Category Archives: Italy
On our last day in Sicily, we drove to Syracuse. Jesse was really determined to see this city, however briefly. We only had time to see one landmark, and the Greek Theater was an easy choice.
At one time, Syracuse was the most cosmopolitan city in the Mediterranean. They produced the best theater outside of Athens, performing Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus . The plays had to be pretty entertaining if people were willing to spend hours sitting on the uncomfortable stone benches to watch them.
Having seen cave paintings just two days before helped me appreciate how theater is also a part of a long human tradition. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. It seems inevitable that eventually someone built seating, a stage, and started selling tickets.
Two and a half millenniums later, my mom acts in community theater in Mansfield, Ohio. Granted, she doesn’t do any Greek tragedies, but the themes are the same. Audiences still want to laugh and cry about the successes and failures of characters–characters who have the same strengths and weaknesses as the Greek heroes. Human nature doesn’t change.
After we saw the theater, we drove 3 hours to drop my mom at her hotel near the Palermo airport. Then we had to drive 2.5 hours back down to our hotel near the Catania airport. It was a long day in the car . . . all because Jesse wanted a t-shirt!
I think he fancied himself a Greek tragedian when he posed for this picture:
And why did Jesse want a Siracusa t-shirt so badly? Because when we move back to the U.S. at the end of June, we are heading to Syracuse, New York. Jesse is going to be an Orange Man, a.k.a. a PhD student at Syracuse University. It seemed only fitting that we see the city which our new home is named after.
I’m not sure what the Greek playwrights would make of Syracuse University’s mascot, Otto the Orange:
We have about two months left in Europe, and a lot more traveling to do, but I find myself thinking more and more about moving back across the ocean. My life has been full of transitions in the past three years, and I’m looking forward to really settling down in one city for awhile.
We arrived in darkness and saw the temples of Agrigento illuminated on the hillside. They looked like fake temple cut-outs, but they were the real thing.
I took an elective Ancient Civilizations course in high school, and I still remember my teacher telling the class how amazing the temples at Agrigento are. “If you want to see Greek ruins, go to Sicily, not Greece.” Mr. Conry was a bundle of contradictions: A slightly sexist football coach who looked 75 instead of his actual 55, he was well-read and had a passion for history, art, and travel. And he told a great story.
Thanks, Mr. Conry, for encouraging me. I took your advice and went to Sicily!
I visited the Hellenistic-Romano Quarter (the remnants of a Roman neighborhood built on top of the original Greek urban plan), the archaeological museum, and 4 of the 5 Greek temple ruins.
After hours in the sun, my mom and Jesse were tired, but I wanted to see the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Jesse ran back up the hill to retrieve the car while I investigated one last temple. It was the largest Doric temple ever constructed, although it was never finished. Now nothing remains but huge piles of rubble. I still could imagine how glorious it must have looked when it was built.
When Jesse rolled up in the car, I admitted to myself that I was tired, too. We spent the evening relaxing at the Bed and Breakfast.
Seeing the temples was a fulfillment of a wish I’d had since high school. It made history seem more real. I can imagine the Greeks fighting battles to maintain control of Sicily and erecting the temples to express gratitude to the gods for their victories.
My next Greek history landmark? Someday I hope to see the Parthenon!
Amazingly, the cave paintings on Levanzo were not officially discovered until 1950. Before this, rumors circulated about images inside the caves, but the islanders didn’t realize how very old they were: some are 12,000 years old. The paintings are similar to the ones in Lascaux, France.
After hiking down to the cave entrance, we rested for a moment while our guide fired up the generator and turned on the lights. Eddie the dog was happy to relax as well.
For understandable reasons, photography was not allowed inside the cave. All of the images below are taken from la Grotta del Genovese website. Please visit the website for information, and if you have the opportunity, sign up for the tour! The excursion was not cheap, but it was worth every penny. The round-trip hydrofoil ticket to the island cost about €20, and the tour was €22.50 per person.
Our tour guide was immensely kind and patient. He knew only broken English, but he had learned the necessary words to explain the artwork to us.
First, we had to hunch over to walk through the narrow cave opening. After a few meters, the cave opened up and we could move around easily. Our guide beckoned us over to the wall and held up the light to reveal the first group of paintings.
The oldest images in the cave date back to the end of the Paleolithic era and are actually scratched into the stone. At that time, Levanzo was connected to mainland Sicily. Our guide pointed out the use of perspective and the beauty of this graffiti. The pictures are of bison and deer.
I was filled with the same sense of awe as when I saw the Birth of Venus in the Uffizi. My eyes teared up and my heart pounded. I was looking at 12,000 year old graffiti. Ancient humans crawled into that cave just to sit and create art by firelight. The animal outlines were instantly recognizable and elegantly executed. I was so amazed by the creativity. Even thousands of years ago, humans had the impulse to express themselves.
The actual paintings date from the late Neolithic age, or about 6,000-7,000 years ago. They were less artistically done. The animals were static and had stick legs. Still, I couldn’t believe that the charcoal-and-animal-fat paint has been so well preserved. This is thanks to the cave’s perfect climate.
Our guide pointed out fertility idols, saying repeatedly, “This is a man. He is a sexy man,” referring to the figure’s anatomical correctness. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. There was also a tuna and a dolphin. By the Neolithic age, Levanzo had become an island. The people fished and raised domesticated animals. I believe that the tuna is the oldest known image of a fish in the world.
After seeing the cave paintings, I can better appreciate that the art humans create today is a continuation of a tradition that began thousands of years ago. Many of us are driven to create some form of art, even though we are not sure when or if anyone else will appreciate it. It’s like shooting a message into the universe without an address: “This is what I see, this is what I value, this is who I am. Does anyone else understand?”
12,000 years later, I do understand. I have seen the same animals that the ancient artists drew, and I too think they are beautiful. I understand that these animals were vital to the lives of Paleolithic and Neolithic humans. Some of the pictures had a religious significance, and many people today create art for religious reasons.
After about fifteen minutes of gazing at the paintings, the tour was over and we had to hike back up to the car. Too soon our guide delivered us to the village. Taking the cave painting tour is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.
When I told my mom that we could take a hydrofoil from Trapani to Levanzo to see cave paintings on Thursday, she was eager to do this.
Levanzo is one of the three Egadi Islands. Most tourists go to Favignana, the largest and most developed island, unless they want to see the cave art in the Grotto del Genovese on Levanzo, which we did.
I’ve always heard that the pace of life is different in the Mediterranean, but I never experienced this until we visited Levanzo. Fishing, tourism, and agriculture are the main (perhaps only?) industries. There are fewer than 500 inhabitants, and they seem to savor every moment of the day. No one is ever in too much of a hurry to stop and chat with friends.
When we got off the boat, the first inhabitant we met was a red Irish setter who was running around the dock and greeting the arriving passengers. It was a wonderful welcome to the island.
We found a sign about seeing the Grotto del Genovese posted outside a building near the dock. I thought it was a tour office. Jesse poked his head in. The lady inside explained that it was in fact her home, but she gave us a pamphlet about the tour and called her husband, who was the tour guide.
A few minutes later, a man rolled up with an off-road vehicle. We hopped in the car and the man whistled for his dog–the Irish setter! We didn’t learn the man’s name, but the dog was named Eddie. Eddie might have the happiest dog life in the universe–an entire island as his dog park and never a leash in sight. He was very eager to act as a second tour guide on our journey.
During high season, I’m sure that arranging a tour of the cave paintings would be more difficult. I was amazed at the simplicity. After being on the island less than twenty minutes, our guide was driving us over the mountains to the cave.
When we signed up for the tour, we did not realize that we had to hike down 700 meters to reach the cave. Of course, it was climbing back up that was the real challenge. We were determined to see the cave paintings, though, and we didn’t want to turn back. (More about the paintings themselves in the next post.)
I was awed by the Zingaro Nature Reserve, but Levanzo really blew me away. The rocky outcroppings set between the blue sky and blue sea are beautiful in a dramatic, bold way. Tucked along the coast is the little village of white buildings with blue doors and shutters. It is almost too good to be true.
Our day trip to the island did not go completely smoothly. Because of a puzzling communication error, we missed our hydrofoil back to Trapani. The next hydrofoil didn’t take off for an hour and forty minutes.
Of all the places in the world to miss a boat, idyllic Levanzo might be one of the best. We took some more pictures, and then we were hungry. We asked the owners of a restaurant (perhaps the only restaurant in the village) whether they were open. The wife said not until 8:00 PM, but the husband said that we could have spaghetti.
Jesse observed that the wife probably didn’t want to open up because she was the one who had to cook the spaghetti! I’d like to think that husband was so hospitable that he couldn’t bear the thought of visitors leaving his island hungry. Probably he was just glad to make an extra 40 euro. Maybe it was a little bit of both.
Whatever the case, he was a very gracious man. He didn’t know any English. so in my limited Italian I said, “No carne, no pesce, vegetariano,” pointing to Jesse and myself. He nodded and asked whether my mom wanted fish.
Now, my mom had had an unpleasant seafood experience the previous night. She thought she’d ordered pasta with scallops on top, and the waiter brought her pasta with shrimp. And she likes shrimp. But these shrimp still had their shells, arms, legs, antennae, and eyeballs attached. They looked like they’d just jumped out of the ocean and onto her plate. She is open-minded about food, but that plate was way, way out of her comfort zone! I ended up removing the bodies from her plate and scraping out the meat for her.
Jesse explained that she was afraid of fish, and we all had the vegetarian pasta, which was delicious.
I’m sure the man and his wife were puzzled by the three Americans who came to their tiny Mediterranean fishing village and didn’t eat their delicious seafood. They probably thought were crazy!
After a very pleasant meal, it was with regret that we boarded the next hydrofoil to Trapani.
Some places you love so much that you miss them before you even leave. Levanzo is one of those places.
Any city that was formerly the location of a cult dedicated to worshiping Venus is worth a visit, so we spent Wednesday at Erice.
Erice is perched atop a mountain above Trapani. We could have driven to Erice and parked there, but why drive up a mountain when you can take a cable car?
The ride to the top took over ten minutes, but the views were great despite the morning haze.
Erice has been inhabited for a very, very long time. It was founded by the Elymians, who lived in Sicily from around 1,000 BC (no one knows where they came from). During antiquity, it was also occupied by the Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans. Erice was a popular destination for all of these people because of the cult (ie, sacred prostitutes) and consequently survived numerous conflicts unscathed. Then came the Arabs and the Normans.
Today, Erice remains a perfect snapshot of medieval Sicily. The narrow streets are made of cobblestone, crumbling churches are tucked around every corner, and the ruins of a Norman castle dominates the scene.
Nothing remains of the Temple of Venus, but the stones from the temple were reused in several churches and the castle, which is called both The Castle of Venus and The Castle of the Normans.
Were were amused by this sign at the castle . . .
Although, since I am not the most graceful of individuals, it is an important message for me to remember. (Frequent readers will recall the spill that sent me to a Hungarian emergency room last fall!)
This picture shows two different layers of stones:
The bottom layer was built by the Carthaginians, and the top layer was added by the Normans. It gave me a good sense of how these ancient cities were continuously damaged, rebuilt, and expanded over the centuries.
Strolling through the medieval streets was relaxing, although the cobblestones were hard on our feet. We walked until we were exhausted.
This cheeky cat made himself at home on a ruined building. His gray fur served as excellent camouflage:
My mom and I had some gelato before we took the cable car back down to Trapani. It had been another great day in Sicily.
The Mediterranean Sea is so blue. Synonyms for blue include: azure, beryl, cerulean, cobalt, indigo, navy, sapphire, teal, turquoise, ultramarine. All of these apply.
On our way to the nature reserve, we pulled off at a beach in Castellammare del Golfo. The beach was deserted, so we had pristine views of the water.
The Zingaro was Sicily’s first nature reserve. We hiked at a leisurely pace for about two hours. The wildflowers were blooming and the air was perfumed with their scent and the fresh sea air. We walked down to a small cove with a rocky beach, but we were so focused on the beauty (and resting) that we forgot to take pictures.
We took many pictures of these guys, who I believe are Sicilian wall lizards:
The tranquility of this nature reserve is priceless. A great contrast to the energy and insanity of Palermo. If you visit Sicily, I highly recommend stopping at Zingaro.