What was I expecting from Sicily? Eruptions (Etna has been active for 3500 years and is the largest volcano in Europe), the Mafia (though not necessarily toting machine guns in violin cases) and huge lemons. But other sources tell me that Sicily has much more to live up to. Gregor Clark, writes effusively and typically: ‘I still find Sicily one of the world's most captivating places’. Or Lonely Planet: ‘Eternal crossroads of the Mediterranean, the gorgeous island of Sicily continues to seduce travellers with its dazzling diversity of landscapes and cultural treasures…… The land of the Cyclops has been praised by poets from Homer to Virgil and prized by the many ancient cultures…’
I've travelled from Albania, across Italy via Rimini and Bologna. to Sicily. I have learned that Sicily is the largest Mediterranean island, much bigger than I expected. So is Palermo the capital, which has a population of one million. After touring Palermo, I have also discovered that Sicily has an extraordinarily complicated history, with countless invasions: the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Goths, the Arabs, the Normans, the Byzantines. It all leads to an incredible architectural feast, and some exotic food.
Palermo has a faded beauty. The sunshine adds charm to the peeling facades, wrought iron balconies and chipped stone. Here too, you stumble on a surprise round every corner, a fountain, a statue, some Arab style domes atop a hall or church. A cupola peeks over the roofs on every street, but these are colourful mosaic. This is beyond diversity – a splendid mish mash: a classical facade with ornate statues sits in front of a plain brick faced wall, or else nothing. A banner strewn museum. A palazzo, adjacent to a crumbling heap. My bed and breakfast (though they won’t give me breakfast as it wasn’t included in my deal apparently) is on the top floor of a riyadh style apartment building, built round a courtyard. It’s very atmospheric, and in keeping, with flaking frescoes up the many stairs. A lift would be nice.
The Historical Centre of Palermo (Centro Storico) is defintely storico. There's a towering 12th-century cathedral and the Church of San Cataldo, topped with three red domes, an ancient Royal Palace and a plethora of museums. Not to mention the street markets.
The crenellated royal palace (Norman Palace) is the epitome of Moorishness from the front, swathed in palm trees. At the back there are Norman arches, This building incorporates an early al-Qasr (in Arabic, castle or palace), believed to date to the 9th century and the Emir of Palermo, so it's oldest royal residence in Europe;. It was the seat of the Kings of Sicily and served afterwards as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily. Since 1946 it's been used by the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
Inside, the Cappella Palatina is a feast of Byzantine mosaic - and a throng of people. Upstairs you can tour the royal apartments. The most exciting feature is a room with paintings of all the past presidents. And, as parliament does not sit on a Monday, I also get to visit the debating chamber.
I’m proud that I’ve been able to follow my map (lots of little windy streets) and find the famous street markets in Palermo. As advertised, they're very colourful. The Arab influence is very evident, in the souk like narrow streets and vibrant displays. There’s a huge variety of polished fruit vegetables and other food, including tubs of plump olives and crawling striped snails.
Each area of Palermo has its own special shopping district. The Mercato della Vucciria is both shabby and fascinating. The Mercato del Ballarò, close to the Royal Palace, is the busiest market and where I spend most of my time. The stalls snake across several piazzas and then peter out into flea markets and more streets, which are strewn with clothes and debris. I’m not sure if these are for sale or not and it’s beyond seedy. I’m still feeling vulnerable after having my purse stolen, on the last section of my journey in Rimini, so I motor on through.
The Mercato di Capo is possibly the most atmospheric. This is where bloody sides of meat swing and huge fish glisten. There's even an antiques market I'm told, if you hunt hard enough.
It’s hot work trekking and admiring (another eight miles in Palermo today) and trying to resist all the street food and gelateria. I’ve already succumbed to the largest arancini (stuffed fried rice ball) you ever saw. I’ve been told that Mondello Beach, seven miles out of town, is gorgeous, so I decide to make my way there. That’s easier said than done. What would I do without Google, complete with excruciating pronunciation, to bail me out?
Three buses later (one in the wrong direction) I arrive to discover a pretty enough bay, but it’s absolutely heaving with people - and the odd pedalo. You can hardly see the much lauded clear blue water. One section that is visible is an unattractive algae green shade and there’s a very incongruous Arab style pavilion on a pier. I rent a sunbed (he won’t give me a reduction even though it’s now four o’clock) and join the melee. It’s very comfortable with the sea breeze. I wasn’t accorded an umbrella, which is probably just as well when I recall past escapades.
A pleasant day is rounded off with a fish supper down by the port – and Sicilian cassata. The fish is okay and the ice cream scrummy. There’s a couple sitting in the table in front of me who haven’t spoken to each other their entire meal. They speak directly to the waiter and pointedly ignore each other. He is drinking vast quantities of beer and she is engaged with her mobile phone. I wonder what they argued about?
Today, I’m a traveller, rather than a tourist again, and the morning sees me taking a train across Sicily to Siracusa. I weighed up the options and read that the driving was mad, the roads narrow and the traffic horrendous. I have to change in Catania, Sicily's industrial heart, – if I get there. Someone is playing that amusing game of change the platform and only announce the alteration in a language that none of the intending passengers understand. When we all eventually embark at the correct spot the train tries to leave several times. The driver keeps hurtling out of his cabin and shouting at his colleagues down the carriage. We progress 50 metres up the platform stopping and starting before there is some kind of Latin expletive and we finally depart.
It’s a pretty, rather than dramatic, journey, much more comfortable than my mainland adventure. We hug the coast for a while and then roll along though a yellow sun-baked landscape, gently sloping hayfields, bales rolled and ready and clumps of silver tinged olive trees. Small stone towers dot the hilltops. As we progress, the hills increase in size and the stone towers become little walled towns or castles, frustratingly obscured by blurs of trees or lofty prickly pear hedges. Nearing the east coast the fields flatten again and there are the classic cypresses framing the view. Looming in the background, one single peak, hazy and indistinct, but Etna, nevertheless.
Sardinia, Rimini, Bologna, Sicily – Italy has seen a resurgence of interest on my part this year. It’s an incredible country, the architecture is arguably the most beautiful in the world. I’m still coming to terms with the modern Italians, however. I’m trying hard to stay open minded but they seem to me an arrogant, loud and superficial people. Elegantly turned out, coiffured and made up yes. To be fair, people performing their jobs, receptionist, shopkeepers, drivers, are courteous and helpful, even going an extra mile to help me know what to do within the confines of their role.
But out on the street it’s a different matter. No-one was remotely interested in helping me when I lost my purse. Most have no conception of queuing or any respect for anyone else’s needs for space or quiet, let alone aid. They might have invented simpatico but it’s not in evidence. It’s a very marked contrast with the very socially aware Japanese. (Unless the Japanese are taking photos, of course, when it’s an entirely different story.) On the train even the middle aged passengers keep trying out their ring tones and play videos on their phones loud enough for everyone, at the other end of the train, to hear.
We arrive on time - my train journey has been going too well. I scan the departure boards, but see no mention of a connection to Siracusa. I finally track down a rail employee who gesticulates that I should go outside. The train has become a bus. I’m sure there’s a good explanation.
The bus journey takes an hour longer than the train time I was given (it's just like Southern Rail), as we have to keep looping off the autostrada to drop people off at the stations. It seems that this route has been cancelled for the whole summer. There’s no evidence of anyone working on it - though a couple of JCBs and some concrete slabs are parked up by one station.
I think I’ve chosen well for my hotel this time. It’s right on the edge of Ortygia Island, the oldest part of Siracusa, which goes back even farther than Palermo and has Corinthian origins. My room is huge and well-tended and I have a sea view (through the flags waving along the hotel parapet). Though the water is yellowish and there are whiffs of hydrogen sulphide when I turn on the taps. I was expecting volcanic associations and I have them.
Ortygia Island has mythological status. This is where the goddess Leto gave birth to Artemis.(Artemis amazingly, then helped Leto across the sea to Delos, where Leto gave birth to her twin, Apollo). Ortygia was also the mythological home of Arethusa, a chaste nymph who, while fleeing a river god, was transformed by Artemis into a spring, traversed underground and appeared here, thus providing water for the city.
I’m so exhausted after the heat and travelling that I fall asleep when I arrive. But then hunger calls and I venture out to explore the island. I’m totally blasé now about Greek ruins, marble fountains and astounding cathedrals. Ortygia is slightly different in that it is a charmingly atmospheric rabbit warren of winding small streets leading to the sea on each side. There are two main thoroughfares lined with churches and bijou shops and dotted with ancient relics. And a cathedral of course. It was built by in the seventh century , superimposed on the (5th century BC) Temple of Athena.
There's also a thirteenth century castello at the end, with the best view, guarding the harbour. The Maniace Castle is enjoyed by the public for its 13th century architecture and baroque style restoration. Standing on the tip of the island of Ortigia, the Maniace Castle has a varied history. It was first a royal residence, and then (under Ferdinand II of Aragon) a horrible prison. During the Napoleonic Wars, it was equipped with cannons due to its strategic location and then, in 1860 it was conquered by Giuseppe Garibaldi. But the whole island is like one mini fortress. Plenty of fancy little restaurants line the walls, monopolizing the best sea views.
I’ve also learned that it’s true that all roads lead to Rome. The main street in most towns seems to be called the Via Roma. This one ends in another colourful street market.
A very overpriced meal in a waterfront restaurant (six euros for a plate of chopped up iceberg lettuce that is called a green salad). I’m having real difficulty finding decent food in Italy. And – what are the chances – when there must be about a thousand restaurants in Siracusa and Palermo - the same couple are sitting in front of me eating. They must have made up - they are speaking today.
Now I’m back to being a tourist. Well sort of. It’s not at all easy navigating – there is very little to help tourists find their way. Most people have cars or are on coach tours or cruise trips, with attached guides. There are numerous stands offering boat trips, but very little else.
According to some historians, Syracuse (or Siracusa in Sicilian) was the largest city in the ancient world for some time, a powerful city state, as eminent as Athens. It dates back 2,700 years and was the birthplace of Archimedes. Later, under Emperor Constans II, it served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire (663–669). So it's no surprise that the city is notable for its rich Greek and Roman history and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The Neapolis Archaeological Park, is at the other end of Siracusa, off the island, but I feel it has to be seen. There are two amphitheatres, one Greek and one Roman and a hippodrome. Is it cultural sacrilege to feel a loss of enthusiasm for Roman ruins after you’ve seen them in a variety of settings? The powers that be have elected to spoil the Greek theatre by covering all the ancient stone seats with wooden planking, so they can perform modern day concerts. The most enjoyable part of the park is a grotto area pretty with oleanders, an old stack and Dionysus’s Ear - a large pixie pinna shaped cave, which echoes.
The temperature has soared past forty degrees in the shade today, while I’ve walked seven miles, half of it uphill. I’ve consumed two Sicilian ice granitas, a coca cola and five bottles of mineral water. Mad dogs and Englishmen indeed.
Back to the bridge over the island and a boat trip with a cool breeze is a welcome relief. I get to share the vessel with a family of seven Israelis. We sail under the Umbertino Bridge (it's high tide and we have to duck) round the island and out to some caves. The tourist patter goes that they are Capuchin Cave, the Coral cave, the Stalactite Cave, and the Heart-shaped Cave of Love. We aslo stop by to see the Arethusa Spring. I take photos of the castle and domes of the island from the water and then the caves. The family take pictures of each other.
And at last I’ve eaten a decent meal, at a price, in a small courtyard restaurant tucked off the main street. Divine prawns and sea bass with two caiprinhas for 68 euros.
Never say die. Its 42 degrees today and even the Italians are calling this a heatwave, but am I on the beach? No, I’m in a car with Joseph and his daughter Stephanie from Malta, visiting the three UNESCO towns of Sicily: Ragusa, Modica and Noto. They are supposedly the epitome of amazing Baroque architecture, with Noto touted as the most beautiful Baroque town in the world. So it’s not to be missed.
All three cities are UNESCO listed and were rebuilt, in the Sicilian Baroque style, after they were virtually razed by an earthquake in 1693. The quake was the most powerful in Italian recorded history, caused several tsunamis and killed over half the population of Noto.
I am pleased to say the trip is worth it, though it is utterly exhausting in the broiling heat. Noto, with its limestone churches, palaces and carved balconies, all newly scrubbed up and honey coloured is dazzling. It was rebuilt on the banks of the River Asinaro. The cathedral (top of the post) is reconstructed 18th-century, but there are also palaces: the Palazzo Ducezio, now the town hall, with its suitably gilded Hall of Mirrors and the Palazzo Nicolaci with its uniquely ornate balconies. There's even a mock triumphal arch, the 19th-century Porta Reale, marking the entrance to the city.
The old Noto was actually five miles north and had a venerable history. In the sixteenth century it was so well known as a cultural centre, that it attracted hordes of artists and scientists and was dubbed 'The Ingenious City' by Ferdinand III.
We all prefer the character of Ragusa, sprawling over two hills with a tiny blue domed church at the bottom. The views across to the town are stunning. The city is divided into two distinct areas, the lower and older town of Ragusa Ibla, and the higher Ragusa Superiore (Upper Town). In-between is the Valle dei Ponti, a deep ravine crossed by four bridges. The upper town has the obligatory cathedral, dedicated to St John the Baptist. It sounds much more impressive in Italian: San Giovanni Battista. Ragusa Ibla (once you've staggered down the steep slopes and steps) is home to palaces, gardens and a plethora of churches. The one with the blue dome is Santa Maria dell 'Itria: built by the Knights of Malta. One church is called, appropriately, Santa Maria delle Scale (Saint Mary of the Steps). The cathedral here (yes, there's another one), has 250 steps.
Ragusa is more recently (well, relatively) famous, for its opposition to the policies of Mussolini. The town was said to have welcomed the 'liberating' American and British forces 'with unbridled enthusiasm'.
Modica, in-between, though it has a lovely cathedral too, seems to be more famous for its chocolate, which doesn’t melt, as it has no cocoa fat. (And in my opinion, therefore no point.) There's even a chocolate museum.
An economy supper tonight - fish and chips on the street. In Sicily, this is a brown paper cone of fried squid, sardines, anchovies and a prawn with a separate cone of chips for 10 euros. As I’ve said before, Italy is not cheap.
An early start today, partly to try and beat the heat and partly because I'm now travelling north along the east coast of Sicily, back through Catania. I haven’t a clue how long this bus replacement to Catania is going to take, or how I’m going to get to my hotel on the slopes of Etna.
I go into a bar to use the toilet while I’m waiting for the bus, but the bartenders won’t let me in. They direct me instead to the station, which is closed. There’s a toilet on the platform, but you need a token to access it, which you have to buy from the station. The bus driver tries to help. At the next closed-down station he directs me to another bar. He asks an Italian woman to go with me to explain and make sure they allow me to use it. She refuses. My opinion of Italians isn’t improving.
The traffic round Catania is superlatively awful (I’m so glad I’m not driving) and I miss my onward train by two minutes. But I’ve managed to phone the hotel and they are going to meet me at Fiumifreddo. Great name - I think it means 'cold river.'
Mount Etna, a UNESCO heritage site in its own right, has reappeared as a massive, but still indistinct backdrop on the left, behind Catania. It's the highest mountain in Italy, south of the Alps. According to Wikipedia it's 3,357 metres tall, but apparently its height changes every time it erupts, which is often. It's the most active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. I shall be approaching it with trepidation.
To the right, the sparkling Ionian Sea, with red roofed villages littering the coast. Apparently no-one comes to stay in my hotel in remote Linguaglossa on the slopes of Etna, unless they have a car. The hotel takes pity and offers me a driver for a couple of hours to get me closer to the summit, after I have rebutted their suggestion of an afternoon by the piscina in the town.
It’s a long and winding road with views across to the sea and great clumps of broom in flower. Much is made of the 2002 eruption when lava flows scarred the volcano and threatened Linguaglossa (they prayed to St Agno). The molten rock still took out four hotels and a parking and leisure area. There are a few small wooden cabins now selling drinks and souvenirs. A young lady (I must be getting old writing that), at an information point, says I can go for a guided walk to the crater if I like, in ten minutes. No, in half an hour. Well an hour.
An hour and fifteen minutes later I set off with a guide and a Dutch couple. Not to the summit I hasten to add, which is a long way at 3300 metres. It’s too dangerous. It’s emitting sulphurous fumes all the time, which is why it’s so indistinct. And the wind is very strong today. We’re going to the secondary craters, made in the 2002 eruption, which are a 300 metre vertical scramble. It’s advertised as a four kilometre two hour walk, suitable for anyone in reasonable health. I’ve seen this kind of description before.
As usual, it turns into an assault course up and down lava slopes, through sluggish black sand and along precipitous knife edge ridges where the wind threatens to blow us over. But the guide is good and so are the views and look how fit I am getting. Especially, as we are out for an additional hour and walk five miles. It’s a text book study in volcanic activity, lava galore, pumice, basalt, fumaroles, cannon holes, intrusions and extrusions, secondary cones, secondary craters and fields of volcanic bombs.
Sicily - one of the most captivating places in the world? Mmmm it has much to offer, but like its people it seems to have lost its soul at times. Perhaps the quiet of the energy sapping heat detracts? Despite this, Italy overall must be a much stronger contender for top five countries in the world than Albania. My specific expectations? I haven’t seen anyone that looks as if they are from the Cosa Nostra. Though how would I know? I have seen some tower blocks interrupting the most beautiful of vistas. This could only have been allowed under the strongest of persuasion. Etna is imposing, instructive and elusive rather than thrilling, and the lemons are disappointingly small and battered. I suppose size isn’t everything…..
Read more about Italy here.
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