has the worlds 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.
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
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.
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
1950s, 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.
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.
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.
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., Agrigentos tumultuous
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.
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 dont 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 Sicilys 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
shops 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.
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 hotels 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.
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.