Mount Etna is always referred to as a female in Sicily, even as a mother figure. She smothers the defeated monster Typhon and protects the local inhabitants. That’s a different way of seeing one of the world’s most active volcanoes! Mama Etna had been shrouded in clouds and mist since we arrived in Sicily. We drove past and around it several times, but Taormina, our last destination in Sicily, was all about the smoking mountain.
The drive from Polizzi Generosa to Taormina was long and demanding, even with Pietro’s local knowledge of ‘shortcuts’ to get to the highway. I didn’t mind travelling the last winding, rough roads and had come to terms with the hairpin bends (by closing my eyes mostly). Our memories of the Madonie mountains and nature reserve will always be special. Eventually we were on the autostrada, travelling very fast, but being overtaken by those driving even faster. And woe betide any car that gets in their way!
Our new bed and breakfast was in Giardini Naxos, a little way south of Taormina, which is incredibly expensive. Villa Chiarenza is a stunning old villa with Roman remains scattered around, mixed with hundreds of terracotta pots of succulents and cacti. It was apparently a nunnery originally and has been renovated and used for hospitality for about forty years.
Our drive from Agrigento to the next destination was not a long one, so we decided to take a side trip to Villa Romano. It is reputed to have some of the best preserved mosaics in the world. Sometimes it is hard to plan without clear information, and this was the case for this trip.
By the time we arrived, we were at the furthest extent of a massive parking area, radiating heat in the midday sun. We also had all our luggage in the car and had read too many forums about tourists losing everything they owned out of a rental car! We decided to take it in turns.
So I set off first, and realised as I toiled up the first slope that it was a long, steep climb up to the entrance. After a determined effort (without Peter to push me from behind – not elegant but it helps) I made a call and turned back. That’s a world class attraction I will have to pass up!
Peter went up then and verified that it was so big and uneven that I would have found it too much. He was awestruck with the Villa, so I will include some of his photos of what I didn’t see.
In the meantime I went shopping in the souvenir and other shops at the base. Most of it was the usual gaudy Sicilian colours and designs, but I found a lovely leather and jewellery shop where the owners were the artisans. Beautiful options for some presents to take home, and a way to support local artists. So that was my outing.
As the little Fiat Panda set off to our next destination, I realised that I was getting almost accustomed to being on the road in Sicily, and on the wrong side. Our route from Siracusa to Agrigento took us north along the coast with sweeping sea views and then turned inland and west, avoiding the huge city of Catania. A great drive across Sicily.
We drove towards smoking Mount Etna, then next to it for a while, and the horizon opened up as we covered the kilometres of dry, scrubby terrain and bare mountains at a speed well over 100kph. Some traffic passed us so fast that we hardly saw them coming up behind us. The only relief from the stony terrain was the citrus groves, some thriving, others struggling after last month’s terrible heat wave. There was evidence of the bushfires that threatened the area not long ago.
In a stretch of nearly 200km, there was only one service station about halfway, so I’m glad we stopped. We did not need petrol (little Panda is a hybrid) but a comfort stop and somewhere to have a snack. Relief in every sense!
The route was simple enough until we exited the freeway to take the A19 – roadworks made for confusion and we missed it and did a 10km reroute. Lots of tunnels which are quite dark with no room for error. Peter has done an amazing job driving, although he has stopped indicating when overtaking because ‘it confuses the locals’…
If ancient history, culture, architecture, art and religion are not your thing, Siracusa may not be your top destination, because it is full of all of those things. Everywhere there are stones, gates, columns, carvings and structures with chisel marks made by someone hundreds, even thousands of years ago.
We are staying close to the famous Neapolitan archeological park, but in deference to the heat and to save some steps for a big visit, Peter gallantly drove there and managed to park.
It is a huge area that takes the visitors on a romp through history, starting with a Greek theatre that is used for all sorts of shows today. We did the reverse chronological order to avoid the tour groups, and were amazed at what is still standing of the Roman arena.
It was smaller than I expected, and I had very mixed feelings as I imagined how intimate this venue was for viewing the horror of gladiator and wild animals events that were all the go back then. There are the remains of a pit in the centre where they think the blood ran, and afterwards was accessed by locals for their ‘health’. Oh dear. It was built around the time of Jesus, and gladiator schools were fortunately disbanded about 400 years later.
My other reaction is sheer admiration for those who built these places well enough for them to be still standing a couple of thousand years later. Our council roads don’t survive the first heavy rain storm.
Random fact: there were stands of gum trees around the arena.
Long walks took us backwards in time to the Greek arena which was first built 500 years BC. I took one look at the steep climbs to the top and nearly piked out, but made it and we were wowed by the views and the sheer size of the theatre.
This venue has always had more pleasant functions – performance and culture. I always wonder who picked the magnificent site and started hewing into the rock. Near it is the quarry where it all came from, now turned into a lush garden.
As we had our recovery picnic at the top (we never go anywhere without water, juice, nuts and wrapped Italian treats), we met some Uruguayans who wanted to talk rugby. When they learnt we are from Australia, they started to do the Hakka…we are often seen as one country with NZ! They also wanted a photo ‘without the women’.
Sunday came around again and we felt in need of a quieter day. The heat is relentless and tires me out very quickly. Some reading and communication, and we tuned into New Pen online service again to hear Canon Glenn Loughrey, First Nations speaker who is a priest, artist and author. A great message. I am a solid Yes voter – we need to move forward and listen to our brothers and sisters, however it works out.
A Sunday drive seemed a good idea, so we headed out late afternoon to challenge ourselves on a mountain climb to Italy’s version of the Grand Canyon – Cava Grande di Cassabile. We drove south on the autostrada, almost nonchalantly now, and then turned inland.
Soon we were driving (not at all nonchalantly) on the steepest switchback road I have ever been on and I tried to stifle my squeals at every corner and look at the view, which Peter couldn’t do. So glad we have the smallest car we could cram into, as there is barely room for two cars on these roads and no centre line.
Incredible views of the eastern coastline, especially Siracusa on the horizon. A turn onto a short dirt road, and we hoped the place we had read about in blogs would be accessible. It was, and we had arrived at the rim of a huge gorge with a necklace of water holes at the bottom. People come to do the hike to the bottom and back, but it is actually closed off and not permitted, even if we wanted to.
In the late afternoon sun, the glow of the warm yellow rock in the gorge kept changing. We scrambled along the top, careful not to lean on the dodgy fence. In the freshening breeze, I was renewed with a sense of wellbeing and amazement at my new mountain goat persona. That knee replacement a year ago was worth the pain!
There was a small sign at the start of the walk that my limited Italian told me was about a concert. As people started to arrive and walk along the path we expected to have to ourselves, we realised that we were in the middle of a folk concert – real Italian Amore! It was magical as the the setting sun lit up the warm ochre hues on the opposite side of the gorge and the families settled in for the evening of music. Serendipitous for us, and memorable. I can’t seem to upload the video, but it is on Facebook if you haven’t seen it.
We needed one more excursion to the Isola Ortigia, as the heat had won over its attractions and ambience the first time.I think the whole island must heat up because after a while I was heat struck again and stumbled into the Duomo for refuge, like a mediaeval pilgrim. It is a beautiful, rustic church, built over the original Greek columns.
We made it down to the southern tip of Ortigia, passing millions of dollars worth of yachts and boats on the pier side. Castella Maniace is a huge fort built out into the sea in the 13th century for Emperor Frederick II. I can’t imagine what it was like to live there, but the views are spectacular. Apparently lightning blew up a tower in 1740, destroying most of the fort. The heat was radiating off the walls, forecourt and the sea, so I retreated to the shade of the alleyway and tied a wet hankie around my neck. Lunch was amazing – local pasta dishes involving prawns and anchovies. I have become addicted to ice cold Coke Zero – caffeine and ice with no sugar gives me a boost in place of alcohol.
Just a reflection on apartment living, which is how most people live here. I really felt the busyness of the city, with unceasing traffic noise (windows have to be closed tight, when I would prefer fresh air) and balconies are right next to one another. Laundry is dried over the railings, parking a challenge, chairs scraping on the floor above us a bit disturbing, and yet this is life in a big Italian city. It has been added to our experience bank and we adapted.
With one day left in Siracusa, there was an unfulfilled quest to locate and see a painting by Caravaggio. It used to be in the duomo on Ortigia, but we knew it had been returned to the church of the name of the painting, Santa Lucia. It turned out to be close by! Well, nothing is ever close with one way streets and lanes, but we found it. On a perfect evening, with the sea breeze finally cooling us, we arrived at a shaded piazza in front of the church. Children were playing, old men talking, families wandering to catch the evening cool.
And there it was – a massive painting occupying the front of the church. I did not know before that Caravaggio died at 39, and this painting was towards the end of his life. Imagine if he had lived longer! He had escaped from prison in Malta and and painted it after he fled to Siracusa. ‘The Burial of St Lucy’ portrays her unjustified death by stabbing, and the church is said to have been built where that happened. No wonder St Lucia’s somehow fought to get this painting back from the duomo!
it was a perfect farewell to the city and we bought some supplies for our trip at the little local cafe. Time to sort and pack for a road trip to our next destination – Agrigento. Our hosts came to say goodbye, still pressing gifts on us. Gentile e amichevole – kind and friendly are the words to describe Francesco and Donatella. We will never forget them or Siracusa and hope they will come to visit us one day.
It was a bit like heaven will be for tired pilgrims to arrive at Casa Sofocle in Siracusa. Drained of adrenalin, grotty in clothes we had worn for two days, swaying slightly from the train movement and sweating in the relentless heat, we pulled up in the little Fiat Panda – mercifully right in front of our accommodation. I’m not strong on praying for parking spots, but it does feel like the angels have been working overtime! Parking seems to require constant miracles.
As Francesco and Donatello insisted on carrying our cases and started to show us round I felt almost teary because they were so welcoming. I had forgotten the detail of our booking and was surprised to see how spacious it is with four big rooms equipped with absolutely everything. Generosity plus.
And the kitchen is overflowing with food, the fridge full of cold drinks of every kind, a bowl overflowing with fruit and the table set for us to eat. What a lesson in hospitality! I think they took one look at us and made us their project.
Messages every day, suggestions for outings and offers to help us get around. Just beautiful. The climax of this Sicilian welcome came when they dropped around a magnificent selection of local food, including the iconic arancini and cannoli. We invited them in for a glass of wine and had a funny conversation with the help of translation, which ended with us insisting that they stay with us when they manage their dream of going to Australia.
These interactions are precious and much more important than seeing yet another tourist site. And we are rolling in goodies now!
Siracusa is seeped with history – a history so layered and complicated that not even locals know it all. A 2,700 year old city, it is renowned for its ancient ruins, multiple invasions, Greek and Roman history, culture and architecture and as the birthplace of Archimedes. Where to start?
Our impressions of Sicily are that it has so much that is precious, yet is run down and crumbling in many places. While our little apartment is very nicely furnished, outside there is rubbish on the streets, broken pavements, holes in the road and very dodgy looking wiring overhead.
Yet there is charm in the old alleyways, precarious but pretty balconies and pots of succulents (especially the ubiquitous prickly pear) around every corner. In this burst of extended summer, the streets are lined with flourishing oleanders and bougainvilleas of every shade of pink and purple.
A big walking circuit on the first day in the relentless rain failed to find any cafes or food shops, except an old lady selling her last homemade pastries ($7 and delicious) and an African grocery that had wigs in the window but yielded some UHT milk. We met two young men from Ghana and Nigeria, both without jobs, and one of them an engineer. There were, however, multiple handbag shops, and specialty baby wear shops. By the time we got home, we were sloshing through rivers of rainwater filled with rubbish.
We chose to locate ourselves in this big city close to several major cultural destinations, so while it was still raining we took in a couple of indoor attractions.
The church of Saint John the Baptist was built in the 14th century on top of another church built in the 4th century! The church and ruined remains are a popular wedding venue, but it has subterranean treasure which is great on a rainy day.
I peered down the crumbling stone steps with no handrail and wondered what I was in for. I had just signed up for the catacombs tour! A vast maze of burial places dug into the rock underground was where the Christians were buried, as they could not be interred inside the city. We saw just a tiny corner of the caves, including the bishop’s tomb (people paid extra to be buried near him), family sites, and the always touching tiny cavities for babies. Tradition has it that it was also the spot where St Paul dropped in to preach when he was on his way from Malta to Rome (Acts 28:12).
We came out feeling reflective about the big questions of life, death and the march of time. I was grateful not to have met an early death and joined the departed hosts of souls by falling down the precarious steps and paths – another adventure notched up. The hard hat completed my sartorial choices for the day.
The Archaeological Museum is promoted as the most significant in Sicily and has a massive collection of artefacts from prehistoric times through the various ages, including beautiful Greek pottery. At present they have a special exhibition of coins and medals; one can hardly believe that the shiny gold and silver medallions with wonderful portraits on them go back to the the second, third or fourth century BC. Mind blowing. This whole area has given up masses of significant finds that have been well presented in the displays.
In fact, one guidebook described the museum as mind-numbing, and after a while, I agreed, because of the sheer number of exhibits and information.
The sad thing is that the venue itself was a shambles of deteriorating structures. The whole place was leaking, with pink plastic bowls catching the drips and wet carpet everywhere. Half finished renovations, broken air conditioners, piles of rubble – just horrendous, considering the priceless collection inside. They need a LOT of money to fix it – apparently more than is paid by tourists to get in.
Just a reflection here that entrance prices to almost everything in Italy are very expensive, with no concessions for seniors. EU citizens get a discount and under 18s are free. I think the tourists are holding up the economy! €10-15 is common, which is AUD16-25 – each. Throw in a couple of drinks and cannoli and a euro to use the WC and that’s a big total for one day’s activity, before we start on meals.
Everyone who comes to Siracusa goes to the ancient island of Ortigia, the historical centre which is attached to the main city by two bridges. Gambling on the rain ceasing, which it did, we had our first foray, successfully navigating in the car and miraculously (again) finding a great parking spot. Peter is amazing to manoeuvre everything in reverse, including parking in tight spots with six manual gears. Hill start training is essential here.
What a treasure! It truly is a place to wander and enjoy. The sea breezes made the temperature perfect and the narrow lanes meant we could stay in the shade. The remains of the temple of Diana (the goddess, not the princess) and an elaborate fountain surrounded by healthy cycad trees are very photo-worthy and attract the selfie brigade, but we were happy to leave the crowds and upmarket shopping drag for the smaller lanes. Our fight with NAB was kind of resolved and our card finally gave us cash from the hole in the ancient wall..
It seems that people do live in this maze of narrow streets,which were quieter and mostly shady. I love the handmade tiles with house numbers and names on them and i am on the lookout to find one. We need to raise the bar in Hastings with a cool house tile, I reckon!
Lemons are a recurring theme, as in the whole of the south. The climate is perfect and you can buy anything from soap to Limoncello to gaudy clothes that would never be worn again.
We have learnt to combine morning tea with a loo stop, as cafes are the most likely places to find one. We are averaging a cannolo per day so far – the ricotta filling is not sweet and they are just delicious. Although we made it to our next stop, the cathedral, we gave in to the heat and how far we had to walk back. There would have to be a second visit to Ortigia. I was pretty stretched by the long hot return to the parking area, but so pleased that I can do things I could not a year ago, like walking 5km in the sun.
The first foray to a hill town was to Noto, one of the so-called Baroque towns rebuilt after the cataclysmic earthquake of 1694; it damaged the greater part of Sicily. I was tense as I gripped several devices and maps to navigate, but Peter drove like a champion and we somehow parked at the top of the town, just above the Duomo.
As we clambered down the dizzyingly steep stone steps, I could only wonder how we would climb back up! Cooled by a pleasant breeze, we took in the cathedral, a palazzo, a gelato kiosk, an outdoor pizzeria and an art gallery. The listed Caravaggio turned out to be ‘attributed’, but the pop art installation was brilliant and elicited a happy dance from my uninhibited husband, in honour of our littlest grandchild’s 7th birthday. Miss you Levi!
Then began the ascent. Just up, up and more up. I was aided by an undignified hoist on the back of my pants by someone I hoped was my husband, and we made it. Reunited with our little Panda, we began the torturous winding trip out of the town.
I only squealed a couple of times, and was grateful when Apple Maps unexpectedly started giving us voice directions. Otherwise I think we would still be going around the hill in circles.
I am going to post this as part 1 for Siracusa, or it will be too long. But before I finish, some random observations:
At least 95% people are wearing sneakers – designer or otherwise.
The easily obtained food here is high carb – pizza, pasta, arancini, pastry snacks, biscuits, cannoli, cakes. We try to keep salad and fruit on hand to balance it out.
The local water tastes bad and reminds us of Adelaide in the old days!
Ambulances and fire trucks go past constantly with penetrating sirens.
Traffic rules are ‘just an idea’ and indicators rarely used, nor speed signs observed.
cars may not stop at pedestrian crossings, but screech to a halt for an elderly person with a walking stick.
Children are gorgeous all over the world and we delight in watching and hearing them.
‘In fair Verona’, to use Shakespeare’s description of this enchanting city in northern Italy, we had a a short but wonderful stay. Having previously visited in 2007, we did not plan to return, and had already seen and done the important things, like kissing on the balcony and rubbing the brass statue of Juliet on the breast, as you do.
When we saw that our trip from Germany to the south would involve a change in Verona, we decided to stay a few nights. And then we discovered, to our joy, that the opera season this year had been extended as a 100 seasons celebration: we immediately booked tickets to ‘Tosca’ in the Roman arena.
Our departure from Munich was very smooth, using the underground like locals. With lots of time to spare, we met an Uzbekhi man in the waiting area who was struggling with no German or English. Peter was able to configure his phone with Google Translate and bring up his language in Cyrillic script. He seemed alone and destitute but was so grateful.
Another young guy asked us to watch his bike while he bought tickets. We must have that mature, trustworthy look…