South-East Sicily

15 days in the Island of the three points!

Day 1
We started our trip by car early in the morning and as a first stop we decided to reach Maratea. This small village is the only place in the region of Basilicata on the sea, it has stunning coastal and mountain views. Jagged cliffs, beaches and small coves lapped by a crystal-clear sea surrounded by mountains covered with thick Mediterranean flora that goes directly into the water, create a superb and unique landscape making this stretch of coast really extraordinary. Overlooking Maratea there is the Statue of the Christ Redeemer, completed in 1965. A particular feature of this monument is that for an optical effect it seems that the Christ looks towards the sea while he looks towards the hinterland.
Day 2
We continue our trip to Sicily. We reach the Strait of Messina, where the sea shines of bright stars, it looks like a silver carpet broken here and there by gurgles and spumes caused by the strong currents that cross it. It is always fascinating to board on the ferry and look at “the island with three points” coming close! It’s sunset and we see several fishing boats heading in the middle of the Strait. A few minutes and here we are in the “the beautiful enchanted Sicily “.
In one hundred and sixty kilometres we reach Syracuse.
Syracuse, with a very rich past, was one of the largest cities of the ancient world and in 2005 it was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. There are numerous temples, theaters, villas and palaces dating back to the Greek, then Roman, Byzantine and then Renaissance and Baroque. The Greek theater in Syracuse is maybe the most important monument and for its size the largest than those found in Greece itself. Of the Greek period there is another famous monument, the Ear of Dionysius, a quarry shaped as an ear and linked to the legend of Dionysus. This theater has fascinated the travellers of all ages … among them the painter Jean-PierreHouël who visited it in the 1770s and who was impressed by the legend: “Mirabella, born in Syracuse and author of a history of the city, informs us that this cave, called Ear of Dionysius, was originally a quarry like many others and called Piscidina.
… there were important prisoners imprisoned inside during the reign of Dionysius and they were not aware that the jailer, standing close to a certain point of the tunnel, was able to listen to their conversations although they spoke in a low voice, and this was for the extraordinary effect of an echo produced by the shape of the cave. Once aware of their secrets he reported them to Dionysus … ”
Charming and well restored is the castle of Euryalus built by Dionysus Ist between 402 and 397 BC to protect the city from possible sieges and it is considered the best example of Greek defence art. The Baroque area instead is located on the island of Ortigia, where all palaces and villas are located. Walking at night when the small alleys are lit only by the dim light of the street lamps, it seems to be part of the past. And a must where to stop is in one of the many tempting restaurants in the center of Ortigia, where you can enjoy good grilled octopus and various fish dishes accompanied by a glass of iced Micol, a white wine typical of this area.
Day 3
From Syracuse we continue to the southern tip of eastern Sicily, Porto Palo.
During the trip we stop at Cassibile, where we are convinced to find the place where, on 3rd September 1943, General Castellano on behalf of Badoglio and Walter Bedel Smith, on behalf of Eisenhower, signed the armistice, but there is nothing more! An old man tells us that the armistice was signed under a large tree that no longer exists! In its place there is one of the many modern buildings. Frankly, we’re a little disappointed as the ‘site of the signature’ had to be preserved! We continue our journey and reach the canyon of Cava Grande del Cassibile. Hidden among the karstic mountains ‘Iblei’, the river, flowing in the bottom of the canyon, generates two cobalt ponds. On the steep slopes there are many caves, which were certainly inhabited by hominids in the faraway Palaeolithic era (2.5 million years ago). Not far from here there is a necropolis that houses some thousand of graves of the tenth and ninth centuries BC.
We leave the area of the mountains ‘Iblei’ and after few kilometers we reach Noto. Called the capital of the Baroque, Noto is a city with a unique historical center that in 2002 was declared a World Heritage Site. Squares, churches, stairways, convents and palaces built with the local tuff of a golden pink colour, are all richly carved in a particular and elaborated architectural style, and shine under the rays of the midday sun. There are few people around and the atmosphere is really involving. It’s an explosion of decorations, carvings, stone embroidered, statues, potbellied balconies with wrought iron grilles. The impact is superb and striking! The eye does not rest as continuously attracted by the magic atmosphere of this place. We miss something … a bar particularly inviting us … where we can taste a mulberry water ice prepared in the traditional Sicilian way. We continue the journey to Avola to see the place which gives its name to one of the most prestigious Sicilian wines … ‘Nero d’Avola’! But we remained astonished as we do not see any vineyards. ” You’ll find all the vineyards in Pachino” whispers an old lady, a few kilometers from here! In the ancient times all the area was called Avola and this is why the wine has this name.
We continue our trip to Pachino and then Marzamemi, an ancient fishing village, today a renowned summer location. We stop in Porto Palo di Capo Passero.
Day 4
Porto Palo offers a picturesque landscape, it seems an anticipation of ‘Africa’. Clear sea, beautiful beaches from where you can see the two islands, on one hand the Isola delle Correnti with his white lighthouse, once connected to the mainland by an artificial arm that the sea has taken away repeatedly, and on the other hand the Isola di Capo Passero with the Fort of Capo Passero built on 1600 and an ancient storage house for the tuna fishing nets.
Days 5/6
Next stop is Marina di Ragusa.
Ragusa, like most of the Sicilian towns, was inhabited by the Greeks, then the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans … The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and was rebuilt by dividing it into two districts: Upper Ragusa and Ibla. The most famous is Ragusa Ibla which has risen up from the ruins of the ancient city. Ragusa, built with a Baroque style, has been declared a World Heritage Site in 2002. The central square where the Cathedral of St. George with its beautiful staircase stands, represents one of the finest examples of Baroque style and it is also the set of many movies shot in Sicily. Not far from here is Scicli, a World Heritage Site as well. It is another wonderful monumental Baroque town not to be missed. We walk through the old town towards the Church of St. Matthew and then to the old path St. Michael on a paved basalt stone long more than 300 meters. You can see numerous palaces built with the local white limestone, it seems to move in the context a live nativity scene. This area is full of extraordinary towns. You cannot miss the visit of Modica, a World Heritage Site. This town is bigger and busier compared to Scicli but it is equally fascinating. The Cathedral of St. George, often called the monument symbol of the Sicilian Baroque, is the result of a reconstruction of the seventeenth /eighteenth century after the devastating earthquake that struck the Valley of Noto. In Corso Garibaldi stands the namesake theater built in 1815/20. Modica is famous for its chocolate which seems to have been introduced during the dominion of the Spaniards. It is a particular chocolate because it contains no milk and vegetable fat and when chewing, it is grainy and crumbly.
It is also worthwhile visiting the Castle of Donna Fugata. The ancient manor was purchased by Baron Vincenzo Arezzo La Rocca in 1648 who set the first nucleus of the present castle. It is built with many styles including the Venetian Gothic and the late Renaissance.
The castle is located in the heart of the Sicilian countryside where you can see many partition stonewalls, olive and beautiful carob trees. These areas are full of carob trees and here there are still some active industries processing the fruit of the carob tree to be used in confectionery and food. The carob fruit is very unique and it is good to taste, it is rich in protein, sugar, fat, fibbers and ashes, and minerals such as potassium, calcium, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, selenium and iron as well as vitamins B, C, E, K and J as well as B9.
Days 7/8
The next stops are Caltagirone and Piazza Armerina and we decide to reach them only driving on side roads to live more closely this extraordinary countryside, its smells, and its colours.
We encounter numerous herds of cattle with their shepherds crossing the small road and many small and picturesque villages perched on the heights. There are also many remains of ancient Greek ruins. Along the way we find many blackberry bushes rich of fruits and … we could not resist to taste them: they were absolutely delicious!
Here is Caltagirone, famous for its ceramics all over the world, and it’s production dates back to the ancient Greeks. The heads of Moor, pots and dishes in bright colours, adorn many shop windows in the city. Beautiful and tiring are the steps (142 steps!) leading to the church of Santa Maria del Monte, built in 1606, and that links the old part to the modern city. These steps are entirely decorated in the rises, with multi-coloured ceramic tiles.
And a must is to have a good fruit water ice at the Bed&Breakfast ’Il Dito e la Luna’ which is located at half steps. This is a very nice place and it is in harmony with its surroundings.
In the towns of Piazza Armerina, Heritage Site since 1997 for the Roman mosaics of Villa del Casale, we find a surprise: there is the 60th Norman Palio from 12 to 14 August. This Palio remembers the sounds and atmosphere of the Middle Ages. From our room of the original and eccentric hotel ‘Suite d’Autore’ located in Piazza del Duomo, we have a privileged position and we can witness the parade of 500 actors dressed with the costumes of that period. It is the ceremony of handing over the keys of the city to the Norman Count Roger de Hauteville who freed this town from the Saracens. The day after the riders of the different districts of the city will perform the Norman Palio. It is a shame that this event does not have the right visibility in the press and on the national television networks. Frankly we didn’t know anything of this Palio and instead it is an event not to be missed.
The Roman Villa del Casale is really fascinating. It was discovered in 1950 following reports of local people. Probably it was an imperial palace of the Roman era. The mosaics, famous all over the world, offer a glimpse of what life was like at the time. You can admire stories of hunting, fishing and daily life. Wonderful is the corridor of the “Great Hunt”, 65 meters long and 5 meters wide. It represents a huge hunt to catch wild animals in Africa and in India for the games of the amphitheatre of Rome. You are struck by this grandeur and by this magnificence!
Day 9
We leave Piazza Armerina and after 230 kilometers we are in Milazzo, just in time to board on the ferry boat to reach the ancient island of Hiera, sacred to the god Vulcano, from whom it took the name: Vulcano.
Days 10/15
Black beaches, cliffs facing the sea, coves, sun, fruit water ices, the typical Sicilian dish ‘capponata’, grilled swordfish, and … the liquor Malvasia! But not only … You cannot miss a trip on top of the volcano. The show is fantastic. Going up climbing the volcano you can see the Aeolian Islands, which seem to come out from the blue sea. The landscape is really exciting. After about 50 minutes we are at the top. Here is the Moon Valley, a large area dotted with basalt rocks thrown from the crater, whose last eruption was on 3 August 1888. We are surrounded by numerous volcanic smoking fumaroles adorned with bizarre formations of sulphur, continuous blowing steam, it seems to be inside a representation of a Dante’s Inferno circle! There’s nothing to do … volcanoes are in our blood and every time enchant us!
Based on this island we visit by boat the nearby Islands of Panarea, Stromboli and then Lipari.
The island of Panarea is the smallest island of the Aeolian archipelago but it is also the oldest. It is surrounded by many islets, Basiluzzo, Spinazzola, Lisca Bianca, Dattilo, Bottaro, Lisca Nera and by several rocks that form a micro archipelago between Lipari and Stromboli. This island in the summer is very crowded of tourists and VIP people. Getting there by boat you have a wonderful vision.
Stromboli Island is a vertiginous pyramid that rises from the deep blue sea! It is an explosive volcano that at an altitude of 750 meters above the sea level, from the various eruptive vents oriented NE-SW, launches hot lava with a frequency of about 10/20 minutes. There are explosions of lapillus, blocks of stones and incandescent ash thrown in the air even up to a few hundred meters. A fireworks show that can be seen after a climb of three hours nearby the mouths of the volcano or sitting comfortably on a boat, facing the lava field. When the activity is intense, the lava runs along the lava field to reach the cold waters of the sea and releasing clouds of white smoke!
We move then to Lipari that for us has an important symbolic value … it is the island of the obsidian, the magic stone of glass being used by men since the prehistoric times. Lipari is an island of contrasts and colours: blue sea, the black obsidian and the white pumice stone!
The obsidian is an extraordinary stone that is generated following the fast cooling of molten lava when in contact with the air. But the white pumice has also the same origin; it comes from the cooling lava, but it is totally different in consistency and colour. If you see the island from the sea, the three colours stand out in all their beauty.
Day 16
It’s time to leave and to reach again Sicily! We start our long journey back to Rome but with two stops: a dive in the crystal clear waters of Pizzo Calabro! And another one in Vietri, the quaint town of ceramics located at the beginning of the Amalfi Coast, to have a good dinner of typical fish dishes, cheered by the music of Neapolitan songs played and sung with great skill by a group of young people in old fashion costume.

Author’s note: the way of cooking and the culinary delights of Sicily are unique: swordfish, capponata dish, pasta dishes with different tastes and then the desserts … fruit water ices, ice cream, cassata cake, cannoli, almond paste and finally … the various kind of wines and the local sweet liquor, Malvasia. You have to go there and taste everything!