Holidays in Sicily – Enjoy some Winter Sun in Europe
Sicily's appeal as a holiday destination is still a well-kept insider secret. Whatever you choose to visit will be off the beaten path. If you visit in the winter months, even its six UNESCO World Heritage Sites are likely to be so tranquil you may feel like the only tourist there.
This is not the only reason Sicily is such an appealing destination for a winter holiday. Being just 37 degrees north of the equator, it enjoys an average of 4 hours of sunshine per day in winter and lies on the same meridian as Arizona, the Azores and Tunsia. Of these options, it is the cheapest to fly to and stay in, and probably the safest as well.
Whilst a few movies have given some people the idea that the Mafia make Sicily a dangerous place, in reality Sicily is one of the safest places in the world for tourists. Whilst the Mafia may still be a nuisance to the locals, the time when it took violence onto the streets is long gone. Even in the past, Mafia-related violence was limited to a very small number of deprived neighbourhoods.
Holidays in Sicily tend to be full of positive surprises. These are the four things most tourists express surprise over:
- First surprise:
Although Sicily is constantly sunny, it is still a very green island. It has 76 nature reserves, twice as many as Tuscany. So in Sicily you can vary your beach holidays with some hiking tours, well away from any tourist trap.
- Second surprise:
Sicily's beaches are less crowded than you might expect. From the end of August onwards, when all the locals go back to work and school, they are practically deserted; yet the sun continues to blaze down, and the water remains very warm throughout September and well into October. Some very affordable holiday rental apartments in Sicily come with direct access to the sea or even their own private beach, which may be just what you need for your dream holiday.
- Third surprise:
The history of Sicily goes back longer than most of Europe. The countless nations which invaded Sicily in turns contributed to the island's culture.
Throughout Sicily, you can see monuments and even whole cities left by the ancient and more recent cultures around the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East over the last two and a half thousand years and more. You can taste what they brought in the local cuisine, hear it in the language and in the traditional music, and see the racial diversity in the faces of the people. You can shop in markets founded over 1,000 years ago by the Arabs. You can walk around ancient cities built by the north Africans nearly 3,000 years ago. You can drive along roads built by the Romans and you can look at the artwork of the Norman French and the Spanish baroque in spectacular churches.
You may recognise elements of all of them which, over the centuries, worked their way throughout Europe. Many visitors to Sicily sooner or later comment that, if you want to understand European history, Sicily is the key to everything.
- Fourth surprise:
Holidays in Sicily are cheaper than you might expect. Even in the central piazza of Cefalù, Sicily's tourist Mecca, you can get a slap-up meal for ten Euros. In Venice you would be lucky to find a cappucino for this price.
But these four surprises are just the beginning. Sicily has a staggering variety of things to see and do. Trip Tipp explains more in the next two chapters.
Chapter I: Beautiful Panoramas in Sicily
Admit it – the first thing you think of, when you hear Sicily, is the Mafia. You are not entirely wrong, of course. The Mafia has played an influential role in Sicily since the 19th century. Its power is considerably weakened nowadays, though, and optimists believe it may soon be eliminated completely.
The myth of the Godfathers remains, though, and makes a powerful attraction for tourists. They are surprised when they realise Sicily has a lot more to offer, which turns out to be far more interesting than organised crime.
Sicily is highly photogenic, and there are countless stunning panoramas. Panoramic photography enthusiasts can publish their images as Google Maps | Views and we show some of the most beautiful Sicilian panoramas below. To virtually enjoy them:
- click or tap the green circle in the middle of the image to start the tour
- drag your finger or mouse left, right, up or down to change the camera angle; you can also use the arrow keys on your keyboard
Scala de TurchiThe Scala de Turchi – the Turkish Staircase – is an entirely natural rock formation in the shape of a staircase. Its gleaming white colour makes the blue of the mediterranean sea and sky look even more brilliant.
San Vito Lo CapoDo you dream of spending your summer holiday doing nothing but swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean sea? If so, then San Vito lo Capo could be your ideal holiday destination.
Cefalù CathedralThe historic and enchanting tourist town of Cefalù, in northern Sicily, makes a fascinating break from days on the beach.
Taormina - The Greco-Roman TheatreA trading post between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Sicily was once regarded as the centre of the world. No wonder holiday makers discover the remains of ancient Civilisations all over Sicily.
Erice - View from the castleVenus (or Aphrodite in Greek) was the ancient goddess of fertility and love. High on Erice, the ancient Greeks and Romans built a temple to her.
Ragusa - Piazza DuomoThere was a time in history when the Roman Catholics of the Vatican were beset from all sides: the Reformation to the north, the powerful Muslims to the south, and rebels like Galileo Galilei in their own backyard! To push back against all this, the Catholic church had to come up with something spectacular. Their answer was baroque churches, and the unique Sicilian Baroque style was particularly magnificent.
Mount EtnaA trip up Mount Etna is one of the most exciting things to do on holiday in Sicily. On Etna, Europe's highest volcano, it often snows or hails even in summer.
The Madonie in winterOur last Panorama shows a beautiful nature reserve which is one of Sicily's best kept secrets. This photo is not by holiday-makers in Sicily, but simply taken from Google Street View.
Chapter II: More Surprises
Most people's holidays in Sicily revolve around sunbathing on the beach, and trying to get on the touristy trail of the "real" Mafia. But Sicily has far more interesting and surprising things to discover, and the following Trip Tip map shows you where to find them. The sections below describe what you will find there.
Most of these sections are guest articles by Veronica Di Grigoli.
Please find more of her articles in the famous blog The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife.
- Sicily's Underground Secret – Palermo Catacombs
- A Pyramid in a River of Art
- River of Arts - Piramide al 38° parallelo
- Gibellina - A Clash of two Cultures
- Mussolini's Ghost Towns - Borgo Schirò
- Corleone - City of the Godfathers
- Dolce & Gabbana - Fashion from Sicily
- Cinema Paradiso - Bagheria
- Cinema Paradiso - Cefalù
- Sicilian Jazz
- Archimedes and the Other Scientists of Sicily
- Archimedes - Arkimedeion
- Archimedes - Tecnoparco Archimede
- Frederick II - The Wonder of the World
- How to build a Temple - Cave di Cusa
- How to build a Temple - Segesta
- Sicily's Volcanos - The bubbling Paradise
- Sicily - Oasis in a Desert of Salt
- Hellfire and Brimstone from the Sicilian Sulphur Mines
- Sicilian Amber - The Tears of the Sun's Daughters
Sicily's Underground Secret
Under a lot of Sicily's churches lies a secret which began 500 years ago.
In 1520 a Franciscan Friar founded a new order of monks called the Capuchin Friars. He wanted to return to what he felt were the original values of St. Francis of Assisi, and so the friars of his new order lived a life of extreme austerity and poverty. They were not allowed even to touch money and lived entirely by begging for food.
Despite some early setbacks caused by the scandalous exploits of a few rebellious and randy members of the order, the movement gradually gained popularity through widespread missionary work. In addition to this, the extreme poverty and asceticism of the monks' lifestyle impressed the poor in traditional Catholic areas, and added to the numbers of new recruits.
The Capuchins of Palermo developed the custom of mummifying their dead friars, and the bodies of others who supported them. They used various methods, including drying the bodies out for a year or more, or sometimes bathing them in arsenic. Nobody knows how they learned these processes of mummification, nor why they chose to practise them, though their catacombs eventually came to be interpreted as a lesson in the futility of clinging to material wealth which serves no purpose in the afterlife.
The catacombs under the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo are open to the public, and have scared many generations of Sicilian children on school outings. Some of the sights are ghoulish, whilst many are deeply poignant. Among the highlights is the body of Rosalia Lombardo, known as Sicily's Snow White, a little girl who died in 1920 at two years of age and who looks to this day like a porcelain doll.
One of the most unusual things to see in Palermo, or indeed anywhere in the world, (marker 1 in the map above) this is the largest mummy collection in Europe and also the best preserved.
A Pyramid in a River of Art
Whilst everyone knows about the pyramids of Egypt, there are few peole who know there is also a pyramid in Sicily. The Sicilian pyramid is neither old, nor made of stone, yet it dominates its area of the Sicilian landscape and draws admirers from far and near. It is an iron pyramid in which locals hold a "light ceremony" during the summer solstice.
This Piramide al 38 ° parallelogram is part of the open air art project called the "Fiumara d'Arte", which could be loosely translated as the River of Art. Visitors to this "gallery" which spreads across the landscape are given a map at the starting point, which leads them around the countryside from one monumental artwork to the next. As befits an art "gallery" on this scale, the artworks themselves are similarly gigantic.
The Piramide al 38 ° parallelogram is the last sculpture to form part of the art trail so far (marker 3 in the map above), though this may change as the collection continues to grow.
The driving force behind this project is the Sicilian artist and patron of the arts, Antonio Presti. In the 1980s Presti inherited his father's company, which produced construction materials for roadbuilding. Believing his calling was not simply to enjoy the wealth his father had created but to help the poor and to inspire people, Presti chose to devote himself to art.
One of his first projects was in memory of his late father. Antonio Presti commissioned a fellow sculptor to create a monumental sculpture called "La materia poteva non esserci" (loosely translated as "Substance might not even have come into being") which he placed in a prominent public spot at the mouth of the River Tusa (marker 2 in the map above).
This soon led to his idea of creating an open-air art gallery with a collection of contemporary sculptures, and this was how the River of Art concept was brought into being. In the video (top right) Antonio Presti explains the history of this project. Even if you do not speak Italian, it is easy to understand his message.
If you decide to visit this extraordinary gallery, you may also wish to stay in the Art Hotel known as the Atelier sul Mare. This hotal offers accomodation inside an art gallery, each room being entirely decorated by a distinguished artist to convey a thought-provoking message. At the time of booking the staff may ask you a few questions about the purpose of your stay and your frame of mind, to match you to the room with the message most meaningful to you. If you are not able to stay in the hotel, you can still book a guided tour of the rooms which is offered each day at noon.
Gibellina - A Clash of Two Cultures
The question "But is it art?" has been asked many times about modern art, and perhaps most often in Sicily, for the Sicilian city of Gibellina (marker 4 in the map above) holds more modern art works than anywhere else in Italy.
In 1968 the old town of Gibellina was so extensively destroyed by an earthquake that the local government decided not to try to rebuild it on the old site, but to construct a new town from scratch 10km away. The main driving force behind this idea was not the local people, but the Mafia, which profited immensely from selling the land where the new town was to be developed.
The rest of the development was not controlled by the Mafia, however, but the Mayor of Gibellina. His idea was to invite contemporary artists and architects to build the new Gibellina, which would be a world-class showcase of art and innovative architecture in a living community. More than 100 artists from all over Italy and abroad worked on the project.
The final result provokes passionate admiration and absolute loathing in equal measures. TripAdvisor reviews reflect this division perfectly. Ratings of "excellent" and "terrible" are equally distributed. From an artistic point of view, the works to be seen here are staggering, on a colossal scale and truly unforgettable.
The one consistent theme which emerges from the negative reviews is that Gibellina feels like a ghost town. Many reviewers acknowledge that the contemporary art and architecture is very interesting, but observe that the city is "dead".
This is hardly surprising when one considers the clash of two cultures. The mayor of Gibellina, backed by an urbane, avant-garde elite, imposed his esoteric ideas upon the profoundly traumatised population of a simple rural town which had lost its whole world overnight. The people of Gibellina never requested or endorsed the project.
The youth of Gibellina call themselves "The People without a Home Town". When the inhabitants of Gibellina hold their annual festival, they leave the modern art city and take their religious procession through the ruins of their original town. They walk along their former streets among the rubble of their destroyed houses and churches. It is hard to think of a clearer way they could express their absolute rejection of the alienating new environent imposed on them.
The one thing that most commentators agree upon is that a day trip to the controversial town of Gibellina will most certainly give you plenty to think about while on holiday in Sicily.
Mussolini's Ghost Towns
Although it is a slight exaggeration to call the well-inhabited town of Gibellina a Ghost Town, Sicily does actually have some real ghost towns to visit. One of the most interesting examples is Borgo Schirò (marker 5 in the map above) which lies about 10km from Corleone, at the heart of idyllically productive agricultural land which is hardly populated at all.
The town, like Sicily's other ghost towns, was built by Mussolini. Its architecture is the imposing and austere form of Art Deco which proliferated in Italy under his rule. It is known to Italians either as Rationalist (Razionalista) or as Fascist Architecture (Architettura Fascista). Two of Sicily's most prominent examples of this style are the staggeringly imposing Palazzo di Giustizia, the law courts, and the magnificent Palazzo Delle Poste, the central post office, both in Palermo.
Mussolini chose to build Borgo Schirò, and other villages around Sicily which are now ghost towns, during the 1940s in a bid to stop the increasing migration of poverty-stricken farm workers into the cities. Sicily still had a feudal farming system, with vast estates owned by barons and worked by peasants who did not own any property at all.
With outdated farming methods and peasants leaving the countryside in their droves, Sicily was producing a fraction of the grain and other crops it had the potential to produce – food that the rest of Italy, and Mussolini's troops, sorely needed. Mussolini built the farm workers new villages, with modern houses, in which to form egalitarian farming communities equipped with schools, churches and medical facilities.
Borgo Schirò suffered severe damage during the wartime and, although considerable work was carried out to repair the bombed buildings, it became clear soon after the war that additional reforms were needed to stop land workers from moving to the cities. A socialist land reform programme called the "Attack on the large estates" or the "Assalto al latifondo" began in 1948. The state confiscated land from the established landowners and redistributed it to the people who had always worked it.
The land reforms were obviously opposed by the barons who owned these farming estates, and in a few cases by certain mafiosi who worked for them as land managers. Even though the reforms were pushed through, it gradually became obvious that the amount of land given to each farming family was too small to be economically viable. The land reforms were a failure. One by one, farming families who could not make ends meet left Borgo Schirò and tried to make a new start in nearby cities. This was a period in which a great many Sicilians gave up on their homeland altogether and moved to America.
By the 1970s Borgo Schirò had taken on a surreal atmosphere, inhabited by just one family and the village priest. Repeated thefts eventually drove the last family to move to Corleone. The priest did not abandon the village until 2000, when he gave up his resistance to the constant theft of statues, artifacts and even structural elements of the church, leaving the ghost village of Borgo Schirò to the elements.
It is now an eerily abandoned ghost town like the dead goldrush towns of America, with cracking walls, doors swinging open in the wind and weeds pushing up through the pavements.
The ghost town of Borgo Schirò is one of Sicily's best kept secrets and it has no opening times, admission prices or Trip Advisor reviews.
Corleone - City of the Godfathers
Tourists who visit Mussolini's Ghost Town Borgo Schirò will find Sicily’s most notorious city, Corleone, just down the road (marker 6 on the map above).
Corleone is associated with the Mafia mainly because of the famous "Godfather" movies by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, whose leading character is called Don Corleone. In the Godfather II movie, Vito Andolini is accidentally given the surname Corleone by an American immigration official who mixes his place of birth up with his name. In the movie series, various characters go to Sicily to visit Corleone. The video on the right shows Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) touring the city of Corleone.
This movie about the American Mafia makes Corleone a magnet for tourists in Sicily, but what is the real story of the Sicilian Mafia in Corleone?
A fairly long list of prominent Mafia bosses were born there. In the 1960s it became the base of some prominent Mafia clans. An Italian TV documentary produced by the RAI from this period estimated that 20% of deaths in Corleone were from "unnatural" causes. In the 1980s, Sicily's most ruthless and violent Mafia boss, Toto Riina, lived in Corleone.
Thus it was with good reason that the fictitious character of "The Godfather" trilogy was named after this small Sicilian town. Another coincidental connection between the film and the real Corleone is the fact that actor Al Pacino’s maternal grandparents were born in Corleone.
Many tourists go to Corleone hoping to see... to see what? Do they hope to see people being gunned down in the streets? Do they expect to see hit men in fedoras and pinstripe suits? If you visit Corleone wanting to find a movie come to life around you, you will be sorely disappointed. Sicilians visit Corleone for its Spanish Baroque architecture, for its unusually high number of beautiful churches, and for the good local wine.
If you wish to see traces of the real Mafia in Corleone, you could walk down Via 11 Aprile 2006 ("11th April 2006 Street"), a road which was renamed to commemorate the date that Bernardo Provenzano was arrested. The populace of Corleone was so happy when this vicious Mafia boss was finally arrested, after hiding from the police for no less than 40 years, that they also celebrate April 11th each year as "Liberation Day" with a local holiday and civic festivities. They saw his arrest as the end of a long dark night in which too many innocent citizens suffered the tyranny of Mafia violence.
Another way to learn about the real Mafia in Corleone is to visit CIDMA, and Anti-Mafia museum. This study centre contains many historic documents which are probably more interesting to journalists and historians than to the casual tourist, and a great many photographs of dead bodies, grieving relatives and arrested Mafiosi.
Alternatively, you could join the Corleonese in celebrating their new-found freedom by visiting their beautiful churches, strolling around the piazza, and enjoying a glass of their great local wine.
Dolce & Gabbana - Fashion from Sicily
So many people have left Sicily in the past that there are now more "Sicilians" living in America than there are in Sicily. In the 20th century alone, 1.5 million Sicilians emigrated to the United States.
After the Second World War and the rebuilding of many of the areas which had been devastated by war damage, a gradual recovery took place which came to be called the "economic miracle". This period of rapid economic growth, lasting from the 1950s to the 1970s, slowed the flood of Sicilians moving to America. Instead, Sicilians looking for work headed north to the industrialising areas around Milan.
One of these migrants was Domenico Dolce. He came from Sicily's beautiful Madonie region, a major attraction for nature-loving holiday-makers in Sicily. His father had a clothing shop in the small and charming mountain town of Polizzi Generosa (marker 7 in the map above), the perfect place to build the young Domenico Dolce's talent. Domenico started designing and tailoring clothing before he even left school.
Domenico Dolce sought work at a fashion house in Milan, one of the global centres of haute couture, which belonged to a family called Gabbana. This family had produced a young and talented designer of its own - Stefano Gabbana. The two young men hit it off immediately, and their meeting was the beginning of an incredible success story.
Dolce & Gabbana have used Sicily as inspiration for their 2013 and 2014 winter and summer collections - as the video above right shows (please find the results of this photo shoot here).
Dolce & Gabbana work not only with director Mario Testino (as in the above video) but also with a Sicilian photographer called Ferdinando Scianna from Bagheria (marker 8 in the map above). He is one of only three Italian members of the illustrious photo agency Magnum. Another child of Bagheria, who has risen to international fame, also collaborates with Dolce & Gabbana. We come to him in the next section.
- TripAdvisor reviews of the home town of Domenico Dolce.
Cinema Paradiso - Sicily's Most Famous Film
Televisions were unaffordable for most Sicilians in the 1950s and so the cinemas flourished. In the small Sicilian town of Bagheria, (marker 8 in the map above) the fantasy world of cinema was especially fascinating and addictive for a little boy named Giuseppe Tornatore.
Like Domenico Dolce, Tornatore showed his talent at an early age by filming the neighbourhood and events around him with a cine camera. At the age of 16, he directed excerpts from the works of Sicilian Nobel prize-winner Luigi Pirandello for a school production. This work is far from lightweight, and his skill in directing such a challenging work was widely noted.
Combining his gift for creative filming with his talent as a director, Giuseppe Tornatore became a film director and screenwriter. His first films were mostly documentaries shot in Sicily, but he was soon drawn to Rome by the much wider opportunities offered by Cinecittà.
Tornatore's love of his old home never faded, however. By the end of the 1980s, television was taking over from cinema in Italy, and even in Sicily. Tornatore came up with the idea of preserving the golden age of Sicilian cinema in a film which, though loosely based on his own early life, awakened his talent for fiction. It tells the story of a young boy's growing passion for cinema, set in the context of life in Bagheria in the forties and fifties.
His film Nuovo Cinema Paradiso was released in Sicily in 1988 and was a complete flop. The film was only saved by a cinema owner in the Sicilian city of Messina, who loved it so much he devised a special marketing campaign: people could come and watch the film, and they only had to pay on their way out of the cinema if they had enjoyed it. The phenomenal success it enjoyed there eventually spread across Sicily.
When the film was released internationally, 50 minutes of playing time were taken out, making the story into more of a romanticised fable. The original version included multiple scenes with a prostitute, an encounter between the lead character and a much younger girl who turns out to be the daughter of his long lost girlfriend, and finally a sex scene between him and the girlfriend of his youth, who is now married to a former classmate. In the cut down version, released internationally, there are no sex scenes at all, and the priest insists upon moral censorship which seems to portray a society ruled by a very strict moral code. In the original version this moralising was contrasted with the social reality, which was shown to be very different indeed.
Released internationally as Cinema Paradiso, the film won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and many other awards.
The film was set in a fictitious town named Giancaldo, which is really the name of a mountain overlooking Bagheria – Tornatore's home town. People who know Bagheria can easily recognise it in the events of the movie. The lead character become the projectionist for an open-air cinema on the beach, which really did exist for many years in Aspra, the fishing village which adjoins Bagheria. The old people of Aspra still reminisce nostalgically about how wonderful the beach cinema used to be.
Many of the outdoor locations in the film are now popular and appealing destinations for a holiday in Sicily, particularly Bagheria (marker 8 in the map above), the hometown of Giuseppe Tornatore, and Cefalù, (marker 9 on the map above). Other scenes were shot in Castelbuono, Lascari Scalo, Chiusa Sclafani, Palazzo Adriano, Santa Flavia, San Nicola l'Arena, Termini Imerese, ruderi di Poggioreale and Oriolo Romano.
For many people, the discovery that Palermo is one of the Jazz capitals of Europe is the biggest surprise Sicily has to offer.
The video on the right was shot in 2008 in the church of Santa Maria Spasimo (marker 10 in the map above) or, rather, in what is left of the church. It was only used as a church for the first 70 years after it was built in the 16th Century. It was then purchased by the city and deconsecrated so it could be used for public shows and concerts.
When the plague came to Palermo in the 17th century it was used as a quarantine hospital instead, and then as a warehouse and for grain storage. In tandem with the once wealthy surrounding neighbourhood, called "La Kalsa", the former church of Lo Spasimo gradually fell into serious disrepair and some significant parts of its structure fell down. The Mafia established themselves in the neighbourhood.
In 1985 Leoluca Orlando became Mayor of Palermo and tried to reduce the influence of the Mafia. Orlando placed great importance on the restoration of cultural institutions. This benefited Lo Spasimo, as the old walls and all the outhouses were renovated. Only the roof was left as it was - not for lack of money, but to create a spectacular space for concerts and other performances.
The Jazz school of the Fondazione The Brass Group now resides in one of the outhouses of the church. Our video shows the great results it has achieved by supporting young jazz players. The drummer, Gianluca Pellerito, was only 14 years old at the time the film was shot. He is now internationally known and heads up several bands.
Fondazione The Brass Group not only fosters the next generation of musicians but also operates the only Italian jazz orchestra with a regional membership - the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana. Although a regionally based group, it is far from provincial. On the contrary, it plays on a par with Jazz institutions as prestigious as the Lincoln Center in New York. In its 3,000 concerts to date, it has collaborated with almost all the leading Jazz musicians in the world. Jazz is not just another surprise for holiday makers to Sicily, but another Sicilian success story too.
Archimedes and the other Scientists of Sicily
The fact that Sicily keeps producing world famous artists may not surprise you anymore. But you may not know that Sicily has also produced generations of leading scientists and international researchers.
The first of Sicily's famous scientists was of course Archimedes, from Siracusa in south west Sicily, one of the fathers of experimental science.
One of Sicily's modern day scientists is the particle physicist Antonino Zichichi from Trapani. Particle physicists try to find out what holds the world together, and they do this by driving tiny particles of matter at immense speeds through giant tubes. At the end of the track there is a big bang - the accelerated particles bump into a foil of some different matter. In the remnants of such collisions the scientists are looking for answers to the ultimate questions of physics. What may seem like a playground for theorists has practical applications when the high speed particles collide, not with inanimate foil, but with cancerous cells.
The Sicilian Antonino Zichichi is not only one of the most famous particle physicist in the world, he is also regarded as an excellent organizer with a talent for explaining complicated concepts very clearly. However, he has a more controversial side. He likes to interfere in politics and in other areas of science. As a devout Catholic, he is passionately opposed to the theory of evolution - a theory which even the Vatican actually accepted long ago.
The well-known Italian comedian Maurizio Crozza regularly makes fun of Antonino Zichichi for his more far fetched ideas. Nevertheless, the two get on fairly well - as is shown in the video (top right.)
Zichichi's work nurturing young scientists is widely appreciated. In 1963 he established an international "Summer School of Physics" on Monte Erice (marker 11 on the map above), on the outskirts of his home town Trapani. It has broadened into a Centre for Scientific Culture, as the themes of study offered there now go far beyond pure physics. We have not yet been able to establish whether they also teach courses in Darwinian evolution!
Erice is not only worth a visit for holiday makers in Sicily with an interest in science. The medieval city on the hill offers breathtaking views of the sea and the land around Trapani.
Antonino Zichichi is not the only "Einstein of Sicily". The Centre for Scientific Culture is dedicated to the Sicilian physicist Ettore Majorana. Unfortunately Majorana was not good at explaining his theories and his general communication difficulties left him increasingly lonely. Ettore Majorana disappeared in 1938 under mysterious circumstances which have never been explained. He may have died, but various theories suggest that he lived and worked on incongnito for years.
In his essay Ettore Majorana - Genius and Mystery [PDF, 2.1 MByte], Antonino Zichichi outlines the contribution of Ettore Majorana to modern physics. Unfortunately, it is only understandable for knowledgeable physicists.
Enrico Fermi, another world-renowned Italian physicist, said of Ettore Majorana:... "There are scientists of first rank. They make important discoveries and bring science forward. And then there are geniuses like Galileo and Newton. Majorana was one of them."
- TripAdvisor reviews of Erice.
Archimedes - Sicily's Forgotten Genius
In the previous section we quoted Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who placed the Sicilian physicist Ettore Majorana on a par with Galileo and Newton. He forgot to mention perhaps the greatest genius of all, however - Archimedes. Not only are Archimedes' achievements often underestimated, very few people even know that Archimedes was Sicilian.
He was born in 287 B.C. in the coastal city of Syracuse. The ancient Romans and Greeks considered Archimedes the greatest mathematician who had ever lived. He also made great innovations in astronomy, geometry, mechanics, hydrostatics and optics and he made far more inventions – certainly far more which actually worked – than Leonardo Da Vinci.
A holiday in Sicily offers an excellent opportunity to learn more about Archimedes, in the Museum Arkimedeion (Piazza Archimede, city centre, marker 12 on the map above) and in the Tecnoparco Archimede (marker 13 on the map above). These museums contain interactive working models of his inventions which make them easy to understand and entertaining for children as well as adults.
Archimedes' genius for engineering lay in his profound understanding of the six simple machines which are, to this day, the components of every functioning piece of machinery in existence. He figured out the mathematical formulae necessary to calculate how big and strong each one needs to be in order to do the required job. It was the lack of this mathematical knowledge that meant so many of Leonardo Da Vinci's inventions, which look brilliant on paper, don't actually work in real life.
Archimedes' best known use of the six simple machines is the Archimedes Screw, which can force water to flow upwards against gravity. It is simply a screw which fits snugly inside a cylinder and is turned with a lever. Archimedes screws can still be seen in use in Sicily in the salt works at Marsala, to pump sea water from one pool to another as it progressively evaporates until it leaves pure salt crystals. Some are cranked by hand but most are powered by windmills.
Archimedes created the mathematical formulae for calculating the volume of many solids, including those with curved surfaces. To do this he invented integral calculus. Newton and Leibniz argued bitterly over who had invented calculus first in the 17th century, but the reading by X-ray of the Archimedes palimpsest (a book by Archimedes himself) in the 1990s proves Archimedes beat them both by over 2,000 years.
Archimedes used this knowledge to design a crane which lifted enemy ships out of the sea and then dropped them back into the water at a right angle to make them sink. This piece of apparatus has been reconstructed in modern times and it worked perfectly. Archimedes also studied the movements of the planets and created a working planetarium which showed their relative positions and movements around the sun. The Catholic church did all it could to quash this information, and it was only revived by Copernicus about 1,800 years later.
The best known story about Archimedes in modern times is the tale of how he leapt out of his bath shouting "Eureka!" – "I've got it!" - and ran through the streets naked in excitement. The king had ordered a new crown but, when it was delivered, he suspected the goldsmith had kept some of the the gold for himself, and replaced it with the same weight of silver. Could Archimedes prove whether he had really done this without melting it down, the king wanted to know? Silver and gold have different densities, so Archimedes needed to know both the weight and the volume of the crown. He realised that if he filled a container to the brim with water and then put the crown in it, the exact volume of the crown would be displaced and could be measured.
Legend has it that Archimedes tested this idea by filling his bath to the brim and getting into it, making the water flow over the sides. This primary-school version of events, known as the Archimedes Principle, is really a very simplified explanation of what Archimedes actually did. In Archimedes' own book called "On Floating Bodies", the real method of calculation relied on complex hydrostatics and produced a far more accurate result.
The ancient Greeks' favourite Archimedes story was the tale of how he made attacking Roman ships burst into flames by shining mirrors at them. He set up a fancy array of "burning lenses" which worked so well that practically the whole Roman fleet was incinerated. This trick has been successfully reproduced on several occasions.
Despite his success in burning the Roman ships, the Romans still managed to land and sack Syracuse. Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier. His tomb was adorned with a metal sphere set inside a cylinder, touching its sides and the top and bottom, representing his personal favourite among all his discoveries – integral calculus. He had proven mathematically that the volume of the sphere will always be two-thirds that of the cylinder, and had asked his friends to commemorate this on his tomb.
When Cicero, the Roman orator and politician, was governor of the Roman Colony of Sicily, he went searching for Archimedes' tomb. Archimedes was still regarded as the greatest scientist of all time yet Cicero found his tomb abandoned and overgrown with weeds. He cleaned it up so it was again a suitably respected memorial to a Sicilian who remains, over two thousand years later, one of the greatest scientists of all time.
The whereabouts of the tomb is now not known for certain, but locals in Siracusa claim it lies in the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis di Siracusa where it can still be seen by visitors.
- Opening times and admission prices to the museum "Arkimedeion".
- Opening times and admission prices to the museum "Tecnoparco Archimede".
- Opening times and admission prices to the Saline Ettore Infersa Salt Museum.
- Opening times and admission prices to the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis di Siracusa.
- TripAdvisor of the museum "Arkimedeion".
- TripAdvisor of the museum "Tecnoparco Archimede".
- TripAdvisor of the Saline Ettore Infersa Salt Museum.
- TripAdvisor of the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis di Siracusa.
Frederick II - The Wonder of the World
The death of Archimedes could be regarded as the start of a long cultural decline for Sicily with only brief interludes of enlightenment until the 20th Century. In the Middle Ages there was a very brief period of enlightenment under the rule of the Hohenstaufen King Frederick II.
Frederick did not grow up in Hohenstaufen Castle, but in Sicily. His mother was the queen of our holiday island. 1198 Frederick succeeded to the throne, at the tender age of four, and was exposed to a chaotic succession of guardians and proxy rulers not entirely dissimilar to the scheming politicians of Sicily today.
The Sicilian nobles took advantage of the fact that their ruler was a small child, by taking large parts of the Kingdom as their own possessions. Little did they realise that they had made an enemy of one of the political "super talents" of the Middle Ages.
When Frederick came of age he turned Sicily on its head, not with the intention of creating chaos, but rather to erase the corrupt past and build a modern state system. Of course this was not a democracy. Frederick focussed on centralization and standardization. That may not sound positive to modern thinkers, but at that time all the changes he made were very progressive. Frederick prohibited vigilante justice, made the protection of nature a "state objective" and strengthened women's rights – all remarkably forward-thinking for the Middle Ages.
The protection and understanding of nature was of particular concern to Frederick. In the classical tradition, he insisted that natural phenomena should be explained scientifically. He took an intellectual and secular approach to everything. It is easy to understand how he made enemies in the Vatican. The Pope was also annoyed by Frederick's low level of commitment to the Crusades and by his attempts to restrain the Pope's power over secular matters. Frederick was most definitely an atheist, and so he made a few enemies.
All these actions by Frederick II were so unusual for his time that he was called "stupor mundi", that is "The amazement of the world". Even today Frederick II amazes Sicilian holiday makers: his sarcophagus resides in the Cathedral of Palermo (14 markers in the map above).
How do you build a Greek Temple?
Some of the best-preserved Greek temples are in Sicily. Many holiday makers in Sicily find this hard to believe, even when they are standing right in front of one of the huge columns.
The vast archaeological area of Agrigento, on Sicily's south coast, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the largest and best preserved Greek temples outside mainland Greece. The ancient city is vast and yet much of it is still unexcavated.
Selinute, on the south-western coast of Sicily, was an important Greek town and is now an archaeological park with five temples, a necropolis and a well-preserved city in which you can see the remains of houses, shops and even the drainage system. At Selinute we can not only marvel at what the ancient Greeks made, we can also see how they built it. The site includes an ancient quarry left by the ancient stonemasons just as they used it. It is called the Cave di Cusa (marker 15 in the map above).
When entering Cave di Cusa, you will immediately see numerous column drums lying around. Some are still only half carved out of the rock.
This illustration shows how archaeologists suppose the the column drums were carved out of the quarry already semi-formed, and these show how the ancient Greeks then transported them. Once on the construction site, the coarse column drums were stacked and reworked. The Greeks used cranes for architectural construction from about 600 BC onwards. Fluting was carved into the pillars to camouflage the joints between the individual column drums.
Another great lesson in how Greek temples were built can be learned from the miraculously well-preserved temple of Segesta (16 marker in the map above). At first glace, it seems to be an almost complete temple in perfect condition. Yet a closer look reveals that the temple was never actually finished.
The columns have not been fluted, as they normally would have been in a temple of this period and style. If you look carefully at the base you can see there are still tabs left on the stone blocks, which were used for lifting the blocks into place but were then chiselled off. It also lacks a cella, which was the walled-in private chamber at one end, where the statue of the deity to whom the temples was dedicated actually stood. You will not be able to find any evidence of rubble that could have been the cella and anyway, it would be unlikely to have fallen down when the rest of the temple is in perfect condition, so the only logical conclusion is that it was never built. Finally, the stonework around the top of the temple was clearly never prepared for the roofing structures, so we can be sure the temple was never roofed over.
Although Siciliy's marvellous temples are well known to classical scholars, they do not fit into most people's stereotype of Sicily. Once you have seen them, the next question is usually: how on earth did the ancient Greeks actually design and build something like this? Without modern machinery, lasers or computer? Without mechanical excavators and heavy duty trucks?
The short answer is that people were just as intelligent and resourceful back then as they are now.
Firstly they had to level off the site for the foundations, so they turned the entire plot upon which the temple must be constructed into a spirit level by filling it with water. Then they hit a stake into the ground at each of the four corners of the pool of water, marked the water level and then drained the water. These four stakes with their labels would now be perfect reference points for the height of the temple foundations.
Next, they had to get the base and columns perfectly perpendicular. Again, they only needed very simple tools, namely two piles of stone and a few cords. The ancient Egyptians used the same methods when measuring up for their temples. They used string to measure distances, they used shadows to work out angles and and lengths on the ground, and they already knew a great deal of the mathematics which many believe was invented by the great scientists of more recent times such as Newton and Liebniz.
The ancient Greeks did not have all the helpful equipment we use nowadays. Maybe, for that reason, they used their brains a little more.
Sicily's Volcanos - The Bubbling Paradise
Everyone has heard of Mount Etna, but most people do not realise there are other volcanes in Sicily, too.
Of course, Etna is the biggest, the most spectacular and also a little bit dangerous. By contrast, the vents of the volcanoes in the Macalube nature reserve of Aragona, 15km from Agrigento (marker 17 in the map above) are so small that you can only just fit one hand into them!
It may sound foolish to stick your hand into a volcanic vent but, in this case, it is good for your skin. The volcanoes at Macalube are mud volcanes which continuously emit a mineral-rich muddy slurry. The Macalube reserve is a strange, lunar-looking landscape of small craters that sometimes throw grey-coloured muddy clay high up into the air. Periodically the Macalube is stunned by loud, explosive eruptions, which can reach great heights because the mud is mixed with gases under high pressure, most notably methane.
Worldwide there are about 1000 of these mud volcanoes, and half of them are in Azerbaijan. In Europe they are very rare. A Sicilian holiday offers a unique chance to experience "cold vulcanism" at first hand.
Legend has it that the mud volcanoes of Macalube originated in the Middle Ages after a battle between Arabs and Normans. The effluent sludge was called "the blood of the Saracens".
According to another story, there was once a city in Macalube. The inhabitants showed disrespect to a local deity and, as a punishment, they were sucked down into the bowels of the earth, city and all.
The reality is probably more interesting than the legends. Mud volcanoes occur where large tectonic plates collide. Sicily happens to be on the very edge of the African and the Eurasian plates. At some points between these two plates there are water and clay deposits. The water mixes with these deposits at a depth of 4 to 5 km and then the pressure between the two plates pushes it upwards at high pressure. As a result we have our mud volcanoes.
The area around the volcanoes of the Macalube is protected, but you can enter parts of it. This is another benefit to seeing mud volcanoes in Sicily, for in other areas they tend to be dangerous. A BBC article describes a mud volcano that erupted in 2006 on Java and forced approximately 30,000 people to flee. By contrast, the little mud volcanos of the Macalube are not only harmless but even beneficial: the ancient Romans used the mineral-rich mud to prepare cleansing face masks and to relieve rheumatism.
The little mud volcanos of the Macalube are not only harmless but even beneficial. The ancient Romans used the mineral rich mud for cleansing face masks, and to relieve rheumatism.
Sicily - Oasis in a Desert of Salt
Six million years ago, the Mediterranean sea did not exist. It had evaporated and turned into a massive salt bed, as the continent of Africa drifted upwards until it crashed into Europe at the West, which is now Spain, and at the east as well, where Egypt meets the Middle East. Sealed off at both ends, the sea became a huge salt lake, which gradually evaporated.
Then suddenly, five and a half million years ago, the Atlantic broke down a huge mass of land and formed the largest waterfall the planet has ever seen. It was not a river, but the ocean itself, pouring over a land mass between Spain and Morocco, and gradually carving out the sea channel that now separates the two continents of Europe and Africa. Eventually, the map of the Mediterranean basin that we know today was laid out. The Islands were formed, including Sicily.
The Strait of Gibraltar, scene of this unprecedented movement of water, remains a narrow channel not only from north to south, between Europe and African, but also in terms of depth: skippers here sometimes only have 300 metres of water below their keel.
The result for Sicily was that the island not only has sea salt from the Mediterranean, but also rock salt from the earth, deposited in strata which alternate with layers of clay.
Sicily's most spectacular salt mine is at Realmonte in the province of Agrigento (marker 18 in the map above). As the video above shows, there is an underground cathedral carved out of the salt. The strata of salt and clay can be seen particularly well in this cathedral.
The salt mine is still being worked, so the "Cathedral of Realmonte" is not always open to the public, but it is sometimes accessible on Sundays and public holidays for Catholic mass and for a few other religious and cultural events. Sicily is probably the only place in the world where you can attend a concert in an underground cathedral made of salt.
Realmonte has another attraction for holiday makers in Sicily which also resulted from the movement of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates: the "Scala dei Turchi": This beautiful white rock, emerging from the sea like a vast staircase, was often used as a haven from storms and enemies by Mediterranean pirates from North Africa. Since the Sicilians have always been very vague about specifying where foreigners come from, they named the rock after them: The Staircase of the Turks!
- TripAdvisor reviews of the "Scala dei Turchi".
Hellfire and Brimstone from the Sicilian Sulphur Mines
Elemental sulphur – know in ancient times as "brimstone" - is emitted by volcanoes, so at first sight it seems logical that Sicily would be rich in sulphur deposits. This brimstone is responsible for the rotten egg smell you may notice if you go up Etna when it is in one of its more active phases.
However, Sicily's sulphur desposits were not only to be found on the surface of the earth, left there by eruptions from Mount Etna. Sulphur was also created throughout Sicily in the same way as the rock salt underground. The sulphate left by the evaporation of the Mediterranean sea six million years ago was metabolised by anaerobic bacteria, leaving elemental sulphur deposits many strata deep in the centre of the island.
Millions of years later, Sicilians discovered the treasure beneath their feet. Sulphur is used in almost all manufacturing industries, for fertilizers and in explosives, so the amount of sulphur a country consumes is a very accurate benchmark for its level of industrialisation. Sicily supplied 90% of the world's sulphur for industrial use in the 19th and early 20th century.
In ancient times Sicilians found sulphur on the surface of the Earth, and the "Sicilian process" was used to gather it. Sulfur deposits were piled and stacked in brick kilns built on sloping hillsides, with airspaces between them. Then a little powdered sulfur was spread over the stacked ore and ignited, causing the free sulfur to melt down the hills.
When the surface deposits were exhausted, the mining of underground deposits began. Mining was not mechanized and was very labour-intensive. Sicily at this time employed 40,000 men, women and even very young children in the sulphur mines, in life-threatening conditions of abject suffering which Booker T Washington saw and described as "hell on earth".
Pickmen freed the ore from the rock, and mine-boys or carusi carried baskets of ore to the surface, often through a mile or more of tunnels. Once the ore was at the surface, it was reduced and extracted in smelting ovens. Many miners suffered lives of ill-health or premature death because of their working conditions.
Britain, leading the Industrial Revolution, and France its close competitor, vied for Sicily's precious sulphur deposits. British gained increasing control of the mining, refining and transportation of Sicilian sulfur, yet this lucrative export did little to transform Sicily's backward and impoverished economy. King Ferdinand II hoped for more profits when he granted monopoly over the Sicilian sulfur industry to a French company in 1840, a move which violated an existing contract with Britain and led to the international "Sulfur Crisis". A peaceful solution was eventually reached, but the tension at the time demonstrates just how invaluable and desired a resource the Sicilian sulphur had become.
More modern and safer methods of sulphur mining known as the Frasch process were employed in the 20th century, which enabled the miners to wash elemental sulphur directly from underground. Sicilian sulphur remained competitive until modern methods of extracting sulphur from petroleum, natural gas, and related fossil resources were discovered. Their extraction is safer and much cheaper than sulphur mining, since it uses a substance which is regarded as a waste product in oil refining. This meant the Sicilian sulphur mines were no longer commercially viable. In a short space of time they were all closed and the Sicilians who depended on the industry lost their jobs.
A new multimedia museum dedicated to the history of sulphur mining has recently been opened near the Trabia Tallarita mine in the province of Caltanissetta, Sicily, following a long process of restoration of the original mines and sulphur works. The new Sulphur Mining Museum is located near the original Trabia Tallarita mine, between Sommatino and Riesi in the province of Caltanissetta, once the heart of Sicilian mining country.
The visitors' book is poignantly filled with messages in French, German and English, left by the descendants of miners who had to leave Sicily seeking new jobs when the mines were closed, leaving 40,000 workers without jobs.
- TripAdvisor reviews of the Museo della Miniera Trabia Tallarita.
Sicilian Amber - The Tears of the Sun's Daughters
In ancient mythology, Phaethon was the son of a sea spirit called Clymene and Helios, the god of the Sun. Her husband was King Merops of Ethiopia, who adopted Phaethon even though the boy was not his own.
To the ancient Greeks, Ethiopian meant all black Africans, and Ethiopia meant all of Africa, as far as the Greeks knew of it. The Greeks regarded Ethiopians as a superior variety of people, half way between humans and gods. Homer's poetry is full of tales of the Gods popping down to have dinner with their buddies the Ethiopians, marrying them, and engaging in sporting events with them, and he regularly mentions that the Ethiopians were the best archers in the world.
One day, Phaethon asked his mother who his true father was, and she answered that he was Helios, the god of the sun. Phaethon told his friends this, but the other children mocked him and refused to believe it, for he had not inherited his father's immortality and was just a normal human.
Phaethon asked Helios if he really was his father, and Helios swore to grant him anything he asked, in order to prove it. Phaethon asked if he could drive his father's chariot, the sun, across the sky for just one day. Helios did all he could to put him off this idea. Even Helios himself got scared sometimes, he told his son.
Phaethon was adamant. When the fateful day came, the horses realised they were being driven by a lighter driver than usual and ran out of control. Phaethon was terrified and dropped the reins. The horses veered off course and set half the earth on fire, almost crashing down upon Africa. The heat made the Ethiopians' blood boil inside them and bubble to the surface, making their skin turn black. It dried up rivers and lakes and scorched the vegetation, creating the Sahara desert throughout much of the Ethiopian Empire. Planet Earth herself screamed to Jupiter, the king of the gods, for help, so he struck Phaethon down with a lightning bolt.
The Heliades, sisters of Phaethon, were so sad that they cried tears which dried up in the heat and became amber. The Heliades were trapped inside poplar trees – and there is another whole myth to explain that – which fits well with the fact that amber really is sap which has leaked out of trees.
In ancient times, a lot of this Italian amber was found washed out at the mouth of the River Po, in northern Italy. In more recent times, it is still found washed down after very violent storms from the River Simeto near Catania (marker 20 on the map above), from which it derives its name, simetite. It is a very unusual type of amber dating from the Miocene, some pieces of which have been found to contain entirely new types of prehistoric insect. The more widespread Baltic amber dates from the Eocene, an earlier period.
Although pieces of simetite can still be picked up from the beach near Catania, they are very rare nowadays. Some pieces are also found on the beaches between Punta Braccetto (the riviera of Santa Croce Camerina) and Contrada Chiappa in the Pachino region, also known as the Amber Coast (Costa dell'Ambra).
Simetite jewellery is sold by some of the exclusive jewellers in Taormina and other fashionable towns in Sicily. But if you should encounter a piece of jewellery made from Sicilian amber or simetite, then you know how it originated: it is the tears of the daughters of the sun, weeping for their dead brother and for the destruction of the lush farmlands in the Empire of the noble Ethiopians
Old Dears and Spring Chickens in Sicily
Sicily is full of magnificent old people, with a lifetime of stories to read on their weather-beaten faces. At first glance, you might think the same could be said of the tourists who come to Sicily!
This is not entirely wrong, but it does mean the younger generation of holiday makers are missing out on the variety of exciting things to do, especially in and around Catania and Palermo.
Both cities have large, internationally oriented universities. Thanks to the Erasmus Programme, the young people of Europe come together in these two Sicilian cities. They do not just study, of course! The nightlife in Catania and Palermo is buzzing and varied.
Young people like also to come to Sicily to learn Italian. The video (top right), produced by a young Sicilian, shows that learning Italian can be great fun.
More tips for young people interesting in travelling to Sicily are available here:
Winter Holidays in Sicily
We have saved the greatest surprise for last: a winter holiday in Sicily is at least as restorative as in summer. This is shown by a simple comparison of the average daily hours of sunshine::
- Palermo - January: 4.5 hours
- Jersey - yearly average: 2.75 hours
This is not a mistake: in Palermo, the sun shines a daily average of 4.5 hours in January. And you can reach the island on a very economical flight from the UK lasting less than 3 hours.
Meanwhile on Jersey – Britain's sunny island - the daily average over the whole year is only 2.75 hours! So what could make more sense than spending your winter holidays in Sicily? Perhaps, spending the whole winter here!
Chapter III: UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sicily
Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country in the world. Six of them are in Sicily, which represents an exceptionally high density of sites on this small island. Four of the sites are historical, and two are natural.
All following sections are guest articles by Veronica Di Grigoli.
Please find more of her articles in the famous blog The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife.
Valley of the Temples, Agrigento
Founded by the Greeks in the 6th Century B.C., Agrigento was one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean for centuries. So far, seven well-preserved temples have been excavated, but most of the huge city is still under ground and nobody knows how many more remain hidden.
You can see the irrigation system which brought mountain spring water right through the city, the remains of shops and houses, the sewage system, and a vast necropolis used by Christians in the 7th to 9th centuries AD.
The site also includes the beautifully restored Arabic Garden of the Kolymbetra, a botanical garden with an irrigation system from the 9th century and specimens of all the rare citrus trees and other plants brought to Sicily by the Muslims of North Africa.
Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina
At the foot of Monte Mangone, the Late Roman "Villa del Casale" was built in the 3rd or 4th century AD. This vast villa, representing the height of Roman luxury, sophistication and artistry, stands isolated in the dusty middle of nowhere. When it was built it was probably the manor house which commanded a vast and wealthy farm estate, with hordes of peasant workers and slaves.
What remains now is the flooring of the villa, entirely covered in exquisite and fascinating mosaics. There are the famous bikini girls on the floor of the gym, dressed in bikinis getting fit by pumping mini hand-held bumbells. There is a huge hunting scene in the dining room, with men catching deer, rabbits, eagles, wild boar and other animals. There are people dining, animals, geometric patterns and even gods.
You can also see the hypocaustic (underground) heating system. This was powered by slaves, who lit fires in tiny underground chambers then fanned the heat and smoke through the network of tunnels running beneath the entire villa. This is probably the best preserved publicly visible hypocaust heating system anywhere in the world.
Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica
The site is in two different parts: the Necropolis of Pantalica, and Ancient Syracuse. The Necropolis contains about 4,000 prehistoric tombs of the Sicels, one of the earliest tribes in Sicily, dating from the 13th to the 7th centuries B.C.
Founded by Greeks in the 8th century B.C., Syracuse rapidly grew into a city of outstanding cultural and political importance. It was more influential than Athens, which made an embarrassingly pathetic attempt to conquer it once. Eventually it was conquered by the Romans.
The most famous son of Syracuse was Archimedes, recently discovered to be the inventor of integral calculus and regarded by the ancients as the greatest mathematician and scientist who ever lived. In ancient Syracuse you can walk along the streets where Archimedes supposedly dashed stark naked, shouting "Eureka!" after he had filled his bath to the brim and formulated his Water Displacement Principle. The UNESCO site of ancient Siracusa includes the beautiful peninsula of Ortygia, which was the original city centre, the Temple of Athena, a Greek Theatre and a Roman amphitheatre.
Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (South-Eastern Sicily)
In 1693, the Val di Noto suffered an earthquake so powerful it reduced the entire region to nothing but rubble. We do not know how many people died, or how the survivors coped in the chaos which must have followed. What we do know is that they rebuilt eight exquisitely beautiful Baroque towns which are now listed by UNESCO.
Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli all represent the result of great civic undertaking, since much of the rebuilding was funded by private donations from wealthy families.
In the elegant Baroque style of the period, they showcase not only outstanding architectural and artistic achievements, but also improvements in town planning which were remarkably modern for the time. Their broad, sweeping boulevards and dramatic panoramas are in stark contrast to the the claustrophobic medieval alleys so typical of most Sicilian towns.
Among them, Modica is famous for its unique raw chocolate, still hand made in family-run workshops in exact accordance with the ancient Aztec recipe brought to Sicily by the Spanish in medieval times.
Isole Eolie (Aeolian Islands)
The Aeolian Islands lie off the north coast of Sicily. The seven main islands of the archipelago are Lipari, Panarea, Stromboli, Vulcano, Alicudi, Filicudi, and Salina, but there are five smaller islets as well. They are all of volcanic origin, and are separated from the coast of Sicily by 200m deep waters.
Over the centuries, the Aeolian Islands have seen both Vulcanian and Strombolian volcanic eruptions, and have been a great source of information to vulcanologists.
Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, being in a state of almost continuous eruption. It is also the highest volcano in Europe. Etna receives many thousands of visitors each year, who are surprised to discover it is extremely cold and often hails at the peak even when the weather is swelteringly hot at ground level.
The stones found lying on the ground are sometimes too hot to hold. Whilst the volcano looks black from a distance, the porous lava rocks seen close up are beautiful and multi-coloured.
Etna's constant eruptions are not only of great interest to vulcanologists. The Sicilians who live at its feet appreciate the exquisite taste and outstanding nutritional value of the tomatoes, pistachios, almonds and many other foods grown in the rich mineral it throws out. For tourists, the produce provides delicious foods and liquers to enjoy long after their visit. In exchange for the wonderful food, the locals stoically rebuild their homes every time "u muntagna" sweeps them away.
Chapter IV: Discover Sicily
Sicily offers much more than just sun, beaches and volcanic lava. In this video (right), the Italian Tourist Board gives some tips for holidays in Sicily.
A holiday in Sicily will never be boring. A beach holiday with odd days hiking in the mountains is an easy option, for example, and the two activities complement each other perfectly. It would be a pity to spend two weeks doing nothing but lying on the beach on such an interesting island.
Even so, holidays in Sicily alway tend to focus on the beautiful beaches, so our trip tips start with these:
It is obvious that, in Sicily, you can take a beach holiday in countless different locations, but many tourists only use it for sunbathing and a little swimming, unaware of the vast choice of water sports available.
Around the island of Ustica, for example, Italy's first underwater nature reserve can be explored by divers. Holiday makers who feel more comfortable above the water surface can try surfing, or sailing on one of the many yachts for hire. Sicily hosted the Americas Cup in Trapani, showing what a popular area it is for sailing.
Of course if you prefer to stick to classic water sports, you can go swimming and snorkelling almost anywhere along Sicily's 1,000 km long coast. Trip Tip will help you find your way around.
The coast of Sicily is 1000 km long, so there is a great deal to see - much more than in the pictures above. Our Trip Tip photographers show a few more scenes here:
Sicily's mountainous interior hides a great variety of undiscovered treasures. Even the Sicilian Tourist Board video does not show that Sicily, with over 70 nature reserves, is the greenest island in the Mediterranean. With the Madonie and the Nebrodes, this also includes the largest unbroken forested areas in Italy.
In the Sicilian interior, close to Corleone, lies a huge forested area called the Bosco di Ficuzza. In winter there is a formidable waterfall in this forest – another of the Trip Tip insider tips for a Sicilian holiday in winter.
In summer, the waterfall dries up but, by way of compensation, the Mediterranean forest enchants the few tourists who wander through it with its intense pine scent.
As you can see, the Sicilian countryside offers much more than just Europe's tallest and most active volcano. To be honest, the mountains in Sicily without the hot lava flows offer much more variety. Our Trip Tip photographers show how varied the mountainous regions of Sicily really are:
Some people find history rather dull, but in Sicily you can walk into the past and see ancient history all around you. Tripp tip will help bring the past to life for you.
In antiquity, Sicily was a Greek colony for 500 years. Many of the ancient Greek temples, amphitheaters and market places are so well preserved and still so solid that you can enter and walk around them.
In winter you could easily find that you have an ancient site or a vast temple all to yourself. An example is shown on the right.
The ancient Greeks were not the only people to covet, invade and colonise the island of Sicily. So many nations and civilisations over the centuries have ruled Sicily, the right question might be, which nation did NOT invade Sicily? Our Trip Tip photographers give a little impression of what some of Sicily's varied conquerors left behind:
Sicily is not only a part of Italy, but also a world in itself. This is especially true of the cities, where holiday makers can see a variety of architectural styles – some of which are uniquely Sicilian.
Cities like Cefalù still show the strong influence of the Normans. In the Middle Ages they ended the Arab domination of Sicily - without, however, destroying the Arab culture. On a tour around Palermo you may encounter churches which look more like mosques.
The long Spanish influence is evident in the "Sicilian baroque" buildings in many Sicilian cities, particularly Marsala and Noto. Modern design has also made its mark on Sicily: Gibellina hosts the largest quantity of modern art in a public space anywhere in Italy.
So, Sicilian towns are just as diverse as the Sicilian countryside. They range from small villages nestling in the mountains to sprawling modern metropolises. This photo gallery by our Trip Tip photographers gives an impression of what there is to be seen.
Let's stay in touch
Holidays in Sicily are always over too soon. You have just started getting used to all the beauty and the wonderful sunshine - and it's time to go home! And there was so much more to see!
The good news is that you can get a taste of Sicily from anywhere in the world. We are on Facebook, Google+ and other social media. Click on your choice:
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- Quiet Old Town location
- Perfect for budget-conscious holidays in Sicily
- 8 separate apartments
- 2 with large roof terrace
- Distance from the sea: 1.3 km
- Distance from train station: 0.5 km
- Spacious Villa in traditional style
- Large Mediterranean garden
- 6 separate holiday apartments
- Perfect for families
- Distance from the sea: 0.8 km
- Distance from train station: 0.6 km
- Lively Old Town location
- 2 separate apartments
- 1 with large roof terrace
- Distance to the sea: 1.1 km
- Distance to train station: 0.1 km
- Heating system ideal for winter holidays in Sicily
- Small penthouse
- Living area: 50 m²
- Roof terrace: 130 m² with panoramic view
- Distance from the sea: 1.2 km
- Distance from train station: 0.2 km
- Heating system ideal for winter holidays in Sicily
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