SICILY – between nobility and history
7 DAYS / 6 NIGHTS
DAY 1 – PALERMO
Arrival at Palermo airport. Check-in in hotel 4*.
During the afternoon the group will visit Palermo old town with its most important monuments:
The Quattro Canti
Located at the intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, the “Quattro Canti” (Four Corners) is the traditional center of Palermo, the crossroad marking the heart of Palermo’s old historic district.
Each of the four buildings that comprise the Quattro Canti, has three levels covered with Baroque sculptures that were designed by the architect Giulio Lasso. The sculptures on the facades of the four buildings illustrate various themes: the Four Seasons, Spanish kings and various patron saints of Palermo’s four old quarters.
Across Via Maqueda from the Church of Saint Joseph of the Theatines is Piazza Pretoria and its splendid fountain. Its sixteen statues are divided among the four sets of stairs leading to the largest fountain in the center; these statues are nudes of nymphs, humans, mermaids and satyrs. It is surprising that this fountain was permitted to be erected in Palermo during the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition.
Saint Mary’s of the Admiral is its official name. This church was built in 1143 at the behest of George of Antioch, who was a famous Admiral during the reign of King Roger II. George of Antioch was also responsible for the construction of the “Admiral’s Bridge.” Admiral George’s official title was the Arabic “Amir-al-Bahr” or “Emir of the Sea.” (Both the Italian “ammiraglio” and the English “admiral” are derived from this medieval Arabic title.)
The Martorana’s original Norman Arab construction was unfortunately altered in the 17th century . The main nave and a good part of the mosaics were torn down and replaced with Baroque construction and frescoes. This changed the floorplan, which was initially square in conformity to most Orthodox churches of medieval times.
The Oratory of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria
The church is contiguous to a monastery founded in the 1300’s from the Dominican nuns. Saint Caterina shows oneself on two public squares: before it there’s the Pretoria public square that stands in front of the homonymous fountain, while the second one is square Bellini where the Church of the Martorana and the Church of Saint Cataldo can be visited. The thing that hits more is the rich decoration of the inside, the navata, typical of the Counter Reformation period.
DAY 2 – PALERMO/CEFALU’
During the morning the group will continue the visit of old town of Palermo:
Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel
Built on high ground on the site of earlier Phoenician, Roman and Saracen structures, the Royal Palace now houses the Sicilian Regional Assembly, the parliament of Italy’s largest semi-autonomous “regional” government. Roger II ordered the palace’s construction sometime before 1132.
The Palatine Chapel and Roger’s Room (the throne room) are the most evocative of the Kingdom’s splendor.
Don’t judge it from outside, for if its exterior is less than impressive, the Palace’s interior still evokes much of its former grandeur. Its arched windows are similar to those of the Norman-Arab churches of Palermo, and the mosaics of some of the Palace’s chambers are unabashedly redolent of those found in many of the same churches.
Visiting this unique church is to experience multicultural architectural diversity. Palermo’s cathedral is known officially as “Santa Maria Assunta” or Saint Mary of the Assumption. Some scholars believe that a temple existed here in Roman, or possibly even Punic, times. There is no doubt that the site once had a large Byzantine Greek (Orthodox) church.
The church is a massive rectangular structure, with two towers at the two front corners constructed in the Norman Arab style. The exterior of the apse is similar to those of Monreale Cathedral and the smaller Basilica of the Magione.
The tour continues Exploring the vibrant and colourful Capo Market, we will visit various food vendors to learn what makes up the flavour and uniqueness of Sicilian cooking.
In the afternoon we will visit the beautiful Norman town of Cefalù with its Cathedral,
It is the great symbol of Cefalù built between 1131 and 1240 by the Norman King Roger II, its Norman character is very evident from its facade, which is framed by massive towers with pointed tips. The facade is divided into two levels by a 15th-century portico.
However, the real marvel is the inside, consisting of three naves and a wooden roof. You can’t but be astonished by the Byzantine-style mosaic cycle (1148) that covers the entire apse and presbytery. At the center of the mosaics, dominated by gold and emerald green, Christ Pantocrator (Christ Almighty) delivers a blessing, as in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and Duomo in Monreale. You can also see many other Renaissance and Baroque works of art in the Cathedral. Alongside, there is a beautiful Cloister, decorated with twin columns with sculpted capitals.
A short distance away, there are the fascinating remains of an ancient medieval washhouse used by the women of Cefalù until a few decades ago. A stone’s throw from the washhouse, you will find the small, old port, one of Cefalù’s most characteristic corners, especially at dusk.
Back to hotel. Dinner and overnight.
DAY 3 – PALERMO
During the morning the tour continues of Sicilian Baroque:
Basilica of S. Domenico
The Basilica of San Domenico (St. Dominick), off Via Roma, is another fine example of Sicilian Baroque and is also known for the many prominent Sicilians laid to rest in it. San Domenico’s landmark is the obelisk-like “Colonna dell’ Immacolata” in the piazza in front of the basilica.
The Oratory of the Rosary of Saint Cita
The Oratory del Rosario di Santa Cita is a small Chapel in Palermo, Sicily, dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary. It was built in the 16th century in gratitude for the Virgin’s miraculous intervention at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) against the Turks. The neighboring Church of Santa Cita (Chiesa di Santa Cita), from which the Oratory takes its name, is filled with sculptures (1517-27) by Antonello Gagini. The stucco decoration is the art of Giacomo Serpotta (after 1688), and an inscription was installed in 1934 in his remembrance to mark the Second Centenary of his death.
**Private concert of Baroque music in the Oratory of Santa Cita.
Exclusive lunch in a Palace hosted by the Sicilian nobility.
In the afternoon they will go to Monreale (Cathedral and Cloister).
Famed for its glorious golden mosaics, Monreale Cathedral is perhaps the finest Norman building in Sicily. It was built in the 12th century as part of a grand royal complex a few miles outside of Palermo.
The exterior of Monreale’s Duomo is pleasant enough, but gives no indication of the golden splendor within. The west facade has two towers, only one of which was finished. The Neoclassical portico was added in the 18th century. Far more interesting is the exterior of the apse, richly decorated with interlaced arch and circle designs made of marble and tufa.
The lovely cloister adjoining the south side was built at the same time as the cathedral. Consisting of 228 double columns supporting Arab-style arches, it is richly decorated with Romanesque figurative carvings on the columns and capitals. Mosaicwork appears on some of the columns as well. The craftsmen who worked in the cloister came from all over southern Italy.
DAY 4 – AGRIGENTO/PIAZZA ARMERINA
Along the way to Agrigento we can see the beautiful Sicilian hinterland. Arrival at Valley of the Temples.
The Valle dei Templi is an archaeological site in Agrigento (ancient Greek Akragas).
It is one of the most outstanding examples of Greater Greece art and architecture, and is one of the main attractions of Sicily as well as a national monument of Italy. The area was included in the UNESCO Heritage Site list in 1997.
The Valley includes remains of seven temples, all in Doric style.
The ascription of the names, apart from that of the Olympeion, are a mere tradition established in Renaissance times.
The most important temples are:
Temple of Concordia, whose name comes from a Latin inscription found nearby, and which was also built in the 5th century BC. Turned into a church in the 6th century AD, it is now one of the best preserved in the Valley.
Temple of Heracles, who was one of the most venerated deities in the ancient Akragas. It is the most ancient in the Valley: destroyed by an earthquake, it consists today of only eight columns.
Transfer to Piazza Armerina and Lunch in restaurant.
In the afternoon the visit continues with the beautiful Villa Romana del Casale
This imposing Roman villa was likely built between the late 3rd century BC and the early 4th century AD undoubtedly by some important figure, perhaps a member of the Imperial family itself.
The villa, lying in the countryside, surrounded by large estates, was only occupied occasionally until the 12th century..
The large complex (about 3500sqm) is made up of different levels.
What makes the villa unique are its floors, mainly consisting of mosaics fortunately survived in excellent condition. The majority of panels are polychrome and feature a wide range of subjects. Mythological scenes, incidents from daily life, special occasions – a great hunt, circus games, feast days honoring the gods and a grape harvest – alternate with geometric decoration incorporating medallions stars and key patterns in a wonderful array of colours.
Transfer to Ragusa, accommodation at the hotel. Dinner and overnight.
DAY 5 – DONNAFUGATA/RAGUSA HYBLA
In the morning the group will visit the Castle of Donnafugata,
If you’re visiting southeast Sicily and want to get a peek at the recent lifestyle of Sicily’s bluebloods, I recommend a visit to Donnafugata Castello, 20 kilometers outside of Ragusa toward Santa Croce Camerina.
Set in rolling countryside among rocks and giant carob trees, the castle dates back to the mid-17th century. You’ll wonder where exactly you’ve arrived when the gracious Venetian-style facade looms into view.
In the mid 19th-century, the Baron of Donnafugata built the Neo-Gothic castle onto the 17th-century extant core. A half-century later, the southern facade was broken through to insert a replica of the Venetian Gothic arcade of the Palace of Popes at Viterbo. A Neoclassical temple was added in the garden. This fascinating amalgam of styles is further confused by the lush, gilded, trompe-l’oeil Baroque interior.
In the afternoon visit of the city of Ragusa and Ragusa Ibla.
The city has two distinct areas, the lower and older town of Ragusa Ibla, and the higher Ragusa Superiore (Upper Town). The two halves are separated by the Valle dei Ponti, a deep ravine crossed by four bridges.
Ragusa Ibla hosts a wide array of Baroque architecture, including several stunning palaces and churches.
The Cathedral of San Giorgio was built starting in 1738 by architect Rosario Gagliardi, in substitution of the temple destroyed by the 1693 earthquake, and of which only a Catalan-Gothyic style portal can still be seen. The façade is characterized by a flight of 250 steps and by massive ornate columns, as well as by statues of saints and decorated portals. The interior has a Latin cross plan, with a nave and two aisles ending in half-circular apses. It is topped by a large Neoclassical dome built in 1820.
On a narrow winding street that connects Ragusa Ibla (the new name of Ragusa Inferiore, taken by a legendary Greek town maybe risen here) with Ragusa Superiore is the church of Santa Maria delle Scale (“Saint Mary of the Steps”, built between the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries). This church is particularly interesting: badly damaged in the earthquake of 1693, half of this church was rebuilt in Baroque style, while the surviving half was kept in the original Gothic (including the three Catalan-style portals in the right aisle). The last chapel of the latter has a Renaissance portal. The chapels have canvases from some Sicilian painters of the 18th century.
DAY 6 – NOTO/SIRACUSA
In the morning visit of Noto.
Considered Sicily’s “Baroque City,” Noto is in the province of Syracuse, in the southeastern corner of Sicily. Old Noto was completely destroyed in the extremely violent earthquake that struck Eastern Sicily in 1693, a quake that heavily damaged Catania and Syracuse also. The present site of Noto was rebuilt from scratch, and almost entirely in the Baroque style, the prevailing style of building in Sicily at the time.
Visit of the Cathedral, recently reopened after a long renovation.
Transfer to Siracusa. Time at disposal for lunch.
The archaeological site, situated in the northwest of the town, is home to a staggering number of well-preserved Greek (and Roman) remains. The main attraction is undoubtedly the Greek theatre that dates back at least until the 5th Century BC. Its cavea is amongst the largest ever built: its 59 rows could accommodate up to 15,000 spectators.
Just over the ridge from the theatre are the old stone quarries (latomie). While today there is a delightful, fragrant lemon orchard, they used to serve a different, more sinister purpose: 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war were kept here after the Sicilian Expedition in 413.
The Roman amphitheatre, built in the 3rd Century AD, is also very impressive. 140m long, it is one of the largest to be found anywhere.
Ortigia – Syracuse’s island heart
The best way to see the island of Ortygia is just to wander. It’s difficult to get lost (it measures just 1km by 500 metres), but packed with over 2,500 years of history. Architectural styles vary widely, encompassing Greek and Roman remains, Mediaeval Norman buildings and a great deal of (relatively) understated Baroque. Restaurants, trattorias and bars abound and it is especially nice to sit out on the western side in the late afternoon, warmed by the sun and with a view over the lagoon.
Transfer to Catania or Acireale.
DAY 7 – TAORMINA/ACIREALE
Transfer to Taormina.
Taormina is a popular resort town in Sicily with many interesting sights and attractions. Taormina has remnants of its Greek and Roman past, a medieval quarter and castle ruins, and modern shops and restaurants. Perched on the side of Monte Tauro, the town offers fantastic views of the coast and Mt. Etna volcano as well as good hiking paths.
Greek Theater: Taormina’s Greek theater was built in the third century BC, renovated by the Romans, and is now used for summer performances. The theater, built into the hillside, has excellent acoustics and spectacular views of the sea and Mt. Etna.
Medieval Quarter: A clocktower gate serves as the starting point for Taormina’s picturesque medieval section with its narrow streets and old shops now selling modern clothing, crafts, and souvenirs.
Transfer for lunch in a farm on the slopes of Mount Etna.
In the afternoon visit of Acireale.
Acireale is situated on the coast of eastern Sicily, north of Catania and was a well established medieval town here before the 16th century (described as being similar to many muslim cities).
It was towards the end of that century that the town was extended with developments at this time including the “Annunziata” Church and the construction of the Basilica in 1608.
The centre of Acireale is the Piazza del Duomo, onto which some of the most important buildings of the city face, among which the Cathedral, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the Municipal Palace, and the “Modò” Palace.
Acireale Cathedral is dedicated to “Maria Santissima Annunziata”, but is consecrated to the cult of “Santa Venera,” the patron saint of the town.
Transfer to airport of Catania through the Riviera dei Ciclopi route (stop in Acicastello).
Flight from Catania airport.