Category Archives: Sicily

Almost a different country, so unlike are the Sicilians to Italians. Their culture is more rugged, their food influenced by many nations, and the landscape dominated by the always fuming Etna.

Castelmola, Sicily – Medieval Village

From the natural terrace built around the ruins of a Norman castle, you have a spectacular view of the Ionian coast, majestic Etna, Taormina, the Bay of Giardini-Naxos, the straits of Messina, and the Calabrian coast:  on a clear day you can even see way beyond Catania, as far as Syracuse.  You are nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, you are in Castelmola in Sicily.

Castelmoro from below

Part of the attraction of Castelmola is gazing up at it from Taormina (as in the featured photo taken from the main square in Taormina,  and above from another part of the town) and wondering how on earth you can get up there.  It looks like the top of the world, this tiny village perched on a craggy hilltop above Taormina.  Not so long ago the village was inaccessible, visited only by a few intrepid travellers who hiked up the seriously uphill mountain paths for about 90 minutes, or drove up the curving, almost perpendicular road, to the top.  Nowadays a bus makes the 15-minute journey every hour from Taormina and things are changing, although slowly.

 

The result of this remoteness is that the people of the village have kept their dialect, their customs and their lives entirely to themselves.

Casteldemoro

Founded in the 8th century BC it was first conquered by the Greeks and afterwards by Saracens and its interesting mix of customs and traditions reflect this history.  The entrance to the village is marked by an ancient arch of Greek-Roman origin, built in 900 BC, and this dominates the Piazza S. Antonino, the main square of the village.  In earlier times the entry was through a gate carved into the rock which was moved to the front of the castle in 1927.

 

This relatively modern Piazza Sant’Antonio, built in 1954, is one of the main squares of the town and attracts the local elders who like to sit on the benches in the square to watch the village activity and the arrival and departure of the buses.  From this Piazza of white and black lava stone, bordered by a white balustrade and tree-lined sidewalks, there is a panoramic view of Taormina, its town, beaches and islands.

 

From the Piazza, roads lead off to other parts of the village, every corner offering more spectacular views whether it’s over the velvety green mountains with their trails delineated as though someone had poured them in swirling patterns on the slopes or the craggy peaks of the barren side.  The street names, numbers and signs are locally crafted in stone and wrought iron, and the pastel-coloured houses range from palest primrose to sky blues and apple greens.  In fact, it is a typical Sicilian village, better preserved than most, as it has not lost all its inhabitants as have most of those in the interior of the island.

 

That said, a fair number of the inhabitants depart in the winter for the slightly warmer temperature along the coast but during the rest of the year, they man the restaurants, bars and lace and embroidery shops for which the village is famed.

One of the most famous and most eccentric attractions is the Turrisi Bar which has a bizarre display of phalluses in wood, clay and ceramic – a sign of abundance and a good omen as per the Hellenic tradition – in every size, from large stone sculptures to bathroom taps, paintings and wooden carvings.  This ancient emblem of fertility is celebrated here in flamboyant style, and among the gifts available from the shop is the locally produced almond wine in phallic-shaped bottles, referred to, of course, as the “elixir of love”.

As so often in Sicily one passes from the profane to the sacred in the blink of an eye and in just a few steps you arrive at the Cathedral which dates back to the 16th century (rebuilt in 1935), known otherwise as the Church of St. Nicholas of Bari, in the Piazza Duomo. There isn’t a lot to hold your attention here but it has a rather beautiful pulpit and a wooden statue of Mary Magdalene which, I am told, is of the school of Bagnasco.   I confess I had no knowledge of this sculptor but I found a reference to one Rosario Bagnasco who worked mainly in wood, and who was active mainly in Palermo, so I presume it is his work. Looking towards the Bell Tower Before you leave, look to the beautiful bell tower which offers a wonderful frame for a photograph of Mount Etna in the distance behind it.

CASTEL DEL MOLA

So if you find yourself with a day, or even a half day to spare when you are in Taormina, or if you want to see one of Sicily’s loveliest medieval villages, then be sure to visit Castelmola where you will find narrow streets and quiet solitude in a community of just over one thousand residents.  In fact, if you visit out of season and find your way up the mountain to Castelmola you may feel that you have the entire town to yourself.

 

 

 

Palermo: Caravaggio to be Returned?

You may remember that when I wrote about the Serpotta Stuccoes, I mentioned that the Caravaggio masterpiece, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, had been stolen from the altar of the Oratorio and that the replacement painting was not something one could really admire.

I was more than pleased, therefore, to read in The Guardian a few days ago, that there are hopes that the painting may be recovered soon as Italian investigators have received information that the painting, which was stolen in 1969, could be hidden in Switzerland.  The head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission last Thursday said that the information came from a former mobster-turned-informant who revealed that it had once been held by Gaetano Badalamenti, a ‘capo di capo’ (boss of bosses).  The informant told the mafia investigators that Badalamenti (who has since died in America where he had been convicted of heroin trafficking) had been in touch with an art dealer in Switzerland.

To have this masterpiece returned to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo would be something wondrous for the people of Palermo, as when the criminals stole the painting by cutting it from its frame with razorblades everyone presumed it was lost forever.

Rosy Bindi, the head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission, told The Guardian that they have collected enough evidence to launch a new investigation and to request the collaboration of foreign authorities, especially those in Switzerland.

Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who has helped Palermo transform itself from a  stronghold of the mafia to a European Capital of Culture, said that the city was no longer dominated by mobsters and godfathers, that it has changed and now demands the return of everything the mafia had stolen from it.

The return of this painting to the Oratorio will be an event to be celebrated throughout Sicily.  I hope it happens soon.

Meantime, here are a few of the pictures of the 16th-century stuccoes from the Oratorio that I originally posted.

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Photo Challenge: Face in the Crowd

 

Like many people, I hesitate to photograph people without their knowledge.  Sometimes, if the mood is right, I ask permission, but then the people invariably strike poses or give an embarrassed smile for the camera.  So, the few I have are usually street scenes or action scenes.  Some I feel I couldn’t display publicly as they could be misinterpreted, have vulnerable children in them, or are otherwise not suitable.   Below are some I hope fit the challenge and I have captioned them.

Street scene, Tokyo
Tokyo’s Busiest Intersection at a Quiet Time

 

Street Barber in Hanoi, Vietnam
A Street Barber in Hanoi

 

Sicilian Afternoon
A Sicilian Afternoon – a Male only custom!

 

Asleep-on-the-boat,-Vietnam
Siesta on the Boat: a Trader takes a rest in Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

 

 

 

 

Serpotta’s Stucco in Palermo

Palermo is this year’s Italian City of Culture.  The city has stunning architecture, beautiful churches and art that is equal to that in many other parts of Italy, but for me, Palermo’s gem is the baroque Oratory of the Rosario in Santa Cita.

My favourite putti
The Playful Putti

Tucked away in a back street of the capital, this exuberant masterpiece is often overlooked as one stumbles from one opulent Baroque creation to the next in this very theatrical city.  The flamboyance is all inside the building, because the Oratory, by its nature, had to be simple.  Perhaps that is why it is often missed by visitors to Palermo.

Cherub from Serpotta's stuccoes

I first saw the Oratorio on the 1912 BBC series Unpacking Sicily, presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli.  As the presenters walked us into a room whose walls were covered with sparkling white putti climbing and curling around pillars, playing with and teasing the allegorical statues I fell in love with the place.  It seemed to me to be redolent of joy and happiness as the impossibly round and naked infants cavorted along the walls oblivious to saints or sinners.

Notice the devil above the statue
Two allegorical figures sit ledges while all around are figures, faces, leaves, fruit.

Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732) the Sicilian artist responsible for the interior of the Oratory was a sculptor of genius whose work in stucco* produced a very distinctive style. His work was already sited all over Palermo when he was commissioned in 1699 to transform the Oratorio and according to art historian Anthony Blunt, he was provided with an artistically complex iconographical plan for the oratory.

In his use of stucco, he created a new art form.   Sacheverell Sitwell, who considered his female figures to be the equivalent of those in portraits by Gainsborough, states that the sculptor lifted a minor art “out of itself into an eminence of its own”.

Icons

One of three Oratorios (the others being San Dominico and Santa Zita a few metres away) the Oratorio of San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque.   The artist worked on this interior between 1698 and 1710, and apart from the cavorting, mischievous cherubs, it features a series of 10 symbolic statues, plus panels detailing the lives of Christ, the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence, and one that tells the story of the Battle of Lepanto.

Of extraordinary elegance, white swathes of stucco supported by a swarm of putti flow over the walls;  life-size allegorical figures sit casually on ledges as though at a picnic while cherubs play with the draperies of their skirts and blow kisses, and a cornucopia of fruit and flowers adds joy to the scenes.

End Wall of Oratory.
The Battle of Lepanto panel. Below the ship sit two boys, one Christian and a victor, the other an Infidel and a loser in the battle, but they are alike in their sorrow.
Above Lepanto scene - one cherub foot missing, one crying, one supporting
A less-happy trio of cherubs, one has already lost a foot, one is supporting him and one is crying.
These could be today's urchins in Palermo
These could be today’s urchins from the streets around Palermo, clothes, stance, everything. In the middle the detritis of war.

The Battle of Lepanto is the panel in front of which people stand for a long time absorbing the detail of the battle, the virgin protecting the fleet, the stormy seas, and the two boys sitting on the edge of the panel, one Christian and one infidel, who resemble in every way – even down to their clothes – the street urchins one can still see playing in the streets of Palermo.

Centrepiece on a wall

The 16th century Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle since antiquity and the last major engagement fought between more than 400 rowing vessels.  A fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of European Catholic maritime states of which the Venetian and Spanish Empires were the main powers, inflicted a major defeat on the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras.   Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, was one of those injured in the battle.

I think it fair to say that Serpotta displays in this work, an anti-war sentiment, or if not anti-war then a compassion for the enemy unusual at that time.

Window wall with playing cherubs

The altar in the Oratory is disappointing after the sheer gorgeousness of the walls.  It was originally famous because it held a masterpiece by the great Caravaggio, a Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1609),  but this was stolen in 1969.  It has never been recovered despite a massive reward being offered.  It is presumed that the theft was the work of the Sicilian Mafia and the latest rumour is that it was shredded and fed to pigs.

In 2015 a rather poor digital copy of the altarpiece was placed in the vacant space but it cannot be considered even a good copy.

And now I’ll let the pictures fill in the gaps.

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*Stucco: The artist first constructed a model using frames of wood, wire and rags, held together by sand and lime. Over the model a mix of lime and plaster was applied, to which marble dust was added to achieve the smooth surface glaze,  This was the invention that lifted Stucco to a higher level and Giacomo Serpotta is credited with creating an original technique that imparted to his work a lustre, not unlike that of stone or marble.  Great skill and dexterity were needed as plaster mix dried very quickly but it was valued as it allows the artist not only to build up forms but to carve into them as well.

Address:  Via Immacolatella, 90133, Palermo.    Tel: 0921 582370

Palermo -Sicily’s Chaotic Capital

Palermo is like nowhere else in Europe.  It’s a crazy, chaotic, crumbling city with a vibrant life that has led it to defy the Mafia, the last in a line of exploiters bent on conquering and subduing the spirit of its people.  Every neighbouring power at one time or another. has occupied this island that lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, with the result that it offers the visitor a heady mixture of aromatic Arabic food served in tiled restaurants that hark back to Spanish invaders, and stunning architecture and artefacts from Greek and Norman periods.  All this in streets lined with crumbling buildings, visual proof of the Italian Government’s neglect of a region for which it seems to have no respect.

view-from-cathedral-by-solange

View from the Cathedral by Solange Hando

We all think we know Palermo from years of watching films like The Godfather (in all its parts), and Scarface, but the films have never shown the beauty of the baroque palaces, the marble statues that are public art, the beauty of the bay at sunset and the tranquillity of the surrounding countryside.

open-air-display-of-statues

Outdoor Art in Sicily – Photo Mari Nicholson

The façade of the Teatro Massimo, the magnificence of the Cathedrale at Monreale, five miles south of the city, with its fabulous mosaics brought to Sicily from Byzantium, and the hidden beauties of the marble Serpotto Cherubs in the Oratorio del Santissimo Rosario, are Palermo at its best.  At its worst are the alleys strewn with litter, the almost feral children that chase each other around the stalls in the markets, itinerant sellers of silver jewellery and leather belts who accost you at tourist spots, and neighbourhoods filled with ghosts.

teatro-massimo-palemo

Teatro Massimo In Piazza Verdi, Palermo – Photo Mari Nicholson

Italy in the raw is on every Rococo street corner, the Italy of Andrea Camilleri’s  Inspector Montalbano (he operates in a different region of Sicily but the sense of his world is here).  Stand in the Piazza Verdi opposite the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third largest opera house, and look towards the steps of the theatre on which the final scene of The Godfather III took place, and I defy you not to hear the swelling music of Cavalleria Rusticana and hear the howl of anguish from Al Pacino as his beloved daughter died in his arms.

But it is in its streets that the real Palermo, and Sicily, is revealed and in its boisterous street markets with their mixture of fresh food, dusty shoes and lurid outerwear vying for your attention with the fast-food stall, the fresh orange-juice seller and the suspect ‘antiques’.  Crumbling baroque facades look down on this carnival of life which attracts the rich and poor of the city.

freshly-squeezed-juices-on-every-corner-2jpg

The Orange Juice Seller, Palermo, Sicily  –  Photo by Mari

Despite advances made by the justice system and the reverence in which Giovanne Falcone and Paolo Borsellino are held (the two Judges gunned down by the Sicilian Mafia in 1992) the honoured society is still a reality in Palermo.  Its presence is a burden the Sicilians have had to bear for many years because few were prepared to defy the demands of the organised crime ring and, let’s face it, it dispensed a type of justice, the only sort on which the poor could rely.

so-much-oregano-palermo-sicily

Herb Stall in Palermo Market, Sicily – Photo by Mari Nicholson

Yet by the end of the 20th century and as a result of the assassination of the two popular judges, the Sicilians began to challenge the status quo.  Led by Rita Borsellino, sister of the assassinated judge, a native of Palermo and anti-Mafia activist,  an anti-Mafia movement, Libera, was formed.  Now another movement called Addiopizzo, meaning ‘goodbye to protection payments’ is operating but this movement is trying to involve tourists for the good of the city.

Addiopizzo was founded in 1994 by a few young restaurateurs who had a vision of  a Sicily where the Mafia did not control all sectors of the economy and where businesses of all sizes could keep 100% of their profits.

This organisation has now moved into offering anti-Mafia tours and accommodation and lists of bars and restaurants are available where it is guaranteed that the owners are  refusing to pay protection money.  Addiopizzo offers walking and cycling tours, car hire and accommodation, and can even arrange a tour to Corleone.

Addiopizzo could be the saviour of Palermo and the means by which the people’s pride and their strength to resist the corruption which has ruined their city, could be resurrected.  I personally, can highly recommend all their tours and the walk around Palermo is truly an eye-opener.

In the midst of the chaos, the crumbling architecture, the fading grandeur and beauty of its palaces and mansions, the city has a vibrancy not felt in any other city in Italy.  It has a life of its own, a language of its own, and it has art spilling out on to the streets.  Go see for yourself, and when you’re there, do support ADDIO PIZZO.

the-ubiquitous-scooter

The Ubiquitous Scooter – Photo by Mari Nicholson

 

 

 

 

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Photography Challenge 101: Landscape

Took me a while to think about some landscapes, and unfortunately, I was unable to get out and about to photograph some, so here is a selection of some of my favourites.

 

Chicago from Sears' Toweer
Chicago, from Sears’ Tower – Photo Mari Nicholson

This was taken on a fairly good day in Chicago from the top of the famous landmark, the Sears’ Tower.  The skyline is probably more impressive from ground level, but I found the view from above quite exciting.   See another Chicago photo, bottom.

 

Citiva 6
Citava, Italy – Photo Mari Nicholson

Citiva is in Lazio Province, within driving distance of Siena, Rome. and Orvieto.  Inside the mountain fastness is a quaint old town of cobbled stoned streets, a couple of good restaurants serving rustic food, and a Bodega where the wine flows very liberally.

Walking trails to Stanserhorn
Walking trails to Stanserhorn in Switzerland

This was taken from a cable car as we floated over the mountains in Switzerland.  I seem to remember that it was quite a long cable-car trip, longer than most I remember.  It was a magical journey over the mountains and villages below, the brown and white cows hardly visible and their cowbells muffled by the distance.

Village in the Madonie National Park, Sicily
Village in Madonie National Park, Sicily – Photo Mari Nicholson

One of my favourite places in Sicily, the National Park of Madonie, where wild figs grow along the roadside and just a few locals are left in near-deserted villages to sit outside their doors and chat to whoever passes by.  Now and again one sees a thriving village like this one, which is being slowly restored to its former glory by returning families who have made some money working elsewhere and now are coming home to reclaim their birthright.

Skyline with clouds - Chicago
Chicago skyline peeking from out the clouds

Madonie National Park, Sicily

Sicily has long been one of my favourite countries to visit.  Some will say it’s not a country but an Island that forms part of Italy but to me Sicily is so different in every way that it can be considered another country.  The food, the people, the extreme variety of environments and the landscape that can change within the distance of a few miles make this almost a paradigm of the Mediterranean.

Mountain Village 3
Mountain Village in Madonie National Park, Sicily (c) Mari Nicholson

Madonie National Park 2

Sicilian Men in Village Square
Three Sicilian men in Village Square Photo: Mari Nicholson

With over a thousand miles of coastline, the highest volcano in Europe, woods, lakes and rivers that attract tourists from all over the world, it can easily be forgotten that Sicily is also blessed with magnificent parks, one of the loveliest being the Madonie National Park in Palermo Province which covers a large territory in the central-northern part of Sicily.  What makes it more attractive to the visitor is that this is not just a nature reserve: it is an area where people live and work, making it perfect for culturally rich travel.  It incorporates 15 towns and villages including Polizzi Generosa, the twin Petralia towns, Soprana and Sottana, Gangi, Castellana Sicula, Castelbuono, and Isnello, the latter two probably the most interesting.  Throughout the area are several monasteries, hermitages, and churches, many of them isolated and seemingly deserted.

Inside Castelbuono Church
The altar in Castelbuono Church Photo: Mari Nicholson
Hundreds of Years old Olive Tree Breaking Through the Rock
This olive tree is hundreds of years old and has pushed through a granite rock! Photo: Mari Nicholson

Many of the villages are semi-deserted due to the younger generation having abandoned agricultural life for the charms (and better earnings) of the city and resorts along the coast – and who can blame them?   The back-breaking toil of bringing in the olives for pressing, tending the vines and the citrus trees, and shepherding sheep and cattle in the searing heat of summer does not bring in a lot of money.

Steep Narrow Street in Mountain Village
Steep Narrow Streets in Villages Photo: Mari Nicholson

In parts of the Madonie however, there is a movement to re-open some long-closed houses, as former inhabitants return home with savings that enable them to upgrade these dwellings and use them as vacation homes.

Semi-Deserted Village in Madonie - Copy
Semi-Deserted village in Madonie. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Wild mushrooms
Wild Mushrooms awaiting a buyer. Photo: Mari Nicholson

The Park is rich in flora and fauna with the northern slopes covered with thick woods and centuries old olive groves, cork, chestnut, ash and oak woods.  The sunny southern side is characterised by hilly slopes cultivated with wheat and barley and although the park only covers 2% of the island’s surface, more than half of the Sicilian vegetable species can be found here.

Wild Figs by the Roadside 2 (2)
Wild Figs Growing by the Roadside Delicious! Photo: Mari Nicholson
Mushrooms - Copy
Wild Mushrooms awaiting Chef’s attention at a Mountain Restaurant. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Madonie National Park - Copy
Photo: Mari Nicholson

The Sicilian countryside is full of wild edible plants that are still used in local cooking and the Madonie is rich in vegetables like wild asparagus, funghi of every imaginable shape and colour, wild figs, wild chard, wild mustard, edible thistles, wild onions and wild garlic, and herbs such as fennel, borage, mint, thyme, rosemary and oregano.

As regards fauna, Madonie houses about 70% of the nesting birds and about 60% of the invertebrates of the island, among them several endemic, rare and protected species.  The Park is a paradise for bird watchers and for those who like to see mammals living free in their native habitat.  Among the animals likely to be encountered are wild boar, fallow deer, Italian hare, European hedgehog, and red fox.  And everywhere you will see butterflies of every colour and hue.

Provola delle Madonie
Madonie Provola Cheese

Specialities of the mountains which I can recommend are the Madonie Sfogio, Manna, and a delicious cheese called Madonie Provola, a characteristic pulled-curd cheese made with cow’s milk.  This is still produced in the traditional way when small ‘pears’ of cheese are made towards the end of the process, straw yellow in colour and with a thin rind, which are then tied up in pairs and hung astride a pole.

Mountain Honey for sale
Mountain Honey for Sale. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Madonie 3
View from the Church at Castelbuono. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Madonie Sfogio is characteristic of the Park, a pastry dessert which has been made for over 400 years and nowadays mainly produced in Polizzi Generoa, Petralia Sottana and Castellana Sicula.  A short pastry case filled with mountain cheese, candied pumpkin, egg whites, chocolate, sugar, and cinnamon, it is baked and served cold.   It can sometimes be found in other villages, often with a pistachio filling (another product of the mountains).

High in the Mountains Looking Down on the Sea
From the Mountains to the Sea. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Manna is described as the Gold of Sicily despite the difficulty of harvesting it.  It is made from the sap of specific varieties of ash trees, extracted by making incisions on the bark of the tree – rather like rubber tapping – causing a whitish resin to flow out which crystallises and creates stalactite forms which are then dried before being sold.  In the past, families used to move to the country for the summer harvesting of the manna: men incised the trees and the women and children collected the manna, but nowadays the manna is only harvested in the territories of Castelbuono and Pollina.  A few young men still follow the traditional way of doing things but as few of them have the knowledge to determine when exactly to make the first incision, it is mostly left to the older generation to harvest the sap.

Flowers outside Village House - Copy
Jasmine and Geraniums most Popular Flowers in the mountains. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Rocks Lend Grandeur to the Mountains - Copy
Huge Granite Rocks lend Grandeur to the Scenery. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Manna has medicinal properties as well and items made from the sap are sold in many of the villages.  It is an intestinal regulator, a digestive, a light laxative, it soothes a cough, it decongests the liver and it is rich in mineral salts.  Nowadays it is used in pastry making and in cosmetics (soaps, creams etc.) and although its taste is sweet it can be used by diabetics as it doesn’t modify glycaemia.

Roads lead over the Mountains to other villages
Roads lead over the Mountains to other villages. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Village in the Madonie National Park
The Villages seem to Blend into the Mountains. Photo: Mari Nicholson

A visit to part of The Madonie can be made in a day if time is short, or there are some excellent hotels and hostels in the Park and the tourist board can advise on holidays for walkers, riders, bird-watchers, photographers – even cookery holidays.   It is a very pleasant drive, easily accessible from Palermo or Cefalù – but take it slowly as there are some very dangerous bends through the mountains – or it is possible, and not too expensive, to hire a car and driver for the day, leaving you free to stop when the mood takes you, to photograph the landscape and the people, and to relax and drink in the beauty of the park.

Madonie National Park XX
Madonie National Park in its Grandeur. Photo: Mari Nicholson

When to go?  Well, spring sees spectacular spreads of wildflowers carpeting the mountain slopes while summer offers cool temperatures and an escape from the crowded coasts and cities down below.  Autumn brings rich colours from the forest foliage, wild figs to pick along the road, and a bewildering array of wild mushroom dishes in every restaurant, and in winter the ski slopes are brisk with downhill action.

Siracusa, Sicily: Greatest Greek City in the World

Siracusa (often spelt Siracuse) in south-east Sicily, is often overlooked in favour of the more touristy Taormina but the visitor to Sicily should not miss this city that was once described by Cicero as the greatest Greek city in the world.

El Duomo, Siracusa, Sicily

Assaulted by Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, Sicily has absorbed these foreign cultures and made it her own, perhaps best exemplified by the Cathedral in the Piazza Duomo, the delightful pedestrianised square in the heart of Ortygia, the island in the centre of Siracuse.

The façade of the cathedral is 18th-century and like so much of Sicily’s architecture, it was erected following the earthquake of 1693. It is actually built on successive works to the Temple of Athena, the doors of which were said to be made of gold and ivory. Round about the 17th century the temple was transformed into a Christian church which later became the Cathedral. Walk down Via Minerva to see how nothing was wasted: one example is the giant Doric columns of the Greek temple to Athena that were incorporated into the church that superseded it.

Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the duomo
Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the Duomo

Siracusa Town

Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa
Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa

The Piazza is regarded as one of the most beautiful in all Italy with the Cathedral on one side and various Baroque palaces dotted around the square. Day and night the piazza is a scene of energy and life as the ground floors of the once-great palaces are now mostly restaurants, cafés and bars: on a warm evening there is no better place in Siracusa in which to sit and enjoy a café or aperitif.

A Bridge Links Old and New Siracusa
A Bridge Links Old and New Siracusa

There are two main areas in the town, the archaeological area which includes Greek and Roman theatres and ruins, and Ortygia, a small island that feels more like a tiny peninsula, with beautifully restored Baroque buildings, a number of fine hotels and some great restaurants.

The Archeological Area

Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Siracusa
Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Siracusa

In the Neapolis Archaeological Park situated in the northwest of the town, are a number of well-preserved Greek and Roman remains.

Greek Theatre, Siracusa
Greek Theatre, Siracusa

The main attraction is the Greek theatre (not to be confused with the more often photographed Greek Theatre in Taormina which has as its backdrop the snow-capped Mount Etna) where the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides are still performed from May to the end of June each summer as they were more than 2,000 years ago.

Started in the 5th century when Syracuse was one of the great cultural centres of the Mediterranean world, the theatre is considered to be one of the most perfect examples of Greek architecture to have survived and can accommodate up to 15,000 spectators in its 59 rows.

The Ear of Dionysis

The nearby fragrant lemon grove was once an old stone quarry used at one time to house 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war, the limestone dug from it in 500 BC being then used to build Siracuse.

The Ear of Dionysis 4

Wander into the vast man-made chamber known as Dionysius’s Ear, a 20m high pointed arch cut into the rock face which owes its name to a visit by Caravaggio in 1608. Used as a prison, the excellent Cathedral-like acoustics meant that the prisoners’ conversations could be heard from outside.

There is also an impressive Roman amphitheatre, approximately 140m long, built in the 3rd Century AD where traditional blood sports took place, gladiators and wild animals providing the blood-letting that was so much part of these offerings. The hole in the centre is believed to have been a drain for the blood and gore – as one guide told me – or, a space for scenic machinery – as another guide told me!

Roman Amphitheatre, Siracusa, Sicily
Roman Amphitheatre, Siracusa, Sicily

The Archaeological Museum is just a short walk from the park and if time allows, it is worth a visit.

Ortygia, 2,55 Years of History

At only 1km by 500m the best way to see Ortygia is just to wander through the area admiring the Greek and Roman remains, the Norman buildings and the Baroque decorative facades. Enjoy the sun at one of the cafes in the area sipping a café or an aperitif, or lunch al fresco at one of the many good restaurants on this tiny island.   Take a picnic and sit on the seawalls and admire the fish that swim lazily in the clear waters of the bay.

Clear Waters of the Bay in Siracusa, Sicily
Clear Waters of the Bay in Siracusa, Sicily

One could easily walk past the Fountain of Arethusa. filled with white ducks and surrounded by walls of greenery, as it looks so unpretentious but it is one of the most important sights in Syracuse.

Legend has it that the Arcadian nymph Arethusa, fled underwater to Siracuse to rid herself of the amorous advances of the God Alpheios and the Goddess Artemis transformed her into the freshwater spring that we see today.

Sanctuary of La Madonna delle Lacrimi, Siracusa
Sanctuary of La Madonna delle Lacrimi, Siracusa

The ruins of this Doric temple stand incongruously in the middle of the town (you can’t miss it as it’s on a main thoroughfare), on one side of which is a bustling market with sellers hawking clothes, handbags, umbrellas and anything else that will sell.

Temple to Apollo, Siracusa, Sicily

It seems such a pity that the Temple is not isolated so that visitors could enjoy it in tranquillity, but then it was probably full of bustling life when it was in use back in the 8th century BC when it was at its most active. It is the oldest temple in Sicily and over the centuries it has been a Byzantine church, a mosque and a Christian church.

Citrus from Sicily
Citrus from Sicily

Plato visited Sicily several times as did Simonides and Pindar, and Aeschylus sang of its beauty. Its enormous military power made it capable of withstanding attacks from Carthage and Athens and the city remained powerful until the Arab conquest in 878 when it lost its supremacy.

Today Syracuse is a pleasant town in which to spend a few days – more if you want to travel beyond it, say to Noto, a perfect day out.

Arethusa Spring, Siracusa
Arethusa Spring, Siracusa