Southern Italy (Part II)


May 23rd to 29th, 2022

This is the second part of my trip through Southern Italy. After a fantastic week in Naples, Puglia and Calabria, I left Scilla in the morning for my car ferry across the Strait of Messina. The whole process is very easy. It is not necessary, but you can book the ferry online in advance. Ferries leave about every hour from Villa San Giovanni, and it's only a 20 minute crossing to Messina. From there I drove along the east coast, passing under the looming shadow of Mount Etna, for about 2 hours to Syracuse.

Syracuse, located in the south-east of Sicily, is one of the most ancient and historically important cities in Europe. It was first a Greek, then Roman and Byzantine city and one of the major power centers in the Mediterranean. During the 5th century, Syracuse was aligned with Sparta and Corinth and became the site of an important battle between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars. The city is also known as the birthplace of Archimedes. The historical center of the city is located on Ortygia Island, which is connected to the mainland via two bridges. Here is a drone picture I took of Ortygia Island. The large fort at the tip of the island is Catello Maniace, a citadel constructed in the 13th century by Emperor Frederick II.

Most of the buildings on Ortygia Island are from the 17th century constructed in Sicilian Baroque style, A beautiful examples of this style can be seen in the buildings surrounding the crescent shaped main square.

The Cathedral of Syracuse is a fascinating building, as it re-used a 5th century BC Greek Temple, which was converted into a church in the 7th century. The huge Doric columns of the former Temple of Athena are visible as the main feature of the walls of the side naves.

Owing to its historic importance the city was given UNESCO world heritage status in 2005. Outside of Ortygia island, the other main site to see in Syracuse is the Parco Archeologico della Neapoli, located just to the north the modern city center. The park contains the major remains of the Greek and Roman periods of the city, including the two huge Greek and Romans amphitheaters.

One spectacular feature in the archeological park is a cave called Orecchio di Dionisio, or 'Ear of Dionysius' (a name given to it by Caravaggio due to its shape and acoustic effects inside). The cave is entirely man-made. It is hard to fathom the amount of slave labor that would have gone into carving this enormous space out of the lime stone by hand.

The main reason I started my Sicily trip in Syracuse, however, was to meet up with Lara, Gary, my godson Max, and Gary's extended family. Lara had booked a fantastic villa (through The Thinking Traveler) just 20 minutes drive outside of Syracuse, with beautiful gardens and a great pool.

So I spent most of the next 5 days there playing with Max in the pool and on the beach. He was very skeptical of the salty water in the sea initially, until he discovered that you can see fish and crabs in the water.

The Late Baroque Towns of South-Eastern Sicily
In the year 1693 a devastating earthquake struck just off the coast of south-eastern Sicily. It was the strongest earthquake in recorded Italian history. An estimated 60,000 people lost their lives and nearly all of the cities in the region were completely destroyed. As a result there are very few historical buildings from before the earthquake in this region still standing. However, an extensive rebuilding effort was begun shortly afterwards, which lead to all of the towns here being reconstructed in a style known as late Sicilian Baroque. The eight most prominent of these Baroque towns, were awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 2002, under the label of "The Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto".

Probably the most famous of them is Ragusa, whose origins go back more than 3,000 years to the Iron Age Sicel tribe. At various points throughout its history the city was held by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs. Built on a 300 meter high lime stone ridge between two steep valleys, the historical center of Ragusa is a labyrinth of steep and narrow lanes, and is best explored by foot.

The main city square is dominated by the beautiful Ragusa Cathedral, which was built between 1718 and 1778.

Some of the cities were so thoroughly destroyed in the earthquake, that it was decided to abandon them and instead built a completely new version of the city in the new style at a different site. One particularly beautiful example of this is Noto, which is laid out in a perfect grid along a gently sloping hill overlooking the sea.

The entire city of 'new Noto' was built in a homogenous style using this yellowish-orange colored volcanic stone. Noto Cathedral is considered one of the jewels of Sicilian Baroque.

One distinct feature in many of these rebuilt towns are these elaborate balconies, which are decorated with intricate figures and grotesque masks.

Scicli, located south of Ragusa and close to the sea, is one of the smallest of the world heritage towns.  On the right here is the beautiful façade of Chiesa di San Bartolomeo with the ruins of an Arab/Norman castle on the hill above.

The remarkable re-building effort in the early decades of the 17th century required a huge amount of planning, financing and many new innovations in building techniques and urban design. These reconstructed towns, despite being quite homogenous in building style, all have retained their distinct characteristics. Modica is an example where the steep slopes of the hilly terrain were used to beautiful effect, as seen here in the huge and elegant staircase leading up to the cathedral.

Lara, Max and Gary flew back to New York on Saturday, while I had another five days to explore other parts of Sicily. After I dropped them off at the Catania airport, I spent a couple of hours walking around Catania, which is quite a large and bustling city. It is the second largest city in Sicily and considered its commercial and industrial center.

Catania is another one of the eight Baroque towns included in the UNESCO world heritage award. In addition to being destroyed in the earthquake of 1693, Catania came very close to being completely buried under a huge lava flow from Mount Etna only a few years later. However, the city survived and was rebuilt. One of the main sights in the city is the enormous cathedral, with was first built in the 11th century, and reconstructed in the Baroque style after the earthquake.

One of the few structures to survive the earthquake is the 13th century Castello Ursino, which was built for Frederick II, who in addition to Holy Roman Emperor held the title of King of Sicily.

In the afternoon I drove further north to Taormina. The ancient city of Taormina is located on the east coast of Sicily right below Mount Etna. Perched against the mountain side, 250 meters above the Ionian sea, Taormina was already a popular tourist destination in the 19th century, and today is the most visited city in Sicily.

I stayed at the large and beautiful Excelsior Palace Hotel, which is located just outside the Porta Catania, the 15th century city gate, with spectacular views of Mount Etna. The Porta Catania marks the southern end of the Corso Umberto, which is the main thoroughfare through the old city. Today it is a pedestrian street full of fancy restaurants, gelaterias, bars and gift shops. This photo of the Corso Umberto was taken very early in the morning, before it was packed with day tourists.

The Piazza IX Aprile, is the main city square, which was named after April 9th, 1860, which was the day that Giuseppe Garibaldi was reported to have started his campaign to conquer Sicily, which would eventually incorporate it into the United Kingdom of Italy. Turns out, however, that the date was wrong, and Garibaldi didn't actually land on Sicily until one month later, but the citizens of Taormina decided to keep the name of the piazza anyway.

Right above Taormina looms the dramatic setting of the village of Castelmola, which can be reached by bus or along a steep trail on foot.

Taormina was the the first Greek colony in Sicily established in 734 BC. It was later taken over by the Romans and many other successive rulers. The main site from the Greek/Roman period is the incredible Ancient Theatre of Taormina. Built right near the cliff edge with a view across the coast of the Strait of Messina with smoking Mount Etna in the background, this is probably the most famous and iconic image of Sicily.

Most of the remaining structures are brick, which means they are probably of Roman origin and were built on top the much older Greek theatre. The stage is still used for performances today.

Only visible at night, there is a large lava flow coming off the mountain. At a height of 3,357 meters, Mount Etna is the largest volcano in Europe and one of the most active on earth.

After spending one night in Taormina, I drove two and a half hours to Sicily's southern coast and the city of Agrigento.

Agrigento once was one of the largest and most important cities in Ancient Greece, with a population of probably more than two hundred thousand people living here in the 4th and 5th century BC. The main remnants of the city's Greek past are lined up along a ridge in the so-called Valley of the Temples, which became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997.

The best preserved among the structures is the monumental Temple of Concordia, which was constructed around 440 to 430 BC. Its remarkable state of preservation is largely due to the fact that it was converted into and used as a catholic church during the middle ages.

According to the Greek historian Thucydides, Agrigento was founded around 580 BC. It was later captured by Rome during the first Punic war against the Carthaginians. Among the excavated treasures displayed here are two exquisitely carved Roman marble statues.

After one night in Agrigento I drove north towards Palermo, but not before making a stop-over at one more extraordinary site in the center of the island.

Villa Romana del Casale
One of the lesser known but truly amazing sights to see in Sicily, is the Villa Romana del Casale. Located inland about an hour and a half from Agrigento, this once was a huge Roman rural palace, from which the surrounding countryside was ruled and managed. The villa was destroyed by a landslide, which collapsed most of the buildings but preserved its incredible mosaics. It contains more than 3,500 square meters of the most intricate and elaborate Roman mosaics found anywhere in the world. These two picture show small sections of a 66 meter wide mosaic, which depicts a big game hunting scene, showing African animals being captured and shipped to Rome.

One of the most unusual images found among the mosaics at the villa, is this representation of female athletes engaging in various sports while wearing what look like rather modern bikinis.

The Villa Romana del Casale became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

Founded more than 2,700 years ago by the Phoenicians, the ancient city of Palermo is the capital and largest city in Sicily. Modern Palermo is a big and bustling city with fairly chaotic traffic. There is also very little parking available. The valet parking offered by my hotel just meant a guy is driving your car around town until he finds a spot on the street somewhere.

Due to its location at the north-west corner of the island, Palermo was not affected by the 1693 earthquake, that destroyed the cities in the south-east, and it thus has many buildings from earlier periods, the most dominant of which is the Norman period of the early 12th century. Two beautiful examples of this era are the two small churches right next to each other, Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio and the Chiesa de San Cataldo.

Palermo cathedral is an enormous building that combines styles from many different centuries. It was first built in 1185, but also contains extensive Baroque elements, and a neo-classical interior from the 19th century.

The premiere example of a Sicilian Baroque interior, can be found in the beautiful Church of the Gesù.

However, it was on my second day that I visited the most incredible thing I saw, not just in Palermo but on this entire trip through Southern Italy, and that was the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) in the Norman Palace. This was one of those rare places in the world that literally gave me chills, when I walked through the small plain door on the first floor of the inner court yard of the palace and first glimpsed the unbelievable splendor of this 12th century masterpiece.

Started in 1132 it was consecrated only 8 years later. The entire interior of the chapel is covered in the most intricate gold mosaics, which include early Christian, Orthodox and Arab style elements. I had never seen anything like this in all my travels.

This small chapel is one of the greatest masterpieces of medieval art in all of Europe. And these photos don't even come close to conveying the truly overwhelming experience of seeing it in person.

But this wasn't even the only medieval masterpiece I saw that day. Only a 30 minute taxi ride away, there is a small town high up in the mountains overlooking Palermo, called Monreale. And Monreale is home to one of the jewels of Norman architecture. Monreale cathedral was built in the late 12th and early 13th century and is an imposing structure.

However it is the huge and stunning interior space that makes the drive up to Monreale an absolute must-do in Palermo. The beautiful mosaics rival those of the slightly older Palatine Chapel in sheer awe inspiring splendor.

These two buildings alone, the Palatine Chapel and the Cathedral of Monreale, make a trip to Sicily worthwhile. I felt I left the best for the end, since the following day I took a flight from Palermo airport back to Germany, after what was an incredible trip across Southern Italy.

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow, Sicily by car is a must. What a great description and photos. Now, you might want to include FOOD in your blog! Where are your favorite food places and cuisines? And wine!?