Sicily, Crossroads of Invaders
Small wonder that the island of Sicily was repeatedly invaded, plundered and enslaved over the ages by a host of nations, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish and finally the Italians. This triangular piece of turf, tossed into the Mediterranean at the toe of Italy's boot (vividly illustrating the island's position vis-a-vis its many conquerors), displays a rich mix of inherited cultures, all of which have left their mark in some way.
The beauty of the Sicilian landscape of fertile plains rolling between jagged volcanic peaks has been enhanced first by the Greek gifts of the olive and the grape, and then, a thousand years later, by the Arab gifts of citrus and the date. All around the island silvery olive leaves blow in the wind, contrasting with the bright green of vineyards, groves of citrus, fluttering palms and indigenous cactus of every sort. Because we were making our 12-day visit during the month of May, wildflowers embroidered the landscape with a profusion of red poppies, yellow broom and white Queen Anne's lace.
We began our driving tour in the medieval town of Erice perched perilously on a rocky outcropping atop a mountain, In this slightly off-the-beaten-track town, tightly packed brown stone structures lean toward each other over streets of polished stones arranged in patterns; stores offering delectable patisseries and handsome blue-and-gold pottery are not mobbed by tourists. Typically, Erice's 12th-century Norman castle is built over an ancient temple; this one was dedicated first to the Middle Eastern goddess of fertility, Astarte, who became Aphrodite under the Greeks and Venus under the Romans.
Nothing is far away in Sicily, and so we were soon in Segesta visiting a perfectly preserved Greek Doric temple of pale pink stone with sweeping views that take in the Hellenistic theatre on another ridge. Further on our route, Segesta's perennial enemy, Selinunte, was destroyed by Carthaginians after defecting from their pact; its large archeological site affords dramatic views of truncated temple columns. At Selinunte, we lunched by the sea where a boys' regatta of small sailboats brought us quickly back to the Sicily of the 20th century.
Our next stop, Agrigento, near the southern coast, was a metropolis of 200,000 citizens in 480 B.C. that the Greek poet Pindar called "the most beautiful of those inhabited by mortals." Here we walked the long ridge where five temples were strategically placed to catch the sea breezes, then explored the archeological musem's fine collection of Grecian urns. Seeing these Greek kraters after exploring the temples helped us appreciate their vivid pictorial accounts of Greek battles with Amazons and Dionysus dancing with maenads.
Surely one of Sicily's most prized treasures is the huge Roman villa at Casale near Piazza Armerina in the interior, with its bright and colorful. mosaics, many totally intact, that reveal with extraordinary realism hunting scenes of clearly depicted animals from several continents, children delightfully at play and, unbelievably, ladies in bikinis playing ball! At once, the comfortable and diverse life of wealthy Romans nearly two thousand years ago became exquisitely clear to us.
Driving onward to the southeastern shore, we found Syracuse, a lively city, justly famous for the quaintness of its original site on the island of Ortygia, which proved to be a living museum of Greek, Byzantine and Spanish elements. In the city's intriguingly contemporary archeological museum we were struck by the originality of the Greek sculptures displayed.
After the busy city we were happy to unwind in the more relaxed atmosphere of seaside Giardini-Naxos on the east coast, where we were soon happily stolling the beach to find the site of the first Greek colony in Sicily. As we dined al fresco, we watched heavy thunderheads turn from gold to pink as diamond pricks of light came on to define the jagged silhouette of Taormina perched on nearby rocky crags. The next morning we headed up the winding road to and beyond the jet-set resort, peering down a perpendicular slab of rock to admire this most beautiful site.
Then, to avoid the dark rain cloud that had settled over Taormina, we headed toward brooding, slightly smoking Mount Etna, whose fertile flanks of olive groves and lemon trees were bathed in sunlight, highlighting the orange roofs of frequently imperiled villages. Etna has erupted savagely in recent decades, wiping out the observation center and the cable car. Thus we approached with caution the huge rim of spilled lava where jeeps take one to visit the smoking hole itself.
Our driving excursion around the island now ended, we headed back to Palermo to turn in the car and visit Sicily's capital by foot and taxi. Everyone seems to agree that Palermo's first great attraction before all else is the 12th-century Norman cathedral at Monreale. Its stunning gold mosaic interior includes lively scenes from the Bible, like the complete story of Noah's Arc and the apostles fishing with Christ. The mosaic's colors shine as vividly today as they ever did, and the Byzantine style is charmingly naive. We lingered to examine the cloisters, intrigued by finely carved Romanesque capitals of pillars and the many Arabic motifs in decoration.
Palermo offers numerous other treasures, including the grand opera house with its leaping bronze horses and the cathedral with its fine royal tombs, but we particularly enjoyed the Regional Museum. Here the extraordinarily complex and mystifying medieval fresco of "The Triumph of Death" needs to be seen to be believed, along with a masterful sculpture by Francesco Laurana.
There's ever so much to see and enjoy in Sicily. In 12 days, thanks to our superbly performing rented Fiat station wagon (diesel), we were able to appreciate much of it. Fortunately, thanks to huge Mafia contracts, Sicilian highways are excellent. We stayed in five three- and four-star hotels, which we found most comfortable. Sicilians savor fine food, as one discovers when trying deliciously flavored seafood dishes like linguine con vongole (tiny clams), stuffed swordfish, a variety of veal dishes and fried mussels, squid or shrimp accompanied by good Sicilian Chardonnays and Merlots (produced by Regaleali). Sicilian desserts and sweets, which tend to wander onto the breakfast menu, deserve a full article on their own.
As for Sicilians, we enjoyed time chatting with families at various sites and at sidewalk cafés. We never felt threatened in any way. Sicilian children are so adored and pampered that I felt that in my next life I should very much like to be bom a Sicilian child!
Louise Sheldon, of Ruxton, has written for national magazines and has published two books—one memoir, one fiction—about Morocco. She is a frequent contributor of art reviews and travel stories for the Chronicle.
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This story was published on July 12, 2003.