Central Sicily in a Day: Hill Towns, Mosaics and Unbeatable Views

We were reluctant to leave Palermo without visiting its renowned archaeological museum, below, so we squeezed in an hour there on our last morning. Seeing the magnificent sculpture and decorative arts of millennia past always helps put things in perspective.

Much of the museum’s permanent collection centers on architectural salvage from Selinunte, a Greek city on the southern shore of Sicily with a vast complex of five temples, which I never even heard of before this trip. Seems the city didn’t last long: it was largely destroyed by the Carthaginians around 405 BC, never rebuilt and abandoned a century or so later. Left behind: sculptures of stone, marble and terra cotta, grave goods, friezes, sarcophogi and more.

The museum’s holdings, along with such treasures as a basalt stele with exquisitely detailed Egyptian hieroglyphics of four thousand years ago, make it abundantly clear that these ancient civilizations were well-organized and highly educated, and parts of their societies, at least, lived far more graciously than we do now. We think we have such an advanced culture? Ha. It’s chauvinistic to think our modern civilization has much, if anything, on the ancient ones.

Human dysfunctions like war and slavery haven’t gone away in modern times, but I got no sense that women were particularly subjugated in ancient Greece and its outposts, perhaps because they worshipped goddesses as well as gods? The tidbits of knowledge I pick up on a trip like this never fail to generate more questions.

We hopped a bus to the Palermo airport to pick up our rental car and headed down through the center of the island. The day — Tuesday — was clear and bright, with puffy clouds, as we drove through a portion of the Madonie mountains and through cultivated hills of olive and cherry trees. I was thrilled to be enjoying such fabulous scenery from a major highway.

We stopped en route in Enna, the highest medieval hill town in central Sicily, but it seemed in our hour-long pit stop that the view of Calascibetta, above, another nearby medieval hill town, was the best thing about Enna.

At an otherwise deserted little bar, the kind woman behind the counter scared up some impromptu antipasti for a pair of American vegetarians who stumbled in ravenous at 4PM. And of course the wine — Nero d’Avola (a dark red) and Grillo (crisp but flavorful white) — like all the Sicilian wines I’ve tasted, were superb.

I had a bit of a meltdown in Enna when our car got stuck on an impossibly narrow street. Trying to follow GPS directions, which told us to turn onto one-way streets that weren’t sign posted and no wider than a single-car driveway, we got boxed in and had to undertake precarious maneuvers to back out, while other cars kept coming around the corner. The Fiat Panda felt like a truck as we tried to turn it around with centimeters to spare, especially while worrying about scratching the brand new car, which had all of 14km on it when we picked it up at the airport.

That was only the first of two such events that day; the second occurred when we were sliding backwards toward a staircase leading down a steep embankment. The stresses of driving in Europe, where the streets are as hilly as San Francisco’s and as twisty as a plate of linguini, and a distance of forty miles can take hours, are not small.

Enna was the first of three central Sicilian hill towns we visited in two days on our scratch-the-surface tour of the island. It seems that by following signs reading Centro Storico, you invariably come to a piazza with a beautiful Baroque cathedral and a belvedere (i.e., scenic overlook), usually a parklike strip with benches and fountains, bars and restaurants — but, if it happens to be between 2:30 and 7:30 PM, not a one open to serve hungry travelers.

Wednesday was socked in with rain and heavy fog. Fortunately we had planned a visit to Villa Romanas des Casales, below, an extraordinary late-Roman villa and UNESCO site that has only been open to the public since 2006.

It was possibly the summer palace of Marcus Aurelius and is now a major draw for visitors who come chiefly to see its extensive floor mosaics, often ‘themed’ to the purpose of the room. Outstanding among them: the 200-foot-long ‘hall of the hunt,’ an encyclopedic pictorial of how wild animals were captured in Africa and transported to Rome; another room depicting young women in bikinis training for athletic competitions; others of children playing; chariot races, banquets and more, all at amazing levels of detail.

Most of the villa was buried under mud for centuries, and only fully excavated, restored and and made accessible to the public in recent years. It has to be one of the remaining wonders of the ancient world.

Still in the rain, we drove up into the atmospheric (as are they all) and charming hill town of Piazza Armerina, above, took a few photos and checked out its requisite Duomo, then drove another half hour to the town of Caltagirone, top. We were interested in its signature ceramics, and also in lunch.We wandered in and out of shops to see the former, as well as climbing its 142-step staircase and admiring its Baroque architecture, but found none of the latter.

Luckily we had half a dozen oranges picked right from the trees outside our room at Vecchia Masseria, below, an agriturismo whose stone buildings have been converted to tourist lodging and where we stayed one cushy night in the area. It’s a luxurious full-service resort as well as a working farm with a lovely candlelit restaurant, where we had joined European couples of all ages for dinner the night before.

The stolen citrus tided us over until we arrived after dark at the Hotel Gutkowki in Syracuse for a two-night stay. The rain and wind coming off the Ionian Sea was appropriately Homeric, setting us up for further immersion in ancient history, trusty Blue Guide close at hand.

Palermo: Byzantine, Baroque and Beyond

Among my files and folders at home is a yellowed New York Times clipping from 2008, “36 Hours in Palermo,” saved toward the end of the era when we clipped newspaper articles and filed them in folders. I’ve wanted to come to Palermo, in other words, for a long time. I finally made it, and for two-and-a-half days instead of just 36 hours.

Palermo was worth the wait. It is dramatically ringed by mountains, famous for its fresh food and distinctive cuisine, and unbelievably rich in decorative architecture, mostly churches. The historic center’s stone-paved streets are impossibly atmospheric and hopelessly complicated.

I’m here with my wasband, who flew in from New York the day after I arrived by train from Calabria. We’re staying at the Palazzo Pantaleo, a comfortably appointed, tastefully renovated six-room B&B on the top floor of an 18th century palazzo, with wrought iron balconies and a host named Guiseppe whose family has owned the property for 200 years.

Palermo (pop. 600,000) is a lot to take in, and we knew we’d only scrape the surface. We’ve walked 17,000 steps on each of two consecutive days, traversing large chunks of the city’s four central neighborhoods.

Neither day was typical, I now realize: on Sunday, cars are banned from many streets and Palermo becomes one big passegiata, with locals and tourists alike strolling the broad car-free boulevards and filling its cafes, restaurants and stores. Where Italy used to be dead for visitors on Sundays, now it shops like the rest of us.

Sunday lunch at Antico Focacceria San Francesco (it’s in all the guidebooks, a Palermo institution since the 1840s) was pasta with anchovies, plus indoor versions of the famous Palermo street food like arancini, rice and cheese rolled into balls and deep-fried. What could be bad?

Drinks and dessert later at Antica Caffe Spinnata was heartily Italian — I had a Campari spritzer and cassata, a sponge cake soaked in liqueur with candied fruit and sugar icing, and I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.

Today, Monday, people went back to work. What I had forgotten was that on Monday, many restaurants would be closed, others empty. Museums, too, were closed, including the archaeological museum that was on my ‘must’ list. Plan better, if you come.

So we walked some more, admiring many elaborate and massively domed churches from the outside, including the city’s extraordinary block-long main cathedral, a mashup of Gothic spires, Romanesque arches, medieval crenelations and a Moorish mosque.

We looked into churches like the over-the-top La Martorana, decorated by Greek artisans with superb golden mosaics that were later mismatched with Baroque puttis and Renaissance frescoes. San Cataldo, the nine-century-old Norman church next door to it, with three red domes and a beautiful, bare-bones brick chapel, was more to my liking. In its simplicity, you can pray directly, no intercession needed.

Both churches are located on the sun-splashed Piazza Pretoria, centered on an epic 16th century fountain once known as the Fountain of Shame for its marble nudes.

We walked through the Ballaro market, known for the raucous patter of its vendors and the largest vegetables ever. I saw whole octopi proudly displayed and parts of animals I never wanted to see.

The prepared food looked fresh and good, and we would have done well to eat there. We ended up at the soaring, skylit Osteria Ballaro, where we had nouveau Sicilian Slow Food, including a sampler of the local street-food favorites and a mixed seafood plate. Only New Yorkers could spend as much on lunch in Palermo as we did, but the wine was dry and delicious and I’m not complaining.

We even visited the sub-tropical botanical garden on the edge of town, gaping at otherworldly ficus trees, giant cacti and agaves, greenhouses full of bougainvillea, all thriving in the Sicilian sun. The garden’s maintenance seemed scruffy and unkempt, but perhaps I’m being judgey.

Where my Lonely Planet calls out Palermo’s buildings as pock-marked, its pavements broken and neighborhoods decrepit, having just come from Gioia Tauro, Calabria, those things didn’t register. I thought it was all just part of the city’s considerable charm.