Southern Italy has much to offer the holidaymaker, as they say on those TV travel programmes, but did you realise that diving was on the agenda? John Bantin has travelled down to Sicily, sampling caverns and wreck-diving in Scopello and profuse marine life in steeply sloping Ustica
The biggest island in the Mediterranean it may be, and the fact that it used to be an independent kingdom until it was absorbed into what became the Italian nation is important, yet few Brits know much about Sicily. The coastline of the Mediterranean has been populated since the dawn of history. It boasts cultures as diverse as the number of nation states that border it: Spain is as different from France as Italy is from Greece. No wonder it has become the most popular holiday destination for northern Europeans, and as part of Europe each of these countries makes an ideal destination for those of us with family members, spouses and children, all of whom may not want to go on a purely diving orientated trip. Sicily is very different from northern Italy. It has a landscape formed by ancient and not so ancient volcanic activity. Mount Etna is still active. Apart from Palermo, the capital, a bustling modern city, most of the villages still exhibit a close connection to their recent and impoverished agricultural past. I took my young family to a comfortable and spacious traditionally built villa up in the hills, near the tiny mediaeval hamlet of Scopello, and the Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve. The air was full of the scents of sage and wild thyme, and the song of the skylark. Each morning we watched the sea mist roll back from our vantage point above the coast, and the sun blazed relentlessly in an unblemished blue sky. We hired a car so that we could get down to the beaches easily, and fed ourselves with a variety of freshly made pasta, and simple foods bought locally that would have cost a fortune in any London Italian delicatessen. The kids loved it. Of course, I still managed to get in a few dives. Vittorio and Pietro run a dive centre, based in Scopello, and load their tiny inflatables at an abandoned tonnara, or tuna- processing plant, next to a spectacular set of rocky outcrops called the Faraglioni. That doesn't sound very picturesque, does it? In fact the old tuna plant is built like a castle, and its yard is cluttered with 100 large rusting anchors, the only remnant of the vessels that were used to herd the tuna in ever-decreasing circles of nets, culminating in the bloody slaughter that made such dramatic pictures in the Sunday colour magazines of the late '70s. Today all that remains is this monument to over-exploitation of a species. The tuna have long gone. It's a slog with all the kit from the minibus down to the shoreline but it has to be done. The mountainous coastline merges in a heat haze with the undisturbed horizon. It's a lengthy boat ride across a Homerian wine-dark sea. We get to the Impisu Wall, at a point where it drops to 135m deep, through clear water below a treeless headland. Fifty metres is enough for me, but my descent is rewarded by a sight of rocks adorned with vibrant red gorgonians, an underwater photographer's delight. Vittorio helpfully poses for my camera. During my journey back from the cold depths to the surface water warmed by the summer sun, I spot a large red scorpionfish, its poisonous dorsal spines spikily raised in defiant pose. The Ficarella Cave must have a freshwater stream running through it. Dropping into the sea from the inflatable, the refraction from the halocline is so intense that it is impossible to see anything properly until I am at least a metre deep. Then it's off in through the cave entrance, its resident large Mediterranean grouper guardian beating a hasty retreat before us. The entrance is decorated with various sponges and yellow star corals. We can always see the blue window of daylight behind us, albeit getting rather dim in the distance, as we progress. The floor of the cave is dotted with scampering prawns, bellies blue with eggs, and the occasional lumbering slipper lobster, resembling some miniature Roman war machine, and making heavy going of the rock-strewn floor. We rise through a refreshing freshwater lens and into an air space and a beam of torchlight that reveals a broad cavern, complete with stalactites. Pietro expresses the opinion that this is the best dive the centre has to offer. Scopello nearly missed World War Two entirely. However, during the summer of 1943 an Italian merchant ship, the Capua, was headed for Tripoli with a cargo of weapons intended for the Italian troops in North Africa. No-one knows what really happened, but the official story is that the crew spotted a British submarine in the area and opted to set fire to the vessel themselves rather than be torpedoed. The captain and crew were rescued by the locals and there are still some today with hazy and differing memories of what happened. Suffice to say that most of the cargo was carried ashore before the vessel was sunk by a mysterious explosion. Nobody admits to knowing what happened to the cargo after that. The wreck lies a few hundred metres from the shore at a depth of 40m to the keel. It is largely intact and standing upright, although its decks have collapsed in places, revealing holds with ammo boxes still visible. Damselfish crowd the open water and moray eels skulk in the dark places. Vittorio escorts me around the engine room. An aft-mounted gun lies tumbled to the sandy seabed.
If it's more prolific marine life that you're after, you need to go to Ustica, a tiny island about 90 minutes by fast hydrofoil north of Palermo. It's a tiny blob of lava that previously housed a small community, making a precarious living from fishing, on its rocky slopes. Ustica is rustic. It's a tough climb up from the inauspicious harbour, by way of a long staircase, to the town square with its typical church. The whole place is built on a steep slope Ð drinks served at the tables in its several streetside cafes are in constant danger of falling over. This is no place for ball games. In fact the local shop and cafe-owners all seem surprised to see any visitors at all, let alone those demanding meals and drinks. For such a tiny place, with so few roads and no place to drive to, and served only by ferry, it is remarkably congested with cars. The rather smart Grotta Azurra hotel commands spectacular views from its clifftop position and enjoys a labyrinth of terraces that lead down past swimming pool and natural solarium to the water's edge, and the entrance to the blue grotto itself. Local boatmen offer to row you inside. Although not an obviously child-friendly location, due to its position and absence of any sandy beach, the hotel is frequented by young Italian families on vacation. Today, much of the coastline of Ustica hosts a marine reserve and the harbour seems almost dedicated to the numerous assorted small vessels used by the scuba-diving centres. The diving itself is blighted only by enthusiastic over-selling by the dive guides. It's good, but it's not that good! I go out to sea in the old converted fishing boat used by Sergio and his cohorts at the Alta Marea dive centre. Every trip is a sociable occasion, and there's a lot of laughter. I dive with Marco, Sergio and Franco over the course of a few days. Franco and I do not have any language in common but that doesn't matter once we're under water. At one notable site, a scoglio or rocky pinnacle that forms an islet called Doctor's Rock, I was pleased to see bright sponge-encrusted boulders and hordes of Mediterranean grouper swimming in formation in open water.They never come close enough to photograph properly, however. There is a passage that runs right through the middle of Doctor's Rock. It's about 25m wide and, at 20m deep and 70m long, presents no particular hazards to a sensible diver. Outside its exit, Mediterranean barracuda swarm where gentle currents are induced by the topography, and a couple of huge amberjacks cruise by, magnificently close. There are canyons and arches, too, so this site will satisfy with a series of dives without ever becoming dull. At another submerged sea-mount called La Colombara, we saw more groupers, and more of that brightly coloured gorgonian in shades of purple and red, down at cooler depths. Further dives revealed hermit crabs loaded with cloak anemones, lobsters, groups of elegant corb hiding in small caves, and the inevitable moray eels, together with the Turkish and rainbow wrasse that always provide entertainment during Mediterranean safety stops. The Italians tend to do one dive in the morning followed by another in the afternoon. They provide 15 litre steel tanks pumped well beyond 200 bar, so you have the option of making these dives as long as you like. However, that does provide for a lot of time spent exploring between dives and getting to know every single one of the simple restaurants and bars Ustica has to offer.
the dive boat in Ustica
a hermit crab with cloak anemones
the tonnara at Scopello
Views of Ustica - exploring Doctor's Rock
the Capua wreck
and the island itself
Inside the Capua
sponges in the entrance to Ficarella Cave in Scopello
the cracks on Doctor's Rock are full of lobsters
GETTING THERE Fly via Milan or Rome to Palermo. Take the hydrofoil to Ustica. DIVING & ACCOMMODATION:John Bantin stayed at the Grotta Azurra Hotel in Ustica, diving with the Alta Marea Diving Centre. In Scopello, his villa was provided by Mediterranean Villa Holidays and he dived with Cetaria Diving Centre. The tour representative in Sicily was Crilu Travel and the trip was organised by Crusader Travel (020 8744 0474). WHEN TO GO: May to October. The water isn't that warm on the deeper dives, and a good 7mm semi-dry with hood is ideal wear even in summer. LANGUAGE: Italian COST:Crusader can offer a package to Scopello, including flight, accommodation in self-catering apartments and hire-car, for£415. Adding on another week in Ustica, staying in B&B accommodation and the hydrofoil transfer, but with no car in the second week, would cost£707. An 11-dive package is£195. NON-DIVING ACTIVITIES: Walking, sun-bathing, culture. FURTHER INFORMATION: Italian State Tourist Board, 020 7408 1254, www.enit.it