorm at 7,500ft because of the risk of lightning striking Etna's lethal debris.

Often she keeps her feelings to herself and is wreathed in cloud, but we went for a closer look when the morning was clear and wisps of steamy smoke were drifting from one of the craters. We took the Circumetnea railway, which seemed the safest route until we discovered that even from a distance of several miles the privately-owned line has often been blocked by lava. On a normal day it's a great train ride, and a bargain at 6 for the 70-mile journey from Giarre-Riposto to Catania that encircles the tempestuous mountain.

The aged two-coach diesel was full of locals, mainly children returning from school. Apart from a couple of German train enthusiasts, their cameras poised for the view around the next sharp bend, we seemed to be the only foreigners on board, which was mystifying given the line's scenic wonders.

It climbs away from the coastal plain through lemon and orange groves, vineyards of fat grapes, embankments of wild flowers, cactus, olive plantations, apple and pear orchards, and vegetable gardens enclosed by volcanic dry-stone walls.

The train stops at often nameless stations and you have to consult the timetable for a clue to the identity of a terracotta-roofed town. You pass brown and yellow hills, some sprouting wind farms – reportedly one of the new ways in which the Mafia launders its money. One suspected boss is said to be so enthusiastic about green energy he's known as "lord of the winds".

Around Bronte is the centre of Italy's pistachio nut production, but for Yorkshire it has a greater significance. The town gave its name to the dukedom bestowed upon Admiral Horatio Nelson by the King of Naples in gratitude for British help in defeating a rebellion in 1799. A future vicar of Haworth, dissatisfied with his surname and determined to change it, saw social merit in being associated with Nelson's deeds and elegant title, which is why the literary world is enriched by the Bronts rather than the Brunty sisters.

Some of the most dramatic views of Etna from the train are between Bronte and Adrano. It would be wild and hostile even without hillsides and valleys left blackened by stilled rivers of her innards, thousands of tons of it.

In the midst of this landscape was the strangest and maybe costliest example of rural transport. The train enters a tunnel that becomes as brightly-lit as a metro station in a major capital. It serves the little town of Santa Maria di Licodia (for a comparison, imagine Helmsley being on the Underground) before the line re-emerges into desolate countryside. What appears to be surreal folly is part of a planned rapid transit railway that eventually, they say, will reach Catania, a port city which over the centuries has been ravaged by, and exploited, Etna's presence, using the stone she rained down as material for rebuilding streets and creating Baroque piazzas.

It gives them a rather gloomy aspect far different from the atmosphere of Taormina to the north. This is Sicily's star location. High above lovely bays, and with the volcano providing a backcloth, the Greeks and Romans knew their amphitheatre offered audiences a double bill of spectacle and tremendous views.

They are almost as good at the century-old Hotel Bel Soggiorno, reached by a hairpin road between the town and sea. It's modest but charming with a tumbling garden of bourgainvillea, palms and citrus trees. You might be on a package holiday but it can feel more like being guests of a landed family forced to make lifestyle adjustments. The hotel has no restaurant but once a week they offer a candle-lit dinner on the breakfast terrace, and if you're lucky moonlight might be silvering the waves across to Calabria.

On these occasions the owner plays the piano with gusto, the hotel's matriarch observes the scene from beneath cracked paintings in gilt frames, and a waiter-cum-receptionist takes up the guitar and performs superbly.

It's almost a period piece harking back to when, up in town, Garbo maintained her cool there, and DH Lawrence had a home in the hills. The rich and famous still stroll Corso Umberto, along with thousands of economically-challenged tourists, wandering in awe at the beauty of the surroundings, or wondering which eaterie offers the best pasta or seafood for the price. Or why, when other establishments are quiet, people are queuing in the rain for a table in Nino's trattoria. Be patient and you'll find out.

The congested narrow roads outside the town's gateways, plus Sicilian driving, suggest that hiring a car might be one of the last things you ever do.

In any case public transport is cheap and plentiful. If you want the beach and something less sophisticated than Taormina, there's the resort of Giardini-Naxos below.

A walk in the opposite direction brings you to Letojanni, and puts you in the mood for lunch beside the fishing boats hauled onto the sand.

Sardines wrapped in aubergines, perhaps, or a pizza made in a wood-fired oven (forno a legna), accompanied by wine from the fertile volcanic slopes – one of Etna's kinder legacies.

GETTING THERE...

Websites include www.sicilytourism.com

The Hotel Bel Soggiorno, Taormina, including flights and transfers, is available through Thomson's Small and Friendly guide. www.thomson.co.uk

YP MAG 18/12/10