Sicily has the world’s best preserved Greek temple, a Punic warship, 50 rooms of Roman mosaic floors, entire Baroque cities, Norman fortifications, Romanesque sculpture, unexpected views of fortified hill-top villages, and a radiant and colorful countryside. It also has blue waters, bluer skies and a long and turbulent history.
Struggling with guidebooks and history books to prepare for this trip, I found the story of this island smaller than the state of Maryland incredible. The number of conquerors and colonizers, of invasions, wars and natural disasters, which have left their mark, is almost unthinkable and certainly hard to remember.
There are clear evidences of pre-historic settlements on this small Mediterranean island. Sikels, Sicans, Elymians and Carthaginians were here early. The Greeks came in the 5th century B.C. and were in time replaced by Romans. At the start of the Middle Ages, Romans were replaced by Vandals and Ostrogoths, who were then swept away by Byzantines and then Arabs; all of this before the 11th-century, when the Normans took over. The 13th century saw Swabian rule, followed quickly by French. Then followed more than 400 years of Spanish rule. The island was then caught up in the dynastic struggles of the French, Spanish, British and Austrians until 1860, when Garibaldi came to Sicily and launched his drive for the unification of Italy.
Today, Sicily is a semi-autonomous part of Italy with limited legislative powers, its own president and parliament, and four United Nations World Heritage Sites.
Too often Sicily is an afterthought to Italy. There is more than enough here to make it a separate destination. Here are my highlights of 10 days on this wondrous island.
Sagesta
On a hilltop in the countryside, the 36 stately yellow-ochre columns of the Temple of Sagesta come gradually into view. It stands alone in its landscape. Not circled by its own ruins, not surrounded by remnants of other archeological discoveries or by nearby cities or towns, there is nothing to distract from its majesty. Imposing in its Doric simplicity, awe-inspiring in its size and completeness, this is one of the most perfectly preserved monuments of ancient times.
The temple is open to the sky and to the world. I climb the crumbly steps and feel as if I am entering the sacred precincts. Massive columns encase me. History and myth and quiet dignity surround me as I stand inside this perfect Doric temple.
Villa Romana
Del Casale
It’s perhaps immoral to thank the gods for natural disasters, but I do my obeisance to the 12th-century mud slide which buried this Roman palazzo. I hope no one was killed.
Built early in the 4th century B.C., and not unearthed until the 1950’s, 700 years of mud have preserved rooms of mosaics unsurpassed for their quality and extent. The UNESCO World Heritage List calls them “the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world.”
Perhaps most impressive are the great hunting scenes, vibrant with energy and action, showing armed and shield-bearing hunters embroiled with an array of exotic and ferocious beasts. Here, a spotted leopard, tail curved and waving, sinks its jaws into an antelope frightened into rearing onto two legs; elsewhere a hunter, his bleeding comrade at his feet, plunges a spear into an enraged wild boar.
There are also pictures of the more peaceful side of life for the Roman upper class. In Room of the Ten Girls, two rows of young women are in a gymnasium. Dressed in bikini-like two-piece garments, one throws a discus, another lifts weights while others are running or playing ball-games.
Narrative clarity and realism also mark depictions of special occasions. A chariot race at the Circus Maximus shows rigid faced and tense drivers dressed in tunics of green, white, blue and red. Their horses, with muscles straining and feet pounding, await the end scene where a boy blows his horn to signal the finish of the race.
Caltagirone
Not far from the Villa Romana lies the small city of Caltigerone, where the 142 steps of the Scala dei Santa Maria del Monte may not be the stairway to heaven, but are a heavenly stairway for lovers of Sicilian pottery. The stairway was first constructed in 1606 to connect the old town on top with the “new” one below.
In the 1950s this city – a ceramic center since Roman times – decided to proclaim its pottery heritage in an extraordinary way: It embedded ceramic tiles in each of the stairs’ 142 vertical panels. Each panel is different.
Responding to all the phases of Sicilian history, ceramicists borrowed from the Spanish, the Moorish, the Norman and the Baroque and then added modern touches. Swirling green spirals lead my eyes up; bright red and yellow curves and arabesques hold my attention. I look at geometric patterns and floral designs, exotic animals and historic personages and wonder at the extent of human imagination.
Impressed with the staircase, I go shopping. Caltagirone may not be the pottery capital of the world, or even of Italy, but I treat it as if it is. Ignoring museums, churches and palaces, I go from pottery shop to pottery shop.
Flowers in bright primary colors and sophisticated geometric patterns decorate platters and vases and bowls large enough to hold pasta for 50. Deer, elephant, fish, and mythological creatures swing and sway across the high-gloss of tiles and mugs, pitchers and plates. Choices are difficult when shopping in Caltagirone.
Agrigento
Superlatives have been chasing me all over Sicily and find me again in the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento. There is a sense of calm and strength as I look at the Temple of Concordia, best preserved of the temples at this site. Standing like a crown atop this hillside, its giant fluted columns recall the tree trunks of earlier temples. The majesty of the building talks of the sophistication of architects who refined what they saw in nature, who perfectly enclosed space, who tapered those columns to make them appear taller.
First settled in the 6th century B.C., Agrigento’s tumultuous history includes having been conquered and/or destroyed by Carthaginians, Romans (twice), Saracens and Normans, as well as the earthquakes which periodically devastate Sicily. In the 5th century, at the height of its power and wealth, 21 temples stood on this hill, and Pindar called it “…the most beautiful city the mortals had ever built.” Twenty-five hundred years later, Henry James called it “Athens with improvements.” In 1997 the Valley of the Temples was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Today, the four excavated temples stand in a vast archeological park which includes a Greek theater which seated 7,000 and a Roman theater designed for 16,000. The park and its temples and ruins look down on a bustling city of narrow medieval lanes, baroque churches and shops selling Fendi handbags and Swatch watches. In the sharp sunlight of day or under the golden illumination of nighttime spotlights, the 55,000 people who live here can look up at their past.
Meals
Eggplants, tomatoes, olives, cheese, onions, squash, garlic, olive-oil, anchovies, sardines — how many ways the Sicilians have found to combine them and tantalize us. They have brought the art of the antipasto to Olympian heights. At lunch in one small family-owned restaurant near Piazza Armerina, I counted 29 different dishes.
In Sicily, not just monuments have been given formal international recognition: The local bread in the area around Selinute is considered a protected resource by the European Union because of the unusual way it utilizes the entire grain of wheat. We sample it (well, eat several pieces) at Yoyo, an informal restaurant overlooking the seacoast where we indulge in a $7.50 all-you-can-eat antipasto lunch. I don’t know the names of most of the dishes, but I am certainly enjoying this meal. As we finish, cooks and servers come out to be introduced to the visiting Americans, and the restaurant owner presents us each with a large freshly picked orange.
At the Don Camillo restaurant near the old Jewish Quarter of Siracusa, the bread basket is irresistible. There are small rolls, crunchy on the outside and delicate on the inside, sesame-sprinkled breadsticks thin as a stick of spaghetti, and a round pastry-looking tempter made of wound-up strips of pizza dough lightly sprinkled with olive oil, tomatoes and onions. I follow the bread with the meal: eggplant pancakes, a savory eggplant and tomato mixture inside a roll of cheese. It looks like a blintz, but tastes like the essence of Sicilian cooking. My carrot salad has sweet carrots shredded so thin and long I twirl them on my fork like spaghetti.
And then there is the pastry. I look in awe (and longing) at thedisplayof pastries,marzipan,cakes and cookies in Sicily’s most famous pastry shop. I am in Erice, a small medieval town almost 2,500 feet up a mountain, being greeted and tempted by Maria Grammitico, the shop’s internationally recognized owner. Maria grew up in an orphanage run by nuns, from whom she learned many secrets of traditional Sicilian baking. I am relieved to see that some of the pastries come in mini size, allowing me to indulge in a wickedly rich cannoli redolent with vanilla and candied fruits as well as a sfognadella, whose delicate crumbly pastry covers a magically sweet and creamy ricotta cheese filling.
Siracusa
Serendipitous discoveries are the delight of Siracusa, particularly on the island of Ortega, its most ancient part. From my window in the Hotel Gran Bretagne, I see cats sunning themselves on the remains of ancient Greek ruins. Remnants of a smoothly finished 14th-century Spanish city wall lie beneath the glass floor of the hotel’s salon and two auburn-haired peasant girls with angel wings and baskets of flowers float on the frescoed ceiling of our bedroom. Walking on an upscale shopping street with stores displaying Gap underwear and Burbury plaid shirts, an ancient stone-arched portico seems comfortable in its surroundings. Elsewhere on the narrow streets of this very old city, I see extravagantly decorated baroque churches, cafes and stores lined up on bicycle-wide alleyways with unexpected views of a radiant blue seacoast.
Baroque churches are glorious and open reminders of the Spanish conquest of Sicily. But the Spanish heritage is not all positive. Hidden from view in Siracusa is one of the few physical reminders that 50,000 Jewish people lived in Sicily in the Middle Ages, and were forced into exile by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. There is no Jewish community in Siracusa today.
Fifty-two feet down, almost 10 feet below sea level, are the remains of the largest Jewish ritual bath (Mikva) of ancient Europe. Built in the 1st century A.D., when Romans occupied Siracusa and there were thousands of Jews in the city, the size of this ritual bath prompts historians to think it must have been a public bath for the Jewish people.
The bath, discovered only 15 years ago during renovations to the building, is below the Alla Giudecca Residence Hotel. It is open to the public by appointment only. (They need to drain the water so you can walk down the fifty-two feet of stone steps.)
There is much more to see in Sicily. In the capital city of Palermo, there are side streets so narrow if you blink you will walk past them; in small cities and little towns there are sturdy, square Norman fortifications and the undulating facades of Baroque churches. There are large, world-class archeological museums and small folk-art museums. There are friendly people and food which constantly tempts you to taste more.
Sicily is an island of views. There is the countryside, alive in March with bright yellow wild-flowers bordering emerald fields of early wheat. There are vineyards with dry vines twisted into shapes only imagined by the brothers Grimm. There are crescent shaped beaches bordering the blue Mediterranean and walled towns clinging perilously to distant hilltops. There are fields with hundreds of olive trees and thousands of shiny ripe oranges and lemons. And above it all looms snow-topped Mount Etna, whose formidable majesty and fearful history will always be identified with Sicily.
Traveling in
Difficult Times
We start our trip on March 16, 2003; four days later, the war against Iraq begins. During the day, I listen to tales of ancient battles. At night, I listen to CNN. Rainbow-hued banners with PACE in big white block letters hang from balconies and students and trade-unionists stage protest marches. Deserted hotel lobbies and empty restaurants remind us that many have cancelled travel plans due to fear and economic uncertainty. The world impinges on my trip but does not make it any less wonderful. I have no sense of fear, experience no anti-American attitudes, and feel perfectly safe and relaxed wherever I go.
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