SICILY & MALTA Melting Malta and Sizzling Sicily August 2014 Author: Lois Gray Photos: Kay Gilmour
Melting Malta and Sizzling Sicily Travel Company: Zegrahm Expeditions Group Travel Ship Based: Island Sky Activity Level: Moderate, very long days of sightseeing and bus-riding August 29 to September 11, 2014 Contents INTRODUCTION.......................................................................................3 SICILY ....................................................................................................12 AGRIGENTO........................................................................................12 MAZARA del VALLE/SELINUNTE .........................................................16 MARSALA ...........................................................................................20 TRAPANI & ERICE................................................................................22 PALERMO/MONREALE .......................................................................29 MONREALE.........................................................................................39 CEFALU ...............................................................................................43 LIPARI .................................................................................................44 TAORMINA / MT. ETNA ......................................................................50 CATANIA / MORGANTINA ..................................................................54 SIRACUSA/ORTYGIA............................................................................71 THE REPUBLIC OF MALTA: SMALL BUT GOLDEN COUNTRY...................76 CONCLUSIONS.......................................................................................93
INTRODUCTION Our visit began in Malta, a fascinating island very important in the history of human activity in the Mediterranean Sea because of its strategic location near the center of the Sea. We spent one night and the next day in this tourist "hot spot." In addition, we discovered immediately that "hot spot" has several relevant meanings here. Tourists, primarily from European countries, flock here because of the beautiful beaches and sophisticated tourist infrastructure: fine hotels, excellent restaurants, many different activities to enjoy, easy transportation, and many companies catering to the wishes of tourists. The island nation is also a mecca for history, culture and archeology buffs because of the many cultures that have left their imprint on the land itself, the language, food, traditions, laws, religion, ethnicities. In our minds, however, the most salient meaning of the term described the incredible heat radiating from everywhere we went: the sun bore down from above and the golden stones of the buildings, the streets, and the very sand among the ruins reflected that withering warmth right back up to searing our skin. It really felt "meltingly " hot in Malta! Though Sicily is a bit farther north than Malta (60 Miles), we found that the term "hot spot" fit that sizzling island too. All three of the points listed above under the Maltese "hot spot" label fit well in our descriptions of Italy's island province. Some of the Sicilian cities we visited even had the golden look of Malta's major cities of Valletta and Mdina.
Therefore, our first advice for visitors to either area in August and September is to dress as lightly as is decent and wear only light colors. Your body will need all the help it can get to avoid your being struck down by the crushing heat. Of course, there are other "hot spots" on Sicily that claim attention from visitors and residents alike: the two major volcanoes that are much more than metaphorical hot places: Mt. Etna and Mt. Stromboli. Stromboli spews constantly, with red ribbons of lava flowing down its flanks, very visible at night. Also some fire glows appear at its cone all the time. Perhaps this lesser activity keeps Stromboli from blowing its top catastrophically. Mt. Etna on the other hand is much more destructive, but does not display volcanic activity regularly between its outrageous eruptions. More on the similarities and differences between the two cone-shaped mountains later on in this journal. Important first question: Why does anyone want to visit these two islands? Well, there are many reasons, but perhaps the incredible history of this part of the Mediterranean provides the best answers. Many people have been coming to these islands for thousands of years, beginning with the ancient Phoenicians (also dubbed Carthaginians later in their own history) who started "tourism" in Sicily in the years 2500 to 900 BC. These intrepid sailors left their presumed homeland in the Eastern Mediterranean around present-day Lebanon (Tyre was one of their cities) to explore what they considered "their sea." At first, they mainly sought for good harbors where they could meet with the indigenous peoples (the Sicani, Siculi, and Elymians) for trading purposes. They rarely met with hostility at first and the meetings were mutually beneficial, chiefly because these early traders were not interested in taking land from the inhabitants or in establishing their own towns or cities.
Later, of course, that changed when the Phoenicians realized that creating trading settlements on the island's coasts was more efficient. Then there was some fighting ignited. The locals recognized the power of the Phoenician sailors and generally were allowed to just retreat further along the coast or further inland away from the coast trading ports. This modus vivendi went on for many years until the ancient Greeks began their own sailing tradition, on their part chiefly looking for fertile land. Greek soil had been exhausted and there had not really been much fertile land on their rocky homeland anyway. They came looking, not to trade, but to find a place to support the food needs of their populations. They were more aggressive in taking lands away from the indigenous peoples; if those folks did not just melt away as they had done with the Phoenicians, these Greeks would force them off the desired territories and even annihilate who towns and villages. They established their first permanent colony on the southwest coast of the triangular-shaped island that is current Sicily and called it Gela in 735 BC. The Greek colonies here and in other areas around the Mediterranean became known as Magna Graecia, because, indeed, their towns and cities and populations became more numerous, larger, and more productive than the original Greek city-states at home. Things might have continued that way forever had not another significant power arisen on the Med--Rome. Rome began to explore and conquer beginning around 282 BC. They too needed fertile farmland to feed their own burgeoning populations and their huge armies that roamed the known world looking for plunder, slaves, and new territories and products to exploit. The Greeks could not oppose the Roman legions with any hope of success and gradually withdrew
from any areas desired by the Romans. Many of the existing sites of earlier Greek settlements reveal that the Romans utilized Greek buildings, temples, and theaters by altering them to fit their own needs and traditions. Therefore, many a Greek ruin we visited showed the effects of Roman renovations. The Greeks may not have felt that they could challenge the Romans in Sicily since they had already been conquered by them in the home country, but such was not the case with the Phoenicians. They were such a powerful seafaring nation that they felt themselves to be fully capable of engaging the Romans and winning as well. Thus started the three Punic Wars between the Romans and the Carthaginians as they now called themselves, having established their capital away from Tyre; now their capital city was on the North African Coast in what is now the country of Tunisia. The dates of the three Punic wars are: 264 BC to 241 BC, next 218 BC to 201 BC, and last 149-146 BC. The first Punic war ended in a virtual draw, although the Carthaginians did concede the city of Messina to the Romans. The second of the wars was fought over conflicting interests in Spain. Even though the excellent General Hannibal with his elephants crossed the Alps into Italy and inflicted heavy defeats on the Romans, Hannibal was ultimately beaten by Rome and not only lost Spain and other areas under their control, but also had to accept very harsh peace terms. The third Punic war was probably concocted by the Romans who accused the Carthaginians with flouting some of the peace treaty terms. In reality, the Romans, led by Cato, had decided that "Carthage must be destroyed." From this war came the stories covering the complete razing of the city and sowing the fields with salt to prevent any resurgence in the area. As usual, the victors in any war write the history and so it is with these three conflicts. Thusly, the Phoenician/Carthaginian influences and
"leftovers" in Sicily are much more difficult to locate or see. Certainly, the greatest legacy of this once dominant culture was the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet which was rapidly adopted all around the Mediterranean Sea and even into Northern Europe as well. Some linguists even see roots of the Phoenician alphabet in the Cyrillic and Hebrew letters! A lasting and utilitarian bequest indeed. When Rome itself finally fell in 440 AD to the Vandals, the various northern Germanic tribes including the Ostrogoths, had their "moment" in Sicilian history; it ended in 535 AD when the Byzantine Christians drove them out. Even less remained of their presence on the island than the physical evidence of the Phoenicians. Not so of the fervently religious Byzantine rulers of Sicily. They changed so much about the island physically that it is impossible not to see it in the towns and cities all over Sicily. Their glory days lasted almost 300 years from 535 AD until 878 AD. The magnificent churches that the Byzantines created either from Greek/Roman temples or built de novo themselves are testament sufficient to prove their deep and lasting influence on Sicily and its inhabitants regardless of their ethnicity. The Byzantines made a big mistake when they invited the Arabs into the island because of the importance they attached to trade with this very advanced culture. By 878 AD, the Arabs had become the rulers of the island and remained so until 1071 AD. The Arabs of course changed many of the Byzantine churches and Greek/Roman temples into mosques for their own religious uses. Because of their beauty, people of all faiths adopted their marvelous mosaic work and their elegant design decorations. In the beginning, though governance changed between the Byzantines and the Arabs (many of whom were probably Christian rather than Muslim), the relationships between the two cultures were surprisingly peaceful and cooperative.
One would have thought that the Arabs would recognize the dangers of calling in another power to help maintain or administer a territory, but surprisingly, they did not. They called in the Normans from France who ran the island for 100 years, from 1071 to 1171. However, the relationship between the Normans and the Arabs was the most cordial of any mixture yet to achieve sway over the island because the Normans greatly respected their administrative, artistic, organizational skills, and scientific achievements and kept them on to help run the "government" for them. There was a true Golden Age for Sicily during this period because the arts flourished, trade blossomed, internal relations among the Jews, Arabs, Christians, & even the Muslims worked effectively and kept peace and prosperity well nourished. However, most good things are doomed to end somewhere along the way and the same was true for Sicily. Mostly because of political and religious machinations in Europe, many conflicts arose that caused the Normans to leave Sicily. Then for 700 years, there was a more and more repressive succession of empowered entities to rule the island. First there was the short-lived reign of the Hohenstauffen dynasty, followed by the Angevins (French partisans of the Pope at that time), then the Spanish took a turn at leadership, even the Duke of Savoy (Italy) had a short period of ruling. The Austrians were among the last to hold sway over the benighted and no doubt very puzzled citizens of Sicily. The last outsiders to have a turn at trying to govern Sicily were the Bourbon Spanish. The Italian hero, Garibaldi, at last ousted them as well in the 1860s and Sicily began its journey towards union with the Italian mainland. Unfortunately, the one constant that obtained throughout all the centuries of different rulers was the total disregard for and oppression of the ordinary people who lived on the island. None of the leaders was interested in their welfare and all wanted them left uneducated and unrepresented. No matter that their labor was important to all, when
the agricultural work was finished during a year, they were left to their own devices which usually meant periods of unemployment, starvation and misery. No effort was made to create a middle class and none ever has really developed on Sicily. Each successive power group found new ways to neglect and exploit the peasants, even the rich Sicilians themselves. Even the Mafia which grew alongside the various governmental trials was no friend of the peasants, though some commentators have tried to portray these criminals in a positive light, just as some Southern Americans have attempted to put a positive spin on the Ku Klux Klan in its earliest incarnations. The Mafia is still quite alive in Sicily though it has turned to other sorts of criminal activities than in the formative periods. Apparently, its interests now are in human trafficking, drugs, and internet crimes. The most pernicious aspect of the Mafia however is its tangled and corruptive intertwining with the political powers and with the Church. May the current Pope Francis have some luck in getting the Vatican finances disentangled from Mafia money for the betterment of all Sicilian citizen lives. So why did all these different entities want Sicily within their sphere of influence? Why did the foreigners come and why did they stay? History seems to answer this question with pretty much the same answer for all: the fertile volcanic land supplied with plenty of rivers so that water was never a problem. The arable plains and hills of Sicily became the bread basket or granary for all the rulers whose main home was elsewhere. The Greeks and Romans in particular wanted to control agriculture so that there was a good supply of wheat for their homelands. Sadly, this abundance of water is not the case any longer since so many of the rivers have dried up over the centuries and the alterations in weather patterns have changed the rain patterns.
The second almost as important reason is that the island occupies such an important strategic position geographically in the Mediterranean Sea, making it possible for the rulers to control sea lanes and therefore trade routes. Even in World War II, the American & British military commands were aware that they must capture Sicily in order to defeat the Nazis and Fascists who were the European enemies. Sicily was also blessed with other natural resources which were ripe for exploitation by whoever controlled the island and peasants. Chief among these natural gifts were the abundance of sulphur ( at one time, Sicily produced 60% of the world's sulphur) and salt, which is still a major export from the island. At one time, the abundance of fish in the Mediterranean was considered one of Sicily's major natural resources as well. However, because of overfishing and pollution in the Med, this valuable resource has been considerably depleted. Now, why should we modern visitors feel drawn to this largest island in the Med Sea? It is about the size of Vermont at 9,927 square miles and has a population of 5 million people. The island is shaped roughly like a triangle sitting just off the toe of the Italian peninsula's boot. Most of us probably are not overly concerned with its natural resources or its trading possibilities as were earlier migrants and casual visitors. Many are attracted by its beautiful beaches and Mediterranean climate--lots of warmth and sunshine. Northern Europeans no doubt find it a convenient destination for escaping the cold, damp and dark winters where they live, particularly the UK, Dutch & German visitors. However, I would not suggest that travelers with these interests should be contacting Zegrahm Expeditions to plan a "fun in the sun" vacation for them. The magnet for typical Zegrahm visitors is the chance to see so many of the historical sites all around the coastlines accompanied by experts in archaeology, art history, political history, culture, and anthropology. A
circumnavigation of the island is perfect for these aims since the expedition ship can land in small ports and allows easy one-time packing and unpacking since all your belongings stay on your floating hotel. Another attraction of this type of visit is the surrendering of all logistical planning to the experienced staff of Zegrahm helped by the regular crew of the Island Sky. This aspect is especially important because tourist infrastructure is not particularly good on the island. Multiple ways to reach various historical and ecclesiastical sites are not usually available, so it is important that transportation is organized for you, good restaurants are pre-selected, expedited entry into popular tourist sites are arranged. Equally important is the staff's expertise regarding what sites are worthwhile to visit at all. On one's own, you might find yourself wasting a lot of time trying to get to a site that is not all that interesting or significant. Furthermore, from a visit to Sicily, a person with interests in history will want to achieve an overarching understanding of the tumultuous, significant historical movements and trends that make Sicily such a rich place to visit. The excellent speakers and experts that accompany the traveler on Zegrahm trips, and especially this one, make that expanded timeline in European history accessible, fascinating and understandable. So come along with us as we sail from important cities to small towns bordered with ancient ruins with our staff to help us weave a coherent tapestry of the history of this volcano-topped, strategically placed, Mafia-haunted, somewhat lost in time island that now is part of the modern state of Italy. It certainly wasn't always clear that such would be its destiny. Stops along our route demonstrated the amazing cultural interweaving that created modern Sicily:
AGRIGENTO Though this city is not the earliest Greek settlement on Sicily, it is the first one on our itinerary--and for good reason too: the hauntingly beautiful Valley of the Temples which lies in the outskirts of the city. It contains 8 Doric temples in varying stages of ruin and is considered to be the most informative & well-preserved site in Magna Graecia, other than those ruins on the Greek peninsula itself. The city began life as Akragas, a sub-colony created by a group of Greeks from Rhodes and Crete who had first established a city nearby called Gela. These Greeks moved south and built the city from 582 to 580 BC. The "valley" of the temples is not really a valley but a ridge behind the city. From its heights, the early citizens could watch as the massive temples were built--no doubt many of them had a hand in the construction. The site has been designated a UNESCO heritage site and for good reason. The largest Doric temple ever built is the ruined and fragmentary Temple of Zeus. The temple now called Concordia (archeologists admit they have no idea to whom it was dedicated by the original builders) is in the best condition of all the temples and it is truly beautiful. After the Greeks came the Carthaginians to rule Agrigento, then the Romans, then the Ostrogoths, later the Byzantines, and then the Normans and finally the Aragonese Spanish. The beginning of the interwoven tapestry of Sicilian history is illustrated well in the Valley. It is clear to archeologists that the Romans simply adapted the great Doric temples to their own uses. Many of their gods were the same ones the Greeks worshipped; they were just named differently in Latin: Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Herakles/Hercules.
Byzantines transformed the temples into Christian churches during their hegemony. When the temples were in ruins because of earthquakes that leveled them, the Byzantines simply used the ruin sites as quarries for building their own churches. The Church of San Nicola is an example of such cannibalism from the 13th century. The Byzantines also used the fallen columns, supporting structures, and necropolis monuments as their own mausoleums. The Normans who followed the Byzantines created their own "recycled" church from Greek ruins and called it The Church of Santa Maria dei Greci on the site of an old Greek temple in the 13th century. Then the Spanish (Aragonese Kings) built the 14th century city Cathedral using borrowed/stolen stone from the Temple of Zeus. Inside this cathedral can be seen the influence of the Arabs in Sicily in the beautiful glowing mosaics, particularly above the altar. The final indignity committed against the great temple happened in the 18th century when Sicilians themselves took more stone from Zeus to build the jetties for the "new" harbor city (Porto de Empedocle) serving Agrigento (the Romans had romanized the city's name to Agrigentum) . Just visiting the ruins, the churches, the buildings in this ancient city teaches the visitor to appreciate the amazing history of the city. Almost all the major players in the frequent changes of government in Sicily over the centuries are portrayed in stone.
Temple of Concordia
Temple of Juno 1
Temple of Heracles
MAZARA DEL VALLE/SELINUNTE The ancient city of Mazara was founded by the Phoenicians in the 9th century, before they renamed themselves Carthaginians. At that point in their history, they were chiefly interested in establishing trade outposts, not colonies or cities. Mazara thrived as a trading post to the point that the familiar parade of conquerors started here as well, first by the Greeks, then the Romans, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs and all the rest with the Spanish being last to hold sway until Garibaldi ran them out in the 1860s and encouraged the citizens to consider joining his plan to unite all Italy. Examples of the leavings of the various conquerors include a Norman Arch, the only remains of an Old Norman Castle built in 1073. The Royal St. Nicholas Church is a rare extant example of Norman architecture from 1124. The beautiful Seminary on the impressive Piazza del Repubblica was built by the Aragonese Spanish kings who were in many ways absentee landlords of the city and also really of Sicily itself. Surprising Selinunte was a great pleasure to visit. The setting is beautiful with the open fields and the ghostly temple remains looking out to the blue Mediterranean. The Acropolis of the city stands above the plains that contain 5 temples while the old city center on the hill also holds a sea-facing orientation. Some reconstruction was done in 1920s which helps the visitor understand more easily what the area looked like before its many destructions. This city, like Agrigento, was a secondary sub-city, this one founded by the Greeks of Megara Hyblea in the 7th century BC. It completely surpassed its founding mother city and became one of the most powerful and rich cities in Magna Graecia. The site selected was between two rivers (now silted up completely) so that two ports were quickly constructed. At first the citizens were able to make treaties with
their much smaller neighbor towns, thereby avoiding constant border conflicts that plagued many Greek settlements. For about a century, the town prospered and grew to a population of near 30,000. Unfortunately, covetous eyes among the Carthaginians recognized and focused on wealthy Selinunte. Recognizing their perilous position when other Greek cities and Carthage began warring against one another, Selinunte tried to remain neutral. However, this stance won them no friends or allies in any camp. It wasn't long before the crafty Carthaginians realized the tenuousness of Selinunte's position, and they laid siege to the city, which could hold out only 9 days against the vastly superior forces. The Carthaginians were absolutely brutal to the defeated city-dwellers and managed to kill all but 6000 of the 30,000 people and those 6000 they enslaved. After ridding the city of its citizens they laid waste to it, destroying as much as they could. During the 1st Punic War, the Carthaginians completely destroyed what was left of the now poor & unimportant city to prevent the Romans taking it. The ruined city was then abandoned and lost in the sands of time for two thousand years, until an devastating earthquake completed the destruction in the 9th century AD just before the Arabs arrived in the area. Only in the 20th century did archeologists begin to recognize the rich treasure trove of ancient ruins that stood lonely on those hillsides with a single column still pointing skyward in one fallen temple, a foundation of another temple protruding up through the fields, the skeleton of a Doric temple standing like a sentinel atop the Acropolis. A considerable amount of excavation as well as some partial reconstruction has been done in the ensuing years so that the site is well documented. Because of the reconstructions, it is a very satisfying site to visit for amateurs who are interested in what an ancient Greek city looked like.
Because the city really only existed in Greek times and Carthaginian hegemonies, the Greek architecture has not been modified by successive inhabitants. On the Acropolis of the city, some stones in a house originally Greek reveals etched pictures of the Carthaginian goddess, Tanit, just about the only evidence located so far that they did anything to change the Greek temples or any other parts of the extensive site of Selinunte. Since it was destroyed so early in the history of Sicily, it never suffered nor benefitted from the many cultures that rolled over Sicily.
Sel inunte Archaeological Park
Sel inunte Archaeological Park – Temple E
Sel inunte Archaeological Park – Temple G
MARSALA This Sicilian town's name is familiar to wine lovers all over the world and has been since the 18th century when exporting the product began on a large scale. However, its historicity begins well before that time. The Phoenician residents of an island community, Moyta, were conquered by the tyrant king of Siracusa in 397 BC and fled to the mainland where they built another home which they called "Lilybaion"- -the city that looks at Libya. Current Marsala was built on the ruins of that city by the Romans who were never able to conquer it but won it at the conclusion of the 1st Punic War in 241 BC. There are some old Roman ruins consisting of palaces and public buildings, but the bombardments by the British in World War II destroyed most of the city center, including the Baroque central area. So even the city as it took on different characters through the Vandal Era in the 5th Century AD, the Byzantines in the 6th, the Arabs in the 8th, and Normans,, French, and Spanish bears mostly old churches and palaces as testaments to those times. One of the many churches, reflecting the influence of the British who came not to conquer but to drink, is dedicated to Saint Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, England.
Marsala street scene
Marsala Church of Purgatory
Cantine Florio Wine Estate
It probably isn't fair to say that the first British wine industry developer, John Woodhouse, who arrived in 1773 really came to imbibe the local product. Actually, he vacationed in the area and tasted the local wine and enjoyed it enough to believe that his fellow countrymen would also like it very much. So he started an exporting business to share the delicious drink and to get rich, of course. First, though, he had to develop a process that would allow the wine to survive the long voyages to England--that process consisted of fortifying the wine with right amounts of alcohol to preserve it. Mr. Woodhouse was quite successful in this early business and soon other Brits came to the area to compete with him. Marsala is still a quite popular product of the area and it is now shipped all around the world. At present, the chief aim of the present vintners is to convince the very large wine market in the USA that Marsala is good for more than just cooking, that it is an excellent drink as well. The names Woodhouse, Ingraham, Whitaker survive today among the various wine producers offering their delicious beverage. Marsala has another even more modern claim to a place in history. It was the first landing site for Garibaldi when he arrived there on 5/11/1860 to begin his "crusade" to claim Sicily for Italy and to promote the unification of all Italy under one national flag. TRAPANI & ERICE Traveling on northward along Sicily's west coast, we stopped at the city of Trapani, a city founded by the rather mysterious Elymian people. Some historians think they are somehow related to the Phoenicians, others postulate a kinship with ancient Etruscans (this possibility allowed them to co-exist peacefully with the Roman invaders), still others believe (as did the ancient Greeks) that they were survivors of the Trojan War who wandered from the Plains of Troy into the Med Sea and finally came upon this corner of the Sicilian triangle. From its very
earliest beginnings and up until today, the major business of the city is fishing, no matter which culture controlled the city. Carthage took it over in 260 BC but had to cede it to the Romans in 241 BC following the 1st Punic War. Of course, the usual procession of countries and cultures passed through the place in succeeding centuries. The city played an important part in the Crusades due to its excellent port and position on the Med Sea. After the invasion & disappearance of the Vandals, the town revived during Byzantine rule. This importance and prosperity greatly increased after the Muslims came in 830 AD since they reconstructed the town, with walls to enclose and protect it, and introduced a new street plan peculiar to the Arabs (also to be seen in other Arab-influenced cities and towns in Sicily). The Arabs also introduced salt production, tuna fishing and preserving, and mining of coral. There are no ruins extant from ancient times in this area. Interesting churches, buildings, and palaces still present are from the Medieval Period onwards. When the Normans arrived, they continued to build there and even rewarded Trapani with the title "Royal City" to proclaim its importance. There still exists a Palazzo della Guidecca which proves that there was an important Jewish population in Trapani. During the Spanish domination, coral production and decoration with that resource grew along with the extraction and export of marble. Of course, Spanish rulers, even though they governed from afar, began to drive Jewish citizens out of Sicily during the Inquisition. Charles V restructured the city walls adding a deep moat and channel around the city to protect it from attack. In modern times, the city was heavily damaged during the Allied invasion of Sicily during World War II, but the Baroque and Medieval buildings have been pretty much restored.
Today, one of the tourist draws along the coast of Trapani is the salt "farming." Modern salt "farmers" use the same techniques that the Arabs taught their forefathers, except that these days the folks are not averse to using modern machinery for the "heavy lifting"--tractors, motorized vehicles, and windmills. The dazzling white conical mounds of salt taking the shape of the most famous volcanoes probably look just about the same as they did back in 9th century AD.
Even in earliest times, Trapani was a gateway to Erice, the township on the hill overlooking the sea and the port from its 2,460 foot perch. A lovely story explaining its origins claims that the tiny town having been founded by Elymians who named it Eryx was taken over by the Phoenicians (by now called Carthaginians) led by Aeneas after he sailed away from Carthage seeing Dido waving goodbye in her sorrow. The ruins of the Temple of Venus Aeneas founded are now under the Castle Venus built by our now familiar friends, the Normans.
The steep Medieval cobbled streets give a distinct flavor to visits in this picturesque site, as the visitor puffs up the hills, grateful for the stones that give a sure footing to the climb. There are 60 different churches to explore and countless shops, restaurants, and bars provide resting places between hikes uphill. In the northeastern section of the little city, there are remnants of old Phoenician and Elymian walls.
Church of San Domenico in the San Domenico square
Church Of St. Giovanni Battista
Church of Our Lady of Assumption
The highlight of the Erice has to be the 13th century Norman Castle di Venere. This monumental structure was built over the ancient Roman temple to Venus. The views from the castle down to the seashore are astounding.
PALERMO/MONREALE After we rounded the northern cape of Sicily's geographical triangle, we would next visit the "famous in America" city of Palermo - famous because of the connection with the American version of the Sicilian Mafia and because it was the target for George Patton's army in the liberation of Sicily and Italy during World War II. As we would learn, Palermo has other claims to fame too; it is also one of the ancient settlements on the island of Sicily and went through most of the metamorphoses that other parts of Sicily experienced--that grand cavalcade of conquests by the cultures already enumerated in this piece in discussions of other cities and towns. As we were learning during this exploration, Sicily was surely the most often conquered and settled place in Europe and perhaps the world. Palermo is currently the capital of the Autonomous Region of Sicily and has been the capital city for other earlier cultures as well. It was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th Century BC, ruled from Carthage, until it was wrested from them by Rome in 254 BC, allowed to lose importance and deteriorate under the Romans, until it was recovered from the Ostrogoths by General Belisarius of the Byzantine Empire after 535 AD. The Arabs took over in 831 AD, the Normans from 1072-1194, and then the French and Spanish took their turns. The Golden Age of Palermo was during the Norman hegemony chiefly because it was a period of outstanding cultural cooperation and harmony. The Norman kings welcomed the input of all their citizens so Greeks, Jews, Arabs and Christian Normans lived and worked together in an unusual and highly productive period in history. Our visit to this vibrant city was to center on the many buildings (secular & religious) which provide such gorgeous proof of this melding of cultures.
The first eye-popping edifice most visitors come to see is the Palazzo dei Normanii, which today serves as the seat of city government, and its incredible Palatine Chapel (constructed between 1132-1189). It is a certainly a masterpiece of the European Middle Ages, not just in Sicily but anywhere. It is a splendid blending of Greek, Arab, Byzantine and Norman Baroque styles in architecture and decorative arts. The mosaics and paintings are just amazing--colorful, precise, imaginative, even moving. The decorations on the walls and columns are Arab designs. The intricately carved ceiling is a masterpiece on its own and the paintings on the side walls, depicting Biblical stories from the Old and New Testaments remain bright and filled with narrative flourishes to instruct the illiterate Christians in their religion's story line.
Palazzo Dei Normani i
Palazzo dei Normani i
The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Virgin Mary has an even richer history having started out as Byzantine church, then trans- forming into a Arab Mosque, and finally changing into a Christian church again. There are the tombs of 6 of the many rulers in Sicily housed in the Cathedral. There is also an impressive Treasury in the church which houses vestments, crowns, scepters, etc. from the 17th Century. On the exterior, the Cathedral's four Norman bell towers give the building its distinctive appearance. However, the rest of the façade was created in the Spanish Baroque Style in the 17th century. In an ongoing architectural war of styles, a Neapolitan architect was commissioned to alter the cathedral's exterior once again. So in 1771 and again in 1809, he added Neoclassical touches to both the interior and exterior. Many say this constant revising was a result of the church hierarchy wanting the church to be more impressive than the big Cathedral in Monreale, just up the hill a bit.
Metropol itan Cathedral of the Assumption
However, there is yet another Palermo Church that demands the attention of anyone who appreciates church design and architecture. This one goes by two different names but we were introduced to it as the Martorana Church from the 14th Century. However, in 1143, when the church was founded, it was Santa Maria Dell Ammiraglio--The Admiral's Church of St. Mary. It was originally founded as an Orthodox Greek church but it is now characterized by a great conglomeration of styles in architecture and decorations because so many different faiths have left their mark upon it. Currently the church is home to Sicilian citizens of Albanian heritage and it functions under the Byzantine Rite, even though it is owned by the Catholic Church. The real glory of this church too is the fantastic mosaic work chiefly in gold but containing other colors as well. The icons are done in the typical style of the Eastern Orthodox rites. The altar mosaics show Christ as Pantocrater surrounded by archangels, the four evangelists, and various saints.
Besides churches, Palermo boasts three medieval arches of considerable character: St. Agata's Gate, Porto Mazara, and the Monumental Gate, also called Porto Nuova.
Monumental Gate (Porto Nuova)
The Praetoria Fountain is another site we enjoyed.
There are two famous theaters in the city: The Massimo Theater which is the largest in all Italy, constructed after the style of ancient Greece, but decorated inside in the art nouveau style popular in the early 20th century.
This theater now brings opera and ballet to the city. The newer of the two important theaters is the Politeama Garibaldi with its enormous arch over the entrance depicting Apollo and his horses. Another opera house is the Teatro Bellini where the composer actually created his very popular work "Norma." Though extortion, prostitution, gambling and protection rackets are not the current salient "work" of the Mafia, the influence on all institutions in the city connected with both government and private entities is still very strong. Today the Mafia is more interested in human trafficking and internet crime. Many Mafia members came to the USA from Palermo from 1880s to 1920s and spread their way of life to their new home as well. Despite some concerted efforts to rid Sicily of the Mafia, there has been no discernible lessening of their power on the island. MONREALE This little town is in the same district as Palermo but it sits higher in the hills. If not for the beautiful Cathedral Church of Monreale it boasts, the town would not be a place of any interest to visitors since it is quite non-descript. In 870 when the Arabs overran Sicily, they banished the Bishop of Palermo from his city-based cathedral there and sent him to Monreale. The Bishop built a small church there to keep the Christian community in close communion with their faith. In 1174 when the Arabs were defeated, King William II ordered the construction of a new church dedicated to the Virgin Mary to replace the Bishop's small one. He was an educated and enlightened ruler who greatly appreciated the arts and crafts of all his subjects and encouraged them to participate in the building and decorating of his new church. The result is the most wondrous fusion of Arabic, Byzantine and Norman styles. As is the case with most of these gorgeously decorated and designed churches from the Norman period, pictures are worth much more than verbal descriptions. The intricate mosaics with their brilliant gold tiny
tiles, the refined woodcarvings, the still vibrant paintings with their vivid storytelling all need to be experienced visually. Most of the churches have been retrofitted with organs but we were not privileged to hear any of them in action while we visited.
Cathedral Church of Monreale
The cloister adjacent to the great cathedral is a marvel in itself, having also been designed and implemented by all the best artisans in William II's kingdom and it is also something that needs to be seen. The most amazing parts of the cloister are the many, many columns, no two of them alike, with such compelling designs on each one. Monreale Cathedral, though perhaps not as rococo in its decorations as the Palatine Chapel, was probably my favorite because there was a bit more restraint in its celebrations of mankind's skill in representing impressions of the glory of their religious convictions.
No Two Columns Al ike
CEFALU This small city has enough history and beautiful beaches to attract over a million tourists every year to its crowded ancient and medieval streets, its many shops, gelaterias, at least 12 major churches, and many relics proving that it went through the same multiple transformations from old Greek to modern Italian statehood. Only 14,000 live here year round where the city name origin is clear from the huge headland that towers above town below. Cefalu in Greek means "head" or "headland." On top of the precipitous rock are the remains of a Saracen Castle, an old verys mall Greek settlement, a mysterious ruined relic which has never yet revealed its true origin. Remains of two Roman walls running from the hillside down to the sea show how the city inhabitants moved down from their high fortress to the plain below it to utilize the small but excellent harbor. These walls formed jetties when they met the sea. Over the years the lure of trade and easier living must have overcome the inhabitants' fear of constant invasions somewhat. And of course they had their fortress to retreat to when that became necessary. Cefalu is a city of churches, amazing in their number considering that the population was never very large. Besides the important Norman Cathedral started in 1131 but never completely finished, there are 12 other religious edifices of note. The enormous cathedral is built in what is currently identified as Sicilian Baroque. Its façade shows interlacing pointed arches and its windows are also in the pointed style. There are two massive towers on either side of the entrance, each one four story tall. The interior of the church had been damaged over the years and underwent restoration in 1559. Since some of the mosaic work is not as expert as could have been hoped, many art historians have been disappointed in the results. However, the Christ Pantocrater surrounded by his archangels and disciples is quite impressive.
In a secular vein, an important and interesting site is the Medieval Laundry off the main street of Vittorio Emanuel. The laundry women entered a portico and started down stone steps to reach a series of stone pools through which flowed the waters of a river above the city. The laundry's waters then ran on down to the sea below. A constant supply of clear water was thus afforded to the laundry ladies. Today at almost the bottom of the steps is a restaurant within this wonderful historic setting and also with an open view to the sea. It does not appear that modern washerwomen use this old facility nowadays however. Another great memory from Cefalu will always be our first experience of the delicious, creamy, tasty, cold "gelato" that all Italy is famous for. There were so many flavors to choose from when we stopped along the way at an attractive ice cream parlor but we settled upon "strachiatella" and it was the perfect choice: flavorful vanilla laced with chocolate sauce and chocolate chips . Italian Ice cream (gelato) has no reason to feel in second place to Haagen Dazs, Ben & Jerry's or any other premium ice cream we are acquainted with. LIPARI Our next exploration took us into the Aeolian Islands to the city of Lipari. Geologists agree that this archipelago is the child of 4 volcanoes whose significant eruptions beginning about 20,000 BC and continuing until about 3000 years ago created the islands, devastated them, changed their physical appearance, and finally left them with fertile land but most importantly large stores of pumice and obsidian. There is clear evidence of early trading among Neolithic peoples who prized the valuable black glass obsidian that could be honed into such sharp cutting edges. Today, more pumice than obsidian is shipped from these islands, especially the port of Lipari.
The Greek foundation of the city is popularly (& mythically) believed to have been the work of the son of Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds. While the Greeks controlled the area and intermarried with the earlier peoples, the islands prospered. But they made the mistake of siding with the Carthaginians during the First Punic War, so when the Romans were victorious, they made it a point to punish these poor and fairly defenseless peoples. The Byzantines had a go in the islands as well but were never very interested in them. But the conquering Arabs did make use of the islands and left their marks upon them as well. The Normans had the greatest influence but the worst calamity that befell the islanders was when the Barbary Pirate, Barbarrossa, attacked and destroyed the city of Lipari and carried off the women and children into slavery in the 1500s. The population gradually recovered with immigrations and today it is a thriving part of the Sicilian Autonomous Region. Most of its prosperity today is due to the pumice export industry and extensive tourism. The big Cathedral of Lipari has housed the venerated bones of St. Bartolomeo who was martyred by being skinned alive. His bones were said to have washed ashore in Byzantine times and the cathedral was constructed to protect them. However, the first cathedral was not saved by these relics from destruction by the Arabs as they raged though the area. The Normans built yet another St. Bartolomeo Cathedral on the site in 1100 AD when they reconquered the islands. When the Spanish took ownership of Sicily, they rebuilt St. Bartolomeo Cathedral in Spanish Baroque, thus creating a 3rd iteration of this church.
Basi l ica Cathedral Of St. Bartolomeo
There are two old gates into the city too--worth a stop as well. The first is built on a Roman "skeleton" of red bricks and is topped by a Norman tower. Gate number 2 displays a pointed arch and leads the way into the archeology park.
There is also a fine museum in Lipari which covers the rise of the Aeolian Islands through volcanic activity and takes one through the history of the islands to the time of Italian Statehood. Many necropic jars are displayed as testament to burial practices. The museum is arranged chronologically as well as by local excavation sites all over the archipelago.
We took the time to walk up to the Costello Fortress with its amazing overview of the surrounding city and coastline. A layout of Roman ruins is found just outside the museum at the entrance to the fort’s walkway.
Our sail away from Lipari took us by the island of Stromboli volcano where we anchored for a while, had a delicious dinner on the Lido Deck under the stars with an unobstructed view of the still lively volcano. In
the dark we could see a tiny ribbon of fiery red lava streaming down from the cone.
As the darkness deepened, we could see the upside-down cone of red light issuing from the crater. We were both dismayed and surprised to see the villages on the plains below the huge mountain which is always signaling its potential destructive force. But the villagers apparently live blithely on with this "Sword of Damocles" ever overhead. TAORMINA / MT. ETNA From one of the Sicily's potent volcanoes (continuous activity from 350 BC to 2014) to the most destructive one in the area (prehistory to the present): From Stromboli to Etna. Actually, Mt. Etna is considered to be one of the most active volcanoes in the world! This huge volcano has actually produced about 1/3 of the area of the island of Sicily with all the many lava flows over the millennia. This little "ring of fire" in the Med Sea is a very active site of plate tectonics in action with the European plate diving under the African plate at present. This
movement creates "hot spots" and volcanoes, like Etna, Stromboli, and Vesuvius. Taormina lies near Mt. Etna, too near for me to want to live there. But because we were going to explore the town, we had the chance to go up on the shoulder of the volcano. It was an easy trip since we were driven up to the 7000 ft level by bus. There are gift shops, restaurants, and tourist facilities there, as though the people are tempting the volcano. We rented parkas there since we had been told it would be very windy and cold at the 9000 ft. mark even though it was still stiflingly hot on the coast at Taormina.
From that level we went up by an aerial gondola to a plateau where we boarded 4x4 tundra-type buggies to reach the crater we were to explore at 9200 ft. Our guide then led us on a hike around the crater we were allowed to visit. It is indeed a bizarre landscape with only the most stubborn of vegetation clinging to life in the cindery, black lava
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