Sicilian way of life on board RoMEA
At the base of the heel of Italy, and lying upon the main ancient trade route with Greece, the island of Sicily proved itself to be the most logical place for Greek colonisation and expansion in the C8th/7th B.C.E. Until today, Sicily remains a favourite yacht charter destination of those travellers wishing to mix history, culture, and art, with a very pleasant climate and beautiful beaches.
To the north of the island is the volcanic archipelago of the Aeolian Islands; a UNESCO World Heritage site, this ethereal grouping of islands are equally fascinating. Their harsh volcanic landscapes are beautifully complimented by the whitewashed villages that perch on the edge of each rocky outcrop, with remnants of ancient foundations dotted sporadically throughout.
Founded one year following the first Greek settlement on Sicily, Naxos, the most famous, and wealthiest, Sicilian city was founded; it is recorded that Archias, one of the Heraclids (‘descendants from Herakles’) from Corinth, was the founder of the city of Syracuse. It was to become, and still is, the capital of the island. Made great by the tyrant Gelon, of whom it was said that “[he was] very powerful – far more powerful than anyone else of Greek nationality” – Herodotus, the wealth of the city can be seen most clearly by the exquisite offerings made to the Oracle at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi (which can still be seen in the Delphi museum, one of the finest in the world.)
Indeed, Syracuse can be thought of as Sicily’s Athens, for her governmental structure, policies, and attitude towards the arts/culture, were very much similar. The town’s beauty is also encapsulated in her Mediaeval and Baroque buildings; the grand Cathedral of Syracuse (interestingly, built on the foundations of a C5th temple to Athena), was first built in the C7th, and continually beautified until the C18th when Andrea Palma rebuilt the façade. The plethora of Palazzos are rich in traditional Italian sculpture, but the Palazzo Bellomo must not be missed, for it houses the famed Annunciation painted by Antonello da Messina (1474.) For a real introduction to the city’s history, the Archaeological Museum houses some of the most important and interesting finds from local excavations.
The first Greeks to arrive on the island were Chalcidians from Euboea, who founded the town of Naxos, so named after the famed Cycladic island, possibly to retain a certain degree of ‘Greekness’. Indeed, any visitor from mainland Greece would not notice a difference, for they would be in familiar surroundings; the town had its own Agora, Greek temples, and other public buildings reminiscent of the mainland.
Modern Naxos, now named Giardini-Naxos, is nowadays a beautiful coastal town, with one of the finest white sand beaches on the island, also with exceptional views across the bay. Anchor off the bay and take the tender to coastal promenade where there are many traditional pizzerias and Sicilian restaurants. Here also are some very smart cocktail bars in which to enjoy a sundowner. The Old Town is worth an explore for the designer boutiques and antique shops, and in the harbour you will find some incredible seafood restaurants.
5km north is the stunning walled Mediaeval town of Taormina (founded by the Greek colonists from Naxos), and indeed, has more archaeological offerings; the Teatro Greco – Greek theatre – is not to be missed, and large parts of the ‘Gymnasium’, where local athletes trained to compete in the ancient Olympic Games, also survive and is worth a visit. There are many beautiful Mediaeval buildings to visit also, including the C13th Duomo, or the C10th Palazzo Corvaja. A modern escape can be found on pedestrian-friendly Corso Umberto, the main shopping street in the town.
The mythical home of the monster Scylla, who nearly ended Odysseus’ journey home in tragedy, this so-called ‘doorway to Sicily’ has captured visitors’ imaginations for centuries. Its links to the arts has cemented Messina’s place as a must-visit destination on the island; blamed for passing the Black Death into Europe, providing the setting for Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, being the birthplace of famed Renaissance painter Antonello da Messina, as well as providing a safe haven for the artist Caravaggio to create one of his most beloved works, the ‘Resurrection of Lazarus’, while awaiting Papal pardon for a murder committed in Rome, Messina has had its fair share of historical fame.
Named ‘Zancle’ by the C8th B.C.E Greek settlers due to the scythe-like shape of the harbour, the town exhibits its impressive history with a plethora of historic churches, forts, and ancient foundations. The Piazza del Duomo forms the center of the old town, which is surrounded by impressive monuments such as the Fountain of Neptune. The Town Museum houses both works by Caravaggio and Antonello da Messina, but also finds from excavations of ancient Zancle.
The epitome of ‘dramatic’, Stromboli is considered to be the most beautiful out of the island chain. It is a sight not to be missed. Called the ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’ by the Romans, the island is actually an active volcano, the only in Europe to remain continuously so (lending its name to the geological phenomenon of the ‘Strombolian Eruption’).
The adventurous can hike up the with a guide for a closer look at the daily mini-eruptions, although the approach from the sea is truly magnificent, especially at night when bright sparks can be seen emanating from the crater. During the day, the upper most part of the volcano is permanently shrouded in its own cloud, and the black sand beaches can be seen along the coast. Few archaeological remains survive, but those that do are housed in the Archaeological Musuem on Lipari.
So small that there are no roads or cars on the island, the best way to see the island is via the taxi golf-carts. Relaxing on one of the many beaches on Panarea, one is greeted with dramatic views across to the Stromboli volcano. Snorkling around the island also reminds you of it’s volcanic origins, as there is still some eruptive activity underwater. For a breathtaking sunset, climb up to the pre-historic ruins on the southern tip of the island and watch the sun disappear into the sea.
The geologically phenomenal Vulcano – so-called after the Roman god Vulcan (Greek: Hephaestos) who was said to house his smith there – can be smelt before it can be seen. Sulphorous pockets emit strongly scented gases around the harbour, and these fumes also hiss out of the pavements, a phenomenon not to be missed. The main reason to visit Vulcano is to bathe in the volcanic mud which is excellent for the purification of skin, to then wash in the Jacuzzi-like sea, bubbling with hot gases coming up through the sea-bed.
The largest island of the archipelago (which is sometimes referred to as the Lipari Islands), the island is formed of an ancient volcano, whose last eruption destroyed the town 1400 years ago. A picturesque harbour greets those arriving by sea, and a pleasant afternoon can be spent wandering through the small cobbled streets, the Old Town edged with elegant town houses. Greek and Roman tombs can be seen in the park, and some absolutely magnificent finds from all the Aeolian islands can be seen in the Archaeological Museum; the grave goods showcase the wealth of the island with some fine examples of Greek vases, as well as beautiful jewelry, and most famously, a large hoard of model Greek dramatic masks.