My tour of Sicily’s large cities and World Heritage

On 1 October I departed for Sicily for a nine day visit. The choice for Sicily was motivated by two reasons. The first was that a return ticket from Eindhoven to Trapani with Ryanair cost me € 50, which was convenient as I didn’t want to spend much money. As a consequence I decided to travel through Sicily with public transport. The second was that Sicily contains a lot of sights related to Classical Antiquity, which interests me much as a historian. This first post contains the day to day travel report, a second post discussing other matters follows.

Day 1 and 2: Agrigento

After arriving at Trapani Birgi airport I took a bus all the way to Agrigento. It’s a long trip because the bus makes quite a few stops along an indirect route, but this didn’t bother me. The bus rides offer a nice opportunity to see the unspoiled countryside with its agriculture, hills and mountains.

Modern Agrigento was built on a hill, a few kilometers away from the Valle di Templi (not actually a valley) at a lower elevation. After arriving I walked around the center a bit, which doesn’t have anything interesting to offer, determined to get to the Valle di Templi on the second day.

On the second day I bought a bus ticket at the central bus station, but the guy behind the counter failed to tell me that there was a strike that day, either deliberately or unknowingly. Fortunately the bus tickets cost me no more than € 2 or € 3. I finally figured out why the bus wasn’t coming after asking around and decided to walk.

Walking that distance proved to be very detrimental to the rest of my vacation. I might have walked 15 kilometers or more that day, but the real problem were my shoes. Maybe they weren’t the best choice for traveling long distance in the first place, but as they had just been repaired they weren’t very flexible. The end result was blisters, as of day 10 my left foot still hurts constantly. Buying thong slippers (couldn’t find normal slippers in my size) in Siracusa did not reduce the discomfort.

The Valle di Templi was one of the first places which made me question if physically visiting the place provided added value over looking up photos of the temples on the Internet. The temples are an impressive sight to be sure, but you can only view them from a short distance. Not that I wanted to enter their interior, there is simply not much to see there as that was not preserved. You walk around them for a bit, make some photos and move on, no more.

Between the temples and Agrigento you can find the Museo Archeologico Regionale. I liked this more than the temples themselves, the well preserved Greek painted pottery is much more fascinating art than the temples which, even if they are in a relatively good state compared to most other temples, are merely shadows of their former glory.

Temple of Concordia

Day 3 and 4: Siracusa

If you think they’re right to do this, my friend, I suppose you disapprove of Syracusan rations and the wide variety of savories that can be found in Sicily.

Socrates speaking to Glaucon, Politeia 404d.

I’m sure Glaucon would have disapproved of the Siracusan mosquitos as well. The LoL Hostel where I was staying was really nice, but somehow it was the only place I visited which was infested with mosquitos. I got bitten like twenty times all over my arms and it itched terribly.

The archeological park of Siracusa contains the ruins of a Roman theater and a Greek theater. While both are impressive sights, you could just as well look at their photos on the Internet. The ear of Dionysus is just a very short cave which is not worth your time, closer to home in Belgium or France there are many caves which actually are worth a visit.

The Necropolis of Pantalica is a part of Siracusa’s inscription as a World Heritage site, but those are located further outside of Siracusa. I did not get to see them because I didn’t figure out how to get there. Apparently it’s not possible to get there with a bus.

I rate the crypts of the Basilica di San Giovanni and the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi as the most interesting sights in the city. I had never seen anything like the extensive network of crypts before, which are visited through a nice guided tour. The archeological museum is very large and also has plenty of beautiful painted Greek pottery.

Finally I went to the beach of Fontane Bianche, a short bus ride away from the Siracusa’s central station. I’m envious of the clear blue waters and the absence of nasty jellyfish, two things the North Sea doesn’t offer.

Roman amphitheater of Siracusa

Greek theater of Siracusa

Day 5 and 6: Catania

Originally I intended to stay in Catania for one day and visit Mount Etna, but it soon turned out that the only way to get to Etna with public transport was a bus which leaves early in the morning. Because I had never visited a volcano before in my life I decided to extend my stay in Catania with one day.

The rest of day 5 I walked around in the center of Catania. The Greek theater is worth a visit, as is the botanical garden. The Catania Cathedral was apparently not open during the afternoon, which was strange. I had the impression there was not much else which was interesting.

In the morning of day 6 I took the bus to Rifugio Sapienza, where you can take a cable car to the top of Mount Etna. You can walk instead of taking the cable car, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I paid € 60,50 for the cable car, the minibuses taking you to highest point near the top and a guided tour. If I wouldn’t have had blisters and bad shoes, I would have walked all the way instead of paying so much.

At the last stop before the top everyone got a short guided tour around two boring craters with some steam coming out of them. The highest craters were visible from that point, but going any higher was prohibited. As no one enforced this rule, many people went slightly higher up anyway. Going all the way to the craters at the top yourself didn’t seem possible to me without equipment to climb them and I saw no one else doing it.

What I did do was following a trail and some other people taking it, to end up at a stream of dried lava. At some distance from the path I could see a heat haze of rising hot air, so I believe the warning that you should watch your step. From that point I went downhill alone to the cable car on foot. At some places you sink into the gravel on the slopes, so expect to throw it out of your shoes.

My conclusion was that Etna was simply not worth the time and money. If you want to see Etna just look up some of the videos and photos of the volcano and its eruptions on the net, that’s a more satisfying option. In retrospect it would have been better to spend that time on swimming, diving or snorkeling.

Me in fron of Etna's summit

View from Etna

Day 7: Piazza Armerina

On day 7, Sunday, the first bus to Piazza Armerina would depart later at 12:30. Because I couldn’t think of anything else to do and wasn’t keen on walking with the state my feet were in, I decided to wait for two to three hours at the bus station. When I got out of the bus in Piazza Armerina there still were some kilometers to cover to get to the Villa Romana del Casale, the most important sight in the vicinity of the town.

Fortunately a group of four Russians also needed to go there. We decided to share a taxi, so the fee was only € 10 for a round trip. The villa is one of the best sights I saw in Sicily. The individual mosaics are amazing, but what is even more amazing is that the whole villa had mosaics on practically every floor. Not surprisingly, the owner was likely quite rich.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to see more of Piazza Armerina itself, by the time I got back it was getting late and after having dinner the cathedral of the town was closed. The next morning I had to take an early bus to Palermo. It’s a pity, because Piazza Armerina is the most authentic Sicilian village I have seen. And B&B Giucalem was certainly the best bed & breakfast I encountered in Sicily, with very hospitable owners.

Day 8 and 9: Palermo

The first things I noticed when I walked out of Palermo’s central station are that it’s a city with a lot of traffic jams, stench, trash and dog shit in its center. A rude awakening after coming from Pizza Armerina. The sights are worth it though, the Palazzo Normanni with the Capella Palatina and the Cathedral of Monreale are stunningly beautiful. Just about every square meter of their interiors is meticulously decorated.

The free city map of the center alone counts around fifty churches in the legend. A few of those are certainly worth a visit, such as the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. Unfortunatly the museum which I would have wanted to visit, the Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas, was closed for renovation.

I conclude that instead of getting a hotel in the center of Palermo like me, it might be a better idea to look for a nice place to sleep in the outskirts of Palermo or farther away and take a bus to the center.

Day 10: Trapani Birgi Aiport

I arrived at the airport on day 9 around 18:30, but my flight back to the Netherlands would leave at 6:30 on day 10. I was lazy and didn’t want to spend more money. I also thought it would be difficult and expensive to arrange for a place to sleep in Trapani and then leave very early with a taxi to the airport (assuming the bus doesn’t go so early).

So I spent the night without sleep on the airport, which allowed me the time to write this post and make some progress with reading Politeia. Now that I’m back I miss the nice weather, but on the other hand it’s convenient that I’m no longer sweating constantly.

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