April 30 – May 6, 2012 Villa Romana del Casale, Palatine Chapel, Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Erice, Agrigento, Selinunte, Monreale
Monday, April 30, 2012 – Villa Romana del Casale
On our drive to Palermo we stopped at the small town of Piazza Armerina. Outside of the town were discovered the ruins of a private Roman villa containing an extensive and extraordinary series of floor mosaics which are in impeccable condition. The Villa Romana del Casale is a UNESCO World Heritage site. With an area of over 11,482 square feet, it is thought that the Villa may have been the residence of someone in the management of the Roman Empire. There is ongoing restoration of mosaics and we were lucky enough to arrive on the day that a new section was unveiled. Today’s gelato choice was a simple, refreshing fiore di latte.
Tuesday, May 1, 2012 – Palatine Chapel (Palace of the Normans)
I am rarely speechless, as my husband and friends will tell you. Upon entering the Palatine Chapel I was left both speechless and breathless. The Palatine Chapel was built for the Norman kings in 1132 and is a jewel, covered from floor to ceiling with golden mosaics.
John Julius Norwich described it best in his book The Normans in Sicily: “It is in this building, with more stunning effect than anywhere else in Sicily, that we see the Siculo-Norman political miracle given visual expression – a seemingly effortless fusion of all that is most brilliant in the Latin, Byzantine and Islamic traditions into a single harmonious masterpiece.”
If you are ever in Palermo you must visit the Palatine Chapel. Be aware, that for security reasons, it is only open Monday and Friday when the Sicilian Parliament is not in session. The Sala di Ercole (Hall of Hercules), where the Sicilian Parliament now sits, is just as it was when used in the Middle Ages.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012 – Oratorio di San Lorenzo
Oratorios are small, simple structures built as religious and social gathering places for men of the Sicilian nobility in the 16th century. Unremarkable on the outside, inside they exemplify the extravagance of the aristocrats of the era. A local Franciscan order, Compagnia di San Francesco, commanded the Oratorio di San Lorenzo be constructed back in 1569.
I admit that I have never been a big fan of either Baroque or Rococo art – but I loved the extraordinary elegance of Giacomo Serpotta’s fluid stucco work. His putti (I think of them as cherubs – but properly translated – little boys with wings) romp on the walls, making soap bubbles, playing games, pulling pants down and kissing one another. In contrast to the stark
white walls of stucco are beautiful mahogany pews, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory, and resting on carved supports were created during the 18th century.
Thursday, May 3, 2012 – Erice
The medieval city of Erice sits about 2,400 feet above sea level above the Trapani coast. We took the VERY NARROW WINDING road up the side of the mountain. Luckily the cloud that had been hanging over Erice when we past it in the morning had cleared, so the views were incredible – if you could keep your eyes open for the ride. Thankfully, I could. One of Erice’s claims to fame is its wonderful pastries. If you like almonds you’ll love them here. One of the best pastry shops is owned by Maria Grammatico, who learned her art during her childhood spent in a convent. Maria Grammatico with Mary Taylor Simeti wrote Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood. I, of course, opted for a gelato across the way. Today it was After Eight and fiore di latte. Mmmmmmm – Brisk – just like the breeze blowing through Erice.
Friday, May 4, 2012 – Agrigento
Ciro picked me up this morning in a beautiful red Italian Fiat. I must admit that I was a little apprehensive about driving through Palermo in a car – since all my experience thus far had been in a tour bus or on foot (both of which, at times, had been hair-raising). Members of my tour group and I had long ago decided that any lights or traffic signs in Sicily were merely suggestions for drivers and pedestrians, not necessarily to be obeyed.
In other words, a red light means if you think you can make it or don’t care if you get hit – then go for it. All the time I’d been walking in Palermo I was amazed at how cars would be parked in a small alley and have the side mirrors folded in so they wouldn’t be hit by a (barely) passing car. When I got to Ciro’s car the mirrors were folded in even though he was parked in a parking lot stall. When he started the engine the mirrors folded out automatically – this must be a special feature for cars sold in Sicily – Cool!!! We drove through the beautiful countryside of the Province of Trapani. The rolling hills were painted by wildflowers with patches of red, pink, yellow, blue and purple. Ah, Sicily in Spring – I just knew it would be beautiful.
Because I would not be with my Road Scholar group for its visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Agrigento, Ciro and I decided that I shouldn’t miss it – since one of my biggest interest is archaeology. Ciro dropped me at one entrance and parked the car at the other entrance so we would walk through the huge site and not have to go back through to get to the car. Thank goodness because the sun was scorching that day. I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer.
The site sits on a high plateau overlooking the twinkling turquoise sea. This site has some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself. Its impressive array of archaeological ruins include seven monumental Greek temples in the Doric style, dating back to 6th and 5th centuries BC. The Temple of Concord is the most impressive surviving Doric temple in the Greek world after the Parthenon in Athens.
Saturday, May 5, 2012 – Selinunte
This morning we decided that since I enjoyed Agrigento so much I needed to see Selinunte since it is so close to Santa Ninfa. It is situated on the Southern coast of Sicily. It is considered to be the largest Archaeological Park in the Mediterranean and in fact in the whole of Europe. It has the ruins of ancient temples around an old city or Acropolis. Even though Hannibal and earthquakes managed to destroy it, it is easy to imagine just how large and important a city Selinunte must have been during its glory.
As we walked through site ominous clouds hung over us. At one point I could see a rain squall out over the sea coming towards us and we took cover under a large olive tree. The rain made the details of the temples truly stand out as if they had been polished just for us.
Sunday, May 6, 2012 – Monreale
Just above Palermo, the massive Norman cathedral at Monreale is adorned in the interior with Byzantine medieval mosaics of the highest workmanship. Two sets of Romanesque bronze doors, of which there are only a handful remaining in Europe. They depict 42 reliefs of biblical scenes set within decorative frames. While Monreale is an enormous and beautiful cathedral, I am still most enamored with the Palatine Chapel.