Road trip­ping through Si­cily, and across the cen­turies

The Denver Post - - TRAVEL - By Siob­han Starrs

PALERMO, ITALY» Si­cily sits at the toe of Italy’s boot, just 2 miles from the main­land, at its clos­est point, and a short ferry ride from the town of Messina. But our gate­way to Si­cily was on the other side of the is­land, fly­ing into the cap­i­tal Palermo.

We have hol­i­dayed in Italy be­fore, but now with my part­ner and our 6-year-old daugh­ter Kitty in tow, and two weeks at our dis­posal, we were ready for a road trip. Si­cily’s size, cul­ture, food and weather make it an en­tic­ing des­ti­na­tion.

Lo­cated in the Mediter­ranean, Si­cily has been of strate­gic im­por­tance from an­cient times. The Greeks, Carthagini­ans, Ro­mans, Sara­cens and Nor­mans are just a few of the civ­i­liza­tions that in­vaded, each leav­ing their mark.

A rainy day led us to Palermo’s Royal Palace. Con­struc­tion be­gan in the ninth cen­tury dur­ing the Arab era, and it was later ex­panded by the Nor­mans, in­vaders from north­ern France, who as­sim­i­lated de­signs of the Is­lamic and Byzan­tine courts that pre­ceded them. Si­cily’s Arab-nor­man ar­chi­tec­ture is on UNESCO’S World Her­itage List.

The jewel of the Royal Palace is the Pala­tine Chapel built in Byzan­tine style with lav­ish golden mo­saics of saints, Ara­bic pat­terns and a wooden muqar­nasstyle ceil­ing — a type of or­na­mented vault­ing of­ten as­so­ci­ated with Is­lamic domes.

Si­cily’s Opera dei Pupi, which dates to the 19th cen­tury, fea­tures wooden pup­pets in tales of me­dieval chivalry and bat­tles. Some of the opera’s pup­pets, and oth­ers from around the world, are on dis­play at the In­ter­na­tional Mu­seum of Mar­i­onettes. An in-house show stars Or­lando, a me­dieval knight who must res­cue his beloved An­gel­ica from a le­gion of Sara­cens. Par­ents, be warned: It is

a rather vi­o­lent plot (though our daugh­ter loved it), with the hero slay­ing dozens of mar­i­onettes, which ended up in heap on the tiny stage. Some lost their heads, one lost its face.

A few days later we were sit­ting on the ter­race of our ho­tel in Taormina, on the is­land’s north­east coast, en­joy­ing the sun­shine, when Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest ac­tive vol­cano, emerged from be­hind clouds and ap­peared to float, emit­ting two white plumes from its snow-cov­ered sum­mit.

Taormina is Si­cily’s plush­est re­sort, more Capri than Naples, with an am­biance that recalls “La Dolce Vita.” (Audrey Hep­burn, In­grid Bergman, Richard Bur­ton and El­iz­a­beth Taylor are just a few of the fa­mous names who have stayed here.) The re­sort’s main attractions are the an­cient Greek theater and a ca­ble car that takes you down to a rocky promon­tory called Isola Bella.

Our quest to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the is­land led us next to Syra­cuse on Si­cily’s south eastern cor­ner. We stayed in Ory­tiga (Or­ti­gia), a small is­land which was once the his­toric cen­ter of the city, con­nected to the main­land by two bridges.

Syra­cuse’s main cathe­dral, il Duomo, is built on the site of a Greek tem­ple. The orig­i­nal Greek col­umns, which can still be seen, were in­cor­po­rated into a church in the seventh cen­tury. A mas­sive earth­quake in 1693 dev­as­tated much of the re­gion and many towns were re­built in a late baroque style, which be­came known as Si­cil­ian Baroque. Syra­cuse’s Duomo is a good ex­am­ple and we also vis­ited the nearby town of Noto, also fa­mous for baroque build­ings. Even if you’re not a fan of the op­u­lent style, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing how Si­cily’s his­tory can be ex­plored through its ar­chi­tec­ture.

In the mid­dle of the is­land’s south­ern coast, a road leads to the Val­ley of the Tem­ples near Agri­gento, an an­cient Greek and UNESCO World Her­itage site with seven tem­ples dat­ing to the sixth cen­tury B.C. We vis­ited two, the Tem­ple of Juno (also known as Tem­ple of Hera) and the Tem­ple of Con­cor­dia. Con­cor­dia, which was even­tu­ally turned into a church, is con­sid­ered one of the world’s finest sur­viv­ing ex­am­ples of a Greek tem­ple.

Our road trip through Si­cily had taken us across the is­land and through his­tory. But a winged bronze fig­ure ly­ing lan­guidly out­side the tem­ple dozed in the sun as it has for cen­turies, obliv­i­ous to the stream of pic­ture-tak­ing tourists and to the pas­sage of time.

Sal­va­tore Al­le­gra, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Snow-cov­ered Mount Etna, Europe’s most ac­tive vol­cano, spews lava on April 11 dur­ing an erup­tion seen from the Si­cil­ian vil­lage of Pozzillo, Italy.

Siob­han Starrs, The As­so­ci­ated Press

The Tem­ple of Con­cor­dia in the Val­ley of the Tem­ples, in Agri­gento, Si­cily, is one of seven Greek tem­ples in the area.

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