Sicily is an iconic Italian summer holiday destination;
it is a true national pride, much loved by Italians as a perfect compendium of sun, sea, beaches, typical delicacies but also a long history.
Placed there right in the center between Europe and Africa, it has seen a succession of many civilizations that have produced an extremely fascinating mix of various influences, which is very rare to find anywhere else in the world.
Despite its extension, the “Trinacria”, so called due to its triangular shape, can be driven around by car in a week, or at best in two if you can stay longer. The secret lies in finding a common thread to plan a themed itinerary.
What we propose today follows the traces of the Ancient Greeks who landed in Sicily in the 8th century B.C. and will take you to admire the major Hellenic ruins on the island.
Now you will be probably wondering how you can find a car in Sicily, but for this you just need the portal of the international low cost car hire broker Auto Europe.
Here you can, at best with the right advance since during the high season the availability gets tight soon, book the vehicle more suited to your needs. In case of larger groups there are also minivans or campers. The route that we list below starts from Taormina, convenient for those landing at Catania Airport. If, on the other hand, you arrive at the airports of Palermo or Trapani, just take the path in reverse, starting from the last stop, Selinunte.
Among the most elegant and exclusive Sicilian cities we must certainly include Taormina, just 33 miles north of Catania.
Its historic center, whose main square is dominated by the Cathedral and a 16th century fountain is a real jewel and the experience is crowned by a visit to the spectacular Greek theater dating back to the 3rd century B.C. with the sea as a background.
No surprise if this location is still used today for various kinds of shows including the “Taormina Arte” and the “Taormina Film Fest”. The cavea was carved into the rock on the side of a hill and behind the stage framed by columns you can see the Ionian Sea and even the Etna volcano.
Just twenty minutes south of Taormina you can also integrate the visit with the Archaeological Park of Naxos Taormina, another ancient Greek settlement which enjoys an equally enchanting position overlooking the bay of Naxos and dotted with green Mediterranean scrub.
Following the coastline to the south, 40 miles from Catania you will encounter Syracuse whose past influence only seconded Athens.
The city tour must necessarily start from the island of Ortigia which can be reached via a bridge and where, in addition to the Cathedral and the Meniace Castle, you can admire the fountains dedicated to the goddess Artemis and the nymph Arethusa. The latter turned to the goddess to free her from an unwanted admirer.
The Cathedral is a metaphor of all the dominations of Sicily: born as a Greek and then Roman temple, it then became a mosque and finally turned into one of the very first European Christian places of worship.
But you will discover the true soul of Syracuse at the Archaeological Park of Neapolis, located on the mainland and obviously a UNESCO Heritage Site since 2005.
Inside there are a well-preserved theater which like that of Taormina is still used for shows, the remains of an amphitheater of which many building blocks have been recycled for the defensive walls, the alleged Tomb of Archimedes, the Temple of Gerone and last but not least the Ear of Dionysus. This last attraction is perhaps the most unique and interesting, which can be easily guessed when hearing its name. It is part of a cave dug to extract construction rocks, with a shape that resembles an ear. In fact according to the legend the tyrant Dionysus used to position himself at its top to eavesdrop on the speeches of the prisoners he had locked down there. For further information on the Greek era of Syracuse, we direct you to the Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum.
The next stop involves a trip to Agrigento, on the western side of the island for which you can choose different routes that cross the hinterland based on how many further stops/detours you want to make. For example, you could go to Marzamemi and Capo Passero on the southern tip, or Noto, Avola and Ragusa in the inland.
The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, whose ancient Greek city name was Akragas, is undoubtedly the area with the highest concentration of Greek remains in Sicily and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Akragas was founded by settlers from Gela in a position slightly set back from the sea but well protected on a plateau; it was also fortified. Here too there is an imposing theater, but what is most striking are the numerous and majestic temples that line the sacred path “Via Sacra”: they are even eight, mostly in Doric style. The most important are that of Hera, the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Zeus and the oldest, that of Heracles. You will need about two and a half hours to see everything calmly. Don’t forget sunscreen and water on hot days.
Selinunte and Segesta
The journey continues towards Selinunte, an hour and a half away following the coast towards Marsala.
Here, too, a rich archaeological park will await you divided into various areas spread over hills, including the agora and a necropolis.
There are several buildings of worship marked with letters: some are quite intact, while others remain only in the foundations. It is often difficult to imagine how and where the large and heavy blocks of stone used for these monumental architectural works came from.
If you have an extra hour available, you can drive to the nearby Cusa quarries and find out where the material all came from. Finally, we close the circle by making you go up northwards to Segesta which is half an hour from Trapani and an hour from Palermo: the last prominent archaeological site that we mention, with a large theater also carved into the rock of Monte Barbaro and a Doric style temple dominating the landscape. Not to be missed!
Over the Greek heritage…
The richest archaeological legacy in Sicily was clearly left by the Ancient Greeks, but there are also numerous testimonies of the presence of the Phoenicians and the Romans. We point out the major examples so that you can integrate them into your itinerary as you wish.
To the north-west just below Marsala you can take a boat to the open-air museum island of Mozia, colonized by the Phoenicians, a population of traders active throughout the Mediterranean.
It goes without saying that it is a truly incredible experience to be so far away from everything else and immersed in a journey back in time. The opposite coast is occupied by salt flats that sparkle in the sun from afar.
As for the Romans, right in the wild heart of the island there is a huge villa in Piazza Armerina, in the province of Enna. This villa is well known for its mosaics.
The beauty of a trip with a cultural background in Sicily that certainly strains both the brain and the legs a little, is that you can always take relaxing breaks by lying on the beach or recovering energy and strength thanks to exquisite “cannoli”, “cassata”, “arancini” or other specialties, both sweet and salty. If you are traveling with your family, it will be a nice history review for your children.
Moreover you will not have to fear that they will break anything because these remains have managed to reach us despite the centuries and exposure to any weather.