A visit to Berlin’s Winter Markets

One of life’s great truisms is that visiting a Winter Market in daylight is a very bad idea. Nothing spoils the ‘magic of Xmas’ more thoroughly than rampant commercialism pretending to be the magic of Xmas. No, it is far wiser to wait for the cover of darkness, when strategically placed lighting and hot spiced wine can warm even the most cynical of hearts. I can’t stress enough the importance of the hot wine for turning the average Xmas market from endurance test to seasonally acceptable experience.

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Stilt walkers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Stilt walkers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

I’m not a big fan of Xmas markets, but I had high hopes for Berlin. If for no other reason than it’s in Germany, home of the Xmas market. It’s not Bavaria, where they go ‘big’ on the whole Xmas thing, but with about twenty different markets to choose from, there seemed a reasonable chance of hitting the jackpot. Or at least a jackpot. In the end, it was a case of third time lucky, with the Gendarmenmarkt market providing best value. Although that might have been due to taking the sensible precaution of adding a shot of rum to my gluhwein.

The pressure was really on by the time I arrived at the Gendarmenmarkt, and not just because they charge you a €1 entrance fee. Despite having a very exciting miniature train and being the biggest of the three I visited, the market at Alexanderplatz was a bit low rent and didn’t really provide good shopping. It has a skating rink and a ferris wheel though. Making it an odd mixture of travelling funfair and Xmas market. One colleague claimed they had the best gluhwein in Berlin. They didn’t (see previous point about the rum).

I’d anticipated that Charlottenburg market would be an upmarket affair, based solely on the fact that it takes place in the courtyard of an old palace. True, the backdrop was glamorous, and the ‘winter wonderland’ projections onto the palace were great. Again though there wasn’t much in the way of shopping beyond food and drink, but there was some entertainment. This market stands out because it actually snowed when we were there. I heard an English woman on the phone say, “it’s magical”. It wasn’t.

Which leaves Gendarmenmarkt. It’s just around the corner from where we live and has a setting almost as dramatic as Charlottenburg, in a square that is bookended by two of the city’s most pleasant churches, the Deutscher Dom and the Französischer Dom. The attractive Berlin Konzerthaus sits along one side. As usual, there were plenty of eating and drinking options, but also quite a lot of good stalls selling actual gifts for those who might have left present shopping a little late.

Best of all though, and what set this market apart, was the entertainment. In front of the Konzerthaus was a stage that, at first, just had someone playing songs on a piano, but, as things started to warm up, there was a dance troop and later a children’s choir, both of which were fantastic. There was even a master of ceremonies dressed as the Kaiser. What could be more German than that?

The youth choir – some of the kids could only have been 4 or 5 years old – was the star attraction, and a large crowd had assembled by the time they’d got into the third or fourth song. It was only late afternoon but the place was packed with families, I did a final sweep of the stalls to see if I could pick up any last minute gifts and, just as the rain began to fall, I headed into the Berlin night filled with what I can only assume was Xmas spirit … although that may have been a side effect of the rum.

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Performers, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Sausages, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Sausages, Gendarmenmarkt Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Charlottenburg Xmas Market, Berlin, Germany

Catania, a city of surprises

If we’d left Catania twenty-four hours earlier, we’d have left feeling underwhelmed by this attractive and dynamic city. The Catania we encountered during the first day and a half of our stay was grey, damp and dreary. On Saturday night though, grubby streets with graffitied buildings that made us feel a bit depressed in daylight, suddenly burst into life. Metal shutters were unfurled to reveal hip cafes, bars and restaurants. People crowded the pavements, and formerly quiet streets pulsated to the sound of music and conversation.

Catania successfully combines the stylish with the gritty and down-at-heel, modern life happily coexists with ancient history. It was a relief to see this other side of the city because I badly wanted to like it … and not only because I was expected to report back my impressions to an Italian colleague who is from here. This is a legendary city built at the foot of Mount Etna, and its destiny, from ancient history to the modern day, has been intertwined with Europe’s most active volcano.

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Benedictine Monastery, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Benedictine Monastery, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mount Etna, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mount Etna, Catania, Sicily, Italy

That history includes the devastating earthquake of 1693, which left an indelible mark on the whole region, and left Catania in ruins. The city was rebuilt in the baroque style seen so often throughout this region for exactly the same reason. It has bequeathed the city some magnificent buildings. Other earthquakes have caused severe damage to the city over its more than 2,800 year history*, which dates back to the 8th century BC and includes centuries of Ancient Greek and Roman rule.

Regular volcanic eruptions have done their worst, only for the city to be reborn, but all that volcanic activity has also produced rich, fertile soils, especially good for growing grapes. An upside that can still be tasted in the excellent wines grown on the slopes of Mount Etna. The Sicilian wine business has been around for over 6,000 years according to research published last year, but it really took off when the Ancient Greeks arrived and began cultivation in earnest.

The Romans valued Sicilian wines for their distinctive flavour, and traded them around the Mediterranean. No visit to Catania would be complete without sitting in a square sipping a local wine. Viticulture though, isn’t the only wonder to survive from Greek and Roman times. We left the lovely Piazza del Duomo with its massive Cattedrale di Sant’Agata and delightful Fontana dell’Elefante, a Roman-era volcanic rock elephant topped by an Egyptian obelisk, and wandered along the Via Vittorio Emanuele II.

This ordinary-looking street hides an extraordinary secret, one easily missed if you’re not paying attention. The entrance comes with little fanfare, but once you’re inside a truly wondrous sight reveals itself, a 2,300 year-old Roman theatre. It’s utterly and completely spellbinding. You could walk around this area and never know the theatre existed, surrounded as it is by houses, churches and a former palace. We arrived early in the morning and had this atmospheric place to ourselves.

In the centre of the theatre’s semi-circle is a pond, into which runs a stream containing fish. The Romans used it to stage water ballets. There’s a small practice theatre behind the main event. From here we walked through streets lined with beautiful baroque churches and palaces to find a Benedictine Monastery, today a 16th century UNESCO World Heritage Site that today houses part of the University of Catania. We were out of luck for an English language tour, but were able to go inside and wander around.

We popped inside the huge, but unfinished, Church of Saint Nicolò. Destroyed by a lava flow from a Mount Etna eruption in 1669, reconstruction began in 1687, just in time for the 1693 earthquake. The interior’s an immense space of white marble. Afterwards we headed north through interesting streets to an area close to Park Villa Bellini – the composer was born in Catania – where there are plenty of bars and restaurants for a lazy lunch.

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Piazza del Duomo, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mermaid, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Mermaid, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ursino Castle, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ursino Castle, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Harbour, Catania, Sicily, Italy

The maze of streets in this area are filled with old palaces and baroque churches, not many of which were open. We simply didn’t have the time to fully appreciate it, but the little we saw was fascinating. Our last few hours were spent pottering, before heading back to the Piazza del Duomo to do some people watching over a coffee. Catania in the sun was a much more attractive proposition, we really need to come back in Spring.

 

* This includes the recent volcanic activity and earthquake that has damaged villages and towns, and injured several people.

Sicilian Street Art, Catania

A little like the city which acts as their canvas, street art in Catania feels a little rough around the edges. The streets of Sicily’s second city are undoubtedly gritty. Crumbling plaster falls from many historic buildings, rubbish collects on corners or in doorways, dirt and grime are ubiquitous. Look hard enough though, and it’s not difficult to find spots of brightness where street art illuminates dark nooks and crannies, and brings light to grey buildings.

As we walked around, we saw a lot of graffiti that made use of the decay found in the urban landscape. This made it all the more poignant. At one point I found myself taking a photo in a side street unaware that I’d strayed into San Berillo, Catania’s red light district. An area of unofficial brothels packed into a warren of narrow lanes where women sit on chairs outside doorways, wielding a camera seems inappropriate and can attract unwanted attention.

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Ironically, San Berillo is a hotspot of street art, and the handful of pictures I took before realising where I was, were all faces of young women. The area itself has a fascinating history, once an upmarket area that includes old palaces of Sicilian aristocracy, it fell into decay and was gradually abandoned from the 1950s onwards. A lot of the original houses were destroyed for a redevelopment project that never materialised, leaving a physical hole in the city.

As people left the area, sex workers moved in and have never left. In the 1990s, things were so bad that this was considered one of the largest red light districts in Europe. In response, a project called Red Line Distreet has brought street art to many walls in the district. I left the area behind and within a few minutes was in the heart of Catania’s commercial district, the Via Etna. It seemed a world away from San Berillo’s streets, but in reality these areas rub shoulders with each other.

I found myself in San Berillo after failing to reach the one area where I knew there were several massive pieces of street art, the Art Silos found in Catania harbour. This was a project that dates back to 2015, when the I-ART Festival commissioned pieces to be painted onto eight disused wheat and corn silos on the docks. At 28 metres high, the silos are pretty imposing, and I could see them in the distance as I made my way down an access road.

Unfortunately, I was stopped at a security check where the pleasant police officer told me it was far too dangerous for pedestrians to go any further. As a large lorry roared past, I understood what he meant. My only other option was to walk down a busy dual carriageway, which seemed about as appealing as being run over by a lorry. So I made my way back into town, checking out the small fishing boats in the publicly accessible parts of the harbour en route.

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

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Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Street art, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Catania does have a lot of street art, but I only found a few building-sized pieces, and most of those were two or three years old and often faded. A few artists appear over and over though – one in particular who has a line in fanged creatures and balls. Local art occasionally mingles with international art, but I didn’t recognise any of the artists with whom I’ve become familiar. Perhaps next time I’ll have more luck.

La Pescheria, fish tales in stormy Catania

The last time I saw rain like that which pummelled Catania on our first day in the city, I was in Nepal and the monsoon was sweeping all before it. This though was a European city, the sight of water cascading down the streets and flooding the central square was shocking. Judging by the reactions of local people, it wasn’t just me who was surprised by the ferocity of the storm. We’d taken shelter in a small bar just off the main square, the older clientele spoke of a year of weather extremes. This type of storm has become common.

The rain relented and we were able to make our way to a restaurant for a late lunch. That was when the hailstones began falling. Accompanied by fierce winds, deafening thunder and alarming lightening, sizeable pieces of ice were hurtling to earth. I can say, without fear of contradiction, being hit by large hailstones travelling at heroic speeds towards earth was not very enjoyable. The noise, of what must have been tonnes of ice colliding with the city, was unbelievable.

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

The rain continued well into the night and we gave up on plans to find a restaurant in a distant part of the city, retreating instead to our hotel room. The following morning grey clouds still filled the sky, but it felt as if Catania had been cleansed by the storm. The air was fresh and the humidity of earlier days had relented, even while signs of storm damage were everywhere. We were staying on the main square and ventured out to have strong coffee and sickly sweet breakfast treats in one of the local cafes.

It was Saturday morning and, around the corner from the square, we could hear the city’s traditional fish market starting to come to life. After breakfast we wandered into the compact area where the freshest fish imaginable were on sale. Some stalls also sell meat, cheese and a range of fruits and vegetables. The cries of the seagulls wheeling overhead competed with the cries of stall holders, in a piece of street theatre that has been running for centuries.

The market is fascinating and entertaining in equal measure. I can imagine that on a hot day the sounds and smells could be a little overwhelming, but today it drew a crowd of onlookers, passing the time of day while watching the cut and thrust of negotiations as sellers haggled over the price. Swordfish was popular in La Pescheria, as it’s properly known, but a variety of fish and shellfish all caught within a boat ride of the Piazza del Duomo were on offer. In a changing world, this traditional market remains one of the largest in Italy.

Afterwards, we headed into town to explore more of Catania’s atmospheric streets. It might have been the dark clouds, or the damp in the air, but after the excitement of the market our stroll around the city was tinged with a feeling of disappointment. Catania is part workaday port city which has been through difficult economic times, and part rising star with chic squares, excellent food, lovely buildings and a renowned nightlife. The Catania we encountered was the slightly disreputable, down-at-heel version of the city.

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

La Pescheria fishmarket, Catania, Sicily, Italy

The city seemed subdued, and so were we. Thankfully, a delicious lunch in a bustling and noisy restaurant revived our spirits, and inspired us to explore more of the historic centre and further afield. Mount Etna, which towers over the cityscape at the northern end of the Via Etna – a snazzy shopping street – was shrouded in low cloud. Invisible it might have been but, as we discovered on our meanderings, this is a city defined by its relationship with one of Europe’s most active volcanoes.

Ancient Morgantina, a Greek city on the edge of civilisation

Amidst the rolling hills and valleys of south eastern Sicily, in sight of Mount Etna and boasting panoramas over the surrounding countryside, sits one of the most important archeological sites in Sicily. The Ancient Greek town of Morgantina was an outpost of Greek civilisation, sitting on the boundary between Hellenistic civilisation to the south and the indigenous tribes of the north. At its height, in the 4th century BC, it was an affluent town of around 7,000 inhabitants connected by trade to the great city states of Ancient Greece: Sparta, Corinth and Athens.

Sitting on the Serra Orlando ridge, Morgantina commands a spectacular and strategic location. It had been populated for centuries before Greek colonists arrived sometime around the 8th century BC. Over the next 200 years, it was transformed into a typical Greek city, with the same style of urban planning that you’d have found throughout the Ancient Greek world: a large flat area was created for the agora or marketplace, baths, a rectangular street grid of residential houses, and an amphitheatre.

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Kiln, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Kiln, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

We arrived late in the afternoon after a visit to the Villa Romana del Casale and left the car in an empty car park. Unlike the heavily touristed Villa Romana, Morgantina was deserted. We had to hunt around to find someone so we could pay the entry fee. We were pointed in the general direction of the ruins, and set off in search of the ancient Greek city. We passed a few information boards along the way, most of the information on them had been obliterated by time and intense sunlight. Not an encouraging sign.

The reality is, that although this is a most extraordinary historic site, it feels unloved and certainly underfunded. It was impossible to know what we were looking at thanks to the poor signage, but that disappointment was dispelled by walking undisturbed through this magical and atmospheric place as the sun began to set. We could just make out the shape of Mount Etna through the haze way off in the distance. On a clear day it must be a magnificent sight.

We walked up to the top of a hill, at one time part of the city, but today it feels more like a natural viewing platform over the ancient heart of Morgantina. The vistas are pretty spectacular. The bird’s eye view that you get from on high is wonderful, from here you can see the layout of the city below, and despite the lack of information, you can piece together the workings of the city. We wandered down to walk amongst the ruins of this fascinating place, only the sound of sheep bells disturbed the peace.

We were too late to visit the museum dedicated to Morgantina in the nearby town of Aidone, and our journey the next day would be back to Catania, which meant that we’d miss seeing some of the ancient marvels that have been discovered, not always legally, at the site. One of these is the Goddess of Morgantina, a statue illegally removed from Morgantina before being smuggled to Switzerland. It would later become an US$18 million acquisition of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

The looted statue was finally returned to Sicily in 2011, but it isn’t the only Morgantina artefact to be illegally trafficked. A hoard of silver pieces from the 3rd century BC were also returned after finding their way to New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1982. The American archaeologist, Malcolm Bell, who led the excavations of the city believes the silver pieces were, “most likely hidden beneath the floor of a house by a Greek man named Eupolemos, who was trying to protect his wealth from invading Roman armies.”

The pieces were sold to the Metropolitan by Robert Hecht Jr., an infamous American antiquities dealer. Before his death in 2012, he was on trial charged with conspiring to traffic looted artefacts. Hecht came to fame in the 1970s when he sold another piece to the Metropolitan, the Euphronios Krater looted from an ancient Greek tomb in Italy. The museum didn’t learn its lesson from that experience, or at least didn’t care to, but all these stolen antiquities are now back where they started.

The mesmerising mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale

One thousand and six hundred years ago, a wealthy and powerful Roman government official built a splendid villa in the hills of south eastern Sicily, close to the modern-day town of Piazza Armerina. The owner was clearly a man of stature, used to having the finest things life could offer, and wealthy enough to employ a small army of artists from North Africa to decorate his home with a collection of the most extraordinary mosaics imaginable.

In total, some forty-five rooms – or more than 3,500 m2 – of the sprawling complex are covered in mosaics. The energy, artistry and money that was poured into creating such masterpieces is mind-boggling. Even in decadent Rome, the Villa Romana del Casale seems extravagant. Even more impressive, many of the mosaics have survived time and tribulation to make it to the 21st century. It is one of the finest, best preserved Roman villas to have survived from antiquity.

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Bikini Girls Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Bikini Girls Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Bikini Girls Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Bikini Girls Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

UNESCO, who made this a World Heritage Site in 1997, say simply that they are “the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world”. It’s hard to disagree. I’m not sure what we expected when we arrived, but we left feeling profoundly uplifted. It is a truly magnificent place and the sense of wonder stayed with us for days. Which I consider reward for a journey that was blighted by the satnav sending us down a series of minor roads. At one point we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of cows and a bemused Sicilian farmer.

The Villa Romana del Casale is set in a green and fertile valley and, if you’re fortunate enough to arrive when there aren’t any tour groups, you can still get a sense of the tranquility that must have existed all those centuries ago. It’s easy to understand why a wealthy Roman would want to live here. The villa was huge, more than fifty rooms, a large bath complex, and a remarkably decorative Christian Basilica with Egyptian pink granite columns, and a floor of marble sourced from across the Mediterranean.

Marble was the most valuable and prised building material of the time, but the mosaics are the number one attraction these days. Perhaps the most famous of all is the room named the Chamber of the Ten Maidens, which depicts female athletes attired in what, to the modern eye, look like bikinis. Sporting scenes include running, weightlifting, ball games and discus. One of the athletes is being crowned champion. It’s as exquisite as it is intriguing.

In reality though, there are far more intricate and detailed mosaics in other rooms of the villa. The colourful creations depict all sorts of scenes from literature and real life. This includes some beguiling mosaics of hunting scenes, one of which shows a wild boar being attacked with dogs and spears while a bleeding and badly injured Roman lays on the floor. In one only partially preserved mosaic, women wearing what look like chains around their ankles appear to be being abducted.

The detail is incredible. Another massive mosaic probably gives more than a hint of the business interests of the villa’s owner. A boat waits in the sea as a range of wild African animals are captured and prepared for transport to Rome, presumably to ‘fight’ in the Colosseum. Lions, elephants, gazelles and a rhinoceros are being captured in dramatic scenes. There is even a tiger being ingeniously caught by using a mirror to lure it into a trap.

There are also scenes of lustful lovers, figures from Greek mythology and depictions of Homer’s writings. One remarkable piece shows Ulysses giving Polyphemus, the giant son of Poseidon and Thoosa, a cup of wine. You could spend days here and still not take in all the detail of these ancient artworks. The fact that you can still see them is largely down to luck. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the villa continued to thrive until the medieval period until a major earthquake struck the area in 1169.

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

Roman mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, Italy

The earthquake destroyed parts of the building and also caused a mud slide, covering the entire area of the former Roman villa. There the mosaics lay buried and protected from both people, sunlight and natural decay. For 700 years they lay undisturbed until archeologists unearthed them. What lay under the layer of mud must have come as a surprise, and what a surprise. This is an extraordinary and unmissable place, I’d return in a heartbeat.

The glories of Sicily’s ancient hilltop towns, Ragusa

To reach either half of Ragusa, the old town of Ragusa Ibla and its newer counterpart Ragusa Superiore, requires you to descend into the deep ravine of Valle dei Ponti, and then clamber back up endless flights of steep stairs worn by the passage of time and countless feet. There is no better example of this than the Salita Commendatore, stairs that wind through the 18th century heart of Ragusa Superiore, crossing hairpin bends of the winding road and passing under stone arches as you climb.

Breathlessly, we arrived at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Scale, St Mary of the Stairs, a 13th-century Gothic church given a Baroque makeover after the earthquake of 1693 which flattened much of the original city. The climb to the church is worth the effort when you turn around. I challenge anyone not to be wowed by the superb views across to Ragusa Ibla and over the surrounding countryside. Once you reach the small square next to the church, the good news is that it’s all downhill back to Ragusa Ibla.

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Cathedral, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Cathedral, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Cathedral, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Cathedral, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Like too many churches on our trip, St. Mary of the Stairs wasn’t open. You have to time your visit well to arrive when churches are open in Sicily, even the cathedral in Ragusa only opens for limited periods. We started our descent on the road, but occasionally dived down narrow stairways or cobbled alleys to explore the nooks and crannies of this fascinating place. There are tremendous views to be had between the tall houses as you tumble downwards to reach the Church of Santa Lucia.

The small square in front of the church offers panoramic views, some of the most iconic in Ragusa. The blue dome of the Church of Santa Maria dell’ Itria prominent against the cityscape. From this vantage point you get a sense of Ragusa Ibla’s layout and its place in the landscape. We spotted metallic figures of people climbing a nearby hill, a nod to a local legend that claims the treasures of the town were buried on a hilltop to stop them falling into the hands of the invading Arabs. Treasures that have yet to be found.

This part of Ragusa Superiore was built following the 1693 earthquake that destroyed the ancient town of Ragusa Ibla. The devastation was almost total and a decision was taken to build a new town on the hill opposite the original town. A new cathedral and grand palaces were built, and that might have been the end for Ragusa Ibla, except the local aristocracy couldn’t bear to see the town fall into ruin. Instead, they decided to rebuild their former palaces, churches and houses in the Baroque style.

Ragusa Ibla dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and was a thriving urban centre during Roman and Byzantine times. It continued to be an important economic hub during the 200-years of Arab occupation before the 11th century conquest by the Normans, after which it was a provincial capital in the Kingdom of Sicily. This epic history can still be glimpsed as you wander the streets of Ibla, or more conveniently in the archeological museum.

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore, Sicily, Italy

We made our way back into Ragusa Ibla, and wound our way around the streets to the Piazza Duomo  and then to the scenic public gardens at the bottom of the town. The gardens have a lovely avenue of palm trees, three attractive churches (none of which was open), and, best of all, sweeping views across the countryside. We sat on a bench in the shade and watched the world not go by, before heading back into the maze of Ibla. Unbeknown to us, we had timed things well because all the churches suddenly seemed to be open … finally.

Exploring the ancient streets and stairways of Ragusa

Our first sight of Ragusa Ibla, the ancient heart of a town that is split in two halves, was breathtaking. The spectacular collection of tightly packed houses, churches and 17th century palaces cling impossibly to the sides of a steep hill. The baroque architecture, bathed in the early morning sunlight, is a magnificent sight. If there’s one thing the old town of Ragusa doesn’t lack, it’s a dramatic location. This extends to the hairpin bends of the road that plunges into the deep valley below, where the town’s car park is found.

This first sight of Ragusa is seared into my memory, yet in twenty-years time it isn’t the thing that I’ll most remember about the town. No, that accolade goes to the donkey salami we were served along with a glass of local white wine while we sat admiring the exquisite Cathedral of San Giorgio. Please don’t ask what it tasted like, I’m still trying to forget that I ate burro. Donkey features regularly on the menus of Ragusa, I drew the line at one restaurant which was serving a daily special of roasted donkey ribs.

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di San Giorgio. Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di San Giorgio. Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Donkey salami, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Donkey salami, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa has an outstanding collection of restaurants, ranging from the Michelin-starred Duomo Ristorante to the more humble Enoteca Il Barocco, which is a wine shop with a good line in platters of local cheeses, meats and pickles. I would go as far as to say that Ragusa is worth visiting just to sample some of its restaurants. The €190 tasting menu at Duomo Ristorante was a bit pricey, but the chef has a second restaurant, I Banchi, which doesn’t require such deep pockets. The prize for ‘best pizza of the holiday’ goes to Ragusa’s Ristorante ll Barocco. Delicious.

We arrived in Ragusa Ibla after driving through the workaday modern town of Ragusa Superiore, which involved daredevil driving during Sicilian rush hour and a reasonable amount of ‘course correction’. This is a town of two halves, and after the dreary streets of Ragusa Superiore the sight of Ragusa Ibla, crowned by the dome of the Duomo di San Giorgio and the massive Universitario Della Provincia Di Ragusa, was special. Our next task was to locate our B&B amongst the maze of streets and steep stairways.

No one who isn’t Sicilian would ever want to try to drive in the streets of Ragusa Ibla, it is a terrifying prospect. So we abandoned our hire car in the municipal car park and set off to search out the Giardino Di Pietra, our B&B in a restored 18th century house run by the most recent generation of an old Ragusa family. We found it with relative ease, and had the delight of being driven back down to the car park in the owner’s tiny 1948 Fiat 500 to collect our bags.

I don’t typically make recommendations on this blog, but Giardino Di Pietra is so good it deserves a mention. Our room at the top of the house had fantastic views over the tiled roofs of the town towards the 18th century part of Ragusa Superiore, and was furnished with original art nouveau furniture. Better still, the breakfast of homemade jams and other local delicacies was the best of our trip. Elena, who runs the place, was fabulous. Infomercial ends.

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di San Giorgio. Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Duomo di San Giorgio. Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Map in hand, we headed into the warren of streets to find lunch. A little like the Grand Old Duke of York of nursery rhyme fame, we marched up to the top of the hill, and then marched back down again, went around and around for a while, before eventually, and unexpectedly, landing in the Piazza Duomo, dominated by the magnificent cathedral and surrounded by baroque buildings. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be our first (and possibly last) encounter with donkey-based delicacies.

The exploration of the rest of Ragusa would have to wait for the afternoon.

Marzamemi and a lazy lunch on the Noto Coast

In the scorching Sicilian summer months, the picturesque fishing village of Marzamemi  is bursting at the seams with tourists. Not so much in November, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a good restaurant serving fresh fish at tables overlooking the sea with a boisterous Italian family eating at the next table for company. We’d come here just to have lunch, and were happy to find a clutch of restaurants near the small square, Piazza Regina Margherita. The village may still support small scale fishing but it’s clear that the main catch these days is tourists.

How times have changed. In 1824, a British naval officer called William Henry Smyth was far from polite about Marzamemi, describing it as “a small filthy village, which, during the fishing season, is strewed with the blood and intestines of the tuna.” Far from the idyllic and charming village that welcomes visitors today. Smyth goes on to describe the coast south of here as having a “barren, desolate appearance”. These days at least, its inhabitants no longer live in “dread of the Barbary cruisers”.

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

The history of Marzamemi has a strong connection with tuna, dating back to the 11th century when Sicily was controlled by the Arabs. By 1824 it was one of Italy’s most profitable. Near the small port you can find the Tonnara, the building where tuna were processed. Alas, no more. The decline of tuna thanks to overfishing has put the Tonnara out of business, although there are still some people producing tuna products on an artisanal scale. They’re available to buy for what might be described as a small fortune.

We opted for fresh fish and a glass of a chilled local white. The sun was shining and we sat in the shade outside listening to the waves. We’d arrived in Marzamemi after visiting the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata in Noto, not knowing the same person was responsible for founding the historic area that surrounds the main piazza. He built the village in 1752, including a palace for himself, to manage trade through its port and to develop the tuna fishery.

Lunch was delicious, and afterwards we walked back through the more modern village, which seemed largely closed for the season. Back in the car we headed south, or at least tried to. After driving through the village several times (it’s really not that big), we finally found the right road and set off down the coast. It would be fair to say that what Smyth described as “desolate” is no less true today, and the landscape hasn’t improved with the addition of plastic tunnels for growing vegetables.

Smyth also ventured down this same stretch of coastline, passing the Vecchia Tonnara di Portopal, another tuna processing plant, the ruins of which can still be seen today – ironically next to a luxury hotel built like a castle. Smyth was, again, less than flattering about this southerly point of Sicily. He wrote of the Island of Capopassero, just off the coast, as: “The arid island, at the extremity of the deserted wilds of Sicily, appeared, as if intended by nature or man, to be a place of banishment for the worst of criminals”.

Island of Capopassero, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Island of Capopassero, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Vecchia Tonnara di Portopal, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Vecchia Tonnara di Portopal, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

Marzamemi, Noto Coast, Sicily, Italy

That’s a bit unfair.

Smyth was a well regarded scientist, principally a hydrographer. In Sicily he produced many hydrographical charts which were still in use in the mid-20th century. Here he was also introduced to the science of astronomy, and when he retired from the navy he studied the stars – an area of the moon is named after him. He also wrote observations of his time on Sicily, later publishing a Memoir description of the Resources, Inhabitants, and Hydrography of Sicily and its IslandsDespite coming across as a curmudgeon in the memoir, he’s a fascinating character.

Baroque glories in magnificent Noto

Noto is a town that tends to bring out the superlatives. It’s a small place of only twenty five thousand people, but it punches well above its weight. Following the devastating earthquake of 1693, which laid waste many towns and villages across this region, Noto lay in ruins. It was decided to abandon the old medieval town and start again on a hill about 10 kilometres away. Some of the finest architects of the age were employed to design the new Noto, and what emerged from disaster is a masterclass of early-18th century Baroque town planning.

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque Cathedral of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque Cathedral of Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

Walk down the town’s main street, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and you’ll soon see why Noto is known as the ‘Baroque Capital of Sicily’. The street – pedestrianised – is flanked by utterly magnificent palaces, imposing churches and small squares, all done in a riot of Baroque architecture. We arrived in the town in the mid-morning, but it seemed like things were still just getting going, that included other tourists, who were noticeable by their absence.

As we wandered down Corso Vittorio Emanuele it seemed like every building had little Baroque flourishes: balconies supported by lions or mermaids, sublimely carved capitals on top of fake Ionic columns, and ‘goose-breast’ wrought iron balconies, vie for attention with grotesque masks and cherubs on ornate facades. We started our day at a small cafe with coffee and traditional Sicilian brioche – sweet enough to dissolve teeth – in a small square bathed in sunlight and watched as the town came to life.

We could see the imposing dome of Noto’s most extraordinary building, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas of Myra. Itching to start exploring, we paid our bill and headed to the bottom of the stairs that lead to the Cathedral’s immense facade. It has the effect of making you feel pretty small and insignificant, a impression that only gets stronger as you climb the stairs to the huge doorway into the cavernous interior. The views across the valley from the entrance are wonderful.

Completed in 1776, the cathedral is a Baroque delight, but it has only survived into the 21st century with a lot of help. In 1996 the huge cathedral dome collapsed, largely as a result of failing to properly fix damage from an earthquake in 1990. It took a decade to repair the dome and reopen the cathedral, they’ve taken the opportunity to clean the exterior walls for good measure. The highlight of the new interior has to be the lovely frescoes by Russian painter, Oleg Supereko.

We emerged back into the brilliant Sicilian winter light and made our way to two more exquisite examples of the Baroque. The simple but imposing Church of San Francesco d’Assisi was very plain inside, and we soon found ourselves climbing the many stairs of the Church of Santa Chiara to reach the rooftop terrace with views over the town and the valley below. It was magnificent and gave us a real sense of the size and scale of the cathedral. It’s pretty obvious from up here why the town has UNESCO World Heritage status.

Despite the many steep staircases you’re required to climb, the central part of Noto is easy to get around on foot in half a day, although it’s the sort of place in which you can imagine spending several slow days. We managed to reach the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata before they closed for lunch, and went on a self-guided tour of the public parts of Baron Nicolaci’s former palace. It gives a glimpse of the extravagant lives of Sicily’s old aristocracy, but has nothing on the average French chateau.

The Church of St.Francis of Assisi, Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Church of St.Francis of Assisi, Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Church of St.Francis of Assisi, Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Church of St.Francis of Assisi, Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

The Baroque glories of Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

Noto, Sicily, Italy

We spent a little time exploring Noto’s step and narrow streets before deciding to skip town for lunch on the Noto coast. We’d been told by some people we’d met in Syracuse that there was a pleasant fishing village south of Noto that did excellent seafood, and it was to Marzamemi that we headed to sample yet more delicious fresh seafood.