I am ambitiously endeavouring to compile the next few entries of Globo Trip in rapid succession as I am utterly fed up with being behind in the various projects I’ve tasked myself with (the blog being the most time consuming). Hopefully this will be achieved without compromising the quality of the entries, although I will attempt to avoid my penchant for descending into excessive detail. This plan is not intended to undermine Sicily as a destination as I had a brilliant week on the island that was very different to my experiences in the rest of the country. However, there wasn’t any particular town that I visited in Sicily which was distinguishing enough to deserve its own entry, which consequently aides to the acceptability of my decision to clump the whole island together. My expectations for Sicily were that the island’s settlements would be similarly under-developed like Naples and that they could potentially be rather unsavoury places because of the Mafia influence. Perhaps there are some truths to those assumptions; however it was undetectable for the visitor. Sicilian towns are organised, modern and at least appear to be safe and stable. For me, the most appealing aspect of Sicily is the island’s natural scenery, with its beautiful beaches and rolling hills with dry landscapes, as the man-made attractions cannot compare with what exists in Northern Italy.
The journey to Sicily involved a six hour train ride from Naples. On the carriage, my intention to write a blog entry was hijacked by several old Sicilians who attempted to converse with me through whatever means possible (since there was no common language). Before the trip, I was most intrigued by the great mystery of how the train would cross the Straits of Messina, since there is no bridge from the boot to the ball. Unexpectedly, the train was transported from Reggio Calabria to Messina on a ferry! This was understandably quite a beguiling sight.
I should premise this discussion by noting that Sicily was a key region of Ancient Greek civilisation and some of the colonies established there (particularly Syracuse) became some of the most powerful cities in the Classical World. Sicily was shortly controlled by the Carthaginians before Roman conquest. The Muslim Arabs had a brief foray on the island and bizarrely the Normans did also. More recently, it was controlled by the Spanish royal houses before it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy.
My first destination in Sicily was Taormina, located close to the volcanic Mt Etna. The small town is perched on the top of steep hills that descend dramatically to the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea below. Taormina consists of one main thoroughfare that runs along the length of the town and features several small squares that afford brilliant views of the coast and Etna. Small streets cascade down the slope from the main thoroughfare and are lined with cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops. The town is entirely composed of attractive small buildings and is laden with Mediterranean flora. It takes around 15 minutes to walk down the slope through picturesque vegetation to reach the beaches. The crystal clear waters were extremely enticing to enter in the mid-20s weather, but one toe in what was essentially melted ice numbed the foot and sent me back to the stony shore. Twice I visited a café in Taormina to eat their delectable and refreshing granites; a dessert that Sicilians happily consume at any hour of the day. It consists of a sorbet like mixture that is made with fresh fruit and often served with whipped cream. The café I frequented concocted their mixtures fresh each morning and I sampled their strawberry and lemon flavours (awesome). Taormina is an expensive town and appears to exist purely for the tourist trade, but these did not compromise the exceptional scenery and it was certainly my favourite place to visit on the island. It was also the first time in Europe that I had stayed overnight somewhere other than a major city, which was bigger relief than I had anticipated. Taormina: done.
Syracuse fell substantially short of the expectations I had perhaps unfairly bestowed upon it. The literature I previously read suggested to me that Syracuse is Sicily’s most prominent tourist destination and I consequently developed the impression that it would be in the same category as Italy’s more famous Northern cities. This was not an accurate assumption and the three nights I booked in the city were quite excessive. The central area of Syracuse commands no interest at all since it is entirely composed of modern buildings. The town’s primary draw-card is Ortygia Island, located just off the mainland. The island effectively functions as Syracuse’s “old town”, with winding streets and layers of different architectures moulded across the centuries. Most of the buildings on the island are pale in colour, which creates an attractive contrast with the azure blue sea and forms intriguing shadow displays in the latter part of the day (and I suppose the morning too though I’m never up for that so I wouldn’t really know). The most interesting building on the island is the cathedral, which uses the monolithic columns from the ancient Temple of Athena as part of the structure. The façade is distinctly Baroque while the interior is the darkest and most austere that I’ve ever seen in a church; a very unusual synthesis. Located on the outskirts of Syracuse is the Archaeological Park, which features the famous amphitheatre from Greek civilisation. Unfortunately when I was there, much of the amphitheatre was covered in temporary seating and a stage and didn’t think the amphitheatre appeared to be all that impressive anyway. I was more interested in the landscape of the area which was remarkably different to what I saw in Northern Italy. The landscape is reminiscent to what I imagine Greece to appear like, with dry grasses, wild herbs and stark coloured rocks. I also visited the Archaeological Museum where I had an epiphany that I don’t generally like museums and nor am I able to pay attention in them. So from now on I’ll be limiting museum visits to the really exceptional ones. Syracuse: done.
I visited the small town of Noto on a daytrip from Syracuse. Well actually it was only for two and half hours, since the last bus to depart the town was ridiculously early at 2:30pm. Not that I needed any more time to explore this piddly town in the Sicilian countryside, as I was compelled to twiddle my thumbs for entertain by the end. However, it was definitely worth visiting exceptionally attractive Noto which famously exhibits Sicilian late Baroque architecture. The town was reconstructed/founded (I can’t remember the story) in the late 17th century and consequently most of the buildings in the central area express this architectural style. All the buildings were constructed with the orange-hued stone that creates an impressive spectacle particularly against a clear blue sky. Unfortunately most of the buildings, including the cathedral and churches, were closed for unknown reasons so I wasn’t able to see the interior spaces. Noto: done.
I stayed in Agrigento specifically to visit the Greek Doric temples and since nothing else really happened there, that’s all that I will bother discussing. The archaeological park features the ruins of five temples, one of which is remarkably well preserved considering its approaching 2500 years in age. The temples are majestically located at the top of a hill that overlooks scenic Sicilian countryside. Also at the park, I visited an ancient garden which today exhibits plants originating from all over the Mediterranean. These included dozens of varieties of orange trees and since the oranges were free to eat, I consumed possible a dozen. Agrigento: done.
I switched panic mode on in Palermo as I went into complete meltdown from the discovery that Australians require a visa to enter Tunisia (unlike most other Westerners). This was most disconcerting as Tunisia was to be my next destination after Palermo and I was meeting Danish Nadia from the tour there. I like to think though that as I manically charged around Palermo, from the ferry terminal to the closed consulate to the airline office to the hostel to use internet and to call the embassy in London back to the ferry terminal and to the banks to unsuccessfully exchange money, I still managed to see most of the city (even if the tourist office claimed there were 300 sites to visit and rudely exclaimed that “Its not like Australia”. Palermo is a well organised city that features relatively wide streets (for Europe) and a layout that almost resembles a grid. The Arab and Norman influences are clearly identifiable in many of the city’s most important buildings. They exhibit a unique hybrid of architectural styles, which is most prominently realised at the city’s cathedral. Palermo is apparently the world’s third best city for street food, though I have serious reservations over the accuracy of such a claim for while the city’s famed street markets were pleasant to amble through, they didn’t strike me as being particularly bountiful. Palermo: done.
I enjoyed some excellent food in Sicily which was fortunately cheaper than the mainland. Arancini was of course omnipresent, inexpensive (only 1 euro!) and always delicious. I had a Sicilian-style spaghetti dish which featured a “sauce” composed of breadcrumbs, tomatoes and sardines. Sicilian cuisine seems to be dominated by the humble cherry tomato, which is added to virtually every savoury dish and has completely replaces the larger variety in their cooking. Sicily’s most famous culinary exploit is the cannoli and you haven’t tasted the real deal until you’ve visited the island.
Sicily: done. Italy: done. And most importantly, blog: done!
Palermo was the only town large enough to be ranked and it scored rock bottom.
Thank you and goodbye!