SPRINGTIME IN SICILY, Part 3: Catania, Piazza Armerina, Agrigento and Mount Etna

SPRINGTIME IN SICILY, Part 3: Catania, Piazza Armerina, Agrigento and Mount Etna

SPRINGTIME IN SICILY, Part 3: Catania, Piazza Armerina, Agrigento and Mount Etna
Catania, Sicily. View from the rooftop patio of the Crociferi BandB.

At the end of May, Art and I took a two week trip to Sicily, staying
in Palermo, Erice and Catania, and taking day trips to the ancient Greek
ruins at Selinunte, Segesta and Agrigento and to the ancient Roman
villa filled with mosaics at Piazza Armerina. The weather was warm, but
not hot, and hillsides were covered with a
host of wild flowers.  Here is the third of several reports of
our trip.

For the last part of our trip to Sicily we were based in Catania, on the island’s east coast, traveling there by train from Palermo. We stayed in the Band B Crociferi, where we had the top floor suite with our own private patio and a stunning view of the city. (Climbing the stairs from the ground floor helped keep us fit for walking around the city!)

World War II Museum, Catania.Under the command of U.S. General George Patton and British General Bernard Montgomery, American, British and Canadian forces invaded Italy from North Africa on July 9, 1943. In just 38 days they had conquered all of Sicily.

During our first week in Sicily, the weather had been near perfect–sunny, blue skies and temperatures in the low seventies. But when we woke up on our first morning in Catania, the sky was grey and wet. We decided to head for the Museum of the Allied Landings in Sicily near the train and bus station, about a 20 minute walk in a light rain. The entire museum is dedicated to the American invasion of Sicily in 1943, which gave the Allies a foothold in Europe, ultimately leading to the end of the war. The first room of the museum is a recreation of a WW II Italian village and a docent gave an introduction to the museum (in Italian–we got a printout in English.) She then herded us into a dark bomb shelter where we sat on shaking benches while listening to the sound of bombs exploding (like a Disneyland ride) so we could experience what it would have been like to be in Sicily at the time.

Life size diorama of the signing of the armistice between Italy and the Allies, September 13, 1943

From there we made our way on our own through two floors of exhibits containing displays of photos, newspaper headlines, uniforms, letters, equipment, plus life-size dioramas–a meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt, signing of the Italian surrender, a Red Cross hospital tent, the inside of a bunker, and more. While most labels were only in Italian, each room had a panel of information translated into English.

Contact sheets of photos taken by Phil Stern of the Sicily campaign.

On the ground floor we discovered an exhibit of stunning photos by American photographer Phil Stern, who had landed with the troops. At age 93 (in 2013) he returned for the inauguration of the exhibit of his Sicily photos, now a permanent part of the museum.

Mosaics at Villa Romana de Casale in Piazza Armerina. The excellent condition of the mosaics is due to a landslide that sealed
off the area for 600 years and protected the art. Excavations began in
the 1930s. It is the largest collection of Roman floor mosaics ever
found in situ. It is a World Heritage Site.

Before our trip we made the decision that we wouldn’t drive in Sicily, even though we typically rent a car when we go on vacation. But the reputation of crazy Italian drivers and the narrow cobblestone streets, built long before cars were ever invented, convinced us that we would be happier having someone else behind the wheel. So we arranged for a small group tour (there was only one other couple) to go to Piazza Armerina and Agrigento. Our guide, Carlo, was an excellent driver.

The most famous room at the Villa Romana shows “bikini girls”–female figures dressed for physical exercise.

We headed first to Piazza Armerina and the Villa Romana de Casale, nestled at the bottom of a valley about three miles from the town. Built in about A.D, 300 by a powerful Roman magistrate, its many spacious rooms are filled with lavish mosaics of people, animals, flowers, plants, that seem to go on forever as you make your way around the elevated walkways for a birds-eye view of the rooms. One long hallway is filled with depictions of animals from Africa, which were captured and brought to Sicily on their way to the Coliseum on Rome.

Lunch in the old town of Piazza Armerina

For lunch Carlo took us to a small wine shop, Siciliartegusto, in the old part of Piazza Armerina, where a Sicilian “snack” had been prepared for us–cold cuts, cheese, bread, focaccia, and arancini (a kind of filled rice croquette) along with red wine from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Etna.

Agrigento. Temple of Concordia. Built in 435 B.C., this is one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world. A workman inside reveals the grand scale of the temple.

From Piazza Armerina it was about an hour and a half drive to Agrigento, another World Heritage Site, to see the Greek temple ruins. Called the Valley of the Temples, the ruins are actually on a hill and spread over many acres.

Temple of Juno. Yellow genestra flowers grow wild all over Sicily.

Carlo let us off at the highest point of the archeological park, and we walked downhill from there to meet him at another parking area at the other end. On our way we passed Greek ruins in various states of repair, early Christian burial caves, the house of English archeologist Alexander Hardcastle, and a herd of goats, a breed unique to Sicily.

As we walked across the loose lava it felt like a combination of
moonscape and miracle of life, as we stepped around tiny plants taking a
foothold in the mineral rich lava. (Note the tiny figures on the far rim.)

The next morning we went on another small group tour, this time to Mount Etna. Marco was our driver and guide. We stopped to pick up lunch food in the town of Zafferena, and then went to the north side of the mountain–which according to Marco had better weather and was less crowded. We took a relatively short walk to climb one of the cinder cones, then stopped to see where a recent lava flow had engulfed a hotel, and finally, after eating our picnic lunch, toured a lava cave.

Interior of Chiesa di San Francesco Borgia on Via Crociferi

Our last day in Sicily was devoted to sightseeing in Catania. On our way down Via Crociferi (a Unesco Heritage site, named for the several churches that line the street), we stopped at the Chiesa di San Francesco Borgia to see a display of liturgical silver and to admire the complex colored marble inlay of the walls, floors, altars, etc.–the Baroque version of Byzantine mosaics–and the soaring painting on the inside of the dome.

The elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back is the symbol of Catania. It sits at the center of Piazza del Duomo.

From there we went to the piazza in front of the Duomo and took a brief look at the cathedral–all white stone on the inside..

Dried beans and nuts at the Catania fish market.

After a wander through the fish and produce market, we headed to the Teatro Romano, a Greek open air theater rebuilt in Roman times and which includes the renovation of a 19th century house that had been incorporated into one of the ancient walls.

Teatro Romano with the bell towers of the Duoma visible behind.

Then, after a pizza lunch at an outdoor café, we walked up the main street, Via Etna, looking for souvenirs at the market stalls along the side streets–buying some pistachio paste, saffron marmalade and a small ceramic box.

Fruit stand with oranges and pomegranates at Piazza Mazzini. On one corner is an outdoor cafe, Trattoria Enoteca, where we ate lunch under the colonnade.

In our two weeks in Sicily we got a taste of its many layers of history, the variety of its landscape, and, of course, the wealth of its delicious food. As our plane took off from the Catania airport as we headed home, we got a good view of Mount Etna towering over the city. Just three days later, the top of Etna erupted, spewing fiery lava into the air. In some ways, we wished we had been there  to see it in person. But in other ways we were glad we were safe back in Los Angeles.

Mount Etna, May 28, 2019.  Smoke is hovering over the crater and patches of snow from the previous winter still cling to its sides.

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