Ancient and Not Quite So Ancient in Sicily

Fiona Maclean gets to know the history and culture of this charming Italian island



modica cathedral

Modica Cathedral





greek theatre siracusa1

Greek Theatre Siracusa

archimedes square siracusa

Archimedes Square Siracusa

temple of apollo siracuse

Temple of Apollo Siracusa

sea at marzamemi

Sea at Marzamemi

sea at maramemi

Sea at Maramemi

Flying out to Catania for me was flying into the unknown.  Normally I try to spend time in advance researching and planning where to visit, but on this occasion I was on a group cookery holiday and we’d been given an itinerary in advance.  Only when I was there, visiting new places every day, at night reading in bed, submerged in Matthew Fort’s book ‘Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: Travels in Sicily on a Vespa’ did I realise how unique this Island is.

Of course even now, I’ve only seen a little of Sicily. My trip covered just the Southern tip, further South than Tunisia, which has a heritage that has seen Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Spanish (to name but a few) and finally Italian rule.  Like much of Sicily, whole towns and cities were destroyed by a major earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt in Baroque style. The rulers of the time, the kings of Spain, gave special powers to the nobleman Guiseppe Lanza, allowing him to redesign the damaged towns and cities.  And that has given parts of Sicily a consistent and stunning visual heritage.  The architecture in Cities like Noto, Ragusa and Modica is ornate, sometimes crumbling; beautiful houses built up the hills, vast cathedrals, churches, palaces and pretty squares.   And in each city there are places to visit, some of the best examples of Sicilian Baroque architecture,  which have given eight towns and cities in this area, the Val di Noto, a Unesco World Heritage Site listing. To quote “representing the culmination and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe”.

It’s not all about architecture though.  Stop at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica where you can learn how the Aztecs made chocolate…from an artisan chocolate producer that has been owned by the the Bonajuto family since 1880 and which draws its heritage from Spanish rule.  Or for something a little more traditionally Italian, Noto has a famous gelateria on the main street where you can sit and watch the world go by.

Siracusa, or Syracuse has another Unesco World Heritage listing, for different reasons.  The Old Town, Ortyga is charming and home to more Baroque architecture, the Carvaggio painting of the Burial of St Lucy, a wonderful fountain in the Square of Archimedes and a vibrant food market where you can buy Sicilian specialities including the famous Cacciocavalli cheese and Pachino tomatoes.  There’s just a hint of why this City has its own Unesco listing when you spot the Temple of Apollo as you walk into the Old Town.  Siracusa was one of the most important cities in both Ancient Greek and Roman Empires.  Described by Cicero as ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all’ Siracusa has held an important role in Mediterranean history from when it was founded in 734 or 735 BC by settlers from Corinth.  Unesco lists it because “monuments and archeological sites situated in Syracuse are the finest example of outstanding architectural creation spanning several cultural aspects; Greek, Roman and Baroque”

More of the Ancient Greek and Roman heritage can be seen on the city outskirts, a Greek Theatre, Roman Amphitheatre and the ‘Ear of Dionysis’ , a cave was dug in Greek/Roman times as a water storage for the Syracuse. An earthquake struck this area and causing damage, and the cave became unusable for water storage afterwards. There are legends about the subsequent use of the cave by Dionysis as a prison, either because the perfect acoustic allowed him to eavesdrop on his political enemies or because it allowed him to delight in the screams of those being tortured.  But, since the naming of the cave as the Ear of Dionysis was apparently the work of Carvaggio, who painted the construction and the legends are likely to be just that.

For a break from the history, there are plenty of pretty seaside villages and unspoilt beaches.  Even then you may choose to learn more about the history of Tuna fishing and the Mattanza, a ritual that is now almost defunct, but was the mainstay of Southern Sicilian fishing villages for hundreds of year.  Dense nets were lowered into the water to catch the passing blue fin tuna as they swam past in May and June. As fish passed into successively smaller nets, fishermen, working as a team would slaughter them with large spears.  Now, if you visit villages like Marzamemi, the main industry is tourism and the tuna processing businesses are largely obsolete.   And if you wander a little further down the coast, you can try to spot the main filming locations for Inspector Montalbano.

Despite the stunning architectural heritage and beautiful beaches, the fabulous climate and the wonderful art,  Sicily is still relatively unknown. But, very much worth getting to know.

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Article and images ©Fiona Maclean