The five civilizations of Magna Graecia Part 2: from Reggio Calabria to Palermo

cartina8

An incredible fusion of races, civilizations and systems of government; an unexpected interweaving of customs and habits; and an ever-changing and astonishing variety of landscapes with volcanoes and forests, seas and mountains are the attractions which await the tourist on his long journey from Naples to the wonders of Sicily.

The itinerary:

From REGGIO CALABRIA the following day we take the ferry across the straits, and land at MESSINA.

Messina

MESSINA. A few hours will suffice to visit this city which was almost completely destroyed and rebuilt twice in this century: after the earthquake in 1908 and the bombardments in 1943, Of the original Norman structure of the Cathedral (1168) only the lower part of the facade and the magnificent Gothic portals have remained (inside, remains of ancient mosaics in the apse).

Nearby is the church of SS. Annunziata dei Catalani, an elegant combination of Romanesque and Arab-Norman architecture, with a remarkable Apse. We should also visit the important National Museum in the former church of San Gregorio. Noteworthy are: a Polyptych by Antonello do Messina, works by his pupils, two fine paintings by Caravaggio, works by Mattia Preti, ancient, medieval, and Renaissance sculptures, among the latter some by Lantana.

Before leaving Messina we advise paying a visit to the nearby Aeolian Islands, with their wild rocky coasts falling sheer into the sea; there are seven of them – Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi and Alicudi; they are ideal for a holiday that is different and fascinating.

After Messina one follows the impressive east coast of Sicily through citrus groves and little fishing villages among the rocks; on the other side of the Strait rises the coast of Calabria, dominated by the Aspromontc. After Capo S. Alessio and Forza d’Agro, perched on a high cliff, we reach (32 miles from Messina) Taormina-Giardini, from which we drive up to TAORMINA.

Where to stay in Messina

There are hotels, B&Bs, condo hotels and apartments available, check them out and make a reservation here.

Taormina

TAORMINA, one of the most beautiful places in Italy, situated on a terrace facing the sea and the snowy slopes of Mt. Etna. A Greek and later (4th century) a Roman colony, Taormina was destroyed and rebuilt by the Arabs and subsequently passed into the hands of the Normans in 1069. Its most important buildings date from the end of the Middle Ages, such as the delightful Tower of the Badia Vecchia, which dominates the town, the Cathedral, the Palazzo Santo Stefano and the crenellated Palazzo Corvaia which stands next to the 16th century church of S. Caterina.

From classical times there remain a few Greek wall and temple bases and, above all, the magnificent Greek Theatre, which was almost entirely rebuilt by the Romans and is the largest in Sicily after that in Syracuse.

Where to stay in Taormina

There are hotels, B&Bs, villas and apartments available, check them out and make a reservation here.

We shall remain in Taormina all of the next day, to enjoy its unrivaled beauty and relax after our journey through Calabria. In the morning, we continue down the coast skirting the foot of Mt. Etna. After 22 miles, we reach ACIREALE.

ACIREALE. Founded by the Greeks, then under Roman and Norman rule, Acireale was destroyed by two earthquakes and rebuilt in its present Baroque style which is to be noted particularly in the impressive and elaborately decorated church of San Sebastiano. Another 10 miles and we come to CATANIA.

Taormina - Photo Alessandro Rossi
Taormina – Photo Alessandro Rossi

Catania

CATANIA, at the foot of Mt. Etna. Founded by the Greeks in 729 B.C., Catania became a Roman colony in 263 and was an important center during the reign of the Normans, Swabians and Bourbons. We shall start our tour through the town from the Piazza del Duomo with the fanciful Elephant Fountain in the middle.

Facing on to the square are the suggestive Palazzo del Municipio and the Baroque facade of the Cathedral by Vaccarini, the architect who reconstructed the most important buildings of Catania after the earthquake in 1693. The three original Apses of this once powerful medieval edifice (1169) can still be seen. Inside, rich works of art, medieval and Renaissance sculptures, and the Tomb of Vincenzo Bellini. Following Via Colombo and Via del Plebiscite, we come to the impressive Castello Ursino, a masterpiece of Swabian military architecture, which houses the Museo Civico, with a rich collection of Greek and Roman sculptures, and the Picture Gallery. Taking Via del Castello Ursino past Corso Garibaldi and Via Vittorio Emanuele, we turn to the right and enter the charming Via dei Crociferi, lined with delightful 18th century facades and balconies, Nearby, to the left, is the Greek Theatre and next to it the small Odeon. We then go along Via Einea, a stupendous straight street which has Mt. Etna as background. In Piazza Stesicoro we see the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre and, further on, the lovely Bellini Gardens. Still keeping to the left, we walk to the huge 18th century church and convent of S. Nicolo all’Arena a monumental Baroque complex, dominated by the lofty dome of the church. We then descend to the Baroque Porta Garibaldi.

Where to stay in Catania

There are hotels, B&Bs, villas and apartments available, check them out and make a reservation here.

Syracuse

SYRACUSE. Founded in the 8th century B.C. on the tiny island of Ortygia, Syracuse was for centuries the largest and most powerful Greek city in the West which, under the rule of the tyrants Gelon, Hieron, Dionysius, Agothocles and Hieron II, had spread to the mainland. It declined with the Roman conquest and during the Middle Ages the inhabited area became confined once more to the island, though it regained some of its importance during the reigns of the Swabian and Aragonese kings. Devastated by the earthquake in 1693, it was partly rebuilt in its resent Baroque style.

Latomia del Paradiso - Photo Dominic Torrisi
Latomia del Paradiso – Photo Dominic Torrisi

We shall begin our tour with a visit to the archaeological monuments of the ancient town on the hill of Neapolis (the Greek word for “new city”) where we find the Roman Amphitheatre, a grandiose construction hollowed in the living rock at the time of Emperor Augustus.

Continuing upwards, beyond the small Norman church of S. Nicole, we see the altar of Hieron II to the left and, to the right, the ancient quarry with rocky walls known as the Latomia del Paradise, in which is the artificial cave called the Ear of Dionysius. Next to it, in a stupendous position overlooking the plain and the sea, is the Greek Theatre (467 B.C.), where Aeschylus, Pindar and Plato appeared.

Behind the Theatre rises a high rocky wall known as the Grotto of the Nymph, so called from a spring which still gushes from a cavern in the rock. We climb up the Via dei Sepolcri (the Street of Tombs) into the rocky sides of which are hewn the niches and tombs of an ancient necropolis. It is worth while continuing for another 5 miles on to the Castle of Euryalus, the mightiest and most complete fortress of Greek times, standing on the top of the Epipoli, the hill overlooking Syracuse.

On our way down, through Corso Galore, we come to Piazzale Marconi, where we find the ruins of the Roman Forum: following Corso Umberto I we cross the Ponte Nuevo over to the island of Ortygia where, in Piazza Pancali, we see the remains of a Temple of Apollo, the oldest of its kind in Sicily, which was later transformed into a mosque by the Arabs.

Through Via Savoia where, on the left, we pass the small 16th century Catalan church of S. Maria dei Miracoli with a remarkable portal, we come to Porta Marina, an arch in Spanish-Gothic style (15th century) which stands at the end of the Porto Grande (Great Harbor). Through the Foro Italico, we reach the famous Fountain of Arethusa, a freshwater spring on the seashore, celebrated in song by Pindar, Vergil, and many modern poets.

Continuing along the waterfront to the far end of the island, we reach the Maniace Castle, a beautiful Byzantine fortress which was enlarged under Frederick II. Returning to the fountain and through Via Capodieci, we come to the 13th century Palazzo Bellomo, which houses the Medieval Museum and a good Picture Gallery, where we must see the delightful Annunciation by Antonello da Messina.

We go on to Piazza del Duomo, which is lined with the ravishing facade of Barone edifices: the 17th century Palazzo del Municipio (Town Hall), the 18th century Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco whose Courtyard is a masterpiece of Syracuse Baroque architecture and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, which contains one of the most important archaeological collections in Italy, with the magnificent Venus Anadyomene (also known as the Landolino Venus), sarcophagi, pottery, bronzes, etc.

The Cathedral has also a Baroque facade, but its severe and evocative interior is dominated by the impressive Doric column of the original Temple of Minerva. Among the numerous works of art, a panel by Antenello da Messina is of particular interest.

From the Piazza del Duomo, we reach the nearby Piazza Archimede, the heart of the city, with the Fountain) Artemis, the Palazzo Lanza with two-light Gothic windows, the building of the Banca d’Italia, and, on the corner of Via Montalto, the extremely beautiful Palazzo Montalto.

On the morning of the next day, we leave Syracuse by Viale Ermocrate and, skirting the hill of Neapolis, we cross the Anapo river and drive uphill to Floridia (7 miles), and further up, through a harsh mountainous landscape to Palazzolo Acreide. Built on the site of the Syracuse colony of Acrae, this little town was destroyed by the earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt in its present Baroque style. A charming Greek Theatre and an Odeon of the ancient town are well preserved. We now cross the Iblei Hills, pass through Buccheri and Vizzimi and, after 15 miles, we reach Grammichele. In spite of its modest appearance we must not forget that it presents one of the most important examples of Renaissance town planning; the hexagonal lay-out becomes clearly evident when seen from above and it might be a good idea, therefore, to try to find a photograph of the town plan. After about 66 miles from Syracause we come to CALTAGIRONE, beautifully situated on three hills. This little town, founded by the early Greeks, was reconstructed in the Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693. Worth seeing are: Via Cordova with its handsome Baroque facade, the neo-Gothic church of S. Pietro and the church of S. Giacomo. From Caltarigone we take the road to PIAZZA ARMERINA (20 miles).

Where to stay in Syracuse

There are hotels, B&Bs, villas and apartments available, check them out and make a reservation here.

Piazza Armerina

PIAZZA ARMERINA (20 miles) and three miles after we reach the town, we have, to our left, the ruins of the Villa Romana del Casale, one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Sicily. The luxurious residence of millionaires during the times of the Roman Empire, it is famous, above all, for its marvelous mosaics, and especially for the one depicting ten girls wearing a garment which we thought was a modern invention, the bikini. In the town of Piazza Armerina, founded by the Lombards during the Middle Ages, there is a stately 16th century Cathedral the lovely church of San Pietro, and the small 13th century church of S. Giovanni di Rodi.

We continue our drive through a beautiful landscape of solitary hills, past the junction for Enna on our right (17 miles from Piazza Armerina) and, after 13 more miles, we come to CALTANISSETTA (I18 miles from Syracuse). In Piazza Garibaldi stands the Baroque Cathedral with a lavishly decorated interior. It would be advisable to eat lunch in Caltanissetta before taking the road which, through Serradifalco and Canicatti, descends amidst vineyards almond and olive groves, to AGRIGENTO.

Where to stay in Piazza Armerina

There are hotels, B&Bs, villas and farm stays available, check them out and make a reservation here.

Agrigento

AGRIGENTO. Founded in 582 B.C., Agrigento flourished under the reign of the tyrant Therone (488-473) but was destroyed by the Carthaginians and finally occupied and rebuilt by the Romans in 210 B.C.

It was a majestic and large city which comprised all of the hill (the center of the present town), where probably the Acropolis stood, and the socalled Valley of the Temples, which was enclosed by 7 1/2 miles of walls.

Roman Bikinis at Piazza Armerina Photo © Mauro Manmano
Roman Bikinis at Piazza Armerina Photo © Mauro Manmano

During the Middle Ages, only the hill town existed and it first started spreading downhill in modern times. In the upper town, we will visit the imposing Monastery of S. Spirito (1290), built in Gothic style with elegant decorations and the extremely rich and very important. National Archaeological Museum close at hand.

In the modern town, we pass by the beautiful Gothic church of S. Nicola, in the ancient Greek-Roman quarter, beyond which begins the Valley of the Temples. There were once about 20 temples, the ruins of which are in various states of preservation. We notice immediately the Temple of Hercules, with archaic capitals. On the right side of the road, we now see the colossal Olympieion (Temple of Olympian Jove) and, beyond it, the picturesque corner of the Temple o Castor and Pollux.

Beyond the Temple of Hercules, in a beautiful olive grove, is the so-called Tomb of Theron, Turning left, we come to the gem of, ancient Agrigcnto, the so-called Temple of Concord, which rivals in beauty and perfect preservation the temples of Paestum and even the Theseion at Athens. The magnificent structure is rendered even more majestic by the high steps of the plinth upon which it rests and by the gentle landscape in which it stands. The last of the large temples, the Temple of Juno Lacinia, is standing on a hill surrounded by olive trees.

Where to stay in Agrigento

There are hotels, B&Bs, villas and apartments available, check them out and make a reservation here.

Porto Empedocle - La Scala dei Turchi - Photo myriapod
Porto Empedocle – La Scala dei Turchi – Photo myriapod

The next morning we drive west out of Agrigento for about 5 miles to Porto Empedocle, from where the road follows the coast of southern Sicily with its numerous beaches and bathing resorts.

We come, through Montallegro (where nearby the ruins of the ancient city of Heracleia Minoa have been recently exavated); then through Ribera and 43 miles from Agrigento, through Sciacca, with the church of S. Margherim (portal by Laurana) and the 15th century Palazzo Steripinto with rusticated walls, and Menfi.

About 66 miles from Agrigento, we reach a junction where we take the road towards the sea which, after 3 miles, leads us to ruins of SELINUNTE.

Selinunte

SELINUNTE. This was once a town which represented the furthermost point of Greek penetration into the territory of Carthage and was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 250 B.C.

The grandiose solitary ruins, on the shores of the sea, constitute one of the most impressive attractions of Magna Graecia. We take the same road back to the junction and continue on inland to CASTELVETRANO. In this town which is of medieval origin, there is a delightful Renaissance church, the Chieso Madre, and an outstanding Baroque interior in the church of San Domenico. About 2 miles west of the town, there is the famous Norman church of the Trimta (or of Delia). From Castelvetrano, the road goes through S. Nina and Salemi (16 miles) and passes the outskirts of Calatafimi, from where it leads us to the ruins of SEGESTA.

Where to stay in Selinunte

There are hotels, B&Bs, farm stays and villas available, check them out and make a reservation here.

Segesta

SEGESTA, another evocative Greek town. It was destroyed by the Byzantines and only a Temple and a Theatre have remained, standing on Monte Barbaro in majestic and silent solitude. About 34 miles from Castelvetrano, we reach ALCAMO, a picturesque medieval town, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Castellammare. In the upper part of Alcamo, there is a Castle and further down we find the 16th century church of the Madonna dei Miracoli, the church of San Tommaso with its Gothic facade, and numerous medieval and Baroque buildings. From Alcamo the road descends to Partinico (12 miles) and after another 18 miles we reach Monreale, which we will visit on the last day. Through the enchanting scenery of the Conca d’Oro, amidst magnificent orange groves, we are now coming to the capital of Sicily PALERMO.

Palermo

PALERMO. An ancient Phoenician base, Palermo became a Roman city in 253 A.D. After the Barbarian invasion, it was dominated, in turn, by the Byzantines, the Arabs, an We will begin our tour of the town at the richly ornamented Porta Nuova, at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. To the right, in the middle of a vast garden, stands the Palazzo Reale, built by the Norman King Roger II, from whose-time nothing remains on the outside, but the Tower of S. Ninfa; the vast facade was rebuilt during the Baroque period. We enter a handsome 17th century Courtyard, from which a great staircase leads to the Cappella Palatina, the jewel of ArabNorman art (1140) with delightful mosaics on a gold ground which shines in the rich and and mysterious half-light and with a wooden ceiling in the central nave, which is a splendid example of Arab workmanship. On the next floor are the royal apartments with Baroque and neoclassical decorations.

Leaving the palace, we come to the nearby church of S. Giovanni degli Eremiti, which was likewise built by Roger II. Its round red domes and the luxuriant, tropical vegetation of the enchanting cloister evoke the delicate image of some distant corner of the Orient. We proceed to Piazza della Vittoria, where we see the superb Palazzo Sclafani, whose noble 14th century facade faces Piazza S. Giovanni. We return to Corso Vittorio Emanuele and arrive in Piazza della Cattedrale.

The Cathedral, which dominate this square, has been built and rebuilt in several styles over the centuries. The original building dates from 1185, but the dome, beautiful in itself, though out of keeping with the rest of the edifice, was built by the architect Ferdinando Fuga at the end of the 18th century. On the right side, there is an impressive Gothic arcade and an elaborate Portal by Gambara (15th century). The facadeo dates essentially from the 14th and 15th centuries and is connected by two pointed arches with the curious bell-tower opposite, which was restored in the 19th century.

The interior, unfortunately restored by the architect of the dome, Ferdinando Fuga, contains the majestic, but solemn, Tombs of the Norman and Swabian Kings, of which the most important is that of Frederick II of Swabia, the greatest monarch in Europe after Julius Caesar. We now continue down Corso Vittorio Ema-nuele, towards the center of town. To the right, we have the church of S. Salvatore with a lavish interior, and further on the church of S. Giuseppe dei Teatini, richly adorned with marbles, frescoes and stuccoes. We have thus reached the Quattro Canti (Four Corners), the scenographic crossroads of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the magnificent Via Maqueda the heart of Baroque Palermo.

Across Via Maqueda, on the right side, we come to Piazza Pretoria where, apart from the monumental Tuscan Renaissance Fountain, we sec the facade of the Palazzo del Municipio (Town Hall). In the adjacent Piazza Bellini, we find the churches of S. Caterina, an elegant, purely Baroque edifice, and S. Maria dell’Ammiraglio (known as La Martorana) which behind its Baroque facade preserves a splendid Norman interior (1143) with Mosaics, interrupted here and there by interior 18th century frescoes.

We must sec the charming Cloister and note the elegant 12th century Bell-tower, the most beautiful Arab-Norman structure in Palermo, before visiting the nearby church of San Cataldo (1160), another masterpiece of Arab-Norman architecture, with an austere interior and three red domes in Saracen style. We then go back to Via Maqueda and, following a small lane, across this street, we come to Piazza Quaranta Martiri where stands Palazzo Marchesi with a magnificent Gothic Courtyard and a 15th century Tower which rises next to the Baroque bell-tower of the adjacent Casa Professa (or Gesu).

We now return to Piazza Bellini, from where we take the Discesa dei Giudici and, past the church of Sant’Anna. continue straight to Piazza Rivoluzione and the nearby Palazzo Aiutamicristo, which has a magnificent Portico in the courtyard. Behind the Palace is the church of SS. Trinita (also called the Magione), from which we will go in the direction of the harbour, through the ancient Arab quarter of the Kalsa. In Via Torremura we pass the church of S. Teresa and, at the corner of Via Alloro, the church of Madonna della Pieta, with the most beautiful Baroque facade in Palermo which resembles that of churches in Rome of the same period. Along the narrow old Via AItoro lined with beautiful palaces, we come to the Gothic-Renaissance Palazzo Abbatellis with a Tower.

The Palace houses the National Gallery of Sicily where we may admire the fresco, Triumph of Death, from the second half of the 15th century, paintings by Antonello da Messina and his school, by Gossaert, and by Garofalo, ceramics and sculpture by Giunta, Pisano, and particulary the magnificent bust of Eleonora of Aragon, by Lantana.

Not far from the Museum is the Church of S. Maria degli Angell (known as La Gancia) with a 15th century- Invade and a richly decorated interior. On the right side of the nearby Piazza Marina stands the 14th century Palazzo Chiaramonte and near the harbour, the church of S. Maria della Catena.

Returning to Piazza Marina with the Garibaldi Gardens in the center, we notice the Palazzo San Cataldo and the small church of S. Maria dei Miracoli, both built in Renaissance style. Along Via Merlo we come to the magnificent Gothic church of San Francesco d’Assisi (13th century) with a fine rose window in the facade and beautiful Renaissance choir-stalls and sculptures in the interior. Near by is the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, whose stucco decoration of the interior is the masterpiece of Giacomo Serpotta.

It should not yet be too late in the afternoon to take a trip to Monte Pellegrino or to the ruins of SOLUNTO, an ancient GraecoRoman city on the sea at Cape Zafferano near Bagheria. On our second day inPalermo, we will start from Piazza Quattro Canti and walk down from Maqueda to Piaz On the way back, we go to Piazza Olivella, to visit the National Archaeological Museum.

Set in a former convent with lovely rooms and courtyards, it contains the most remarkable and important collection of Greek antiquities in Italy with countless sculptures, mosaics, ceramics. coins, and, above all, the celebrated Metopes from the temples of Selinunte.za Verdi and the Teatro Massimo, to have a look at the modern town.

Leaving the Museum, we go to the Piazza San Domenico with the beautiful Baroque church of San Domenico and from there to S. Maria la Nuova (16th century).

Solunto - Photo © psub
Solunto – Photo © psub

In the afternoon, we will first visit the Palace known as La Zisa, one of the few secular buildings remaining intact from the Norman period, which we reach from Porta Nuova by way of Via Colonna Rotta and Via Zisa, Then, taking Via dei Cipressi, we come to the famous Convento dei Cappuccini, once the burial place of the wealthy citiziens of Palermo whose remains, reduced to skeletons, create a scene which is at once gruesome and grotesque. We return to Porta Nuova and follow Corso Calatafimi. At No. 94, inside the Tukory Barracks, we find the Cuba, another Norman palace (1180), which was built on the model of the Zisa and whose dome is visible even from the street.

Where to stay in Palermo

There are hotels, B&Bs, villas and apartments available, check them out and make a reservation here.

Monreale

The rest of the afternoon we will use for visiting the wonderful Cathedral of Monreale. We follow the straight Corso Calatafimi which, climbing slightly, takes us (5 miles from the center of Palermo) to MONREALE.

MONREALE. Originally an Arab village, this small town grew up round the Cathedral built by William II in 1174. It is the most beautiful Norman church in Sicily and one of the most fabulous architectural works of the Middle Ages. The three-arch arcade in the facade, however, dates from the 18th century. We should start our visit by walking round the outside of the church to admire the three apses, with their warm brownish hue, the finest architectural part of the building. We enter the church through the main portal with bronze doors by Bonanno Pisano (1186), or through the side portal with bronze doors of the same period, and no less beautiful, by Barisano da Trani. The stately interior, which rest on 18 columns from Roman temples, is adorned with the most magnificent mosaics in Southern Italy, representing the whole cycle of the Old and New Testaments, and converging on the enormous figure of Christ (Pantocrator) in the apse. To conclude, we must visit the enchanting Cloister.

Recommended itineraries in Italy