Did you think we just stayed in Catania, during our week in Catania? Of course not. We devised expeditions to some of the major ancient sites within reach: Piazza Armerina, and Syracuse. Let me start with Piazza Armerina.
There are busses which leave from Catania bus station (or Catania airport, if you like) every other hour. I believe the bus company is called Interbus. The journey takes around 1.5 hours and tickets are in the region of 12 EUR if I recall correctly. The best thing to do for up to date information on all this, is to go to Catania bus station and ask! The bus to Piazza Armerina stops in a very odd place: it just sort of rushes by the front of the station (rather than stopping behind it, where all the other busses are) (I know it sounds confusing, but it will make sense when you see it). Just sort of keep an eye out for it and wave it down, if someone else is not doing it already. And good luck.
Once you get to Piazza Armerina, it is another 5km or so to walk to the main event: Villa Romana del Casale. Many people will offer taxis, which will of course drive you there at nicely inflated prices. We opted to walk. I quite enjoyed this stroll through the town, and later on a bit through the countryside. However, my family objected hugely to the fact that it was not flat, and also along a single carriageway, complete with industrial-looking viaducts. It took us over an hour to walk the 5km and we had to have a lunch-break in the middle of that. I would say, if you are not Dutch and complaining about your back/knees/etc. (no sympathy from me here, sorry) the walk is fine and should not take half the morning : )
Villa Romana del Casale is a late-Roman (c. 4th century CE) Roman villa, now also a World Heritage Site. It has some of the most breath-taking Roman mosaics in the world – and I can vouch for that, because I have seen a lot of amazing Roman mosaics, including Conímbriga, Şanlıurfa and Tunis. The site has a very long history of occupation, evolving from a farm to what was basically a palace, until it got covered (and thus preserved) by a landslide in the early Middle Ages.
It is not completely clear who owned the villa in its prime, but one suggestion is that it was an actual senator from Rome. Besides some insane frescoes, interesting latrines and its own bath complex, my favourite part of the villa was ‘Cubicle of Choruses and Actors‘ which has the mosaic showing two people holding some instruments (?) with small circles attached, with the Greek letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon.
Other really cool mosaics include the insane ‘Corridor of the Great Hunt’ which has lots of realistic-looking, exotic, wild animals, including an elephant, and a ship. I generally find hunting scenes a little boring (you know, as far as my taste in ancient Roman mosaics goes; how about you?) but I have to admit this one is really interesting and impressive. Most famous however is the mosaic of young women doing sports (or as some people like to refer to them, the girls in bikini) (but they are not wearing bikinis) (Romans probably did not have those). There is one with hand-weights, and also one with a discus. It is quite unusual to see women portrayed engaging in athletic activities.
Note: we were there in November, and literally the only visitors. However, the site comes with a huge car-park and little fences indicating queues, so I am going to wager that this place is busy in summer.
So, considering the walk there, getting back was a challenge. My whole family refused to take another step, but the bus was leaving at 5pm. We asked the security guards (who were very keen on us to leave, so they could leave) how to go about calling one of the expensive taxis. As we were navigating this in mum’s Italian, some mountain range police people turned up; just on their rounds, and also about to go home for the day. Did I mention rain was bucketing down from the skies? So, friendly mountain ranger men actually gave us all a lift back to town! This is one of the things I just love so much about travelling < 3
Oh and since everyone else in Piazza Armerina was going back to Catania as well we had to elbow our way through some old ladies onto the bus. Just saying, be prepared!
Another great day-trip (or more) from Catania is Syracuse (Siracusa, Syracusa?). The bus thing works the same as for Piazza Armerina! Except I think it is a little more frequent : ) There are loads of stops inside the city, so make sure you get off closest to the landmark you intend to visit! In our case, the ancient Greek theatre.
Just hold on one second, first things first! The place where you buy a ticket for the archaeological park is not the archaeological park itself, but the giant tourist-shop-lined car-park across the street. Save yourself ten minutes by getting your ticket in the right place. (We did! But we saw streams of people who did not. And remember, it was raining.)
Anyhow, this is one of the largest theatres of its kind, with a classic panoramic view – and it is also rather well preserved with very few of those plain blocks of reconstructed theatre you often find in other places. Especially the scene and orchestra are incredible, and it was possible to adapt it to lots of different types of stages for different shows. This theatre originally dates to the 5th century BCE and was re-done a bit in the 3rd century BCE. So lets’ call it Hellenistic. However, the Romans continued to use it as well, and like the theatres in Catania it was used for elaborate water games. I think this theatre is a really good example of… ancient theatres… and I really recommend visiting. I love the feeling, and the view. Also, when we were there in November very few other people had ventured out there, allowing us to really take in this grand example of ancient architecture and its surroundings.
When the sky really decided to come down, we fled into the so-called Ear of Dionysus. This is a giant limestone cave, carved out of the mountain… quite plainly named ‘Ear’ beacause it is shaped a bit like an ear. Ah no, don’t worry, it is not that simple. There is a good myth to go with it as well. Once upon a time it was apparently used to keep prisoners (this may or may not be true), and the story goes that Dionysus (the ruler, not the deity) used the acoustics of the cave to eavesdrop on the evil plans of the criminals. I don’t know – it was rather beautiful, but due to the lack of actual ancient remains, also kind of uninteresting.
On the way out we also rushed by the Roman amphitheatre. I mean, why have one theatre, when you can have two? I guess. It is actually made out of the surrounding rock, as opposed to just being plonked into the middle of an empty space (i.e. theatre of Pompeii). As opposed to the Villa Romana, this is an early Imperial construction, dating to maybe Augustus or Claudius. It is presumed that they decided the neighbouring Greek theatre was too small for their fancy gladiator shows. It is likewise lovely and un-reconstructed, overgrown with green plants and grass. I just like a rough edge to my ancient sites : )
Another important attraction to the history-lover is the Archaeological Museum. It is about a 10-15 minute walk from the Archaeological Park, and it is possible to easily spend several hours there. We had to skip bits because… lunch. If you are interested in numismatics (ancient coins), this museum has a very extensive and interesting collection. If you think one coin equals a hundred coins, the museum also has a fantastic collection of Corinthian pottery. It has some nice videos and interactive bits for children, but it is not otherwise very modern or up to date. Most exhibits lack signs and explanations, and also… the ceiling was leaking. There were buckets everywhere. Can someone please send some extra funding their way?
As for the rest of Syracuse, major landmarks include the remains of two ancient Greek temples. First off, the Temple of Apollo. If you embark on a good half hour walk from the Museum to the Other Centre of Syracuse, with The Harbour, you will stumble straight into it. So, when you are facing it from the main street, take a right, and walk around the right side of the temple, all the way to the back, where it hits some very charming Sicilian houses with Sicilian laundry. If you look at the blocks and steps down there, if you look really carefully, you will find an inscription! That is the dedication to Apollo and also the name of the architect!
This is a 7th-6th century BCE temple with 6 x 17 (peripteral) Doric columns (with only about 2 of those still standing, à la Artemission). Later on it also did a stint as a Byzantine church, as well as a mosque! (And then a Norman church again. And I think also something do to with the Spanish army.) Either way, it is one of the oldest Doric temples in Western Europe! And certainly the earliest on Sicily. One of the signs that it was a bit of an early edition, is the fact that the space between the columns was very small; probably because the structure would otherwise not have been strong enough.
So if you keep walking down the street and then through a gate and up a little alleyway (mum knows this; I can’t re-tell it)… you will reach the Temple of Athena! This was a 5th century BCE project of Gelo, after his victory over the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera. It was also preceded by an earlier temple. But the 5th century Doric temple was a 6 column peripteral construction. That is also basically the only thing you can still see, because, interestingly, it was transformed into The Cathedral of Syracuse (3 EUR entry…). There’s some marble tiles and other small details which remain but err, it mainly looks a lot like a Cathedral.
The Cathedral is also very interesting. It was created as early as the 7th century CE. Like the temple of Athena it also spent some time being a mosque, and a Norman church, which is what it has its roof and some of the mosaics to thank for. Most of what you can see nowadays though is very much high baroque. For example, there are some rather more recent Corinthian columns in there as well. In addition, the Cathedral houses the relics of St Lucy. You can see the bones, if you are into osteology.
So, last but not least, it is possible to visit the Fountain of Arethusa. According to Greek mythology, she was a water nymph who was, one day, bathing in a stream… not knowing that the stream was actually a river god. Whoops. He fell in love with her and started chasing her. Whilst fleeing, Arethusa prayed to Artemis to protect her. So Artemis allows Arethusa to travel underneath the sea, and to come up in Syracusa as a fountain. This story is famously recounted by Ovid, due to Arethusa’s metamorphosis.
The fountain is also an excellent spot from which to enjoy the sunset over the Sicilian sea : )