Trapani to Taormina: ruins to romance

[This article somehow disappeared and never was published. It belongs between the entries for 7 November and 15 November. My apologies.]

Sunday, 19 July. To get our tour back on track, we needed to move faster. Sitting in Trapani IMG_20150719_111443on the extreme western end of Sicily, we saw that the only way to take a train to the east coast involved going back to Palermo and skipping the three-star Greek temples on the south coast. So we took the train as far south as it would go: to Castelvetrano. From there, we made our way through town and down a well-paved provincial road to the ancient Greek city of Seliunte on the coast. The road ended in a traffic circle, with the town of Marina di Seliunte off to the left, and the entrance to the Archeological Park on the right.IMG_20150719_115417

Seliunte easily tops Paestum for the state of preservation of its temples and the amount of archeological material on the site. It has the remains of its city as well as the splendid temples. IMG_20150719_112128Scaffolding on the oldest temples indicates the work in progress.

At Seliunte, I learned the answer to my wonder in Paestum: how did the ancient Greeks erect such massive structures? Many years later, the Romans would invent concrete and the keystone, which allowed them to build large, strong buildings. But the Greeks used enormous, round blocks for their columns. IMG_20150719_113754A massive quarry west of Seliunte near Triscina provided the blocks for the columns. Each was carved on the site in its round shape, cored like an apple down the center, then rolled to the building site of the temple. The masons and stonecarvers finished them on site, and the crew lifted them into columns. Amazing to imagine. My thought went to the thousands of slaves who must have moved all that weight.

Walking around Seliunte made me sweatier than riding there from Castelvetrano. When we came out, we rode toward the town, and stopped at a bar to have gelato and restock our water for the rest of the day. As we rested, a group of pensioners entertained us arguing politics among themselves. Funny how little that changes everywhere, except that this far away, “the capital” is Palermo, not Rome, and the crooks who need straightening out sit in the Sicilian Parliament. We were smiling to ourselves as we mounted up and headed out.IMG_20150719_141658

For days now, we had not seen a cloud in the sky. The fertile fields and the gently rolling countryside extended under a sun that heated up the asphalt and from which we found no shelter. It topped 40 degrees as we rode to a city halfway between Seliunte and the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento: Sciacca. The well-appointed Hotel Conte Luna wrapped us as a cool oasis when we finally locked our bikes in the garage below the building and checked into our room.

IMG_20150719_223401A festival brightened the night in Sciacca. We watched a Renaissance costume parade, then walked down to the park by the waterfront, where another music festival occupied a large stage. We ambled through the crowd and had gelato at the opposite end from the stage. The heat finally stopped coming off the stones of the town by the time we returned to the hotel.

Monday morning found us riding hard through the heat to Agrigento. IMG_20150720_151045We started early, both to beat the worst of the heat, and to see how much we could cover before dark. Provincial Road 115 ran more inland than along the coast, but the gently rolling farmland was not particularly challenging. At one point, we came across signage for a bicycle route that we had not known about. Later, we learned that SIBIT (a bicycle advocacy organization in Sicily) has Sicily and Malta collaborating together to create the BikeinMed route (http://www.medinbike.eu/public/GuidaSibitWeb.pdf). I initially regretted missing it, but it would not have helped us where we were going.

IMG_20150720_171132Agrigento had some confusing signs, so we ended up on a 2-km long causeway with high-speed traffic heading toward the upper center city instead of the Valley of Temples. Oh, well, just try something else. We locked our bikes at the train station and hopped on a city bus to the Valley.

IMG_20150720_155626The Valley of Temples, like Seliunte, is a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Site, but it has more temples to visit. Modern research has overturned the myth that time, weather, and barbarians tore down the Greek wonders. In fact, most of the damage was done by fanatical Christians destroying anything that reminded them of the pagan religion. IMG_20150720_155430That sad thread runs through Christian history, from the Dark Ages through the Crusades and Inquisition to our own times. The story of temple destruction has a queer side: it gave us the best-preserved ancient Greek temple in Italy. The Temple of Concordia became a church dedicated to Saint Columba just in time to be spared. IMG_20150720_155132Otherwise, we might not have been able to reconstruct the interiors of the other temples, with their altars and special rooms.

The Valley of the Temples extends for a kilometer on either side of the provincial road that bisects it. Some of the best material is in the Archeological Museum, but a long walk to that proved fruitless. It was locked up, though it should have been open. We tried to visit the nearby church of San Nicola, but a very large and very fancy wedding had that blocked, too. Footsore and hot, we finally flagged down the city bus and returned to our bikes. The last site that we wanted to visit, Villa Romana near Enna, turned out not to be near enough. IMG_20150720_215222We walked to an open supermarket in town to buy something for supper, and caught the train to Catania. That line had recently received the kind of improvements that closed the line to Trapani, and the smoothness and speed of the run impressed me. Cheryl booked us into a B&B downtown, which proved easy to find. I was amazed that by the end of the day, we had made it to the east coast.

Catania had much to offer, to my surprise. I found a laundromat, no mean feat in a country where the people hold a universal suspicion that bad things happen to their clothes in shared machines. I had the place to myself. IMG_20150721_174347On the way back, I discovered a charming city park, and the main shopping street. The trattoria below our B&B offered excellent meals in the traditional style. We also discovered a bike shop, where I bought a headlamp to replace the one stolen on Ponza, as well as new gloves. Cheryl had her brakes checked, but they were still OK.

Syracuse

Syracuse

We spent two days in Catania, so that we could take a run to Syracuse on Wednesday, the 22nd. We had to do that by bus, because only the autostrada ran there: no train, no bikes.

Old Syracuse occupies an island where the first Greek colonists settled. It featured wonderful markets, good food and a pleasant atmosphere. The hike from the train station (where the buses run, not the train) and back was very much worth it. I would spend more time in Syracuse on a return trip, indeed.

Simca Cinq Topolino

Simca Cinq Topolino

On Thursday (23 July), we made our way up the coast to Taormina, a city that I had started out for 59 years ago. Back then, Mom bundled my younger brother and me, my dog Morgan, and all out earthly possessions (including a stereo, and an ironing board) into her Simca Topolino and fled the cold rain of Tavarnuzze, west of Florence, headed for Taormina. She looked up some friends when we stopped in Rome, and the rest is history. I grew up in Rome, and Mom went to Taormina some seven years later – without us. I never got any closer than a ship visit to Syracuse in 1970.

IMG_20150723_155828Taormina was worth the wait. The coast road ran through Catania’s busy northern suburbs, but when the road took the left turn to climb to Taormina, everything suddenly became green and scenic – and steep. I was glad to leave the bicycles locked by the Hotel Vello D’Oro entrance. Cheryl outdid herself finding a room overlooking the whole city, with breakfast, for only EUR100 in full season. IMG_20150723_163551Taormina has everything for a romantic weekend: charming town, upscale shops, the Roman amphitheatre, musems, concerts, and five-star restaurants as well as great seafood. The views from every angle never grew old. I understand why Mom left us behind when she finally went to Taormina (nice guy, but it didn’t work out – that is another story, too).

Next week, the tale will resume in Croatia. Until then,

Smooth roads & tailwinds,

Jonathan.

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