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Gibellina – A Town Buried in Concrete

dscf5615The road to the old town of Ruderi di Gibellina is so cracked and deformed that it is hard to imagine that the earthquake which flattened it occurred nearly 50 years ago. Up to 400 people died, a thousand were injured and 100,000 left homeless when the 5.5 tremor hit south west Sicily on the 15th of January 1968. The surviving inhabitants suffered even more until the new town was completed 12 years later nearly 20 kms away. Much delay was caused due to corruption and Mafia threats regarding building contracts.

dscf5624It’s a sunny day and I stop briefly at the cemetery of Ruderi di Gibellina, the only structure to have survived. A simple memorial remembers those who died on that dreadful day. The road winds down to the site of the former town, now almost completely covered in a layer of concrete, looking like a misplaced glacier. In fact, Alberto Burri’s modern art installation is named ‘IL Cretto’ (The Crevice) and the cuts in the concrete represent the positions of the roads that ran through the town. It’s almost as if the artist has sought to bury the pain of the past. However, a few derelict and crumbling buildings remain to serve as a reminder of what happened here 50 years ago.

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dscf5644The following day, on the anniversary of the earthquake, I visit the new Gibellina. It is Sunday morning and the streets are empty, so I can drive around and check out the modern art which is dotted around the place. It’s clear that they applied lessons learned from the earthquake when they designed the new town. Houses and flats are only one or two storeys and the streets are very wide, but it is devoid of any real character and feels like a 1970s council estate. I wondered if there would be a memorial service at the church but perhaps it is too early as it is all locked up.

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I move on to Salemi, high on a hill and not quite as badly affected by the earthquake, though the ruins of the Chiesa Madre are a reminder of that time. The sacred art from all the affected churches was collected up, restored and is now displayed in the Museum of the Jesuit College where there is also, bizarrely, a replica of ‘Mary’s House’ of Loreto. As well as the sacred art, the museum has a small archaeological section, a rather disturbing Mafia exhibition and some memorabilia related to Garibaldi. On the 11th of May 1860 he landed at Marsala with a thousand Red Shirts and managed to defeat 15,000 Bourbon soldiers at Calatafimi. Neighbouring Salemi became the first capital of the Unified Italy and proudly flew the Tricolore flag, if only one day.

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Selinunte and the Abandoned Quarry

dscf5497I’m amazed at how many Greek temples and Roman cities Sicily has. I’ve already visited Taormina with its glorious Greek Theatre and Agrigento with its Valley of the Temples. Now I find myself lost in the huge site of Selinunte having attempted a short cut that turns out to be not that short.

The Acropolis of Selinunte was built on a raised site, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It was founded in the 7th century BC and was once a very powerful city on the southern coast of Sicily. Sadly it was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 409 BC and what remained was later toppled by the earthquakes which are quite commonplace on the island.

dscf5517I eventually get back on track and cross the Modione River to reach the furthest section of the site, the Sanctuary of Malophoros. Not the most impressive area with only a small, partially restored Temple of Hera Matronale (the goddess of fertility), whose image is surprisingly similar to the Virgin and Child of the Christian world, but I love being able to roam among the stones and touch the altar, which looks like it is stained with blood from the sacrifices made there.

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I had started my visit with the impressive Temple E (They have a very unimaginative way of labelling the temples), dedicated to Hera and looking almost complete after extensive restoration in the 1960s. Neighbouring temples F and G are still just piles of column drums and oblong stone blocks but it is fun to scramble around and see just how huge the carved columns were.

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dscf5459dscf5481I get a much better appreciation of the scale and beauty of the temples when I visit the small museum. Inside I find several cork models created by Paolo Lipari who had a passion for this type of work. When he died, his family donated them to the state and now we can all enjoy them. The museum guardian is keen to give me a guided tour in Italian and I’m surprised by how much I understand.

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My not-so-short shortcut takes me high above the Acropolis to the ancient Agora. It looks like it was excavated in the past but now nature is reclaiming it and preserving what hasn’t already been removed for future generations.

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dscf5597Much of the Acropolis is also covered by soil and vegetation, including the wild celery from which Selinunte gets its name. However, walking down the long, cobbled street it is easy to imagine the shops which lined it, evidenced by the carved stone containers just outside the door lintels.

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The Acropolis temples (A, B, C, D and O) are mostly ruined, the huge columns felled like pine trees in a forest. I find another piece with a distinctive U-shaped carving and wonder again about the engineering involved in producing such immense places of worship.

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dscf5609The next day I drive 15 kms west to the quarry of Cava Di Cusa where much of the material for the temples originated. I’m surprised to find the museum guardian there and he greets me like an old friend and insists on giving me another guided tour. Here I can clearly see the process in forming the giant column pieces as some are still in place, having been abandoned before completion. Others lie scattered amongst the olive groves, perhaps left because they were imperfect or unusable.

dscf5603I manage to lose my eager companion when I suggest a longer stroll along the 2 km length of the quarry. Finally, alone with the rock, I can imagine the stonemasons carving away to create a circular crevice around the emerging column. I come across the smooth curved sides of stone, all that remains once the column piece was removed, and piles of smaller stone fragments, presumably discarded from the rock removed.

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The Enchanted Castle of Filippo Bentivegna

filippoFilippo Bentivegna was born in Sciacca in 1888. At the age of 20 he enlisted in the navy and ended up in America where he fell in love. Sadly, he was rejected by his girlfriend and beaten up by his love rival, leaving him depressed and homesick. When he returned to Sciacca he started carving heads into every piece of stone and wood that he could find, their faces symbols of his enemies. He bought a small holding above the town and filled it with his work. Locals would often meet him wandering around town with a short stick, held like a sceptre, proclaiming himself a king and asking to be called ‘His Excellency’.

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dscf5352He died in 1967 but his estate remains and is managed by a foundation. I stop by to visit, not really sure what to expect and prepared to be disappointed after handing over €5 for a ticket. I’m pointed towards a path which is lined with stone heads, the faces glaring at me as I pass. Some sculptures have more than one face, some are quite crude, others more complex and detailed. As I follow the path I reach a terrace with rows and rows of heads. They are everywhere, including some which have been carved into the ancient olive trees.

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dscf5386dscf5363At one point a goat wanders past and I feel like I’m in a dream as I explore the ‘Enchanted Castle’. Then I realise that the goat is one of several animals left behind from a nativity production. At the top of the garden is Filippo’s house, a very simple one-room cottage whose walls are decorated with painted skyscrapers (perhaps representing New York) and large fish with smaller ones inside (perhaps representing the journey across the Atlantic in a ship). Beyond is a network of limestone caves where even more faces have been carved into the walls.

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The Owl House

It’s a fascinating place and quite unlike anywhere else I have visited in Sicily. It does remind me of the ‘Owl House’ in South Africa which artist Helen Martins also decorated with her work. Filippo and Helen belong to an artistic group known as Outsider Artists, artists who are often self-taught and create work purely for themselves and not for the public. These people choose their own materials and prefer to work in isolation. I think Filippo must have been a little bit crazy to have created such a world for himself, but then I suppose all great artists are a bit crazy.

As I wander down the paths to the exit I feel as if the faces are all turning to watch me leave.

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The Valley of the Temples and the Secret Shortcut

dscf5311In my attempts to reach the archaeological site of the Valley of the Temples, I end up skirting the ugly modern town of Agrigento. Built on the higher ridge and former site of the Hellenistic Acropolis, it is a wall of concrete high rises encircled by road viaducts. I struggle along one street which is lined with trucks selling fruit and vegetables whose client’s park as close as possible, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are causing an obstruction.

dscf5161It is Monday and the Archaeological Museum is only open until 1pm so I stop in the adjacent car park and head inside to buy a combination ticket which will also allow me access to the main site. There is a large collection of exhibits, including the commonplace black vases and ceramic statues given as votive offerings to the gods. One of the largest and most impressive pieces is a giant Telamon from the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Next to it a cork model of the temple assists with an understanding of the scale of the building.

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dscf5188Opposite the museum is the Hellenistic-Roman Quarter, the remains of houses and shops inhabited until the 5th century AD. Apart from a couple of staff making a promotional video and the guardian who is busy chatting to them, I have the whole site to myself so I can scramble around the foundation walls and examine the remains of mosaics in peace. As I leave to have lunch back in the Motorhome, the guardian beckons me over and indicates a path which leads down to the temples. I return at 1pm to find the guardian about to close the site, he wishes me luck and locks the gate behind me.

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I find myself heading down some steps and following a path which cuts through an olive grove. Undoubtedly, this is the route that people would have taken 1500 years ago from their homes to the temple area. Today it’s just me and a few rabbits.

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dscf5209dscf5259My secret shortcut ends just below the Temple of Concord, a huge preserved temple from the 4th century BC. Only up close can I appreciate the size of the 34 Doric columns. Following a line of fortifications carved into the rock, I reach the equally impressive Temple of Juno which was built on a rocky spur with a commanding view of the coast.

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Retracing my steps to the Temple of Concord, I head below it and locate the Christian catacombs of Villa Igea. Tombs have been carved into the rock, some open and some still covered by heavy stone lids. It’s an eerie place, not helped by the presence of a sign warning of danger.

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dscf5293dscf5335Next to the Temple of Hercules, a bridge takes me across the road into the western section. Here lie the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, damaged by earthquakes and attacks by the Carthaginians. Another Telamon is lying on the ground, as well as piles of column pieces with a distinctive U-shaped groove. Apparently this enabled them to be lifted by ropes, though I struggle to imagine how this actually worked. The site ends in a deep gorge filled with olive, almond, orange and pomegranate trees. It seems completely alien to the tower-block town of Agrigento which rises behind it.

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Ragusa – A Tale of Two Cities

dscf4995The earthquake of 1693 destroyed the town of Ragusa and, much like its neighbours Noto and Modica, it was decided to rebuild it in a grid plan on the higher slope, featuring Baroque architecture which was popular at the time. However, the inhabitants of Ragusa had other idea and proceeded to rebuild the old town on the rocky hill below. This led to a rivalry between the new Ragusa Superiore and the old Ragusa Ibla which lasted until 1926 when the two towns were eventually reunited.

dscf4927I arrive in a flurry of snow and base myself in a small parking area between the two halves of town. It is bitterly cold, due to an unusual weather system which is even depositing snow on the Greek Islands further south, but I don my gloves and hat then set out to explore Ragusa Ibla. Passing the church of Purgatory, I walk along narrow alleys and streets where the houses are neglected and abandoned. Another small church is on the verge of collapse and sealed off behind metal fencing and orange plastic netting. I’m beginning to wonder if anyone lives here anymore.

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Luckily I emerge onto the main drag which is lined with shops, cafes and more churches. I follow it down to the edge of town where I find the public gardens lined with palms and planted with blood red cyclamens. There are even more churches in the grounds. One is being used for an exhibition about the Italian suffragette movement, another has a lovely painted wooden ceiling and is playing Christmas carols, and the third, attached to a convent now converted into a 5 star hotel, features a beautiful wooden altar.

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dscf4968On the way back through town, I pop into a shop selling local products and resist the temptation to buy lots of cheese. I then arrive at the Duomo just as a service is finishing and the final hymn is being sung. It’s a magical moment. The Cathedral of Ragusa Ibla is dedicated to St George and his image can be found in every corner. All that remains of the original church of St George, near to the public gardens, is an impressive, though worn, portal.

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After warming up with some hot soup back in the motorhome, I climb the endless steps up to Ragusa Superiore. Even when the steps end, the road continues to plough upwards to the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. Luckily it’s open and worth the climb.

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The new town of Ragusa straddles a deep gorge and I cross two of the three bridges in order to see it. Then I head back down to the car park, via the Church of Santa Maria delle Scale. ‘Scale’ means stairs and there are 340 steps to descend. At least it keeps me warm.

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Chocolate Tasting in Modica

dscf4876Like Noto, Modica was greatly affected by the earthquake of 1693 and had to be reconstructed, though it doesn’t quite have the same architectural impact as Noto. The main street is choked with traffic and lined with shops, but among the more mundane buildings, there are a few lovely Baroque churches, such as San Pietro with its wide flight of steps guarded by life-sized statues of the twelve apostles.

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dscf4883Armed with a map and lots of useful information provided by the local tourist office, I set out to discover some of the more hidden corners of the town, starting with the tiny 12th century cave church of San Nicolo Inferiore. Easy to miss, down a side alley beside the church of San Pietro, it was discovered by accident in 1987 by two young boys playing football. Inside are some lovely byzantine frescos, though how much longer they will survive in the damp conditions is anyone’s guess.

dscf4869Down another alley, I locate Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, where chocolate has been produced since 1880. The interior feels like it hasn’t been changed since that time, with dark wood, glass-fronted cabinets lining the walls and a wide counter covered with tasting bowls of the various chocolate on offer. Orange, lemon, vanilla, cinnamon and coffee are used to flavour the chocolate bars along with more unusual additions of salt, chilli and jasmine. There are so many options that it’s hard to choose and by the time I’m done tasting I’m experiencing a sugar rush.

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dscf4891Luckily the extra energy helps me to scale the 250 steps up to the cathedral of San Giorgio. Inside I find another marble calendar inset into the floor and although I arrive at midday, there’s no sun to shine through the hole in the roof and mark today’s date. There is also a rather magnificent organ and a lovely nativity scene with buildings resembling those in Modica.

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Boldly Baroque – Noto

dscf4836On the 11th January 1693 a massive earthquake flattened many of the towns in south east Sicily, including Noto. Luckily, Giuseppe Lanza, a Sicilian-Spanish aristocrat was on hand to supervise the rebuilding, utilising a new plan to separate the political and religious buildings from the commercial and housing area. In a very short time, he had created a Baroque masterpiece of palaces, churches and steep steps.

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I start my exploration of the town in the upper section which is mainly residential. They are repairing the roads and the dust is being blown about like a sandstorm in the Sahara. I seek refuge in the Church of Santissimo Crocifisso which houses two ancient lion statues and some beautiful paintings.

 

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A long flight of steps takes me down to the pedestrian high street and the Cathedral of San Nicolo. It’s hard to imagine that the dome collapsed 20 years ago as it has been carefully restored and decorated with paintings of Matthew, Mark Luke and John. There are many other lovely churches in Noto, including San Carlo with a bell tower that can be climbed for views across to the Duomo and others with marvellous wooden ceilings and screens.

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dscf4790Opposite the Duomo is the huge Palazzo Ducezio, used as the Town hall and boasting a small meeting room decorated with golden stucco and mirrors. My ticket to view this also gives me access to the neighbouring Civic Museum, a strange collection of archaeological finds, ugly artwork and an exhibition of bronze sculptures and medallions by the artist Giuseppe Pirrone, who created the doors of the cathedral.

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dscf4781Also included in my €4 combination ticket is entrance to the Teatro Communale, a diminutive auditorium of red velvet seats and curtains, with cosy private boxes. It would be amazing to see a show here but sadly few performances take place, and there are none during my short visit to the town.

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My morning meander has left me hungry but, luckily, opposite the theatre are some places serving Sicilian arancini. These huge, deep fried, rice balls make an excellent snack and, having already tried the conical Catania/Syracuse version, I choose the spherical Palermo one, which is infused and coloured with saffron.

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