i – Piazza Armerina. Is this the Villa’s owner, Maximillian himself?
ii – Unconvincing interpretation.
Selinunte Temple E, Selinunte Beach, Selinunte Temple D
Up at 2.20 am for 3.20 departure (Mark driving) to Bristol Airport. 6 am flight (left at 6.25), arriving Catania 10.30. Noleggiare, the hire-car company, were inevitably hard to find (Indigo selects the companies which are furthest from Arrivals).
They were very anxious to sell us €300 of insurance against vandalism which, by their account, is absolutely guaranteed to happen in Sicily – I understand that the Mafia do little else. We took time to check that we already had that covered. Under the circumstances, their fleet of cars was in surprisingly good condition; I’d expected to find they were offering us a car with three wheels, two doors, one wiper, and no engine. Then they charged us €9 a day for roadside assistance which should have been included. Off at nearly 12.30, with Mark driving, to Enna. Hill-top town with large Duomo and a Castle which was mainly interesting for the views which you can’t see, as they have cordoned off the area near the walls. On again, slowed by the closure of one half of the motorway.
We reached Hotel Bel 3 in Monreale at nearly 6, after a curious circuitous drive through Palermo suburbs and then up a mountain along some absurdly narrow roads with gut- wrenching hairpin-bends. The hotel is on the side of the mountain and is upside-down, i.e. Reception is on Floor 1 at the top. Dining-room is at on Floor 5 at the bottom. At least we have good views over Palermo from our balcony. We had a good meal there despite the menu being available only on a phone. Threre was a printed copy – just one for the entire restaurant.
MONREALE & PALERMO. My turn to drive. Along the narrow roads again (one car’s width or almost) which were twisting and largely impassable as traffic constantly came from the other direction. We think it was Market Day. My passengers were all terrified and kept warning me about parked cars, lamp-posts and bushes which were about to leap out in front of me without warning. (“It’s always worse when Peter’s driving” – Jackie.)
We reached the Duomo of Monreale, a Norman Cathedral with Byzantine influence, built by King William II, known as William the Good though my book on Sicily thinks he might not have been as good as all that. He was the son of William the Bad, who – you’ve guessed it – might not have been as bad as all that. Just a Normal Dynasty… William built Monreale Duomo to compete with the Duomo of Palermo as he wasn’t getting on with the Archbishop of Palermo.
The interior has amazing mosaics of Biblical scenes. Up the Tower with tiny passages where you have to bend double, and tiny walkways where people keep stopping for selfies and somehow manage not to fall over the precipice. Then the Cloister, with elegant double columns (dual nature of Christ) in different patterns. The trees in the centre (date-palm, pomegranate etc) all had significance which I can’t remember. The hotel arranged a taxi for us into Palermo.
The taxi-driver demonstrated how to negotiate the narrow, twisting roads – drive fast and, if there’s an obstruction, drive straight at it and wait for everyone else to move. Finishing with a Formula 1 drive through the streets of Palermo. We saw the Palazzo Reale and the Cappella Palatina, built by Roger II, another Norman (he was the first King of Sicily, despite being the second Roger). The Cappella was even more amazing than Monreale – half the size, but with even more stunning mosaics.
The Palazzo, mostly later than the Cappella, was less impressive. The Giardini Reali were also lovely, with some interesting trees – date-palm, Australian fig (huge). We gave up on the cafe after the waiter decided to ignore us. Back to the hotel and a drink with Mark and Cal on their balcony. Supper in the hotel again.
SEGESTA. A drive along the northern coastal road. Segesta has a lovely Doric temple, never completed but apparently never ruined, either, in a dramatic mountain setting. Shuttle-bus to the “town” where the best- preserved remain was the theatre, quite small and still used. On again to SELINUNTE on the south coast. Hotel Miramare Garzia, small establishment, run by fierce Sicilian mama who was delighted to welcome James Bond and family, as she told us every time she saw us.
An attractive, narrow beach led towards a ruined temple on the clifftop. We all swam – the water was pleasant, though it felt cold afterwards.
Coffee/beer in beach cafe. Great supper in pizzeria two doors from the hotel after a game of Scrabble. They even had a printed menu.
SELINUNTE. Good breakfast – very organised and controlled, with everything brought to us! Selinunte Archaeological Park was a huge site with a shuttle-train (possibly borrowed from a theme-park) to take us between the three areas, with temples identified by most of the letters of the alphabet. The first area had a reconstructed temple of Hera (Temple E) – no, it didn’t have a roof and much of the interior was missing – beside some other extremely ruined temples.
At the Antiquarium, an enthusiastic staff-member gave us (just the four of us) a twenty-minute history of ancient Sicily, entirely accurate but nowhere near chronological order. Next the Sanctuary of the oddly-named Demeter Malophoros.
Back for the Acropolis, with more ruined temples and small houses, probably Carthaginian – or possibly Byzantine, though I can’t think why the Byzantines would have been there. We stayed till after 1, enjoying an ice-cream, with a view over the sea and the beach and a man paragliding. A three-hour drive to Piazza Armerina. Are Sicilian speed limits intended just as a rough guide?
On a lengthy stretch of dual carriageway with no obstruction – 50 kph limit. Why? It’s only the British drivers who observe the rules. The Sicilians overtake as soon as it’s possible and often when it’s not. Small hotel – apparently only 12 rooms. Supper in the hotel restaurant.
PIAZZA ARMERINA. Who says the Italians can’t do decent breakfasts? This was the most fabulous so far. We were even tempted by their interesting cake, which we normally avoid at breakfast. Villa Casale (Piazza Armerina): as great as I remembered it and even more horribly crowded, with guides causing lengthy hold-ups on the narrow walkways.
Did it really belong to Emperor Maximian? The existence of birds in one mosaic prompts experts to suggest that AVIS spelt out Maximian’s name and titles. A pretty dubious hypothesis, as the word AVIS does not actually appear.
On the way back, I couldn’t get the car to go forward at a junction on a steep hill. The problem was the electric hand-brake: put the car in gear and release the brake and you should go forward. That doesn’t work on a 45-degree gradient. Release the brake and you roll back. Several attempts, and a queue was building up behind us and an annoyed coach- driver insisted on telling me what to do to get me out of his way. When the queue behind us had passed, I finally let the car run back to a more level part where Mark got it going forwards (and did all the driving thereafter). Very pleasant hotel at Ragusa, in a curiously desolate area.
Interesting meal, especially notable for the very attentive and friendly staff and the wonderful tiramisu. Television – no news available but at least I found Midsomer Murders in Italian.
RAGUSA AND CASTELLO DONNAFUGATA. We had planned a non-driving, Montalbano day: Ragusa in the morning, Modica in the afternoon. Taxi into Ragusa, passing the impressive Cattedrale San Giovanni Battista and into Ragusa Ibla, set dramatically on a hill.
We saw the Duomo San Giorgio (huge and unattractive) and walked down the road past various Montalbano buildings, to the Giardini Iblei. Then a coffee. We intended taking a train to Modica but found that the next one would not be for three hours. Buses were even less frequent. The Montalbano tour was not proving especially gripping, although Ragusa was full of guided groups, possibly on Montalbano tours, although two groups of teenagers seemed unlikely to be Montalbano’s target audience.
We changed our plan and decided to drive ourselves to Castello Donnafugata, a stately home which was used as the house of Mr Sinagra, the Mafia boss in Montalbano. Fascinating house – the late-19th century owner enjoyed playing practical jokes on his guests, like showering them with water.
Hilarious. No, it doesn’t still happen but don’t suggest it to the National Trust. A very pleasant afternoon. The restaurant staff in the hotel were attentive and amusing again!
SIRACUSA. The Montalbano plan would have taken us to Noto but we decided on Siracusa instead. We drove via the terrifying Montalbano viaduct in Modica which is not terrifying at all when you’re on it as you can’t see how ludicrously high up you are.
The Sicilians are very keen on viaducts; driving down a hill and up again is clearly not a feature of Italian driving. We parked near Ortigia and walked in for coffee near the Temple of Apollo. On to the Cathedral, built largely inside a Greek temple which was converted into a church, then into a mosque and back again to a church, though on-site info ignores the mosque part. We walked down to the harbour and the Fountain of Arethusa. The church of Santa Lucia had a full-size copy of Caravaggio’s Burial of Santa Lucia – the original is in another Santa Lucia church which was closed for lunch.
Then the Neapolis site for the Greek theatre, Roman amphitheatre, the absurd Altar of Dionysius which is at least a hundred yards long, quarries etc, and Dionysius’s Ear. (Oh no he isn’t. Oh yes he is.). And a cup of tea. Siracusa made a less favourable impression – it seemed geared to the cruise-ship parties, with bored staff who wanted to make sure nobody walked in the wrong direction or went through the wrong gate.
On to Hotel Le Dune near Catania Airport – a bit down-market. The door of our room didn’t open. The man at Reception seemed to be turning into Norman Bates, especially when he gloomily told us there was no need to book for supper: nobody else will be there. He was right – well, almost. And an odd menu, again only accessible by phone – we each had a Poke Bowl. (No, don’t ask.)
Up absurdly early for 7 am breakfast and off to Noleggiare at 7.45. The girl agreed the car was entirely undamaged by vandals or the Mafia.
Flight delayed nearly an hour because two travellers had been turned away because of documentation issues, and their luggage had to be retrieved from the hold. Back to chillier, drizzly Bristol.
Castello Donnafugata. Façade & Walkway where Signor Sinagra (Mafia boss) meets visitors like Montalbano
Cappella Palatina Christ in Majesty & Simon Magus falls; scene of unsuccessful levitation (as briefly stated in Latin) is apparently from the apocryphal Acts of Peter.