Sicily is best known for spawning the Mafia. But Mark Davidson finds an idilic island where greeks, Normans and even Northumbrians have left their mark.
The island of Sicily is largely untouched by tourism and has a wonderful history having changed hands between the Greeks, Romans and Normans over time.
In the city of Agrigento, we visited the museum dedicated to the historical findings from the Valley of the Temples. Like the other museums I visited, it is accessible. The museum contains many artefacts found in the region from centuries ago. Greek Pots and vases still display vibrant colours from a time when life was a far more simple affair. Worship of different Gods was commonplace throughout the centuries and this is reflected in the numerous carvings dedicated to different deities. The most famous piece in the museum is a giant Telamon statue from the Temple of Zeus in the valley. From within the museum grounds, you can see many of the monuments in the distant valley – all standing proudly side by side. With nine in total, we were taken from one temple to another and our guide gave us a talk about the history of the region and why and when each temple was built. There was a sense of overkill after a while and I felt like once I'd seen one, I'd seen them all.
The main temple, Concordia, is similar in design to the Parthenon in Athens and equally impressive.
That afternoon, we were able to take a relaxing walk around the town of Agrigento, appreciating the typical Sicilian architecture. Many churches have been built in the Baroque style and display flamboyant carvings and masonry. Inside, the walls and ceilings had painted artwork depicting tales from the bible. Elsewhere, plain whitewashed buildings had balconies so local residents could watch the world go by and gaze upon us.
The streets are narrow and lined with small shops with some selling expensive designer clothing and shoes, others selling pizzas, cakes and varieties of Gelato.
The next day, we made our way to the capital Palermo where Norman castles overlook the landscape. The impressive aspect of the fortifications was how high up on the hilltops and mountain sides they sat. The Normans were in prime position to defend their territory from invaders. The land was like a giant patchwork quilt with different shades of coloured fields scattered along the countryside. Before I arrived in Sicily, there had been a lot of rain which meant that the countryside was very green. But a guide told us that it is usually burned yellowish-brown by the sun.
Close to the Cathedral of Monreale is a fantastic example of architecture with gold leaf adorning the ceiling. It's a magnificent Benedictine Abbey founded in the 12th century. Monreale is a working cathedral and it boasts outstanding medieval mosaics which cover almost the entire interior depicting stories from the Old Testament. It is recognised as one of the finest examples of religious design in the world.
A short walk away, there are fantastic views overlooking the city and the Mediterranean sea beyond. The cloisters within the grounds of the cathedral offered an interesting and alternative side, with columns surrounding the courtyard, reminiscent of Moorish architecture.
The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Villa Romana del Casale near the small town of Piazza Amerina. Buried for centuries under a mudslide, archaeologists discovered some of the best preserved mosaic flooring in the Roman world with many of the pictures showing everyday life - from people going about their business catching fish on galleons to gladiators fighting tigers and elephants. The floors have been restored with the tiles just as vibrant in colour as they must have been when they were first made centuries ago! It is thought that this fourth century villa was possibly owned by a Roman Emperor which may explain its size and richness of decoration. The visit would not have been complete without a ride on the small train which takes visitors from the car park to the entrance of the villa.
One evening, we visited the centre of Taormina where local artists congregated in the main square to paint the scenic landscapes. Taormina has one of the best kept public gardens on the island which was designed by Florence Trevelyan in the 19th century. She was born in Northumberland but came to live in Sicily and spent many hours there.
If you never tire of history, Catania is only an hour’s drive away by bus and it is another city well worth a visit. The most impressive structure is the Duomo with its grand square in front of the church. Located in the centre is an ancient Egyptian obelisk, dedicated to the goddess Isis, which sits proudly atop a black elephant.
Syracuse was once considered one of the most beautiful and richest cities in the ancient world. It's home to the stunning Baroque cathedral incorporating the columns of an ancient temple - an amazing interior. We strolled around the old town and the ancient island of Ortygia and took a boat ride along the old harbour to see a skyline which has hardly altered in centuries.
But one site dominates Sicily more than any other – Mount Etna. It last erupted in March this year and there is a permanent monitoring station located on the mountain but it is still open to visitors who want to see the summit. There are different options for those wishing to get a good view of the highest point. A cable car will take you up to 9000ft and you can go by truck to the highest point where you can see the top of Etna and walk around some of the smaller crater rims. Strangely, the main sound was of the wind whistling around the highest parts. Far from the sight of hot, molten lava only steam rose from many of the smaller volcano’s on the mountainside. We could hear the crunch of petrified lava underfoot as we scrambled on one or two of the steeper slopes. Barriers have been erected in certain areas to stop anyone coming to grief, but we were told no eruptions were expected in the near future.
In an area further down, there was a souvenir shop which also showed a film of the volcano in full flow. It was a mesmeric display of fire billowing from the highest part of Etna and it was a fitting finale to my holiday.