In Sicily? Visit Syracuse

Syracuse Harbour

Syracuse, on Sicily’s southeastern coast, has been an important city for 27 centuries. It has broad avenues, a busy harbour and some splendid baroque architecture.

It also has some of  the best Grecian ruins on the island. In the Piazza Pancali, flanked by an open market and a row of office buildings, stands the enormous temple to Apollo, the largest existing Doric temple in Western Europe.A few streets away, an ornate 18th century cathedral has all but swallowed the imposing remains of a 6th century BC temple to Minerva.The massive columns stand out clearly against the Duomo’s interior walls.

 Near it are stone quarries and enormous caves. One of the caves is called the “Ear of Dionysius” because its extraordinary acoustics supposedly allowed the tyrant Dionysius to eavesdrop on the prisoners held within it.The tomb of the scientist Archimedes, who was born in Syracuse in 287 BC, is in the northwest corner of the Neapolis.

A modern Archeological Museum was opened in 1988 to exhibit the fruits of a 20-year dig in the area. Its outstanding treasures are the “Venus Anadyomene,” a Roman copy of a Greek statue and an enthroned goddess dating from the 6th century BC. It’s an easy-to-visit museum with a wealth of geological and historical artifacts. In the centre of one room stand  two rather forlorn plaster casts about the size of small ponies – the skeletons of prehistoric male and female dwarf elephants.The female seems to have a huge eye socket in the middle of her forehead and it’s thought this gave rise to the Cyclops legend. It was actually part of the respiratory system, but you can see how the story started.


Off Season Gem: Corsica

It’s not too late to see what the south of France was like before it  became the South of France. Go to Corsica. Not in the months of July or August,  when Italian and French holidaymakers overrun this small granite mountain marooned in the Ligurian sea, but in spring or autumn. Then the sombre peaks, the translucent sea, the vibrant light of the Mediterranean sun will seem to be your own happy discovery and the locals will be pleased and slightly surprised to find you in their midst..

My first visit was in May, the maquis was in bloom… the  nearly impenetrable ‘maquis’  which first sheltered Corsican outlaws and then the resistance fighters of WW2.  A soft sweet fragrance  rose from the tangle of vegetation on the lower slopes of  forested, brush-covered mountains….rock roses, lavender, thyme, sage, tree heather  cistus, asphodel.  It drifted through the open windows of the early morning train from Ajaccio to Bastia where I was going just for the ride, just because the route was called the most picturesque in Europe when the narrow-gauge tracks were  laid in 1888.

We travelled north along a spine of  mountain ridges on tracks which seemed no wider than a tea tray, often hugging the mountainside so closely one could have picked wild flowers from the rocks in passing. The views on the other side, over bottomless ravines and dark green valleys, were like 19th century engravings with seldom a house or a glimpse of a road. In the distance lay jagged, black peaks some traced with snow, pine, beech and chestnut  forests,  glacial lakes, white-foaming streams.  We passed over iron bridges so narrow they  disappeared underneath the railway car and for a few moments it was  as if the train had taken to the air.

The long steady climb up to Vizzavona, a town at the half-way point of the legendary cross-country trail, the  GR 20, caused  the train to wheeze like an asthmatic and justified its nickname: the Trembler. At 906 km, the air was cold, passengers searched out open windows and closed them before we set off again, downhill to Bastia, the island’s largest town and commercial centre.. We arrived right on time,  four hours, 155 km, 12 bridges, 34 viaducts and 38 tunnels after leaving Ajaccio .

Yachts in Bastia’s Old Port were overlooked by weathered 19th century houses and a baroque cathedral. Restaurants with starchy tablecloths and rows of wine glasses were readying for the evening. But before they opened, the train returned to Ajaccio, with me, a clatter of teenagers from the university in Corte, and an elegant  blonde carrying a florist’s red rose wrapped in cellophane. She was on her way to Ponte Nuovo to lay the rose at the bridge where French troops ultimately defeated the Corsicans and Corsican independence ended. Between 600 years of Italian rule and annexation by France, their autonomy had lasted only 14 years. The cause of freedom echoes around the hills of Corsica still, punctuated from time to time by the bombs of the FNLC.

Bonifacio, the much photographed cliff top village at the southern tip of the island, is Corsica’s main attraction. To get there, I took the bus from Ajaccio, which  plunged along the twisty mountain roads and through the tiny hamlets like an armour-plated elephant. We stopped to pick up passengers in the hilltop village of Sartene of which it has been said ‘it breathes war and vengeance’. It has also been called the most Corsican of Corsican towns. On its shadowy, steep streets famous vendettas have been plotted calling for a death inflicted on one family to be revenged by a death in the other . This could  carry down through generations with the cause  of the conflict becoming obscure even to the participants. Today the vendetta is said to be just a memory, but it is the brand name inscribed on the blades of a range of stiletto knives.

The journey to Bonifacio ended in a huge parking lot overlooking  a narrow yacht harbour edged with open-air eating places and small shops. Sheltering thefjord-like inlet are white limestone cliffs 60 metres high, their base  deeply eroded by an incessant wind and a turquoise sea..’The King of Aragon’s Stairway’, 187 steps carved into the cliff face, leads obliquely from the shore to the citadel and the mediaeval city. From above you gaze down on  Sardinia, 12 km away to the south. From below you  gaze up at houses perched so close to the cliff edge they look as if they might topple into the sea. In 1966, one did.

Explore Sicily/Corsica

With the beautiful people

Sicily seems less an island and more of a continent that has shrunk in the wash. If it were flattened out it would be a whole lot bigger than 26,000 square kilometres. Its rugged hills are packed with enough interesting old towns, remarkable ruins and panoramic vistas to animate a much larger place.

Taormina, on the northeast corner of the island, is the dolce vida capital of Sicily (Palermo is the political capital). Taormina has attracted sophisticated travellers such as actors Judi Dench, Michael Douglas, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Before the Second World War it was a popular Mediterranean playground for English eccentrics. DH Lawrence, who lived for two years in a villa just outside Taormina, had his expatriate neighbour in mind when he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The town is built on a narrow plateau between the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna and it’s all view: look up and there’s Europe’s most active volcano; look down and there’s the voluptuous curve of the bay. Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy, is a blue smudge in the distance.There’s a flowery fragrance on the breeze, sunsets and sunrises of outstanding beauty, the melancholy ruins of Roman and Greek civilisations, the still imposing palaces of the Spanish and French occupiers and the black tracks of lava from Etna’s sporadic eruptions.

Perhaps it’s this muttering volcano that gives the town a frisson – the atmosphere of a place on the edge; a place to eat, drink and be merry. While Sicily’s other problems include the mafia, summer’s brutal heat, barren highlands and poverty, these don’t normally intrude on holidaymakers, unless they are so unwise as to come in July or August.

Skipping the parched heat of summer, out-of-season tourists will have missed only the crowds. In late November my hotel was serving breakfast on the terrace, the grapes had just been harvested, the olives were being shaken into ground cloths and oranges hung like Christmas ornaments on the trees.Though a few restaurants were closed for annual holidays, the catch of the day was still being cooked to order in small family-run trattorias.

Small shops line Taormina’s one main shopping street, Corso Umberto I. It’s a cobbled pedestrian way that begins at Porta Messina and ends at Porta Catania, both circumstantial gates. Narrow staircases to the right and left of the Corso lead to alleys running uphill or downhill to hidden neighbourhoods. Corso Umberto is enlivened with picturesque squares, including the Piazza IX Aprile with its panoramic vista.

The best view of all, though, is from within the ancient amphitheatre of Taormina. A partial ruin, its brick arches frame views of the mountain and coast that look like 19th century engravings.The amphitheatre, built by the Greeks and rebuilt by the Romans for gladiatorial combats, is still used in summer for dramatic performances.

After looking at the volcano from a distance for a few days, you want to get closer. I arranged through the hotel for a car with a chauffeur guide. On the twisty drive up towards the cone we passed olive groves, then forests of pine and chestnut trees and from each curve there were new perspectives of the snow-topped mountain. As we drove higher, Etna seemed to get lower, to crouch on the horizon like a cheetah pretending to be a house cat. We stopped in the car park that serves both a chair lift (skiing is a popular winter sport on Mount Etna) and the cable car. The sloping ground around here was mostly ash with fist-sized lumps of lava here and there, and isolated patches of snow. Some of these were lightly dusted with soot. “Fresh soot – Etna was active last night,” the guide observed indulgently, as if referring to a restless, elderly relative. He asked if I’d like to take the cable car higher up Etna’s flank. From there a jeep would take me to the crater’s edge “if conditions permit”. I said no. Standing in the cold wind he pointed out various rivers of lava, like coal slides, giving dates for each as if they were battles in a history book.The one in 2001 had carried away the observatory, the refuge and the ski lift. A new refuge and ski lift had just opened, though not an observatory. Etna is monitored by satellite now.

Our way back down the mountain toward Taormina took us through the home of Etna Appellation Cotrolée wine, an ‘island on an island’ that collars Etna’s neck.

 Here the grapes grow sweet in the lava-enriched soil. Near the town of Linguaglossa, we stopped at the Raciti-Gambino family’s vineyard. On the broad terrace overlooking their 18 hectares they offered a complimentary tasting of red and white wines along with bread, local cheeses and charcuterie to go with it. If you know wine, they’ll enthusiastically talk you through the technicalities. If, like me, you just want to choose a few bottles to remind you of Sicily, you’ll be in the right place, too.

Explore Sicily/Corsica

Music in the Stones

For a week in September, the Corsican city of Calvi is soaked in music. It’s the Rencontres de Chants Polyphoniques. Locals and guests unleash the soulful, traditional Corsican chants in every nook and cranny of the historic town including in its most beautiful edifices……the cathedral St Jean-Baptiste and the Saint-Antoine oratory.

The festival was created in 1989 to share Corsica’s musical heritage with the world; today the Rencontres are one of the major events on the island. Polyphonic ensembles from all over the globe (Mongol, Inuit, Tibetan, South African, Cuban, Sardinian, etc.) come to Calvi to add their voices and heritage to the five-day festival.

It would be hard to imagine a more evocative setting for the Rencontres than the thirteenth century Citadel, Calvi’s ‘upper town’. When I visited one September, music seemed to seep from the stones as local and invited a capella groups rehearsed each day and performed each afternoon and evening in the Cathedral, in the oratory, on the roofs and balconies of tall stone houses.

Polyphonic singers

Corsican polyphonic singing employs human voices to produce something like the sounds of an organ, independent drawn-out lines sung simultaneously in dense, horizontal harmony. Very little of it,either sacred or popular, is written.The singers, a minimum of three, traditionally stand in a huddled circle, cupping an ear with one hand.

The final night of the Rencontres, a thousand spectators stood leaning against the walls or sat, quiet as the stones themselves, on the steps of the cobbled street leading to the Place d’Armes. The Citadel was in darkness, the moonlight flickering on and off, turning the distant sea from black to silver as the clouds swept by. At 9:30, the first riveting notes of a Paghjella, the traditional polyphonic song of Corsica, rose like an ancient cry from six quite ordinary looking men spot lit on an improvised stage. This moment alone was worth the journey.