The view from the campsite near Scopello
From our quirky campsite near Scopello we travel South, visiting the ancient Doric Temple of Segesta on our way. Perched on a hill in unspoilt rolling green countryside with views that stretch down to the sea, passing motorists may indeed wonder whether they’re hallucinating. The temple which is over 2,500 years old (430-420BC), was built by the Elymians, an indigenous people of Sicily, but was never completed, following an attack on the settlement by its rival, Selinunte. As I gaze up at this surprisingly intact temple through the hazy sunshine, I can’t help feel that this remarkable and peaceful site is a complete contrast to the Parthenon in Athens which although built around the same time, is crammed with tourists taking selfies. At the Segesta site, on top of a nearby hill (Monte Barbaro) 400m above sea level, there is also a semi-circular theatre dug into its walls. The 360-degree vistas of the surrounding countryside provide a natural backdrop to the stage. Originating in the 5th century BC, the theatre was altered during the Roman period, but retains its 4,000 seats, and is still used as a venue for Greek plays, concerts and other events.
The temple of Segesta and Greek theatre on Monte Barbaro
After our visit to Segesta we settle into a campsite in the South West of the island near Selinunte; the largest archaeological site in Europe. In 409BC Selinunte was one of the most progressive and eminent cities in Magna Graecia, but following an attack from its old enemy, the Carthaginians, the town, including its numerous temples, acropolis and agora were reduced to dignified rubble. The site is huge and most of what remains is still in ruin, although an attempt to rebuild several of the temples has been made. You get a sense of the size and importance of this ancient town, and after walking around most of the site, as well as both there and back (as there was no sign of any public transport), we were absolutely shattered. We walked back through neighbouring Triscina which felt more like a town from a Spaghetti western, than modern Sicily. Searching for a cafe to quench our thirst and rest our weary legs we stumbled across what seemed like the only saloon in town. After two beers and free tapas (balsamic pickled onions, bruschetta and some crisps) we were replete, but well and truly ‘templed out’.
The temples of Selinunte
Next, we head to the South East corner of Sicily. After a very long drive and several diversions we treat ourselves to a lovely meal in the pretty seaside village of Marzamemi. Its renovated tonnara and fishermans houses are now lively bars, restaurants and artisan shops which sit round a charming piazza. What a contrast to Triscina. Our next stop is Catania, Sicily’s second biggest city and we visit Siracusa, rich in Greek, Roman and Norman history, on the way.
Fountain of Diana and seafront view at Siracusa, Piazza at Marzamemi
We have one more ‘must do’ before leaving Sicily, and that is to visit Mount Etna, so we arrange a trip with Escursioni sull’Etna, a small tour company offering trekking experiences on the volcano. Our tour guide Marco speaks excellent English, is an accomplished mountaineer, member of the mountain rescue team, volcanologist extraordinaire and has first-hand experience of living on the volcano. Mount Etna, 3,300 metres high, is the biggest active stratovolcano in Europe. It first erupted beneath the sea some 500,000 years ago, and the original crater is still visible on the coastline to the North of Catania. Etna’s most destructive recent eruption was in 1669 and the resulting lava flows destroyed 10 villages before reaching Catania’s city walls, destroying much of the city of Catania and filling its harbour. More recent eruptions in 1991–1993 saw the town of Zafferana threatened by a lava flow, and although the lava flow stopped short of the town it destroyed our guide Marco’s family farm. “We are lucky today”, Marco says “Etna has been very active and has started erupting in the last few days”. But although we hear the eruptions in the distance (just like quarry explosions) there is low cloud at 1,800m and as we walk over the rocks of the old lava flows, there is an eerie mist which shrouds our view. Marco points out a lava cave, formed as a result of surface solidification of the lava flow during its last stages of activity. A frozen crust forms as the surface cools over actively flowing liquid rock and volcanic gases from bubbles in the lava collect under the tunnel roof and support it, forming a cave. Strange rock formations remain from multiple eruptions leaving a landscape that feels more like mars than earth. As we travel back towards the sea Marco reminds us that the city of Catania sits on the volcano, and its people accept that the volcano both gives and takes and by living here they accept this gamble every day.
A lava cave and walking on an old lava flow of Mount Etna
Our last day in Sicily and we have an overnight ferry to catch. Just enough time to squeeze in a visit to the coastal town of Cefalũ (bad decision number 1), or so we thought. We’d forgotten it was Sunday, and the Sicilians seem to go a bit crazy on a Sunday…… it’s the lethal cocktail of religion and drink! They head to the coast, spend the day lunching with family, filling up all seafront parking spots and cause chaos on the roads. By the time we arrive at Cefalũ, we only have 45minutes to visit one of Sicily’s prettiest coastal towns, before we need to make our way to Palermo for the ferry. We set off in time, but after a series of wrong decisions we find ourselves chasing the clock. We miss the turning for the autostrada (mistake number 1) and by the time we get back on to the motorway there are roadworks and the traffic is down to one lane. We decide to come off the autostrada hoping to catch the quiet coastal road (bad decision number 2), only to find that we have to go back to Cefalũ in the opposite direction. At Cefalũ we decide to take the coastal road to Palermo which then climbs into the mountains (bad decision number 3) and by the time we hit manic Palermo, packed with Sunday revellers, we decide to follow google maps instead of the satnav (bad decision number 4) and the route takes us through the middle of the city which includes a 90 degree turn after a very tight stone bridge (not easy in a 7.5m motor home). Stress levels are high and by the time we reach check in, we have only 40 minutes before the boat leaves (latest check in is 90 minutes before!). We resign ourselves to missing the ferry, but by some miracle they let us check in and join the queue. So, we leave mad, wonderful Sicily behind and we are on our way back to mainland Italy, where our adventure continues………..
The streets of Catania