Sunday, February 18, 2018

In the Shadow of Mount Etna - Sicily (Part 5)

We had kept the best until last, or at least that is what we thought based on the guide books and notoriety. We headed to the famed Taormina, home of stunning sites, views and celebrities.

Much of the route from Palermo was impressive motorway - I have never seen so many tunnels and bridges - forcing a course through the mountainous north coast of Sicily. While cutting the journey time for several hours and clearly sucking up a lot of subsidised funds from the mainland (these roads must have cost hundreds of millions), they did unfortunately hide much of the view.
We made up for this somewhat by stopping off at the beautiful little city of Cefalù. Situated in a sheltered bay beneath towering hills, it is a place of beautiful old buildings and steep streets dropping down to a harbour of aquamarine.

The cathedral is another Norman beauty and all the better for still having much of the original interior intact. We had an amazing lunch in the square beneath it, devouring pizza in the sunshine.

To cut a long story short, this was my biggest (and perhaps only) disappointment in Sicily. It is not that I did not like it, I did, but it fell short of the high expectations set by its renown and, indeed, other sites and cities we had seen in Sicily.
Taormina’s setting is undeniably impressive. Set high up on ragged hill, jutting out into the sea, with the mighty Mount Etna for a backdrop. Its streets are attractive and its ancient theatre is large and well preserved, framing the mighty volcano perfectly (the classic photo of the island). It was great to scramble up the dodgy paths to the peaks above the city, enter the small shrines and look down upon the brilliant combination of nature and nurture that the city entails.
The place though lacks charm. It is as if the sheer level of tourism, both of the jet-set and tour bus variety in equal measures, has sucked the life out of the place. Very little is real or local. I am glad I have seen it, but can take or leave it in future.
In three days we did find one clear exception that I can't fail to mention. On a twisting backstreet down from the main thoroughfare is the best granita I have ever tasted.

In case you do not know, granite is a Sicilian speciality of ice and flavour, usually lemon, but in this granite specialist café every flavour you can imagine. It is refreshing, sets your taste buds buzzing and is a perfect antidote to a long day walking in the sun. Another produce of Sicily’s complicated past, supposedly emanating from the Arabs who once ruled the island.
Etna was most certainly not a disappointment. It is just ginormous and, silly as it may sound, so perfectly volcano shaped. It dominates the East of the island, simultaneously drawing you in and threatening.

We took a day to drive up its slopes, leaving behind vineyards and forests, to the treeline and beyond. There we found old volcanic craters to explore. With wind buffeting us and the kids half laughing, half grimacing, we ventured into one of them, rubbing our hands in the dark black volcanic dust at its base. I have never been anywhere that so resembled the moon.

Etna is still decidedly active. Small eruptions are frequent, larger ones blow every few years and then, infrequently, it really goes, wreaking havoc in its wake. The lower craters we explored dated from violent eruptions in 2002-3, which knocked out much of the ski-station area.
To my middle child’s particular dismay, high winds had stopped the cable car. Not wanting to give up, we managed to get a ticket for the off-road upwards adventure and were soon sat on a many wheeled monster of a vehicle powering up the volcano on twisting dust tracks. It took quite a lot of strength to hold the kids to our laps and stop them smashing into the windows.
We were soon at the snowline, but, as the weather closed and the truck steamed up, we could see less and less. Every so often we would get a glimpse of a dead drop through the swirling clouds, before the truck powered around another corner, jerking back and forth. Onwards and upwards.
By the time we arrived at the intermediate base (2500 m), we were in a snow cloud with even higher winds. Instead of the usual walk around, we were ushered into the shelter with some urgency (and I dare say a little panic) by the mountain guides, being pushed sideways by the swirling, buffeting winds. The conditions had turned heavily against us and, after having to wait for some time in the shelter pouring over tacky gifts, we were relieved to squeeze past a tour group and get back on a truck heading down the volcano and out of the turbulence.
It was a bit of an adrenaline rush, adding some fizz to the end of our vacation. We decompressed on a relaxed drive back to Taormina, clockwise around the verdant lower slopes of Etna.
On our final day, we had just enough time to stop off in Sicily's second largest city, Catania, before flying home. It is living proof of the power of Etna, lying in its shade with scars of its fury. In 1669 much of the city was destroyed by horrifically violent eruptions. Volcanic dust and flame covered the city and a river of lava smashed right through it.
Much of the centre was rebuild with ambition, using distinctive black and white stones and in the baroque style. We parked up in the centre and enjoyed a walk around the grand squares, around its smelly fish market and through its backstreets to its towering thirteenth century castle, Castello Ursino. While the castle was interesting in and out, it was outshone by rock at its base. Here were the remains of the lave flow form  1669, still winding their way around this massive building.
A final word for the people of Sicily. They were warm, welcoming and friendly throughout. None more so than a father and daughter we met at the last in their small café off Catania’s central square. For our final minutes, they chatted, played with our kids and served us some great food.

In short conclusion, we found Sicily remarkable. It combines stunning nature, history, architecture, people, food and culture. I could not recommend it more highly.  In fact it is one of my favourite places on earth. No exaggeration.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Palermo Treasures - Sicily (Part 4)

Part of the draw of circumnavigating Sicily, was to explore the different faces of this fascinating island. It was therefore essential that we stopped by in the capital, largest city and melting pot of people’s past and present – Palermo.
Everyone and his dog had warned us about the mad cap driving in Palermo. We were not disappointed, with cars and mopeds winding in and out of us on the road in to the centre, where we met narrow packed streets, honking horns and, on one occasion, street urchins joyriding a moped right past us, wheelie and all. It was a minor miracle that we arrived unscathed and found some where to park. That somewhere was the tightest space I have ever parked in on a dodgy looking back street, but, fortunately, a shop teller opposite laughed at how long it took me to park and promised to watch the motor for us.


Palermo is not a rich city, but it contains many treasures. Walking towards the historic centre through high, narrow, dirty alleys, it immediately reminded me of umpteen Latin American cities. Semi-grand buildings that had seen better days. Washing hanging out the windows between damp walls and chipped stucco. Street noises and kids playing football. The hot smell of pollution.
That may sound like a negative description, but for me it was immediately alluring. From experience, these kinds of places are full of interest, excitement and passion.

The comparison to Latin America is not just coincidence. Spaniards ruled Sicily on and off for centuries, right down to when Palermo was a twin capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (along with Naples). The influence can be seen in the density of imposing ornate baroque churches. The most impressive sites are though of older stock and this is where unique riches lie.


It may come as a surprise that at almost exactly the same time (well, OK, two years later) as a famous Norman by the name of William was invading England, another Norman, named Roger, was invading Sicily. His dynasty reached heights of sophistication rarely touched in medieval Europe.

A driver of this cultural blossoming, was the broad variety of different cultures in situ in Sicily. Amongst others, there were Arabs, Byzantine Greeks and, of course, the Normans themselves. Against the tide of an age, the Norman kings embraced these different cultures with open mind, drawing on the talents of each culture in terms of learning, philosophy and architecture.

This can be seen in the almost Python’esque named "Book of Roger" (check it out). For its time, a world map of unparalleled accuracy and beauty, created through the patronage of King Roger and the brilliance of Al-Idrisi, an Arab. This was a product of one of the great courts of medieval Europe. A cultural flourish built on familiar Norman military prominence.
The architectural legacy is arguably even more impressive. As a first port of call, we visited the Norman Cathedral. From the outside, it is an imposing and fascinating building. Combining Byzantine Domes, Gothic buttresses and touches of Moorish decoration. Unfortunately the inside is less interesting, with a later make-over which masks much of the original style, but down in the crypt the original Norman remains.

After that, we visited the most famous site in the city. Situated in the Palazzo Reale, which is itself no slouch in terms of interest and architecture, is the Cappella Palatina (the Palatine Chapel). This place is a wonder of the world. 
At its heart it is a Byzantine church, with glittering mosaics beyond any I have seen. This is then enhanced with delicate Norman stone carving and simply beautiful Arabic wood carving. It is both surprising and inspiring at every turn. I was spellbound and had to be dragged away in the interest of stopping the kids climbing the walls.
Getting on for 900 years after it was commissioned by Roger II, the Cappella Palatina is testament to the enlightenment of Norman Sicily and the enduring benefits of reaching out to and fusing with cultures beyond our own.


We spent the rest of the day pushing the pram around street after back street, discovering new sights sounds and smells (not all pleasant) at each turn. It was great to just get a little lost in the city, stumbling from dilapidated area to grand area and back again, and right through two bustling markets. 
The first was for food of every description, the second for cloth and clothes. The kids loved this bit, meandering in and out of different stalls and getting a first grip on capitalism (finite funds in their hands but seemingly infinite amount of things to spend it on).
We were also pleased to discover that Palermo does gelato as good as any Italian city (as far as I can tell) and devoured the ice cream in the shadow of what we discovered was an old mosque. Palermo really is a city full of surprises. 

Out on our feet with the day at its end, we made it back to our protected car. The smiling shop teller wished us well and gifted the children some sweets. A nice end to a great day in the city. I got a taste of it and I want more, perhaps in the form of Palermo's Nuttier sister... Next year Napoli?

Monday, January 01, 2018

Castles in the Sky and Theatres on High - Sicily (Part 3)

We arrived in Scopello at dusk, struggling against what appeared to be a mad sat-nav to find our apartment. The damn thing kept telling us to zig zag back and forth and re-corrected itself at every other turn. We found ourselves back in the small village square twice before finally figuring out that it wanted us to turn out the village onto a rough track heading up the steep hill. This soon turned into a dirt track full of rivets, holes, mini canyons and drops. Now in darkness, we wound our way up and up, guessing the turns and increasingly unsure of what we were doing.
Against our instinct and the recommended capabilities of our rented Fiat 500, we pushed on for over a kilometre at a snail’s pace, took a final left and arrived at our home for the next 5 nights - Casale Corcella. It proved to be a remarkable little corner of the world.
We were greeted by Marco, the owner of the small collection of stone buildings who, along with his Labrador, was a warm host. Knackered, we knocked out, to awake in the morning and immediately realise that the tortuous drive had been worth it.
Stepping out our door, the view smacked us in the face. We were much higher than I had realised. Situated on a crest with cliffs behind and below, falling to flower strewn slopes and the terracotta roofs of the village proper. Beyond that was Castellammare del Golfo, an expanse of water sparkling in the morning sunlight. Its long arc only broken once, by a narrow peninsular beneath us, capped by a crumbling tower. Jaw dropping.
To cap it all off, fresh orange juice and breakfast were waiting for us on the cliff side patio with the aforementioned vista for back drop. It is fair to say we were pleased with ourselves.
It took some effort to drag ourselves away from our temporary home, but we managed for a day trip to the fortified town of Erice. As a well preserved (if touristy) old town, it proved interesting to walk around, clambering up bell towers and getting lost in side alleys, but it is the setting that took the biscuit.
Erice sits atop a 750m high mountain. An impenetrable fortress, combining sheer cliffs on each side with high walls, fortified gates and a castle atop. The only road up is so twisty that one of my kids discovered the inside of their stomach before we reached the top.
The views from the top are like nothing I have ever seen. On a clear day like the one of our visit, you can see for what must be 50 kms. Sicily itself switching from mountains in the north, through hills, to salt flats in the south. The Mediterranean surrounding on two sides, punctured by mountainous islands to the west. You have to see it to believe it.
In terms of history, Erice is one of those places which gives more with each scratch. Beneath the medieval battlements are remains of Phoenician walls. Within the remains of the Norman castle, which clings to high point of the mount, are fragments of the Temple of Venus, where travellers reportedly came from all over the ancient world to revel in ceremonies of legendary disrepute.
It is in the latter place that my son gave me an odd memory. A three year announcing he is desperate for the toilet at the most inopportune time - nowhere near facilities on the crumbling ramparts overlooking a 500m vertical cliff – finding an unseen corner for him to do his business while looking over said cliff and the boy then demanding “Daddy, make my poo fly”. I had little other choice.

On returning from Erice Chris unfortunately came down with a nasty bug which left her bed bound for the next day or so. I was therefore left with three kids to entertain. What better way than to find more ancient sites to scramble over…
Within an hour’s drive of Scopello are the remains of Segesta. Originally an Elymian settlement, one of the original peoples of Sicily, who were Hellenised by Ionian Greeks and ended up leaving to the world some phenomenal very Greek looking architecture.
On arriving, we did not have to walk far to find one of two highlights of the Segesta. A large and well preserve Doric temple, dating from approx. 420 BC. The temple is very impressive and, when we visited in April, set in fields of wild flowers, giving way to dramatic hills.
Being given many a look of sympathy and surprise by other tourists seeing me with one kid in my backpack, one on my shoulders and the other hand in hand, we explored the site and surrounds and then jumped on a rickety bus to take us to the top of one of those dramatic hills. At the top was the other highlight of Segesta, the ancient theatre.
Carved out of the rock into a perfect high-banked semi-circle, it opens out to a remarkable view. So remarkable in fact that I wonder how the audience in ancient times could drag their eyes from the view to concentrate on whatever play was performing.
The kids loved scrambling around the steps and searching for lizards. I did my best to stop a 4 year old, 3 year old and 1 year old from smashing against ancient marble or falling off an unfortunate edge. A real adventure in a very special place.
Thankfully Chris recovered to ease the more difficult side of the adventure and we spent a couple of days exploring Scopello.
The village itself was lovely. In spring it is slow moving and full of charm. Locals sitting outside on the street watching the world go by. Small eateries, arranged around a courtyard shaded by old trees. Great views up to the tower and down to the grand building of the old tuna factory and sea beyond.
Taking the northern coast road out of Scopello, we soon found even more stunning coast and no more road. This was the entrance to Zingaro nature reserve. A wild, wonderful haven, stretching up the steep cliffs and coastline of San Vito Lo Capello.

This place has been protected since the early 1980s (in a successful attempt to save the Bonelli’s eagle) and is only crossed by a couple of narrow trails which streak along the hillside, occasionally dropping down to one of the unspoiled beaches.
We made sure we were suitably provisioned up with food and water, put the little one in the backpack, held the hands of the other two and set off on the main trail. It was stunning. Yes, the views of the sea, cliffs and beaches were phenomenal, but the minutiae was equally great. Flowers and insects were everywhere as well as literally hundreds of small lizards (I know, my eldest counted everyone we saw).

This was fortunate as we had to spend much of our time looking down, making sure we did not trip on the rocky terrain or take a slip off many a steep edge. We made it 5km before locating a particular beautiful white pebble beach and descended for lunch, some pebble play and, in my case, a chilly swim.
The walk back was equally stunning, and, in the case of two of my kids at least, not too strenuous, with the smallest one falling asleep in my backpack soon after we set off and the middle one succumbing somewhat closer to the end while on my shoulders.
Everyone was though awake again to see what looked very much like an eagle gliding overhead. This put the icing on the cake.
A great trek to end a great stay in Scopello. If you get the chance, go there. I certainly plan to visit again.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Greeks, Phoenicians and a Whip Snake - Sicily (Part 2)

After a long day on the road, we finally made it to Agrigento as the sun set. In the dying light I caught a glimpse of the new city, high and to our right on a hill top. Then, also to our right but lower down, my eye was drawn from the road to the unmistakable sight of ancient Greek columns. I dragged my eyes away, overriding my instinct to save the sight for the next day.


We awoke early and excited. After a nice walk across the sand dunes, staring out across the sea in the rough direction of Africa, we headed to the highlight of the region, the ruins of ancient Akragas. We were waiting at the gates as they opened, champing at the bit.

Founded by Greek colonists from Gela some 2,600 years ago, Akragas (Agrigentum was the Latin name, hence modern Agrigento) grew to be one of the largest cities of the ancient world, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, with monumental ambition to match. Its zenith was not to last for long. The Carthaginians conquered it within two centuries of its foundation, before it was knocked back and forth between Rome and Carthage (with the Romans at one point selling its inhabitants into slavery). After a long age of peace under the Romans and Byzantium, the core of the ancient city was eventually abandoned to its fate when the locals moved up hill to a more defendable site in the face of Arab invasions.

The majority of excavated sites lie along an ancient sacred way, running East to West. We started from the East right under the eaves of the Temple of Hera. Situated on a hillock overlooking the valley below and the see beyond, it is quite a sight with its towering columns largely intact. I felt dwarfed beneath it. I was delighted to see the kids genuinely excited by the temple, though perhaps predominantly as a potential climbing frame - it took quite an effort to stop them clambering all over it.

From here we walked along the sacred way, stopping for shade and to gawp at one magnificent sight after another. The highlight was undoubtedly the Temple of Concordia. When I saw it, I did a double-take. Not only is it imposing and beautiful in its classic design and simplicity, but, remarkably, it is intact. 
Saved by a combination of its brilliant design (this is an earthquake zone after all) and upkeep resulting from a church squatting within, it stands tall from a time half a millennium before Christ.
When we finally moved on, I found myself repeatedly looking back, not wanting to say farewell to such a perfect building.
The temples just kept on coming – this is known as the Valley if the Temples after all - and had not stopped by the time the sun was a bit too hot and the kids were tired out. Amongst the other sites we did get to visit, I would be amiss without saying a couple of words about the ruins of the Temple of Zeus.
Strewn across the site are massive pieces of masonry, often grasped by the gnarled roots of age-old  olive trees. The fragments of columns were of a scale I have never seen before. Fitting, as they belonged to what was believed to be the largest Doric temple ever built. It was a place for scrambling and exploration, trying to paint a picture for the children (and ourselves) of what this place would have looked and felt like before its collapse.
Akragas lived a torrid, difficult history. What is left behind for us to explore is a startling collection of temples and remnants of ancient life. It is fitting that this place, and specifically the Temple of Concordia, is the basis for the UNESCO World Heritage emblem. What is surprising is that this place is relatively unknown. I for one was not aware of it before researching Sicily. Mistake rectified.


Departing Agrigento, we followed the coast for an hour before cutting in land to theoretically short cut our journey to the North-East corner of Sicily. It proved a side bar adventure. Questionable navigation took us onto smaller and smaller roads until we were winding across isolated areas of countryside on rough single-track roads.
It was not that this was wild land, indeed it was still mostly cultivated in one form or another, but it was abandoned by its people. It was littered with broken down shells of stone dwellings varying greatly in size. All that was left of the thousands of families that abandoned an impoverished Sicilian life for fresh shores. It is estimated that over one million people emigrated to the US from Sicily between 1880 and 1930 alone. An astounding number which has left parts of Sicily with an eerie sense of abandonment.

After many a wrong turn we eventually made it to our stop off, Mozia. It proved to be a surprising place in more ways than one.


Mozia itself is a small island situated in a shallow lagoon in the middle of Sicily’s West coast. Many are drawn here by the salt pans and windmills that criss-cross the flat lands leading up to the island. These are pretty and interesting, providing much of the wealth of this region for centuries (salt was an expensive commodity). What drew us here was though the island itself.
Mozia had been a significant Phoenician city and trading post from the eighth century BC, until a Syracusan Greek siege and resulting slaughter forced its decline a few centuries later. Riding out in a small boat, we could see why the place held out for so long. The lagoon creates a defendable channel which the Phoenicians knew how to use.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the island and what is left of the Phoenician civilization. This is not a place of free standing columns and grand surviving buildings. It is ground level archaeology. Pits all over the place for our kids to fall down amongst the salt sprayed brush and thicket. 
The most interesting remains centred around a rectangular sacred pool, known as the Temple of Baal. One theory based on recent excavations and previous partial finds is that a huge statue of an unknown god or goddess rose out high from the centre of the pool. It was tantalising to have even a hint of such mysterious deities and try and imagine what forgotten rituals ruled here millennia ago.

Cutting back in land to avoid the wind, I was pushing the pram along a path with Ariadne in the pram and Alexi on the buggy board. Out of nowhere a black snake shot onto the path and right for the pram and my daughter’s dangling legs. Before having time to think I bunny hopped the pram, buggy board and children clear over the snake, who brushed past my foot and disappeared off the other side of the path.

It had lasted less than 5 seconds, but shaken us all up. I am sure the snake was as startled as us and probably just trying to get away, but nonetheless a jet-black snake had slithered towards our kids at break neck speed and we had no wish to see any more. With me acting as point and stamping loudly, we found the quickest way back to the boat and sailed home. A good story when over.
With our new serpentine friend behind us (from a bit of research my best guess is that was a western whip snake) we clambered back in the car and drove until dark in the direction of the village of Scopello, hugging to the gulf of Castellammare. It was to prove my favourite place in Sicily…