Scicily 2009

Location : Taormina, Alcantara Gorge, Agrigento & Piazza Armerina

Weather: Mixed sunshine and showers

 

A one week holiday in Taormina, an old village on the lower slopes of Mount Etna. It didn't start great as we had a bag pinched from the car and the ensuing hassle of going to the police station wasn't the best fun to be had on holiday. But there was a lot to see in a week and we had planned plenty of trips around the island. The first day was spent touring around Taormina, high up from the coast, and as with most of Italy history abounds. There is a great Greek amphitheatre second in size only to the theatre in Syracuse. Though originally built in the Hellenistic era, it was completely reconstructed by the Romans and used for gladiatorial shows. The theatre is situated at the very top of a hill, levelled for the purpose, using the natural incline of the valley for the "cavea": the auditorium seating. Mount Etna provides a spectacular backdrop and would doubtless have added splendid dramatic impact to past productions. The remains of a small temple stand on the side of the theatre and remnants of an arcade, once leading to the theatre, stand at the top of the auditorium. The scenery consisted of nine columns, raised and placed in their original positions during the theatre's restoration in the Eighteen Hundreds. The majestic panorama, combined with the spectacular view of Etna and the Calabrianmountains, renders this hollowed out hill a natural stage, as well as a stage for natural beauty.  Taormina also has a 10th Century Palazo, a 13th Century Cathedral and plenty of Moorish buildings - quite a lot of tourist trash as well, although it's nice to sit in the pavement cafe and watch the world go by.

The rest of the week was spent visiting sites out of town, my favourite being the wonderful Alcantara gorge - Golladel'Alcantara. This was formed from a lava flow off Etna and cooled into 'cool' columns twisted around. This natural monument of basalt rock was created by the eruption of the volcano Monte Moio, Etna's most eccentric offshoot, around 2400BC. The lava flow invaded the entire valley of the Alcantara river a s far as its mouth on the coast, where the Greeks founded their first colony in Sicily The river has worn a way through this wonder and weathered the rock to a blue-grey hue, very smooth in places. It was very peaceful to paddle along the riverbed to gaze up at the valley sides. When I got back to the car I found a flat tyre awaiting me, with no spare in the boot! But there was a small aerosol which did the job ok.

The next visit was the Roman Villa at Piazza Armerina - a real tourist hotspot for good reasons. There are some spectacular mosaic floors, my favourite being the scenes of a chariot race and the bikini girls. There are 63 rooms - well shells of rooms, and a good walkway to follow round - I think you could be unlucky with the crowds at the wrong time of day. We were lucky.

Later in the week we paid a visit to Agrigento and the valley of the temples. All made out of very soft sandstone that is eroding away quite badly. But they are doing a fine restoration job. The backdrop for the temples wasn't so good though with the modern town high on the hillside behind. A short distance away and of more interest to me were the mud volcanoes of Maccalube, Aragona. These small mounds periodically emit a 'fart' of methane if you wait around long enough. You'd expect it to be hot, but it's not. I didn't try to light it either.

 

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the roads out of Taormina are steep and circuitous - good viewpoints though

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looking over to Mount Etna

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and all the subsiduary cones down the lower slopes of Etna

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the Greek-Romano theatre - the main town is behind to the right

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it's a good amphitheatre

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in a glorious setting

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a little way to the north is the Alcantara Gorge

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a fine spot for a picnic or a paddle

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Several thousand years ago, the river bed was blocked by a lava flow from Mount Etna. As the lava was cooled much more quickly by the water than it would have done otherwise, it crystallised in the form of columns. Over the next millennia, the river naturally eroded a channel through these columns, resulting in impressive gorges and ravines such as the "Gole dell'Alcantara".

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where the river has weathered the lava flow, the colour is a glorious silvery blue/grey

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some fantastic twists and turns of the columns

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the water was very cold to paddle through

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and the gorge narrows

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must be spectacular when the river is in spate

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the church in the old town part of Taormina

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the Cathedral doors. The present town of Taormina occupies the ancient site, on a lofty hill which forms the last projecting point of the mountain ridge that extends along the coast from Cape Pelorus to this point. The site of the old town is about 250 m above the sea, while a very steep and almost isolated rock, crowned by a Saracen castle, rises about 150 m higher: this is undoubtedly the site of the ancient Arx or citadel, the inaccessible position of which is repeatedly alluded to by ancient writers. Portions of the ancient walls may be traced at intervals all round the brow of the hill, the whole of the summit of which was evidently occupied by the ancient city. Numerous fragments of ancient buildings are scattered over its whole surface, including extensive reservoirs of water, sepulchres, tesselated pavements, etc., and the remains of a spacious edifice, commonly called a Naumachia, but the real destination of which it is difficult to determine. But by far the most remarkable monument remaining at Taormina is the Ancient theatre, which is one of the most celebrated ruins in Sicily, on account both of its remarkable preservation and of the surpassing beauty of its situation. It is built for the most part of brick, and is therefore probably of Roman date, though the plan and arrangement are in accordance with those of Greek, rather than Roman, theatres; whence it is supposed that the present structure was rebuilt upon the foundations of an older theatre of the Greek period. With a diameter of 109 metres (after an expansion in the 2nd century), this theatre is the second largest of its kind in Sicily (after that of Syracuse); it is frequently used for operatic and theatrical performances and for concerts. The greater part of the original seats have disappeared, but the wall which surrounded the whole cavea is preserved, and the proscenium with the back wall of the scena and its appendages, of which only traces remain in most ancient theatres, are here preserved in singular integrity, and contribute much to the picturesque effect, as well as to the interest, of the ruin. From the fragments of architectural decorations still extant we learn that it was of the Corinthian order, and richly ornamented. Some portions of a temple are also visible, converted into the church of San Pancrazio, but the edifice is of small size.

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lovely shady gardens - built by a Brit at sometime past

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dusk over Mount Etna

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some ash coming out of the top of Etna

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typical scenery of inland Sicily - dry and dusty

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Piazza Armerina down in the valley, with marvellous mosaics to see

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dry hillsides on our way to Agrigento

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This from Wikipedia - Agrigento was founded on a plateau overlooking the sea, with two nearby rivers, the Hypsas and the Akragas, and a ridge to the north offering a degree of natural fortification. Its establishment took place around 582-580 BC and is attributed to Greek colonists from Gela, who named it Akragas. Akragas grew rapidly, becoming one of the richest and most famous of the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia. It came to prominence under the 6th-century tyrants Phalaris and Theron, and became a democracy after the overthrow of Theron's son Thrasydaeus. Although the city remained neutral in the conflict between Athens and Syracuse, its democracy was overthrown when the city was sacked by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. Akragas never fully recovered its former status, though it revived to some extent under Timoleon in the latter part of the 4th century.The city was disputed between the Romans and the Carthaginians during the First Punic War. The Romans laid siege to the city in 262 BC and captured it after defeating a Carthaginian relief force in 261 BC and sold the population into slavery. Although the Carthaginians recaptured the city in 255 BC the final peace settlement gave Punic Sicily and with it Akragas to Rome. It suffered badly during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) when both Rome and Carthage fought to control it. The Romans eventually captured Akragas in 210 BC and renamed it Agrigentum, although it remained a largely Greek-speaking community for centuries thereafter. It became prosperous again under Roman rule and its inhabitants received full Roman citizenship following the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the city passed into the hands of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy and then the Byzantine Empire. During this period the inhabitants of Agrigentum largely abandoned the lower parts of the city and moved to the former acropolis, at the top of the hill. The reasons for this move are unclear but were probably related to the destructive coastal raids of the Saracens and other peoples around this time. In 828 AD the Saracens captured the diminished remnant of the city. They pronounced its name as Kerkent in Arabic; it was thus Sicilianized as "Girgenti". It retained this name until 1927, when Benito Mussolini's government reintroduced an Italianized version of the Latin name. Agrigento was captured by the Normans under Count Roger I in 1087, who established a Latin bishopric there. The population declined during much of the medieval period but revived somewhat after the 18th century. In 1860, the inhabitants enthusiastically supported Giuseppe Garibaldi in his conquest of southern Italy (in the course of the Unification of Italy). The city suffered a number of destructive bombing raids during World War II.

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the columns are made of soft sandstone and the conservators have a long job to preserve them, as they suffer from erosion. They carefully match the colours of any new render to blend in with the original rock.

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there are many old grave cuts at the edge of the escarpment, that are gradually falling off the edge.

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the temples are spaced apart up the escarpment

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some more complete than others

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fine columns

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and nearly all have some restoration to keep them upright

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the modern Agrigento - a real jumble of flats

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near to Agrigento is a hillside with Mud Volcanoes - sounds spectacular but they are only 1m high.

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The mini volcanoes of Macalube, whose name comes from the Arab word for 'turnover', are a result of the pressure of methane gas mixing with salt water and clay under the ground. On occasion, larger eruptions reach up to ten metres in height making visitors jump when the silence is suddenly disturbed by the loud rumbles that accompany the explosions of mud bursting out of the ground. The result is a spectacular show that prompts a scramble by visitors trying to take photos of this rare event.

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cool to the touch and cool to watch erupt

 Photobucketthe mud volcanoes of Agrigento

A great relaxing week and well worth a visit. Just make sure you hang onto your valuables. It almost ended in disaster as we drove to Catania Airport there was torrential rain and floods. It was chaos at the airport -gridlocked and one of the car parks flooded up to the level of car windows. Luckily I managed to squeeze the car around to the car hire depot and made a dash for the terminal - it's worth bringing a brolly!

 

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