Pre­pare to be se­duced by Si­cily

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - HE­LEN MCKEN­ZIE

WHATa day. Break­fast in Bel­la­gio, Mi­lan by mid­day, then we fly south along the long leg of Italy, land­ing at Cata­nia in Si­cily, the is­land that, ac­cord­ing to the say­ing, was kicked right out into the Mediter­ranean.

It is 9pm when we ar­rive at Des Es­trangers Ho­tel & Spa in Sira­cusa. We cross the mo­saic­tiled en­trance and slump against the wood-pan­elled re­cep­tion desk. ‘‘Of course the restau­rant is still open and there is no need to rush. Shower, change and then head to the roof gar­den,’’ we are ad­vised. Some­thing tells us we are go­ing to be very happy here.

The po­si­tion­ing of the restau­rant on the rooftop, rather than at street level, is a mas­ter­stroke. We are seated, given a glass of prosecco and a chef’s wel­com­ing treat (a tiny risotto ball) al­most be­fore we can gaze out the win­dow.

When we do, our col­lec­tive gasp marks the be­gin­ning of our Si­cil­ian se­duc­tion. There’s the re­flec­tion of lights from the many boats on the Porto Grande, the beauty of the softly-lit crown of the Duomo, the cen­tre­piece of the town.

There is a wrap­around bal­cony with ta­bles and chairs. Break­fast is served here too and dur­ing our three-day stay we move around the ta­bles to sam­ple the views. They are all good. So is the food.

Break­fast is the usual fare of ce­re­als, scram­bled eggs and ba­con. There is also fresh fruit, in­clud­ing peaches that are clearly made of sun­shine and have never seen a chilled room.

Din­ner has straight­for­ward com­po­nents: egg­plant, mus­sels, tomato, sar­dines, pasta and an­chovies, and we won­der why we can’t repli­cate any­thing so sat­is­fy­ingly sim­ple at home.

Roam­ing around Cata­nia, we dis­cover the fresh food mar­ket, part of the se­cret of Si­cil­ian culi­nary su­pe­ri­or­ity. We grab bread, toma­toes, salami, pro­sciutto and cheese, and head to the fore­shore be­low the ho­tel for a pic­nic.

Des Etrangers Ho­tel & Spa opened in 1889 and boasts that it was the first ho­tel on the isle of Ortigia, joined to Sira­cusa by two bridges and listed by UNESCO as a place of Hu­man Pat­ri­mony. The five-storey ho­tel, closed for 30 years due to a fam­ily dis­pute, re­cently re­opened and was re­fur­bished and ex­tended to 76 gue­strooms with con­fer­ence fa­cil­i­ties, gym and spa. Our fam­ily takes up three gue­strooms, all of which have a bal­cony with views of the har­bour; our grown-ups’ cor­ner room also has a view to the old fort of Castello Maniace.

In­laid wooden bed­heads, white linen, tiled floors and mar­ble bath­rooms give the spa­cious gue­strooms a re­laxed el­e­gance. All have air­con­di­tion­ing, mini-bar, flatscreen tele­vi­sions with cable chan­nels and Wi-Fi ac­cess. Framed paint­ings of lo­cal scenes on papyrus are a fea­ture of the gue­strooms and the ho­tel lobby.

We don’t try the sauna, ‘‘emo­tional shower’’ or Turk­ish bath, nor take ad­van­tage of the prof­fered Cal­i­for­nian, ori­en­tal or shi­atsu mas­sage. But we give the ex­cel­lent gym equip­ment and the small in­door pool a workout. Strict rules about hair be­ing cov­ered in the pool have us gig­gling as we float around in bathing caps, but ly­ing on sunbeds in­doors is, frankly, weird.

On our sec­ond day we are off for a morn­ing walk­ing ex­cur­sion to tick some cul­tural boxes with vis­its to the Greek and Ro­man the­atres and the Orec­chio di Dion­i­sio (an ear-shaped carved cave with amaz­ing acous­tics).

Re­turn­ing to the ho­tel and cross­ing the cool mo­saic-tiled floor af­ter our morn­ing in the Si­cil­ian sum­mer heat, we feel like we are en­ter­ing a haven for happy but weary trav­ellers.

Siesta time, an­other el­e­ment of the Si­cil­ian se­duc­tion, we de­cide we want to bot­tle and take home.

Des Es­trangers Ho­tel & Spa, Si­cily

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