Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.
A month is a trickle of time to tackle Sicily’s landscape, temples, and architecture. I flew into Northwestern Sicily, next to the calm Ionian Sea but under the feared and loved eye of the Mount Etna Volcano. I landed in Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The other two sites I visited were Syracuse and Valle dei Templi in Agrigento.
Sicily sits at the heart of the Mediterranean, cradled by three different seas–the Mediterranean, Tyrrhenian, and Ionian. The island is defined by its varied landscape and its tumultuous history. Centuries of domination from the Greco-Punic wars (580-265BC), six more centuries of Roman Empire rule, barbarian invasions, Byzantine rule, Arab rule, under which the island experienced an extended period of prosperity and tolerance, followed by the Normans, who also allowed diverse cultures to live in harmony and peace. Between 1812-1409, the Aragonese and the Bourbons ruled; both exploited the island. Each conqueror etched its cultural imprint on Sicily. Sicilians will tell you that their affable, yet reserved hospitality and acceptance of others is an evolutionary link to their history. Their strong sense of identity, independence, and generosity is unique to this island.
I had booked a day hike on one of the world’s most active stratovolcanos. Our guide and seven strangers–a Danish and British couple and three American exchange students–set out early morning in a van. Etna is 143,260 acres of fire, snow, vegetation,and lava. Our group was fortunate to hike the volcano on a rare sunny day, permitting exceptional views. Our guide explained that Etna is notorious for volcanic activity, but vital to scientific research. We started at the base of Nicolosi in Mount Etna Regional National Park, and although we were not hiking to the top, I felt the altitude shift in my lungs. The lower terrain of Etna consists of forested trees and scrub; popular, beech, birch and pine trees thrive here. It wasn’t until we encountered lava caves and craggy lava at higher levels that the ferocity of this giant, which continually erupts, became apparent. The rich volcanic soil in this region also produces some of the finest wines in Sicily. Everyone but the three students were huffing and puffing as we reached our destination to snap a photo (seen below at the end of the article). Before descending, the guide retrieved a bottle of wine from his knapsack and rewarded our efforts with a little tasting.
Catania-Northeastern Sicily: Catania is the second largest city in Sicily with wide streets, boutiques, restaurants, and the oldest university in Sicily. The most interesting part of the city, however, lies within the old quarter. The heart of the city intersects at Via Etnea and Via Vittorio Emanuele II. Catania boasts stunning Baroque architecture from the facade of the Cathedral dedicated to Saint Agatha on Piazza Duomo to Teatro Massimo Bellini, named for the Catania-born composer, Vincenzo Bellini on Via Perrotta. Strolling Catania’s boulevards and narrow streets is the best way to understand the city. Or follow your nose, which might lead you to the Mercato delle Peshceria, a bustling morning fish market, or Pasticceria Savia, unabashedly the most popular Pasticceria in Catania where it seems everyone comes to buy daily baked sweets and small pizzas, all handed over wrapped in paper and tied with a string.
Taormina was not on my itinerary; nevertheless, it’s considered Sicily’s most beautiful village, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Ionian Sea. Relenting, I boarded the hour bus ride from Catania, which deposits passengers at the top of the village. Cars are not allowed in villages, so drivers park below and climb up the winding road. This is Sicily’s preferred summer residence, associated with the wealthy, aristocrats, tourists, and the site of the splendid Greco-Roman Teatro Antico, built during the Hellenistic age, rebuilt during the Roman period and seating 5,000 spectators. It’s still used today for performances. That alone was worth the trip, but so was wending around the winding alleys and stopping for fresh squeezed orange juice. Sicily is renowned for some of the world’s sweetest arancia rossa and arancia navel.
I rented a car at Catania airport and set out for Syracuse with its 2700 years of cultural diversity and, a 33-mile straight shot from Catania. Google maps routed me along a country road rather than the direct highway.
Everything was hunky dory until I neared Ortygia, the focal point of Syracuse, and where google maps had a baffled breakdown. After driving in circles for an hour, I crossed the bridge into Ortygia, and realized I couldn’t enter Via Roma, the narrow pedestrian street where my bed and breakfast was located. I called the B&B.
Marco, a slender man with a Stanley Tucci haircut, strode toward my car, slid in beside me and directed the little black Fiat to the garage where it would rest for 20 euros a day until I drove it outside Ortygia. “You are wonder woman driving all over Sicily by yourself. I use my Vespa,” exclaimed Paula, the owner of the B&B and Marco’s partner. I assured her I wasn’t wonder woman; scooting about on a Vespa scared me more than Italian drivers.
Paula handed me a list of places to explore: the Temple of Apollo, the oldest extant Doric temple in Europe from the 6th century BC, the Greek theater, considered the most important examples of ancient architecture designed in the 5th century BC, The Fountain of Artemis, the splendid Baroque Domo, and the fish market. The Greek Theater still performs plays that were originally performed in the theater 2500 years ago.
I spent most of one day in the vast theater, intrigued by the Latomie, a huge hollow that separates the theater area of the site. These are colossal caves once used as prisons among the stone quarries. The Ear of Dionysius –Orecchio di Dioniso is not only an impressive quarry, but legend notes the extraordinary acoustics in this cave enabled the tyrant Dionysius to hear the prisoners when they whispered.
My experience with the Sicilians tells me their generosity is genetic: If I looked perplexed or lost, immediately someone was beside me offering directions, or the Syracusan gallery owner who at closing time explained the algorithms on his computer, and how he sketched them before creating his art. Most surprising was a young woman who jumped in my car to guide me around the outskirts of Ortygia when I was hopelessly lost, and the fish market where, on a whim, I ordered a plate of fried fish and bottle of mineral water. The plate was immense; I couldn’t finish half of it. The waiter looked crestfallen, but I said I had a little stomach. “Okay, I will deduct a few euros from your bill,” which he did.
On the advice of my Italian neighbors in San Francisco, I had booked a B&B in Agrigento on the Southwestern slice of Sicily. The long drive from Syracuse was a marvel of arid plateaus, coastal cliffs and miles of Mediterranean beaches leading to the stunning classical Greek metropolis–Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the raison d’etre for tourism in Agrigento.
I arrived at B&B Amore around 3:00pm with a code to enter. Most Bed and Breakfast owners don’t live on the premises in Sicily, and they send you a code if you don’t arrive in the morning during breakfast. I punched in the code. Sshazam; the heavy blue door opened into a patio. Not a soul in sight and I couldn’t get back out the locked door. My cell phone had no WIFI connection to call the owner, so I started yelling through a closed gate “aiutami per favore” to a workman across the street who didn’t hear me. After 30-minutes yelling for help and prowling around the patio searching for an exit, I put a patio chair next to a solid side brick wall to climb up and leap to freedom in the neighbor’s yard. The jump down was farther than I had anticipated, maybe 9 feet, so I returned to the patio, tossed a second chair alongside the neighbor’s wall, pushed myself onto the top of the wall from the B&B, sidled down to the neighbor’s yard thinking this is ridiculous at my age. I jogged to the neighbors locked gate and managed to explain my predicament to the worker and a younger woman across the street. She called the owner of the yard I was stranded in to open the gate and liberate me. An older gentleman waddled down the steep stairs, and once again my dilemma was repeated to him. His wife followed. “How did I get into their yard?” she asked. ” I vaulted over the wall,” I replied. “The wall,” she questioned incredulously. The story was repeated to the wife by the woman across the street and I had the feeling my little saga was going viral around the neighborhood.
Liberated, I thanked the elderly couple profusely, plugged my phone into the car socket, and called the owner, who came immediately, and showed me the hidden button to exit near the kitchen. He then escorted me to the front of the building to another door and using the same code let me in my own private entrance with a garden and lovely room. Unfortunately, it drizzled or rained the entire time I was in Agrigento, so no evening cocktail in the garden, but the room was divine as was the breakfast and my strolls on the beach across the street from my room.
I’d come to Agrigento to see and explore Valle dei Templi, which is considered the most impressive Hellenic architecture in Sicily. The 1300 hectares reigns atop a massive swath of hilly land overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. There is a western and eastern entrance to the site a few miles far apart; I entered at the eastern spur at The Temple of Juno Lacinia built between 460-430BC and explored the site on foot for five hours.
Two thousand years ago this valley was a thriving city, a network of streets, houses and sanctuaries dedicated to deities of the Greek Olympus. The Temple of Concordia remains in a near perfect state because, in 579 AD, Gregory, Bishop of Agrigento, converted it into a church. Yes, the Romans were here too. The Christian necropolis contain simple graves and sarcophagi with a complex layout.
To witness the temples lighted during the evening or at sunset rivals a whisper of sacredness. Agrigento was the most important Greek center in its prime. The Temple of Hercules, and the Sanctuary of Deities, still standing 2000 years after construction, are a testament to the skill and wealth that once dominated the Valle dei Templi.
On my last day in Agrigento, I planned to drive to the outskirts and visit the birthplace of the late Luigi Pirandello, the Sicilian dramatist, novelist, and Nobel Prize winner for Literature as well as the house of the late Andrea Camilleri, beloved writer, and author of the Inspector Montalbano detective books, later made into a TV series, and set along Sicily’s Southwestern coast. However, the rain dampened all good intentions, and I headed inland to Catlagirone, but that’s another story.
IF YOU GO:
Small Bed and Breakfast rooms are available at: Il Cortiletto di Piazza Verga- via Ramondette 9, Catania; Il Salotto di Maria Pia B&B- Via Roma 45, Siracusa, https://www.ilsalottodimariapia.it; Ammare rooms, 2 Via Giorgio de Chirico, Agrigento, https://www.ammarerooms.it ; Pasticceria Savia- corner of Via Etnea and Vica Umberto, Catania. Visit included websites for more information.