Islands in the Mediterranean are inevitably influenced by all passing trades and peoples. Sicily is perhaps the ultimate example of this. When Greek colonists first arrived in Sicily during the 8th century BC they found a fertile and beautiful land with natural harbors, and a flourishing native culture with a fine artistic tradition. They left behind them a rich legacy of temples to their gods, graceful monuments which often still stand, over 2000 years later, in splendid settings among the beautiful flower-strewn hills of Sicily. Later, Normans used Byzantine and Arab artists and craftsmen to create glowing gold-in-glass mosaics in ornate cathedrals and palaces.
This tour will leave memories of beautiful bays and ruinous ancient cities; honey-colored columns against a clear blue sky. Of exquisite Roman and Norman mosaics; mighty Mt Etna (fabled home of the cyclops); and of picnicking in the wild, surrounded by prehistoric tombs, in hills of Pantalica.
- Historic Churches
- Ancient Greek
We arrive in Palermo and transfer to our hotel.
We begin our survey of the island at Segesta. We find the famous Doric Temple of Segesta, which was built between 430 and 420 BC but never finished. It sits perched atop a hill, set amongst unspoiled rolling green countryside, with views that stretch down to the sea. On the hilltop above, Monte Barbaro, there is a fine semi-circular theatre. Built around the same time as the temple, it has been said that the theatre’s surrounding countryside views provided such a beautiful natural backdrop that stage scenery was deemed unnecessary. The theatre is a pleasant (if perhaps bracing) walk uphill from the temple, but there is also a shuttle bus available if you prefer. In the afternoon, we’ll visit the magnificent Norman cathedral of Monreale. Built by William II (the Good) of Sicily, the cathedral has polychrome marble inlays in the floor and walls, and features cosmati work and the gold-leaf mosaics which cover nearly two acres. The Christ Pantocrator in the central apse is less of a Byzantine masterpiece, but is astounding for its scale: his right hand alone is over six feet high! Built at the same time as the cathedral, the nearby cloisters are also a must-see; showing a strong Saracen influence and comprising 104 arches (some carved, some inlaid with cosmati work) supported by pairs of slender columns. Prepare yourself for the finest display of Romanesque stone carving in Sicily.
We’ll spend the entire day in Palermo. Our first stop is the recently reopened Church of La Martorana, the Cappella Palatina of Roger II, is a glittering jewel of Norman architecture, with cosmatesque inlays in the lower walls, goldin-glass mosaics above, and an exquisite stalactite ceiling of wood. Although the facade and interior of the church were altered considerably during the baroque period, the glorious mosaics have thankfully survived fully intact. In the afternoon we will visit the Archaeological Museum. Housed in several old convent buildings, their collection is vast and includes artifacts found on the island which date back to the Phoenician, Punic, Greek, Roman and Saracen periods. Within the collection the carved stone metopes from the Selinunte temples appear, illustrating the development of Greek figurative art.
We go by boat crossing to the island stronghold of Phoenician Motya. Situated in a lagoon on the most western part of Sicily, Motya was founded in the 8th century BC. Notorious Greek tyrant Dionysius I would besiege the city in 396BC. Within the Marsala Regional Archaeological Museum, we see the remains of a Punic boat. Sunk on its maiden voyage during the first Punic War, the wreck was discovered off the west coast of Sicily in the 1970s. The excavation (and later reconstruction) of the wreck has proved incredibly valuable for the advancement of our knowledge of ancient maritime warfare and naval architecture. The discovery also presented some extremely rare finds: a plaited basket, rope fashioned into a simple eye splice, a spade, and some toggles were found alongside (the remaining) parts of a human skeleton. Could those bones have belonged to a Carthaginian sailor trapped by the ship's ballast?
In the morning, we visit the ancient quarries at Cava di Cusa. The site was initially quarried in the first half of 6th century BC, producing the stone for the temples of the ancient Greek city of Selinunte. When the city was captured by the Carthaginians in 409BC the site was abandoned. Unfinished column drums still lie abandoned here. The quarrymen’s sudden departure left a gift of sorts for future archaeologists: each stage of the quarrying process can literally be seen in the remaining stone. Following a satisfying lunch, we head to the site of Selinunte: home of five temples centered on an acropolis and beautifully located on a high plain overlooking the sea. Once one of the most eminent cities in Magna Graecia, much of the city was left as rubble in 409BC following an attack from the Carthaginians. As the original dedications of the site’s many temples are sadly unknown, we find them simply and unromantically labelled A-G.
We travel to the southern coast of Sicily to Agrigento. Founded on a plateau overlooking the sea, this was a prominent city of Magna Graecia, during the golden age of Ancient Greece. Here we find the remains of seven Doric style temples (distinguished by their close sculpted columns, plain capitals, distinctively decorated friezes, and sculpted metopes). Built during the 6th and 5th centuries BC to impress all those approaching, the Greek temples of Agrigento are truly magnificent to behold, imposingly ranked along the southern ridge of the ancient city. The Temple of Concord was later reused as a church and is one of the best-preserved. The Temple of Olympian Zeus is the largest of the temples and considered one of the most ambitious and innovative temple buildings ever attempted, but sadly it was never finished. Standing before the temple, we can only imagine the great potential that now lies lost amongst the rubble.
We start the day in opulent Roman style, at Piazza Armerina, where we find exceptionally fine mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale. The palatial Roman villa was built in the early 4th century AD. The site has only recently re-opened following several years of extensive restoration. The villa’s complex mosaics have been left in situ and can be viewed from raised walkways. We continue on to the ancient settlement of Morgantina, laid out over two hilltops and overlooking the broad plain of Catania.
We spend today in the ancient city of Syracuse. The birthplace of noted mathematician and engineer Archimedes is known for its rich Greek history, culture, and architecture. It was also described as “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of all” by the Roman philosopher Cicero. Our day begins at the Archaeological Museum located in the Villa Landolina Park and houses artifacts dating as far back as the Palaeolithic Age. We continue afterwards, to the largest Roman amphitheater in Sicily. The site still retains a sense of grandeur, despite the material damage it has endured. While this was used as an arena for gladiator and animal fights, the Greek theatre of Syracuse was the home of theatrical productions and public meetings. The theatre as we find it today is in fact only a lower section of the original structure. A large portion of the theatre was dismantled in the 16th century by the Spanish, who used the stone and marble to construct fortifications of the island of Ortygia. We later discover the ancient quarries and the largest surviving altar of Greek antiquity: the Altar of Hieron II. We’ll enjoy an early evening stroll around the beautiful island of Ortygia, the historical centre of Syracuse, where the cathedral encapsulates a standing Greek temple. You may be tempted to break off and have an aperitif in one of the chic bars here - go ahead, our hotel is close by.
Enjoy some free time exploring Ortygia. The charming city has much to offer and the Arethuse fountain is a particular highlight. The freshwater fountain flows right to the seashore and has inspired the imagination of poets and writers since Ancient times. Ovid, Virgil, Milton, and Pope are just a few admirers who have committed it to word. Later, we drive north to the Graeco-Roman theatre at Taormina, built in the early seventh century. One of the most celebrated ruins in Sicily: can you imagine a theatre with a back-drop more amazing than Mount Etna?
We spend our final day at Euryalus fort. Constructed at the beginning of the 4th century BC by Dionysius the Elder, this is one of few Greek fortifications surviving from this date. The expansive site is a fascinating one to explore: with towers, underground passages, and evidence of formidable fortifications remaining. We move on to the remarkable prehistoric tombs at Pantalica. Carved into the limestone between the 13th and 7th century BC, the famous necropoli number more than five thousand, and are spread across five cemeteries. The view across the hills at Pantalica is truly stunning, and will provide the perfect backdrop to enjoy a lunchtime picnic. Taste Sicily in a simpler way and savor the fantastic selection of local produce (bread, cheese, ham, and fruit) that we put together.
We board our return flight home from Catania.
- Expert Guide Lecturer
- Andante Tour Manager
- Local Travel - Private a/c coach; boat to Motya
- Meals - All meals included with water (wine with dinners) except dinner day 8
- Entries & Tips - Entry to all sites in program; tips included
- Field Notes
- Hotels - 3 nights in an elegant and friendly hotel in the heart of Palermo;1 night in a simple hotel 100m from the beach at Selinunte; 2 nights in a hotel overlooking the temples in Agrigento; 4 nights in a small, newly refurbished hotel on the seafront, in beautiful Ortygia, Syracuse
- 3 nights in the centre of Palermo: in an elegantly restored palazzo, close to the museum and Teatro Massimo (opera house).
- 1 night in a simple hotel 100m from the beach at Selinunte: amenities include a restaurant and a terrace bar.
- 2 nights in a hotel overlooking the temples in Agrigento.
- 4 nights in elegant minimalistic hotel Ortygia, Syracuse: a small, newly refurbished hotel set on the seafront at Ortygia and close to the Duomo.