We’ll be back in time- treasures of Sicily (Siracusa, Noto, Modica, Ragusa)


An hour and a half or so from the Etna’s slopes lies the port city of Siracusa, dating to 2500 BCE. The entire city is a Unesco World Heritage site. Most of Sicily is or should be, unless clean streets and regular trash pickup and street sweeping count- there its cities are failing.

Once in town we found a parking place for our van entirely due to the efforts of a local. He was leaving so he took us to where he was parked, in front of a sign that said no parking. After I parked he came back to make sure we understood that parking there was ok. He knew the sign was no longer valid, but would give us cause for concern as we are ‘stranieri,’ (foreigners) and unfamiliar with the way things actually work. Or don’t. Things are rather idiosyncratic in Italy, making local knowledge of great value. Locals, however, sometimes disagree loudly about what really is and is not permissible.

Back in Time

In the evening we walked to the old town from our lovely 6 person/3 bedroom flat. It was a journey from the fairly new, across the bridge, then onto the island of the very old. Here the city began, ideally situated for access to the sea.

The old island was full of people walking, sitting on benches, drinking and eating, taking photos and what not. They came on scooters and buses mostly as finding a place to park can be somewhere between difficult and impossible.

The Cathedral, called Il Duomo. You can see the ancient columns.

The cathedral was built on the site of a temple to Athena from the 5th century BCE. The latter’s still visible columns were used to build the walls. What stories they could tell if they had lips! T. The roof of the nave is Norman, as are the mosaics, the people who brought into my family our blond, blue eyed Sicilian uncle. Fewer structures anywhere can transport you so far back in time without you having to budge much at all.

Il Duomo when we were there at night.

A big reason to come here is to visit the archaeological park. There are huge caves chiseled from the hills, from where oracles gave their predictions. As will all such sites, it helps to have some familiarity with the ancient cultures to enjoy the visit so you can imagine the smoke and mirror shows that went along with all the hooha. The park contains not only a Greek theater but a Roman as well. The Greeks did plays, the Romans watched blood sports. Tell me who was more civilized than the other.


It was lunch time by the time we left so we looked for a restaurant that is more or less on the way back to our apartment, as we were on foot and not all of us capable of lots of hoofing. I found a place that looked good and with just one minor navigation boo boo went right to it. The chef greeted us with enthusiasm at a volume all Sicilians seem to enjoy. Loud. It is equated with being genuine. It’s all about drama, theater, expressiveness. We have run across this often in our past journeys, and as I grew up with Sicilians, I can do a clever imitation my own self.

Well all was fine and dandy despite our expressive albeit friendly cook who came to greet us. Americani! He was thrilled. There have not been many of us lately and he’s off the beaten track so even in normal times there are few. But then I made a major mistake. The house antipasto had a bit of everything so I ordered one for the table. The waitress took that to mean one each. In the meantime everyone had ordered either a primo (pasta) or a secundo (meat or fish). Then the antipasti arrived. And arrived and arrived. It was too much food but fantastic, so we had a great time. We had the other dishes for dinner and were so so at best. In the end, I’d done it right, by mistake. It was about 30 euros per person, not terribly expensive especially given the quality and quantity.

The Necropolis of Pantalica is close by, less than an hour or so in the van. We went the next day. You drive through windy roads and a dusty village or two perhaps before you get a view of the burial caves. We never got close up but you could certainly see the openings on the side of the cliffs. I wondered how they reached some of these, as they were well off the ground and far from the cliff’s top. These were dug between the 13th and 7th centuries BCE. It’s a dry, rocky landscape but a stream runs through it. Life must have been as hard as the rocks they lived on.

Necropolis of Pantalica

Modica and Noto

Noto and Modica are short distances from Siracusa and each other so we visited both on the same day. Noto is most noted for its Baroque church, completed in 1776, and Modica for being built on both sides of a steep, wide gully. Noto as well as Modica is a World Heritage city, their origin in Roman times. Like many others it was conquered by the Moors before falling to the Christians in 1091. Each was also severely damaged in 1693. In Modica there was a population loss approaching 50%. Modica was rebuilt in a homogeneous fashion, giving it a special charm.

Modica from the Church, watercolor
Modica from the Cathedral steps, watercolor

This is our second visit to Modica. We stayed just outside town in the summer of 2000. We were living in Rome at the time. We stayed with the nephew of  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of The Leopard, a well respected and famous novel written in the early 1950’s, and made into a film in 1963. It’s story of the joining of Sicily to the just unified Italy, led by Garibaldi and company in the events termed Il Risorgimento.

“The more you want things to remain the same the more things must change,” he wrote. My sense is that Italy and Sicily particularly are trapped in deep, enduring ironies such as this. It is extremely rich in heritage in form of architecture, art (at least until the Baroque), antiquities, music, film, theaters, science- Marconi invented radio, for instance. Maybe you have heard of him. Italians were instrumental in the European expansion into the Americas. Maybe you have heard of the famous Italian Cristoforo Colombo. He was born in Genoa. Then there’s Giovanni Caboto, John Cabot to us anglophones. How about Amerigo Vespuci?

In addition to the many contributions to civilization, Italy today is among the 10 largest economies of the world. Yet when you visit many cities the streets, buildings and public spaces look third world. They have trouble getting unemployment below 10%, although who knows, really, given how readily people can move between being on and off the books. And the Italians go through governments as they go through pasta, twice a day.


We departed Siracusa after three nights in a lovely place with two large bathrooms and a tiny kitchen and a huge living room that no one used other than as a 4th bedroom. We were heading for Ragusa, before landing in a B and B for the night.


Want some super views and an old castle on top of it all? Nearly get stuck while trying to get your van out of town? Come to Ragusa where a little over 70,000 people are spread between two steep hills full of narrow roads. Do not follow the one that says “Residents only.” I did and nearly had to back out of the whole town.

Ragusa was heavily damaged in the 1693 quake. The residents rebuilt first on a second hill before fixing up the old section. These are called Ragusa Superiore and Ragusa Inferiore. We drove through the narrow steep streets of both. There are great views from the Lombardi castle after you clamber up the boulders.

View of Ragusa Superiore

We checked into an attractive B and B up a short steep driveway, with a small garden in front. After a bit of confusion I caused as I thought there was no a.c. but not for the first time I missed the modern units sitting high on the ceilings. Later we had dinner in a huge restaurant, its large patio occupied by a family celebrating the birthday of a kid who could not have been more than three. They whopped it up as he did a grand entrance on a battery operated car he was barely old enough to maneuver safely. It’s the kind of thing that could turn the kid into a whopping narcissist. What are these people thinking?

Ragusa’s Cathedral with large modern sculptures in the style of

The next day we visited Villa Roman de Casale and the following it was Agrigento. The former is a Roman villa from the 4th century CE. There are amazing mosaics covering 3500 square meters. They depict the life of a wild animal importer who provided these poor creatures for Romans’ cruel pleasures. Or maybe, as most scholars now suggest, it was the home of a high level politician. In 1161 it was destroyed by William I, the first Norman king. I figure the Normans invaded Sicily after realizing how bland the food in England was, deciding to look for better restaurants to the south. They chose well. The villa was covered by a landslide later in the century, thus preserving the mosaics. The huge villa is yet another World Heritage site.

Villa Roma del Casali
villa figures

We’ll be back in time- treasures of Sicily (Catania to Taormina)

After driving around Sicily we are in a tiny basement apartment in the center of Palermo recovering from the 12 consecutive days in ruins and churches, and six months of almost constant movement on Viking that took us from the northeastern part of Netherlands to a small city in France on the Belgium border. We need a bit of a rest, but not before I get some of my memories down.


We started in Catania after winterizing the boat and spending a few days with friends in and around Paris. From Versailles we went across Paris to Charles de Gaulle. It took an amazing three hours, expecting no more than two. They’d changed things since we were last there. It was unclear what the E line from San Lazar was now doing. Did it still always go to Gare d’ Nord? Once we got off at Gare d’ Nord it was hard to find where you would need to go to get tickets for de Gaulle. When you found a machine (no people in ticket booths within sight) there was only one and a line there. In the meantime the clock was ticking. We eventually made it with plenty of time but by then I was well frazzled. The rest of the journey proceeded without incident- Paris to Catania on Easyjet, from whom we have multiple vouchers. Then it was just a matter of finding the apartment we rented for three nights with four other friends. That was easy. We even came upon two of them walking up the hill towards the apartment.

Catania was founded in the 8th century BCE by Greeks. It is at the foot of Mount Etna, which has made many unwelcome visits to the city. The eruptions of 1169, 1669 and 1693 caused severe damage as well as loss of life. There are over a dozen other recorded lava flows into the city. As a result of the 1693 eruption the old town has lots of fine examples of late Baroque architecture, making it a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Cathedral is one of the better examples but there are tons, secular as well as religious.

The Cathedral in Catania

The original Cathedral was finished in 1093. Basilica della Collegiata was also destroyed and also rebuilt in the Baroque style. Needless to say once you have visited either one or seen the photos, the artistry of both the buildings’ exterior and interior are nearly beyond the imagination, but wait until you see Gesu in Palermo.

One of the finest examples of ceiling art anywhere, Cathedral Catania

The Greco-Roman amphitheater is still with us and a must see. I always find it rather amazing that things of this size were buried. This one was excavated 1500 plus years later, in the 19th century. It seats 7000. Impressive, no? Yet it is fewer than the amphitheaters in Taormina and Siracusa, both smaller cities.

Roman theater in Catania

There were 6 of us in a very nice three bedroom apartment. It only had one bathroom so we had to do a bit of shuffling. Also there was only one key, a common practice here that can make matters difficult at times. For example, one person or group plans to arrive before another but then is delayed, leaving the second locked out.

Just outside our door is a tabac- they sell tobacco products, bus tickets, this and that, somehow eeking out a living a euro at a time like millions of other small shop owners in Italy. Out front is a marijuana dispenser. Naturally we were curious so tried to buy some. It asked for a card of some sort, apparently a health card (tessera sanitaria) so presumably the law relates to medical use.

None of us have such a card. No problem. The shopkeeper swiped one for us and out came a product. I avoid inhaling anything that burns as much as possible so I can not account for the quality of the weed. There are many choices and I have no idea what any of it means.

Pot for every chicken on the street corner

There’s a lovely restaurant up the busy street we are on. The service was welcoming, very friendly and nearly perfect. The offerings are fine examples of typical Sicilian cooking. Caponata is on the menu, as it will be in most every restaurant we visit from here on. It’s one of my favorite dishes. It’s eggplant (aubergine) based, with onions and garlic, capers and more in a vinegar-sugar mix. There are tons of variations, some including pignole (pine nuts) and others walnuts instead, or none at all. The wine was very good and there’s a good selection of beers. In regards to beers, Italy has come up in the world. In previous visits all you had were basics like Peroni, not bad but not outstanding and all more or less the same. Now there are lots of domestic and imported craft beers.

The restaurant across the street was the opposite of the first restaurant. So so food, mediocre service. I did not think Italians could mess up Italian food. They can, but even then it isn’t bad. And this was not in a tourist zone, so no excuses there. They even served lousy bread. That should be a crime. It was a crime that was repeated in a number of the restaurants we ate in. It was even hard to find good bread in the supermarkets we used. It was all wrapped in plastic, turning the fabulous crust into near mush.

There are a large number of churches in Catania. We missed almost all of them. Here’s a partial list

  • San Michele Arcangelo ai Minoriti (Franciscan) church
  • San Nicolò l’Arena (1687), unfinished basilica church and extensive Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena (1558)
  • San Nicolas al Borgo
  • San Placido (1769) church
  • Madonna delle Grazie Chapel
  • Santa Rita in Sant’Agostino church
  • San Sebastiano (1313)
  • Santa Teresa, Carmelitan church and convent
  • Santissima Trinità
  • Santa Ursula
  • Chiesa delle Verginelle di Sant’Agata
  • San Vincenzo de’ Paoli, church
  • Santissimo Sacramento al Borgo church
  • Chapel of the Blind’s Housing (Ospizio dei Ciechi
  • Santissimo Sacramento al Duomo, church
  • Church of the Holy Child
  • Our Lady of Providence
  • San Berillo in Santa Maria degli Ammalati, church
  • Our Lady of the Poor
  • Little Saviour’s Byzantine Chapel
  • Church of the Santissimo Sacramento Ritrovato (1796).[58]
  • Sanctuary of Our Lady of Ognina (1308).[59] 


We’d parked in a lot near the apartment in Catania. I retrieved the van with someone to help just in case I had to detour. The last block is more an alley than a street but lots of cars and pedestrians squeeze through simultaneously. Turn right and our friends are there waiting so it could not be much more convenient.

Taormina is an hour or so by car. It dates to around the same time as Catania but it’s on a hill rather than being a port. The town is most notable for its Greek theater still used for plays and concerts and the lovely restored town center (mostly tourist shops and eateries). Nothing but willful destruction will ever destroy the seating in the theater, I should think, since it’s lasted this long. The views of the coast from the seating areas are marvelous, the clear blue waters of the Med spread below. There are excellent videos off one side of the stage, displayed on high resolution monitors. You get a better sense of what things were like at the theater in ancient times.

The stage and the wonderful view of the Med. The Greeks knew real estate, didn’t they.

We found a quick, inexpensive yet decent place for a light lunch right in town. Then we returned to the pickup spot. You have to park outside of town, then call when you are ready. Better have an EU ready phone and having a least a bit of Italiano really helps. My B level does the trick most of the time.

Taormina from the castle By Solomonn Levi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94062292
Taormina from the castle – we did not go to it, photo by Solomonn Levi on Wikipedia

From Taormina we drove high up the side of Etna, aka Aetna, Etnea (in Catania only near as I can tell), and then there’s my own version, Edna, which makes her sound so human, an explosive Sicilian one for sure. Here we were treated to dramatic views, sharp switchbacks and a clamber over volcanic rocks and flows, boulders frozen in place where they cooled. We are still a good bit from the top, and I think we saw smoke coming from the crater there, or a constant cloud. I vote for the smoke. Edna needs to let off steam on a regular basis.

The lava fields of Edna’s slopes. She was in a good mood that day, here at least

Next: Siracusa, an ancient Greek port city

The Ancestral Towns

March 31, 2018

My grandparents were born in the small towns of Partanna and Santa Ninfa, emigrating to the US in 1914-15.  I am the first time on the US side anyone has visited these places.   The two are in the province of Trapanni between the cities of Trapanni and Marsala but inland, and in an agricultural zone that today produces mostly grapes and olives.  The area was inhabited by the Greeks, and not far from these towns there are some fine examples of Greek temples, which I will show in a subsequent post. 


Partanna is by far the more interesting, having a palace, some ruins and a great view to share. It is on a hill some 400 meters above sea level and 50 kilometers from the coast.   Here it is on the approach with our excellent Canon zoom.  



Vinyard on the outskirts of Partanna


Today there are about 10,000 inhabitants.  Its most notable architectural feature is the Castell Grifeo, now the Museo Regionale di Preistoria del Belice.  The castle dates back at least to 1453 and perhaps to 1400.  It contains mostly items excavated locally at a site called Contrada Stretto.  Per their website the  “Skull Drilled,” discovered in the Contrada Stretto, dates to the early bronze age, 3500-2000 BCE.  The skull has a large hole, drilled while the person was alive.  It is evident that the subject survived.  This “magical-surgical” procedure was probably used to cure mental illnesses.  There is also an 18th century fresco showing King Roger II, a Norman nobleman, defeating the Arabs near Mazara.  Later Roger and his soldiers liberated Sicily from the Arabs.  Mazara is not far from Partanna.  We passed nearby today.


Via Palermo, Partanna


The family name is Palermo, of course I can not be totally certain if this street is named for the family or the city, but nearly every town in Sicily has a via Palermo.



This church, The Church of Purgatory, is a mere facade.  The Grifeo family built it in 1722.



The damage ocurred during an earthquake in 1968.  Also damaged was the Church of San Francisco, although the clock tower survived and it still in use.  San Francisco dates from around 1500, while the tower was added in 1650. 


We are in Partanna on a Sunday and not a creature is stirring.  We could not even find a restaurant for lunch, so we drove the 6km to Santa Ninfa only to find the same situation, although luckily we ran across an open bar.  He had some tasty if floppy small round pizzas and arancini, rice balls, that in this joint are stuffed with beef in one and ham in another.  They roll them in corn flour and drop them into a hot oil.  The white wine was quite good.  It was a men’s only place today, watching soccer on tv while a few had something to drink. 


Santa Ninfa was founded in 1605.  Largely rebuilt after the devastating 1968 earthquake, its appearance is largely modern.  Today there are 5000 inhabitants and like Partanna is surrounded by farms, also mostly producing olives and grapes judging by what we saw on the way from that town.  There is a huge olive oil silo on the edge of town, a towering witness to the efforts of farmers and their employees. 


There are several regional DOP’s (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) for wine in this areaAlcamo, Delia Nivolelli , Delia Nivolelli, Erice, Marsala, Menfi, Moscato di Pantelleria or Passito di Pantelleria or Pantelleria, Salaparuta There are more DOP’s in this region than anywhere else in Sicily, if not all of Italy.  Judging by the size of the fields we drove through I am not at all surprised.  And no wonder I like the stuff!  It’s in the genes.


Judging by what we saw in the area, their fast food is pizza, like most everywhere in Italy, arancini (rice balls), fries, and something called panelle or paneddi, which are flat panels just 1/8″ thick.   They are made water and chickpea flour cooked into a porridge (like polenta), and then cooled until firm, cut into pieces, and fried in olive oil.   They are sometimes served in bread or roll.


Finally, this story.  In Valencia I happened to meet another American about a year ago.  His name is Jim.  One of us said, “My grandparents were born in Sicily.”


“No kidding, mine too.”


“Really!  What a coincidence!  My grandfather was born in Partanna.” 


“You don’t say.  Mine too!.”   


In addition to this coincidence, we live just five minutes from one another.