Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Road to Sicily - Part 3

On Friday we traveled to Naxos and the beautiful Sant Alphio Hotel and Spa. By the way, in Sicily, they don't leave mints on your pillow, they put a horse's head in the bed! Cheap shot, but on a more serious note, Sicily is the home office of the Italian Mafia. They ran amok for decades due to corrupt Italian officials. In the mid-1980s, the so-called Maxi Trial (Italian: Maxiprocesso) took place in Sicily that saw hundreds of defendants convicted for a multitude of crimes relating to Mafia activities, based primarily on testimony given by a former boss turned informant. This trial started a wave of turncoat moves by other prominent individuals that would ultimately result in the shut down of a significant percentage of Mafia-driven narcotics-trafficking and greatly damaged the alliances between Sicilian and American families. In Palermo, there is a monument to those who stood up to the Maffia including Giovanni Falcone, the courageous judge who presided at these trials. Tragically, he was blown up in a car bomb during the proceedings.

On to Agrigento in the southwestern area of Sicily and The Valley of the Temples, one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. The city was initially founded as a Greek colony in the 6th century BC and it quickly became a major cultural center. The temples in the valley were all constructed within a century, each facing east, which was a standard criteria for both Greek and Roman temples. This was done so that the statue of the god housed in each temple would be illuminated by the rising sun. The condition of these temples is amazing and a tribute to the people who built them. Thanks to their craftsmanship, we get a glimpse of two superior cultures that achieved things we can only marvel at. Our guide, Nicoletta, was not too pleased with American tourists who seemed more interested in snapping pictures than in hearing what she had to say.

Our afternoon is spent in one of the iconic towns of Sicily, Taormina on the eastern side of the island. People returning from Sicily will always mention Taormina in glowing terms as the jewel of Sicily. Situated on a sprawling mountainside, the city, like many others in Sicily, may be seen from above in views that boggle the imagination. The streets of Taormina are lined with shops and restaurants of every kind. The city is also home to some magnificent churches like St. Catherine of Alexandria and the Church of the Immaculate Mary. We had one rainy afternoon the whole time we were in Sicily, and it came in Taormina. Even though we didn't see the "Grande Dame" at her best, we still enjoyed our time there, especially the delicious pizza and local wine.

Back on the architectural trail, we are off to Siricusa on the eastern end of Sicily. Athens, Carthage, and Rome were the only three cities of the ancient Mediterranean world to challenge the power and prosperity of Siracusa during its Golden Age. Built on an ancient Greek settlement founded by Corinthians in 734 BC , more than any other modern city in Sicily, Siracusa manifests a visible continuity from its ancient Greek past. Our local guide, Marcello, walked us around Greek and Roman sites of interest, including a Greek theater and Roman arena. Matt does a wicked impression of Marcello, by the way.

Our last stop, and one of our best, was the island of Ortigia, across a bridge from mainland Siracusa. In my humble opinion, this place exceeds Taormina for sheer beauty. Ortigia is full of narrow streets and interesting balconies, facades, restaurants, churches, and crumbling palazzos. We had a delicious lunch at Spizzica, one of the waterfront restaurants that offer eye-catching views of the harbor. Beneath the restaurant is a spiral staircase leading down to a very ancient Jewish ritual bath, or Miqweh, which lay hidden for centuries deep under the old Jewish quarter of Ortigia. Under Spanish rule, Siracusa's Jews were ordered to leave the city in 1492, Before they went they appear to have filled up the baths, and blocked the entrance. In the town's central plaza is The Duomo, the oldest church in Europe, built on the site of a 6th century BC monument dedicated to the goddess Athena.

I'll always remember this trip for the beauty of the places we saw and for the excellent company of my wife, son and daughter-in-law. At mass this week, the priest talked about St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose church we visited in Taormina. Probably just a coincidence, no?


Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I felt I was reading a travel guide! Nicely painted picture signore.

Jim Pantaleno said...