Landing at Falcone-Borsellino airport in Palermo in the spring of 2003 we were
thinking of all the popular images of Sicily - the Mafia, Cinema Paradiso, Il Gattopado,
Commissario Montalbano. But we were also hoping to discover what it is that makes
Sicily so special and different from the rest of Italy.
We spent three weeks circumnavigating the island, exploring its highlights and
searching out places off the beaten track to walk. We negotiated our way on foot
around the steep narrow streets of cities, towns and villages. And we found that
archaeological sites often involved more walking than a full day's hiking.
Much of the time, however, we weren't on foot, instead driving around on small rural
roads where the countryside was captivating. The greens and bright colours of
springtime were far from the dusty brown summer landscapes remembered from
scenes in Il Gattopardo. Strangely, eucalypt forests were so much part of the
landscape that an advertisement for Australian beer would not have been out of place.
As we drove, we could see the impressive bridges and overpasses of new autostradas
cutting swathes through the hillsides, financed we speculated by EU money and
further manipulated by the Mafia. We studiously avoided these and instead got lost on
small roads, turning 10 km trips into 40 km muddles. We also got hopelessly lost in
small villages which sometimes seemed to have no way of escape.
One of the city's greatest attractions isn't even in Palermo. The
magnificent cathedral of Monreale is a short bus ride from the city. A fine
example of Norman architecture, it remains rock-solid and almost
unchanged since its construction in the 12th century. Inside, its
spectacular mosaics cover all the surfaces of walls, ceilings and domes.
Glittering fragments of gold sparkle in the light, reflecting off each other
in a breathtaking picture gallery of Christ and the holy family, graphic
biblical scenes and processions of saints, apostles and evangelists. This
is the largest concentration of Byzantine mosaics in Italy, a total of
6,500 metres square. It is unforgettable.
The adjoining cloister is a place of elegant peaceful tranquillity and, in
the surrounding piazzas, orange and almond trees are shady and
Street in Palermo
Palermo is where a visit to Sicily should begin.
It is a city wonderfully full of contradictions. Buildings are shabby but still grand.
Sicilian baroque intermingles with simple Norman or Moorish structures. Churches are
full of sparkling mosaics but with opening hours so challenging it is almost impossible
to find them open. Crazy traffic but city centre streets that close for the evening or
weekend passeggiata. A reputation for danger, but where you actually feel quite safe.
And where astonishingly two of Italy's gastronomic delights, gelato and crispy pannini,
are combined into one - a gelato sandwich.
The Madonie Mountains and the Petralias
To the east of Palermo, in the north east of the island are
Sicily's highest mountains largely contained within two
natural parks, the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Madonie
and Parco Naturale dei Nebrodi. The Madonie incorporates
most of the highest mountains and the Nebrodi is the largest
area of forest. A little further south on the east coast is
Mount Etna, the highest mountain and best known as a
spectacularly active volcano.
As the best walking is said to be in the Madonie mountains
we decided to investigate this area and found an agriturismo
near the town of Gangi, just outside the park boundaries.
The Madonie countryside is dramatic. Craggy undulations
open up exposed outcrops of rock, between them a patchwork
of green fields and a purple coloured crop called sulla. Most
amazing in the landscape were the hilltop villages that, from a
distance, looked just like another rocky formation completely
covering the hillsides. Gangi was one of these. Two others,
within the park, were Petralia Soprana and Petralia Sottanta,
soprana being on the top of the hill and sottanta lower down.
These were a maze of narrow streets and stairways and they
were extremely difficult to negotiate around. Only too late,
when confronted with steps rather than roadway did we realise
that trying to do this in a car was madness.
Top: Palermo opera house
Above: la Port Nuova
Right: Quattro Canti
The Petralias and Gangi were among the most dramatic
examples of such dense urban development but the same
model was repeated throughout Sicily. The oldest buildings
are at the top of the hill and seem to be almost deserted,
even in ruins. Descending the hillsides the construction
becomes more and more recent till on the lowest slopes are
hideous, badly built, high rise modern structures, probably
the result of mafia dealings. There is no space for trees.
Agriturismo Capuana was tucked away in
this landscape. Specialising in home cooked
meals using fresh local produce, the farm
was operated by Toto and his wife Angela
who gave us a very warm welcome. When
he heard that we were interested in walking
Toto offered to guide us and while we had
been thinking of a well formed signposted
path Toto had other ideas. After an early
breakfast we set off through the fields
towards the summits behind the farmhouse,
or azienda. Negotiating steep precipices and
ravines, we climbed and climbed and soon
the Petralias and Gangi came into view, an
amazing view of this extraordinary
Under Toto's instruction, we collected wildflowers and great bunches of
finnochio (fennel). When Toto discovered a dead tree trunk (un tronco) he
decided it simply had to be taken back to the azienda to be crafted into
rustic furniture by a woodworking mate. So he carried and rolled il tronco all
the way back, sometimes hurling it down the hillsides so it rolled by itself,
otherwise hauling it along over the rocks and grasses.
We were all quite exhausted by the time we got back. But it was worth the
effort - at dinner that night the tables were decorated with our flowers and il
primo piatto was delicious homemade ravioli filled with the finocchio we had
Toto had an uncle who was a padre in a monasterio in the coastal city of
Acireale so it was arranged that we should make this our next stop.
Two views of Gangi
Top left: Once a feudal estate
Left: Toto with il tronco and assistant
Above: Road into Agriturismo Capuana
Acireale and Messina
Acireale is not on the tourist map but it makes a good base for
activities on the east coast. The hillsides round about were thick with
lemon orchards filling every highway and byway with the scent of
It was a novel experience to ring the doorbell of a huge church, and
then receive instructions from a priest leaning out an upper window.
Eventually we were installed in a spartan and divinely quiet room. The
"hotel" part of the establishment was run by two very helpful young
women and we became accustomed to seeing brown robed priests
scuttling around, sometimes offering us prayers on colourful little
cards. We had a curfew of 10.30pm.
One day we caught the train to Messina to have a look around and to
see the two paintings by Caravaggio held in the regional museum.
We were then in the early stages of a passion for this master painter
of the 17th century and the paintings were definitely worth the
journey. Our enthusiasm for Caravaggio continues to this day and
much of our travel incorporates a quest for his masterpieces. But
that's another story.
There are various ways to experience this fiery volcano. For walkers
there are two main options, the first a longish day walk climbing up
the mountain slopes to the summit area. The other circumnavigates
the mountain over three days. There are also informal tracks from
various points on the mountain. All options come with heavy
warnings about the care that needs to be taken in the summit area.
A softer alternative is to do what we did and drive to the summit
area where you can join a 4WD tour into the active areas. It is
possible to walk around up here, but strictly under supervision.
What an experience! This is a seriously active volcano and while it
wasn't in full action mode during our visit, a plume of smoke swirled
around above the main volcanic cone and the summit area was
eerily like a moonscape. Leaving the vehicle, we walked on a coke
like surface which was hot underfoot. There were little bubbling
hotspots beside our track and all around were newly cooled lava
flows one of which had totally engulfed a ski lift that had transported
viewers up from below. Little wonder that we had to sign a waiver
against injury, or even death, before we were allowed to join the
After dicing with death by volcano we picnicked on the lower slopes
where new brilliantly green growth was flourishing on the black lava
On the road south to Siracusa is
Catania, centre of Sicily's industrial
base and also the port of Augusta
where the coast has succumbed to
the ugly necessity of oil terminals
and refineries. Though both are
interesting historical cities they were,
to our mind, best avoided.
One place that does warrant a detour
is the Necropolis of Pantalica, where
a delightful walk leads down through
a limestone valley to a river below.
The whole area is a vast necropolis
where around 5000 tombs were hewn
into the rocky hillsides leaving the
steep walls of the ravine looking like
a great honeycomb. These tombs
date probably from Neolithic times, in
the 12th century BC and predating
the Greek settlement of Sicily by
In Siracusa we opted to stay in the heart of the
city on the island of Ortygia. Here you can truly
absorb the succession of cultures built upon the
Greek city that was the pride of Magna Graecia.
It's quite a list - Roman, Byzantine, Arab,
Norman, Swabian, Angevin and Spanish rulers all
made their mark on the city. The most recent
influence is seen in the 18th century Sicilian
baroque style of architecture which now
characterises the city. It is elegant, gaudy and
We particularly loved the piazza of the Duomo
where the imposing cathedral and grand baroque
palaces enclose an immense space that is always
full of activity. Another piazza, named for the city's
hero, Archimedes, is dominated by a baroque
fountain where children splash about under the
watery statues of Artemis and a group of her
handmaidens and sirens.
We found the streets to be decorated for a festa which did not
disclose itself to us until a day or so into our stay. We knew
that Santa Lucia was the patron saint of Siracusa. We knew
that Caravaggio had painted the masterpiece The Burial of St
Lucy during his stay here and we had searched it out in a
crypt of the regional art museum. It is an extremely moving
and powerful painting which we loved.
What we hadn't realised was that we had arrived in time for the
springtime festival where the larger than life-sized silver statue
of Santa Lucia is brought out of the cathedral and paraded
around the streets while the people celebrate and party. We
cheered and clapped as she wobbled along on the shoulders
of her fancy dressed carriers and partied with the people of the
wonderful city of Siracusa.
Away from the piazzas is a tangle of small
streets and laneways where washing hangs from
windows, bright red geraniums drip from window
boxes and life goes on in a slightly chaotic
manner. Restaurants fill up all the spaces.
The Roman villa at Casale
Near the town of Piazza Armerina is the country villa known as Villa del
Casale which was built for a Roman dignitary early in the 4th century. It is
an extensive and fascinating archaeological site where excavations were
not seriously commenced till 1950 and are still far from complete. Visitors
walk through the site on raised walkways under protective roofing, gaining
an insight into how wealthy Romans lived.
Greek temples and a Roman Villa
From Siracusa you can continue the baroque experience in the cities of
Noto and Ragusa or if, like us, you've had your fill of these extravagances,
you move west along the southern coast of the island to discover the ruins
of Greek and Roman antiquity that rival any others of the classical world.
Most of all, the thousands of visitors
who arrive by the busload every day are
there to admire the stunning mosaic
floors that are a feature of the spaces
that would have seen life as public
reception areas, halls and living areas.
There are hunting scenes, scenes of
exotic animals being herded onto ships
and a famous gymnasium scene which
features ladies lifting weights in bikinis.
These remarkable mosaics survived all
those centuries, some almost intact,
under a thick layer of mud.
Agrigento. The Valley of the Temples
For imposing grandeur it's hard to imagine anything that could challenge the spectacle of the
temples at Agrigento. The largest and most striking structures stand on a hill rather than in a
valley as the popular name implies. However a valley does divide the temples from the modern
town of Agrigento which seems to be encroaching alarmingly on the protected archaeological
There are seven temples and they were built to impress. You leave your wheels some distance
away and walk through the extensive complex of massive columned structures and the remains of
the old Greek city of Akragas that in its heyday, was home to 200,000 residents.
It is likely to be hot and dusty and there will be hordes of people sheltering under the few
meagre scraps of shade, listening to their guides. But like most ancient sites it was built
to accommodate large numbers of people and, in our view, comes to life with the crowds.
Not far away we found Morgantina, then a largely unexcavated and unrestored site. Just a
small theatre and the outlines of buildings with wildflowers climbing over the ancient
stones. It is quite a big site and, except for a few caretakers, no one else was there.
The ruins of Selinunte are on the outskirts of the town of Marinella, regrettably not
the seaside place where Commissario Montalbano's house fronts the beach. It is
nonetheless a very agreeable town with a string of hotels and seafood restaurants
along the seafront and is an ideal place to stay when visiting Selinunte.
Selinunte was our favourite of all the Sicilian temple sites. Its position on a hill
overlooking the sea and the town of Marinella is enchanting. The city was destroyed
by Hannibal, then again by an earthquake so there's not a lot to see. But what we
do see are huge temples constructed from the 6th century BC, standing in a vast
field of wild flowers.
Words don't do justice to this place. It's just magic.
The last of the temple sites that we visited was in a setting that was stunning
in a completely different way. It is in fact in two settings with a theatre high up
on a mountainside and a temple in a vast space in the valley below.
A shuttle bus runs between the two or you can walk the 4km distance. We
caught the bus up the hill and walked down through the ruins of the city.
The temple, built in the 5th century BC is beautifully proportioned and one of
the best preserved in Italy, perhaps the world. In the summer it hosts a festival
of Greek drama.
The theatre looks down over green hillsides and farmland towards the sea. It is
a spectacular view and would have diverted attention from many a
Scopello and the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro
Scopello must have been the smallest place we visited in all of Sicily, with
a population of 40 and just two streets. But strangely it was full of
restaurants which filled up at night as cars arrived from far and wide and
were marshalled into a large car park on the edge of the village. They roll up
for the seafood which is quite exceptional.
We came to Scopello to visit the Zingaro Natural Park,
a stretch of coastline with cliffs dropping to the sea
and mountains rising up to 1000m behind the cliffs.
And at last a real walk in a natural environment. The
park was established only in 1980 following
successful protests to prevent a proposed upgrade of
the cliff top pathway into a major road.
There are secluded beaches, some isolated holiday
villas and a few remote farms. Otherwise just a lovely
undisturbed coast and a perfect place to finish a
circuit of Sicily before returning to the chaos of
Island of many pasts
What made Sicily different from the rest of Italy? For
us it was its multi-layered history, the haphazard but
harmonious architecture of its cities, the open spaces
of its interior contrasted to the closed congested
spaces of its towns.
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