Frommer's Italy (2015)
Taormina Theater, Sicily.
Sicily has been conquered, settled, and abandoned by dozens of civilizations, from the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians in antiquity, to the Arabs, Berbers, Moors, and Normans in the Middle Ages, to the Spanish and Bourbons in the Renaissance, and finally, finally the (at least nominally) Italian modern era. It’s an intricate and violent story that nonetheless left a fascinating physical legacy—touring the relics of Sicily’s past can feel like visiting several different countries at once.
At 25,708 sq. km (9,926 sq. miles), Sicily is not only the largest island in the Mediterranean but also the largest region in Italy. This triangle-shaped land is home to the first known parliament in the western world (Palermo), the oldest continental tree (Sant’Alfio, near Catania), the highest and most active volcano in Europe (Mount Etna), and the vastest archaeological park (Selinunte).
Though it’s only separated from the mainland by the 4km-wide (21⁄2 miles) Stretto di Messina, Sicily has a palpable, captivating sense of otherness. Some Sicilians will refer to a trip to the mainland as “going to Italy.” The island offers the full package of Italian travel experiences: evocative towns with compelling art and architecture, outstanding ruins older than anything in Rome, and a geographic palette that goes from the sere, chalky southeast to the brooding slopes of Mt. Etna to the brawny headlands of Palermo and the gentle, agricultural landscapes of the east—all surrounded by cobalt seas and beaches where you can swim from May to October. The colors and natural contrasts are shaped by the elements like nowhere else on Earth; African and Alpine fauna live spectacularly on the same island.
Of course, there are also the jewels that testify to Sicily’s glorious Classical past (Agrigento, Siracusa, Segesta, Tindari, Morgantina, Piazza Armerina), unique styles of baroque architecture crafted in response to devastating earthquakes in the southeast (Catania, Noto, Scicli, Ragusa, and Modica), and, sadly, modern yet hideous postwar concrete monsters (Palermo, Catania, Messina, Agrigento). Then, of course, too, there are the Sicilians themselves: The descendants of Greek, Carthaginian, Roman Vandal, Arab, Norman, and Spanish conquerors are welcoming yet suspicious, taciturn and at the same time garrulous, deeply tied to traditions yet always yearning to break away from distasteful precedents. True to stereotypes, Sicilians are a passionate people, and their warmth and hospitality makes even everyday transactions memorable. Food lovers have an entirely new culinary world to explore in Sicily, whose regional cuisine is both unique and accessible, accompanied by an increasingly sophisticated collection of local wines.
Thousands of years of domination may have created stark contradictions, but they have left an archaeological, cultural, and culinary legacy like no other in this world. In Goethe’s words, “The key to it all is here.”
BY PLANE By far the easiest way to reach Sicily is by air. Palermo’s airport is served by dozens of daily flights to Rome (50 min.) and Milan (1 hr., 15 min.), and nonstops to airports throughout Europe. The Aeroporto di Palermo (www.gesap.it; 091-7020111), known as Falcone e Borsellino (after the two anti-Mafia magistrates who were assassinated in the early 1990s) or Punta Raisi for the spit of coastal land it occupies beneath spectacular headlands, is 31km (19 miles) west of Palermo on the A29 highway. Over in eastern Sicily, the Aeroporto di Catania, aka Fontanarossa (www.aeroporto.catania.it; 095-7239111), also has myriad domestic flights and European connections; you can even fly here nonstop from Beirut and Tel Aviv.
BY TRAIN Trains to Sicily are operated by Italy’s national rail company, Ferrovie dello Stato (www.trenitalia.com). The trains from mainland Italy come down from Rome and Naples through Calabria and across the Strait of Messina to Sicily on ferries equipped with railroad tracks on the cargo deck. It’s a novel way to arrive in Sicily. From Rome to Palermo, there are three direct trains daily—at 7:39am, 11:39am, and 9:20pm—that arrive in Palermo 12 to 14 hours later. Fares start at 66€ for a second-class ticket. Many more Sicily-bound trains originate in Naples (trip time to Palermo: 9-10 hr.).
BY CAR Yes, you can drive to the island of Sicily. No, there’s no bridge—the much-discussed Straits of Messina bridge has not yet materialized. However, the northeastern tip of Sicily is only separated from mainland Italy by a very narrow waterway, the 5km-wide (3-miles) Stretto di Messina (Strait of Messina), which is crossed by regular car ferries between the Calabrian port of Villa San Giovanni (just north of Reggio Calabria, essentially the “toe” of the Italian peninsula’s boot shape) and the Sicilian city of Messina. From Messina, which lies on the well-maintained A20 and A18 autostrade, it’s a straight shot west to Palermo (233km/145 miles; about 2 hr.) or south to Taormina (52km/32 miles; 45 min.), Catania (97km/60 miles; 1 hr., 15 min.), and Siracusa (162km/100 miles; about 2 hr.).
If you’re planning to drive down from Naples or Rome, prepare yourself for a long ride: 721km (448 miles) south from Naples or 934km (580 miles) south from Rome.
BY SEA Palermo’s large port is served by passenger ferries from the Italian mainland cities of Naples, Civitavecchia (near Rome), Livorno, and Genova, and from the Sardinian city of Cagliari. Nearly all of these are nighttime crossings, departing between 7pm and 9pm and arriving the next morning between 6am and 8am. Some of these ferries are tricked out like miniature cruise ships, with swimming pools, beauty salons, discos, gyms, and presidential suites. Ferries from Naples are the most numerous, operating daily year-round. The Naples-Palermo route is run by SNAV (www.snav.it; 081-4285555) and Tirrenia Lines (www.tirrenia.it; 892123 or 02-26302803). With either company, the ferry trip takes 11 hours, although there is also a faster, more expensive daytime hydrofoil service that takes 6 hours (summer only). Fares for ferries to Sicily vary widely depending on whether you opt for a seat or a berth in a semiprivate cabin, and whether you bring a car aboard. Expect to pay between 50€ and 75€ for a poltrona (seat) and from 100€ to 180€ per person for a berth in a four-person cabin with a sea view. A car will cost an extra 25€ or so. From Civitavecchia, which is the port that cruise ships use when visiting Rome, Grandi Navi Veloci has ferries to Palermo that depart at 8pm, arriving in Palermo the next morning at 8am. Schedules vary depending on weather conditions, so always call on the day of departure even if you’ve already confirmed your reservation the day before.
Sicilian roads, as in the rest of Italy, are generally signposted well and abundantly. Before taking the wheel acquire a good road map (carta stradale), such as that published by Touring Editore (7.90€, available at newsstands and bookshops).
Bus travel in Sicily is excellent, with good connections between most cities. Buses are clean and modern, with comfortable upholstered seats, air-conditioning, and smooth suspensions. The main bus companies in Sicily are Interbus (www.interbus.it; 091-6167919; also goes by the names Etna Trasporti, Segesta, and Sicilbus, depending on which part of Sicily you’re in), and Cuffaro (www.cuffaro.info; 091-6161510), which operates buses between Palermo and Agrigento.
Passenger rail service on the island is generally spotty and slow, with antiquated, dirty coaches. The bus is almost always a better option, so think of the train as a last resort when your desired route is not covered by a bus.
53km (33 miles) N of Catania, 53km (33 miles) S of Messina, 250km (155 miles) E of Palermo
Guy de Maupassant, the 19th-century French short-story writer, played the tourist shill and wrote, “Should you only have one day to spend in Sicily and you ask me ‘what is there to see?’ I would reply ‘Taormina’ without any hesitation. It is only a landscape but one in which you can find everything that seems to have been created to seduce the eyes, the mind and the imagination.” Lots of visitors have felt the same way. The Roman poet Ovid loved Taormina, and 18th-century German man of letters Wolfgang Goethe put the town on the Grand Tour circuit when he extolled its virtues in his widely published diaries. Oscar Wilde was one of the gentlemen who made Taormina, as writer and dilettante Harold Acton put it, “a polite synonym for Sodom,” and Greta Garbo is one of many film legends who have sought a bit of privacy here.
It could be said that with its beauty and sophistication Taormina has a surfeit of star quality itself. The town often seems more international than Sicilian and has so many admirers that visitors often outnumber locals. Then again, perched precariously on a steep cliff halfway between the sinister slopes of Mount Etna and the glittering Ionian Sea, its captivating alleyways lined with churches and palazzi, Taormina is almost over-the-top beautiful, and what could be more Sicilian than that?
GETTING THERE Taormina is well served by buses, most of which connect through Catania. From Catania’s Fontanarossa airport, there are nine Taormina-bound buses per day, stopping in downtown Catania before heading up the coast to Taormina. Travel time by bus from Catania to Taormina is about 11⁄2 hours; tickets are about 5€ one-way. Full schedules are available from Interbus (www.etnatrasporti.it). Taormina’s bus station is on Via Pirandello, near Porta Messina, on the north end of town.
If you’re arriving by car from Messina, head south along A18, following signs for Catania. From Catania, take the A18 north, toward Messina. Exit the autostrada at the Taormina exit, which lies just north of a series of highway tunnels. Find out if your hotel has parking and if there’s a fee, and get very clear instructions about how to arrive—Taormina is a mind-boggling maze of tiny one-way streets and hairpin turns. Otherwise, take advantage of the large public parking garages just outside the old town, both clearly signposted with blue Ps on all roads that approach Taormina. On the north side of town, Parking Lumbi ( 0942-24345) charges 14€ per day (16€ per day in Aug) and has a free shuttle from the garage to the Porta Messina gate of Taormina proper. On the south end of town, Parking Porta Catania ( 0942-620196) is another multilevel garage with slightly higher rates than Lumbi (15€ per day, 17€ per day in Aug) but with the advantage of being practically in town (it’s just 100m/328 ft. from the Porta Catania city gate). Down by the beach at Mazzarò, in the vicinity of the lower cable-car station, is Parking Mazzarò (14€ per day, 16€ in Aug).
It’s also possible to take the train to Taormina. The nearest rail hubs are Messina and Catania, each between 40 minutes and 11⁄2 hours away, depending on the speed of your train. Tickets from either Messina or Catania to Taormina cost about 4€. See www.trenitalia.com for complete schedules. Keep in mind that Taormina’s train station, which is shared with the seaside town of Giardini-Naxos, lies down the hill from town, 1.6km (1 mile) away. From the station, you have to take a bus up the hill to Taormina proper (9am-9pm, every 15-45 min.; 2€ one-way), or a taxi (about 15€).
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office is in Palazzo Corvaja, Piazza Santa Caterina ( 0942-23243 or 0942-24941; Mon-Thurs 8:30am-2pm and 4-7pm, and Fri 8:30am-2pm). Here you can get a free map, hotel listings, bus and rail timetables, and a schedule of summer cultural events staged at the Teatro Greco (Greek Theater).
Where to Stay
The hotels in Taormina are the best in Sicily. All price ranges are available, with accommodations ranging from army cots to sumptuous suites.
If you’re driving to a hotel at the top of Taormina, call ahead to see what arrangements can be made for your car. Ask for exact driving directions as well as instructions on where to park—the narrow, winding, one-way streets can be bewildering once you get here.
Excelsior Palace Not a palace, really, but a sprawling pink grand hotel from the early 20th century that is conveniently tucked into one end of town just off Corso Umberto. Rooms here have not been upgraded since, well, since a time when burnt-orange bathroom tiles and floral carpets were all the rage. They’re well maintained, though, and every one has a view—many of Mt. Etna and the coastline—and many have little balconies with just enough room for two chairs. Though the place is often filled with groups, service is personal, attentive, and old world, with waiters in ties and jackets serving cocktails in frumpy lounges full off overstuffed, slipcovered couches and armchairs. In the magnificent garden, many verdant acres are draped over a promontory high above the town and sea, the setting for a magnificently perched swimming pool—which in itself makes this a good summertime choice.
Via Toselli 8. www.excelsiorpalacetaormina.it. 0942-23975. 85 units. From 110€ double. Amenities: Restaurant; bar; concierge; pool; Wi-Fi in public areas (free).
The village of Taormina.
Hotel del Corso One of Taorminia’s best lodging deals is right in the heart of town, on Corso Umberto near the Duomo. You’ll forgo spas, pools, and other chic luxuries in these fairly basic lodgings but you won’t give up views of the sea and Mt. Etna, because they fill the windows of many of the rooms and spread out below the top floor lounge, breakfast room, and sun terrace; some rooms have less dramatic but pleasing views of the town. Black and white terrazzo floors, iron bedsteads, and soothing neutral colors add a lot of spark to the comfortable guest rooms, a choice few of which have small balconies. Book well in advance, especially on weekends, when this good-value property fills up fast.
Corso Umberto 328. www.hoteldelcorsotaormina.com. 0942-628698. 15 units. From 110€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Amenities: Wi-Fi (free).
Villa Carlotta This 1920s stone villa vaguely resembling a castle is an enchanting getaway at the edge of town—another creation of Andrea and Rosaria Quartucci, who work such magic at Villa Ducale (below). A wall of Byzantine catacombs adds an air of mystery, but what wins you over is the classic-yet-contemporary style and wonderful sense of privacy and comfort. Most of the warm-hued, stylish rooms have terraces and sea views, and many overlook the luxuriant rear gardens where a swimming pool is tucked into the greenery. As at Villa Ducale, service is personalized and attentive, and a shuttle bus makes a run down to the beach. Villa Carlotta also operates the sumptuous Taormina Luxury Apartments (www.taorminaluxuryapartments.com), just up the street.
Via Pirandello 81. www.hotelvillacarlottataormina.com. 0942-626058. 23 units. 200€-350€ double. Amenities: Restaurant; concierge; health club; pool; Wi-Fi (free).
Villa Ducale Andrea and Rosaria Quartucci have fashioned a family villa perched high on a hillside above the town into a warm and stylish getaway with flower-planted terraces, Mediterranenan gardens, and extraordinary eagle’s-nest views that extend as far as Calabria. Distinctive rooms and suites, in the villa and a house across the road, are done in Sicilian chic, with stylish and extremely comfortable furnishings set against warm hues that play off terracotta floors; they are enlivened with beams, arches, and other architectural details, equipped with luxurious baths, and fitted out with fine linens and works by local artists. Service is exceedingly warm and personal, and a lavish buffet breakfast and complimentary sunset cocktails, accompanied by a spread of Sicilian appetizers, are served on a living room-like terrace; lunch and dinner are available on request. The hotel has no pool, but there’s a Jacuzzi, and a shuttle makes a run to a private beach, and also to town.
Via Leonardo da Vinci 60. www.villaducale.com. 0942-28153. 15 units. 240€-400€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Parking 10€. Closed Jan 18-Mar 4. Amenities: Jacuzzi; room service; Wi-Fi (free).
Villa Paradiso Lady Florence Trevelyan, who created the beautiful gardens that are now the Villa Communale, lived in this villa until her death in 1907, and it passed to the Martorana family, three generations of whom have proven to be charming hoteliers. Family antiques, comfy armchairs and couches, and paintings (many presented by guests over the years) fill lounges and bright, handsomely decorated guest rooms, where balconies and sun-drenched sitting alcoves face the sea. Breakfast and dinners are served in a top-floor, glassed-in restaurant, Settimo Cielo (Seventh Heaven), which it really seemes to be. Between June and October, the hotel offers free shuttle service and free entrance to the Paradise Beach Club, about 6km (4 miles) to the east, in the seaside resort of Letojanni.
Via Roma 2. www.hotelvillaparadisotaormina.com. 0942-23921. 37 units. 130€-210€ double. Amenities: Restaurant; bar; room service; Wi-Fi (fee).
Where to Eat
The ultimate Sicilian summer refreshment, the sorbetlike granita, is perfect at Bam Bar, not far from the Grand Hotel Timeo at Via di Giovanni 45 ( 0942-24355). Specialties are the almond (mandorla) or white fig (fico bianco), but there are usually more than a dozen flavors to choose from.
Il Duomo SICILIAN The decor leaves something to be desired, with harsh lighting and a green and orange color scheme—to avoid it, choose a table near the large window overlooking the Duomo, or better yet in good weather, on the side terrace. Fortunately, the food doesn’t take any such leaps in taste and sticks to traditional Sicilian recipes, with some well-conceived modern twists. This is the best place in town to try pasta con sarde (with sardines and breadcrumbs), and the fish is commendably fresh and can be nicely enlivened with capers, tomatoes, and olives.
Vico Ebrei. www.ristorantealduomo.it. 0942-625656. Main courses 10€-16€. Tues-Sun 12:30-3pm and 7:30-10:30pm.
Tischi Toschi SICILIAN/SEAFOOD A warm-hued yellow room facing a delightful little piazza and decorated with old ceramics is the setting for creative takes on old Sicilian classics. Even pasta alla Norma (with eggplant and ricotta) seems like a work of art here, and is thoughtfully topped with a grilled eggplant. Venture further, though, into some dishes you might not encounter in many other places—some top choices, if they’re being served, are insalata di pesce stocco, a salad made from dried cod, raw fennel, and tomato dressed with olive oil and parsley, and sarde a beccafico, sardines stuffed with pine nuts and fennel and served with lemon and orange. Accompany anything with the delicious fried artichokes, and end a meal with the heavenly, refreshing lemon jelly.
Via F. Paladini 3. 339-3642088. Main courses 8€-18€. Daily noon-3pm and 6:30-11pm.
Trattoria da Nino SICILIAN Good, no-nonsense Sicilian cucina casalinga (home-cooking) is the recipe for success in this unpretentious, brightly lit room (with an airy terrace in warm weather) across from the upper station of the cable car. Pastas are house-made (deliciously delicate gnocchi, little potato dumplings, are served alla Norma, with eggplant and ricotta), and the fish is fresh and served simply grilled. Nino’s is a local institution, a 50-year veteran of the Taormina dining scene, and it’s always packed; no reservations for groups of fewer than six.
Via Pirandello 37. www.trattoriadanino.com. 0942-21265. Main courses 8€-18€. Daily noon-3pm and 6:30-11pm.
Vecchia Taormina SICILIAN One of Taormina’s longtime favorites keeps a steady stream of regulars happy with what are reputed to be the best pizzas around. The pizza alla Norma, the ingredients of the classic Sicilian pasta on a flaky crust, makes good on the claim. The kitchen also does nice versions of spaghetti con vongole (with clams), or topped with fresh sardines and breadcrumbs, and other classics, and serves them in two cozy rooms and a delightful multilevel terrace in an alleyway outside.
Vico Ebre 3. 0942-625589. Main courses 10€-15€. Thurs-Tues 7:30-10:30pm.
Just about everything to see in Taormina unfolds from the main pedestrian drag, Corso Umberto I, which slices through town from Porta Messina, in the north, to Porta Catania, in the south. It only takes about 10 minutes to walk the length of Corso Umberto I. Taormina is also a handy base for day trips to Mount Etna—the high-altitude visitor areas are only about 1 hour away by car.
Teatro Greco (Teatro Antico) RUINS With their penchant for building in beautiful settings, the Greeks perched the second-largest ancient theater in Sicily, after the one in Siracusa, on the rocky flanks of Mount Tauro. The backdrop of smoldering Mount Etna and the sea crashing far below certainly provided as much drama as any theatrical production. Romans rebuilt much of the theater, adding the finishing touches on what we see today in the 2nd century A.D., and put the arena to use for gladiatorial events. In ruin, but with much of the hillside cavea, or curved seating area, intact, the theater is still the setting for performances and film screenings, greatly enhanced by columns and arches framing the sea and volcano in the background. Check with TaorminaArte’s headquarters, Corso Umberto 19 (www.taoarte.it; 0942-21142), or at the tourist office for exact dates and show times.
Via del Teatro Greco. 0942-21142. Admission 8€. Apr-Sept daily 9am-7pm; Oct-Mar daily 9am-4pm.
Villa Comunale PARK/GARDEN Of all the colorful characters who have spent time in Taormina, the one leaving the biggest mark may have been Lady Florence Trevelyan, who in the late 19th century created these beautiful gardens, now the city park also known as Parco Duca di Cesarò. Lady Trevelyan allegedly was asked to leave Britain after an entanglement with Edward, Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria. She settled in Taormina, married, and lived quite happily in the lovely, adjacent villa that is now the hotel Villa Paradiso (see above). Her liaison with a farmer, much of it conducted amid these groves and terraces, supposedly inspired D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Lady Trevelyan built the stone and brick pavilions in the park for bird watching and entertaining, and it’s too bad the gates are swung shut at sunset, because these fanciful follies would be perfect for wiling away a hot summer night. During the day, the 3 hectares (71⁄2 acres) of beautifully groomed terraces provide a nice respite from the busy town, filled as they are with luxuriant Mediterranean vegetation, cobblestone walkways, picturesque stone stairways, and a sinuous path lining the park’s eastern rim with superb views over the sea.
A view of Mount Etna.
Via Bagnoli Croce. No phone. Free admission. Daily 8:30am-7pm (6pm in winter).
To reach the best and most popular beach, Lido Mazzarò, you have to go south of town via a cable car ( 0942-23605) that leaves from Via Pirandello every 15 minutes (3€ round-trip). This soft, finely pebbled beach is one of the best equipped in Sicily, with bars, restaurants, and hotels. You can rent beach chairs, umbrellas, and watersports equipment at kiosks from April to October. To the right of Lido Mazzarò, past the Capo Sant’Andrea headland, is the region’s prettiest cove, where twin crescents of beach sweep from a sand spit out to the minuscule Isola Bella islet.
MEET MIGHTY MOUNT ETNA
Warning: Always get the latest report from the tourist office before setting out for a trip to Mount Etna. Adventurers have been killed by a surprise “belch” (volcanic explosion). Mount Etna remains one of the world’s most active volcanoes, with sporadic gas, steam, lava, and ash emissions from its summit.
Looming menacingly over the coast of eastern Sicily, Mount Etna is the highest and largest active volcano in Europe. The peak changes in size over the years but it currently soars 3,324m (10,906 ft.). Etna has been active in modern times: In 1928, the little village of Mascali was buried under lava, and powerful eruptions in 1971, 1992, 2001, and 2003 caused extensive damage to facilities nearby. Throughout the year, episodes of spectacular but usually harmless lava fountains, some hundreds of meters high, are not uncommon, providing a dramatic show for viewers in Taormina.
Etna has figured in history and in Greek mythology. Empedocles, the 5th-century B.C. Greek philosopher, is said to have jumped into its crater as a sign that he was being delivered directly to Mount Olympus to take his seat among the gods. It was under Etna that Zeus crushed the multiheaded, viper-riddled dragon Typhoeus, thereby securing domination over Olympus. Hephaestus, the god of fire and blacksmiths, made his headquarters in Etna, aided by the single-eyed Cyclops. The Greeks warned that when Typhoeus tried to break out of his prison, lava erupted and earthquakes cracked the land. That must mean that the monster nearly escaped on March 11, 1669, one of the most violent eruptions ever—it destroyed Catania, about 27km (17 miles) away.
Etna lies 31km (19 miles) north of Catania and is easy to reach by car from Taormina. The fastest way is to take the E45 autostrada south to the Acireale exit. From here, follow the brown Etna signs west to Nicolosi, passing through several smaller towns along the way. From Nicolosi, keep following the etna signs up the hill toward Rifugio Sapienza (1,923m/6,307 ft.), the starting point for all expeditions to the crater. Here, there’s a faux-Alpine hamlet with tourist shops and services, cheap and ample parking, as well as the base station of the Funivia del Etna cable car (www.funiviaetna.com; 095-914141; daily 9am-4:30pm), which takes you to the Torre del Filosofo (Philosopher’s Tower) station at 2,900m (9,514 ft.). Otherwise, this is a strenuous hike that takes about 5 hours. To reach the authorized crater areas at about 3,000m (9,843 ft., as close to the summit as visitors are allowed), you’ll then climb into white, Star Wars-ish off-road vehicles that make the final ascent over a scrabbly terrain of ash and dead ladybugs (dead ladybugs are everywhere on Mount Etna). Conditions at the crater zone are thrilling, but the high winds, exposure, and potential sense of vertigo are not for the faint of heart.
The round-trip cost of going to the top of Etna, including the cable car ride, the off-road vans, and the requisite authorized guide at the crater zone, is about 55€. Etna is not a complicated excursion to do on your own, but if you’d prefer to go with a tour, Taormina is chock-full of agencies that organize Etna day trips.
North of Mazzarò are the long, wide beaches of Spisone and Letojanni, more developed but less crowded than Giardini, the large, built-up resort beach south of Isola Bella. A local bus leaves Taormina for Mazzarò, Spisone, and Letojanni, and another heads down the coast to Giardini.
Shopping is all too easy in Taormina—just walk along Corso Umberto I. Ceramics are one of Sicily’s most notable handicrafts, and Taormina’s shops are among the best places to buy them on the island, as the selection is excellent. Giuseppa di Blasi, Corso Umberto I 103 ( 0942-24671), has a nice range of designs and specializes in the highly valued “white pottery” from Caltagirone. Mixing the new and the old, Carlo Panarello Antichità, Corso Umberto I 122 ( 0942-23910), offers Sicilian ceramics (from pots to tables) and also deals in eclectic antique furnishings, paintings, and engravings.
Side Trips from Taormina
Taormina gets high praise for its gorgeous views, but for connoisseurs of scenic outlooks, the real show takes place in the village of Castelmola, an eagle’s nest 3km (2 miles) northwest of Taormina, and about 300m (1,000 ft.) feet higher. The Ionian Sea seems to stretch to the ends of the earth from up here, and you’ll be staring right into the northern flanks of Mt. Etna. For the full experience, make the trip up on foot, following routes that begin at Porta Catania and Porta Messina (the tourist office or any hotel desk can give you directions); the Porta Messina trail passes a section of the Roman aqueduct and the Convento dei Cappuccini, where you can pause for views and a breather. Once at the top, stop at Castelmola’s Bar Turrisi (Piazza Duomo 19; 0942-28181; 10am-1am, and until 3am weekends and holidays) for a glass of vino alla mandorla (almond wine) and a look at its peculiar art collection. You can drive up to Castelmola (park below the village and walk in) or take an orange local bus (2.20€ round-trip; approximately once per hour) from Porta Messina.
In a series of narrow gorges on the Alcantara (Al-cahn-ta-rah) river, rushing, ice-cold water fed by snow melt on Mt. Etna darts and dashes over volcanic rock, creating a scenic and soothing spectacle that’s especially refreshing on a hot day. The basalt rock formations were twisted and sculpted into fantastic shapes when cool water flowed over molten debris during eruptions on Mount Etna thousands of years ago. The gorge is now protected as Parco Fluviale dell’Alcanta (www.parcoalcantara.it; 0942-985010), though ticket booths, turnstiles, and elevators into the gorge lend an amusement-park aura. You can get away from the crowds with a hike along the riverbed, stopping now and then to lounge on flat riverside rocks and wade and even swim in the chill water. From October to April, only the upper area of the park, with an overlook trail above the gorge, is open. It costs 8€ to enter the park (open daily 7am- 7:30pm). Amenities include a gift shop, cafeteria, picnic areas, and toilets. You can reach the Gole dell’Alcantara by car from Taormina (a 35-min. drive) or you can take Interbus (www.interbus.it; 0942-625301) for the 1-hour trip, with several daily departures from Taormina. The round-trip fare is 6€. Organized excursions (from 25€) to the gorges are also offered by many bus tour operators in Taormina, often in conjunction with a visit to Mount Etna.
This small, out of the way southern city packs a one-two punch. Siracusa was one of the most important cities of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece), rivaling even Athens in power and influence, and the still-functioning Teatro Greco, where Aeschylus premiered his plays, is one of many landmarks of the ancient metropolis. The charming historical center, on miniscule Ortigia Island, belongs to a much later time, the 18th century, when palaces and churches were built in an ebullient baroque style following the earthquake of 1693.
Siracusa might seem far removed, but in making the trip to the southeast coast you’ll be following in the illustrious footsteps of the scientist Archimedes, statesman Cicero, evangelist St. Paul, martyr St. Lucy, painter Caravaggio, and naval hero Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, all of whom left a mark on this rather remarkable place.
GETTING THERE Siracusa is 11⁄2 hours south of Taormina on the A18. It’s 3 hours southeast of Palermo on the A19 and A18, and 3 hours east of Agrigento on the SS540, A19, and A18. Siracusa is also well connected with the rest of Sicily by bus and train, though buses are generally more efficient and frequent than trains.
GETTING AROUND You won’t need a car, just your own two feet and perhaps a few bus or cab rides to see the best of Siracusa proper. However, because Siracusa is a common base for exploring southeastern Sicily, many travelers arrive here by car and use it to get around the region. In that case, inquire about parking with your hotel or rental agency before arriving.
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office, at Via San Sebastiano 43 ( 0931-481232), is open Monday to Friday 8:30am to 1:30pm and 3 to 6pm, Saturday 8:30am to 1:30pm. There’s another office in the historic center at Via della Maestranza 33 ( 0931-65201); it’s open Monday to Friday 8:15am to 2pm and 2:30 to 5:30pm, Saturday 8:15am to 2pm.
Where to Stay
The best place to stay in the Siracusa is Ortigia, with enough character, charm, and comfortable choices to keep the most discerning traveler happy. A good agency for apartments in Ortigia is Case Sicilia (www.casesicilia.com; 339-2983507). For villas, Think Sicily (www.thinksicily.com) has a carefully edited list of well-equipped properties in and around Siracusa.
Algilà Ortigia Charme Hotel A slightly exotic air pervades this old stone palace at the edge of the sea, built around a peaceful inner courtyard with a splashing fountain and accented throughout with carefully restored stone work and wooden beams offset by beautiful, multicolor tiles and other rich details. Rooms combine conventional luxury, with all the modern amenities, and a surfeit of four-poster beds, antiques, and tribal kilims; many have sea views. The in-house restaurant serves Sicilian classics and seafood beneath a beautiful wooden ceiling.
Via Vittorio Veneto 93. www.algila.it. 0931-465186. 30 units. 174€-400€ double; 224€-560€ junior suite. Amenities: Restaurant; room service; Wi-Fi (free, in lobby).
Approdo delle Sirene This natty little inn occupies two floors of a seaside apartment house that have been beautifully refashioned as light-filled quarters with a slightly nautical flair, as becomes the sparking blue water just beyond the tall windows. In the contemporary-styled guest rooms, polished wood floors offset handsome blond furnishings, striped fabrics, and bold colors. Several rooms have French doors opening to small balconies, though some are sky lit only—flooded with light but without outlooks, though the sunny breakfast room/lounge and terrace provide plenty of those. The hosts, a mother-and-son team, Fiora and Friedrich, are a hospitable on-the-scene presence and can arrange all kinds of tours and excursions and also have bikes available for guests’ use (no charge).
Riva Garibaldi 15. www.apprododellesirene.com. 0931-24857. 8 units. 80€-130€ double. 2-night minimum stay June-Aug. Rates include buffet breakfast. Amenities: Bikes, Wi-Fi (free).
Domus Mariae Benessere Guest House The Ursiline sisters who still occupy a wing of this seaside convent have found their calling as innkeepers. They provide large, bright rooms that are functional bordering on vaguely luxurious, with plush headboards on extremely comfortable beds, attractive rugs on tile floors, and lots of counter and storage space in the large bathrooms. Some rooms have sea views, while others face an atrium-like courtyard. Some surprising indulgences given the surroundings are a lovely roof terrace and a lower level spa, with a small pool and Jacuzzi available to all guests. An in-house restaurant serves a rather monastic breakfast (included in room rates, though coffee is extra) as well as a well-prepared dinner featuring healthful Mediterranean fare.
Via Veneto 89. www.domusmariaebenessere.com. 0931-24854. 21 units. From 60€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Amenities: Bikes (free), pool, Wi-Fi (free).
Hotel Gutkowski Two old houses facing the sea at the edge of Ortigia are warm, hospitable, and capture the essence of southern Italy with Sicilian hues on the walls, colorful floor tiles, and views of the blue water or sun baked roofs of the old city. Each room is different, some with balconies, some with terraces, and furnishings throughout are functional but chosen with care to provide restful simplicity—old Sicilian and vintage mid-century pieces offset contemporary tables and bedsteads. A rooftop terrace serves as an outdoor living room for much of the year, and a small restaurant/bar serves regional wines and one or two well-prepared dishes in the evenings.
Lungomare Vittorini 26. www.guthotel.it. 0931-465861. 25 units. From 100€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Amenities: Bar; Wi-Fi (free).
Where to Eat
Caseificio Borderi, tucked in among piles of fresh fish in Ortigia’s colorful morning market at 6 Via die Benedictis ( 329-9852500), is a mandatory stop on the food circuit for its huge selection of house-made cheeses, cured meats, olives, and wine; the staff hands out samples and makes delicious sandwiches (about 3€).
Archimede SEAFOOD This Siracusa institution has been serving in white-washed, vaulted dining rooms since 1938 and it’s remained a favorite for a night out through those long post-war years when the surrounding neighborhood moldered in neglect. Specialties veer toward such Sicilian classics as spaghetti with ricci (sea urchin), tagliolini al nero di seppie (pasta with cuttlefish ink), and pesce all’acqua pazza (fish cooked with garlic, tomatoes, capers, and olives); many fans claim that no one in Sicily makes them better. The kitchen is also equipped with a wood-fired oven that turns out what many Siracusans consider to be the best pizza in town, available in different sizes, including one that’s perfect as a starter.
Via Gemmallaro 8. www.trattoriaarchimede.it. 0931-69701. Main courses 12€-24€. Mon-Sat 12:30-3:30pm and 7:30-11:30pm.
Bienvenuti al Sud SICILIAN/CREATIVE Sicilian towns are full of casual eateries like this—barebones storefronts with open kitchens and plastic tables. Locals know the ones that serve the best food, and this simple, four-table room operated by an enthusiastic young husband-and-wife team is one of Ortigia’s hidden gems (it’s on a back street behind the Duomo). Chef Christian serves the specialties you’d encounter in a Sicilian home and he enhances the homey ambience as he chats from the kitchen while he prepares linguine al neonate (baby fish), fresh from the market fish baked with capers and olives, and a simple but delicious gnocchi alla Palermitiana, with eggplant, mozzarella, and tomatoes. Dinner is often followed by a complimentary glass of almond wine.
Via della Concillazione 22. 0931-64046. Main courses 9€-12€. Daily 7pm-midnight, lunch some days.
Don Camillo SIRACUSAN/SEAFOOD The top contender with Archimede for old-time Siracusa favorite is slightly more formal, with lots of polished antiques offsetting the handsomely tiled floors and rows of vintage wines. House specialties, like spaghetti delle Sirene (with sea urchin and shrimp in butter) and tagliata al tonno (with sliced tuna), have been drawing loyal regulars here for years, and on weekends especially, join the many Siracusan families who fill the vaulted rooms decorated with vintage photos of Ortigia.
Via Maestranza 96. www.ristorantedoncamillosiracusa.it. 0931-67133. Main courses 14€-24€. Mon-Sat 12:30-3pm and 7:30-10:30pm.
Ortigia Island is Siracusa’s centro storico, a mostly pedestrian zone where narrow alleys lined with romantic 18th-century palazzi spill onto Piazza del Duomo, the most beautiful square in Sicily. The ancient ruins lie a good half-hour walk north of Ortigia. The walk, along grimy Corso Gelone, is flat but not very attractive; in summer especially, it’s best to take a bus or taxi to the Parco Archeologico.
The historic center of Siracusa is an island only about 1 sq. km (3⁄4 sq. mile), with breezy, palm-shaded seaside promenades fringing its shores. Most of the island is baroque, with grandiose palaces and churches lining narrow lanes and flamboyant piazzas, though Ortigia was settled in ancient times—as ancients believed, when Leto stopped by to give birth to Artemis, one of the twins she conceived with Zeus (she continued on her way and delivered Apollo on the Greek island of Delos).
The first landmark you’ll come to after you cross Ponte Umbertino from the mainland is the Temple of Apollo, the oldest Doric temple in Sicily. The Apollion would have measured 58m × 24m (190 ft. × 79 ft.) when it was built the 6th century B.C. It later served as a Byzantine church, then a mosque, then a church again under the Normans and is now an evocative ruin, with the temple platform, a fragmentary colonnade, and an inner wall rising in the middle of Piazza Pancali.
The Piazza del Duomo, one of the most beautiful squares in Sicily, is all about theatrics—a sea of white marble softened by pink oleander and surrounded by flamboyant palaces enlivened with elaborate stone filigree work and wrought-iron balconies. The Duomo itself (open daily 8am-noon and 4-7pm) is so frothily baroque that it seems almost too playful to be religious. The two tiers of tall Doric columns that define its remarkable facade are from a 5th-century B.C. Temple of Athena, one of the best-known sights of the ancient world, built to celebrate a Greek victory over the Carthaginians. Cicero, the Roman orator and traveler, reported that the temple was filled with gold, the doors were made of gold and ivory, and a statue of Athena atop the pediment was visible for miles out to sea. Romans made off with the gold, but a statue of the Virgin stands atop the pediment like Athena once did and, as on the facade, ancient columns are a looming presence in the apse of the church first fashioned from the temple around the 7th century.
On the south side of the square is the pretty church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, with a tall, marble baroque facade embellished with twisted columns, pediments, and a wrought iron balcony. Lucia, a plucky 4th-century Siracusan virgin, is the city’s patron; born of wealth, from an early age she adapted Christian principles and was determined to give her worldly goods to the poor. Her piousness and generosity annoyed the young man to whom she had once been betrothed, and out of spite for seeing Lucia’s sizable dowry squandered in such a way, the youth denounced her to Roman authorities. Lucia was condemned to prostitution, but refused to be dragged off to a brothel. Authorities then tied her to a pillar and lit a fire beneath her, but she proved to be flame resistant. Finally, a soldier plunged a sword into her throat, and you’ll see depictions of this gruesome act throughout Siracusa and the rest of Sicily, where the saint is very popular (tamer versions show the saint holding the sword that killed her).
Also on Piazza del Duomo is an entrance to the Hypogeum (no phone; admission 3€; Tues-Sun 9am-1pm and 4-8pm), a network of underground chambers and corridors dug as air-raid shelters in World War II.
Historians spout some mumbo jumbo about the water that feeds Fonte Aretusa, a lovely, shoreline spot where papyrus grows in a shallow pool being fed by a spring that for millennia supplied Siracusa with fresh water. Of course, everyone knows the real truth. The nymph Aretusa was bathing in a river in Greece when the river god Alpheus took a liking to her. She asked for help in avoiding his advances, and Artemis, goddess of the wilderness and protectress of young women, turned her into a river that emerged here. Not to be thwarted, Alpheus followed suit, and the two of them bubble forth for eternity.
The elegant 13th-century palace Galleria Regionale Palazzo Bellomo (Via Capodieci 16; 0931-69511; admission 8€; Tues-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 9am-1pm), houses Sicilian works from the Middle Ages through the 20th century, including two great masterpieces. Antonello da Messina’s “Annunciation” (1474) shows the artist’s remarkable attention to detail: Tall windows, beams, columns, the Virgin’s bed, and a blue and white vase all present an intricately rendered interior, with bright light infusing the spaces. The scene is typical of the Flemish paintings that were popular in Naples, where Messina studied when he left his native Sicily while still a teenager.
In the late fall of 1608, Caravaggio had just escaped from a prison in Malta and come to Siracusa, where he received a commission to paint the “Burial of St. Lucia.” With his characteristic lighting, the artist highlights the muscular gravediggers, showing their brute strength, while the mourners seem small and meek in the background. A shaft of light falls on Lucia’s face and neck, showing the stab wound that killed her; she is a study in serenity, having entered the heavenly kingdom.
THE ANCIENT RUINS
Of all the Greek cities of antiquity that flourished in Sicily, Siracusa was the most important, a formidable competitor of Athens and, in its heyday, it dared take on Carthage and even Rome. Sprawling Greek and Roman ruins are these days surrounded by an unremarkable section of the modern city. Walk north along Corso Gelone (or better yet, take bus no. 1, 3, or 12, or a cab from Ortigia’s Piazza Pancali) or take buses 11, 25, or 26 from the front of Siracusa’s central train station.
Castello Eurialo RUINS Part of a massive, 27km (16-mi) long defense system, this 4th-century B.C. fortress is surrounded by three trenches, connected by underground tunnels. These supposedly impregnable defenses were never put to the test: Siracusa fell to the Romans in 212 B.C. without a fight, because the entire garrison was celebrating the feast of Aphrodite. Legend has it that it was here that the Greek mathematician Archimedes famously cried “Eureka!” having discovered the law of water displacement while taking a bath. The evocative ruin overlooking the Siracusan plain is the best-preserved Greek castle in the Mediterranean.
A Gigantic Teardrop Runs Through It
The tallest building in Siracusa is the bizarre Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime (Our Lady of Tears Sanctuary, Via Santuario 33; 0931-21446; free admission; daily 8am-noon and 4-7pm), a monstrous cone of contemporary architecture (built in 1993) halfway between Ortigia and the archaeological zone. Meant to evoke a sort of angular teardrop and rising 74m (243 ft.) with a diameter of 80m (262 ft.), it houses a statue of the Madonna that supposedly wept for 5 days in 1953. Alleged chemical tests showed that the liquid was similar to that of human tears. Pilgrims flock here, and you’ll see postcards of the weepy Virgin around Siracusa. In the interior, vertical windows stretch skyward to the apex of the roof. A charlatan TV evangelist and his rapt congregation would not look out of place here.
Piazza Eurialo 1, off Viale Epipoli in the Belvedere district. 0931-481111. Admission 4€; 10€ when combined with Parco Archeologico and Museo Archeologico. Daily 9am-5:30pm.
Catacombe di San Giovanni RUINS Spooky subterranean chambers, installed in underground aqueducts that had been abandoned by the Greeks, contain some 20,000 ancient Christian tombs. They are entered through the Church of San Giovanni, now in ruin but holy ground for centuries and the city’s cathedral until it was more or less leveled by an earthquake in 1693. St. Paul allegedly preached here when he stopped in Siracusa around A.D. 59, and a church was erected to commemorate the event in the 6th century. The Cripta di San Marciano (Crypt of St. Marcian) honors a popular Siracusan martyr, a 1st-century A.D. bishop who was tied to a pillar and flogged to death on this spot.
Piazza San Giovanni, at end of Viale San Giovanni. No phone. Admission 5€. Tues-Sun 9:30am-12:30pm and 2:30-4:30pm. Closed Feb.
Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi (Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum) MUSEUM One of Italy’s finest archaeological collections shows off artifacts from southern Sicily’s prehistoric inhabitants through the Romans, showcasing pieces in stunning modern surroundings. Amid prehistoric tools and sculptures are the skeletons of a pair of dwarf elephants, as intriguing to us as they were to the ancients: It’s believed that the large central orifice (nasal passage) of these skeletal beasts inspired the creation of the one-eyed Cyclops myth. Early Greeks left behind a (much-reproduced) grinning terracotta Gorgon that once adorned the frieze of the temple of Athena (see Duomo, above) to ward off evil. Scores of votive cult statuettes were devoted to Demeter and Persephone—mother and daughter goddesses linked to fertility and the harvest. Legend had it that Hades, god of the underworld, abducted Persephone in Sicily and carried her down to his realm; with a bit of negotiating between angry Demeter and the other gods, it was agreed that Persephone could return to Earth but must descend to resume her duties as queen of the underworld for part of the year, when in her absence winter descends upon the lands above. The museum’s most celebrated piece is the Landolina Venus, a Roman copy of an original by the great classical Greek sculptor Praxiteles. The graceful and modest goddess, now headless, rises out of marble waves; French writer Guy de Maupassant, visiting in 1885, called her “the perfect expression of exuberant beauty.”
In the gardens of the Villa Landolina in Akradina, Viale Teocrito 66. 0931-464022. Admission 8€ or 14€ with combo ticket that includes Parco Archeologico della Neapolis. Tues-Sat 9am-6pm; Sun 9am-1pm.
Parco Archeologico della Neapolis RUINS Many of Siracusa’s ancient ruins are clustered in this archaeological park at the western edge of town, immediately north of Stazione Centrale.
The Teatro Greco (Greek Theater) was hewn out of bedrock in the 5th century B.C., with 67 rows that could seat 16,000 spectators. It was reconstructed in the 3rd century B.C., appears now much as it did then, and is still the setting for ancient drama in the spring and early summer—performed without loudspeakers, because the acoustics are close to perfect. Tickets cost 30€ to 70€. For information, contact INDA, Corso Matteotti 29, Siracusa (www.indafondazione.org; 0931-487200).
Only the ancient theaters in Rome and Verona are larger than the Anfiteatro Romano, created during the rein of Augustus, around 20 B.C. Gladiators sparred here, and a square hole in the center of the arena suggests that machinery was used to lift wild beasts from below. Some historical evidence suggests that the arena could be flooded for mock sea battles called naumachiae; pumps could also have flooded and drained a reservoir in which crocodiles are said to have fed on the corpses of victims killed in the games. The Spanish carted off much of the stonework to rebuild the city fortifications when they conquered Siracusa in the 16th century, but some of the seats remain—the first rows would have been reserved for Roman citizens, those right above for wealthy, and the last rows for the hoi polloi.
What is now a lush grove of lemon and orange trees, the Latomia del Paradiso (Quarry of Paradise) was at one time a fearsome place, vast, dark, and subterranean—until the cavern’s roof collapsed in the great earthquake of 1693. Prisoners were worked to death here to quarry the stones used in the construction of ancient Siracusa. Certainly the most storied attraction in park is the Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysius), a tall and vaguely ear-shaped cave that has inspired many legends. The Greeks expanded the limestone quarry for water storage by digging into the cliff to create a huge cavern, 23m high and 65m long. When the painter Caravaggio spent time in Siracusa in the early 17th century, he dubbed the cavern the Ear of Dionysus (for the 5th- to 4th-century B.C. ruler of Greek Siracusa). Caravaggio was excessive in all his pursuits, including his storytelling, and he circulated the claim that Dionysus imprisoned political opponents in the cave, and the shape affected acoustics in such a way the ruler could sit near the opening and hear every word they said. Other legends, completely unfounded, say the cave’s occupants were unfortunate Athenians the mercenaries of Dionysus captured when he allied himself with Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars and that the cave’s acoustics satisfyingly amplified their screams as they were being tortured. Almost as fascinating is the well-documented purpose of the Ara di Ierone (or, Altar of Heron): Fifth-century B.C. Greeks built the altar, 196m (636 ft.) long and 23m (75 ft.) wide and approached by enormous ramps, for the sacrifice of 450 bulls at one time.
Via Del Teatro (off the intersection of Corso Gelone and Viale Teocrito), Viale Paradiso. 0931-66206. Admission 10€ or 14€ with combo ticket that includes archaeological museum. Daily 9am-6pm (until 4:30pm on certain summer evenings when performances are held in the theater).
Side Trips from Siracusa
Several beaches are easy to reach from Siracusa, and a visit to the 18th-century centro storico of Noto is an easy half-day excursion. Plan a full day to visit the remarkable Roman mosaics outside Armerina.
BEACHES NEAR SIRACUSA
Some of the best, unspoiled shoreline in all of Italy is on Sicily’s southeastern coast. Fontane Bianche is the closest beach to Siracusa, 15 minutes away. It’s an almost-square bay with laid-back beach clubs and luxurious deep sand. Lido di Noto, 15 minutes from the baroque hill town, is a lively beach with great waterfront restaurants. Half the beach is private beach clubs (where you pay around 10€ for day use of a lounge chair, umbrella, and shower facilities), and half is free public access. Between Noto and Pachino is the Vendicari Nature Reserve, where beaches are small and hard to find but the scenery is beautiful. Thousands of migratory birds nest here every year. A few miles south of the autostrada on SP19, park at the Agriturismo Calamosche to reach Calamosche. It’s a 15-minute walk down a nature path to reach the intimate cove, framed by rock cliffs and sea caves. The water is a calm, perfectly dappled teal. Isola delle Correnti , at the southeastern tip of the island, is one of the best beaches on Sicily. It’s a bit more windswept and wavy than the other spots. On a clear day, you can see Malta, which is just 100km (60 miles) to the south.
31km (19 miles) SW of Siracusa
The rich-looking, honey-colored buildings on and off Noto’s Corso Vittorio Emanuele are some of the most captivating on the island, and the little town has been dubbed the “Stone Garden” because of its sheer beauty. What’s more, Noto is set amid olive groves and almond trees on a plateau overlooking the Asinaro Valley, providing lovely outlooks.
GETTING THERE Whether with your own car or on a bus, it’s about a 35-minute drive from Siracusa: If you’re driving yourself, take the A18 autostrada south for 27km (17 miles), then exit and head north and up the hill, following blue signs toward Noto; once near town, be sure to follow the yellow signs toward Noto’s “centro storico,” not the brown signs to “Noto Antica,” which is an archaeological site (it’s the ruins of the old city destroyed by the earthquake) quite some distance from town. It’s also easy to reach Noto by bus (55 min. each way; 6€ round-trip) from Siracusa. Two companies, AST and Interbus, serve the route, offering about a dozen buses per day from Ortigia or Siracusa train station. In Noto, both bus companies arrive at the Piazzale Marconi bus station, a 5-minute walk from the centro storico.
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office is at Via Gioberti 13 ( 0931-836503). It’s open from May to September daily from 9am to 1pm and 3:30 to 6:30pm, and from October to April it’s open Monday through Friday from 8am to 2pm and 3:30 to 6:30pm.
The city of Noto.
Noto, a hill town on the flanks Mount Alviria, was a flourishing place in the late 17th century, having outgrown its medieval core and expanded into new streets lined with palaces and convents. Then, on January 11, 1693, it all came tumbling down, as the strongest earthquake in Italian history leveled Noto and much of the rest of southeastern Sicily. The good to come out of such a devastating tragedy is that Noto was rebuilt, not on the same site but on the banks of the River Asinaro, and not haphazardly, but in splendid, unified baroque style. Noto is a stage-set of honey-colored limestone, with curvaceous facades, curving staircases, and potbellied wrought-iron balconies. You will be surrounded by all this theatricality on a walk down Corso Vittorio Emanuele III, though things hit a high note on a side street, Via Nicolaci, with the beautiful elliptical facade of the Chiesa di Montevirgine and the playful Palazzo Villadorata (or Palazzo Nicolaci), where expressive maidens, dwarves, lions, and horses support the balconies. Work on the landmarks is ongoing (the Duomo was just rebuilt after a 1997 collapse), while much of the rest of the town seems to languish in disrepair, suggesting that in Noto the attitude is if it’s ain’t baroque, don’t fix it.
134km (83) miles NW of Siracusa, 158km (98 miles) SE of Palermo
This dusty, sun-baked hilltown in the center of Sicily is the setting of the richest collection of Roman mosaics in the world, at the Villa del Casale, in the countryside 5km (3 miles) outside of town. Here, wild beasts, bikini-clad exercisers, superheroes, and the monsters of myth are depicted in glorious and colorful tableaux covering 3,535 sq. m (38,050 sq. ft.), these days viewed from elevated walkways. Not only do the mosaics show off ancient craftsmanship and provide a look at 4th-century A.D. preoccupations, but looking at them is as entertaining as watching a good film—given the brilliant hues of these scenes, one in glorious Technicolor.
GETTING THERE To reach the villa by car from Palermo, take the A19 east and south. Where the highway turns east toward Enna, take the Caltanissetta exit, then immediately look for signs for Piazza Armerina. The route is SS626 south to SS122 east to SS117bis. From Taormina, Siracusa, or anywhere in the east, take the A19 from Catania west, exit at Dittaino and head south following blue signs for Piazza Armerina (a few stretches of this route are practically dirt roads, but don’t be discouraged, you’ll be on better surfaces soon). Once in the vicinity of Piazza Armerina town, follow the yellow or brown signs saying VILLA DEL CASALE, VILLA ROMANA, MOSAICI, and the like, west along the SP15 (down the hill from town), about 5km (3 miles). The entrance to the park will be on the left.
VISITOR INFORMATION Admission to Villa Romana (Strada Provinciale 15; www.villaromanadelcasale.it; 0935-680036) is 14€. It’s open daily 9am-7pm (until 5pm Nov-Mar).
Exploring Villa Romana del Casale
The enormous villa of a rich and powerful landowner was built between 310 and 340 and was the center of a vast agricultural estate. Almost completely covered by a landslide in the 12th century, the villa was rediscovered in the 19th century and excavated and restored beginning in the early 20th century. The place must have been magnificent, more a palace than a mere villa, with 40 rooms, many of them clad in marble, frescoed, and equipped with fountains and pools. Terme, or steam baths (Rooms 1-7) heated the villa with steam circulating through cavities (now exposed) in the floors and walls. The villa was obviously built to impress, and the ostentation reached its height in the mosaics of mythology, hunting, flora and fauna, and domestic scenes that carpeted most of the floors. Given the style and craftsmanship, they were probably the work of master artists from North Africa.
The villa’s 40 rooms are arranged around a garden courtyard, or peristyle. Take time as you wander through the rooms simply to enjoy the mosaics, noticing the expressions, colors, and playfulness of many of these scenes. Remember, the mosaics were intended to delight visitors.
Corridors of the peristyle (Room 13) contain the splendid Peristyle mosaic, a bestiary of birds, plants, wild animals, and more domesticated creatures such as horses. Adjoining it to the baths is the Palestra (exercise area, Room 15) where mosaics depict a chariot race at Rome’s Circus Maximus.
Along the north side of the peristyle is the Sala degli Eroti Pescatori (Room of the Fishing Cupids, Room 24), probably a bedroom. The occupant would have drifted off to a busy scene of four boatloads of winged cupids harpooning, netting, and trapping various fish and sea creatures.
Just past those rooms is the Sala della Piccola Caccia (Piccola caccia meaning “small hunt,” Room 25) where hunters in togas and leggings go after deer, wild boar, birds, and other small game as Diane, goddess of the hunt, looks on. In one scene the hunters roast their kill under a canopy.
The long hall to the east is the Corridoio della Grande Caccia , or Corridor of the Great Hunt (Room 28), measuring 65m (197 ft.) in length. The mosaics depict men capturing panthers, leopards, and other exotic animals, loading them onto wagons for transport, and finally onto a ship in an eastern-looking port. They’re obviously bound for Rome, where they will be part of the games in the Colosseum.
A cluster of three rooms east of the north (right-hand side) end of the Grande Caccia corridor includes the Vestibolo di Ulisse e Polifemo (Vestibule of Ulysses and Polyphemus, Room 47), where the Homeric hero proffers a krater of wine to the Cyclops (here with three eyes instead of one, and a disemboweled ram draped casually over his lap) in hopes of getting him drunk. Adjacent is the Cubicolo con Scena Erotica (Bedroom with Erotic Scene, Room 46), where a seductress, with a side gaze and a nicely contoured rear end, embraces a young man.
Off the southwest side of the Grande Caccia corridor is one of the most amusing rooms of all, the Sala delle Palestrite, Room of the Gym Girls (Room 30). Their skimpy strapless bikinis would be appropriate for a beach in the 21st century, but ancient literary sources tell us that this was actually standard workout apparel 1,700 years ago—the bandeau top was called the strophium, and the bikini bottom the subligar. The girls are engaged in various exercises—curling dumbbells, tossing a ball, and running.
South of the central block of the villa and peristyle is the Triclinium (Room 33), a large dining room with a magnificent rendition of the Labors of Hercules. In the central apse, the mosaics depict the Gigantomachy (Battle of the Giants), in which five mammoth creatures are in their death throes after being pierced by Hercules’s poisoned arrows.
233km (145 miles) W of Messina, 721km (447 miles) S of Naples, 934km (579 miles) S of Rome
In Palermo, street markets evoke Middle Eastern souks, and the most famous monuments bear the striking, exotic artistic signature of the Arab-Norman 12th century, when Palermo was one of Europe’s greatest cultural and intellectual centers. The city is Sicily’s largest port, its capital, and a jumble of contradiction. Parts of some neighborhoods remain bombed out and not yet rebuilt from World War II, but Palermo boasts some of the greatest sights and museums in Italy. Unemployment, poverty, traffic, crime, and crowding are rampant. If you come to Palermo after having traveled elsewhere, especially in a slow-paced part of Italy, the city may come down like a ton of bricks. Even the mix of monuments can be baffling: Byzantine mosaics, rococo stuccoes, Islamic red domes, Catalonian-Gothic arches. Looming over it all is crown-shaped Monte Pellegrino, what Goethe called “the most beautiful headland on earth.” Yet there is magic in its madness, and those who embrace it are rewarded with the discovery of artistic gems and memorable vignettes of street life. You won’t love every inch of this alluring yet hectic place, but you’ll be swept away by much of it, and you’ll probably come away with the travel experience of a lifetime.
GETTING THERE Many travelers arrive via Palermo’s dramatically situated Falcone-Borsellino airport (aka Punta Raisi; www.gesap.it; 091-7020273), on the sea among tall headlands 25km (16 miles) northwest of the city center. Palermo is well served by flights from all over Italy and many European cities, too. All the major rental car companies have operations here. If you won’t be driving into Palermo with a rental car (and if you do, get clear directions and parking information from your hotel), an easy way to reach the center from the airport is with the shuttle bus run by Prestia e Comandè ( 091-580457). The buses depart every half-hour from 5am to 11pm; the trip takes 45 minutes and costs 6€ one-way. In central Palermo, the bus stops at the main train station, at Via Emerico Amari (port), and at Teatro Politeama. There’s also a direct train called the Trinacria Express (www.trenitalia.com; 091-7044007; 1 hr.; 6€) from Palermo airport to Palermo central station. Otherwise, taxis are plentiful; expect to pay about 45€ from the airport to town.
If you’re arriving in Palermo from another place in Sicily by rail, all trains come into Palermo Stazione Centrale, just south of the historic center. Buses from elsewhere in Sicily arrive at a depot adjacent to the train station.
GETTING AROUND Walking is the best way to get around Palermo, because distances are never great within the historic center. To reach greater Palermo destinations (like the catacombs) or farther-flung locales (such as Mondello and Monreale), buses run by AMAT ( 091-350111) cost 1.20€ per ride or 3.50€ for a full-day ticket. City Sightseeing (www.palermo.city-sightseeing.it/eng; 091-589429) operates two different double-decker bus tours (20€ for adults; 10€ children 5-15 years) that do loops of some of the main sights and have prerecorded commentaries in several languages. I normally wouldn’t recommend something this blatantly touristy and passive, but in demanding Palermo, this chance to rest your feet and have someone else do the navigating might save you some urban overload. Board the buses at Via Emerico Amari 142 (near Piazza Politeama); they leave at least once per hour.
VISITOR INFORMATION Official tourist information offices are located at Falcone-Borsellino (Punta Raisi) airport ( 091-591698; Mon-Sat 8:30am-7:30pm), and in the city center at Piazza Castelnuovo 35 ( 091-6058351; Mon-Fri 8:30am-2pm and 2:30-6:30pm). The website of Palermo’s tourism board is www.palermotourism.com.
SAFETY Palermo is home to some of the most skilled pickpockets on the continent. Don’t flaunt expensive jewelry, cameras, or wads of bills. Women who carry handbags are especially vulnerable to purse snatchers on Vespas. Police squads operate mobile centers throughout the town to help combat street crime.
Neighborhoods in Brief
Palermo is tidily (though that word is rarely applied to this raucous city) divided into four historical districts, or mandamenti, that spread out from Quattro Canti, or Four Corners. The actual name of the square is Piazza Vigliena, after the viceroy who commissioned it, and it marks the intersection of Via Maqueda (which runs north-south) and Vittorio Emanuele (which runs east-west, east toward the seafront from here). The square is also known as Theater of the Sun, because at any given time of day, the sun will shine on one of the four corners. Each corner of the square is decorated with a niche in three tiers. The first tier of each contains a fountain and a statue representing one of the four seasons. The second tier of each niche displays a statue of one of the Spanish Habsburg kings, while in the third tier of each niche is a statue of the patron saint of the neighborhood that begins here. Be careful not to back into the street when admiring this grimy but still beautiful assemblage as you might step into the path of a speeding Vespa.
LA KALSA The Arabs settled the quadrilateral of Via Lincoln, Via Roma, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and the Foro Italico a thousand years ago and the neighborhood still has an exotic feel to it. Time was, even 10 years ago, when the quarter was so insalubrious that walking down the narrow lanes was risky business. Some patches have never been rebuilt after Allied air raids in 1943, while the Santa Maria dello Spasimo (Via dello Spasimo; 091-6161486) is a skeleton of a church, not a victim of bombs but never completed, where mature trees grow out of broken Gothic vaults into the Palermitan sky. It’s still wise to avoid some emptier areas after dark, though these are rather rare these days as restaurants and bars have opened in old palazzi. One of the finest art museums in Sicily, the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, in the Palazzo Abbatellis, is on Via Alloro, while in the middle of Piazza Marina is a park shaded by centuries-old trees and cooled by breezes off the nearby sea.
LA VUCCIRIA Enclosed within the Castellammare mandamento and accessible from Via Roma, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and the Cala, this centuries-old market was once the pulse and beating heart of Palermo. Today only a smattering of its vibrancy lives on, but the feeling of what once was still remains, with butcher shops still called carnizzerie, fishmongers scaring shoppers with large heads of swordfish, precarious houses that look as though they might crumble any time (some have in recent years), and tiny, hole-in-the-wall eateries that may seem shady and improvised, but are some of the best in town.
Shopping at a local market in Palermo.
IL BALLARÒ Another of Palermo’s historical markets is within the Albergeria district, starting at Piazza Bologni and extending as far as Corso Tukory. The narrow lanes are crammed with shoppers making their rounds among the stalls.
IL CAPO The largest and the most bazaar-like of Palermo’s markets is at the heart of the neighborhood of the same name, enclosed within an area that includes Via Papireto, Via Volturno, Via Maqueda, and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The tiny, winding streets and alleyways spread out behind the Teatro Massimo. The Capo was once the headquarters of the secret society of the Beati Paoli, the legendary sect that robbed from the rich and gave to the poor; pickpockets still adhere to this age-old principle, so watch your wallet.
ALBERGHERIA This is the oldest of the four mandamenti; it is also known as the mandamento Palazzo Reale because the Phoenicians first laid the foundations of what would become the royal place on the highest part of the city. Like the Kalsa, it is filled with tiny, dimly lit alleyways barely wide enough for a person to walk and with decaying buildings in dire need of repair. It is also unsavory in some patches, despite the ever-growing presence of cafes and eateries. These were the streets roamed by the soothsayer and charlatan Giuseppe Balsamo (aka Count Cagliostro), an adventurer, traveler, swindler, forger, and thief who spent time in the Bastille after allegedly stealing a diamond necklace from Marie Antoinette and was finally tried by the Inquisition and died in a Roman prison. There are some very exquisite corners—especially the splendid Piazza Bologni, with is noble palaces and a statue of Charles V.
CASTELLAMMARE Owing its name to the castle that once overlooked the sea, this area is bordered by Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Via Cavour, Via Roma, and Via Crispi. Though heavily bombed by the Allies during 1943, the neighborhood houses some spectacular palazzi and churches, such as the Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita and the Oratorio di San Lorenzo (p. 530).
NEW CITY As you head north from Via Maqueda, the streets grow broader but also more nondescript. The monumental Teatro Massimo, at Piazza Verdi, roughly marks the division between the Old City and the New City. While Via Maqueda cuts through the medieval district, it becomes Via Ruggero Séttimo as it heads north through the modern town. This street explodes into the massive double squares at Piazza Politeama, site of the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi. North of the square is Palermo’s swankiest street, Viale della Libertà, running up toward Giardino Inglese. This is the area where the Art Nouveau movement triumphed in the city, as is still visible in the kiosks at Piazza Castelnuovo and in Piazza Verdi, but many of these priceless edifices were torn down by unscrupulous builders to make way for the ugly cement behemoths that do not blend with the elegance of the neighborhood.
Where to Stay
Palermo has some excellent hotels, and rates are much lower than they are in Rome or Florence. For convenience and atmosphere, don’t stay too far beyond the neighborhoods in the old center (see above).
Butera 28 The 17th-century Lanza Tomasi Palace, facing the seafront, is the home of Duke Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, the adoptive son of Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of one of the greatest works of modern Italian literature, “The Leopard.” The gracious duke and his charming wife, Nicoletta, have converted 12 apartments of their palazzo to short-stay apartments, filling them with family pieces and all the modern conveniences, including full kitchens and every traveler’s dream come true, washing machines. Apartments have one or two bedrooms; some have sea views and terraces, some are multilevel, and all have beautiful hardwood or tile floors and other detailing. The duchess also offers cooking classes, and she and the duke are on hand to provide a wealth of advice to help you get the most out of their beloved Palermo.
Via Butera 28. www.butera28.it. 39-333316-5432. 12 units. From 70€ double. Amenities: Kitchens, Wi-fi (free). Bus: 103, 104, 105, 118, or 225.
Centrale Palace A wonderful location just steps off the Quattro Canti put this much-redone yet still grand palazzo within easy reach of most sights. Public rooms, including a vast frescoed salon where breakfast is served, evoke the 1890s Belle Epoque age when the 17th-century palazzo was first converted to a hotel. The good-sized guest rooms above are comfortably functional, with some luxe touches like rich fabrics and mosaic-tiled bathrooms; double-pane windows in the front rooms keep the street noise at bay. A rooftop sun terrace is retreat from the city below, with views that extend across the rooftops to Monte Pellegrino. There’s an airy dining room up here, and you may want to linger well into a warm summer night.
Via Vittorio Emanuele 327 (at Via Maqueda). www.centralepalacehotel.it. 091-336666. 104 units. 188€-271€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Parking 18€. Amenities: 2 restaurants; bar; exercise room; sauna; room service; babysitting; Wi-Fi (free). Bus: 103, 104, or 105.
Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa A conglomeration of three historic buildings seems to take in a bit of every part of Palermo’s past—the banking floor and grand offices of the old stock exchange, a monastery and cloisters, and a centuries-old palazzo. These elements come together atmospherically in surroundings that include a cloister, open-roofed atrium, paneled dining rooms, and frescoed salons. Guest rooms are a bit more functional, though large and plushly comfortable, with hardwood floors and furnishings that cross traditional with some contemporary flair; the best have balconies overlooking the surrounding churches and palaces. A spa and exercise area includes a sauna and steam bath.
Via dei Cartari 18. www.piazzaborsa.com. 091-320075. 103 units. 120€-200€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Amenities: Restaurant; bar; babysitting; concierge; Wi-Fi (free). Bus: 103, 104, 105, 118, or 225.
Hotel Porta Felice It’s a sign that the old Kalsa district is on the upswing that this elegant and subdued retreat has risen amid a once derelict block of buildings just off the seafront. Marble-floored public areas are coolly soothing, while guest rooms are sleekly contemporary, with just enough antique pieces and expanses of hardwood to suggest traditional comforts. A rooftop bar and terrace is a welcome refuge, while the downstairs health spa is geared to ultimate relaxation.
Via Butera 35. www.hotelportafelice.it. 091-617-5678. 33 units. 130€-240€ double. Rates include buffet breakfast. Amenities: Bar; spa; Wi-Fi (free). Bus: 103, 104, 105, 118, or 225.
Where to Eat
Palermitans dine well on the fresh seafood and other bounty of the city markets, and they have a laudable appreciation for sweets. Legendary pastry shops like Mazzara (Via Generale Magliocco 19; 091-321443) will fill you up with cassata, cannoli, frutta martorana (marzipan sweets), and gelato, while the opulent Antico Caffè Spinnato (Via Principe di Belmonte 115; www.spinnato.it; 091-583231), established in 1860, is the place to linger over a pastry and coffee.
Antica Focacceria San Francesco SICILIAN/SNACKS Palermo street fare is good anywhere you have it, but it’s especially savory in the atmospheric, marble-floored surroundings of this institution founded in 1834. If you’ve shied away from buying a panino con la milza (a bread roll stuffed with slices of boiled spleen and melted cheese) from a street vendor, you might want to jump in and try this delicious specialty here. You can also snack or lunch on panelle (deep-fried chickpea fritters), ararancini di riso (rice balls stuffed with tomatoes and peas or mozzarella), focaccia farcita (flat pizza baked with various fillings), or a number of other sandwiches, curtly dispensed from a busy counter.
Via A. Paternostro 58. www.afsf.it. 091-320264. Sandwiches 3€-5€. Apr-Sept daily 11am-11pm; Oct-Mar Wed-Mon 11am-11pm. Bus: 103, 105, or 225.
Casa del Brodo SICILIAN With a setting in two plain rooms on the edge of the now sadly diminished Vucciria market, this century-old institution serves old Sicilian specialties that you might not encounter outside of home kitchens. Fritelle di fava (fava beans) are fried with vegetables and cheese; carni bollite (boiled meats) is a tantalizing assortment of tender, herb-flavored meats; the namesake broth is served several different ways, best as tortellini in brodo, with house-made pasta; and the macco di fave (meatballs and tripe) is a carnivore’s delight. If in doubt, order one of the fixed-price menus.
Corso Vittorio Emanuele 175. www.casadelbrodo.it. 091-321655. Main courses 8€-16€; fixed-price menus from 20€. Wed-Mon 12:30-3pm and 7:30-11pm (closed Sun June-Sept). Bus: 103, 104, 105, 118, or 225.
Ferro di Cavallo SICILIAN Bright red walls seem to rev up the energy to high levels in this ever-busy favorite, but the buzz is really about the good, plain food served at very reasonable prices. There’s a menu, and a decent antipasti platter offers a nice sampling of panelle (fried chickpea fritters) and other street food, but go with the daily specials to get the full flavor of the kitchen. The preference is for beans and celery, broad beans and vegetables, meatballs in tomato sauce, boiled veal, and other classics. Service hovers between nonchalant and brusque, but the jovial atmosphere compensates, and you’ll pay very little for your homey meal.
Via Venezia 20. www.ferrodicavallopalermo.it. 091-331835. Main courses 7€. Mon-Sat 10am-3:30pm and 7:45-11:30pm. Bus: 103, 104, 105, 118, or 225.
Ottava Nota SICILIAN ”New Sicilian” is in full force at the most exciting of the restaurants that have opened in the once derelict Kalsa district in recent years, where the sleek surroundings are the setting for creative takes on Sicilian classics. Tuna tartare is served with avocado, risotto is laced with leeks and tuna caviar, and eggplant meatballs are topped with tomato cream. Duck, beef, and fish are market fresh and beautifully prepared, but you may not want to go beyond the pastas with fresh seafood, and a meal usually begins with a complimentary glass of prosecco.
Via Butera 55. 091-6168601. Main courses 10€-20€. Mon 8-11pm, Tues-Sun 12:30-3:30pm and 8-11pm. Bus: 103, 104, 105, 118, or 225.
Apart from the spectacle of amped-up humanity that is Palermo, it’s also one of the great art cities of Europe, where street life mingles with ancient artifacts and centuries worth of architecture and art. Most of everything you want to see is within walking distance of the Quattro Canti, where Via Maqueda meets Via Vittorio Emanuele.
Catacombs of the Capuchins (Catacombe dei Cappuccini) CEMETERY Viewing these chambers where the corpses of some 8,000 souls in various stages of preservation hang from walls and recline in open caskets might require some attitude adjustment. It would be easy to write the spectacle off as eerie (which it certainly is) or even a bit vampy, but for the deceased and the loved ones they left behind a spot here provided a bit of comforting immortality. In 1599, the occupants of the adjoining Capuchin monastery discovered that the bodies of the brothers they placed in their catacombs soon became naturally mummified, and Sicilians began demanding to be buried along with them. Wearing their Sunday best, the dead are grouped according to sex and rank—men, women, virgins, priests, nobles, professors (possibly including the painter Velasquez, though his presence here is questionable), and children. This last grouping includes the most recent resident, 2-year-old Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920 and who locals have dubbed “Sleeping Beauty.” Giuseppe Tommasi, prince of Lampedusa and author of one of the best-known works of Sicilian literature, “The Leopard,” was buried in the cemetery next to the catacombs in 1957. His great-grandmother, the model for the Princess in the novel, is in the catacombs.
Capuchins Monastery, Piazza Cappuccini 1. 091-212117. Admission 3€. Daily 9am-noon and 3-5pm (until 7pm in summer). Closed holidays. Bus: 327.
Chiesa della Martorana/San Cataldo CHURCH These two Norman churches stand side by side, separated by a little tropical garden. George of Antioch, Roger II’s Greek admiral, founded Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in 1141 and the church was later bestowed to Eloisa Martorana, who founded a nearby Benedictine convent. The nuns gained the everlasting appreciation of Palermitans when they invented marzipan, and frutta di Martorana—sweets in which marzipan is fashioned into the shape of little fruits—has outlived the order. George of Antioch, for his part, had a love of Byzantine mosaics. The North African craftsman who had come to Palermo to work on the Capella Palatina had just completed their labors, so Roger put them to work covering walls, pillars, and floors with stunning mosaics in deep hues of ivory, green, azure, red, and gold. Christ crowns Roger II, George appears in a Byzantine robe, and Christ appears again in the dome, surrounded by angels. The Arab geographer/traveler Ibn Jubayr visited Palermo in 1166 and called the church “the most beautiful monument in the world.” A baroque redo has rendered the interior as little less transporting than it must have been in 1266 when Sicilian nobles met here and agreed to offer the crown to Peter of Aragon, ending a bloody uprising against French rule known as the Sicilian Vespers.
Maio of Bari, chancellor to William I, began the tiny Chiesa di San Cataldo next door in 1154 but died before it was completed in 1160, so the church was left unfinished. The red domes and the lacy crenellation around the tops of the walls are decidedly Moorish, while the stone interior, with three little cupolas over the nave, evoke the Middle Ages—all the more so since any traces of the church’s use over the years as a hospital and post office have been removed.
Piazza Bellini 2, adjacent to Piazza Pretoria. 091-6161692. La Martorana: Free admission. Mon-Sat 9:30am-1pm and 3:30-6:30pm; Sun 8:30am-1pm. San Cataldo: 2€. Tues-Fri 9am-5pm; Sat-Sun 9am-1pm. Bus: 101 or 102.
Duomo CATHEDRAL All those who came, saw, and conquered in Palermo left their mark on this cathedral, an architectural pastiche that is somewhere between exquisite and eyesore. It is, however, noble enough as befits the final resting place of Roger II, the first king of Sicily, who died in 1154, and other Norman-Swabian royalty. Neapolitan architect Ferdinando Fuga began a restoration in 1771 that gave the exterior and the interior an all-encompassing neoclassical style, adding a cupola that sticks out like a sore thumb on the original Norman design. With a little attention you can pick out some of the original elements: the middle portal from the 15th century; four impressive campaniles (bell towers) from the 14th century; and the south and north porticos from the 15th and 16th centuries. Take note of the column on the left of the south portico: It was recycled from a mosque and is inscribed with a verse from the Koran.
Piazza Cattedrale. 091-334373. Duomo: free admission; crypt and treasury: 1€ each. Mon-Sat 9:30am-1:30pm and 2:30-5:30pm. Bus: 101, 104, 105, 107, or 139.
Galleria Regionale della Sicilia (Regional Gallery)/Palazzo Abatellis MUSEUM Center stage at this fine collection is the late-15th century palazzo that houses it, built around two courtyards and beautifully restored in the 1950s. On display is the array of the arts in Sicily from the 13th to the 18th centuries, though it’s hard to get beyond the gallery’s most celebrated work, the “Trionfo della Morte”(“Triumph of Death”). Dating from 1449 and of uncertain attribution, this huge study in black and gray is prominently displayed in a two-story ground-floor gallery (once you’ve looked at it up close, climb the stairs to the balcony for an overview). Death has never looked worse—a fearsome skeletal demon astride an undernourished steed, brandishing a scythe as he leaps over his victims (allegedly members of Palermo aristocracy, who were none too pleased with the portrayal). The painter is believed to have depicted himself in the fresco, seen with an apprentice praying in vain for release from the horrors of Death; the poor and hungry, looking on from the side, have escaped such a gruesome fate for the time being. The precision of this astonishing work, including the details of the nose of the horse and the men and women in the full flush of their youth, juxtaposed against such darkness, suggests the Surrealism movement that came to the fore 400 years later.
Do Some Market Research
You can’t do justice to Palermo without swinging through one of its street markets. Nowhere is Palermo’s multicultural pedigree more evident than at the stalls of the sadly declining Vucciria (on Via Argenteria, north of Via Vittorio Emanuele and east of Via Roma), Ballarò (in Piazza Ballarò), and Capo (from Via Porta Carini south toward the cathedral). These open-air markets go on for blocks and blocks, hawking everything from spices to seafood to sides of beef to toilet paper to handicrafts to electronics. Ballarò and Capo, west and north of the train station, are where more real Palermitans shop. Delve even deeper into Palermo’s market culture at the neighborhood Borgo Vecchio market (along Via Ettore Ximenes to Via Principe di Scordia) in the newer part of the city, northwest of Piazza Politeama. Antiques vendors with many unusual buys lie along the Piazza Peranni, off Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
The second masterpiece of the gallery, at the end of the corridor exhibiting Arab ceramics in room 4, is a refreshing antidote, and also quite modern looking: the white-marble, slanted-eyed bust of “Eleonora di Aragona,” by Francesco Laurana. The Dalmatian-born sculptor was in Sicily from 1466 to 1471, and he captured this likeness of Eleanor, daughter of King Ferdinand I of Naples, shortly before she married Ercole d’Este and became the duchess of Ferrara. Of the Sicilians, Antonello da Messina stands out, with an Annunciation (room 11). It is one of the two Annunciations he painted; the other is at the Bellomo museum in Siracusa (see p. 514). This one is probably the artist’s most famous work, and he completed it in 1476 while in Venice. He depicts the Virgin as an adolescent girl, sitting at a desk with a devotional book in front of her and clasping her cloak modestly to her chest. She raises her hand, seemingly to us viewers but probably to Gabriel, who has just delivered the news that she is to be the mother of the son of God, about which she looks remarkably serene. It is one of the most lovely and calming works anywhere.
Via Alloro 4, Palazzo Abatellis. 091-6230011. Admission 8€ adults, 4€ children. Tues-Sun 9am-1:30pm and 2:30-6:30pm. Bus: 103, 105, or 139.
Museo Archeologico Regionale “Antonino Salinas” (Regional Archaeological Museum) The first thing to know about this stunning collection of antiquities is that you may not see it, as the museum was closed indefinitely in 2011 for a much-needed renovation. When it is open, the former convent of the Filippini, built around a lovely cloister, displays a head-spinning repository of artifacts from the island’s many inhabitants and invaders: Phoenicians, Greeks, Saracens, and Romans. You’ll find a visit here especially satisfying if you’ve been to Selinunte, because the museum’s most important treasures are metopes (temple friezes) from that once-great city on the southern coast. The sumptuous, detailed marbles that depict Perseus slaying Medusa, the Rape of Europa by Zeus, Actaeon being transformed into a stag, and other scenes bring these myths vividly to life and more than that, make the ancient belief in them palpable. Among a treasure trove of other artifacts—anchors from Punic warships, mirrors used by the Etruscans, and a joyful Roman statue of “Satyr Filling a Drinking Cup”—is a rare Egyptian find. The Pietra di Palermo (Palermo Stone), a black stone slab known as the Rosetta stone of Sicily, dates from 2700 B.C., was discovered in Egypt in the 19th century, and was in transit for the British Museum in London when it was shuffled off to the corners of a Palermo dock. The hieroglyphics reveal the inscriber’s attention to detail: a list of pharaohs, details of the delivery of 40 shiploads of cedarwood to Snefru, and flood levels of the Nile.
THE ORATORIES OF GIACOMO SERPOTTA
Some of Palermo’s most delightful places of worship are oratories, private chapels funded by private societies and guilds and usually connected to a larger church. Giacomo Serpotta, a native master of sculpting in stucco, decorated several oratorios in the early 18th century. Most are open Monday through Friday 10am to 1pm and 3 to 6pm and Saturday 10am to 1pm, though hours vary; you’ll be charged a 2€ admission, but your ticket is good at at least one other oratory.
Serpotta was a member of the Society of the Holy Rosary and he decorated the society’s Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico (Via dei Bambinai; 091-332779) with his delightfully expressive putti (cherubs), who are locked forever in a playground of happy antics. His 3-D reliefs depict everything from the Allegories of the Virtues to the Apocalypse of St. John to a writhing “Devil Falling from Heaven.” Anthony van Dyck, the Dutch master who spent time in Palermo in the 1620s, did the “Madonna of the Rosary” over the high altar.
Serpotta worked on the Oratorio di San Lorenzo (Via dell’Immacolatella; 091-332779) between 1698 and 1710, creating panels relating the details of the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence to create what critics have admiringly called “a cave of white coral.” Some of the most expressive of the stuccoes depict the martyrdom of Lawrence, who was roasted to death and nonchalantly informed his tormentors, “I’m well done. Turn me over.” Among the reliefs are serene-looking statues of the Virtues, and among them naked putti romp gaily. No longer here is Caravaggio’s last large painting, a “Nativity” that hung over the altar until it was stolen in 1969 and never recovered.
The all-white Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita (Via Valverde 3; 091-332779) houses Serpotta’s crowning achievement, a detailed relief of the Battle of Lepanto, in which a coalition of European states defeated the Turks, more or less preventing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Western Europe. Serpotta’s cherubs, oblivious to international affairs, romp up and down the walls and climb onto window frames.
Piazza Olivella 24. 091-6116805. Closed temporarily. Admission 4€ adults, 2€ children 18 and under. Tues-Fri 8:30am-1:30pm and 2:30-6:30pm; Sat-Sun and holidays 8:30am-1:30pm. Bus: 101, 102, 103, 104, 107, or Linea Rossa.
Palazzo dei Normanni and Cappella Palatina PALACE The cultural influences of Sicily collide in this palace that dates back to the 8th century B.C., when Punic administrators set up an outpost in the highest part of the city. In the 9th century A.D. the Arabs built a palace on the spot for their emirs and their harems, and the Normans turned what was essentially a fortress into a sumptuous royal residence. It was here that Frederick II had his early 13th-century court of minstrels and literati that founded the Schola Poetica Siciliana, which marked the birth of Italian literature; what remains is an incomparable testimony to Palermo’s cultural heydays. The Spanish viceroys took up residence in the palace in 1555, and today most of the vast maze of rooms and grand halls houses the seat of Sicily’s semiautonomous regional government.
Arab-Norman cultural influences intersect most spectacularly in the Cappella Palatina, covered in glittering Byzantine mosaics from 1130 to 1140 and finished in time for the coronation of Roger II, who proved to be not only the most powerful of European kings but also the most enlightened. High in the cupola at the end of the apse and in the cupola is Christ Pantocrator (as usual in this iconic image, he holds the New Testament in his left hand and makes the gesture of blessing with his right hand). He is surrounded by saints and biblical characters, some interpreted a little less piously than usual—Adam and Eve happily munch on the forbidden fruit, and rather than showing any hesitation in their act of defiance they are greedily reaching for a second piece. Shame prevails in the next scene, when God steps in reproachfully and the naked couple covers themselves with leaves. The mosaics are vibrant in the soft light, and the effect is especially powerful in scenes depicting waters, as in the flood and the Baptism of Christ—in these, water appears actually to be shimmering.
More scenes appear on the wooden ceiling, done in a three-dimensional technique using small sections of carved wood, known in Arabic as muqarnas. A team of carpenters and painters was brought in from Egypt to create the playfully secular scenarios of dancers, musicians, hunters on horseback, drinkers, even banqueters in a harem. You’ll see them best with binoculars or a telephoto lens.
Visits to the Royal Apartments are escorted, as this is a seat of government. Tours are almost always conducted in Italian; ask if there is an usher on duty who can speak English. The apartments are not open to the public when the Sicilian parliament is in session—meeting in the Salone d’Ercole, named for the mammoth 19th-century frescoes depicting the “Twelve Labours of Hercules” (pundits like to say this is apt decoration for legislators wading through government bureaucracy). The fairly pompous staterooms from the years of Spanish rule give way to earlier remnants, among them the Sala dei Presidenti; this stark chamber was hidden in the bowels of the palace for several centuries, completely unknown until 2002, when an earthquake knocked down one of the walls and unveiled an untouched, medieval relic. The Torre Gioaria (tower of the wind) is a harbinger of modern air-conditioning systems: A fountain in the middle of the tower (since removed) spouted water that cooled the breezes coming from the four hallways. In the Torre Gioaria is the Sala di Ruggero II, decorated with mosaics of nature and hunting scenes. Much less hospitable are the Segrete, or dungeons, where the cold stone walls are etched with primitive scenes of Norman warships. The otherwise enlightened Frederick II is said to have taken his interest in science to perverse lengths in these chambers, where he shut prisoners in casks to see whether or not their souls could be observed escaping through a small hole at the moment of death. He also imprisoned children and forbade any interaction beyond sucking and bathing to see if they would develop a natural language that would provide clues to the speech God gave Adam and Eve.
House of Tiles
One of Palermo’s delightful hidden treasures is the Stanza al Genio, a collection of 2,300 historic tiles of Neapolitan and Sicilian manufacture. Most notably, they cover every inch of a private apartment on the piano nobile of an old palace in the Kalsa District. An informative guide will walk through the kitchen, dining room, and living room, explaining the glorious ceramics carpeting the walls and floors. The museum is at Via Garibaldi 11 (www.stanzealgenio.it; 340-097-1561); call or write (email@example.com) for an appointment. Admission is free.
Frederick was fascinated by the stars and brought many astronomers and astrologers to his court. His Bourbon successors shared the interest and in 1790 added an astronomical observatory, still functioning, at the top of the Torre Pisana. From these heights in 1801 the priest Fra Giuseppe Piazza discovered Ceres, the first asteroid known to mankind.
Piazza del Parlamento. www.ars.sicilia.it. 091-626833. Admission 8.50€, free for children 17 and under. Admission 7€ Tues-Thurs, when the Royal Apartments are closed due to Parliamentary meetings. Mon-Sat 8:15am-5pm; Sun 8:15am-12:15pm. Bus: 104, 105, 108, 109, 110, 118, 304, or 309.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti CHURCH Palermo’s most romantic landmark is a simple affair, part Arab, part Norman, with five red domes atop a portico, a single nave, two small apses, and a squat tower. As befits the humble Spanish recluse it honors, St. John of the Hermits, the church is almost devoid of decoration, though the surrounding citrus blossoms and flowers imbue the modest structure with an other-worldliness all its own. Adding to the charms of the spot is a Norman cloister, with a Moorish cistern in the center, part of the original Benedictine monastery that once stood here.
Via dei Benedettini 3. 091-6515019. Admission 6€ adults; 3€ students, seniors, and children. Tues-Sat 9am-1pm and 3-7pm; Sun 9am-6:30pm. Bus: 109 or 318.
Entertainment & Nightlife
Palermo is a cultural center of some note, with an opera and ballet season running from November to July. The principal venue for cultural presentations is the restored Teatro Massimo , Piazza G. Verdi (www.teatromassimo.it; 091-6053111), across from the Museo Archeologico. It boasts the third largest indoor stage in Europe. Francis Ford Coppola shot the climactic opera scene here for “The Godfather: Part III.”The theater was built between 1875 and 1897 in a neoclassical style and reopened after a restoration in 1997 to celebrate its 100th birthday. Ticket prices range from 10€ to 125€. The box office is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 3pm. Note: The Teatro Massimo can be visited Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 3pm. Visits cost 5€. Guided tours in English are given Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 3pm (bus: 101, 102, 103, 104, 107, 122, or 225).
Side Trips from Palermo
For Palermitans, a warm summer day means one thing—a trip to Mondello Lido, 12km (71⁄2 miles) west of Palermo, where Belle Epoque Europeans once came to winter. Their Art Nouveau villas face a sandy beach that stretches for about 2km (11⁄4 miles), though there’s little or no elbow room in July and August. Bus no. 806 makes the trip to Mondello from Piazza Sturzo behind the Teatro Politeama in about 15 minutes. Should you wish to do more than lie on a beach, many other sights are within easy reach of Palermo.
10km (6 miles) S of Palermo
On the Mons Regalis overlooking the Conca d’Oro (the Golden Valley), this hilltop village would be just another of the many that dot this fertile area south of Palermo if it weren’t for its majestic Duomo, one of Italy’s greatest medieval treasures, carpeted in shimmering mosaics. Yet those who dismiss Monreale as “just another church with mosaics” are subjected to the old local saying: “To come to Palermo without having seen Monreale is like coming in like a donkey and leaving like an ass.”
The cathedral of Monreale.
MEN OF DISHONOR
Members of the Sicilian Mafia (or “Men of Honor,” as they like to be called) traditionally operated as a network of regional bosses who controlled individual towns by setting up puppet regimes of thoroughly corrupt officials. It was a sort of devil’s bargain with the national Christian Democrat Party, which controlled Italy’s government from World War II until 1993 and, despite its law-and-order rhetoric, tacitly left Cosa Nostra alone as long as the bosses got out the party vote.
The Cosa Nostra trafficked in illegal goods, of course, but until the 1960s and 1970s, its income was derived mainly from low-level protection rackets, funneling state money into its own pockets, and ensuring that public contracts were granted to fellow mafiosi (all reasons why Sicily has experienced grotesque unchecked industrialization and modern growth at the expense of its heritage and the good of its communities). But the younger generation of Mafia underbosses got into the highly lucrative heroin and cocaine trades in the 1970s, transforming the Sicilian Mafia into a world player on the international drug-trafficking circuit—and raking in the dough. This ignited a clandestine Mafia war that, throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, generated headlines of bloody Mafia hits. The new generation was wiping out the old and turning the balance of power in their favor.
This situation gave rise to the first Mafia turncoats, disgruntled ex-bosses and rank-and-file stoolies who told their stories, first to police prefect Gen. Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa (assassinated 1982) and later to crusading magistrates Giovanni Falcone (killed May 23, 1992) and Paolo Borsellino (murdered July 19, 1992), who staged the “maxitrials” of mafiosi that sent hundreds to jail. The magistrates’ 1992 murders, especially, garnered public attention to the dishonorable methods that defined the new Mafia and, perhaps for the first time, began to stir true shame.
On a broad and culturally important scale, it is these young mafiosi, without a moral center or check on their powers, who have driven many Sicilians to at least secretly break the unwritten code of omertà, which translates as “homage” but means “silence,” when faced with harboring or even tolerating a man of honor. The Mafia still exists in Palermo, the small towns south of it, and the provincial capitals of Catania, Trapani, and Agrigento. Throughout the rest of Sicily, its power has been slipping. The heroin trade is a far cry from construction schemes and protection money, and the Mafia is swiftly outliving its usefulness and its welcome.
GETTING THERE From Palermo, take AMAT bus no. 389, which runs every half-hour from Piazza Indipendenza (www.amat.pa.it; 848-800817 or from a mobile line 199-240800); tickets cost: 1.30€. The AST bus (www.aziendasicilianatrasporti.it; 840-000323) from Palermo’s Piazza Giulio Cesare (Central Train station) and Piazza Indipendenza costs 2.10€ one-way, 3.30€ round-trip. If you are driving, leave your vehicle at the municipal car park at Via Ignazio Florio. From there you can either walk up the 99(!) steps that lead to the cathedral, or take a cab, at the cost of 2€ per person.
Exploring the Duomo
Legend has it that William II had the idea of this cathedral in a dream when, during a hunting expedition, he fell asleep under a carob tree. While slumbering, the Virgin Mary appeared to him, indicating where a treasure chest was located—and with this loot he was to build a church in her honor. Legends aside, William’s ambition to leave his mark was the force behind the last—and the greatest—of the series of Arabo-Norman cathedrals with Byzantine interiors. Best of all, the cathedral in Monreale never underwent any of the “improvements” that were applied to the cathedral of Palermo, and therefore its original beauty was preserved.
For the most part, the exterior of the building is nothing remarkable. Inside, mosaics comprise some 130 individual scenes, depicting biblical and religious events, covering some 6,400 sq. m (68,889 sq. ft.), and utilizing some 2,200 kg (4,850 lb.) of gold. Episodes from the Old Testament are depicted in the central nave (a particularly charming scene shows Noah’s Ark riding the waves) while the side aisles illustrate scenes from the New Testament. Christ Pantocrator, the Great Ruler, looks over it all from the central apse; actually, he gazes off to one side, toward scenes from his life. Just below is a mosaic of the Teokotos (Mother of God) with the Christ child on her lap, bathed in light from the small window above the main entrance. Among the angels and saints flanking Teokotos is Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered on the orders of William’s father-in-law, Henry II (this is one of the earliest portraits of the saint; he is the second from the right).
William II is buried here, and also honored with a mosaic showing him being crowned by Christ. The heart of St. Louis, or Louis IX, a 13th-century king of France, rests in the urn in which it was placed when the king died during a crusade in Tunisia and transported to Sicily, then ruled by his younger brother, Charles of Anjou.
The lovely cloisters adjacent to the cathedral are an Arabesque fantasy, surrounded by 228 columns topped with capitals carved with scenes from Sicily’s Norman history. A splendid fountain in the shape of a palm tree adds to the romance of the place.
Piazza Guglielmo il Buono. 091-6404413. Free admission to the cathedral; 2€ north transept and treasury; 2€ roof; 8€ cloisters, 4€ ages 18-25, free for children 17 and under and EU citizens 65 and over. Mon-Sat 8am-1pm and 2:30-6:30pm, Sun 8am-1pm; Cloisters: daily 9am-7pm.
81km (50 miles) E of Palermo
The former fishing village of Cefalù, anchored between the sea and a craggy limestone promontory, has grown into a popular resort, though it will never be a rival to Taormina. If you saw the Oscar-winning film “Cinema Paradiso,” you’ve already been charmed by the town, though the filmmakers wisely left out the hordes of white-fleshed northern Europeans who roast themselves on the crescent-shaped beach, one of the best along the northern coast. Towering 278m (912 ft.) above the beach and town is La Rocca, a massive and much-photographed crag. The Greeks thought it evoked a head, so they named the village Kephalos, which in time became Cefalù. It’s a long, hot, sweaty climb up to the top, but once there, the view is panoramic, extending all the way to the skyline of Palermo in the west or to Capo d’Orlando in the east.
GETTING THERE From Palermo, some three dozen trains (www.trenitalia.com; 892021) head east to Cefalù (trip time: 1 hr.). Trains pull into the Stazione Termini, Piazza Stazione ( 892021). SAIS buses ( 091-6171141) run between Palermo and Cefalù.
By car, follow Route 113 east from Palermo to Cefalù; count on at least 11⁄2 hours of driving time (longer if traffic is bad). Once in Cefalù, park along either side of Via Roma for free, or pay 1€ per hour for a spot within one of the two lots signposted from the main street; both are within an easy walk of the town’s medieval core.
VISITOR INFORMATION The Cefalù Tourist Office, Corso Ruggero 77 ( 0921-421050), is open Monday to Saturday 8am to 7:30pm, Sunday 9am to 1pm. Closed on Sunday in winter.
Getting around Cefalù on foot is easy—no cars are allowed in the historic core. The city’s main street is Corso Ruggero, which starts at Piazza Garibaldi, site of one of a quartet of gateways to the town.
Duomo CHURCH Anchored on a wide square at the foot of towering La Rocca, the twin-towered facade of the duomo forms a landmark visible for miles around. Legend has it that Roger II ordered this mighty church to be constructed in the 12th century after his life was spared in a violent storm off the coast. In reality, he probably built it to flex his muscle with the papacy and show the extent of his power in Sicily. Inside are more mosaics, and even if you’ve become inured to the charms of these shimmering scenes in Palermo and Monreale, you’re in for a bit of a surprise: This being a Norman church, Christ is depicted as a blond, not a brunette. In his hand is a Bible, a standard accessory in these images of Christ the Protactor (the Ruler), with the verse, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in darkness.” Columns in the nave are said to be from the much-ruined Temple of Diana halfway up La Rocca (you’ll stop to inspect the rest of the stony remains if you make the climb to the top).
Piazza del Duomo. 0921-922021. Free admission. Summer daily 8am-noon and 3:30-7pm; off season daily 8am-noon and 3:30-5pm.
Museo Mandralisca MUSEUM There is only one reason to step into this small museum, and it’s a compelling one: “Ritratto di un Uomo Ignoto” (“Portrait of an Unknown Man”), a 1470 work by the Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina. Seeing this young man with a sly smile and twinkling eyes—some scholars say he was a pirate from the island of Lipari—is an experience akin to seeing the “Mona Lisa,” and you won’t have to fight your way through camera-wielding crowds to do so.
Via Mandralisca 13. 0921-421547. Admission 5€. Daily 9am-1pm and 3-7pm.
WHERE TO EAT
For cakes and cookies, stop by Pasticceria Serio Pietro, V. G. Giglio 29 ( 0921-422293), which also sells more than a dozen flavors of the most delicious gelato in town.
Osteria del Duomo SICILIAN/SEAFOOD A prime spot across from the duomo with great views of the Rocca alone would make this a worthy stop, and the fresh seafood does justice to the locale. Seafood salads are a perfect choice for lunch on a summer’s day, and piscivores will love the carpaccio de pesce (raw, thinly sliced fish). Carnivores can tuck into the similarly excellent carpaccio of beef. Try to reserve ahead on weekends.
Via Seminario 3. 0921-421838. Main courses 8€-16€. Tues-Sun noon-midnight. Closed mid-Nov to mid-Dec.
The Old Town of Cefalù.
75km (47 miles) SW of Palermo
The Tempio di Segesta, one of the best-preserved ancient Doric temples in all of Italy, proves yet again that the Greeks had a remarkable eye for where to build. Part of the ruined ancient city of Segesta, this beautiful structure in a lonely field overlooking the sea has been delighting those lucky enough to set eyes upon the spectacle for millennia. The temple was especially popular with 18th-century artists traveling in Sicily, whose paintings usually included herds of sheep and cattle in or surrounding the temple.
GETTING THERE From Palermo, three trains a day make the 13⁄4- to 2-hour journey. The station is about a 1km (1⁄2-mile) walk to the park entrance. It’s more convenient to reach Segesta by bus; Tarantola ( 0924-31020) operates four buses from Piazza Giulio Cesare (Central Train Station) in Palermo (journey time: 13⁄4 hour).
By car, take the autostrada (A29) running between Palermo and Trapani. The exit at Segesta is clearly marked. The journey takes a little under an hour from Palermo.
VISITOR INFORMATION The site, which is still the subject of study by archaeologists from around the world, is open daily 9am to 5pm in winter and 9am to 7pm in summer; admission is 9€ for adults, 4.50€ for ages 18 to 25, and free for children 17 and under. The ticket is valid for 3 days and includes admission to the Parco Archeologico in Selinunte (p. 542). The ticket office closes an hour before the park’s closing time. On-site bus transportation between the temple and the theater is not included in the ticket; it costs 1.50€. The park also has a small, canopied eating area opposite the only cafe, where visitors can unwind or rest during their visit.
Segesta’s Parco Archaeologico.
EXPLORING THE PARCO ARCHAEOLOGICO (THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK)
The Tempio di Segesta (Temple of Segesta) stands on a 304m (997-ft.) hill, on the edge of a deep ravine carved by the Pispisa River. Built in the 5th century B.C., it was never finished; the columns were not fluted and roof was never added. This, of course, does not affect the temple’s greatest assets: the view down the hillside to the sea and the views of the temple from afar. Segesta’s other great sight is the perfectly preserved Teatro (Theater), hewn out of rock at the top of 431m (1,414 ft.) Mount Barbaro (it’s accessible by a hike of 4km [21⁄2 miles] or by buses that run every half hour). The cavea of 20 semicircular rows could seat 4,000 spectators, who enjoyed views across the surrounding farmland to the Gulf of Castellamare that surely competed with any performance—and still do during summertime stagings of operas, concerts, and plays.
AGRIGENTO & THE VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES
129km (80 miles) S of Palermo
The evocative skeletons of seven temples of honey-colored stone, arranged on a long ridge and commanding views of the sea, comprise one of the most memorable sights of the ancient world—the embodiment of classical dignity. Colonists from Crete or Rhodes established Akragas in the 7th century B.C., and by the 5th century B.C. the city was one of the great Mediterranean powers, with close to 200,000 residents. The Greek poet Pindar described Akragas as the most beautiful city “inhabited by mortals” but commented that its citizens “feasted as if there were no tomorrow.” The city poured part of its enormous wealth into temples erected along a ridge overlooking the sea, and their bright pediments were well-known landmarks along southern sea routes. Carthage and Rome fought over the city for several centuries until Akragas became part of the Roman Empire in 210 B.C. The temples were tumbled by earthquakes, plundered for marble, and overgrown from neglect, but today they are proud remnants of ancient grandeur.
GETTING THERE By car from Palermo, cut southeast on the SS121, which becomes SS189 before it finally reaches Agrigento. Allow 21⁄2 hours. From Siracusa, take the A18 autostrada north to Catania and then the A19 west toward Enna. Just past Enna, exit the A19 and follow signs south through Caltanissetta and down to Agrigento. This trip is about 21⁄2 hours. The “coastal route” from Siracusa—taking the SS115 all the way—may look more direct on the map but is much more time-consuming, up to 5 hours on an often very curvy, two-lane road.
Bus connections between Palermo and Agrigento are fairly convenient: Cuffaro (www.cuffaro.info; 0922-403150) runs nine buses per day each way and drops you right in front of the entrance to the archaeological site; the trip takes 2 hours and costs 8.30€ one-way or 13€ round-trip. Bus service is also possible from Siracusa, but it’s a long haul of at least 4 hours each way.
Taking the train to Agrigento is a hassle. The main rail station, Stazione Centrale, is at Piazza Marconi ( 892021); from there you then have to take a cab or local bus (lines 1, 2, or 3) to the temples, 10 minutes away. The train trip from Palermo takes 2 hours and costs 8€; there are 12 trains daily. From Siracusa, you must change in Catania; the full 6-hour trip costs 20€ one-way.
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office, in the modern town at Piazzale Aldo Moro 7 ( 0922-20454), is open Sunday through Friday 8am to 1pm and 3 to 8pm, Saturday 8am to 1pm. Another tourist office is at Via Empedocle 73 ( 0922-20391), open Monday to Friday 8am to 2:30pm and Wednesday also from 3:30 to 7pm. Ticket booths are found at the west and east entrances (www.lavalledeitempli.eu; 0922-621611). Admission is 8€. Hours are daily from 8:30am to 7pm. On Saturdays year-round it’s also open from 8am to 11:30pm; from July 8 to August 31, the site is open for evening visits daily from 7:45am to 9:30pm, and until 11pm on Saturday and Sunday. Note that your daytime admission ticket is not valid for the evening hours; you’ll pay another 8€ to explore the temples at night.
Exploring the Ruins
The temples are preserved in the Parco Valle die Templei. As you enter the valley and are surrounded by hills planted with olive and almond trees, you’ll observe that “valley of the temples” is a misnomer, as the temples are perched along a ridge. The park is divided into eastern and western zones, with entrances at each.
In the eastern zone are Agrigento’s three best-preserved temples. The Temple of Hercules (Tempio di Ercole) is the oldest, dating from the 6th century B.C. At one time the temple sheltered a celebrated statue of Hercules, though it has long since been plundered. Gaius Verres, the notoriously corrupt 1st century B.C. governor of Sicily, had his eyes on the statue as he looted temples across the island, though there is no record of Verres (who was exiled for his misdeeds) getting this prize. Eight of 36 columns have been resurrected, while the others lay rather romantically scattered in the tall grass and wildflowers; they still bear black sears from fires set by Carthaginian invaders.
The Tempio della Concordia, Valley of the Temples.
The Tempio della Concordia (Temple of Concord), surrounded by 34 columns, has survived almost intact since its completion in 430 B.C. It was never plundered because it was shored up as a Christian basilica in the 6th century, and its foundations rest on soft soil, absorbing the shock of earthquakes. The Temple of Juno had no such structural resiliency and was partly destroyed in an earthquake, though 30 columns and sections of the colonnade have been restored. A long altar was used for wedding ceremonies and sacrificial offerings.
The western zone would have been the setting of the largest temple in the Greek world, had the Temple of Jove/Zeus (Tempio di Giove) ever been completed and had what was built not been toppled in earthquakes. A copy of a 8m-tall telamon (a sculpted figure of a man with arms raised) used as a column-like support, lies on its back amid the rubble; the original is the pride of the Museo Archeologico. He was one of several such figures, and the German writer Goethe, who was much impressed with the massive, 20m (66 ft.) high columns, took home with him a prized painting of one of the temple carytids, a female figure used for support. The Temple of Castor and Pollux (Tempio di Dioscuri or Tempio di Castore e Polluce), with four Doric columns intact, honors Castor and Pollux, the twins who were patrons of seafarers; Demeter, the goddess of marriage and of the fertile earth; and Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and the symbol of spring.
Between the ruins and Agrigento town, the Museo Archeologico (Via dei Templi; 0922/40111; admission 6€ or 10€ with archaeological park combo ticket; Mon 9am-1:30pm, Tues-Sat 9am-7:30pm) has detailed explanations in both Italian and English of the many artifacts unearthed in this area. However, after a long and dusty outing at the ruins, this isn’t a necessary stop unless your thirst for all things Akragas is stronger than your thirst for a cold beer or water.
122km (76 miles) SW of Palermo
The westernmost Greek colony was one of the most powerful cities in the world in 409 B.C., home to 100,000 inhabitants, when Hannibal virtually destroyed it, sparing only the temples (not out of respect for the deities, but to preserve the loot they housed). Today the vast archaeological park (Parco Archeologico Selinunte) comprises 270 hectares (670 acres), making it Europe’s largest archaeological site. Selinunte is not just large, but also beautiful, a bucolic spot where you can walk amid the ruins, gaze out to sea, and ponder what life might have been like millennia ago. As you walk amid the wildflowers and smell the wild herbs, remember that the name of the town name comes from the Greek word selinon, meaning parsley.
GETTING THERE Selinunte is on the southern coast of Sicily and is most easily reached by car. From Palermo, take the A29 autostrada and get off at Castelvetrano, following the signs thereafter. Allow about 2 hours for the trip.
If you prefer to take the train (www.trenitalia.it; 892021) from Palermo, you can get off at Castelvetrano, 23km (14 miles) from the ruins. The trip from Palermo to Castelvetrano takes a little over 2 hours (you need to change trains; once at Castelvetrano, board a bus for the final lap of the journey to Selinunte. Autoservizi Salemi (www.autoservizisalemi.it; 0923-981120), which also operates a service from Palermo to Castelvetrano, will take you to the archaeological park in 20 minutes.
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office at Via Giovanni Caboto ( 0924-46251), near the archaeological garden, is open Monday to Saturday 8am to 2pm and 3 to 8pm, Sunday 9am to noon and 3 to 6pm. The park is open from 9am to 1 hour before sunset daily. Admission is 9€ for adults, 4€ for adults 18 to 25, and free for children 17 and under and adults 65 and over from the EU, Australia, and Canada. The ticket is valid for 3 days and is also good for entrance to Segesta (p. 537). Given the enormity of the area, allow yourself at least 3 hours to visit, preferably in the early morning. Bring or buy drinks before starting your visit, as you can get rather thirsty under the sun. Ecotour Selinunte runs a hop-on-hop-off service to all the sites within the park on a train of golf carts. For more info, visit www.selinunteservice.com or call 347-1645862.
Exploring the Archaeological Garden
The archaeological grounds are designated into three distinct zones: The East Hill and temples, the Acropolis and ancient city, and the Sanctuary of Demeter Malophorus. You will most likely start your visit from the East Hill, adjacent to the main entrance. The Doric temples are still the subject of study as to which deity they were dedicated and are simply denoted by letters of the alphabet.
EAST HILL This was the sacred district of the city, surrounded by an enclosure. Temple E, which was in all probability dedicated to Hera (Juno), was built between 490 and 480 B.C. and has a staggering 68 columns. The Metopes, the reliefs that are the pride and joy of the archaeological museum in Palermo, are from this temple. Temple F is the oldest of the trio, built between 560 and 540 B.C., and in its original state it had a double row of 6 columns at the eastern entrance and 14 columns on either side. Temple G, now an impressive heap of rubble except for a lone standing column, was destined to be of colossal proportions had it been completed in 480 B.C.; even so, it is the second largest temple in Sicily.
ACROPOLIS This district of grid-like streets, surrounded by defensive walls, is built atop a plateau. Housing most of Selinunte’s important public and religious buildings and the residences of the town’s aristocrats, it was the center of social and political life. Temple C, the earliest surviving temple of ancient Selinus, built in the 6th century B.C. is here, surrounded by 14 of its resurrected 17 columns.
SANCTUARY OF DEMETER MALOPHORUS From the Acropolis, you cross the now-dry Modione River to the ruins of several shrines where worshipers placed stone figurines to honor Demeter, goddess of fertility; as many as 12,000 such figurines have been unearthed.