EINE FASZINIERENDE VIELFALT
„Man kann also sagen, dass Unsicherheit der wichtigste Faktor der sizilianischen Geschichte ist und sich im allgemeinen wie individuellen Verhalten, in der Daseinsweise und Lebensauffassung niederschlägt, in Furcht, Sorge , Misstrauen, unzugänglichen Leidenschaften; in der Unfähigkeit, außerhalb von Gefühlsbindungen Beziehungen aufzubauen; in Gewalt, Pessimismus und Fatalismus“
Sicily was settled by many peoples, some leaving large traces and others smaller ones. Its position as a bridgehead between the western and eastern Mediterranean has brought Sicily many conquerors, but also a cultural landscape that is unparalleled in Europe.
In antiquity, the Sicans built Pantalica, today a gorge with over 5000 wooden tombs, around 1300 BC. The Elymians inhabited Segesta and Erice as early as the 4th century BC. The Phoenicians and their descendants the Punic founded Mozia and Solunt. Among the outstanding Greek buildings, which were later also used by the Romans, are the temple complexes of Agrigento, Selinunte and Syracuse, the theatres of Taormina, Siracusa, Palazollo Acreide and Tindari.
The Romans built magnificent villas with mosaics such as the famous Villa Casale in Piazza Amerina, Villa Durrueli near Realmonte or the smaller Villa Tellaro near Noto.
It is no coincidence that Siracusa is home to countless remnants of Greek and Roman culture. According to Cicero, this city was the largest Greek city and the most beautiful of all. The estimated population varies from 300,000 to almost 100,000,000.
THE SIRACUSA ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK
The Roman theatre: The elliptical cavea of the amphitheatre measures 140 x 119 metres. It was built in the 3rd century because the rebuilt Greek theatre no longer met the requirements. The arena, in which gladiator games and animal fights took place, was equipped with two entrances and a marble balustrade. Under the balustrade, a vaulted corridor ran around the arena for the gladiators and animals.
The Ear of Dionysius, a cave carved into the rock, about 64 deep with a slender arch 20m high. Caravaggio gave it his name when he visited in 1608 and, according to legend, it served the tyrant Dionysus as a prison for his bitterest enemies. The excellent acoustics meant that their conversations could be heard from outside.
The Greek theatre of Syracuse was on a par with that of Athens and later Alexandria, being one of the largest theatres of Greek antiquity with a diameter of 138.6 metres. It was built around 470 BC under Hieron I and could seat 15,000 people. In Roman times, it was converted into an arena for gladiator fights in accordance with changed customs. The Greek theatre festival is held here every year from mid-May to the end of June.
The so-called Altar of Hieron II was the largest sacrificial altar in antiquity, measuring 22.8 metres wide by 177.6 metres long. It was probably once 15 metres high. It was dedicated to Zeus Eleutherios. Today, only the huge base hewn out of the rock remains. Hundreds of oxen were sometimes sacrificed here at the same time.
The Latomia: In the more than ten large quarries, limestones were extracted to build the ancient city. Among the largest quarries are the Latomia dei Cappuccini and the Latomia del Paradiso, which also served as prisons.
The walls of Dionysius I with the fort of Euryalos were the largest fortification of antiquity. From 401 BC and during the truce between Dionysius and Carthage in 405 BC, the 1800 hectare Epipolai plateau was secured against enemy occupation by the construction of the walls. The fort, which protected the far western tip of the plateau, was continually expanded in the following centuries until the city was captured by the Romans in 212 BC. The huge fort was the most versatile and sophisticated fortress of antiquity.
IN THE ORTIGIA
The Temple of Apollo: built around 570 BC, it is the oldest Doric peripteros in Sicily. Due to different uses in post-ancient times (Byzantine church, Arab mosque, Norman church and finally as Spanish barracks), only the foundations and a few columns and parts of the cella wall have survived.
The Cathedral, formerly the Temple of Athena: When we stand in the Cathedral, we are actually in the Temple of Athena, which was built as a victory temple after the victorious battle at Himera (480 BC). The old temple of Athena was converted into a Christian church in the 7th century. The massive Doric columns and capitals still form the support of the present church. They can be seen both on the exterior façade and inside.
In Siracusa’s daughter town, Palazzolo Acreide, are the excavations of ancient Akrai. The central and at the same time most important building of the city is the uncovered theatre. It was probably built by Hieron II from Syracuse and once held 700 spectators. Today, 12 rows of seats and the foundations of the performance hall are still preserved. The atmosphere is truly exceptional, especially in the off-season you have the theatre almost to yourself. In the last week of May, students perform ancient tragedies and comedies here, which should not be missed.
The Sicilian tribe, which had settled in Sicily in pre-Hellenic times, left the coastal settlements such as that of Thapsos around 1300 BC and settled in the valley between the rivers Fiume Anapo in the south and Fiume Calcinara in the north. Not only natural caves already existing in the limestone slopes served as dwellings, but soon artificial caves were also cut into the mountain.
The Anaktoron or Prince’s Palace was probably built around 1100 BC.
Otherwise, what remains of the settlement are mainly the enormous necropolises with a total of over 5000 man-made cave tombs.
At the time of the Hellenic colonisation over Syracuse, the settlement was probably destroyed at the time of the founding of the colony of Akrai around 665 BC. The area remained populated under Greek rule, and further burial sites and grotto chapels were built in early Christian and Byzantine times. Pantalica gained a further boost as a retreat from the invading Arabs, who also gave the place the name Buntarigah (caves). After the valley was settled under the Normans, it was abandoned; only the archaeologist Paolo Orsi recognised its importance in his excavation work. In 2005 it was included in the World Heritage List.
Eloro is not particularly spectacular, but we have included it in this list because it was our house beach for 12 years. You practically walk past the excavation site, as it lies right between the beaches of Pizzuta and Eloro. Eloro is about eight kilometres south of Noto at the mouth of the Tellaro River. It was founded in the 8th century BC, probably from Syracuse. Finds of Greek ceramics prove this. The excavations show that the city was surrounded by a belt of walls. There were two square towers, one to the north and one to the south. Dwellings and streets dating from the 8th to the 4th century BC were found. A small temple dedicated to Asclepius was found in the north. Further on, there is a large temple in the south of the excavations.
PARCO ARCHEOLOGICO DI SEGESTA
Segesta was laid out by the Elymians around Mount Barbaro and in a short time, together with Erice and Entella, became the most prosperous trading centre of this ethnic group, which mixed with the Sicans of western Sicily. Segesta, famous for the beauty of the place and dominated by the Doric temple built below the town, dating back to the 5th century B.C., today also includes an extensive archaeological area, with finds dating back to ancient times and the Middle Ages. The Greek theatre is particularly impressive, while in front of the city walls, the temple district called Mango has recently been excavated, which was also enclosed by strong walls and where there must have been numerous sacred buildings, possibly related to the cult of the “Venus of Erice” (Astarte). No less important for historians are the archaeological areas at Monte Jato and Contessa Entellina (both in the province of Palermo), which have only recently been made accessible to the public and which demonstrate the Elymians’ links with both Greek and Punic cultures.
PARCO ARCHEOLOGICO DI SELINUNTE
Selinunte is one of the largest and most impressive archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. It was founded in 700 BC by Doric Greeks and destroyed and rebuilt by Carthage around 400 BC, then sinking into insignificance in 250 BC after its destruction by the Romans. The archaeological park is divided into different areas: the acropolis on the top of the hill by the sea and the two ancient harbours. The city includes four ancient temples and the main and side streets, according to the typical construction of Greek cities. In the background is the restored Temple of Hera, in the foreground the unfinished Temple G, begun around 520 BC, which is one of the largest Greek temples with a floor area of 50 by 110 metres. A 70-ton gable was found in the rubble of this temple. It is assumed that it was built in honour of Apollo, the patron god of the city.
A visit to the archaeological park Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) in Agrigento is actually part of every trip to Sicily. The site covers 1,300 hectares, making it the largest of its kind in the world. In 1997, UNESCO declared the archaeological sites of Agrigento a World Heritage Site.The archaeological park consists of a series of Doric temples, some of them excellently preserved, built in the 5th century BC and reflecting the power and wealth of the Greek colony of Akragas at the time. The most important and best known is the Temple of Concordia, which, along with several others, was restored in 2007 to halt its deterioration. The park is divided into two halves by the “Via Passegiata Archeologica”. In the western part are mainly the temples of Olympian Zeus and the Dioscuri as well as the sanctuary of the chthonic deities, in the eastern part the temples of Hercules, Concordia and Hera.
The provincial capital of Agrigento, with a population of around 60,000, has, like all cities in Sicily, a number of sights, but would not be worth the long journey without the Valley of the Temples alone. The harbour town before Agrigento, Porto Empedocle, is the birthplace of Andrea Camilleri, the inventor of Commissario Montalbano. The latter solves his cases in the fictitious town of Vigata, which is modelled on Camilleri’s birthplace of Porto Empedocle. The provincial town of Montelusa corresponds to today’s Agrigento.
Tindari and other ancient sights
Tindari was founded in 396 BC by Dyonisos the 1st, destroyed and rebuilt several times. During the excavations, which began in 1812, the remains of the city wall, a basilica, an antiquarium and a Greek theatre were found.
Tindari is also home to the Sanctuary of the Black Madonna, on a 280 m. cliff that drops steeply to the sea. The Black Madonna was rescued from Constantinople in the 8th century before the iconoclasm that broke out there. Below the rock with the sanctuary is a nature reserve with lagoons and an extensive sandbank and beautiful beach.
The Middle Ages
in the Middle Ages, Byzantine art and culture only appeared years later in the mosaics of the churches that the Norman Roger II had built in Palermo.
The same is true of Arab culture; important buildings were first built by Byzantine and Arab craftsmen under the Normans. The buildings, almost exclusively churches, are referred to as Norman-Arab-Byzantine art. These include the Norman Palace with the Pope’s Chapel, San Cataldo , Santa Maria di Ammaraglio all in Palermo and the cathedrals of Cefalu and Monreale.
The Staufer castles are not as famous as those of Puglia, but Castello Ursino in Catania or Castello Miniace in Siracusa are outstanding witnesses to the creative power of one of the greatest figures of the Middle Ages, Federico il secondo.
The House of Anjou is not famous in Sicily for buildings and culture but for the “Sicilian vespers”.
With Peter of Aragon began, with brief interruptions, almost 500 years of Spanish rule in Sicily. The southern portico of Palermo Cathedral, built in the architectural style of the Catalan late Gothic, and the portico of the church of Santa Marina della Catena bear witness to this period.
The Baroque period
The modern era in Sicily can also be described as the age of the Baroque.
The era of the Spanish Habsburgs was marked by the great earthquake of 1693, which destroyed considerable parts of the east coast. Architecturally, this was a stroke of luck, as the reconstruction programme in Catania, Siracusa, Noto, Modica, Ragusa and Sicli resulted in the most beautiful Baroque buildings.
Noto and the other baroque towns in the southeast
Noto is in the province of Siracusa and has about 24,000 inhabitants. In 1999, Noto was described in a Sicily special by Merian as morbidly crumbling away and irredeemably at the mercy of decay.
Without UNESCO funding, this would probably have been exactly what happened, but today the city shines in new splendour and the glorious sunny golden hue of the local limestone.
Noto is often called the most homogenous baroque city in Sicily. This is because, unlike Modica and Ragusa, Noto was completely redesigned and rebuilt in a uniform Baroque style after the great earthquake of 1693 at a different site 8 km further down the valley from ancient Noto. The once great importance of the city can be seen from the fact that in historical maps a third of Sicily belonged to the Val di Noto.
The Nettini, as the inhabitants of Noto are called, have a reputation among their neighbours for being somewhat arrogant and work-shy because of their noble and rich past. It is hard to say whether this is the reason for the still almost perfect beauty with no industrial area and only two high-rise buildings.
Modica, with its 55,000 inhabitants, is located in the province of Ragusa, only 35 km from Noto, and is also a city worth visiting in the southeast.
Modica was built into a gorge and the houses seem to stick to the hillside. As in Noto, there are countless churches and palaces. Besides the many sights, Modica is also known for its excellent chocolate. Our favourite place to buy it is the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. The historic centre extends into the upper town, where there is also a newer district with shopping streets.
Ragusa is the capital of the province of the same name and has about 73,000 inhabitants. As a result of the reconstruction, Ragusa also has a “new” upper town with straight, wide streets and a winding lower town, Ragusa Ibla, built on the ruins of the medieval city. Today’s provincial capital is the richest municipality in Sicily; its Baroque layout, with 18 buildings, forms one of the largest urban ensembles on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Not far from Ragusa is Donnafugata Castle, immortalised by Tomasi di Lampedusa in his novel “The Gattopardo”. Coming from Noto, we recommend the following road: just before Rosolini, turn right onto SP 17 towards Modica. We love this road lined with ancient carob trees and dry stone walls. You will then arrive right down in the historic centre of Modica. After Ragusa Ibla, take the small panoramic SS 115 (not to be confused with the main SS 115 E45 road) from the centre of Modica Bassa past the church of S. Giorgio, always following the road.
Scicli has 27,000 inhabitants and is also one of the five baroque towns in the southeast already mentioned. Scicli is not quite as famous as Noto, Modica and Ragusa, but it is just as worth seeing. Scicli and Ragusa are also known in Italy as the locations of the Commissario Montalbano series based on the novels by Andrea Camillieri.
This small town in the Monti Iblei is a real gem. One does not normally expect such elegance and class from a town of 9,000 inhabitants in the middle of a limestone mountain range on an island. A historic centre worth seeing with a few elegant cafes and many good restaurants and an excellently preserved Greek theatre are worth a visit, as are side trips to Buccheri, Buscemi, the Cava Grande del Cassibile or the Pantallica Gorge.
was only declared a World Heritage Site in 2005, and for different reasons from the Baroque towns of Val di Noto, together with the Pantalica Gorge, namely because the sites and buildings that make up the Syracuse/Pantalica ensemble represent a unique collection of remarkable evidence of Mediterranean cultures over the centuries in the same place.
The old town on the island of Ortigia, which incidentally was also doomed to total decay, is now for us the most beautiful city by the sea that we know. Narrow streets, promenades by the sea, a great market and the magnificent cathedral on the impressive cathedral square make Ortigia unique.
Sicily is not only known for its Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Norman monuments, but also for its ceramic art. The strongholds are Caltagirone and Santo Stefano di Camara. Besides the incredibly beautiful rivers, the Testa di Mori, and the pine trees are of great importance.
The Sicilian folk art of puppet theatre is also worth mentioning. By means of artfully crafted puppets, plays are performed that revolve around stories of the kings of the Middle Ages and follow the time-honoured pattern of good versus evil.
Cities with culture in Sicily
In addition to the Baroque cities, there are countless other towns in Sicily that are worth seeing, but it doesn’t make much sense to classify them by era. Even the Baroque cities were mostly founded in antiquity, but rebuilt in the Baroque style due to the earthquake of 1693.
If we define culture as the totality of the characteristic intellectual, artistic, formative achievement created by a certain community in a certain area during a certain epoch, it becomes clear that Sicily is culturally one of the most diverse regions in the world due to its history.
Erice and the northwest of Sicily
The town of Erice, with about 30,000 inhabitants, is situated 15 km northeast of Trapani on Mount Erice at an altitude of 751 m above sea level. Only a few hundred inhabitants live in the old town on the plateau; the rest live in the districts at the foot of the mountain and to the north on the coast.
One feels strongly transported back to the Middle Ages in historic Erice, the atmosphere is truly unique, as is the view of the city of Trapani and the Egadi islands.
The provincial capital of Trapani is worth a visit for several reasons. It has recently become famous for the Americas Cup qualifying races, but it offers much more than just wind for sailing or surfing.
The old town, like so many in Sicily, has been almost completely renovated and, in addition to the many sights, has a very important and large port from which ferries leave for the Egadi islands of Favignana, Levanzo and Mrettimo, among others.
Trapani is also famous for Mattanza, the traditional but now defunct tuna hunt off the coast near the island of Favignana, and for the Easter processions. The largest and most solemn is the procession on Good Friday, called Processione dei Misteri di Trapani.
We find the salt flats between Marsala and Trapani particularly worth seeing.
Especially at sunset, this nature reserve rich in flora and fauna appears particularly enchanting. The windmills, some of which are still used to extract salt, are a reminder of times long past.
From the Salt Museum you can take the ferry to the Phoenician archaeological site of Mozia on the island of San Pantaleo. The salt, which is mined on a much smaller scale, is of excellent quality and is appreciated by gourmets.
is perhaps not quite as worth seeing as Trapani as a town, but at least a must for wine connoisseurs and lovers. You will, however, find a beautiful, renovated, pedestrian-friendly old town with some sights and, of course, the renowned Marsala producers. Although western Sicily is the most Arabic part of the island, Marsala cannot deny its English influence.
John Woodhouse established wine production around 1795 and other Englishmen such as Ingham and Whitaker followed him, so that by 1814 there were already 4 large British wineries. Unfortunately, Marsala lost a lot of its quality and it was only in the last 30 years that attempts were made to catch up with the big competitors from Spain and Portugal. Marsala also gained importance during the reunification of Italy, when the “Train of the Thousand” led by Giuseppe Garibaldi landed here on 11 May 1860 and began its victory march against the Bourbons.
Castellammare del Golfo
Back up the coast, past the Zingaro National Park, 6 km away from Scopello, where we offer some holiday homes, is Castellammare del Golfo. Castellammare del Golfo is a lovely little port town in the province of Trapani with 15,116 inhabitants (as of 31 December 2013). The location between the airports of Palermo and Trapani, as well as the proximity to Scopello and the nature reserve lo Zingaro make Castellammare an optimal starting point for a holiday in the northwest.
Mazara del Vallo
Back to the southwest coast again. Mazzara is not particularly mentioned in most guidebooks, but it is a decidedly interesting town. With the largest fishing fleet in Italy, a maze-like North African kasbah in the centre of town and charming architecture, Mazara del Vallo offers a fascinating mix of culture, history and art. The most Arabic town in Sicily, it is also known for the ancient bronze statue of a satyr that was netted by a fisherman in the late 20th century and represented Italy at Expo 2005 in Japan.
Menfi, Porto Palo
Menfi, together with the neighbouring municipalities of Sambuca di Sicilia, Santa Margherita di Belice and Sciacca, forms one of the most important wine-growing regions in Sicily. The region’s olive oil also has an excellent reputation. Porto Palo and Lido Fiori are only 7 minutes away from Menfi. Porto Palo is a small ancient fishing port with about 116 inhabitants. The landmark is the Porto Palo tower, which was built in 1583 and used to defend against pirates. For 10 years now, Porto Palo has been awarded the “Blue Flag” (Bandiera Blu dalla FEE) for clean water and clean kilometre-long sandy beaches.
Menfi is home to one of the largest wineries in Europe: Cantine Settesoli (Mandrarossa). The old parish church from the 18th century and the castle are also worth seeing. Both buildings were badly damaged in the 1968 earthquake.
The harbour town of Sciacca is located on the south coast of Sicily 50 km north of Agrigento. The small town in Italy is known for its thermal springs. The Romans already recognised the healing power of the hot steam baths and relaxed in the grottos of Monte San Calogero. Sciacca’s carnival, which attracts many visitors to the town at the end of February, is also famous. From the harbour, there is a magnificent view of the splendid backdrop of Sciacca’s colourful houses, which densely cover the hillside. Romantic alleyways, a few historic buildings and the Piazza Scandaliato with a great view over the sea define the image of a cosy Sicilian small town in the centre. Despite tourism, fishing remains the primary source of income for the inhabitants of the town. Sciacca has the second most important fishing port in Sicily after Mazara del Vallo. In the afternoon, the fishermen return with their catch. Then there is a lot of activity in the harbour. The fish can be bought directly from the boats. One of Sciacca’s most important celebrations is the religious festival in honour of the town’s patron saint, Madonna del Soccorso.
Palma di Montechiaro
This pretty little town is particularly famous because it was founded by Prince Carlo Tomasi di Lampedusa in 1638. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, one of the descendants of the town’s founder Carlo, described Palma di Montechiaro and its surroundings in his novel “The Leopard”. Several scenes of Luchino Visconti’s famous film were shot here.
Licata is located 47 km southeast of Agrigento on the coast and has about 39,000 inhabitants. The area of the municipality was already settled in 280 BC. Under the Romans, a port was built in Licata which made the town an important trading centre and transhipment point for wheat. The town was sacked by the Turks in 1553, from which it recovered and expanded. Licata is one of the many pleasant, typically Sicilian small towns that are worth a visit. Licata and the surrounding area have some beautiful beaches for swimming. Worth seeing are the museum in the town hall, the chiesa madre, a church built in the 16th century, and the Castello Sant Angelo.
Cefalù and the northeast of Sicily
The town lies at the foot of the Rocca di Cefalù, a 270-metre-high limestone cliff between Palermo and Capo d’Orlando. For a small town, Cefalù has a lot to offer: Sandy beaches, medieval alleys with many shops, excellent restaurants serving fresh fish and last but not least, the unique Norman cathedral. The city as we know it today was built at the behest of the Norman King Roger II. Construction of the cathedral began in 1131 and it is an excellent example of Sicilian Romanesque architecture. Thanks to the magnificent mosaic of Christ as Pantocrator above the altar, it is a partner church of the Palace Chapel in Palermo and Monreale Cathedral. If you are really interested in churches, you should visit all three. The climb to La Rocca is challenging but highly recommended for the spectacular views and the ancient Saracen fortress and the remains of the Temple of Diana. The town has become very touristy.
Castel di Tusa
From Cefalu it is a stone’s throw to Castel Tusa, a small friendly village by the sea with a beautiful castle and a famous, extraordinary hotel where each room has been designed by a different artist.
Santo Stefano di Camastra
The nearest town is Santo Stefano di Camastra, known for its ceramic crafts and good food.
Patti is one of the most important towns in the region due to its beautiful location and historical importance. The town is the seat of a bishop and apart from the magnificent cathedral, a Roman villa and Tindari are also worth seeing.
Milazzo is mainly known for its port, from which ferries depart for the Aeolian islands, but it’s also a nice, lively little town that’s well worth a visit.
Catania and the northeast
Catania city has about 350000 thousand inhabitants, with the surrounding municipalities Catania easily reaches 650 000 thousand people, making it the second largest city in Sicily and the largest non-regional capital in Italy. Catania is a very special city. On the one hand, it is hectic and gloomy, which is of course due to the black lava rock, on the other hand, Catania is lively with elegant cafes and culture and the most beautiful fish market in Europe.
Crime exists and we have been told by some customers before Scipis. A Scipo is a robbery where the car door is opened, the handbag is stolen and the perpetrator flees on a scooter.
However, we feel very comfortable and safe in Catania and cannot report anything negative. In any case, you should follow the usual advice. Do not leave any valuables visible in the car and close the car door from the inside in certain quarters of Catania.
The fishing villages north of Catania
Almost in the centre of Catania, when you leave the city by the sea to the north, you will find really romantic spots, small harbours with fishing boats and good ristorante. Aci castello, Ach trezza, Acireale, Risposto, Giarre, all small towns that are not among the absolute highlights, but which perfectly convey the Italian feeling that holidaymakers are looking for and increasingly rarely find.
Cultural towns in Central Sicily, Caltagirone
Caltagirone has about 40,000 inhabitants and is one of the late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Caltagirone is known throughout Sicily and beyond for its ceramics and the Santa Maria del Monte Grand Staircase with its tiled steps.
Piazza Amerina Villa Casale
The Villa Romana del Casale is a late Roman villa urbana near the town of Piazza Armerina in the . It is often referred to simply as Villa del Casale or Villa of Piazza Armerina. The villa is an important monument of Roman Sicily and famous for its floor mosaics.
In 1997, UNESCO declared the Villa Romana del Casale a World Heritage Site on the grounds,
“that the Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina is the most outstanding example of a Roman luxury villa, figuratively illustrating the prevailing social and economic structure of its time. The mosaics with which it is decorated are extraordinary in their artistic quality and inventiveness, as well as in their quantity.”
Villa Casale is also worth a day trip, especially if you take the route from Noto via Palazzolo Acreide, Vizzini Gramichele and Caltagirone(see below).
The drive through the interior of Sicily is extremely varied and you pass through typical small villages that are well worth seeing.