Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sicily: Culture and History (Italy)

guest post by Katherine Conlan

Those looking for a cultural trip in a sunny climate should consider the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily. Looking like the sharp piece of rock being kicked by Italy’s heeled boot, Sicily is a modern island with a rich history, and a fantastic place to explore by car. Comparing car rental rates and organising your own transport from one of the four airports before you get there will leave you free to start your tour as soon as you arrive.

Palermo, the island’s capital, is a real cosmopolitan city and its long history (including occupation under the Phoenicians, Roman and Byzantine Empires, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards) can be seen scattered across its streets. The twelfth century Cathedral of Monreale is an Italian national monument and one of the most spectacular examples of Norman architecture in existence. The interior is covered in mosaics (made up of around 2200 kilos of pure gold), and among the depictions of saints and kings is one of the first portraits of Thomas Becket following his murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo is an extraordinary place to visit. Now a popular tourist attraction, the catacombs were originally intended for burying Capuchin friars when the monastery’s cemetery became too full in the sixteenth century. As time went on burial here became a symbol of status, and wealthy residents asked to be preserved in the catacombs in their finest clothes. Around 8000 mummies line the walls, and one of the last people to be buried here is now the most famous: two year old Rosalia Lombardo who died of pneumonia in 1920 and has been so remarkably preserved she looks as though she is only sleeping.

On the east coast of the island is that familiar 10,922 foot tall active volcano, Mount Etna. There are a number of mountain treks with fantastic valley views to choose from depending on the time available and the level of difficulty, and although walking around the summit is obviously not advisable, cable cars get visitors close. Most trips around the south side of Mount Etna depart from the port city of Catania, around 130 miles drive from Palermo. Catania has had its fair share of trouble, being destroyed by earthquakes in 1169 and 1693 and Mount Etna’s violent eruption in 1669. After these catastrophes the city was rebuilt in Baroque style and is now home to World Heritage-listed architecture. You may wonder why the city was continuously built up at the foot of an active volcano; the reason being volcanic ash makes exceptionally fertile soil for farming.

Two hours’ drive south from Palermo near the city of Agrigento is the UNESCO World Heritage Site the Valley of Temples. This huge site includes the remains of seven Greek temples in varying degrees of preservation, two almost complete and others with only their columns still standing. Their different uses as places to celebrate weddings and pray for health give a nice insight into the social history of the period surrounded by the grandeur.

Sicily is full of cultural and historic highlight which can be enjoyed in sun-drenched comfort of this Mediterranean highlight reel.

Katherine Conlon likes to a get a feel for the history of the places she visits, and seeks out the bits which reveal something about the culture in different areas of the globe. She has travelled in four different continents and is looking forward to exploring the rest.

Photo Credits: etna, cathedral, catacombs, etna, agrigento


Donna Hull said...

Enjoyed learning more about Sicily. I stopped there on a Mediterranean cruise. We visited Mt. Etna and Taromina. I'd love to go back for more exploring.

Mark H said...

@donna: Cruise sounds a beautiful way to arrive in Sicily.

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