The little girl, dressed in a yellow satin robe, stepped on to a crane and waved at the crowd below as she was hoisted on high. The crane stopped 20 metres above the ground and the child was helped on to a metal seat on the side of a towering float topped with a crown and a cross. There she perched, a human decoration shining in the August heat, held in place just by a bar around her waist. The crane slowly descended to pick up another child.
An hour-and-a-half later, the three-tier float was adorned with about 20 children. Smiling and squinting into the sun, they seemed to have the patience of the saints they were dressed to resemble. Well, most of them did. One of the youngest burst into tears midway up and was swiftly returned to his mother.
Speeches and blessings followed, until at last the contraption was ready to be paraded around the town. A group of men grabbed a rope each, the tower lurched and swayed a little then began to move forward.
Messina, at the north-eastern tip of Sicily, and Randazzo, just north of Etna, are the only two towns on the island to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption in this way: with a three-tier float covered in blue satin and mirrors, representing the stages of Mary’s ascent to heaven. The tower is the highlight for the children, for whom it is an honour to be chosen, but also for visitors who happen upon this summer spectacle. It is accompanied by marching bands and a carnival atmosphere, with great clouds of helium balloons on sale, throngs of mostly Italian tourists and local residents throwing sweets at the children from their balconies.
We heard about the festival in Randazzo only because we were staying nearby and our guesthouse owner recommended it.
This year the Randazzo procession – or La Vara as it’s known – was postponed because of storms and giant hailstones, taking place instead on Saturday August 25.
There were no storms last year, just sunshine and blue skies. Once the Vara was under way, we ran ahead of it and ducked into Il Brillo Parlante on Via Umberto, a deli-bar whose owner let us stand on his doorstep to watch the parade pass by, making sure our son could see the action.
Our base on the island was Il Tanaceto, a 150-year-old farmhouse with a pool and simple white-washed rooms. Owner Mariolina serves meals cooked by her husband Saro and also dishes out tips on this little-visited corner of the island. After a road and ferry trip from Scilla on the mainland (a picturesque village where former fishermen’s houses sit on the edge of the gin-clear water), it was a treat to tuck into a typical Sicilian dinner of aubergines cooked with pine nuts, raisins and mint – much of the island’s cuisine combines local produce with Arabic influences.
While Etna itself is touted as a must-see attraction, most of its visitors seem to be on day trips from resorts such as glitzy Taormina or the port city of Catania, just south of the volcano. The stark foothills of Europe’s largest volcano remain largely empty.
We headed first to the nearest town, the classic hilltop settlement of Castiglione di Sicilia, a 10-minute drive away with its red-roofed houses and medieval churches appearing to tumble down the slopes. There we discovered deli Vitis Vineria Bottega and indulged in our staple holiday diet of meat and cheese platters – these ones were beautifully presented with tiny cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of some local honey. It is a great little spot, so good that we even went twice, although the second visit was unplanned.
On leaving the village we drove straight into a forest fire that was encroaching across the road. My partner was all for me driving through it like some sort of stunt woman, but I made an immediate U-turn and so we found ourselves back at Vitis, recovering from the drama.
Another visit involved a ramble round a miniature extinct volcano – its crater full of almond trees, its giant neighbour smoking moodily to the south. In every direction were black slopes dotted with trees or vineyards. Thanks to the rich volcanic soil and the contrast in temperature from day to night, Etna wines are renowned not just in Italy, but globally, with winemakers such as Marco de Grazia of Tenuta delle Terre Nere and Giuseppe Russo of Girolamo Russo among the top 100 producers in the world.
We paid an all-too-brief visit to Tenute Mannino di Plachi, an agriturismo and wine cellar with views down to the coast, but if I visit again I will book a place on the Etna Wine Train , which stops at Randazzo and includes bus trips to two vineyards (EUR47 about Dh200, including two tastings).
After days of looking at Etna in the distance, we headed there with our son and another family from the guesthouse. There are several ways to explore the barren, black, rocky landscape – on foot, by mountain bike, by train or, in winter, on skis – but we chose the most child-friendly: by donkey.
Salvatore from Etna Donkey Trekking led our party – the three boys on donkeys, their parents on foot – on a short walk across the lower wooded slopes. Living in the shadow of an active volcano has to be nervewracking but, for all its activity, Salvatore emphasised the calming effects of the mountain, insisting that we close our eyes, turn off our phones and ‘listen to nature’. As a parent you hope these experiences might fill your child with wonder at the world, but my son was far more excited by the small creatures crafted from lava in the gift shop than he was by volcanology or the breeze in the trees.
On our final evening we treated ourselves to dinner at Terra Mia, the best restaurant in the area according to Mariolina. We sat on a terrace overlooking a country road where the only traffic was a man on a horse. As Mariolina had promised the food was fantastic: my ragu was deliciously rich.
Etna is often referred to as an island within an island. The people, the climate, the wine and the food all have a distinct character, influenced by the 3,329-metre volcano. It’s a spectacular backdrop for a holiday, but the smaller attractions we stumbled across, from wobbly towers of children to the flavours on our plates, made as much of an impression on us as the giant on the horizon.