Sicily is the pre-eminent island in the Mediterranean – the largest, and the most eventful historically. It is also more or less in the middle, a stepping stone between Europe and Africa and a refuge between the Levant and the Atlantic. Throughout history Sicily was viewed as a fortuitous landfall by migrating peoples and a prized possession by ambitious adventurers and expansionist princes. And as the Mediterranean has been catalyst and disseminator of a greater variety of civilisations than any other of the world’s seas, the island has accumulated an exceptionally rich and incomparably varied inventory of art, architecture and archaeological remains.
Here are to be found some of the finest surviving ancient Greek temples and theatres; Roman floor mosaics which have no peer in Europe; and wall and vault mosaics by Byzantine craftsmen which are unequalled anywhere. Mediaeval churches and Baroque palaces abound, and there are many memorable paintings, sculptures and other works of art.
As much part of the experience as these masterpieces, however, are the picturesque hill towns, coastal settlements lapped by a gentle sea, and haphazard alleys and vibrant city boulevards ornamented with wrought iron balconies. In every town there are buildings of unexpected magnificence and a plenitude of modest structures of ineffable charm. Some are well preserved, some are crumbling – witness to a deeper malaise.
For much of its history, Sicily was regularly one of the most prosperous of European territories, but political mismanagement and social dislocation led to a long, deep slump. Into the space vacated by absentee landlords and self-serving authorities, the ‘Honoured Society’ inserted itself as protector – though it has been even more exploitative and malign than the worst of earlier tyrants. And the region remains low in the tables of prosperity.
Matters are improving, however. Conservation and curatorship have made great strides in recent years, the Mafia has lost its dominance, poverty has lessened, and other indicators of well-being – the high quality of cuisine among them – are more evident as each year goes by. Sicily has been a part of a unified Italy since 1861 and ethnically and culturally it is unmistakably Italian. But it is also distinctly Sicilian, a world apart. Forming the backdrop to all this are some ineluctable landscapes, the formidable stark hills of the interior and the glittering greens of intensely farmed valleys. The smoking bulk of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, is visible from much of the eastern part of the island.
Palermo. March: fly at c. 9.00am from London City, via Milan or Rome, to Palermo (Alitalia). April, September & October: fly at c. 3.00pm from London Gatwick to Catania, and drive across the island to Palermo (British Airways). The largest and by far the most interesting city on the island, Palermo has been capital of Sicily since the period of Saracenic occupation in the 9th century. It reached a peak under the Normans and again during the Age of Baroque. First of six nights in Palermo.
A morning walk through the old centre includes a visit to several oratories and outstanding Norman buildings including La Martorana with fine mosaics. Lunch is at a private palace, by special arrangement. In the afternoon see the collection of pictures in the 15th-century Palazzo Abatellis. In the evening there is an out-of-hours visit to the Palatine Chapel in the palace of the Norman kings. Entirely encrusted with Byzantine mosaics, this is perhaps the finest assembly of Byzantine art to survive anywhere.
Monreale, Cefalù. The small town of Monreale dominates a verdant valley southwest of Palermo. Its cathedral is one of the finest Norman churches on the island and possesses the largest scheme of Byzantine mosaic decoration to survive anywhere. Cefalù, a charming coastal town, has another massive Norman cathedral, also with outstanding mosaics, and an art gallery with a painting by the 15th-century artist Antonello da Messina.
Segesta, Selinunte. Set in an unspoilt hilly landscape, the almost complete but fascinatingly unfinished 5th-century temple at Segesta was built by indigenous if thoroughly Hellenised Sicilians. On an adjacent hill is a spectacularly sited theatre with views to the sea. Selinunte, founded by Greeks from the Attic city of Megara c. 650 BC, is a vast archaeological site, renowned for its many temples and acropolis.
Agrigento. The remains of the Greek colony of Akragas at modern-day Agrigento constitute one of the greatest sites bequeathed by the ancient world. A relatively late foundation (580 BC), it rose rapidly to riches and constructed eight peripteral temples, the most numerous group in the Greek world. That dedicated to Olympian Zeus was the largest of all Doric temples before being felled by Carthaginians and earthquakes, while the Temple ‘of Concord’ is the best preserved.
Palermo. San Giovanni degli Eremiti is a Norman church with five cupolas and a charming garden. The cathedral, a building of many periods though largely mediaeval, has grand royal and imperial tombs. See also the archaeological museum, which reopened in 2017 and displays one of the richest collections of Punic and Ancient Greek art in Italy.
Palermo, Piazza Armerina. Visit Castello della Zisa, an Arab-Norman Palace. Then leave Palermo and drive through the hilly interior of Sicily. At Piazza Armerina are the remains of one of the finest villas of the late-Roman Empire, whose floor mosaics comprise the most vital and colourful manifestation of Roman figurative art in Europe. Continue to the east coast for the first of three nights in Taormina.
Free day in this extremely pretty town. The Teatro Greco (actually largely Roman) is incomparably sited with far-reaching views encompassing smouldering Mount Etna, the Ionian sea and the Calabrian coast of mainland Italy. The town itself, clinging to a hillside with beaches far below, has buildings from five centuries as well as further Roman structures. A smart resort since the nineteenth century, our hotel has shaded gardens which spill down a series of terraces. (Also a swimming pool which is usually to be open between March and October).
Messina, Reggio di Calabria. Drive along the coast to Messina. The city was one of Caravaggio’s Sicilian refuges, and in the art gallery are two of his paintings and the best surviving work by Antonello da Messina. Cross the Straits of Messina by hydrofoil to Reggio di Calabria on mainland Italy to see the Riace Bronzes, oversize male nudes associated with Phidias and Polyclitus, among the finest Greek sculpture to survive.
Catania. Sicily’s second city, Catania was largely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693 with long straight streets lined with Baroque palaces. There are special arrangements to see a magnificent private palazzo and a Byzantine chapel, and visits to the enormous monastery of St Nicola, the Baroque cathedral and the harmonious cathedral square. Continue to Syracuse, founded as a Greek colony in 733 BC, became the most important city of Magna Græcia. Late-afternoon visit to the 5th-century BC theatre, the largest of its type to survive, and the Roman amphitheatre. First of three nights in Syracuse.
Syracuse. The Island of Ortygia, the ancient heart of Syracuse, is densely packed with structures from ancient Greek to Stile Liberty, one of the largest areas of unremittingly picturesque townscape to be found anywhere. The day’s walks thread through meandering alleys, little piazze and seaside promenades, lingering at buildings such as the cathedral, unique in incorporating a Doric temple of c. 480 bc, and the mediaeval Catalan-style Palazzo Bellomo. Great paintings include Antonello’s Annunciation and Caravaggio’s Burial of St Lucy.
Noto, Syracuse. Rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693, the hill town of Noto is one of the loveliest and most homogenous Baroque towns in Italy. All of honey-coloured stone, vistas are enlivened with carved stone balconies with elaborate ironwork. Visit the cathedral, a convent and a suite of Empire-style rooms in a palazzo. Return to Syracuse in the late afternoon and visit the excellent Museum of Antiquities and, in 2018 the 5th-century BC theatre.
Syracuse. March: fly from Catania, via Milan or Rome, arriving London Heathrow at c. 7.15pm. April, September and October: fly from Catania, arriving London Gatwick at c. 11.15pm.
If combining this tour with World Heritage Malta, fly from Catania to Malta (Ryanair or Air Malta) and taxi transfer to the Hotel Phoenicia. Two extra nights in Valletta.
Dr Eireann Marshall
Archaeological historian, lecturer and writer specialising in ancient North African and Roman civilisations. She is an honorary research fellow for the OU, and is currently working on a project at the University of Roehampton focusing on the reception of Roman culture in the frontiers of the Roman Empire.
Specialist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – lectures for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education. He is Honorary Secretary of the British Archaeological Association, for whom he has edited and contributed to collections of essays on mediaeval cloisters, chantries, Anjou, and King’s Lynn and the Fens. In 2010 he established a biennial series of international conferences on Romanesque visual culture. His most recent effort in this field – Romanesque Patrons and Processes – was published in 2018. He is also author of the Blue Guides to both Normandy and the Loire Valley.
Price - per person
Two sharing: £4,570 or £4,410 without flights. Single occupancy: £5,350 or £5,190 without flights.
Two sharing: £4,780 or £4,470 without flights. Single occupancy: £5,650 or £5,340 without flights.
September & October 2019
Two sharing: £4,860 or £4,550 without flights. Single occupancy: £5,760 or £5,450 without flights.
Civilisations of Sicily (September 2019 departure) and World Heritage Malta combined
Two sharing: £8,030 or £7,720 without the tour flights. Single occupancy: £9,680 or £9,370 without the tour flights. This includes accommodation at Hotel Phoenicia in Valletta (2 nights), one-way flight Catania to Malta and airport transfers. These arrangements are pre-booked but unescorted.
Flights (economy class, Airbus A319, A320, 32S, Embraer 90) with Alitalia or British Airways; travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 5 lunches (including one picnic) and 7 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa, Palermo: a centrally located 4-star hotel housed in an assortment of historical buildings. Hotel Villa Belvedere, Taormina: a charming 4-star family-run hotel in the old town, with its own garden (rooms vary in size and outlook). Algilà Ortigia Charme Hotel, Syracuse: delightful 4-star hotel on the island of Ortygia, overlooking the Ionian sea waterfront. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
This tour involves a lot of walking, some of it over rough ground at archaeological sites and cobbled or uneven paving in town centres. Fitness and sure-footedness are essential. There are also some long coach journeys. Average distance by coach per day: 73 miles.
We opt to travel to and from Sicily indirect with Alitalia in March because the only direct flights to the island in this period are with low-cost airlines, with whom it is not currently viable for us to make a group booking. British Airways only flies directly from London Gatwick to Catania from late April to October (these flights are also subject to confirmation).
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'A superb introduction to Sicily. Very well thought out.'
'Overall a well-balanced mix which brought together the disparate strands of history and art of Sicily. I especially liked the fact that most days had a particular theme.'
'So many unexpected treasures - that's what makes a Martin Randall holiday so special.'
'I was delighted and uplifted by the places I saw: a perfectly chosen mix.'
'Excellent, very well thought out, a rich combination of the obvious places where people would want to go, combined with the unexpected.'
'The quality of the hotels was excellent, we enjoyed delicious food and wine and the variety and interest in the places we visited would not have been possible if we'd arranged the tour ourselves. The guides enabled us to learn a great deal which would otherwise have passed us by.'
'The lecturer was brilliant and a gifted teacher. The depth of his knowledge on every aspect of the tour was extremely impressive, and he was always willing to answer all the questions and interact with us all. He was also a delightful person, with a dry sense of humour and a lot of fun.'
'The quality of the planning, the lecturer and the size of the group provided an excellent tour that would be hard to match.'