Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Exploring 2500 years of Sicily

Sicily is magical. Ancient history, glorious art, beautiful countryside and marvelous food and wine. My Christmas present from Bret this year was he was willing to go to Sicily with me without his kiting gear - and for those of you who know him this is a big give! So we set out, guidebooks in hand, and explored...

I got started with an overview of Sicilian history through the book Sicily by John Julius Norwich. This book walks through 3,000 years and is an expression of the author's long standing love affair with the island. It gives a rich backdrop to help you understand what you are seeing every day.

Your can see our route here.

Magical Mosaics

The Normans ruled Sicily for a hundred years through most of the 12th century, and left behind the most glorious byzantine mosaics. A visit to Monreale Cathedral and the Capella Palentina, both built by Roger II, are a must for any art lover. It's easy to wander around Palermo following in the Norman's footsteps through churches, cathedrals and the great Norman palace. Then move forward a hundred years to the time of Frederick II (stupor mundi- the wonder of the world) and think about his extraordinary achievements while standing by his porphyry tomb. The Normans and Frederick II were rich, cultured, religiously tolerant and clearly had an eye for beauty and visual story telling.

Gold, angels, old and new testament stories on every surface

Artists from Egypt decorated the chambers of Roger II and Frederick II

Is it a mosque, is it a church, or is it now a Victorian garden?

But the Romans also developed Sicily and one of the best preserved Roman villa floors in the world is in the middle of Eastern Sicily at Piazza Armerina - the Roman Villa Casale. Built in the early 4th century, every room has gorgeous, complex, well preserved mosaics on the floors. Hunting scenes, lovers, athletes, children's whimsical playtime, it's overwhelming. Forgotten for many years, it is now a Unesco site, and while off the beaten path well worth the effort to get there.

The lovers on the floor of the master bedroom

Greek Temples

Ah the riches! Segesta, Selinute, Agrigento - each captured our imagination as we walked through reconstructed temples and climbed over the remains of even bigger fallen temples. The Greeks started building in Sicily by 750 BC and built vast cities warring with each other. But while the temples were abandoned by ~200BC the sites were not, so in each case you can visit for an hour or two - or for a day - depending on your taste. Speaking of taste, when an old man hands you a flyer inviting you to his restaurant which is 5 km down a dirt track from the site accept the invitation. One of our best meals was at a farmhouse surrounded by goats with no menu, where no one spoke English but everything was made by the old man's wife. Yum.

Agrigento - jaw dropping

All these ruined temples are very atmospheric, but the best is not a temple, it is the Duomo in Syracuse. While masquerading as a duomo now, it is actually a Greek temple where the gaps between the columns have simply been filled in with tufa blocks. The inner and outer colonnades are in place and the columns are exposed so as you walk through you feel you are actually still inside a pagan temple but it has a thin veneer of monotheism on top.

Is it a church, or a temple with a thin veneer?

Of course because there were Greeks there are also Greek theaters. From the small one at the hilltop in Segesta to the huge one in Syracuse to the panoramic one in Taormina. Every one has to be explored.

Syracuse theatre, site of many opening nights 2000 years ago


Sicily is a perfect climate for citrus. And the south east corner is the best - miles and miles and miles of lemons, oranges, grapefruits and hundreds of varieties.

At the Marchesi di San Giuliano they have been making marmalade for 20 years all organically, only from fruit on their land. Everything is cut by hand, everything is prepared, cooked and bottled by hand. We requested a marmalade tasting in advance and, after getting lost a few times, found ourselves at a small farm where they had rolled out the red carpet. The chief cook hosted us and she had made a lemon marmalade tart, as well as prepared bread, butter and a selection of all their marmalades to try. The whole experience was delicious and amusing, and even more so when I innocently asked "how many people come to taste marmalade a year?" and they answered "You are the first!" We satisfied their curiosity about our strangeness when we told them we are English.

Foggy Erice

Even in late September Sicily is hot. T-shirts, sandals, hats and sunscreen. Except in the small mountaintop village of Erice. Erice is at 2500 feet with sheer cliffs on 3 slides and a defensive wall built by Daedalus. The town is walled in with cobble streets and no room for cars (although of course you don't know that when Google maps says you can drive to your hotel and you break numerous traffic laws figuring out you can't). There is a small Norman castle at the top (of course on the site of an ancient Greek temple) and by mid afternoon we were completely shrouded in fog. On brief breaks in the fog we could see down to the glittering sea, but then we'd be back in the clouds - perfect for a spooky abandoned castle!

Erice castle and the cliff face down to Trapani

There is so much to see in Sicily and there is something for everyone. Expansive white beaches, cocktails on the harbor wall, wine tasting, Caravaggios, museums and easy driving. Everyone we spoke to was friendly and pleased to help us and our fellow travelers were from all over Europe, and rarely from the US. If you have not been, put it on your bucket list!

The view from the ancient Greek theatre in Taormina

I worked with the team at Indagare.com for all reservations - and cannot say enough about this service. Excellence at every turn and they booked us into everything from a 3 star hotel with worn carpets (but still the best hotel in Erice, and the best coffee of the trip), to a 7 room super quiet agritourism hotel in the middle of an orange grove to the 5 star experience of the Villa Athena in Agrigento. All with grace and patience.  

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