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Discovering Sicily
by

Professor Arnie Greenberg

It’s always exciting to visit a new place. I recently toured Sicily car by. It might have been easier to go by tour bus. The traffic and the non-existent rules of the road were quite annoying. But, we made it. Perhaps that is why more and more people are taking organized tours. You travel in comfort. Guides explain the highlights and you have very few decisions to make. Even the restaurants are chosen for you.

New places fill my mind as I think back to bustling Palermo, the ruins of Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento, and Taormina or Syracuse. Giardini Naxos, on the eastern coast was a new stop for me and I even had a chance to drive part of the way up Mount Etna.

I know more about Greek and Roman ruins now, even after visiting Greece and Italy. The island is visually splendid. Images of hill towns, ruins and resorts and beautiful, inviting coastlines still fill my brain.

I arrived with a vague sense of this island’s history. I knew the Sicilians had been conquered by the great seafaring nations of old. I knew I’d find Grecian temples, Roman Ruins. I hoped for more and I found it.

I discovered Greek, Roman and Punic Sicily when the Phoenicians controlled the East half. I discovered eleventh century Norman relics and learned of the arrival of these northern people infected with the dream of Crusades. I found Arab cultural relics, from the year 830 when these people took Palermo. I discovered their interest in the introduction of sugar cane, rice and the breeding of silk worms. I learned how each conquering nation brought new ideas in commerce, culture and architecture. I learned that Sicily is an island with a dynamic past. I learned too that today it is a vibrant modern society and I found out that Sicily has a prosperous future ahead.

True, there is poverty on this island of plenty and there are hard-working people who struggle to earn a decent wage, but Sicily is moving forward. Cars buzz by on smooth, wide, highways. Hotels flourish at the water’s edge. There is tranquility and sunshine that is Sicilian. There are upscale restaurants, fashionable shops, resorts, and handicrafts for every taste. There is entertainment and some of the best archeological sites I’ve ever seen. There is a pride in the Sicilian man on the street. And if football is any indication of modern pride, the people of Sicily are as proud as the rest of the Europeans. To be in Palermo on the night of a football victory is to witness first-hand the fabric of Sicilian preoccupation. Our waiter showed more interest in the soccer match than serving our food.

I arrived with some knowledge of the battles fought during WWII. I knew of the bombing of Palermo. Today it is a bustling port city.

I remembered stories of the mountain battles as the Allies moved east towards the mainland. But I didn’t see a legacy of war, except for the occasional brush-covered cement bunker, high in the hills, now too costly to remove. What I saw was a pleasant and peaceful island with a certain southern charm. I knew immediately that I would go back.

I arrived by plane from Rome. The flight over the water was smooth but the mountainous terrain on the north shore did surprise me. Those ancient rock faces rose suddenly from the sea around the island capital.

Two days with a local guide were enough to find out that while Palermo and the area around it had much to enjoy, the overwhelming numbers of people and that football fever I mentioned, were enough to make me wonder. As it turned out, I did enjoy the Norman and Baroque architecture, the modern shopping streets lined with shade trees, the view of the mountains and especially the famous Cathedral at Monreale, just outside the city. This Norman-style, ecclesiastical masterpiece made that morning’s visit worthwhile.

The Byzantine influences are everywhere. Palermo is a region of castles. It is bustling within the city walls but peaceful as you leave the somewhat frenzied city.

We chose to drive west, past the small town of Mondello (where I hope to stay on my next trip) between Mount Gallo and Mount Pellegrino. This is one of the area’s finest beach towns where ancient fishermen plied the waters for a once productive tuna industry. Today, it is a charming resort with natural beauty with submarine caves boasting graffiti from the Paleolithic age. This ‘garden city’ is now a resort created for the elite.

But our destination was the northwestern tip of the island at the hibiscus and bougainvillea bedecked resort town of St. Vito lo Capo, famous for its seafood, especially lobsters. The drive took us past the ruined village of Segesta and the warren of tiny streets of the crowded city of Trapani.

Segesta is a good place to visit for a view of the temple, the ‘perfectly pure’ mountaintop theatre and a sense of the region’s history.

Trapani may have an important history but it was too crowded for my tastes. St Vito lo Capo was strictly for tourists who want pleasant hotels on a clean, relaxing beach. We chose to stay overnight then move on.

 Our next stop was the archeological site at Selinunte, near the southern coast. You can see the ruins from two miles away. It is difficult to explain how small one feels next to this great temple, ‘the work of giants’. It’s almost like the builders’ purpose was to intimidate the gods and scare the humans. It was hardly scary but I was impressed at the rebuilding that has taken place in view of the earthquakes that have rocked Sicily over the years.

Our stop that night was at the Jolly Hotel della Valle, in Agrigento next to the spectacular valley of Greek temples like the Temples of Harmony, or Hercules, Castor and Pollux. It is a valley of olive trees and dates back to the 5th century BC. It was constructed to thank Zeus for the victory against the Carthaginians in 480 BC. No wonder it was called “The most beautiful city of mortals”.

A morning walking through the site was rewarded with a refreshing dip in the hotel’s hillside pool.

From Agrigento we drove east through Gela then north to Piazza Armerina with its spectacular Villa Casale set of 3000 square meters of ancient mosaics.

Subdivided into 40 rooms, it is one of the most unique residences of Roman antiquity.

A drive to ancient Enna on a pinnacle looking out over an awesome vista is its own reward. This ancient fortified town is a steep climb but well worth the effort. Then it’s a strait drive east to Catania where you make a choice to go south to Syracuse or north towards Taormina. We chose the latter. There, on the gentle coast below the town is the village of Guardini Naxos, the first Greek colony in Sicily and the beachfront, luxurious Hotel Hellenia Yachting. Our room had a terrace looking out to sea with Taormina high on the cliff behind us (5 Km away). We would walk around the village, along the beach or up into the hills a short drive away. The ancient theatre in Taormina, the second largest in Sicily, is still used today and a view of the natural and unspoiled coastline by day or night is worth the trip. In the background one can see nearby Etna standing proudly in the sun. Taormina grew as a holiday spot for international travelers in the 19th century. It is popular with visitors from England.

A day trip south to Syracuse and a visit to the ancient theatre and city is another must. After lunch, it’s a relatively easy drive to Mt. Etna. You can get fairly high up by car but to visit the smoldering rim, you have to hire a special car and driver. We were interested in the force of the lava as it cleared away everything in its wake. Nature such as this, the powerful force, has no restrictions. From the top you can see almost 200 km in every direction. It is something one must do when in Sicily.

Look for the bigger-than-life figure lying on the ground. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It is so lifelike even after all this time, like a giant sleeping maiden…

But our time was up and we headed back to Palermo, only 4 hours away. The roads were modern and smooth and I was surprised by the lack of traffic.

From there we raced to the airport at 150 K in an ancient taxicab at 6 in the morning while the driver fondled his St Christopher medal. That was just one more of our many adventures

Another time, I will visit Sicily by ferry from Naples. The new service is upscale and you save on a hotel room as you travel over night and dine in the modern restaurant.

Sicily should not be rushed. One can stay put in any of a dozen places and take day trips. Distances between sites are short, especially in a fast car.

Would I go back? Yes. I have already made plans to return next May with a group. There are still things to see and things I’d like to do again. This time I may even relax at the seaside.

Join me.

For further information contact:

San Vito Lo Capo. www.skyol.it/sanvito 

Hotel in Agrigento. Hotel Jolly della Valle   www.jollyhotels.com  Search Hotel in Agrigento.

Hotel Hellenia Yachting. www.hotel-hellenia.it

Tirrenia Ferry Lines   www.tirrenia.it

Information:  www.sicily.infocom.it  

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 

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