Tag Archives: Sicily

Sicily Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Sicily?

Temple of Concord

There are many, many layers of history in Sicily. One of the oldest sites that we visited was the Valley of Temples in Agrigento.

Summarise Sicily in three words.

  • Theatrical – Not only is the island littered with old Greek and Roman teatros, but the people are pretty dramatic too – we had to laugh on our first day when we saw a guy having a loud, flamboyant conversation waving both arms around while driving his car!
  • Melting pot – Sicily’s location in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea means that it has been occupied by many different peoples and their influences are still visibly mixed together – from Greek temples in Agrigento, to Arab geometric patterns on the tiles in the Stanze al Genio, to Byzantine decoration in the Norman cathedral at Monreale and Roman mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale
  • Patriotic – Sicilians are proud of their island, its history and its delicious produce. Fortunately they love sharing it with visitors too – we were constantly offered free samples of food and advice on places to visit.

You really know you’re in Sicily when…

…you have to watch your step to make sure your shoes stay clean. Unfortunately the streets are full of litter and, even worse, dog poo.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Sicily?

An empty stomach. The food is fantastic, whether in fancy restaurants, on the streets or from the markets.

Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily

Villa Romana del Casale was a large Roman villa almost in the centre of Sicily whose remains include the best collection of Roman mosaics in the world.

Masters bedroom, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

The mosaic floors of the Villa Romana de Casale are breathtakingly intricate. This central design in the master’s bedroom represents love and immortality, and features Cupid and Psyche

We’d originally planned to visit the volcanic island of Stromboli on our way to the Italian mainland, but when we found out the hiking tours were cancelled because it was likely to erupt again after the spectacular eruption 5 months ago in August, we changed plans and jumped on a bus to Piazza Armerina, a small town near Villa Romana de Casale. And we’re so glad we did instead of heading straight to Naples..

Porticoed entrance court, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily

The former porticoed entrance court of the Villa Romana del Casale. The wall would have been Just beyond the row of pillars with a marble fountain in the centre

Originally built in the 4th century on the site of an existing villa, it was expanded a number of times before possibly being damaged or destroyed by invaders. Parts remained in use throughout the Byzantine and Arab periods until a massive landslide in the 12th century almost completely covered it. Forgotten, the area was turned over for cropland for nearly 700 years until the 19th century, when bits of mosaic and columns where found, leading to the first professional archaeological excavations in 1929.

The great hall of the frigidarium, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

The walking route starts at the villa’s Roman bathhouse, which was open to the public and staying guests. This is the great hall of the frigidarium, an octagonal room with cold baths in the corners and corridors to the hot baths, massage rooms and the house. It reminded us of the Turkish baths we had in Istanbul but the decoration here is more impressive than the plain marble flooring of the hamams

There are many nice things about travelling off-season: generally the transport is cheaper (if it’s running); accommodation is easier to find (if it’s open); but our favourite benefit is the reduced crowds at tourist attractions (if they too are open). We’ve stayed with some lovely hosts in Sicily and Piazza Armerina was no exception, but the shorter winter days meant the shuttle busses for the 3km trip out of the town to the villa weren’t running. Having risen early intending to hike our host was having none of it and insisted he take us in his car!

Two-apse room, or palestra, Villa Romana de Casale

The two-apse room or ‘palestra’ is the grand entrance hall to the spa or Roman bathhouse for the villa. We’re viewing it from the ‘common’ entrance, the family and important guest entrance is on the right and the baths are to the left. The mosaic depicts a race of quadrigae (4-horse chariot) at the Circus Maximus in Rome

We arrived just a few minutes after it opened and we saw 2 other couples as we walked around, then a group of 6 or so just as we were leaving, so we had the whole place to ourselves and really took our time to study the stunning variety of mosaics and read the excellent information boards.

The central portico, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

The central portico of the villa separates the service rooms, flats and halls for administration, from the boardrooms and the basilica

Floor of the central portico, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

Closeup of the central portico floor, showing the geometric patterns that surround wild animals

3rd service room floor, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

Most of the service rooms are decorated with elaborate geometric patterns, like this one in the 3rd service room, believed to have been for the domestic attendants to the adjacent rooms

The ambulatory of the great hunt, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

At the opposite end of the portico from the main entrance is one of the most famous pieces in the villa – the “great hunt”. It actually depicts the capturing of ferocious and exotic wild animals for exhibition in Rome, and is about 60 metres long

Closeup of the great hunt, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

Closeup of the “great hunt” mosaic where the captured animals are led onto a transport ship

Diaeta of Orpheus, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

One of the boardrooms opposite the service rooms and apartments, this is the Diaeta of Orpheus, a splendid room whose walls were faced with marble. It is thought to have been used for summer banquets and musical entertainment. Orpheus is a mythical singer and poet surrounded by 50 species of animals arranged by size, with the smallest at the top in the alcove

2nd service room of the masters southern apartment, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

Probably the most famous of the mosaics in the villa – that of the nicknamed “bikini girls”. They’re actually athletes dressed in a light outfit for competition consisting of a strophium and subligar. The almost fully-clothed figure in the bottom left is handing the winner a crown of roses and a palm branch.
In the top-left is an earlier geometric pattern which was replaced, probably due to a change of function or use, but check out the vivid, vibrant colours – we tried to then imagine the entire villa like this. Wow!

Triapsidal triclinium, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

The route took us outside giving us a chance to warm our fingers a little. Next up was the triapsidal triclinium and as you already know that means, I need only talk about the mosaic floor which depicts the enemies of Hercules during his 12 labours. We think this area is currently being restored or improved for viewing as there were ropes over the entrance stairs and everything was covered in dust (yes, we hopped over ropes!)

Apsidal hall, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

The route then took us through the most important rooms of the villa – those of the master’s apartment. This apsidal hall is believed to be the bedroom or study and features young musicians, actors, poets and mimes in theatrical competition

Semi-circular portico, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

Just next to the master’s bedroom or study is the aquatically themed semi-circular portico which served to join the rooms of the master’s apartment, providing cool air and water from a fountain in the middle. The scenes are of pairs of fishermen using all the tools and techniques of the day – nets, creel, trident and rod and line

Cubiculum with alcove, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

This is the other bedroom of the master’s private apartment. This time the flooring depicts children trying to capture barnyard animals, though not as successfully as their elders in the “great hunt” – one is bitten by a rat and another falls to the ground after being chased by a giant rooster!

Basilica, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

The second to last section is the mighty hall of the basilica, which was the most richly decorated in the villa – the walls and floor were lined with polychrome marble sourced from all over the Mediterranean. Excavations discovered glass mosaic in the apse vault which would have looked amazing from the entrance hall right through the courtyard

Antechamber of the masters northern apartment, Villa Romana de Casale, Sicily

The final 3 rooms of the route comprise the master’s northern apartment. The antechamber depicts the famous mythological scene of Ulysses escaping from Polyphemus. Many of the rooms are of mythological tales that have moral lessons. The lesson here is Ulysses represents human rationality succeeding against the brutality and unmoderated greed of the giant Polyphemus. I imagine that walking through each room is to be reminded of the intended moral behaviour

We were very fortunate with the weather, but although it was a bright, clear day, most of the mosaics are inside the villa and the protective roof meant that we got a little chilly. After a good 3½ hours following the route, we warmed up with a spot of lunch on a bench in the car park in the sun before hiking the 5km back into town.

We’ve added Stromboli to our ever-increasing list of places to come back to, but we’re so pleased we decided to visit Villa Romana del Casale. Not only are the mosaics simply amazing – and that’s saying something after Monreale Cathedral and The Church on Spilled Blood – but I think that means we’ve been to every UNESCO World Heritage site on Sicily!

Corleone, Sicily

Warning: this post contains images of violent death

If the name Corleone sounds familiar it might be because it’s the name of the Mafia family in the trilogy of Godfather films (and the book that they were based on). In real life, Corleone is a small town with a population of about 12,000 situated in the hills of north western Sicily. It has long been associated with the Sicilian Mafia, with many of the most notorious ‘bosses’ of past years having their roots in the town, but now it is trying to break free of its reputation, spearheading a campaign to rid Sicily of organised crime and corruption.

CorleoneA typical narrow street in Corleone

It’s about a 90 minute bus ride up into the hills from Palermo. We arrived just after lunch and found a sleepy place with all of its shops closed for the afternoon. We wandered the narrow streets following the ‘Justice and Legality’ route past some of the places associated with the anti-mafia movement, for example, the spot where Bernardino Verro, an early 20th century Socialist mayor and peasant leader, was assassinated by the Mafia, and the ‘People’s House’ founded by Verro to house the ‘Cooperative Agricultural Union’ a symbol of the local peasants’ struggles against the rich landowners and organised crime.

Casa del PopoloThe rather unassuming ‘Casa del Popolo’ (People’s House) is now home to a number of cultural associations

At 3pm we arrived for our tour of the International Centre for Documentation on the Mafia and Anti-Mafia Movement (CIDMA). CIDMA was founded in 2000 to raise awareness about and fight against the Mafia in Italy and worldwide by pursuing legality.

CIDMA receptionWall mural in CIDMA reception

There was no response to the doorbell and we were just checking our email to find a phone number when our guide bustled up and ushered us inside. After explaining the aims of CIDMA, she showed us the first room which is dedicated to the memory of two Sicilian judges, Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone. In February 1986 they began the Maxi-trial to try 475 mafiosi. The room contains copies of all the trial’s documentation, shelf after shelf of binders which ultimately led to the conviction of 360 of the accused.

Files from th 'Maxi-trial'Andrew with the files from the Maxi-trial

CIDMA is only possible because of the actions of brave people like Borsellino and Falcone who opened up the Mafia’s secrecy and allowed it to be spoken about publicly. But they paid for their bravery, both were murdered, along with their police bodyguards, for their stance and as a warning to others considering speaking out.

Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni FalconeBusts of Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone

The following rooms contained some shocking and brutal images taken by Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia during the 1970s and 80s of Mafia killings, as well as photographs by her daughter Shobha showing the effects of the killings on the victims’ families. Our guide used these to explain the reality of a life lived in fear of organised crime as well as the messages sent by the mafiosi in the way the bodies were left.

Mafia killingsSome of Letizia Battaglia’s images of Mafia killings

Grief of survivorsShobha Battaglia’s photographs of the grief of those left behind

We were particularly struck by the image of a man who was killed while on his way to collect his car from an underground garage, and the symbolism of how his murderers arranged his body. He was dragged down the slope below street level (he was unimportant), he was placed with his face down (to show he had seen something that he shouldn’t have but wouldn’t again) and his hands were in his pockets (he wasn’t active in the Mafia, just an innocent in the wrong place at the wrong time).

Photograph of Mafia killingOne of Letizia Battaglia’s photographs of a Mafia killing

Our guide was keen to stress that the majority of Sicilians were and are good, honest people, and several times during the tour, while explaining the needless deaths, she finished by saying:

We are killed because we are alone

Meaning that because of a lack of support from the state, and the power of the Mafia, people died. We were shocked that the Mafia is still active, sure there isn’t the same level of violence and fear that there used to be but ‘silent’ mafiosi are still running organised crime reliant on corruption within the authorities.

Paolo Borsellino quoteIn the CIDMA reception is a quote from Paolo Borsellino exhorting visitors to “Talk about Mafia. Talk about it on the radio, on television, in the newspapers. But talk about it”

Highlights of Palermo, Sicily

Having enjoyed our time in the second largest Sicilian city of Catania, we were equally looking forward to Palermo which is the largest. Anticipating that it would be a larger version of the same, we weren’t at all disappointed, there’s more to do and more to see. Also like Catania we found ourselves a nice little apartment with a kitchen so we could make full use of the Sicilian markets when were weren’t out trying the local street food.

Palermo Cathedral

Palermo Cathedral, Sicily

The massive Palermo Cathedral

Built in 1185 on the site of a former Byzantine church, Palermo’s cathedral, like the Monreale Cathedral that closely preceeded it, is a hodgepodge of the styles and influences of multicultural Sicily: Norman, Arab, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical.

Inside Palermo Cathedral, Sicily

Inside the huge Palermo Cathedral. Quite restrained in its decoration given its proximity to Cefalù and Monreale

A nice surprise was the international nativity scene made up of models from around the world!

Palermo Cathedral Nativity, Sicily

The Sacristy of the Canons was given over to an international collection of nativity scenes. We tried to spot as many as we could from countries we’ve been to! We especially liked the Panda bears of China and although we haven’t been to the North Pole, we liked the Polar Bear but wondered why there was a giant penguin there.. (they’re native to the South Pole)

We were staying not far from the cathedral, and even though we passed nearly every day, we couldn’t help taking photos of the outside apse end!

Rear of Palermo Cathedral, Sicily

Outside of the nave at the rear of the cathedral was our favourite part, we just couldn’t help taking photos of it every time we passed!

Enoteca Sicilia – Wine Museum of Rural Life

Enoteca Silicia - Wine Museum, Palermo, Sicily

The private wine museum in Palermo

On our first night in Palermo we found our local enoteca or wine shop, run by a young guy who, while filling up a two litre water bottle with Nero d’Avolo for us gave us a ¾ plastic cup to taste, then the same of the house white, followed by a small taster of the house moscato! As we’d enjoyed them all we decided it’d be a good idea to find out more about how Sicilian wine is made so we booked a tasting at the Enoteca Sicilia.

Barrel of Perpetuo, 1928, Enoteca Silicia - Wine Museum, Palermo, Sicily

Guido Ferla explained that every year 10% of this barrel has been taken out and replaced with 10% new wine since 1928. It smells fantastic!

This very impressive collection of all things wine related appears to be very much a personal labour of love. The underground Aladdin’s caves are packed with memorabilia, tools, bottles, labels, maps and has a small bar where we received a small glass of wine. The President of the museum, Mr Guido Ferla met us and explained, in English, that he didn’t speak English, which is fine with us and so we thought we’d spend the next hour or so wandering through the museum on our own. However, he then proceeded to show us around pointing out some of the more interesting artefacts with a little English explanation! It was as good as some of the tours we’ve had that are advertised as being in English!

Enoteca Silicia - Wine Museum, Palermo, Sicily

Anything and everything related to wine and wine making, the museum is a treasure-trove

We came away with a much more rounded appreciation of Sicilian wine making and its history, and a book of wine-related quotations and thoughts put together and signed by the President himself!

Martorana (Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio)

Martorana, Palermo, Sicily

The Martorana overlooks Piazza Bellini and is kind of tucked out of the way as it is surrounded by other large imposing buildings

Dating back to 1143, construction of this little church was started after the Cefalù Cathedral, but before the Monreale Cathedral and the major work on the Palermo Cathedral. And, like those, it was on our must-see list because of its amazing ceiling..

Inside the Martorana, Palermo, Sicily

Wow! What a ceiling!

Inside the Martorana, Palermo, Sicily

The apse is decorated in beautiful golden mosaics like the cathedrals of Palermo, Cefalù, and Monreale, but the nave is covered in delightfully delicate pastel murals

The smaller size of Martorana made it easier to take in a lot more of the decoration compared to, say, Monreale.

Close up of the Martorana ceiling, Palermo, Sicily

Close up of the ceiling of the Martorana, murals in the foreground and golden mosaics in the background

The Martorana is a stunning little gem of a church, but we found it difficult to find reliable opening times, so for future reference here they are from the sign at the front door: 9:30-13:00, then 15:30-17:30, or during festivities: 09:00-10:30.

Palazzo Riso – Contemporary Art Museum of Sicily

Exhibition Hall, Palazzo Riso, Palermo, Sicily

Exhibition hall at Palazzo Riso. The satellite dishes in the foreground are sitting on speakers playing a recording of the Syrian riots, with a pile a couscous on them. I’m in the background watching the video of a wall being shot by the artist

Feeling a little church and cathedral’d out, we took a change of pace and picked Palazzo Riso, the most central of the modern art museums in Palermo. We’re not sure if the building restoration works have impacted the displays, as the galleries seem confined to one wing and spill out into the staircase, but regardless we felt a little underwhelmed or un-inspired by the works on display.

"Souvenir #3 Family Portrait" by Loredana Longo, Palazzo Riso, Palermo, Sicily

“Souvenir #3 Family Portrait” by Loredana Longo. I’m glad we’re not related..

However, there were 2 standout pieces; firstly, a section of wall of photo frames peppered with bullet holes. In the centre was a small screen that showed a video of the ‘creation’ where the artist quickly circled the faces before opening up with a handgun taking out almost all of the portraits with admirable marksmanship.

Wardrobes, Palazzo Riso, Palermo, Sicily

Our favourite piece in Palazzo Riso – wardrobes hanging from the ceiling. Sadly, we don’t know who it’s by

But our favourite was undoubtedly the massive upstairs room full of wardrobes hung from the ceiling. We don’t know why it was done or what it means, but we like it!

Palazzo Abatellis – Regional Gallery of Sicily

Entrance courtyard of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily

The peaceful courtyard of the Palazzo Abatellis, home of the Regional Gallery of Sicily

The Regional Gallery of Sicily, more commonly known as Palazzo Abatellis was a highlight for us because of the great use of space. Formerly the residence of Francesco Abatellis, the port master of the Kingdom of Sicily and built in the 15th century, the building was given over to be used as a monastery after the death of the last family member. Following restoration after being bombed in 1943, it reopened as a gallery of medieval art.

Trionfo della Morte, Palermo, Sicily

Trionfo della Morte, or The Triumph of Death, a huge fresco painted around 1446 depicts Death launching arrows at all levels of society

As well as the good use of space, there were 3 pieces that stood out for us in the museum, firstly the Trionfo della Morte, The Triumph of Death, which depicts an indiscriminate Death taking lives regardless of social status. We understood it was commissioned for the entranceway of a hospital!

The second was the room displaying the giant cathedral crosses that are decorated on both sides. As they’re usually hung high in the nave, it was nice to be able to see examples of them up close.

Croce Dipinta, Palermo, Sicily

Croce Dipinta, or painted cross. Typically one side shows the crucifixion and the other the Resurrection

The final piece is the Annunciata, or Virgin Annunciate by Antonella da Messina, a vivid painting of Mary interrupted by the Angel of the Annunciation. It reminded us of the Mona Lisa as it’s a lot smaller in real life than we were expecting.

Annunciata by Antonella da Messina, Palermo, Sicily

“Annunciata” by Antonella da Messina, one of our favourite pieces in the Regional Gallery of Sicily

Just outside the Palazzo Abetallis I spotted a graffiti version of it..

Graffiti version of the Annunciato, Palermo, Sicily

A clever graffiti version of the Annunciata, just outside the Regional Gallery of Sicily where you can see the real thing!

Teatro Massimo

Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Sicily

The Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the name literally means Maximum Theatre, but translates as Playhouse

We didn’t see a performance at the Teatro Massimo, but it makes it into our highlights list because it’s the filming location of the climactic final scenes of the Godfather part III.

Orto Botanico di Palermo – Palermo Botanical Garden

Orto Botanico sign, Palermo, Sicily

Sign above an old information kiosk that is slowly being reclaimed by the garden

Palermo also has a pretty big Botanical Garden, and as we’re big fans of parks and gardens we spent an hour or so wandering through the varieties and exhibits on show. Obviously it’s not at its best in the winter months, but nevertheless it was a pleasant escape from the hum of the city scooters, and we especially liked their water-species pool which was full of lilies and home to lots of terrapins too!

Outdoor aquarium, Orto Botanico, Palermo, Sicily

We liked the clever outdoor aquarium with its separate concentric circles

Terrapin, Orto Botanico, Palermo, Sicily

.. which was also home to sunbathing terrapins!

We were surprised by how eclectic the collection was – we saw plants and trees from as far away as Ethiopia and the Canary Islands, including a species of tree that has leaves and spikes that grow up the trunk – something we’ve never seen before!

Alluaudia procera from Madagascar, Orto Botanico, Palermo, Sicily

The very strange Alluaudia procera from Madagascar, is a tree without branches, instead the foliage grows up the trunk protected by spikes!

L’Associazione Culturale Stanze al Genio

Entrance hallway, Stanze al Genio tile museum, Palermo, Sicily

The entrance hallway of the amazing Stanze al Genio (“Rooms of Genius”) private tile collection. Wow!

Not strictly a museum, this is actually a private collection of Neapolitan and Sicilian floor tiles from the 16th century onwards displayed in the owner’s apartment. Like the Enoteca Sicilia, viewing is by appointment only so the owner can disappear upstairs to his office while one of his very knowledgeable guides walks you through the history of floor tile design and manufacture. I know, on the face of it, it sounds as dull as watching clay dry, but as soon as we stepped through the door into the hallway we saw why this is the highest rated attraction on TripAdvisor for Palermo.

Living room, Stanze al Genio tile museum, Palermo, Sicily

Every room is floor to ceiling mounted floor tiles, complemented with modern and antique art. We walked through each room 4 or 5 times and saw something new every time

Dining room, Stanze al Genio tile museum, Palermo, Sicily

Some floors were commissioned by very rich nobles such as this one, which shows off another of the owner’s properties. We were told it’s extremely rare to find and then to successfully recover complete sets like this

The collection is loosely organised by age, and the owner swaps them around occasionally. The guides try to catch him out by swapping the odd tile around too, but we’re told the owner always spots them!

Kitchen / Dining room, Stanze al Genio tile museum, Palermo, Sicily

Most of the collection consists of single tiles, which creates a beautiful background

Palermo Street Food

The food in Sicily is among the best we’ve sampled during our journey with good quality, fresh products. We’d heard that Palermo in particular had a tradition of street food and so we made it our mission to try as many different kinds as possible. I know you appreciate these sacrifices that we make…



Arancini quickly became a favourite of mine. It’s a ball of cooked flavoured rice, a bit like a plain risotto, containing a filling plus a lump of cheese, then covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Fillings include mince and peas, mushrooms, or ham and cheese and generally the different flavours are different shapes (sphere, cone, cylinder) so that the shopkeeper can tell them apart. Best eaten warm while the cheese is soft and oozing.



Everyone knows about pizza and sfincione is a Sicilian version. The base is thicker than a normal pizza and more spongy, slightly reminiscent of a crumpet. The traditional topping is a mix of tomatoes, onions, and anchovies, and dotted with a little caciocavallo cheese which is stronger than the usual mozzarella.

Pane con panelle

Pane e panneli

Thin pieces of dough made from chickpea flour, deep fried until crispy and served in a crispy bread bun with salt and lemon juice. Pleasingly similar to a chip butty.

Along the same theme are sandwiches containing crocchè, deep fried balls of mashed potato flavoured with herbs. Or if you can’t decide you can get them in the same bun.

Pane ca’ meusa

Pane ca'meusa

This is veal spleen, cooked in a big pot and served in a bread bun with grated cheese. Andrew had a bite but wasn’t keen. I thought it tasted fine but not as good as the smell from the vats of cooking meat wafting down the street. I’d always thought that spleen was a mixture of different offal but actually it’s a distinct organ.


Gelato is common across Italy, the Palermo twist is serving it in a brioche bun. We didn’t try it as most of the gelaterias are closed in the winter and it was a bit cold for us to go hunting for it.



Cannoli are a distinctly Sicilian dessert. It’s a fried pastry tube filled with sweetened ricotta and decorated with glacé cherries or candied peel. You might recall that in the final scenes of The Godfather: Part III a cannolo was used as an assassination tool which always made us a little nervous as we took the first bite!



And to wash it all down? Well either a very short sharp kick in the ribs from an Italian espresso, or if that’s not for you then allow me to present the Spritz. It’s a drink we first got a taste for several years ago in Venice with our friend Heidi. It’s made from Aperol, an orange based bitter liquor, mixed with prosecco and soda and served over lots of ice with a fat slice of orange. Not strictly street food but we do recommend drinking it in a pavement cafe so you’re outside at least! Dangerously refreshing.