Beverley Watts enjoys a treasure of temples, mosaics and miniature elephants
We travel to fill up our senses with new sights, sounds, scents and flavours and Sicily has long been on my must-see list as an island I needed to explore. Of course, it’s the people who also create wonderful memories and, travelling on a week-long escorted coach tour with my 93-year-old mother, the Sicilian people couldn’t have been more welcoming.
Our local tour guide, Rosario Sulfaro, made our journey extra special with his thoughtfulness and ready smile throughout our trip.
Our first taste of Sicily was a freshly-squeezed orange juice, a spremuta, full of the flavour of sunshine. With its volcanic mineral-fortified soil, Sicily is covered with orchards. Sweet red-fleshed blood oranges and tangy lemons flourish alongside fragrant peaches and golden apricots. Almonds, which symbolise good fortune, have been cultivated since before 1000 BCE.
Once the bread basket of the Roman Empire with fields of golden grain, Sicily is immensely rich in history. Our first stop on the southwest coast, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, is actually high on a ridge – not deep in a valley – and the ancient Greek architecture is glorious. The best-preserved structure of this UNESCO World Heritage site is the Temple of Concordia, built in the 5th century BC, not from marble but from carved red sandstone.
It’s a marvel it still stands because the site’s Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest Doric-style temple ever constructed, was toppled by earthquakes before it was completed. Held up by an unusual row of giant telamons (human statues), a preserved example inside the Regional Archaeological Museum gives you a real sense of the extraordinary scale. The colossus’s tiny feet are intentional for perspective as the carved figures were built to be viewed upwards from far below.
Roman bikinis and dazzling art
Heading on to Sicily’s capital Palermo on the northwest coast, we stop on the road at Motel San Pietro for its very impressive pastry shop with delicious cialdoni. Similar to cannoli and a speciality of Agrigento, these tube-shaped sweet treats are baked, the shells covered in ground almond and filled with ricotta. The perfect snack gulped down with a frothy cappuccino. (I suggested Mum try a half and she ate the whole thing…)
[Image 5 – 11 Palermo]
Cosmopolitan Palermo was founded by Phoenician traders and a Norman Palace stands at the historical centre, on the site of an original Arab fortification. Enjoy the lively hubbub of Palermo’s street markets with everything from boldly-painted Caltagirone ceramics to vivid green Nocellara olives. The Mercato del Ballarò winds away from the Palazzo dei Normanni and is a great place to try Sicilian street food. We lunched on arancine (deep fried rice balls) and panelle (chickpea flour fritters) but offal connoisseurs should taste Palermo’s legendary spleen sandwich, a centuries-old delicacy still popular today.
A little inland, on the slopes of Monte Caputo, stands Monreale Cathedral – a sumptuous mix of architectural styles completed in 1182. With influences from North African and Middle Eastern art, Monreale is richly-decorated with Byzantine mosaics. The craftsmen gathered to work on the shimmering interior knew just how to create a magical space meant to dazzle. Biblical stories depicted in luminous detail include the creation of the stars and Noah building his ark.
The marvellously-preserved mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale, a Roman villa near Piazza Armerina, date from the 4th century AD and also tell stories in tesserae. The themes here, though, are everyday life. This magnificent home, believed to belong to a high-ranking senator, was preserved only because it was covered by a landslide after being abandoned. (The Romans cut down many of Sicily’s deep-rooted forests to plant wheat, changing the topography forever.) The villa’s elaborate floors show teams of oxen at work, women playing sport in what look like bikinis, and there’s an erotic scene of a bare-bottomed woman in a passionate embrace.
Taormina sits on the east coast of Sicily, on a rocky headland with amazing views of Mount Etna. An enchanting, compact location with a dramatic sea-facing 3rd century BC Greek theatre, it became part of the Grand Tour in the late 1800s. Taormina has long attracted writers, artists and Hollywood stars and Casa Cuseni, dubbed ‘the most beautiful house in Sicily’, opened as Europe’s first hotel for artists in 1947.
The villa has hosted the likes of Greta Garbo, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, who found it the perfect place to relax. A chilled Aperol Spritz in Taormina on a sun-baked terrace after a busy day of sight-seeing is certainly a superb way to unwind. We were lucky enough to chance upon a group of musicians and dancers in traditional costume performing in Piazza IX Aprile, Taormina’s main square.
Etna’s mythical rumbles
The historic city of Syracuse was the home of Archimedes, a brilliant scientist and mathematician in classical antiquity. Ortygia, its small island centre, has a fascinating maze of narrow streets but the best way to get a sense of the shoreline of this outstanding location is to take a boat trip. Sailing gently into the sea caves hidden under the promontory, you can easily spot coral in the clear waters of the Ionian Sea.
Accused of murder in Rome, painter Caravaggio hid out in Sicily after escaping imprisonment in Malta and arrived in Syracuse in 1608. There he gave up brawling for a while, took up his brushes again and completed a new masterpiece, the Burial of Saint Lucy, on view in the Basilica of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro.
As we motor on along roads edged by wild yellow fennel flowers, olive trees and prickly pear cacti, it’s incredible to imagine that tiny elephants once inhabited this province. Dwarf elephants, only about a metre in height and the size of a Shetland pony, roamed the land 200,000 years ago. Skeletons were discovered in a cave near the village of Cassibile and a pair of casts are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Syracuse.
No visit to Sicily would be complete without a look at Mount Etna. Etna is Europe’s highest and most active volcano and, while regularly spewing out plumes of ash and smoke, Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology carefully monitor its activity. (The frequent mini eruptions actually make it safer as there is no major build-ups of lava and gas.) In Greek mythology, Etna’s rumblings were caused by the monster Typhon, who had 100 dragons’ heads, and was trapped under the mountain.
It is possible to take a cable car and then jeep towards the top, as well as hike with an experienced guide, but there are lower shallow craters to circle on foot which are easily accessible from the coach park. Mum and I let the thrill-seekers head up Etna’s black, gravelly lunar landscape and sat in the sunshine instead.
Visiting Sicily with Riviera Travel
Riviera Travel 8-day Escorted Signature Tour of Sicily (group of 25) costs from £1,789pp, inclusive of return flights. Our Silver Travel Advisors have more information and can help you book your trip to Sicily with Riviera Travel, call 0800 412 5678.