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/November: fly at c. 9.00am from London City, via Milan or Rome, to Palermo (Alitalia). April: fly at c. 11.15am from London City, via Milan to Palermo (Alitalia). September/October: fly at c. 2.45pm from London Gatwick to Catania, and drive across the island to Palermo (British Airways). First of six nights in Palermo.
Palermo. 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. A morning walk through the old centre includes a visit to several oratories and outstanding Norman buildings including La Martorana with fine mosaics. Visit a private palace, by special arrangement. In the afternoon see the collection of pictures in the 15th-century Palazzo Abatellis.
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. At the end of an otherwise free afternoon 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.
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 four nights in Taormina.
Taormina. Free day in this extremely pretty little town, which clings to a hillside rising steeply from the sea. It has been a smart resort since the nineteenth century. 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. Our hotel has shaded gardens that spill down a series of terraces (a swimming pool is open from April to October, weather permitting).
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, Siracusa. 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.
Syracuse. Drive to Syracuse (Siracusa) and the island of Ortygia, the ancient heart of the city, which is densely packed with structures from ancient Greek to Stile Liberty, one of the largest areas of picturesque townscape anywhere. Two walks thread through meandering alleys, little piazze and seaside promenades. The cathedral is unique in incorporating a Doric temple of c. 480 bc; great paintings include Antonello’s Annunciation in the mediaeval Catalan-style Palazzo Bellomo and Caravaggio’s Burial of St Lucy. First of two nights in Syracuse.
Noto, Syracuse. Rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693, the hilltown of Noto is one of the loveliest and most homogenous Baroque towns in Italy. 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. Back in Syracuse, which was the most important city in Magna Græcia, visit the 5th-century bc theatre, the largest of its type to survive, the Roman amphitheatre and the excellent museum.
Syracuse. Fly from Catania, arriving London Gatwick at c. 11.00pm (September/October), or via Milan or Rome, arriving London Heathrow at c. 7.15pm (March/April/November).
Dr Luca Leoncini
Art historian specialising in 15th-century Italian painting. His first degree and PhD were from Rome University followed by research at the Warburg Institute in London. He has published articles on the classical tradition in Italian art of the 15th century and contributed to the Macmillan Dictionary of Art. He has also written on Mantegna and Renaissance drawings.
Art historian, lecturer and writer. As well as being a specialist in 19th-century British art, he has a deep interest in Sicily, its architecture and political and social history. A graduate of the Courtauld Institute, he has organised various exhibitions including Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature (Tate Britain 2004) and John Ruskin: Artist & Observer at the National Gallery of Canada and Scottish National Portrait Gallery (2014). His interest in John Ruskin led to our tour Ruskin’s Venice.
Dr Ffiona Gilmore Eaves
Read Archaeology at Cambridge followed by a PhD from Nottingham on the early church at Porec. She has lectured for the WEA, for whom she founded and managed a study tours section, and for various extra-mural departments. She is the co-author of Retrieving the Record: A Century of Archaeology at Porec published by the University of Zagreb.
Architectural historian and a specialist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He lectures for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education and is Honorary Secretary of the British Archaeological Association, for whom he has edited collections of essays on mediaeval Anjou, King’s Lynn and the Fens, Cloisters, and Romanesque and the Mediterranean.
Dr Philippa Joseph
Author, lecturer and researcher. For 20 years she published journals and books on behalf of societies including the Association of Art Historians, The Historical Association, and Society for Renaissance Studies. She is now an independent lecturer and researcher, reviews editor for History Today, and sits on the publishing board of the Institute of Historical Research, London. Her PhD concentrated on architectural and cultural exchange between Seville and Renaissance Italy, but her current research looks more broadly at late mediaeval and early modern societies in Andalucía and Sicily where Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures flourished, each building on a Classical past.
Price – per person
March, April, September & October
Two sharing: £4,470 or £4,250 without flights. Single occupancy: £5,080 or £4,860 without flights.
November (exclusively for solo travellers)
£4,640 or £4,470 without flights.
Flights (economy class, Airbus A32S, Embraer 90, Embraer 7S) with Alitalia (Mar./Apr./Nov.) or with British Airways (Sep./Oct.); 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). Des Etrangers Hotel, Syracuse: an elegant 5-star hotel on the island of Ortygia. All rooms have sea views. 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 with Alitalia in March, April and November 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.
Suggested travel for combining with World Heritage Malta (1–7 October 2018)
29 Sept: fly with Air Malta Catania to Malta at 22.25-23.05 (times TBC). There will be c. 7 hours between MRT’s flight from Catania and the flight to Malta. There are no left luggage facilities at Catania airport. The train station has lockers, but we would not necessarily recommend using them. Stay 29 & 30th Sept at the hotel in Valletta.
MRT can book the flight to Malta, airport transfer and extra hotel nights in Valletta. Prices on enquiry.
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.'