31 July 2015

Just once, in a very blue moon
… on the east coast of Sicily

The full moon rising this evening at the beach in Recanati in Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

It is just “once in a Blue Moon.”

I can see the Blue Moon from my balcony in the Villa Linda in Giardini Naxos tonight. Earlier in the evening, after sunset, I strolled along the beach in Recanati, to see the moon rise slowly above the horizon and scatter its sparkling reflections across the waters of the Ionian Sea.

Earlier in the afternoon, after coming down Mount Etna, there were patches of dark clouds across parts of the east coast of Sicily and the thunderstorm lasted for about half an hour, with flashes of lighting across the water.

None of this deterred nor disturbed swimmers or paragliders, and life at the beach went on as normal. Italian weekenders have arrived here in large numbers, and families were still on the beach, enjoying the late July heat, after sunet.

But as I watched, I wondered how many people realised that the rising moon tonight is a blue moon.

This blue moon is the second full moon this month and the first Blue Moon since August 2012. Every month has a full moon – apart from a very exceptional February – and the word month itself is derived from the word moon. But a Blue Moon happens only once every three years or so because the lunar calendar and the solar calendar are never the same.

Of course, the moon tonight does not look blue at all … the phrase has nothing to do with the actual colour of the moon.

When the moon has a bluish hue, it is because of smoke or dust particles in the atmosphere. But Mount Etna, which I climbed earlier today, has not erupted this evening.

When the phrase “once in a blue moon” was first used, it meant something so rare you or I would be lucky – or unlucky – to have seen it in our own lifetime.

So, where does the term comes from?

In calculating the dates of Lent and Easter, the early Church identified a Lenten moon. Sometimes, February, with only 28 or 29 days, has no full moon. So, when the full moon arrived too early, the early moon was called a betrayer or belewe moon.

The earliest recorded use of the term Blue Moon in English is found in a pamphlet attacking Rome and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, written in 1528 by two Greenwich friars, William Roy and Jerome Barlow.

There is not going to be another Blue Moon again for another few years. Where shall I be then?

The blue moon seen tonight in Sicily from the Hotel Villa Linda in Recanati (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Reading ‘The Sicilian Vespers’
once again … in Sicily

The Palazzo Corvajo in Taormina … the Sicilian Parliament met here in 1410, ending the War of the Sicilian Verspers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Listening to the bells of the cathedrals in Taormina, Suracuse or Noto during this week in Sicily, or visiting the Palazzo Corvajo in Taormina, I am reminded of the Sicilian Vespers (Vespri Siciliani) and the slaughter associated with it – a story I first read about in detail in the magisterial book of the same name by the late Steven Runciman (1903-2000), one of the greatest Byzantine scholars.

The Sicilian Vespers is the name given to a popular revolt that broke throughout Sicily in Easter 1282 against the rule of the French-born king, Charles of Anjou, who had ruled Sicily since 1266. Within six weeks, 3,000 French men and women and Charles I and his Angevin government lost control. It was the beginning of the War of the Sicilian Vespers.

The rising had its origin in the struggle over the control of Sicily between the House of Hohenstaufen, which then ruled Germany, and the Papacy and the Papal States. In 1245, Pope Innocent IV tried to depose the Emperor Frederick II. In 1255, Sicily was seized by Frederick’s illegitimate son, Manfred, who ruled from 1258 to 1266.

Both Pope Urban IV and Pope Clement IV excommunicated Manfred and then tried to depose him. At first the crown of Sicily was sold by the Pope to Henry III of England, who accepted it on behalf of his eight-year-old son, Edmund ‘Crouchback’ or Edmund of Lancaster (1245-1296), who was styled “King of Sicily” for ten years.

But in those ten years, England never paid any rent to the Pope, and “King Edmund” never set foot on Sicily. Urban IV then deposed Edmund, and made Charles of Anjou (1227-1285) the King of Sicily, on condition that he paid the accumulated English debts to the Pope.

Charles, who was the younger brother of King Louis IX of France, imposed heavy, punitive taxes on the people of Sicily to pay the debt he had acquired. But he was even more ambitious than many realised, and had plans to capture Constantinople and to overthrow of the Emperor of Byzantium, Michael VIII Palaeologus.

But Sicily was never a happy part of the Angevin empire, the resident nobility had no voice in government and heavy taxes were imposed on the island to pay for Charles’s wars outside Sicily.

Byzantine agents in Sicily worked to undermine Charles’s plans and projects, and found a voice in Manfred’s son-in-law, King Peter III of Aragon, who regarded his wife Constance as the rightful heir to the throne of Sicilian throne.

The revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers began when the bells rang out in the Church of the Holy Spirit, Palermo, at the start of Vespers, the sunset prayers on Easter Monday, 30 March 1282.

According to Runciman, the Sicilians at church that evening were taking part in the holiday festivities when a group of French officials came in and began to drink. A sergeant named Drouet dragged a young married woman from the crowd, pestering her with his advances. Her husband attacked Drouet with a knife and killed him. When the other Frenchmen tried to avenge their comrade, the Sicilian crowd fell upon them, killing them all. At that moment all the church bells in Palermo began to ring for Vespers.

The Cathedral or Duomo in the centre of Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Runciman describes the mood of the night:

To the sound of the bells, messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor. At once the streets were filled with angry armed men, crying “Death to the French” (“moranu li Franchiski” in their Sicilian dialect). Every Frenchman they met was struck down. They poured into the inns frequented by the French and the houses where they dwelt, sparing neither man, woman nor child. Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husbands. The rioters broke into the Dominican and Franciscan convents; and all the foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word “ciciri,” whose sound the French tongue could never accurately reproduce. Anyone who failed the test was slain … By the next morning some two thousand French men and women lay dead; and the rebels were in complete control of the city.

In a different account of events, written in 1416, Leonardo Bruni says the people of Palermo were holding a festival outside the city when the French came to check for weapons, and on that pretext began to fondle the breasts of their women. This then began a riot. The French were attacked first with rocks, then weapons, killing them all. The news spread to other cities leading to revolt throughout Sicily.

Messina was well fortified, and there the leading family, the Riso, remained loyal to Charles. But on 28 April it too broke into open revolt and in the harbour the people set fire to the Angevin fleet in the harbour.

Charles had ruled as king from Naples rather than Palermo. When he heard of the destruction of his fleet, he exclaimed: “Lord God, since it has pleased you to ruin my fortune, let me only go down in small steps.”

Within six weeks, thousands of French people had been massacred in Sicily. The only place in Sicily not to join the uprising was the small village of Sperlinga, which protected French soldiers in the castle.

After order was restored in Palermo, the citizens proclaimed a free commune answerable only to the pope. They elected leaders, including Bartholomaeus of Neocastro who gave his own account of the revolt in his Historia Sicula.

A Genoese merchant, Alafranco Cassano, brought news to the Emperor Michael that Charles had been defeated. Ambassadors were sent to Pope Martin IV with a petition for each city in Sicily to become a free commune under the sole suzerainty of the Church. Perhaps each city was hoping for a status similar to that of Venice, Genoa, Pisa or other free cities throughout Italy.

However, the Pope was French and continued to support Charles as the rightful King of Sicily. But he underestimated how the Sicilians hated the French and especially Charles, and refused the islanders’ pleas.

The Sicilians then sent for King Peter III of Aragon, whose wife Constance was the sole surviving heir of Frederick II who was not in captivity and in a position to assert her rights. Through his wife’s position, Peter III now claimed the Kingdom of Sicily.

He had assembled a war fleet off the north coast of Africa in Tunis, 200 miles by sea from Sicily. Taking advantage of the revolt, his fleet sailed for Sicily, landed at Trapani on 30 August 1282, and he marched on Palermo, arriving on 2 September.

Pope Martin ordered the people to accept Charles as their king, but Peter countered with a promise to guarantee their ancient privileges. Peter was crowned King of Sicily by acclamation in the cathedral in Palermo on 4 September, becoming King Peter I of Sicily.

Charles counter-attacked with his fleet based in Naples. He blockaded the port of Messina, but failed in his several attempts to land troops on the island.

Years later, Michael VIII wrote: “Should I dare to claim that I was God’s instrument to bring freedom to the Sicilians, then I should only be stating the truth.”

As for Edmund Crouchback, the English boy-king who never set foot on Sicily, he died at the Siege of Bayonne died on 5 June 1296; his body was brought back to England, where he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Eventually, the House of Lancaster claimed the throne of England in the War of the Roses, and he was the ancestor of Henry IV.

A statue of King Charles I at the Royal Palace, Naples

In the Divine Comedy, Dante sees Charles of Anjou outside the gates of Purgatory “singing in accord” with his former rival, Peter. After 1282, he is usually known as King of Naples. He proclaimed himself King of Albania in 1272 and by purchase he became King of Jerusalem in 1277. He died on 7 January 1285.

For centuries, the Beaumont family, who inherited Wednesbury Manor in Staffordshire and passed it though marriage to the Comberford family of Comberford and Tamworth, claimed they were descended from Louis, son of Charles of Anjou.

The claim was perpetuated in heraldic family trees that William Comberford used to decorate the ceiling of the Moat House in Tamworth in the early 17th century. However, it appears that the only Louis who was a son of Charles of Anjou died in infancy. (For more see here.)

The Beaumont coat-of-arms on the ceiling of the Long Gallery in the Moat House, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The War of the Sicilian Vespers between Anjou and Aragon continued for decades, but was more often waged in Spain or on the sea than in Sicily.

The War of the Sicilian Vespers finally came to an end in 1410. After the death of Martin II, a group of Aragonese nobles gathered in the so-called Sicilian “parliament” in the Palazzo Corvaja in Taormina to choose the next King of Sicily.

Sicily was placed under direct Spanish rule, and remained a Spanish controlled island, apart from a brief period of Habsburg rule in the early 18th century, for 450 years until Italian unification in 1860.

Runciman notes that with or without Byzantine gold, it was the people of Sicily alone who fought against their armed oppressor. “However it may have been plotted and prepared, it was that one March evening of the Vespers at Palermo that brought down King Charles’ empire.”


Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958).

A visit to the site of Naxos,
first Greek colony in Sicily

The beach-front bars acknowledge the Greek origins of Naxos, the earliest Greek settlement in Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I had promised myself that this week I would explore Giardini Naxos and the site of Naxos, the earliest Greek settlement in Sicily. But it became a busy week, with visits to lofty hill town of Taormina, which stands high above Giardini Naxos, and later in the week to the classical sites in Syracuse and Noto with its grand baroque architecture.

After two walks on the beach at Recanati yesterday [30 July 2015] and along the shoreline, I went in search of the classical city of Naxos, which is behind a railed site east of Recanati.

But it was a long walk around the site and through the resort of Giardini Naxos before I found the entrance to the archaeological site and museum beside La Sirena restaurant on the busy seafront, on the low, rocky headland now called Cape Schisò. It is hard to imagine with these few scanty remains that this was once an important centre of Greek civilisation and culture on the island of Sicily, and remained so until the Arab invasions of the Byzantine Empire.

The beach at Naxos, where the first Greek settlers arrived in Sicily in 735 BC (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Classical Naxos stood on Cape Schisò, formed by an ancient stream of lava, immediately to the north of the Alcantara, one of the great gorges in Sicily. A small bay to the north separates in from the foot of the hill-top town of Taormina.

Classical writers say Naxos was the most ancient Greek colony in Sicily. It was founded a year before Syracusae (Syracuse), or in 735 BC, by a group of colonists from Chalcis in Euboea and the island of Naxos in the Cyclades.

The leader of the colonists and the founder of the city was Theocles or Thucles, who was born in Athens. But the name of Naxos is derived from the presence among the original settlers of a group of colonists from Naxos.

The new colony must have been speedily joined by fresh settlers from Greece. Six years after it was established, the Chalcidians at Naxos were able to send out a fresh colony to set up the city of Leontini (Lentini) in 730 BC, followed soon by another colony at Catana.

Strabo also speaks of Zancle (modern Messina) as a colony from Naxos, although Thucydides does not mention this. Callipolis was another colony of Naxos, although the site is not known.

The lengthy remains of the former city walls of Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Surprisingly, we know little about the early history of Naxos, and the first accounts are about disasters that hit the Greek city. Herodotus recounts that Naxos was besieged and captured by Hippocrates, the despot of Gela, ca 498-491 BC.

Soon after, Naxos was in the hands of Gelon of Syracuse and his brother Hieron by 476 BC. In a move to strengthen his own military power, Hieron moved the people of Naxos and Catana to Leontini, and brought in new Greek colonists to live in the cities he had emptied.

However, Naxos was restored to the original inhabitants in 461 BC, and the cities of Naxos, Leontini and Catana formed a close alliance against Syracuse and the other Doric cities in Sicily.

When Athens sent a force to Sicily under Laches and Charoeades, Naxos immediately came to its aid. In the war that followed, Naxos repulsed a sudden attack from Messina in 425 BC.

During a later expedition from Athens to Sicily, the Athenian fleet landed at Naxos in 415 BC, and Naxos once again fought on the same side as the Athenians. Thucydides recalls that Naxos and Catania were the only Greek cities in Sicily that sided with Athens.

A revenge attack on Naxos by Syracuse was called off in 409 BC because Carthage was posing a military threat to all the Greek cities in Sicily. But in 403 BC, Dionysius of Syracuse captured Naxos which was betrayed by the general Procles. Dionysius sold all the inhabitants of Naxos into slavery, razed the city walls and buildings, and handed over the defeated city’s territory to neighbouring Siculi.

Naxos never recovered from this blow, and it is difficult to trace what happened to the place in the immediate aftermath. But a new settlement was built on the hill called Mount Taurus, which rises immediately above the site of Naxos ca 396 BC, and this eventually became the town of Tauroménion (Ταυρομένιον), present-day Taormina.

In 358 BC, Andromachus, the father of the historian Timaeus, gathered together the descendants of the people of Naxos, by now exiles throughout the island, and brought them to live on the hill of Tauroménion, which became the successor of ancient Naxos.

Pliny the Elder is mistaken when he says Tauroménion was once called Naxos. The new city quickly prospered, and the site of Naxos was never fully resettled.

However, the altar and shrine of Apollo Archegetes continued to mark the spot where Naxos once stood, and it is mentioned in the war between Octavian and Sextus Pompey in Sicily in 36 BC. It remained a tradition for all envoys setting out on sacred missions to Greece, or returning to Sicily to stop at Naxos and offer a sacrifice on the altar.

The Byzantine site at Giardini Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The site stretches over a large area of Cape Schisò, among olive and lemon groves. It is badly labelled, but it is possible to make the foundations of a once-large town laid out in grids and a long stretch of the city wall of Naxos, as well as rubble indicating the later presence of a Byzantine town on the site.

For centuries, the Schisò Castle belonged to the De Spuches family. It is still private property and is not open to visits or for archaeological research. It may date back to 1100. It has a square plant and four round towers and is surrounded by a large garden. The castle had an autonomous supply of water thanks to a well immediately outside.

Underground passages connected to the Vignazza Tower, an impressive defence garrison on the promontory of Naxos, and to another small fortress east of the castle. Inside the Schisò Castle is the small Church of Saint Pantaleo, a martyr who was a missionary in Roman Sicily (feast day 29 July).

During the Arab occupation of Sicily, Naxos was called al-Kusus. In the Norman period, Kusus became Kisoi and then Schisò. Since the area was widely cultivated with citrus orchards, it came to be known as Giardini and was part of the administrative area of Taormina.

In 1005, Queen Adelasia, the wide of Count Roger of Altavilla, gave the Church of Saint Pantaleo at Schisò to monks following the rule of Saint Basil, granting them the right of tax-free fishing in the sea off Naxos.

Schisò Castle may date back to 1100. For centuries, the castle belonged to the De Spuches family. It remains private property in the hands of the Palladino family and is not open to visits or for archaeological research. It has a square shape and four round towers and is surrounded by a large garden. The castle had an autonomous supply of water thanks to a well immediately outside.

The towers and castles on the cape helped to protect the Sicilian coastline along the Ionian Sea against corsairs and pirates from the north African coast, and the raids did not cease until France conquered Algiers in 1830.

In 1846, King Ferdinand II transformed Giardini into an independent commune. The economic development of Giardini Naxos started around 1870 after the Messina-Catania railway opened and changed the small maritime village into a popular tourist destination.

However, the site of Naxos has never been fully excavated by archaeologists, and some of the small number of pieces recovered are on display in the small two-room museum.

Exhibits in the Archaeological Museum at the site of Naxos (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

30 July 2015

Noto: a monument to the golden age
of baroque architecture in Sicily

Looking through the doors of the Duomo in Noto on the Palazzo Ducezio below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

After spending most of Wednesday [29 July 2015] in Syracuse, I visited Noto in the late afternoon, a unique town in the south-east corner of Sicily. The town and its architecture are a monument to the golden age of baroque architecture in Sicily.

Noto is a traffic-free town and a former provincial capital, 32 km south-west of Syracuse at the foot of the Iblean Mountains. But this is a relatively new town, and was built to replace the older town, Noto Antica, 8 km away, after the earthquake of 1683.

The old town to the north was ancient Netum, where legend says Daedalus stopped after his flight over the Ionian Sea, and where that Hercules completed one of his twelve labours.

When the Arabs conquered Sicily in 1866, they made this one of their three district capitals on the island, and it became the last Muslim stronghold in Sicily to fall to the Christians at the end of the 11th century.

The old city and its economy were totally destroyed by the earthquake in 1693, and a new city was then built on the bank of River Asinaro, nearer the Ionian Sea.

The Porto Reale, the entrance to Noto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The new city was the vision of Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, and was laid out on a grid system by Giovanni Battista Landolina. The architects Rosario Gagliardi, Vincenzo Sinatra, Paolo Labisi, Francesco Sortino and others, made the new Noto a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque.

We crossed the Giardino Pubblico or Municipal Gardens and entered the city through the Porta Reale, built as recently as 1838, and strolled along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the heart of the city.

The Duomo, completed in 1776, is the most prominent building in Noto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Most of the buildings are built with a soft tufa stone, and in the summer sunlight they reflect a warm, bright honey tone. They include cathedrals, churches, convents, bell towers, religious buildings, and several palaces.

Halfway along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, in the Piazza del Municipio, Noto’s imposing cathedral or Duomo, the Cattedrale di San Nicolò di Mira, in the Piazza, was finished in 1776. Dozens of steps climb up to the towering cathedral its twin towers and an imposing dome that was restored after it collapsed dramatically in 1996.

The Palazzo Ducezio is the town hall of Noto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Down below on the street stands the Palazzo Ducezio, now the town hall. It was designed by Vincenzo Sinatra and is notable for its columns and balconies, with concave and convex twists and turns.

Before leaving, we stopped for a while and sipped coffees at the Caffe Sicilia, admiring the view up Via Corrado Nicolai, lined by the Palazzo Villadorata and the Palazzo Landolina, with the Church of Monte Vergine at the top.

In 2002 Noto and its churches were declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

Via Corrado Nicolai, lined by the Palazzo Villadorata and the Palazzo Landolina, with the Church of Monte Vergine at the top (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Syracuse, ‘the greatest Greek city
and the most beautiful of them all’

The ‘Teatro Greco’ in Syracuse is one of the largest and best preserved Greek theatres (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click image to enlarge)

Patrick Comerford

There is a Greek saying «Μια Φάτσα Μια Ράτσα» (Mia fatsa, mia ratsa). In Italian it is Una faccia una razza. They both mean the same thing, “One face, one race,” and give popular expression to describe how close Greeks and Italians feel to one another.

The two people share many historical and cultural characteristics, although Greeks can also be heard to say dismissively: “Italians! They only care about their hairstyle and their mothers!”

That said, Greek memories of the Italian occupation during World War II are very different to the legacy of Germany, and those two attitudes explain many political debates today.

At times, I almost have to pinch myself this week and look at the lettering to remind myself that Naxos, despite its name, is not in Greece. It looks and feels like a bustling, popular holiday destination in Crete. Although hand and head gestures may differ, conversations on the streets, in tone, tenor and temperament, sound like the same conversations in Crete.

Why, even the buskers are playing tunes from Captain Corelli on their mandolins.

I spent much of Wednesday [30 July 2015] in Syracuse or Siracusa, a city rich in Greek history and culture, with classical theatres, temples and other architectural sites.

This 2,700-year-old city, known to the Romans as Syracusae, to the ancient Greeks as Συράκουσαι and to the mediaeval Greeks as Συρακοῦσαι, was once one of the major powers in the Mediterranean. It was the birthplace of Archimedes who had his Eureka moment in his bath here, Aeschylus saw his last plays, Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Realesed, staged here in the Greek Theatre, Sappho and Pindar were visitors, and Plato taught here.

Syracuse was allied with Sparta and Corinth against Athens, dominated Magna Graecia, and was its most important city. By the fifth century BC, the city equalled Athens in size. Cicero once said Syracuse was “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.”

In Biblical times, the Apostle Paul stayed for three days in Syracuse on his way from Malta to Rome (see Acts 28: 12), and it once served briefly as the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Swimming by the shores of Syracuse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Syracuse was founded in 734 or 733 BC by Greek settlers from Corinth and Tenea, led by Archias. It was known as Συράκουσαι (Syrakousai), Συράκοσαι (Syrakosai), or even Συρακώ (Syrako), and may have taken its name from marsh called Syrako. The ancient city began on the small island of Ortigia, and grew to become at one time the most powerful Greek city in the Mediterranean.

When Gelo came to power in 485 BC, he expanded Syracuse, and built the new quarters of Tyche and Neapolis outside the walls. His building programme included a new theatre, designed by Damocopos, which gave the city a flourishing cultural life. The theatre attracted leading Greek cultural personalities, including Aeschylus, Ario of Metimma, Eumelos of Corinth and Sappho, who had been exiled from Mytilene (Lesbos).

When Gelo defeated the Carthaginians under Hamilcar at the Battle of Himera, he commemorated his victory by building a temple to Athena.

In the fifth century BC, the walls of Syracuse embraced a city of 120 ha (300 acres). But by the 470s BC the people building outside the city walls. By 415 BC, the population of greater Syracuse was 250,000, the same size as Athens.

Gelo was succeeded by his brother Hieron I (478-466 BC), who was eulogised by poets and visited by Pindar.

In the late 5th century BC, Syracuse was at war with Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars. Syracuse enlisted the aid of a general from Sparta to defeat the Athenians, destroying their ships, and leaving them to starve on the island.

The cave known as the Orecchio di Dionisio or the Ear of Dionysius was given its name by Caravaggio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In the early 4th century BC, after preventing the Carthaginians from capturing the whole of Sicily, Dionysius the Elder (405-367 BC) built a massive fortress on Ortigia and walls around Syracuse. He was described as “cruel, vindictive” and “profane.”

Syracuse expanded its territories, conquering Rhegion and establishing outposts in the Adriatic, including Ancona, Adria and Issa. Dionysius was as a patron of art, and during his time Plato visited Syracuse several times.

Syracuse was engaged in successive wars with the Carthaginians until Hieron II came to power and inaugurated a period of 50 years of peace and prosperity.

The mathematician, philosopher and engineer Archimedes lived in Syracuse during the reign of Hiero II. His contemporaries included the writer Theocritus.

The Romans, led by Marcus Claudius Marcellus, besieged Syracuse in 214 BC. The city held out for three years, but fell in 212 BC. The Romans learned that people of Syracuse were about to celebrated the annual festival of Artemis. A small party of Roman soldiers approached the city at night, scale the walls, took control of the outer city and killed Archimedes. After an eight-month siege, a captain named Moeriscus betrayed the city and opened a gate near the Fountains of Arethusa, letting the Romans in.

Syracuse was plundered and its day glory had passed.

Under Roman rule, the decline of Syracuse set in slowly, although the city remained the capital of Sicily and an important port for trade between East and West.

The Altar of Hieron at the entrance to the Archaeological Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I began my visit to Syracuse on Wednesday at the main path into the Parco Archeologico and the new altar or Ara erected and enlarged in the mid-third century BC by Hieron II (265-215 BC) to commemorate the liberation of the city by Timoleon. It was the biggest altar of its kind in Magna Graecia, and 450 bulls were slaughtered there at the annual Panhellenic feast.

From there, we entered the park and first visited the Latomia del Paradiso. Today this Paradise is a garden of citrus, oleander and bay trees, but for the slaves who worked in the quarries here, including 7,000 captured Athenians, it was their hell on earth, as they carved out the rock for temples, theatres, pillars and monuments.

The Latomia del Paradiso were no paradise for the Athenian slaves who carved out the rockface (Patrick Comerford, 2015)

One of the caves they carved out is known as the Orecchio di Dionisio or the Ear of Dionysius, because of its shape and its echo. The cave is 60 metres long and 20 metres high, and the legend grew that through a hole in the top of the cave Dionysius could listen to the planning and plotting of the slaves as they worked away at the rockface.

Nearby is the grave of Archimedes, and we then moved on up to the Teatro Greco, one of the largest and best-preserved theatres from Greek civilisation. The cavea of the theatre is one of the largest ever built by the Greeks. It has 59 rows, of which 42 remain, and is divided into nine sections with eight aisles. At one time it could seat 15,000 people.

The theatre was modified by the Romans, who used it for circus games and gladiatorial battles. Only traces of the scene and the orchestra remain, but the theatre is still used to this day.

We passed the Amfiteatro Romano and the site of the Forum as we made our way to the island of Ortigia and the heart of the first Greek city at Syracuse. The Fountain of Arethusa is a freshwater spring planted with papyrus and filled with bream, mullet and carp.

The Fountain of Arethusa is a freshwater spring planted with papyrus and filled with bream, mullet and carp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

It is said to have been described in the Delphic sayings that brought the first Greeks to this site. According to a legend, the nymph Arethusa, hunted by the river god Alpheus, took shelter here after swimming across from the Peloponnese and was changed into a fountain by Artemis.

The Piazzo Duomo and the cathedral of Syracuse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

From there, we walked on into the Piazza Duomo with the imposing cathedral built around the Temple of Athena, first built ca 530 BC. The Temple of Athena was a Doric temple with six columns on the short sides and 14 on the long sides. The statue of Athena on the roof of the temple carried a golden shield that caught the glittering rays of the sun and served as a beacon for sailors on the Ionian Sea.

The first cathedral or Duomo was built in the seventh century by Bishop Zosimo incorporating the great Temple of Athena, with the temple columns used like a skeleton for the walls of the cathedral.

Under Arab rule, the cathedral became a mosque, but it became a cathedral once again when the Normans captured Syracuse. They built the roof of the nave and provided the baptism font with a marble basin, cut from a block still marked with a Greek inscription and supported by seven bronze lions.

The cathedral was rebuilt after the earthquake in 1693, and the façade was rebuilt by Andrea Palma in 1725-1753, with a double order of Corinthian columns, and statues by Ignazio Marabitti.

The columns of the Temple of Athena provided the skeleton for the walls of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Nearby, in the Basilica of Santa Lucia all Badia, we saw Caravaggio’s The Burial of Saint Lucy, painted hurriedly after he fled Malta in 1608.

After lunch in a narrow lane, possibly dating back to the days when Sicily was part of the Arab world, we visited the Piazza Archimede, named after Archimedes but lined with some restored mediaeval palazzi and some ugly fascist-era buildings. In the centre, the Fountain depicts the nymph Arethusa at the moment she was transformed by Artemis into a spring.

The Fountain of Artemis and Arethusa is the centrepiece of the Piazza Archimede (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

As we left Ortigia, we stopped at the Temple of Apollo, at Piazza Emanuele Pancali. This was the first of the great Doric temples built in Sicily. It was adapted as a church in Byzantine times and was used as a mosque when the Arabs ruled the city.

After the fall of Rome, Syracuse was recovered by the Byzantine Empire in 535, and from 663 to 668 Syracuse was the capital of the Byzantine Emperor Constans II.

The city remained the centre of Byzantine resistance to the advancing Muslim conquest of Sicily until it finally fell to the Aghlabids in 878. During two centuries of Muslim rule, the capital of Sicily was moved to Palermo, the cathedral became a mosque and Ortigia was rebuilt along Islamic styles.

In 1038, the Byzantine general George Maniakes reconquered Syracuse and sent the relics of Saint Lucy to Constantinople. The castle on the cape of Ortigia still bears his name.

Syracuse fell to the Arabs again, but in 1085, the Normans captured Syracuse after a long siege. The Normans rebuilt parts of the city and restored the cathedral and other churches.

Syracuse was struck by two earthquakes in 1542 and 1693, and a plague in 1729. After the 17th century, much of Syracuse was rebuilt in the Sicilian Baroque style. Today it has a population of about 125,000 today, and the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo … the first of the great Doric temples built in Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

29 July 2015

Crushing ice on Mount Etna to make
ice cream for Arabs and bishops

Ice cream in Sicily is like ice cream nowhere else (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

In this hot summer weather in Sicily, it is good to stop for real Sicilian gelato or ice cream.

The Rough Guide to Sicily, which I am using on this holiday, says “eating a genuine Sicilian ice cream is one of the world’s most voluptuous gastronomic experiences.”

But where does Sicilian ice cream come from, and what are its origins? These have been among the most hotly debated topics in Sicily for generations.

Some say gelato was created by the Greeks or the Romans. It is said that in classical time, Greek or Roman foot runners brought snow from Mount Etna to Taormina or Catania to be flavoured with nuts or berries and honey. It was a treat reserved for the ruling classes.

Later, local honey was used to sweeten Sicilian ices.

Others say the invading Arabs were the first to invent it, having brought to Sicily their skills in making sherbet.

In the ninth century, they Arabs introduced sugar cane, revolutionising Sicilian cooking.

By the 18th century, Sicilian gelato were so popular that a high proportion of the revenue of the Bishop of Catania is said to have come from selling the snow of Mount Etna.

Whatever its origins, true Sicilian ice cream tastes so different so much better than all other ice creams.

Sicilian gelato usually contains less cream and less emulsifier than other ice creams, it is not mixed at high speeds, and it is cooled differently. All this helps to create it softer texture.

Alongside gelato on the street stalls is Granita/ This is made from fruit and sugar mixed with water and slowly mixed as it is frozen, giving the texture of flaked or finely crushed ice.

And, as they say, it’s all finger-licken’ good.

Sicilian ice cream ... not to be dismissed as a mere summer treat (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

How a visit to Sicily inspired
Yeats in designing Irish coins

Looking down the Bay of Naxos from Taormina … WB Yeats visited Sicily with Ezra Pound in the mid-1920s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I am spending most of today in Siracusa, once one of the most important cultural and political cities in the classical Greek world. This was the home of Archimedes, here Aeschylus saw the last of his plays, and here Plato had lived and taught until he was forced to flee.

Many English-speaking writers have found inspiration in Sicily over the past century or two. Irish writers who visited Sicily in the 19th century included Oscar Wilde. George Bernard Shaw praised Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author as “the theatrical masterpiece of the [20th] century.” More recently, the Greek mythology of Sicily is also reflected the poem ‘Sicily’ by Desmond Egan.

So I was not surprised in Sicily this week to learn that WB Yeats had been inspired by a visit to Sicily almost a century ago.

While most of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Yeats are focussing on his poetry, it seems to be largely forgotten that he was also responsible for designing the first coins of the Irish Free State. The inspiration for those designs came during a visit to Sicily in the mid-1920s with the poet Ezra Pound.

Pound’s verse is filled with echoes and images of Selinunte and Taormina, the classical mythology of Sicily, and the art of Monreale and of Syracuse. Pound dreamed he would live one day in Taormina. Although he never fulfilled this dream, he spent 34 years of his life in Italy, most of it in Rapallo, and he died in Venice in 1972.

Yeats visited Sicily with Ezra Pound in the 1920s, under the guidance of the Sicilian poet, Lucio Piccolo.

Yeats had already received the Nobel Prize for Literature and was a Senator in the Irish Free State when he arrived in Sicily in January 1925. He was recovering from a long illness and his doctor prescribed absolute rest under the healthy sun of Sicily. He also wanted to also admire the classical glories and the beauty of the island.

Ezra Pound described their visits to Agrigento and Cefalù, to see the “mosaics and remains of ancient walls upon the hill.” The two poets also visited Syracuse with the archaeologist Paolo Orsi, director of the museum, which is famous for its collection of Greek coins. This visit struck the two poets and in a strange but unforeseen way it also influenced the design of the future coinage of Ireland.

Yeats was entrusted with the task of designing the new coins of the Irish Free State. Yeats believed the Greek or Sicilian coins Yeats saw in Syracuse were some of the most beautiful from Greek civilisation.

After Yeats returned to Ireland from Sicily, the Coinage Act was passed in 1926 providing for silver, nickel and bronze coins. Yeats chaired the committee responsible for designing the new coins.

The committee members were given three binding conditions: a harp should be shown on one side of most if not all of the coins; the inscriptions should be in Irish only; and the designs should include no effigies of modern persons.

Yeats sought advice from Lady Gregory, Sir William Orpen and Oliver St John Gogarty. Suggestions from the public included round towers, wolfhounds, shamrocks and even the Treaty Stone of Limerick. The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland advised the committee to “avoid patriotic emblems altogether, for even the shamrock emblem was not a hundred years old.”

When the moment came for presenting designs for the new coins in the Irish Free State, Yeats insisted all those involved in the tenders should base their designs on these Greek-Sicilian coins. He declared:

“As the most famous and beautiful coins are the coins of the Greek Colonies, especially of those in Sicily, we decided to send photographs of some of these, and one coin of Carthage, to our selected artists, and to ask them, as far as possible, to take them as a model. But the Greek coins have two advantages that ours could not have, one side need not balance the other, and the other could be stamped in high relief, whereas ours must pitch and spin to please the gambler, and pack into rolls to please the banker.”

The committee agreed on a horse for the half crown (2s 6d). The horse had been used on Greek and Carthaginian coins.

A salmon was to appear on the Florin (2s), and a bull on the Shilling (1s). The bull appeared on many classical Greek coins, and the report included photographs of a coin with a bull from Thurium (400-350 BC) or Thurii (Θούριοι), an ancient Greek colony in southern Italy.

The sixpence (6d) would have a greyhound, and the threepence (3d) a hare, which also appeared on ancient Greek coins. The penny (1d) was to have a hen, possibly with chickens, the halfpenny (½d) a pig, and the farthing (¼d) a woodcock.

The competition involved seven sculptors or artists and eventually the competition was won by Percy Metcalfe (1895-1970) from Wakefield, the least known and the least accomplished of the seven artists and sculptors.

The committee nominated Metcalfe “to execute the designs for the whole series of coins.” His designs were considered “incomparably superior” to the other designs, displaying “outstanding excellence” and promising coins “of unusual interest and beauty.” Some of Metcalfe’s designs were revised three or four times, but the Minister for Finance, Ernest Blythe, described them as “more interesting and beautiful” than any other coins in the world.

However, critics of the new coins argued that a Christian nation should acknowledge God on its coinage. They saw the new coins as a deliberate rejection of God that reflected badly on the nation.

Some critics also objected that the coins presented Ireland as a farmyard where the people only raised livestock, and that a pig on the ha’penny would perpetuate the myths about a “pig in the parlour.”

One critic, identified by the Irish Independent as a priest, declared: “If these pagan symbols once get a hold, then is the thin edge of the wedge of Freemasonry sunk into the very life of our Catholicity, for the sole object of having these pagan symbols instead of religious emblems on our coins is to wipe out all traces of religion from our minds, to forget the ‘land of saints,’ and beget a land of devil-worshippers, where evil may reign supreme.”

Those who took offence at the designs wanted symbols of Irish ideals and the grandeur of Irish civilisation. Maude Gonne MacBride, once the attention of Yeats and amorous affections, was scathing when she said “the coins were entirely suitable for the Free State: designed by an Englishman, minted in England, representative of English values, paid for by the Irish people.”

Later, the Sicilian coins continued to inspire Yeats in his poetry. In ‘Parnell’s Funeral,’ written in April 1933, he refers to:

A pierced boy, image of a star laid low.
That woman, the Great Mother imaging,
Cut out his heart. Some master of design
Stamped boy and tree upon Sicilian coin.

The Irish coins, which continued in circulation until the introduction of the Euro, were a testimony for decades to the inspiration of Greek-Sicilian civilisation on one Irish poet.

A tourist shop in Syracuse displays a replica of one of the Greek coins that inspired WB Yeats (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

28 July 2015

A Greek theatre, public gardens,
shrines and churches in Taormina

The Teatro Greco is one of the most remarkable sites in Sicily ... Mount Etna is in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click image to enlarge)

Patrick Comerford

I returned to the romantic, mountain-top town of Taormina high above Giardini Naxos today [28 July 2015] to visit the Teatro Greco.

Taormina stands on an ancient site on the hillside of Monte Tauro, mid-way between Messina and Catania. Last night, inside the Church of Santa Caterina, I saw part of the surviving ruins of the Teatro Romano, but today I wanted to the see some other classical sites and churches I had missed yesterday.

Most of the original seats are long gone in the Teatro Greco, but the plan and arrangement remain those of a Greek theatre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click image to enlarge)

The Teatro Greco or classical theatre is one of the most celebrated and remarkable sites in Sicily because of its remarkable preservation and its beautiful location. It is built mainly of brick, which means it was probably built by the Romans. But the plan and arrangement are those of a Greek theatre, which shows that a Roman theatre was probably built on the foundations of an older Greek theatre.

The theatre was built in the Corinthian order and was richly ornamented. Most of the original seats are long gone, but the wall surrounding the whole cavea is preserved, and the proscenium, the back wall of the scena, and its appendages survive with noticeable integrity.

With a diameter of 109 metres, this is the second largest theatre in Sicily, after that of Syracuse, which I hope to visit tomorrow. It is frequently used for operatic and theatrical performances and for concerts.

Looking down on the Bay of Naxos from Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Strabo and other Greek writers confirm the tradition that Tauromenion (Ταυρομένιον) was founded by Greek colonists from the island of Naxos, like Giardini Naxos on the coastline below. The new settlement rapidly gained prosperity, and was a considerable town at the time of Timoleon’s expedition in 345 BC. This was the first place he landed in Sicily after he out-manoeuvred the Carthaginians guarding the Straits of Messina to the north.

Tyndarion of Tauromenion was involved in bringing Pyrrhus to Sicily in 278 BC, and he landed with his army at Tauromenion before marching on Syracuse to the south. A few years later, Tauromenium fell to Hieron of Syracuse, and it remained a part of the kingdom of Syracuse until Hieron’s death.

The town fell to Rome when the whole island of Sicily was reduced to a Roman province. Cicero records that Roman Tauromenium was one of the three cities in Sicily that enjoyed the privileges of a civitas foederata or allied city, with nominal independence, subject not even to the demand to supply ships in times of war.

During the Servile War in Sicily in 134-132 BC, the city was taken by insurgent slaves. Despite siege and famine, they continued to hold out until the citadel was betrayed by one of their leaders, Sarapion, and all the survivors were put to the sword. The fleets of Octavian and Pompeius fought a sea battle off the shores below Tauromenium, ending with the defeat and almost total destruction of Octavian.

When the Western Roman Empire fell, Taormina remained an important town, and was one of the last places in Sicily that the Eastern Roman emperors held onto.

After a two-year siege, Taormina was captured in 902 by the Arabs who renamed the place al-Muizzia after al-Muizz, a Fatimid Caliph. Muslim rule lasted until 1078, when Taormina was captured by the Norman leader, Count Roger I of Sicily.

After the fall of the Normans and their heirs, the Hohenstaufen, Taormina was held by the Angevins and then by the Kings of Aragon. Later Taormina was under Spanish rule, and was given the status of a city in the 17th century.

Today, portions of the ancient walls can be seen at intervals all around the brow of the hill. The scattered fragments include the remains of reservoirs, sepulchres, pavements, and a spacious building known as La Naumachia, although it is difficult to understand its original purpose.

The Church of San Pancrazio was built with material from the sanctuary of Isis and Serapis, dating from the Hellenistic period (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

After a late lunch in Sapori di Mare outside the walls, I visited the Church of San Pancrazio, a few paces to the north. This church, named after the patron saint of Taormina, was built with material from the sanctuary of Isis and Serapis, dating from the Hellenistic period.

Two surviving inscriptions, one in Greek (2nd century BC), the other in Latin (1st to 2nd century), show the temple here was dedicated to the cult of the two Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis, and a statue of a priestess, dating back to the 2nd century AD shows the lengthy, continuous use of the dating back to the late 3rd and early 2nd century BC. The temple stood on a high podium, and much of it survives in the fabric of the church, including parts of the southern block walls.

The Giardino Pubblico was a bequest to Taormina by Florence Trevelyan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click image to enlarge)

Close to the Teatro Greco, we found the Giardino Pubblico, or Public Gardens, the second major tourist attraction in Taormina after the Greek Theatre. It was donated to the town by Florence Trevelyan (1852-1907), an English heiress who at an early age was taken into the royal household at Balmoral. Queen Victoria fostered her and imparted her passions for dogs and plants.

However, at the age of 27, Florence was suddenly banished from the royal household and was given 48 hours to leave Britain. It was rumoured that she was having an affair with the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. In 1879, she settled in Sicily, and there in 1890 she married Dr Salvatore Cacciola, for many years the Mayor of Taormina.

As well as the plants and the follies and observation towers that Florence Trevelyan built, the gardens offer panoramic views over the bay to Giardini Naxos and Mount Etna.

The Centaur fountain in the Piazza Duomo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

From Florence Trevelyan’s gardens we walked along the Via Roma, a balcony overlooking the Bay of Naxos, to other end of the town and the Piazza Duomo, with its 17th century baroque fountain decorated with a centaur and the Duomo or cathedral, dedicated to Saint Nicholas and dating from the 13th century.

Outside the cathedral, a throng of tourists enjoying the late afternoon shade from the summer heat, applauded spontaneously as a bride entered the Duomo, hand on her father’s arm, for her wedding.

The Duomo has been built and rebuilt over the centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Duomo, which looks like a mighty fortress, was built around 1400 or even earlier on the ruins of a smaller mediaeval church. It was completely rebuilt in the 15th and 17th centuries and restored in the 1700s.

The main portal, which was rebuilt in 1636, has a large Renaissance-style rosette sculpted on it. It contains elements of every refurbishment the cathedral has undergone, while the interior, with three naves, contains elements from both the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Inside, the nave ceiling has wooden beams supported by carved corbels with Arabesque scenes and with a Gothic flavour.

The six pink marble columns lining the nave, three on each side, with capitals decorated with foil and fish-scale motifs, are thought to have come from the Teatro Greco.

We had come full circle, and returned on the local bus to Giardini Naxos as the evening began to close in.

The pink marble columns lining the nave of the Duomo are thought to have come the Teatro Greco (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Taorrmina is neither ‘one long parade of junk
shops’ nor ‘quite as boring as Bournemouth’

The lights in Taormina begin to fade over the Bay of Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

As I left Taormina last night, the moon was almost full above the Bay of Naxos, the sun had set, purple lights were filling the clouds, and they were reflected in purple hues across the Mediterranean waters below.

The village of Taormina is perched on a cliff above Giardini Naxos, where I am staying this week, and looks down on the east coast of Sicily and out to the Ionian Sea. A cable-car carries tourists from Giardini Naxos up to Taormina, with its old churches, lively bars, fine restaurants, tourist shops and classical ruins.

Taormina is a romantic place, and it is celebrated by Mark Knopfler, who evokes the town in his song Lights of Taormina on his latest album Tracker (2015).

Knopfler told Billboard magazine that he started writing the song “where I was actually sitting on this beautiful terrace, looking down at Taormina.” He played at Taormina’s ancient Greek theatre just two years ago [16 July 2013], and wrote the song probably as he was looking down on Taormina from Hotel Villa Angela, owned by Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. Kerr fell in love with Sicily when he visited on tour.

Taormina has had a mixed reputation among English-speaking visitors and tourists. The writer and dilettante Harold Acton said Taormina had become “a polite synonym for Sodom” in the mid-20th century. Acton inspired the character of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945).

Later, when Acton returned to Taormina with Waugh after World War II, they saw a sign advertising “Ye Olde English Teas,” and Acton sighed, declaring Taormina “was now quite as boring as Bournemouth.”

Before Acton, another English visitor who was not impressed by Taormino was DH Lawrence, who lived here for three years in 1920-1923. Much of Lady Chatterley’s Love is supposed to have been inspired by the tales of an English woman living in Taormina who fell in love with a local farmer.

But in one letter back to England, Lawrence wrote disparagingly of Corso Umberto, now one of the most expensive shopping streets in southern Italy – he described as “one long parade of junk shops … If only Etna would send down 60,000,000 tons of boiling lava over the place and cauterise it away.”

Antique shops and chic boutiques line the streets of Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The English writer Daphne Phelps was much happier when she lived here for over half a century, from 1948 to 1999. She had inherited the Casa Cuseni, with its spectacular views of Mount Etna and the Bay of Naxos over the rooftops of Taormina, and described life here in A House in Sicily.

Her many friends who were her guests here included Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, Henry Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Caitlin Thomas, the widow of Dylan Thomas.

Stepping into Taormina is like stepping into another world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Taormina first became a popular tourist resort in the 19th century. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one the first celebrated tourists and he dedicated parts of his book Italian Journey to Taormina. Other early ‘celebrity’ visitors included Oscar Wilde, Czar Nicholas I, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra while he was here.

In the early 20th century, Taormina hosted a colony of expatriate artists, writers, and intellectuals. Albert Stopford grew roses in his Edwardian garden, DH Lawrence stayed at the Fontana Vecchia, and 30 years later, in 1950-1951, the same villa was home to Truman Capote.

The balcony in the Palazzo Corvajo is like a scene from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Taormina stands on an ancient site on the hillside of Monte Tauro above Giardini Naxos, mid-way between Messina and Catania. A steep, almost isolated rock, crowned by a Saracen castle, rises another 150 metres higher.

The Palazzo Corvajo, with a balcony that could be a setting for Romeo and Juliet, was the location of a rebellious “parliament” of Sicilian nobles who met here in 1410 to elect a new king. It now houses the Sicilian Museum of Arts and Popular Crafts.

Next door, inside the Church of Santa Caterina, we saw part of the surviving ruins of the Teatro Romano.

The most remarkable surviving monument at Taormina is the Teatro Greco or classical theatre. But it was closed off last night because of a concert by the Irish singer and songwriter Damien Rice. I must return again later this week to explore classical Taormina.

The Teatro Greco was closed off last night for a concert by Damien Rice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

27 July 2015

The first swim this year in
blue Mediterranean waters

A morning on the beach in Recanati, west of Giardini Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I had my first swim this year in the Mediterranean this morning, swimming in the warm blue waters at the white beach of Lido Azzurro in Recanati, a little to the west of Giardini Naxos.

The beach in Recanati, the hotel area Giardini Naxos, is popular because of its fine sand. The beach extends for several kilometres, although part of the beach is rocky with small pebbly bays, and everywhere you can see the black volcanic rock from Mount Etna.

After a gap of a year, this is my first time back in Italy since 2013, and I am staying this week in the Villa Linda in Recanati. A late arrival last night left no time to explore this area. But I awoke this morning to the sound of swallows and a sea view from the balcony of my room.

Over the next few days hope to explore Giardini Naxos, which stands on the site of Naxos, the earliest Greek settlement in Sicily, and the lofty hill town of Taormina, which stands high above Giardini Naxos. In the background, Mount Etna can be seen clearly, and I have promised myself a morning there too.

Although few remains of the classical city of Naxos remain today, this was once an important centre of Greek civilisation and culture on the island of Sicily, and remained so until the Arab invasions of the Byzantine Empire.

Classical Naxos stood on a low but rocky headland, now called Cape Schisò, formed by an ancient stream of lava, immediately to the north of the Alcantara, one of the great gorges in Sicily. A small bay to the north separates in from the foot of the hill-top town of Taormina.

Later in the week, I plan to visit Syracuse and Neapolis, with their classical sites, the baroque town of Noto, and Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe.

This evening, however, I hope to explore the streets of Taormina. There is going to be plenty of time this week also to go swimming again in Recanati, getting to know the wines and food of Sicily, and enjoying true Italian coffee.

Double espressos by the beach in Recanati (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

26 July 2015

A week in Sicily exploring the lost
Greek legacy of Magna Graecia

Giardini Naxos, a Sunway photograph of the seafront

Patrick Comerford

I am in Sicily for the next week, staying at the Hotel Villa Linda on Via Recanati in Giardini Naxos. Villa Linda is on the coast of Taormina, near the public beach in Recanati.

I arrived late this evening at Catania Fontanarossa Airport on a flight from Dublin. Most rooms in the Villa Linda have a balcony overlooking the sea, with views of Mount Etna and Taormina in the distance.

The hotel is less than 1 km from the town centre and bus terminal, near shops and restaurants in Giardini Naxos. This is a former fishing village on the coast of the Ionian Sea on a bay that lies between Cape Taormina and Cape Schisò, and has been a popular coastal resort since the 1970s.

The seafront is lined with hotels, pensions, pubs, bars, restaurants, pizzerias and cafés. Giardini Naxos also has several churches and an archaeological park.

The coastline is almost 4 km long and there are several beaches: the big fine sandy one in the bay of Naxos, some small rocky bays with pebbly beaches and another long beach here in Recanati.

Naxos was founded by Thucles the Chalcidian in 734 BC. Although Leontini and Catania were both colonised from here, Naxos was never a powerful city, but the temple of Apollo Archegetes gave it a prominence among the Greek city states on the island.

Naxos was captured in 494 BC by Hippocrates, the tyrant of Gela. But the stand taken by Naxos against Syracuse, and the support of Naxos for Athens in the Sicilian Expedition, led to the capture of Naxos and its destruction in 403 BC at the hands of Dionysius the Tyrant.

The site of Naxos continued to be inhabited, but political and commercial power shifted to neighbouring Tauromenion (Ταυρομένιον). Today Tauromenion is the town of Taormina in the hills above Giardini Naxos.

The most impressive classical site in Taormina is the ancient theatre, built and rebuilt on the foundations of an older Greek theatre. After Syracuse this is the second largest theatre of its kind in Sicily, and it is often a venue for opera, drama and theatre.

This is my first time in a part of Italy that was known in the classical world since the time of Ovid as Magna Graecia (Μεγάλη Ἑλλάς), which included Sicily and the coastal areas of Southern Italy on the Tarentine Gulf. From the eighth century BC they were extensively populated by Greek settlers who brought with them their Hellenic civilisation.

The whole of Sicily was Greek-speaking by the 1st century BC. During the Early Middle Ages, following the disastrous Gothic War new waves of Byzantine Christian Greeks came to Southern Italy from Greece and Asia Minor, as Southern Italy remained loosely governed by the Eastern Roman Empire.

At the end of the 12th century, up to a third of the population of Sicily, concentrated especially in the north-east of the island, was Greek-speaking, and there was a continuous tradition of Greek Orthodoxy and intermittent Byzantine rule.

By the end of the Middle Ages large parts of Sicily continued to speak Greek as their mother tongue. During the 15th and 16th centuries, a slow process of Catholicisation and Latinisation of the Greek population of Sicily would reduce the Greek language and culture further.

Greeks re-entered the area in the 16th and 17th century after the Ottoman conquest of the Peloponnese. Eventually, however, Greek disappeared completely from Sicily in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, it is estimated about 46,000 ethnic Greeks in Italy are descendants of the Greek settlers who first colonised Sicily and Magna Graecia in antiquity.

So this week in Sicily is not only a holiday in a part of Italy I have never visited before, but also a new experience of Greek culture and civilisation in Magna Graecia.

25 July 2015

A taste of Italy and of the sea
on a grey afternoon in Bray

Sailing out from Bray Harbour this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

After a week inland in England, I missed being by the sea.

Despite walks by the River Cam in Cambridge, and by the River Stort, the River Lea and the canals, locks, weirs and small lakes in the Lea Valley in Essex and Hertfordshire, during the past week, I think I missed being by the coast and opportunities for walks on the beach.

Late this afternoon, two of us went to Bray for a late lunch in Carpe Diem, close to the seafront.

A glass of Vernaccia from Tuscany )and a double espresso) in Carpe Diem this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The staff in Carpe Diem offer interesting selections of Italian wines that change day by day. Lunch this afternoon was accompanied by a glass of Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Tuscany.

The Tuscan variety of Vernaccia appears to be an ancient one, but wine mappers and experts do not agree whether the grape’s origins are Eastern European, Greek or Roman. In the Middle Ages, a Vernaccia wine known as Vernage was popular in England.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which I tasted this afternoon, is the best-known variety and is a crisp wine with good acidity and tastes of citrus fruit.

After two double espressos, we crossed over to the Promenade and the seafront. But, while this should be high summer, and the funfairs are still spread along the promenade in Bray, there were grey skies above and a slight chill in the air.

We opted for a short walk along the sand on the foreshore, and as we began a clutch of sailing boats began to move out of the Bray Harbour and into the natural cove between the harbour and Bray Head.

On the tiny beach at Bray Harbour, beside Bray Sailing Club this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The chill and the grey skies apart, it now looked like an ideal summer afternoon, and we continued on past Martello Terrace to the small compact harbour where Bray Sailing Club is based. The River Dargle flows into the sea here, along the North Wall of the harbour. The tide influences most of the activities because the harbour dries at low water.

Bray Sailing Club is more than 100 years old, and welcomes new members, who are welcome to take part in racing events for dinghies, keelboats and cruisers. Many former members have earned national and international reputations.

The clubhouse, which was refurbished and reopened recently, overlooks the harbour and was refurbished recently. There are three public pontoons on the North Wall of the harbour but the sailing club’s moorings are on the South side.

Afternoon calm in the harbour beside Bray Sailing Club (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The club caters for all ages and for cruisers, keelboats and dinghies, with a full programme of racing, cruising and an active sea school that provides training courses for adults and juniors.

The club races between Killiney and Bray Head against the backdrop of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains, and the club also offers the possibility of long-distance trips to other destinations in Ireland and to Wales and the Isle of Man.

Sailing between Bray Harbour and Bray Head this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This afternoon’s delightful sight in the natural cove between Bray Harbour and Bray Head was part of the Club’s Sea School, which includes an exciting programme of sailing and training for junior members running until September and a programme of courses for adults and improvers.

Back at the bus depot beside Carpe Diem, unlike other afternoons, there were no buses displaying ‘Palermo’ as their destination. But it was good to get a taste of Italy and a taste of the sea this evening before heading off tomorrow afternoon for a week in Sicily.

A taste of Italy in Carpe Diem in Bray this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)