If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the island of Sicily, a region of southern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area can be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. And parts of Sicily haven’t yet been discovered by tourists. This article presents eastern Sicily. A companion article presents western Sicily. Another companion article presents Sicily’s capital, Palermo.
We’ll start our Sicilian tour in the northeast corner at Messina on the Ionian coast and work our way south to Siracusa. The only time that we’ll leave the seacoast area is to visit Mt. Etna.
Messina is Sicily’s third largest city with a population of about 250,000. It was founded by the Greeks in the Eighth Century B.C. and like many parts of Italy changed often hands over the centuries. Some say that Messina was the port of entry for the Black Plague that decimated Europe during the Middle Ages. In the mid-Sixteenth Century St. Ignatius founded the world’s first Jesuit College, which later became part of the University of Messina.
In 1908 the city was virtually destroyed by an earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. Even now there are no tall buildings. You’ll want to see the Norman Duomo (Cathedral) initially constructed at the end of the Twelfth Century. Because of a fire during World War Two this magnificent building was rebuilt twice in the past century. Make sure to see the bell tower with its impressive mechanical clock. Near the Duomo is the Palazzo Calapaj (Calapaj Palace), which survived the earthquake. There is a Sixteenth Century lighthouse and several fountains worth visiting. Engineers and others may want to see the Pylon (actually two of them) which, when built in 1957, were the tallest pylons in the world. While they are no longer in use, the Pylon is classified as a historical monument.
The walled village of Castelmola with its ancient streets and spectacular view is only a few miles from the coast. Don’t miss it. Go to the ruins of the Thirteenth Century Castello Normanno (Norman Castle). It’s more than a kilometer above sea level and you’ll have to climb the path from the parking lot below. Actually there are two paths with two different views and if you can you really should explore both, one up and one down the mountain. What’s to see when you get to the top – the city of Taormina and the Ionian Sea to the east, the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north, and Mount Etna to the west. Castelmola also boasts a Cathedral and several old churches worth visiting.
Unlike Castelmola which has few non-Sicilian sightseers, the town of Taormina has been discovered by tourists. It too has a beautiful view. The Taormina Mare beach is accessible from the town by a funivia (gondola) that you must take if only for the view.
The hillside Teatro Greco (Greek Theater) was built in the Third Century B.C. and rebuilt by the Romans several centuries later. It is still in active use, especially during the summer. The only thing that matches its magnificent acoustics is, you guessed it, the spectacular view. Taormina was home to two famous writers, D. H. Lawrence and Truman Capote. If your budget permits, Taormina boasts two top-of-the-line hotels, the Grand Hotel Timeo and Villa Flora and the San Domenico Palace.
Mount Etna is the largest and highest volcano in Europe. It is still active, spouting about a dozen times since 1971. It has destroyed cable car stations several times. Depending on weather report, you may be able to climb part of this mountain. You may prefer to take the Circumetnea railroad, which circles most of the volcano base. The whole trip takes about five hours. Unless…
The Hotel Villa Paradiso Dell’Etna has quite a checkered history. It started as a bohemian hangout in the 1920s. Then German General Rommel took it over during World War II. Later it became a military hospital. After very extensive renovations it is now a pricey hotel.
The city of Acireale, population about fifty thousand, is about halfway down the Ionian coast of eastern Sicily. The very, very rocky shoreline is called the Riviera dei Ciclopi (The Cyclops Riviera). According to Homer’s The Odyssey, the Cyclops Polyphemus, enraged at being blinded, hurled boulders at Ulysses. Be that as it may, the swimming is fine and tourists are relatively few, except perhaps at Carnival time before Lent. You’ll want to see the public gardens, Villa Belvedere, and the Baroque Duomo (Cathedral).
Catania with a population of slightly over three hundred thousand is Sicily’s second largest city. Being more or less at the foot of Mount Etna has its good and bad points. On the positive side the volcanic soil is great for agriculture, in particular for wine. On the negative side, the city has often been severely damaged by earthquakes and lava. Over the centuries Catania has been buried in lava seven times. In the local version of making lemonade when life gives you lemons, many of Catania’s buildings are constructed from lava.
Catania’s University, founded in 1434, was the first Sicilian University and is said by some to be the best. During the 1980s and 1990s the city was known for its youth music culture. Might this have something to do with the fact that it was home to the early Nineteenth Century Opera composer Vincenzo Bellini? The Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) is home to an elephant carved out of lava, as well as the Catedrale di Sant’Agata (St. Agatha Cathedral) in which Bellini is buried.
We finish our tour of eastern Sicily with a quick look at the city of Siracusa (Syracuse), founded by Greek colonists more than twenty seven hundred years ago. At one point this city was more powerful than Athens, defeating it in a major naval battle around 400 B. C. About two hundred years later the Romans conquered Syracuse. All that’s left of the naval yards are blocks of stone but there are plenty of other sights to see. Let’s start with the buildings of ancient times.
The Teatro Greco (Greek Theater) was built for 15,000 spectators and is the venue for Greek tragedies in May and June. It is the most intact Ancient Greek theater. You can compare and contrast it to the Anfiteatro Romano (Roman Amphitheater), which is also in great shape. Some of the seats still have their owners’ names on them. Make sure to see the Museo del Papiro (Papyrus Museum) devoted to paper’s antecedent. And don’t miss the Museo Archeologico (Archeological Museum) from the mid-Bronze age to classic Greek times. There are literally dozens of churches and palaces of historical, artistic, and architectural interest in mainland Siracusa and the neighboring Ortygia Island, which is also known as the Città Vecchia (Old City).
A major island attraction is the Duomo whose site has served for worship over the millennia, first to local deities, then to the Greek goddess Athena, and finally as a Christian cathedral integrating the colossal Greek columns. Spend some time in the surrounding Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square). You can compare this Piazza to the nearby Piazza Archimede with its baroque fountain.
What about food? Well over two thousand years ago a Greek poet from the Sicilian city of Gela wrote Gastronomia, an ode to dining in Sicily. And in some ways things have only gotten better over the centuries as foreign products such as tomatoes made their way to Sicily. Of course some things have changed. Sicilian ices are no longer made from the snows of Mount Etna. Are they as exquisite as they were in the good old days? I can’t answer that question, but Sicilian ices are still famous. And many will be happy to know that Sicily ranks only behind the neighboring of Sardinia for organic food. Some say that Sicily invented meatballs; in any case spaghetti and meatballs are undoubtedly more American than Sicilian. Certified food products include olives, olive oil, cheese, tomatoes, oranges, table grapes (I prefer them fermented), and pears.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Spaghetti al nero di Seppia (Spaghetti with black Squid Sauce). Then try Sarde a Beccafico (Sardines stuffed with Cheese, Garlic, Parsley, and Capers). For dessert indulge yourself with Paste di Mandorla (Almond Cakes). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a quick look at Sicilian wine. Sicily holds first place among the 20 Italian regions for both acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. If Sicily were an independent country, it would be the world’s seventh largest wine producer. The following statistic may surprise some people: Only a bit more than half of Sicilian wine is red. Sicily produces nineteen DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. Only about 2% of Sicilian wine carries this sometimes prestigious classification. But many Sicilian wines that don’t carry the DOC classification are excellent.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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