In its thousands years of history, Sicily had been conquered by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Saracens, Normans, Bourbons, Spaniards – and more recently by the Americans and British. It’s a fascinating land layered with history, beauty, and charm.
In the east is Mt. Etna – a very active volcano. With each eruption, volcanic ash and lava pours out of one of the volcano’s vents. Usually this ash blows out to sea, but this year Mt. Etna was living it up before our arrival, destroying forests and olive groves, wreaking havoc on the surrounding communities, and closing the local airport at Catania. Before we left, we knew that our flight could be rerouted somewhere – although we weren’t sure where Alitalia would choose (Alitalia aspires to confusion). Changing planes in Milan, we were assured by Alitalia that we were indeed flying into Catania.
Needless to say, moments before the flight, Catania airport closed due to volcanic ash, the flight was cancelled, and we instead flew into Palermo. In the few minutes before the flight, we called Kemwel and rebooked our rental car. (More about Kemwel later.)
Sicily is roughly triangular, with Palermo in the northwest, Catania and Syracusa in the east, and Agrigento in the south-center. It’s about 150 miles at its widest. It’s very rugged, and heavily populated near the urban centers. The interior is very rural, and sparsely populated. We learned that most of Sicily is very poor. In the beginning of the 20th century, huge numbers of Sicilians left for the USA, Argentina, and Australia. The depopulation of the rural areas was evident even today as we saw abandoned farms and houses.
Sicily is very unlike the other parts of Italy that we have visited. The people look different. They’re a bit more reserved. While there seems to be less of the exuberant “joie de vivre” so evident in Rome or Florence, Sicilians are nevertheless warm, helpful, and tolerant — until we got on the roads. Jet-lagged and still trying to create a new itinerary after being dropped 100+ miles from our intended destination, we drove into Palermo.
Palermo – museums and traffic
We knew that Palermo was one of the world’s capitals of driving warfare. “I’m from Boston,” Phil thought, “I can handle anything.” We’d heard that traffic lights were suggestions, and that cojones determined who really had the right of way. Having driven in Naples last year, we knew of the “invisible” traffic lanes (a 3-lane road has 5 lanes of traffic). Phil was READY! He was actually too ready – and had to chill out. He was driving far more aggressively than the Italians. This is sad.
We didn’t spend enough time in Palermo to really do it justice. Although it has a reputation of being dirty and unsafe, we found neither to be true. We visited the archaeology museum, the market area, walked the old Jewish quarter, and went to the fabulous cathedral at Monreale, in the hills outside of Palermo. The cathedral has incredible Byzantine gold mosaics throughout its interior, and was spectacular.
After Monreale, we drove to the incredible ruins of Segesta. A single temple located on the side of a mountain, its columns are practically unscathed by the passing centuries. As November is very off-season, we had the site to ourselves, with incredible vistas over the surrounding craggy countryside with its olive trees and boulders. About a half-mile away, on another hill, the ruins of a Greek temple sit, with the incredible countryside as a backdrop to the stage. We were lucky enough to be at Segesta on a bright sunny day, and the scene is unforgettable.
From Segesta we drove to Erice, a preserved medieval village perched in the mountains at the far western side of Sicily. As we drove up the mountain we entered a thick blanket of fog, which stayed over Erice during the entire time we were there. It made wandering the cobblestone streets surreal, and although we missed the views from the ramparts of the old fortification walls, the fog focused our attention on each building we passed during our strolls, as we couldn’t see more than 20 feet ahead of us!
We left Erice the next morning, confidently plotting a course towards the southern side of Sicily – and promptly got tangled in Trapani (sort of a roach motel for cars). Susan’s Italian was good enough to get directions, but each person we asked seemed to have a different idea about the best way to get through town. When we finally made our way out of Trapani, we stopped and bought a better map – we thought. However, the very official map had road numbers that had absolutely no relation to the markings on the roads we traveled, and throughout the remainder of trip, we made innumerable unplanned – and often wonderful – detours.
But there were times when a map was unnecessary. As we approached Agrigento, the incredible temple complex could be seen from the road. Located on a plateau overlooking Sicily’s southern coast, Agrigento has some of the best-preserved and most extensive Greek ruins in the world. The huge temples are located on a ridge within a large valley – a beautiful setting. The extensive temple complex was used as a religious site by the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians. The bilingual museum has an overwhelming collection of artifacts found on the site and nearby.
One of the joys of traveling off-season is that we were often entirely alone at historic sights. Agrigento was one of those places where we were among a small handful of tourists. While there’s nothing wrong with sharing with others, there’s a poetic feeling to seeing these buildings surrounded by nothing but quiet.
The mosaic floors at Villa Romana de Casale were perfectly preserved.After a night in Agrigento, we continued through the interior, stopping to see the medieval center of Caltanisseta and the ruined Norman Castle at Enna. In Enna we had a particularly delicious pizza and pastry lunch. The pastry counters throughout Sicily were incredibly tempting, and we rarely resisted.
From Enna it was a short drive to Piazza Armerina, site of the incredible Villa Romana de Casale. This Roman villa has incredible mosaic floor that were preserved by a mudslide, and only recently have been uncovered and restored. Far more extensive than those we’d seen in Pompeii or Herculaneum, we were struck by the artistry and beauty of the various designs.
From there we headed for Caltagirone, a center of ceramics for centuries. Susan could hardly wait for the car to stop before going shopping. The two parts of the city are separated by a bridge lined with ceramic tiles, and there are over 100 ceramic steps (each riser a different design) leading to the town cathedral. However, to our dismay we found that there are NO hotels in Caltagirone, so we ended up staying in modern suburb on the outskirts of town. The ceramics were gorgeous – we’ll never understand why the tourist industry hasn’t encouraged a hotel to open there. Not only does Caltagirone lack hotels, there are also very few restaurants. And compounding all this, Caltagirone has – by far – the worst street signage in Sicily. Even the hotel’s mini-map was laughably abstract, providing not even a suggestion of how to get from the city to their hotel.
The Cathedral in Ortygia was built into an existing greek temple.Just a block from our Ortygia hotel was this fountainFrom Catagirone we headed to Siracusa, where we spent several days. We found a lovely hotel in Ortygia, a former island now linked by bridges to Siracusa. It’s one of the most beautiful places – there are several squares with fountains, and the central plaza’s cathedral incorporates the columns of a Roman temple that was once on the site. We wandered the streets of what was formerly the Jewish ghetto, and enjoyed being part of the crowds that fill the streets between 5 and 8 PM every night. There are amazing ruins in the “new” part of Siracusa, including the tomb of Archimedes, a Greek and a Roman theater, and one of the most comprehensive anthropological museums we’ve ever seen.
Catania is on the eastern coast of Sicily, and we saw some evidence of Mt. Etna’s ash. But it was in Taormina, where we took a day trip, which we really saw the havoc that the volcano could bring. We passed Mt. Etna spewing smoke into the air on the way, and in Taormina there were piles of ash in street corners, between cobblestones, and everywhere else, in spite of obvious efforts to sweep it up. Taormina is a picturesque medieval city known as a resort town for the glitterati. While somewhat touristy, it’s history and medieval feel make it a popular attraction. Taormina was a Greek settlement that flourished in the time of Caesar, and its main attraction is the Greek Theatre, which was built in the third century BC and expanded by the Romans. The view of Mount Etna and the sea beyond the theatre is breathtaking – but due to fog and volcanic ash, our visit there did not offer the sweeping view that we’d seen in pictures.
Catania is the second largest city in Sicily. It’s a college town, giving it a buzz of activity and wealth of internet cafes. It also has a large food market, great restaurants, and an airport that – for us – was constantly being closed due to Etna’s eruptions. The city is very well preserved, with many Baroque buildings. On the Saturday night that we were there, we were delighted to arrive in time for the evening passagiata, when the townspeople turn out for a stroll along the main street.
On to Malta
Our good friends, Tony and Erika, were staying in Malta and timed their vacation as to meet us after we toured Sicily. With Etna’s constant eruptions, and the airport’s constant closings, we were never really sure that we would get to Malta – but Air Malta, seemingly more together than Alitalia, did actually fly, although out of the US Air Force base at Sigonella (about 15 miles from Catania).
Malta is an island about 100 miles south of Sicily, about the size of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s strategic position by the straits between Sicily and Tunisia has made this tiny island the center of some of the most significant events in European history – or at least European warfare.
Malta is a revolving door for invaders. The Neolithic temples were built circa 3800 BC. The Phoenicians colonized the islands around 800 BC (there is evidence that the Phoenicians were accompanied by Jews). The Romans made Malta part of their empire in 208 BC. Saint Paul shipwrecked there 60 AD, and is said to have converted the Maltese to Christianity. Arabs from North Africa arrived in 870, exerting a powerful influence on the Maltese, introducing citrus fruits and cotton and forming the basis for Malti. Norman invaders displaced the Arabs in 1090, and for the next 400 years Malta remained under Sicilian sway. In 1530 the Emperor of Spain gave the islands to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. The knights, who were the shock troops of the Holy Roman Empire, had just suffered a string of bloody defeats at the hands of the Arabs. They were supposed to draw the line at Malta, thus protecting Europe from invasion. The Knights turned the island into a series of huge fortresses with steep walls. To this day, many cities have only one entrance thru a fortified gate.
In 1565, after a string of provocations on the seas by both the Knights and the Turks (under Saladin), 30,000 Turks attacked Malta and lay siege to Valletta. Although heavily outnumbered, the knights held onto Valletta and turned back the Turks. The knights were hailed as the saviors of Europe. The knights spent the next 200 years being the bad boys of the Mediterranean, attacking ships of any nation, seizing the cargo, and holding the passengers for ransom. Napoleon, not known for his tolerance of this type of activity, conquered Malta (a pit stop on his way to Egypt) and exiled the knights. In 1814, the British conquered Malta, turning their new colony into a major naval base, making it an inviting target for the Axis during WWII. After a long blockade and five months of non-stop bombing raids by German aircraft, Malta was devastated. After the war, Malta began moving away from Britain and toward independence, achieving autonomy in 1964. By 1979, however, the government was signing agreements with Libya, the Soviet Union and North Korea, much to the chagrin of Britain and its allies. This flirtation with Communism ended in 1987, which began leading Malta toward membership of the European Union.
The current government is highly conservative. Divorce, birth control, and abortion are illegal. Oddly, when entering Valletta, the first thing you see is a huge billboard condemning violence against women. The Maltese are notorious for shooting anything that flies. They’ve destroyed most of their birds and they now slaughter migratory birds. They are also notorious for pumping raw sewage into the Mediterranean. The EU is not pleased.
As it was under British rule for many years, most of the residents speak some English. This is good, because Malti is totally unpronounceable.
A major attraction of Malta are the prehistoric sites. The Stonehenge-esque temples (and famous “fat lady” statutes – fertility goddesses which, according to Susan, are far superior to any male gods who’ve come along since) date to c. 3800 BC. These megaliths, giant limestone slabs forming a series of ovals, are scattered throughout the island. They have been extensively excavated and slightly reconstructed. We visited the Neolithic sites of Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, and Tarxien – and tried to visit the Hypogeum (we failed, as we didn’t have reservations). It’s amazing to think that people who were on the very brink of civilization were grouping together huge stones, weighing many tons each. They created hinges for doors and engravings on the slabs with nothing more than flint and obsidian tools.
Mdina, a 3000-year-old walled and fortified city, is filled with Norman and baroque buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. It’s commanding view of the island and sheer limestone ramparts makes the city dominate the area. The buildings are Norman, the layout is Arab, and the fortifications are by the Knights – complete with an entrance that was once a drawbridge. At the center is an 11th century Norman Cathedral, one of the few buildings to survive an earthquake in 1693. We dined in a restaurant that was once a dungeon.
Valletta is a very busy urban center, yet the old city retains a medieval feel. It’s now the primary shopping district – and the tourist center. Here was the “Great Siege of Malta” audiovisual presentation, which was unfortunately not much more than a scratchy audio track and mannequins in someone’s basement. Buy a book – it will not only be more accurate, but you won’t have to trudge past dusty mannequins.
The views around the Grand Harbor are extraordinary. With the picturesque limestone ramparts and imposing Norman structures as backdrop – and the brightly colored boats at the coast, this harbor is among the most beautiful we’ve seen.
Gozo is less densely populated than Malta, and we spent one sunny day there enjoying the coastline and prehistoric ruins.
The trip back
Air Malta reliably brought us back to Catania – where we enjoyed a delightful farewell dinner and evening passagiata. In the morning, we arrived back at the airport for flight to Milan – but again the airport was closed. It seems that Etna had erupted the night before and the runway was once-again ash-covered. This only led to a 1.5 hour delay – the exact length of our layover. Once in Milan, we madly dashed thru passport control (more like passport “cursory glance”) and arrived at the gate to find that the Alitalia flight to Boston was delayed.
Alitalia is a fairly pathetic airline. Schedules are goals or perhaps best-case scenarios. While they didn’t abandon us like they did when we went to Florence, they always ran late, never told us if they would actually fly, and had interminable lines. On the other hand, their staff was always friendly and polite. Their staff wants to do a good job, but they’re just terribly disorganized.
Kemwel (Car Rental) www.kemwel.com – This USA-based agency prebooks at a huge savings over European rates. When we couldn’t get thru to the local agent, we phoned the US with our Walgreens card and Kemwel instantly rebooked our car. These folks are great.
The above text, especially the history of Malta, contains excerpts from the Lonely Planet guide and website – which provided us with excellent lodging and logistical advice for both Sicily and Malta.
The owner of the Hotel Rubens in Catania went out of his way to help us with the logistical nightmare of scheduling around Etna’s eruptions. http://www.eol.net.mt/rubens/