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Get away from it all on a mouth-watering farmstay on the beautiful east coast of Sicily

Mirror logo Mirror 15/12/2016 Karin Wright

We were feeling like terrible clichés. It was our first night in Sicily and we had just ordered pizzas. Bad tourists.

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But after just one bite, all shame evaporated. The guys at I Due Compari certainly know how to rustle up the basics. And the place was rammed with locals, so we knew we were eating the real deal.

But then my boyfriend James and I were slightly off the beaten track here, in the valleys below the north-eastern slopes of Mount Etna.

We were shunning the big city lights for a far more rural holiday, staying on working farms tucked away in the wilds of Sicily. But not too far from a decent pizzeria, obviously...

Il Fondo Cipollate was the first stop on our “agriturismo” tour. Just an hour from the airport in Catania, the authentic stone farm buildings contain excellent rooms and a magnificent breakfast hall, surrounded by olive groves and orange orchards. Guests are welcome to pitch in during harvest time.

© Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc The farm has been in friendly Gabriella's family for centuries, and she will give you chapter and verse on what to see, do and eat in the area. She furnished us with a hand-drawn map of all the best restaurants within striking distance of the Alcantara valley and the surrounding villages.

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Il Fondo is perfectly placed for exploring the east side of the island. It's just an hour to the jewel in this coast's crown – Taormina, which tumbles down a series of small hills to the sea. It's rather touristy, but with good reason.

The Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Arabs and the Normans have all had a go at Sicily over the centuries, and all have left their mark. The most spectacular of these is the magnificent Ancient Theatre of Taormina , which commands great views of the coast.

We drove up the mind-bendingly winding road to the Saracen ruins perched above town at Castelmola – there is a bus that runs from Via Pirandella, or you can walk up the very steep, but very good, path from the square (far, far) below. The views are worth the effort, whichever way you get up there (although I wouldn't advise driving up there in high season).

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Back in town, we parked at the funicular station at the bottom (€10 per day) and took the lift up to the centre (€6 return). The pedestrianised main drag – Corso Umberto – is lined with smart boutiques and restaurants in gorgeous honey-coloured buildings, and crosses pretty piazzas with lovely churches. The winding alleyways going up the hills or down towards the beaches lead to beautiful gardens and hidden trattorias and bars.

We were on a mission to find the best cannoli and, after seeing it on Gino D'Acampo's Islands in the Sun show, we descended on the grandly named but tiny Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto where the man himself filled the crispy pastry tubes with fresh ricotta cream while we waited. Sheer heaven.

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Back at the bottom of the funicular, the car park is handy for the nice little beaches, reached by steep stairways. Mazorro has bars and restaurants, while the popular Isola Bella is pebbly but pretty, with a spit of land connecting the island to the mainland. Watersports enthusiasts will enjoy Giardini Naxos, another great beach further along. Do a boat trip to admire the coast from the sea.

And glowering in the distance is Sicily's main attraction - Mount Etna. We allocated a full day to this experience, because it's worth it, despite not being the cheapest day out. Gabriella recommended a few companies which run tours, but we decided to wing it on our own.

It's a couple of hours (up more spectacular winding roads) to the cable car station on the southern slope. There's a sprawling car park (don't forget to pay at the cabin - we saw several cars with fines plastered on their windshields), then it's off to queue for tickets to the top.

A cable car takes you some of the way, then there's a moon-buggy the rest of the way, ending with an informative guided walk at the top. A round trip all the way is €60 per person, with a further €3 to hire a jacket - you'll only wear it for half an hour, but you'll be grateful you did... the wind is freezing at the top, even in the middle of summer.

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If you don't want to shell out that much cash, we saw plenty of hardy types walk up the shaly slopes. Takes several hours. We were lucky we went up on a clear day, so were rewarded with amazing views. It is, however, often foggy at the top, so pick a good day.

About an hour north of Taormina, up more switchback roads (they all are!) is the little village of Savoca, where film buffs can enjoy a drink in Bar Vitelli and see the church where Michael Corleone and Apollonia got married in The Godfather.

Then we headed further south, to the breathtaking city of Syracuse. The birthplace of Archimedes has been a powerhouse for 2,700 years, and evidence of this scattered throughout this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We stayed on Ortygia, the small island which is home to the Città Vecchia (Old City).

Our home for the night was the grand Des Etrangers Hotel and Spa, just around the corner from the Piazza Del Duomo, dominated by the ornate Cathedral of Syracuse. The square is particularly beautiful when lit up at night, and is home to two excellent gelaterias - the dark chocolate offering at Bianca was only slightly outdone by the caramel and biscotti flavour at Fiordilatte.

We enjoyed the latter after a hot but fascinating day at the sprawling Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, home to Roman ruins, Sicily's biggest Greek theatre (built in the 5th century BC) and the brilliant Ear of Dionysius stone quarry. It's a 30-minute walk from Ortygia, or hop on the number 2 bus. Dinner was a delicious prawn and pistachio pasta at Tavernetta da Piero.

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Pining for the hills again, we headed inland to our next "farm" stop - the wonderful Agriturismo Il Granaio. It's just 15 minutes' drive from Modica, but set in rolling hills dotted with sheep and more stone walls than you can shake Yorkshire at.

We lazed about the pool, enjoyed a spa treatment and had a wonderful four-course traditional Sicilian dinner cooked by Mama in the onsite restaurant. The B&B is also within walking distance of a great steak at Torre Palazzelle, a restaurant in a grey stone castle.

Il Granaio is a great base from which to explore Modica, Ragusa and Noto. The towns in this area were levelled by an earthquake in 1693, and were rebuilt in the glorious baroque style.

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Noto has handsome piazzas lined with churches and palazzos. We enjoyed the local specialty arancini looking up at the San Nicolo Cathedral, before climbing the nearby campanile of San Carlo (€2) for views across the rooftops and up to the monastery.

Modica has an upper (alta) and a lower (bassa) town connected by a little tourist train (trenino barocco, €5), so we hopped on board for the 45-minute journey up the hill, then walked back down the steep flight of stairs between two magnificent churches – the rococo Chiesa di San Giorgio at the top and the Cattedrale di San Pietro at the bottom. We rewarded our efforts with some crumbly traditional chocolate at Sicily's oldest chocolate factory, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto.

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Ragusa is another stunning town on the baroque trail, with the hilltop Ibla old town reached by steep, winding stairs. We were rewarded with a truly lovely square in front of the towering cathedral - and some chilli chocolate ice cream at Gelati DaVini.

Further inland - along some sweeping new roads - is Villa Romana del Casale. This Roman villa is home to some of the world's most dazzling mosaics. Housed in what looks like a giant shed to spare them from the elements, the intricate designs cover 3,500 square metres, depicting scenes from Roman life. There's the Corridor of the Great Hunt, scenes from Homer's Odyssey... and girls in bikinis playing volleyball!

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On the way back, stop for lunch in Caltagirone to admire La Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte – a huge flight of 142 steps, each decorated with the region's famous hand-painted ceramic tiles.

Senses overloaded, we spent our last day on one of Sicily's best beaches. Sampieri has miles of white sands and the rustic Pata Pata beach bar, which serves fantastic frittura mista (mixed fried seafood) for €13.

At least it wasn't pizza...

TRAVEL FILE

WHEN TO GO It’s hot and busy in summer – autumn and spring has warm sunshine without the crowds.

TOP TIPS A friend aptly described the drivers as “biggest, fastest, bravest wins”. Keep your wits about you. Many roads are narrow and steep, so hire a small car with a big engine. Keep loose change handy for tolls.

EAT IT Arancini, rice cones stuffed with ragu and cheese, make delicious on-the-hoof snacks. The cannoli is heavenly – make sure it’s filled in front of you to guarantee freshness. Modica’s unusual, rich chocolate is divine.

BOOK ITSunvil has three nights at Fondo Cipollate, one night at Des Etrangers Hotel & Spa and three nights at Il Granaio from £706pp sharing in April, with flights from Gatwick to Catania, B&B and car hire. sunvil.co.uk, 020 8758 4722

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