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Dominating Sicily

Splendid churches, sumptuous palazzi, crowded streets and a maze of tiny roads and ancient alleyways.

Dominating Sicily

The historic center of Palermo is home to an impressive number monuments and a market, that of Vuccira; immortalized by Renato Guttuso and which, to this very day, offers a veritable explosion of color, whilst filling the air with the pungent scents of the fresh Mediterranean produce cramming the stalls.

Three monuments, dating back to Palermo's Norman era, are particularly worthy of mention; the Palatine Chapel, situated on the first floor of the Palazzo dei Normanni; the Cathedral; and the former church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti.

Sicily's most important example of Arabian-Norman architecture can be seen not in Palermo but Monreale, just eight kilometers away from the island's capital city. The Cathedral of Monreale was built in 1174. The walls of the naves are covered in thousands of tiny tiles which, together, depict the cycle of the Old and New Testament whilst, in the cloisters of the edifice, there are some 200 ornately sculpted columns.

Half way between Palermo and Trapani, Aclamo, the native city of Ciullo d'Alcamo, author of 'Rosa fresca aulentissima', one of the first volumes of poetry to be composed in the Italian language, merits a visit. This lively town is renowned for both its wines and the impressive number of churches, many of which house some of the most representative works of Sicilian art. Also to be seen; the Castle of the Conti di Modica, erected in the mid 14th century, and the Torre De Bellis, dating back to the 15th century.

From Aclamo, travelling onwards via the 113 highway, one reaches Calatafimi, where one of Sicily's most heartfelt celebrations is held; that of the 'Festa del Santissimo Crocefisso' or 'Festa della Primavera' . Every five years, at the beginning of the month of May, a great procession is enacted, which sees a spectacular display of huge creations in bread being transported through the town.

A brief detour off the main highway leads to the motorway and the slopes of Mount Barbaro, where the Segesta Temple can be seen. This splendid Doric structure has remained miraculously intact over the centuries. Higher up, overlooking the valley and facing out towards the distant sea, there is the Greek theatre, with its series of great steps carved out of the rock face.

Approaching Trapani, in a triangle of fortified walls perched on the top of Mount San Giuliano, there is the picturesque village of Erice, characterised by narrow little lanes, stone cottages and flowered courtyards.

Here there was once a much celebrated sanctuary dedicated to the Mediterranean Goddess of fertility and protector of sailors; Aphrodite for the Greeks, Venus Ericina for the Romans. On clear days, a quiet incomparable view as far as the Egadi islands can be admired.

The ancient city of Drepanum, now Trapani, stretches out along a promontory. Amongst the town's most interesting monuments, there is the Sanctuary of the Annunziata and the Pepoli Museum where one can admire, in addition to the many works illustrating the local history of art, an immense canvas by Titian depicting San Francesco, and exquisite items of the coral jewellery for which Trapani is famous.

Continuing along the coast in the direction of Marsala, and having arrived at the Gulf of Stagnone, from a canal which cuts through the network of salt marshes, one embarks across the waters to the small islet of San Pantaleo, which conserves the traces of the Phoenician city of Mozia. In the small museum there is a masterpiece of sculpture dating back to the 5th century B.C.; a great marble statue known as the 'Mozia Youth'.

Along the itinerary tracing the Arabian influences present in Sicily, a visit to Mazara Del Vallo is quite obligatory. The Arabs conquered the town in 827 and it was the last of the Sicilian cities to be conceded to the Normans. In the historic center, there is still an authentic Kasbah with its maze of twisting lanes and blind alleyways, arches, and walled courtyards where to savor some of the world's best cuscus.

Just a few kilometers from Mazara Del Vallo, at Delia, isolated in the peaceful silence of a huge pine wood, there is a small Arabian-Norman church dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Crowned by an Arabian style cupola, this is, arguably the most beautiful of the Norman monuments in the whole province.

From here onwards, the itinerary snakes along between the jewels of antiquity, left by the Greek- Roman domination. In this enchanting coastal landscape, scattered with the ruins of the Selinunte acropolis, great columns of ancient Doric temples continue to rise skywards, impervious to the passing of time. At Eraclea Minoa, beneath the rocks which house the archaeological digs, an intensely blue sea and dazzling white sandy beach beckon the visitor.

And then there is one of the world's most extraordinary complexes of ancient sacred buildings; Agrigento's Valley of the Temples. Having taken in the many temples and symbols of antiquity, there remains one last place to visit, a magical place in a Sicily still largely unknown: Caltabellotta, Kal' At Al-Ballut (named Fortress of Oaks, by the Arabs).

Some fifty kilometers from Selinunte and eighty from Agrigento, the uniqueness of the place makes the journey well worth taking. There are no specific monuments to see but rather it is the atmosphere of this tiny town clinging to the mountain which is so enchanting. From the highest point of the town, striking views over the coast which stretches from Mazara Del Vallo to Eraclea Minoa can be admired on one side, and the imposing form of Etna and an infinite number of small towns on the other - all of which invite travellers to contemplate another journey through Sicily.

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