Along the Grand Canal, a stroll through Venice

Over the centuries, Venice has gained a reputation for mystery and intrigue. The city’s masked balls are the stuff of legend, and it’s no surprise that the ‘Bride of the Sea’ is the birthplace of the legendary and unscrupulous seducer of women, Casanova. Despite its watery reputation, this enigmatic city is best experienced by walking its disorienting streets. Frequent diversions after getting lost meant we did more walking in Venice than anticipated.

Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy

The beauty of Venice is that, away from busy waterways, there’s no traffic other than pedestrians. In Europe, walking streets without the accompanying roar of traffic is an unusual experience. At night, when day trippers have gone home and the streets empty of people, the silence can be overwhelming. As you navigate through Venice’s dimly-lit web of densely-packed streets, history seems to seep out of the crumbling walls. It’s fantastically atmospheric.

That’s not to say you should avoid the water. A visit to Venice wouldn’t be complete without a few vaporetto rides – although the ticket prices for tourists are extortionate. Still, a trip down the most elegant waterway in Europe, the Grand Canal, has to count as a highlight of anyone’s visit to Italy. We saved that delight for the final day of our trip when, after a couple of days of beautifully sunny weather, it was raining and decidedly chilly.

Grand Canal and Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy

Rialto Bridge and Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Gondolas on the Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Gondola across the Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

When the sun shone we strolled, hopped on vaporetto and crossed bridges to explore this extraordinary place. Our time in Venice coincided with the early outbreak of coronavirus in Italy, and the labyrinth of narrow canals, cramped alleyways and pretty squares were noticeably empty. Venice had been handed back to its inhabitants, even if many of them were hoping the tourists would return soon. Instead, the lack of tourists has seen dolphins return to Venice’s canals.

We left our apartment in the Cannaregio district and headed along the waterfront with views to the San Michele Cemetery island, before plunging into the lanes and alleys to reach Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, with it’s enormous church dominating the square and surrounding buildings. A solitary gondolier touted for business that had vanished overnight. We were heading to St. Mark’s Square and popped into a couple of the city’s famed pasticcerias for coffee and pastries.

In Piazza San Marco, we were confronted with the bizarre sight of an empty square. It’s normally one of the most crowded places in Venice, but there were more seagulls than people. They were still taking down the seating from Carnival, the final days of which were cancelled a couple of days before we arrived, and a few disgruntled stall holders selling tourist tat were trying to drum up some trade. We strolled in grand isolation.

The Doge’s Palace was closed so we got on a vaporetto to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the other side of the Grand Canal. The views back to St. Mark’s and across the lagoon to the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore were beautiful. Our stroll took us through the Dorsoduro district, stopping in a few places for Venetian tapas and local wine. The popular Ponte dell’Accademia was remarkably empty of people, if you discount the self-obsessed selfie-taker who was pouting into her camera phone.

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Venice, Italy

Gondolas, Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Venice Lagoon and Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy

Eventually, we found our way through a series of plazas to the Rialto Bridge. Another of Venice’s most famous sights came without the usual tourist crush. Standing on the bridge and looking along the Grand Canal, boats and gondolas plying their trade along the water, was glorious. Thomas Mann described Venice as “Half tourist trap, half fairy tale.” Our Venice fairy tale was that there were no tourists to be trapped.

Venice, Queen of the Adriatic

It’s impossible to avoid cliché when describing Venice. More accomplished writers than I have tried to do this magical place justice over the many centuries that it has been attracting foreign admirers. The Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, conjured the mystical aura of a city where the sea flows like blue-green veins between buildings and streets, saying: “Venice, its temples and palaces did seem like fabrics of enchantment piled to heaven.”

Venice may inspire cliché, but I would defy anyone to walk at night through deserted streets, with only your own footsteps echoing along atmospheric canals and alleyways for company, and not feel like you were strolling through an Italian Shangri-La. Leaving a bar late at night, as we occasionally did, we found ourselves alone navigating Venice’s torturous cityscape. After dark, Venice takes on an entirely new character, mysterious and a just a little sinister.

Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy

Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy

Ponte delle Guglie, Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Cannaregio, Venice, Italy

Venice is such an improbable city. Floating in the calm waters of Venice Lagoon, it only makes sense when you remember the 16th century commercial giant that fought endless battles to control trade routes across the Mediterranean and Adriatic. Venice grew extremely wealthy on trade, wealth that can still be seen today as you walk along enchanting canals, narrow lanes and into plazas sheltering beautiful churches and magnificent palaces.

Venice has humble origins though. Its birth, the desperate act of people fleeing the invasion of Northern Italy by Germanic tribes in the wake of the Roman Empire’s collapse. These refugees fled to safety on the islands of the Venetian Lagoon at the start of the 5th century, settling what until then had been home to a few fishermen and their families. The success of Venice was built by people dispossessed by war, a lesson the Italian government might heed once they’ve finished battling coronavirus.

Despite this inauspicious start, for over a thousand years Venice would prosper while growing to be one of the most powerful city-states in Europe. For much of the period until the 15th century, Venice existed as a westerly offshoot of the Byzantine Empire. This gave it unique access to trade with the Middle and Far East, trade that went over the mountain passes of the Alps into Northern Europe and around the Mediterranean shore. Venice was officially the richest city in Europe.

The wealthy families of Venice competed with each other to build the grandest palaces and be benefactors to the most glorious churches. They commissioned the greatest artists to work for them and Venice acquired a great number of magnificent buildings decorated with the finest artworks. Although no one knew it at the time, this would be the high watermark of Venetian power. The Byzantine Empire’s collapse at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453 sparked a long decline.

Cannaregio, Venice, Italy

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Cannaregio, Venice, Italy

Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Venice, Italy

Cannaregio, Venice, Italy

Venice might have ridden this wave of adversity, but events in Western Europe were also conspiring to weaken it. Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World in 1492 opened up new trade routes to the West, and saw the rise of Portugal and Spain as colonial powers. While Vasco de Gama’s 1497–99 journey to the East opened new sea routes to India and beyond, ending Venice’s trading monopoly with the Far East.

Despite achieving new artistic and cultural heights during the 17th and 18th centuries, Venice was slowly becoming a backwater. Like its northern counterpart, Bruges, its original purpose was lost and it struggled to find its place in a changed world. Walk around today, and that long decline is clear in many dilapidated buildings and a general sense of long-term problems without solution. Whether rising seawaters or a tsunami of tourists, Venice’s storied history seems again at a crossroads.

Venice, Italy: Travel in the time of COVID-19

I never thought I’d go back to Venice,  a city now synonymous with the worst excesses of mass tourism. Venice, the improbable city floating magically on the shimmering waters of Venice Lagoon, is a truly dreamlike place. My 18-year old self had never seen, or imagined, anything quite like it. I instantly fell in love with this extraordinary place. The idea of returning, having my memories shattered by the degradations of modern tourism, didn’t seem worthwhile.

So news that tourist numbers were significantly down thanks to virus-related tour group cancellations, seemed like a golden opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Queen of the Adriatic. In retrospect, this now seems foolish. When I booked the flights though, things were normal. By the time it came to go to the airport parts of the region north of Venice were in lockdown, and we debated whether it was worth the risk.

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Gondolas, Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Lagoon, Venice, Italy

We weren’t alone. A plane that had been almost fully booked with over two hundred people, left Berlin with fewer than thirty passengers. Venice’s Marco Polo Airport was practically deserted, and only one other passenger was on the vaporetto that whisked us from the airport across the lagoon to Venice. I’d hoped that it might feel like we’d stepped back in time, instead it felt like we’d stepped onto the set of a post-apocalypse movie.

On my first visit to Venice, I was traveling around Europe on an Interrail Pass during one of the two gap years I managed to squeeze into my education. I stopped in Venice en route to Zagreb, at that time a major city in the former Yugoslavia – it was that long ago. I have memories of dashing about on vaporetto water transport between islands, basking in the sunshine of St. Mark’s Square, watching glass being blown on Murano and looking out over the Adriatic from the beach along the Lido.

I’m sure there were tourists, but I don’t recall that being a prominent part of my visit. Certainly the horror stories of crowded squares, streets and canals, long queues for most sights, rip-off restaurants and scam artists, didn’t feature. Today, Venice regularly stars in media articles about what happens when tourism goes bad. Venice, it is said, has sold its soul to tourism, and residents have left the city in droves as a result of rising property prices and living costs.

If you want to know what Venice looks like without the tourist hoards – we were able to walk through St. Mark’s Square on a Friday afternoon with only a handful of people for company – now is the time to visit. Restaurants that are normally fully booked for months in advance, welcomed walk-in trade; normally packed vaporettos were empty as people avoided people. The downside for businesses that have become tourism-dependent, was clear.

St Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, Italy

Shops were empty, horribly expensive water taxis floated by, searching for a fare, and dozens of disconsolate-looking gondoliers hung around offering discounts unthinkable in better days. Everyone we spoke to complained about the ‘overreaction’ of people to the coronavirus. In an attempt to restore public faith, the regional authorities closed all museums in the city for three days. This was inconvenient, especially as it was pouring with rain on two days of our visit.

Luckily, the Doge’s Palace reopened on our final day in the city, and we got to tour the city’s most famous sight without the usual crowds. It was quite incredible. How long this state of affairs will last is anyone’s guess, and a return to normal is a double-edged sword for Venetians and tourists alike. Still, I’m glad I was able to revisit a place I never thought I’d set foot in again.

* I read this morning that Venice is included in the Italian government’s lockdown of around 16 million people in the north of the country. No one is allowed to enter or leave for the foreseeable future.

The year that brought us to Berlin, 2018 in review

2018 has been a year of upheaval. After four-and-a half-years living in The Hague we relocated 700km east to start a new chapter of life in Berlin. Truth be told, we didn’t want to leave our Dutch lives behind, but circumstances don’t always give you the choice. So, with heavy hearts, we loaded up our belongings for the third time in seven years and headed towards a new beginning.

Six months in Berlin has been enough to underscore the cultural chasm between the two countries – plus it’s over 250km to the beach from here. As we adjust to our new world there will be opportunities to explore Germany’s fascinating regions, and to look further east (Poland is a 100km away) and after sampling Berlin’s winter, I’m already looking forward to the Berlin spring.

These are my 2018 highlights (France features ‘biggly’, to quote the US President) … and here’s to 2019, the Year of the Bear.

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Leaving the Netherlands

If there’s one thing to be said for leaving a country, it’s that it gives you pause to recall all the wonderful places you’ve visited. For me, it also meant a few days photographing and writing about the city we called home, The Hague. We hadn’t planned to move to the Netherlands, but it is a country that has seared its way into our affections in a big way. Each photo is a place I’d like to return to, at least once I’ve visited the places we missed the first time around.

Arriving in Berlin

Contemporary Berlin comes with huge expectations: history and culture merge with a reputation as one of the coolest cities on the planet. Yet our early impressions were  of dealing with bureaucracy and trying to find an apartment in a hostile housing market. This took place in a heatwave, temperatures hovering around 35ºC. Uncomfortable in our new home in more ways than one, we’re slowly adapting to Berlin life and trying to learn basic German.

Seafaring history in Bremen and Hamburg

An early summer road trip introduced us to two of Germany’s great North Sea port cities, Bremen and Hamburg. I’d never been to either and both left a lasting impression. They suffered massive damage in the war but both have reinvented themselves for the modern era. Bremen mixes Hanseatic history with cultural riches and good food; while Hamburg became my favourite city of 2018, effortlessly cool, relaxed, friendly and full of culture.

Remembering da Vinci in the Loire Valley

The Loire Valley is a place filled with glories. Beautiful landscapes hide magnificent château, ancient towns and world class vineyards. I’d been bouncing around the French countryside and stopped in the utterly beguiling town of Amboise. Dominated by the Château d’Amboise, this is where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years, dying in the town and buried in the Royal château. My final day was spent at the extraordinary Château de Villandry.

World Cup fever in Metz

Just before we left the Netherlands, there was one final road trip to France – it won’t be so easy to hop in the car and head to Champagne, Burgundy or the Loire from Berlin. It was a trip of firsts that included the city of Metz, home to the Pompidou Centre and where I got to experience the massive street party that was France winning the World Cup. It was a crazy few days of culture, good food and partying.

The wine routes of Alsace

We stopped in the distinctly French town of Nancy en route to Alsace. The difference between it and the decidedly Germanic Alsace region came as a bit of a surprise. That didn’t take away from the rolling landscapes and the even more extraordinary historic villages of timber-framed buildings that we encountered. Our journey through Alsace’s vineyards was fantastic and introduced us to German wine varieties – which, ironically, has subsequently come in handy.

Roman history and foodie heaven, Segovia

Rarely a year goes past without a visit to Spain. 2018 was no different, with a few days in Madrid followed by a trip to nearby Segovia. I’d heard of this historic town but was unprepared for just how beautiful it was, especially coming with a backdrop of snow covered mountains. There is so much to admire in the town, from the 12th century Alcázar to the lamb and suckling pig specialities, but it is the Roman aqueduct that takes centre stage.

24 hours in Copenhagen

It’s been nearly 30 years since I last visited Copenhagen, a few hours of wandering its historic centre had me wondering why it had taken so long to return. It was a shame that, after spending a week in various meetings and at a conference, I only had a day to reacquaint myself with the city. It was enough to make sure we’ll be returning when the weather improves in the spring.

A Sicilian adventure

Italy remains an under-explored country for me. This trip to Sicily was a first visit to the country’s most southerly region. We immersed ourselves in millennia of history while enjoying excellent seafood and local wines; took in ancient hilltop villages that are a byword for baroque architecture; ate fresh fish on the Mediterranean in a former tuna fishing village; and visited the Ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Morgantina and Villa Romana del Casale. The highlight though, was the near-mythical city of Syracuse.

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

v

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.