A journey through many centuries of history
Traveling on Sicily is like time travel. There are many Greek theaters and temples. Agrigento even has a valley full of temples. On a giant altar in Syracusa hundreds of bulls were sacrificed for Zeus every year. Zeus' son Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods, lived on Mt Etna. On this same volcano cyclopses threw enormous rocks at Ulysses. Many conquerors left traces, like the wonderful Roman mosaics in Villa Casale and the Normandic cathedral in Monreale. And there are many picturesque towns and villages of more recent date, along the coast and high up in the mountains.
Travelogue & photos: Luk Carion
In autumn it's still summer on Sicily. But that isn't the only reason to explore this island: it has many, often well-preserved remains of ancient civilizations: Greek, Arabic, Roman, Normandic, Spanish...
All those cultures left their traces in this border region between the continents of Europe and Africa. Traces of these varied influences are also visible in the Sicilians themselves: some look "Italian" others look more like Greeks or Tunesians. But everyone is friendly, helpful and takes their time for everything they do, unless they're behind the steering-wheel of their cars.
Far below the 2,500 years old theater lies the azure-blue sea
After a pleasant drive on the highway we arrive in Taormina, our first destination. Corso Umberto, the main street, connects the two entrance gates of the city. The buildings are huddled together and every little cross-street climbs or descends. It's as if the city could suddenly roll off the mountainside.
Corso Umberto has many stores, bars, restaurants and hotels and it's really crowded, even now, towards the end of September. Souvenir booths show the way to our main reason for visiting here: the teatro Greco (Greek theater).
It feels unreal to climb the stairs to its highest point, where in ancient times the audience was seated, first to watch Greek plays, later for bloody Roman games.
The theater is a masterpiece: I can't imagine a better place to see the mythology-based Greek plays. Far below us is the azure-blue of the Strait of Messina. I feel the warmth of the morning sun. As Cicero already mentioned: the sun shines every day on Sicily. Straight ahead I see the Etna volcano, still partly shrouded in morning fog. To the west, on a rock, lies Castelmola, a poor but picturesque village, perched on a mountain top like a crown. It's hard to see how people get there.
A view of the Tyrrhenian Sea from a protruding rock
Enough with the dreaming already: we continue on our way to Tindari: this time we don't take the highway via Messina, but drive through the inland. The road is deserted: we hardly see any other cars on the way.
The road winds over mountain slopes. A sudden thunderstorm makes us drive even more carefully.
Tindari sits on a protruding rock. The sun is again doing its best. The Greeks built a theater on the slope of this mountain as well. It looks on the Tyrrhenian Sea: a wonderful view, we even see Vulcano, one of the Aeolian Islands.
We return and pass the rather pompous cathedral: Tindari is a place of pilgrimage and every day people arrive to worship the Black Madonna. The cathedral square has a great view of the sea and its sandbanks.
For dinner we have a delicious risotto with shellfish and tuna in onion sauce.
The god of fire, and rock-throwing cyclopses
From Belpasso we drive up the slopes of Mt. Etna, one of the world's largest and most active volcanoes.
In Greek mythology the mountain was considered home and workshop to Hephaestus, son of Zeus and Hera, and - among other things - god of fire. It was his blacksmith workshop that caused earthquakes and eruptions. Ulysses was supposed to have been attacked here by cyclopses, who threw hot rocks down the mountain.
As we get higher up the mountain, the landscape changes from fertile slopes to a kind of moonscape: solidified lava as a reminder of the ruthless forces of nature.
Half-way to the top (at 3,300 meters) we stop. The peak is shrouded in clouds, but here the view of the coast is stunning.
Piazza Armerina and Villa Casale
Roman mosaics depicting young female athletes in bikinis
We take the highway to Enna to get to Piazza Armerina, one of the most picturesque towns of Sicily. The inland is very hilly here, but there is agriculture. Sicily used to be Rome's grainary. Just like in Tuscany, the hills are worked with caterpillar tractors.
There are hardly any villages or towns. The 5 million inhabitants of the island live mainly on the coast. It has always been like this: most archeological sites are near the sea.
The town's houses seem to hold on for dear life to the steep slope around the duomo, a breathtaking church built in the 16th century at an altitude of 720 meters. It's nice to take a walk in the narrow medieval streets of the old town.
Our destination is a little farther away: the mosaics of Villa Casale (400 CE). This grandiose, luxury Roman villa is located in a beautiful valley. It has the most beautiful, largest and most complex mosaics from the late-Roman era, all on a 3,500 square meters surface. Because eruptions of the volcano covered this area in mud, everything was well conserved.
We are amazed when we look at scenes that show everyday life in that era. There is a beautiful scene of hunting: catching and shipping wild animals in Africa is depicted in a realistic way, on a 280 x 80 meters surface. The room with the young women in bikini is world famous: young athletes exercising.
Fourhundred bulls were sacrificed every year on the Zeus altar
We cross the Sicilian inland to Syracuse, once the largest and most powerful Greek city on the island.
Parco Archeologica is located just outside the town and is mostly famous for its Greek theater (5th century BCE), the largest in Sicily and the most important one in antiquity.
Plays by Euripides and Aischylos were performed here. Archimede, Plato, Pindarus and Sappho, the poet of lesbian love, sat here to watch those plays.
A little farther I stop in front of archeological remains that fire the imagination: the Zeus altar, where 450 bulls were sacrificed every year. It was the largest sacrificial altar of antiquity, measuring 23 x 189 meters. It must have seen lots of blood.
The next sight was another place for bloody scenes: the Roman theater (the largest on Sicily) where gladiators fought one another to death.
We continue on to the old town of Syracuse, the island of Ortigia. Nowhere you will find as many different architectural styles in one place as here: Baroque, Gothic, Normandic.
Most churches here have a long history: usually they started as Greek temples, then became Byzantine churches, then mosques, only to end as Roman-catholic churches like the current, Baroque cathedral.
After our walk we rest on Piazza Archimede with its gorgeous Art Nouveau fountain which depicts the goddess of hunt Artemis and the nymph Arethusa. This symbolized the bond between Syracuse and ancient Greece.
We continue on our walk to Fonte Aretusa, a rock with a freshwater source at less then 5 meters from the sea, planted with papyrus plants. Ships used to load up with freshwater here.
Archimede lived and died here. It's imaginable that he filled his bath with water from this source when he got his famous brainwave that made him call out "Eureka!"
A wonderful myth explains how this source came into being: a pretty nymph used to bathe in the waters of the Alphee river. The river had inappropriate fantasies about her. So the nymph begged the goddess Artemis (who also is the patron of virginity) to do something.
Artemis changed her into a water source and let her get above ground on the isle of Ortigia. The river was not discouraged and also crossed the sea, and mixed its waters with hers.
We enjoy the memories of the day over a dinner of mussels, seafood pancakes and risotto Ortegiano.
Beautiful temples against the backdrop of a gorgeous landscape
The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento is on our way to Makari where we will stay in a homey hotel on the seaside.
It is a large archeological site with two sections. The section that contains the Castor and Pollux temple is disappointing: a bunch of stones that defies the powers of my imagination. The only thing worthwhile there is the Castor and Pollux temple itself.
The other section makes up for everything, though. Beautiful, well-preserved temples rise against the backdrop of a gorgeous landscape.
The highlight is the Concordia temple (500 BCE) which survived because it was converted into a Christian church in the 6th century. It's one of the best preserved buildings of Greek antiquity and a highlight of Dorian architecture.
Seeing the sea makes us want to take a break. We leave Agrigento and drive north-west to Eraclea Minoa, a tiny coastal town.
Before we arrive at the coast, we cross ceder woods, where crickets and cicadas chirp their enless songs. A little farther it is mixed with the sound of breaking waves. A wide sandy beach and an outdoor bar with thatched roof are waiting for us.
Soon the crickets are drowned out by the sound of the waves. No tourists here, even though this area has the best beaches and beautiful bays. A refreshing drink, a view of the waves, the sun, a bay to the east, chalk cliffs to the west: we stay for a long time.
San Vito la Capo and Erice
The views of the sea and the Aegadian Islands are stunning
We arrive in our hotel in Makari, near San Vito la Capo, north-west of Trapani, an important harbor city. Our hostess Marilu, a philosopher, welcomes us warmly.
The hotel is near the sea and the terrace on which we have breakfast and dinner (Sicilian specialties) offers a great view both of the sea and nearby bays and mountains. At night it's illuminated enchantingly.
The interior of the hotel looks Sicilian; it has typical Sicilian dolls. From our room I watch a beautiful sunset. Only the sea and the sound of crickets break the silence. And the cowbells and bleating of sheep. For a short moment I feel one with history and nature.
In the dark sky I see the same constellations of stars as I do at home, but they look much brighter here. The ancient Greeks and Romans navigated by those same stars on their long sea voyages. The sea is a dark mass, but along the shore silhouettes of mountains stand out against the dark sky.
Today we take it easy. We visit Erice at a short distance of our hotel.
A winding road takes us up a 750 meters high mountain to this medieval village, which has an even longer history.
In antiquity Erice was a fortress, but there are no remains from that period, except for the Normandic era fortifications, which are supported by stones from the 5th century BCE.
It's wonderful to wander through the narrow streets. On the central square a few men sit around and chat. The views of Trapani, the sea and even the Aegadian Islands are stunning.
We stop to admire a Sicilian carretto, a simple farmers wagon which was used in the 19th to transport goods and workers. The origins of the painting on the wagons are unknown; they are made with bright, contrasting colors.
A fight between the environmental movement and the road construction industry (maffia) was decided in favor of preserving what now is the most beautiful and most authentic part of Sicily.
Zingaro nature reserve is named after the small fishers village that was demolished to create the reserve.
We take the path from San Vito la Capo to Scopello. We walk along the blue sea, bays and sandy beaches. On our right side, rocks, hills and caves.
On the way we visit a maritime museum that shows the history of tuna fishing with many pictures. A little farther is an old fisher's cottage, converted into an agrarian museum. It exhibits tools that were used in agriculture. A basket weaver is showing his trade. Half way we decide to go back. It's a ten kilometers long trail and we don't have the time to walk all the way and back.
No paved roads on this island, only steep donkey tracks
Time to relax: we visit the island of Favignana, one of the Aegadian Islands which is also great for biking. There are two ferry companies: Siremat (traditional ferries) and Ustica (hydrofoil). To get there, we take the hydrofoil.
When we arrive on the island, we are surprised that most other passangers don't debark. We don't find a place to rent bikes immediately...
A little later we are told that we are not on Favignana, but on Levanzo, the smallest island, with less than 200 inhabitants. The only village, Levanzo, looks Greek. We find a place to rent bikes, but are warned that the roads here are unpaved, they are only donkey tracks; the terrain is hilly. The mountain bikes we rent are in good condition, but still we fall. But it was a pleasant visit.
We buy tickets for the way back, this time for the slow ferry: it feels more like being on a boat and on the deck you see more, and smell and hear the sea. After 45 minutes we arrive in Trapani. We have to cross the harbor area to get to our car. The harbor is seriously out of date, but they are working hard to modernize it.
A Dorian temple and a Greek theater
The majestic Dorian temple of Segesta (5th century BCE) has withstood time remarkably well. It sits on a hill near Monte Barbaro. The city itself (which is still being excavated) was on top of the hill, where the theater also stands.
I am stunned by the view of this temple: harmony, simplicity, grandeur, and all of that framed by a beautiful landscape.
I feel the fleeting nature and fragility of existence when I look at this landmark. In these temples the gods were worshipped to ask for victory over enemies, but probably also by many people for less spectacular reasons: to ask for healing, to thank for love as a gift of the gods, to ask for forgiveness. And to pray for a good journey and arrival in Hades, the underworld.
These thoughts don't leave me when I climb up the mountain to the theater. The temple gets smaller and smaller and is eventually swallowed by the landscape. The theater offers another incredible view of the suroundings.
The Greeks may have consciously picked this natural backdrop, because the northward orientation of the theater is unusual.
The way back takes less than 15 minutes (half of the time it took to climb to the top) and we are glad we didn't take the shuttle; we would have missed many wonderful views, especially of the temple.
Normandic cathedral with mosaics on its walls and vaults
Monreale is mainly famous for its cathedral. It is, with a cloister, the best known and most beautiful attraction of Sicily.
The Normandic cathedral is famous for the gorgeous mosaics that cover its vaults and walls. They were made by indefatigable Byzantian and Arabic mosaic artisans.
The Christ Pancreator looks sternly at every corner of the cathedral; an optic illusion gives the visitor the feeling of being watched by it everywhere.
The mosaics, on a gilded background, depict Old and New Testament scenes. I can't fathom how much work and planning were needed to make these dozens of square meters of mosaics and all of it at such an altitude. We can't enjoy this wonderful work of art very long, because a young couple is waiting to get married.
Next to the cathedral is the Benedictine monastery with its wonderful cloister: 228 slender double columns with diverse and detailed decorations. They were built with great patience by Byzantine and Muslim artisans.
In the south-west corner of the monastery's garden is a Moorish, somewhat Spanish looking fountain. Legend has it that ladies who wash their hands in it, immediately get ten years younger. After she washes her hands, I look at my wife, and yes: she seems very relaxed, her eyes and hair shine and also her skin has a beautiful, tan hue. So I guess it works.
Narrow medieval streets with views of the sea
This is our last day, but because we have a direct flight from Catania to Brussels, we still have lots of time.
Exploring Cefalù is a joy in and by itself. The narrow medieval streets offer views of the sea at every turn. And then there are shops, of course.
We skip the fashionable beach, we have found someplace quieter and more sublime: on Piazzo Francesco Crispi, next to the Chiesa dell' Itra, stairs lead to rocks by the sea.
I sit down and watch and listen to the violence of the waves, which are at least 3 meters high, despite windless weather. The waves crash in huge white foam on the large, dark rocks. To my ears it sounds like music.
A lone seagull floats over the bay. To the north I see the old fishermen's cottages. Small, dilapidated, but beautiful. These fishermen must have had hard lives.
A meeting with former compatriots
We drive to Catania, but first we visit Enna, the center of Sicily. The highway to Enna leads along wonderful Sicilian landscapes. We cross a dozens of kilometers long viaduct. We see Enna from afar. Opposite Enna is an attractive little village, perched on top of a hill like an eagle's nest: Calascibetta.
We take a short walk, look at the panoramic view and decide to have a drink in the local bar (a "bar" in Sicily is both a place to drink liquor, an ice-cream parlor and a pastry bakery). We meet two Sicilians who have worked in Belgium for thirty years and who have now returned to their village of origin. They are fluent in French and we have a conversation. They never got used to Belgium's climate. And they were homesick all those years for the village where they grew up as kids. I understand them. I already feel homesick for Sicily.