Stepping back Through an Enthralling History
Mark Nicholls explores the mysteries and intrigue of classical Sicily
The hilltop town of Erice is a historical gem. A small community overlooking the coast of Sicily, it is full of the landmarks of centuries past; the grey edifice of a cathedral, watchtowers, fortified walls with arched gates, churches tucked away into quiet corners and a strategic castle. Narrow streets of uniform cobbles lead upwards to a central square while through alleys, flowers tumble over balconies and laundry flaps from upper windows. These are the characteristics of Erice, sitting 750m above the Mediterranean shoreline and a bastion of history on an island criss-crossed with such hilltop gems and fortified towns.
The journey to Erice passes the glistening salt pans of Trapani set against a backdrop of windmills and the small island of Mozia. Now peaceful, it gives little hint of the brutal carnage that occurred here in the 3rd century BC when the Romans laid siege and then slaughtered the resident Carthaginian community. The switchback ascent to Erice is impressive, up to what is now a mediaeval town. Yet as with most Sicilian strongholds, it has a history reaching back two millennia or more to a time when the Greeks and Romans built temples and amphitheatres or Saracen invaders established mosques.
Today, devoutly Catholic, visitors are struck by the solidity of Frederick III’s watchtower which somewhat overshadows the simple exterior of the 14th century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. But allow yourself to be enticed within, to the bright interior, to admire – if nothing else – the ornate nave ceiling. Erice’s cobbles lead to small shops and stalls selling pottery, jewellery, linen, wood carvings and souvenirs, lovely cafes and restaurants and the castle and gardens with spectacular views over the landscape and shoreline below.
While Sicily may have gained notoriety more recently as a base for the Mafia, it is an island that has been stamped by the indelible imprint and influences of all those who have conquered, settled and passed through over thousands of years. The Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans and Spanish left an incredible legacy; from colossal Greek temples, stunning Roman amphitheatres and villas, Arab-era fortresses and Norman Cathedrals, that have withstood the ravages of time before the island became part of Italy in the 1860s.
With a wonderful landscape, delicious cuisine, delightful villages and towns, coastal resorts and the backdrop of the volatile Mount Etna – which continues to demonstrate its ferocity with frequent eruptions as seen most recently in mid-March – Sicily becomes an irresistible island to visit. I joined a group from Explore, a company specialising in small group adventure, activity and cultural holidays in a journey across the island which started in the UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Syracuse and the island of Ortygia.
With its pleasant streets, impressive Duomo and views over the coast, it is also renowned for a Greek amphitheatre nearby that once held 18,000 citizens. The limestone quarries from which the structure was built left a cavern known as the “Ear of Dionysius” because of its acoustics, but it was also to prove an inspiration almost 2,000 years later to the renowned Counter Reformation artist, Caravaggio. “When he saw the cave he noted it was very dark inside but after mid-day the sun shone through a small opening and this proved an inspiration for his use of light,” explained my guide Carmine Corsa. “With Caravaggio, everything was black or white, dark or light. He saw the cave in this condition and reproduced what he saw and used it as the background in a number of his paintings.” That is most visible in the Burial of St Lucia, which currently hangs above the altar in the church of St Lucia near the Duomo on the island of Ortygia.
Journeying across Sicily takes you through a landscape of rolling hillsides lined with olives and vines, distant red patches of poppies with isolated hilltop castles visible in the distance and beautiful towns. One such town in the heart of Sicily is Piazza Amerina. As afternoon mellows into early evening and the light softens, the façade of the Duomo glows a shade of caramel while the mediaeval town falls away below, with red tiled roofs creating a patchwork vista.
A few miles away is Villa Romana del Casale, arguably the most impressive Roman site on Sicily with mosaics which were hidden and preserved by a mudslide triggered by the erupting Etna. Portraying tales from across the Roman Empire, the most famous mosaic is of the so-called “bikini girls” showing young women practising athletic sports.
On the southern coast, Agrigento, a town made famous in more recent times as the setting for the Inspector Montalbano books and the subsequent TV series, was once the site of 15 temples arcing around the modern city. Today, two dominate: the temple Hera Lakinia dating from 460 BC, and the Temple of Concordia. With a population of 200,000 and the third largest Greek city after Athens and Syracuse, the temples were built by 30,000 Carthaginian slaves over a mere 74 years. And for those with a passion for Doric temples, the temple of Segesta is colossal, solid and simply fabulous.
I also found the Norman ecclesiastical legacy impressive, particularly Monreale Cathedral a few miles away from the capital Palermo. Founded in 1174 by William the Good, within is 9,000 square metres of glittering mosaics using 1,000kg of gold, while nearby are the atmospheric cloisters where Benedictine monks walked between services.
Yet no visit to Sicily would be complete without ascending Mount Etna….eruptions permitting. Wisps of smoke drift from the summit at 3330m but her influence is everywhere; such as in the fishing town of Cefalu where steps lead down to a mediaeval laundry where the river flows through stone channels with clothes scrubbed on slabs for lather…inevitably made of lava. The slopes of Mt Etna offer spectacular views across the Sicilian landscape, where all who have passed through have left their imprint.
Mark Nicholls travelled on Explore’s eight-day Classical Sicily trip. At £1,199 per person, it includes return flights, seven nights’ bed and breakfast hotel accommodation, transport and the services of an Explore Leader, driver and local guides, with departures between now and October. For more information call 01252 884723 or visit www.explore.co.uk