Sicily. An island the size of a country. A country within a country. A place full of history and stories. Stories about its ancient roots, stories about its developing present. And last but not least, the unfolding story of its future.
Lying in the southern most part of Italy, Sicily is shaped by its surrounding neighbor—the sea. The Ionic Sea in the eastern part, the Tyrrhenian Sea in the north and the Mediterranean Sea in the southern and western parts of the island.
One can get to Sicily by sea or by air. By sea, the options are plenty. Either from Italy, with one of the many cruises offered by the travel agencies, especially in the tourist season (May till end of September). Or from any other country that has a sea harbor (either in Europe, Africa or the rest of the world). By air, the options are fewer. Two, actually. One can choose between the capital of the Island—Palermo, with an international airport, or Catania Fontanarossa, with a much smaller airport, for low cost and smaller planes and flights. Unfortunately there is no option to get there by land. Not yet, because the Italian government is working to approve a plan in order to build a bridge that will connect the town of Messina to the mainland in Italy.
The people are warm and very kind, no matter the context. Be it inside a store, a market or on the street. Always helpful and willing to be of assistance. Is it the warm weather that makes them behave like this, or is it just their natural way of being? I guess it will remain a mystery. Nevertheless, I like it. And I’m sure every tourist feels the same. Just to give you a couple of examples. While we were waiting for the bus to arrive, on the last day, a short warm rain started and it lasted for a couple of minutes. In the same bus station, a man was waiting for someone to arrive on the same bus. Seeing it has started to rain, he pulled the car closer to us, opened the backdoor of the car and invited us to take shelter there and inside the car.
Once you arrive in Sicily, there is much to see and little time to live it all. Nevertheless, do not worry. For there is an itinerary option for every tourist. One of the best ways to visit the island is by car. For it gives you endless options. This way you can see more towns or villages in a day, or you can decide to spend an entire day in a single place and then return to the place you came from. If you decide you don’t want to rent a car, the way I did, whatever your reasons might be, you are just fine. There are plenty of options this way too. I went to Sicily this late autumn, in October, together with my family and friends. We took a flight to Catania Fontanarossa and, once there, we took a bus to our accommodation village: Avola. There are two main companies that run buses on the island: AST and Interbus. They kind of complete each other, so you should be just fine with your travels. Nevertheless, if I were to visit Sicily again, I would certainly rent a car for some longer distances (such as Palermo or Etna). Especially if you are more tourists, it is easier and almost more affordable (although I found the prices for general transportation to be very acceptable). To give you a hint on the prices on transportation, here is an approximation on some of them, as I recall:
Note: the following are my recommendations for places to see and visit, including bits of history, and worthwhile sights to see in each area.
“A town of a geometrical harmony, with straight roads, large squares, and architecture of light and fantasy”. Vincenzo Consolo
Rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake that destroyed to the grounds the old town, Avola is the work of the Jesuit Angelo Italia, whose inspiration came from the ideal models of the old fortresses. The town is placed in the middle of the “mandorla” gardens that accompany the tourist coming from Syracuse. First brought from Central Asia, the almond is one of the few species to blossom in winter time. The Greeks were the first to bring it in the Mediterranean basin between the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. And it was in the provinces of Ragusa and Syracuse that the almond became world known as “la mandorla di Avola” (the Avola Almond).
Once inside the historical center of the town, one way to see it is to follow the three main moments of the architectural history, namely the baroque, the neoclassic and the liberty style. Since this article is not meant to be a guide for the architectural attractions of Sicily, I will only mention them, leaving the pleasure of discovering them to the curious tourist.
What is worth visiting? First of all, the church of Saint Giovanni Battista, on Vittorio Emanuele Avenue. Recently renovated, it bears the same distinct deep blue color that can be found in every church from Sicily. It is said that this color, Azure, (Azzurro, as the Italians call it) was dedicated to all the churches in 1854, by the Pope of that time. He argued that Azure should be a specific color to represent the chastity of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus. To get an idea of the color that enriches every church in Sicily, try to imagine the purest deep blue of the sky that can be seen only in the hot summer days, when you almost feel that time stands still.
The largest square in Avola is called Umberto the First, at the intersection of the two main avenues of the town. Here one can visit the Mother Church, dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Mira and later on to Saint Sebastian as well. In Queen Helen Square, there is to be found the Church of Saint Anthony. Also worth visiting is the church of Saint Venera, the patron saint of Avola. The baroque of Avola also comprises the Guttadauro Palace, on Linneo Street.
The neoclassic is mainly about the Theatre in the Theatre Square and the Fruit Market on the Street of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Last but not least, the liberty style is the richest in southern Sicily. Present since the beginning of the last century, it can be seen on several streets and avenues such as Vittorio Emanuele, Milano, Zola or Gaetano D’Agata.
Other places worth visiting in Avola include the Ancient Avola (Avola Antica), situated high on the hills that guard the town. It is a good 8-10km up to Ancient Avola, so a car is advised but not mandatory. Unfortunately there are no buses that go there, so the only options are renting a car or a taxi from one of the travel agencies, a bike, or the good old way available to almost everyone—on foot. Still take into account that it is a good 4-5 hours to get from Avola to Ancient Avola and Cava Grande and around 3-4 hours to get back. So is best to travel light and start early in the morning, to avoid the heat. Nevertheless, wear something against the winds and rain. And for the photographers, do take some sort of waterproof bag, since the weather can change rapidly.
The last mentioned site is also a great place of interest, especially if the weather is fine. Cava Grande is the largest canyons in Sicily, at an altitude of around 500 meters, it represents a series of lakes and water basins of a wild beauty, with colors ranging from turquoise to green and blue. It forms the Cassibile River that later flows into the sea in the town bearing the same name. A favorite place during summer both for the inhabitants of Avola and tourists as well, it can sometimes be closed during periods of bad weather. We had this bad luck, since it rained a day before, so we could only see it from above. Still, the scenery is breathtaking and worth the climb. The descent is also rewarding, since you pass through the walls and buildings of Ancient Avola, getting a good idea of how it could have looked in the past. And the panorama over Avola is one of a kind.
Both for the quiet tourist and for the early-rising photographer, I suggest visiting the Tonnara (Il Tonnara). This is an old tuna factory situated on the beach (Lido Avola), actually the ruins of the former factory, giving a great background for the sunrise photography.
Along the beach, between the marina of Noto and Marzamemi, there are the Oasis of Vendicari, a unique natural reservation. Created in 1984, operational from 1989, Vendicari represents a narrow strip of marshy coastline stretching over some 575 ha. Here the visitor can discover an interesting mixture between the natural relief and the entropic one. A unique combination of fresh and salt water, sand, rocks, dunes and the traces of man, in the Svevic Tower, the Tonnara, the Saline, the Byzantine church of Trigona. Although it would be expected to be a rather hostile environment due to the increased salinity level, it actually turned out to be a balanced ecosystem with a great variety of migrating birds such as grey heron, little egret, white and black stork, greater flamingo, slender-billed, audouin’s gulls, teal, shoveler, pintail, mallard, tufted duck, pochard and red-crested pochard. Or, some of the species that breed here: black-winged stilt (white body, black wings, long red legs)—adopted as the emblem of Vendicari, as well as Kentish plover, little tern, reed warbler and little bittern. Recently, a new species has been discovered, the Stenus angelinii, thus increasing the scientific interest of the specialists.
Neas—the city of the necropolis and archeology. In the fifth century B.C., the city leader Ducezio has defended it against the Greek attacks, and later moved it from the high areas of Mendola close to mount Alveria, fortifying it with high strong walls, and surrounded by deep impassable valleys. Center for art and culture, Neas then becomes Neaton during the Greek civilization, Netum during the Romans, Noto or Capovalle (the End of the Valley) during the Arabs. Then more civilizations follow. The Normans, the Svevics, the Aragons, the Spaniols. Therefore, the city receives all kinds of names, such as “the Famous”, “the Ingenious”, according to its main characteristic “the city never captured” (Urbs nunquam vi capta). Demolished to the ground during the 1693 earthquake, the city was rebuilt starting from 1700, according to a well planed geometrical urban plan, with parallel and perpendicular streets, with imposing stairs and squares reminding of the suspended terraces of Semiramide. Artists and masters such as Gagliardi, Sinatra or Labisi, carved and created this “Garden of Stone”, as it is called by Cesare Brandi, who sees it as an architectural and urban work of art. Some of the sites worth visiting include places such as the Marconi Square or the Public Gardens.
The curious eye of a photographer can not but wonder in front of the thousands of shapes and lines that form on this masterpiece as the sun is playing hide and seek behind the clouds. The stone chosen for the main buildings is also one of the secrets behind this work of art, for it becomes honey like in color when it glows in the sun.
The resulting style is indeed unique. And therefore it is called “the Noto Baroque”.
One of the most interesting tourist manifestations is the Infiorata on Nicolaci Street during the celebration of the Baroque Spring. On this occasion, the pavement of Nicolaci Street is covered with flowers in all its 122 meters length. Geranium petals, wild flowers, mirth, caruba or caruba seeds, all form an incredible show of scents, colors and lights (from the reflectors placed especially on this occasion).
Situated in the extreme south of Sicily, Portopalo, is the most southern village on the island and in Europe (if we exclude the island of Malta). Here you can actually have the sense of being at the end of the world. Although inhabited, it has that specific air of being secluded. It is here, between the Island of Capo Passero and the Island of Currents that the Ionic and the Mediterranean Seas meet. So bathing or diving here means that you can actually try both seas. The Island of Capo Passero is a natural reservation of fossil limestone, acknowledged as a biotype reservation by many botanical associations. Most imposing though is the Svevic—Aragonese Fortress, built and reinforced in several times and centuries, with the sole purpose to defend the area against the pirates attacks from the former centuries. For a proper description of the area of Portopalo of Capo Passero, read some of the works of the French writer Dominique Fernandez, whose home has been Portopalo for some twenty years.
We visited Etna as well. And although the distance from Avola was not too long, the options to get there with a bus were more complicate. Therefore, we decided to talk to a travel agency and negotiate a sort of trip to Etna. Thus, we negotiated the transportation for six persons from Avola to the Volcano. And it was a very good decision, for it proved to be a long journey with multiple connections. If we were to go to Etna by bus, the option would have been to take a bus from Avola to Catania, then a different bus from Catania (and a different firm) to Etna. And the same connections on the way back. And since we were in the “winter” season, the buses could have run less often than in summer time. So, the “taxi” option was great. And we had the best of luck to encounter a great driver who used to drive tourist buses in Sicily, Italy and other European countries. He not only drove us, but also gave a lesson in geography, history and local traditions and stories. And I will mention a few in the following lines.
It took us a couple of hours to get to Etna. In a straight line and without any stops, it takes less than two hours from Avola to Etna (around 115 km). We, on the other hand, made a couple of stops, first in a small coastal town called Belvedere, in the neighborhood of Syracuse. Here we visited an ancient Greek fortress called Euryale (in translation, it means “nail head”). This fortress was the only building of this type raised by the Greeks in Sicily. Yet it was no ordinary fortress, but the place where the great mathematician Archimedes used to make his calculations. It was here that he used his famous binoculars and mirrors to scrutinize and alert for the incoming vessels in the harbor of Syracuse. Unfortunately, it was here too where he met his end. It is said that one day, as usual, he was walking between the fortress walls. Although the soldiers have been warned about his wanderings in the fortress city and ordered to leave him alone, one day things took a wrong turn. Busy with his calculations, he paid no attention to the fact that he has reached a place off limits to any civilian. The soldier in charge with the security in that day, without seeing that the “intruder” was Archimedes and without any warning, stabbed him and wounded him mortally.
After Belvedere, we headed for Catania, a beautiful city by the sea, as you probably guessed. From here, we changed a bit the direction, heading for the mountains. We passed through a series of small villages and made a short stop in Nicolosi, the last mountain village before arriving to the southern part of Etna. As many of the villages and cities around Etna, Nicolosi has had its share of explosions. Yet, being so near to Etna, has seen them up close. In fact, in the last explosion that occurred in 2001, the lava stopped less than 1 km away from this small village. As a reminder of how real and near the danger of eruptions really is, there is a big volcanic rock exposed in the center of the village from an explosion that occurred in 1669.
Leaving this village behind, the road climbed higher and higher towards an altitude of around 1900m. On the way, the shapes changed and changed again. New hotels and buildings lying on top of the old ones. Some with funny stories, some more tragic. Again, a reminder of the volcano being alive and active. Out of the more funny stories, one in particular caught my attention. It is a story about an explosion that occurred some 70 years ago, when the lava came downhill towards an area where two constructions were. One, on the right side of the road, was a church. The other, on the left side, a monastery. The church is to this day covered in hardened lava and ash. Yet the monastery is still intact. Further more, even the road leading to the monastery is intact. Actually, to a more careful inspection, one can see that the lava has split in two right before the monastery, flowing on the left and right sides of the building. And now comes the funny part. In order to come up with a “scientific” explanation to this happening, the locals of that time said that the reason why the sisters managed not only to escape but also to salvage the monastery was because they lifted up their skirts as the lava reached near them, thus making it go around them. A little bad joke, of course. Yet funny.
And yet another funny story tells about two ancient volcanoes, now inactive: Montirossi. These tow very alike mountains have been dedicated by the locals to one of Italy’s sweetheart, Sophia Loren. More precisely, the locals dedicated these two volcanoes by comparing them, as seen from the distance, with her bosom. I can’t help wondering what she might have thought about this.
Some 1900 meters above sea level, we stopped to admire the volcanoes. Here there is a huge parking lot for all the travelers that arrive here, either by cars, minivans, buses or bikes. All around the parking are tents of souvenir shops and small restaurants and bars—everything for the hungry and eager tourist, from awful kitsch to outstanding lava sculptures. From T-shirts depicting Marlon Brando as “Il Padrino” (The Godfather) to wonderful pieces of artistic creativity, the tourist can have it all. If the weather is not so good, the tourist signs invite you to get a glimpse of the last explosion that occurred just near the parking. There is also a natural made cave from the 2001 eruption, and a restaurant near this cave stands as a reminder and tourist attraction for the force and unpredictability of the volcano, where the lava has literally stopped at the window of the construction. If the weather and visibility permit, one can see as far as the sea. Snow can fall on the mountain slopes at altitudes higher than 2000 meters, so proper clothing is advised. Even in summer time temperatures can plummet as low as 15 or even 10 degrees. Being so vast, Etna almost has its own micro climate, so sudden temperature changes are not unusual.
If the tourist wants to visit more, there are options for the interesting part is just beginning. The active volcano and the molten lava can be seen only from an altitude of 2500 meters or more. And to get there, one must take a special cabin up to 2500 meters, and then a new one up to around 3300 meters. And here a group of specialized guides will guide the group around the volcano. All this at the cost of 51 euros. This is worth doing, depending on the weather.
One of the richest cities historically, and one of the most beautiful cities in the Mediterranean, Syracuse still has the greatness from ancient times. Founded in 734 BC on an ancient site, Syracuse is divided into 5 areas, Ortigia being the most important and most visited. Akradina, Naples, Tiche and Epipolis are the other four regions prior mentioned. Ortigia, a small island in the south of Syracuse, has had its share of civilizations: Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Svevics, Spaniels and many more. Since 2005, Syracuse was included into the Unesco heritage, and anyone can see why the minute they cross the Umberto bridge and enter Ortigia. On the right, just before the bridge, there is a small marina, with a couple of small boats and a distinct metal sculpture representing an anchor. Right after the bridge one of the first major place to visit is the Temple of Apollo, in a specific Greek Doric style. Heading towards the Dome Square, one can see a series of impressive buildings called palaces (for their outstanding architecture), such as Impellizeri, Pizzuti, Bufardeci, or the Mergulese Palace built in 1397. An impressive promenade is offered by Via Roma, where edifices such as the Church of Saint Mary, Palace Bonnano or Palace Ardizzone. And last but not least, the most important square on the island, the Dome Square, which hosts the Palace of the Senate, Palace Beneventano and the Cathedral, with an astonishing baroque façade. The Cathedral was built on top of an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess of Athens, of which remained only the Doric columns now incorporated in the walls. Perpendicular to the Cathedral lies the Church of Saint Lucia, with a strong baroque influence, rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake.
And last but not least, a Unesco World Heritage Site—Modica. A jewel on the Sicilian island, it is difficult to tell the story of this incredible city. The one and a half hour trip that we took by train did not prepare us for the images that we saw there. The trip itself was very pleasant and offered lots of different facets of Sicily. From green plains and orchards teeming with lemon trees to steep ravines of the Hyblaean mountains, as we approached Modica. And when we entered the city, the first thing we laid our eyes on was a huge bridge, crossing a huge deep valley, the same valley that shelters Modica.
Founded around 1300 BC, inhabited since the 7th Century BC by the Sicels, the city became Roman province after the Punic Wars, a millennium later. Like Syracuse and Noto, Modica also had its share of occupation. First the Christians (around year 61 AD), then the Byzantines took over in 535 AD. After, the Arabs occupied the city in 845 AD, till 1091, when the Normans conquered it. Finally, in 1960, Modica was annexed to Italy. Destroyed in the 1693 earthquake like much of the island, it was rebuilt mostly in a baroque style. The city is divided in two main areas: higher and lower Modica, interconnected with tenths and hundreds of steps. The most impressive building is the Church of Saint George, high above a lovely garden and a balcony covered with flowers. Also impressive, on top of the city, is the Counts Castle, with a breathtaking view.
Of course, getting there means climbing all the hundreds of steps earlier mentioned (254 steps, to be more precise). No doubt, it is something worth doing. Also, at the base of the city lays another architectural marvel, the Church of Saint Peter, most famous for its twelve apostles. The Palace of Mercedari, the Church of Our Lady of Bethlehem and the native houses of Salvatore Quasimodo (who has been awarded the Nobel prize for literature) are also on the list of places to absolutely visit in Modica. And speaking of musts, tasting the chocolate in Modica is one of them. With an ancient Aztec recipe at its base and brought to perfection over 400 years of continuous preparation, the modican chocolate is truly an art, whether you taste it, photograph it or simply watch the entire process.
Throughout our stay and visits in Sicily, of course we had our share of funny and strange happenings. Since there were many, I’ll only mention two of them. One took place in one of our first nights in Avola, while taking a walk in the center of the town. When we arrived in Umberto the 1st Square, we stopped in awe, as hundreds of men were gathered there, talking to each other, some in smaller groups and other in groups of tenths. And in the entire square, no women. Only men. The next night, the same. Surely enough, we were determined to find out more about that strange habit. So one day, we asked a local guide from a travel agency and he explained us that the reason behind that habit was economic. Meaning, since centuries ago, the men gathered with hundreds and even thousands in the main square of the city, so that anyone interested could hire them and their services. Each group represented a guild, thus being easier to find out the craftsman one needed. And since old habits last long, centuries later, the men still gather in the same old main square, to offer their services. Or perhaps just to talk.
One other funny story that is also worth mentioning is the Sicilians wonder every time they saw us swimming in the sea. Because for them October means the winter season, even though the temperatures were still high enough for sunbathing and swimming. The air temperature was 31-32 degrees Celsius and the water was around 21-22. So, for anyone used to below zero temperatures, that was quite a pleasant summer temperature. So everyone had its share of fun. The Sicilians wondering at us, as we were swimming in the “winter” season, us laughing as we saw them in winter clothes.
There are so many things to tell about Sicily and Sicilians. Not Italian, though with Italian influences. Also Greek, Roman, Svevic, Aragonian, Arab, Norman, Spanish. European, yet at the edge of Europe. Situated in a highly strategic place between Europe and Africa, it was attacked, conquered and shaped by the many civilizations that arrived here. The same did the three seas that met here. The Ionic, the Tyrrhenian and the Mediterranean also shaped the character of the Sicilians and history of this unique place, in a way that brought it to its present state. A window into our history, a place of wonder, with natural and man made curiosities and attractions and, last but not least, an excellent tourist and photography destination. Those that don’t believe this, go see for yourself. And those who do believe, do the same. Go see Sicily!
Text and photos ©2010 Sebastian Vaida.