Oasis of Calm in the Shadow of Mt Etna

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Byline: TESSA BOASE

MOUNT Etna has been at it again. Plumes of smoke, fountains of red sparks and a slow-moving lava flow down its south flank have held the world's attention all week.

Close-up, it looks terrifying. But from a comfortable distance - such as Catania, 20 miles south-east of Etna's green foothills - it is said to look quite beautiful.

Far from it being a national disaster, most parts of Sicily are functioning pretty well as normal.

Etna has been erupting for half a million years; it is the world's most active volcano. This month's fireworks are by no means the most spectacular, and the trickle of lava, nearing the rather bleak ski resort of Nicolosi at 700m, is thought to be slowing down.

The only interference with daily life for east coast Sicilians has been a light dusting of ash which closed Catania airport, five miles south of the city, for two hours on Monday.

But the main tourist areas, Taormina, 15 miles north- east of Etna, and Syracuse, 40 miles to the south, have merely enjoyed the spectacular view of the volcano's smoking summit. For the scores of tour operators featuring Sicily's most glorious coastline, it is business as usual.

Catania, for one, has seen far worse.

Nature has wiped the resilient city off the map no fewer than seven times, and each time it has rebuilt itself.

In the 17th century, after the worst eruption in Etna's history swiftly followed by an earthquake, it was rebuilt as a showcase of Sicilian Baroque, wowing young aristocrats on their Grand Tour of Italy. Today it is known as the Milan Of The South for its buoyant economy.

As we sped through miles of grim suburb, it seemed hard to imagine anyone putting Catania on their Grand Tour. But then Tarmac gave way to paving stone, and ornate facades and wrought iron balconies replaced concrete.

Our hotel was in a cool courtyard at the top of a steep street lined with orange trees. The proprietors - young and beautiful - seemed unused to tourists.

They showed us our sumptuous rooms with high, frescoed ceilings and antique furniture. 'It is good?' It was more than good; it was extraordinary.

THIS was not the only surprise. Perhaps because of its lack of hype (guidebooks are unanimously sniffy about the city), Catania managed to astonish and delight at every turn.

We ate simple, exquisite pizza that night alongside the city's in-crowd, young people curious to know what we were doing there. We suddenly felt adventurous and rather pleased with ourselves: this was no tourist trap.

In the bright morning sun, it seemed the most exhilarating city on earth.

Straight, sweeping Baroque roads gave staggering vistas at either end - of the sea, or of Mount Etna.

There was a great sense of light, wind and space. Every corner turned gave an unexpected view - some grannies deep in conversation, their kitchen chairs parked in a row on the steep pavement; or a building built on top of a rolling, black lava flow.

Other tourists were rare. We encountered a few curious and well-dressed northern Italians, for whom Sicily is another country. And indeed it is: there is a different vibe on the street and in the air.

The palm trees seem more raffish, the cake shops more kitsch, the baroque architecture more exuberant.

Nowhere did I feel this foreign flavour more than in Catania's famous fish market (daily except Sunday). …