Sicily Reveals Perfect Greek Temples But There Are Spectacular Bronzes Even Before You Take the Ferry

By Jean and Peter Richards

(This driving trip from our house in France to Sicily was taken in January 2005)

The ancient Greeks still reign in Sicily. The treasures are monumental. No picture, lecture or course can convey the impact on the eye under gray cloud or bright sky.

But the best Greek remains we saw were on the mainland and brought ashore at the tip of the boot just a few decades ago. We had the Riace Warriors all to ourselves on a Sunday afternoon in Reggio Calabria before boarding the ferry to Messina.

It was only by chance that we became aware of them and only by chance they were found on a nearby seabed in 1972 by a vacationing diver. That these two larger-than-life, fully articulated, magnificent bronze figures should be housed simply in the basement of the small, regional museum in an otherwise uninviting city is rather wonderful in itself.

One of the breathtaking Riace warriors at the Reggio Calabria Museum

These are powerful figures over six feet in height and remarkably preserved . They are simply, “A” and “B”. Though scholars have tried to impute certain attributes, they need no embellishment by anyone. They are superb.

We were already spoiled by the time we arrived in Reggio. The previous morning we had had Piero della Francesca’s mesmerizing “Legend of the Holy Cross” frescoes to  ourselves in the apse of the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. It was the manner of telling more than the story which captured us in this vibrant set  of murals.

That evening, expecting nothing more than an Italian version of 21st century creativity at dinner, we found the Alias full of the surprises at their Locanda in Castrovillari. The family of hoteliers, sommeliers and cooks is dedicated to preserving the best traditional ingredients of Calabria well prepared. No effort is spared.

It took us four days to drive from our part of France to the tip of the boot, albeit with a morning’s detour to Parma for an antiques fair. Prices were, as usual, astonishing. The Italians have no qualms about pricing to market and enjoying the fray.

“I am eating. Call me if you must discuss something.”

“Siamo mangiare,” is one of Peter’s favorite photo mementoes from a Parma antiques event. The sign was propped prominently in an exhibit with an exhortation to call the dealer at  lunch on his portable phone, the number writ large in black pen.

We had savored the prospect of Sicily for some time as much for the foods and warm winter temperatures as for the temples. The food was a disappointment. We had a dizzying ride in rare snow. The temples exceeded expectations by far.

We began near Siracusa and worked our way around. The apartment we rented on the east side came complete with views of snow capped Mount Etna,  the Ionian sea  and a neighboring farmer’s herd of cows regularly in the road. But when, one morning as we drove out, I said to Peter, “I thought that was a pig crossing, but it must have been a dog.” He laughed and said, “It was a pig and here comes another.”

Cows in the road made it challenging to return to our villa

Our first venture out was to the Greek Theater in Syracuse whose tiers of seats we climbed in blustery wind and brilliant sunshine. Its proportions are stunning, but the real treat was outside the city at the lesser known fort of Castello Eurialo, 9 kilometers northwest. It is as described by many as one of the greatest fortresses of the Greek period, built by Denis the Elder with help from Archimedes. Defense, we would later learn, is still an occupation on that part of the coast. The U.S. Navy is said to  have 7,000 people stationed along there.

We wandered the old city of Ortigia and found it most pleasant with its Doric columned temple remains, its baroque villas, charming squares and fresh water fountain by the sea dedicated to the nymph Aretusa..

At Catania we saw the symbolic elephant on its pedestal and caught our first glimpse of Sicily as a second world country far removed from the north.

Keeping up with the news in Taormina

Taormina, with its graceful streets and ancient theater perched on a precipice above the sea and in the shadow of Etna, may be more English now than when the British holiday seekers developed it a century ago. On an island where we were told even other Italians don’t understand the language, Taormina is a bastion of English speakers fresh off the holiday bus.

We caught sight of Ragusa Ibla’s fabulous site just in time to scurry out of there. Snow fell suddenly and heavily. We had seen enough of Sicilian driving to know that the chances of getting out of the hill town intact were slim. Not only do Sicilians drive like madmen; they park that way, too, angling their vehicles to form zigzags with parallel parkers or sometimes just stopping in the middle of the road. No sooner had we started up the hill that led to the only way we knew out of town than the slip-sliding began. One hour and five kilometers later we were back on dry road. Peter’s well honed skills saved us on a hair raising climb littered with the less fortunate.

Temple of Concordia at Agrigento

Thunder and dark cloud added to the dimension of Concordia, the unbelievably beautiful Greek temple at Agrigento. We had it to ourselves in afternoon light as well and found it difficult to tear ourselves away to see as much of the Valley of the Temples as we could before night fell.

So bountiful are the exhibits of extraordinary artifacts in the archeological museums at Siracusa, Ragusa and Agrigento that we could not possibly absorb them all.

Warrior of Castiglione (525-500 B.C.), Ragusa Museum

The drive from Agrigento in the south to Palermo in the northwest over the mountains and across the island is through a landscape as varied as it is beautiful and takes a little over two hours. There is hardly any settlement or herd of animals to be seen on the way until the shoddy cement suburbs of Palermo come into view. The building construction appears worthy of its reputation. Never before have we seen blocks of recently built apartments with terraces wrapped in plastic and wire to keep their crumbling parts from falling on those below.

Palermo’s charms are few. Food, for us, was not amongst them. I never want to taste Sicilian tomato sauce or its intense fish stock again. Peter, however, very much liked the fresh swordfish which is a staple throughout.  My dietary delight was of pasta in a wonderful lemon sauce in Taormina and a serendipitous lunch near Segesta.

It would have been worth spending a second week in Sicily if only to see the temple at Segesta. That which seems an apparition at the bottom of the hill, disappears on the climb and confronts with the full force of its beauty on arrival. Only two other visitors intruded on our private pleasure taking measure of its perfectly proportioned 36 columns set on stepped foundations forever open to the sky. That we had a blue one enhanced our enjoyment.

Ionic Temple at Segesta

It’s not our habit to take restaurant recommendations from strangers hanging about a tourist site ticket office. Antiques dealers are generally more reliable on that score. But, the four guys who were still communing in the courtyard when we descended temple hill were firm in their recommendation – an agritourismo place less than 2 kilometers away. We expected a farmhouse lunch and instead found ourselves alone in a large and attractive dining room, the sole clients of one of the most contented looking men we’ve ever encountered.  The feasting began with an antipasto rustico of cheese, salamis, a perfect caponata, olives and mushrooms and continued through courses of risotto, pasta, grilled meats from the farm, fruit and a warm cheese filled dessert pastry. We strained to do it justice not wanting to insult our commendable host. Baglio Pocoroba opened last November.

Our plan to leave the island and tour Calabria and Puglia went amuck when snow stranded people on the southern auto route for days. A sea voyage became an attractive alternative. We booked it through a travel agent up the street from the house we rented in on the northwestern coast  of Sicily in Casteldaccio, a feat which really became a leap of faith on our part because we didn’t understand most what the agent was saying. Faith was rewarded. Our first cruising adventure was from Palermo to Genoa. We had a fine suite with a view at the bow and great fun wandering the practically empty boat. The purser had so little to do that when we met in the glass elevator the next morning he promptly engaged me in conversation and then invited us to his office for an hour-long chat adding both the the pleasure and interest of the journey. We enjoyed the fine facilities, the calm sea and not having to drive the 1,400 kilometers back up the boot. We might even take another cruise or ferry some day. Avoid the French ones, our purser advised with a twinkle.

Pleasant encounters with stranger aren’t unusual, but one Sicilian will be forever etched in  our memories.

Having been warned about Palermo traffic, we had decided to take a public bus to the city the first day of our stay. We checked the schedule, bought our tickets at the tobacconist, arrived early at the stop and missed it. When another bus came along, the driver declined to let us on.  A passer-by intervened. The driver relented. We rode with him through one town and then another when he came to a halt and told us to wait. Ten minutes later he returned with coffee for us.

Copyright © 2011 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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