|Mosaics, Cathedral Monreale|
I’m just back from two weeks in Sicily, traveling with a fellow hiker and art lover. It’s a land of lovely landscapes, great food and friendly people, though for me, half the pleasure was the chance to hear the Italian language in all its mellifluous splendor, and to watch the body language that accompanies it. Men and women are equally adept at choreographing their conversations, and some actually seem incapable of speaking a word without moving hands and arms.
|Gretchen in Palermo Alley|
Apart from people-watching and listening, there’s so much to do on this island that’s been colonized for millennia by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French – and by the Italians, whom Sicilians may consider ‘foreigners.’ (Sicily has its own Regional Parliament and a certain amount of autonomy from the government in Rome.)
|Cathedral Viewed from Cloister|
Architecture and artwork reflect this cultural mélange and we visited minimalist Arab-Norman churches filled with stunning Byzantine mosaics. Standouts include the Capella Palatina inside the Norman Palace (Palermo), Monreale Cathedral (near Palermo), and Cefalù Cathedral.
If Baroque is your thing, Sicily is full of it. A devastating earthquake in 1693 meant that whole towns and cities were rebuilt in the current fashion. We visited Noto to see some of its most lavish manifestations, and the Val di Noto in the southeast (Ragusa, Modia and more) is similarly blessed (or cursed, depending on your taste.)
|Ceramic steps, Caltagirone|
For one week, I arranged a home exchange in Caltagirone, a shabby-chic (my favorite kind) Baroque town that’s also a World Heritage site for a ceramics tradition, still alive and well. A ceramic-tiled 142-step staircase illustrates their 900-year-old history of the art. The town is crammed with shops selling the latest versions of traditional designs.
From Caltagirone we were well-placed for day trips to Greek and Roman archaeological sites, another lure to Sicily. The Greek amphitheater at Taormina – renovated by the conquering Roman – gives stunning views of both the Mediterranean and Mount Etna. The Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, near the south coast, is perhaps the most impressive site with three large temples built on a ridge overlooking the sea, and several smaller ones in various states of disarray. A nearby museum displays room after room of artifacts from the ruins.
|Greek Amphitheater, Siracusa|
Siracusa has heaps of stone foundations from the largest Greek city in Sicily, with an enormous amphitheatre holding 15,000 people, where plays of Aeschylus and other Greek playwrights were premiered (and are still performed each summer.) Archimedes was a native of Siracusa, killed by invading Romans, and his alleged tomb is part of the complex.
The quarries that provided the stones to build Siracusa are adjacent to the theatre and today are filled with a lush garden landscape. Some of the quarried caves are accessible, including the “Ear of Dionysius” named by Caravaggio who discovered its fantastic acoustics. Whether he was referring to the Greek god of wine or the tyrant who imprisoned his enemies there is not common knowledge.
|Hunt Mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale|
The Villa Romana del Casale, outside the town of Piazza Armerina, is a jewel of a site, only uncovered in the twentieth century. It’s a grand villa from the 4th century AD, and while the buildings are gone, the mosaic floors in dozens of rooms are pristine. Abstract patterns, mythological subjects, marine scenes, and a 200 foot long Corridor of the Great Hunt are on display. The Great Hunt tells a wonderful story of hunters searching the entire Roman Empire, from Africa to India, to bring back exotic animals to Rome. But the most popular room may be the one uncovered in 1960, showing “Bikini Girls” engaged in various sporting activities.
|"Bikini Girls" Villa Romana del Casale|
Next week, Part II: Gretchen climbs volcanoes and braves the highways of Sicily!