WHEN THE waiter and the cook ducked behind the counter as the car screamed past, the open restaurant doorway illumined by the glare of headlights, we thought the obvious. Sicily. The Mob. Watch your back. Say nothing. After a few moments they rose, held each other's gaze and then shrugged and got on with the meal. Seeing their relief, we and the other diners shrugged too and reached for the jugs of wine.
The tiny Trattoria del Goloso ("the glutton"), where we'd gone for a quiet dinner, is tucked away in one corner of the main square of Piazza Armerina, a tightly packed Sicilian hill town miles from the sea. We had decided on a self-catering holiday in rural Sicily, but this was one evening when "self-catering" had been suspended. The meal was delicious (macaroni, tomatoes, aubergines, olives, onions, and tender chunks of local stewed rabbit) and the rest of the evening passed boozily by without further incident.
After arriving at the small but crazy airport at Catania, it had been a relief to drive west into the mountainous hinterland. When the distant sight of Etna's smoking cone finally vanished from view, we knew we were really off the beaten track. Piazza Armerina, some 30km south of Enna in the heart of Sicily's southern interior, covers the summit of a large hump-backed hill. At the top sits the medieval Duomo, resembling a Gothic galleon up in the sky and, below, the town is a warren of steep cobbled streets, sudden corners and cars impossibly parked in the tightest of spaces.
We drove out of town in a hire car and down into the woodlands beyond. Though not a particularly cheap option, at least we had the comfort of knowing that the suspension wasn't our own. A bumpy, potholed road led us through 10km of shady eucalyptus forest and into a remote valley to Il Glicine ("wisteria"), our farm accommodation.
The cottage next door to the 100- year-old farmhouse, was all beams and rustic furnishings, one of everything and everything worked. And there were animals. "More than 10, but fewer than 20," guessed Santi, the farmer. If you like animals, this is great. We do, and it was.
Santi trades principally in olives, but aubergines, peaches, lemons and almonds are also grown on his abundant orchard slopes. His Welsh wife Yvonne runs Buddhist classes in an outbuilding high up on the hillside. This seemed incongruous in such a Catholic haven, but after a day or two, tranquil contemplation came to seem appropriate in such a place. Walking along the valley roads we felt centuries away from urban life and only the distant crack of a hunter's gun punctured the peace as more rabbits headed for the pot. The smell of woodsmoke hung permanently in the air.
From Piazza Armerina, some of the most historic sites in Sicily are within easy reach. The ancient Greeks left their colonial mark everywhere and you sometimes have to pinch yourself at the names that crop up: Archimedes at Agricento, Hippocrates and Aeschylus at Gela, Plato at Syracusa. …