There are those who say the most spectacular ancient Greek ruins can be found, not in Greece at all, but in Sicily. This is because Greek explorers from the 7th century B.C. onward so exulted in the great rolling plains and dramatic heights of the new land, contrasted with the crags and narrow valleys of Greece, that they expressed their feelings of liberation in the exuberant scale and the flamboyant siting of their new temples.
We'd had a taste of the monuments of Greece and a month in Crete, and we had been reading about the wonderful sights at Segesta, Agrigento, Selinunte, Syracuse and other venerable places of Sicily. Of all the peoples from around the Mediterranean and beyond who roamed across this lush but spiky island and left their monuments, churches and temples, it was the Greeks who interested us most. Some of the sites are surrounded by modern cities; some stand amid the ruins of ancient towns; some, like Segesta, stand alone now.
Most visitors first see Segesta from the autostrada that stretches south from Palermo, at the western end of Sicily. A huge shallow bowl of green farmland spreads out before you, close to the sea, and far off, on a promontory, you glimpse a tiny square shape.
Closing in, you discover a picture-book temple, startling on its hilltop as though wished there by a magician. Behind it is a deep gorge with a rapid stream at the bottom, and behind that, another green hill.
The gods and goddesses are gone today. The birds own Segesta. Swifts nest in the age-pocked Doric columns and flit constantly above the roofless floor. Hawks soar grandly overhead. Flowers riot everywhere: poppies, daisies, bougainvillea, and the air is sweet with the smell of tuberoses, warm with the humming of bees. There is a cafe' for the buses that pull in here, but aside from an occasional sign, the plathur Bartow were designed at all -- with today's car traffic in mind. Traffic! Cars of all sizes and ages, and those terrible Italian three-wheel trucklets that we learned to call buzzbombs, and of course the Vespas, often called the curse of Sicily, crowd frantically into the six-foot-wide streets, honking, racing engines, running stop signs and veering clear up onto the tiny sidewalks. (There is a whole genre of puns relating Sicilian Vespas to the bloody uprising against the French called the Sicilian Vespers.)
Furthermore, many Sicilian towns are built on narrow ridges, which means you are mostly driving steeply uphill around impossible hairpin turns while pedestrians wander in your path and native drivers brush your fenders as they insolently pass. Driving in Sicily requires the wirewalking nerve of Blondin, the fatalism of Scaramouch.
Everywhere, you see dogs limping with broken legs. Traffic victims.
The most horrendous city for driving was Monreale, a suburb of Palermo, where we started our carrousel. The noise, the cars, the hawkers, the lack of signs, the dark Renaissance alleys, crooked streets, angry pedestrians, complete absence of parking space and resulting need to keep moving: Monreale will give you culture shock to rank with your first hour in Cairo, Athens or Mexico City.
Yet it is worth it. Monreale Cathedral, a magnificent 12th-century Norman monument, is absolutely covered from floor to ceiling with glorious gold mosaics. In its arrogant grandeur it simply refuses to tolerate any conventional discussion of period or school or "taste." It is beyond all that. It is a phenomenon.
We wished we had spent more time in Palermo, a chaotic city rich in history, but at the time we found its noise, dust and confusion simply more than we wanted to deal with. Also, we had been impressed by the reports of really egregious street crime. The scare stories about Sicilian cities begin when you rent your car at the airport. Don't leave any luggage in the car, they say. Don't travel with your Gucci purse on your lap, or somebody will smash the window as you wait at a traffic light, reach in and race off with it. We met people who had had this happen to them. They believed that their big car and expensive clothes had marked them as Americans, or at any rate rich tourists. People in jeans driving Fiats seemed to do better.
In Palermo we traveled by city bus, probably the best way to get around the crowded downtown area. Fellow passengers and police were most helpful with directions. At the wonderful archeological museum, hidden in a downtown cul-de-sac, we saw room after room filled with marvels of 5th-century Greek art, the great metopes off friezes from Selinunte, Roman portrait busts, Keatsian urns that could impress the British Museum.
Circling the island counterclockwise, we decided to avoid the somewhat industrialized southeast coast and struck inland for Enna, another ancient town poised on a knife-edge hilltop. We fled it immediately, overwhelmed by the brawling traffic, smog and confused streets. We spent the night nearby at Pergusa, a funny little town overlooking a pretty lake with, unfortunately, an oil rig in the center. A stock-car race track runs around the lake, but happily it was not racing season.
When we looked out the other side of our modest motel room we were astounded to see, beyond the breathtaking valley, Mount Etna itself steadily spewing smoke in the dim distance.
What a panorama. Here, a broad field covered with tall velvety green grass that the wind riffled in following waves. There, a peasant hut with whitewashed walls, faded roof tiles held down by rocks and in the rutted dirt driveway a new Peugeot. Below, a small campanile, an orchard, a row of cypress. Patches of bright yellow broom splashed color all over the countryside. In the soft light of evening, swallows dipped and flashed, sheep bells tinkled dully as though made of wood, far away a dog barked.
We stopped off at incredible Piazza Armerina, site of the Villa Imperiale, once the lavish villa of Diocletian's co-emperor Maximin, with atrium and fountains to make a Getty gnash his teeth, and today the site of yards and yards of beautiful mosaics depicting the wonders of the Roman world, from exotic animals to women exercising in bikinis. More archeology: a Roman city being dug up at Morgantina, near the hill village of Aidone, just a few miles away on hair-raising country roads. Aidone has a brand new museum, notable for its hundreds of statuettes of the Greek fertility goddess Demeter in her most ancient and basic form as the mother of us all, and her daughter Persephone, regarded as a local heroine.
Passing up Syracuse, to our later regret -- at the time we were museumed-out -- we drove straight to Taormina in the northeast, the most sophisticated tourist center in Sicily. Here, at the beautiful, light-filled Villa Belvedere, run with understated elegance by a Frenchman and his Italian wife, we could sit on our balcony overlooking the pool and the wide, wide bay. The pool had a palm tree growing in the middle of it. Behind us stood a Greek theater converted to an arena by the Romans; to the right, Etna loomed in its mantle of cloud; below, at the end of a long curving blade of beach, lay Giardini Naxos, where the Greeks first settled in Sicily and whose small museum boasts Bronze Age pots dug from still another ancient site that is just now being excavated.
From Taormina it is a day trip by bus and hydrofoil across the narrows to Reggio di Calabria. You go there to see the celebrated Riace bronzes, lifesize male statues recovered from the sea only a few years ago after a scuba-diving tourist spotted them.
Incidentally, the seacoast here, as in so many places around the Mediterranean, was too populated, the water too discolored, for us to feel comfortable swimming. On the other hand we met a biologist from Ireland who said nonsense, it was perfectly safe, and swam in the ocean daily. We trust he is in good health.
We spent three weeks in Sicily, and it wasn't nearly enough. The problems are what one might expect from a place not yet overrun by tourists. The food is oily, much too salty and relentlessly the same (nothing but Italian restaurants!), though we did treat ourselves to a first-class $86 dinner for two at the fancy Hotel Timeo in Taormina, surrounded by our fellow Americans. In the smaller towns foreigners are distinctly a novelty, and it is good to have a phrase book handy. Even at the Villa Athena, with its international clientele, we overheard some compatriots having the classic tiresome misunderstanding over martinis (they were given Martini vermouth instead). And in the cities there is always the concern for one's wallet and vague anxiety about the Mafia.
But we found nearly all the Sicilians endlessly friendly and helpful and gently amused by our curious ways. (Trying to order fragolini con panna, tiny strawberries with whipped cream, I asked for "fragolini con pane", or bread. The waiter loved it.) We learned to call for non-oily grilled fish and lots of salads. We also discovered that, while the famed Taormina marzipan, ingeniously sculpted and tinted into a vast variety of shapes, tastes of nothing, the macaroons are a sticky paradise of flavor -- at $2 a pound. And the torrone, almond nougat, usually dipped in dark chocolate, is almost worth the trip by itself.
Expect to be surprised in Sicily. One evening we drove into Marsala, the wine town, looking for a hotel. The highway ran through a gaunt, khaki-colored Antonioni suburb, bleak as the outskirts of Mexico City or Rethymnon in Crete, and the only visible stopping place was an "American-style" motel built around a gas station. Close to despair, we followed some signs tortuously through the inner-city streets to the Hotel Stella d'Italia. The doorman beckoned to us hilariously as we passed. Who could resist?
An old-fashioned hotel with high ceilings and a heads-up staff, the Stella d'Italia is right on the town square, opposite the church with its antique bell tower. In the evening, the people take the traditional stroll, their talk a soft murmur. In the morning, everyone collects at the open-air market: an acre of fruits, vegetables and a raucous 50-yard gauntlet of fishmongers selling everything from marlin two feet thick to slimy wormlike things we didn't want to know any more about.
At Marsala a Punic warship, recently rescued from the sea, is being restored, and archeologists are working on the ruins of the ancient city, Lilybaeum, where one conqueror after another moved in, settled and was driven out. We talked with the caretaker in a combination of English, Italian, French, pidgin German and plenty of gestures. We got along just fine. Sicilians are more interested in communicating than in snooting your accent.
Perhaps our most interesting conversation was with an old hermit named Antonio Calogero who guarded the little-visited cave of Demeter outside Agrigento. Using our strange bouillabaisse of languages, we learned much from him about the cave itself, the cult of Demeter, the Norman church on the hill and his own career as a guide to students of antiquity. We began to feel that in Sicily one could wander into any remote stone hut and find a friend and teacher.
This venerable island, occupied over the centuries by so many people -- the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans and Ostrogoths, the Normans and Arabs and briefly the Germans -- is not for every tourist. Accommodations can be spartan, banks don't always understand traveler's checks, and the sign that means Go Straight Ahead is an arrow that points left.
But Sicily is truly, excitingly foreign, its people mostly unspoiled by tourism, its rewards for those who love lost civilizations profoundly satisfying.