March 30–April 6, 2020
Eastern Sicily is the land of Etna, Europe’s largest and most active volcano, and of six UNESCO World Heritage sites. From the Greek theater of Taormina to the Roman mosaics of Piazza Armerina to the Baroque gem that is Noto, you’ll be immersed in Sicily’s diverse past while feasting on the multilayered local cuisine and most delicious locally grown oranges, tomatoes, and pistachios.
The tour begins and ends at Catania International Airport (CTA), which has frequent flights from/to many Italian and European cities.
According to myth, Sicily was the home of monsters—the one-eyed Polyphemus on Etna and, at the straits of Messina, Scylla and Charybdis. Yet seafaring Greeks and Phoenicians were drawn by the island’s spectacular natural beauty and fertility and founded cities that would rival Athens and Carthage for Mediterranean hegemony. Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, and Spanish followed them, each bringing a distinctive culture whose traces we still see today in the island’s art and cuisine. In the shadow of Mount Etna, picturesque Taormina preserves one of the finest Greek theaters anywhere.
The week begins in Catania, Sicily’s lively second-largest city. Its main street, Via Etnea, is dominated dramatically by its view of the volcano, but the city’s emblem (we’re pleased to note) is the obelisk-bearing elephant statue in Piazza Duomo. The city center incorporates some well-preserved Roman buildings and an amazing, world-class fish market, where we’ll have a seafood lunch.
The itinerary heads south by private bus along the coast to Siracusa, ancient Syracuse. The wealth and sophistication with which Syracuse was synonymous—and coveted by the invading Romans—is on view in the superb archaeological museum. Today art galleries and trendy restaurants in Ortygia, the oldest part of the city, continue the tradition. Farther west, the Greek colony of Gela preserves some of Sicily’s earliest remains, while inland we’ll visit Greek Morgantina and the new museum at Aidone, which proudly displays the magnificent cult statue of Aphrodite and other repatriated works.
Sprawling country villas at Tellaro and Piazza Armerina, both paved with stunning mosaic floors, attest to the fortunes amassed by local landowners under the Romans thanks to exports of grain and olive oil.
The eighteenth century witnessed another flowering of architectural innovation following the earthquake of 1693, when baroque masterpieces were built at Noto, Ragusa, and Modica (today famous for chocolate!). Their embellished facades enliven handsome piazzas that come to life during the evening passeggiata.
The same durum wheat (or nearly) that made ancient Sicily a Roman breadbasket is today used for wonderful local flour-and-water pastas—and the tomatoes from sun-drenched, salt-swept Pachino, on the southeast corner of the island, make the best sauces. The volcanic soils on the slopes of Mount Etna and surrounding area yield the best blood oranges, the best pistachios, and excellent minerally wines (Etna DOC). All our (fabulous) meals are accompanied by local wines made from native grape varieties, such as Grillo and Carricante whites, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalesese reds, and, for dessert, the exquisite Moscato di Noto.
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