Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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O Sole Sicily

Strange sights, ancient temples and charming cities define Italy's island getaway

The crowd surges around me. Jugglers are on one side. Folk dancers on the other. And in front, a charming young man is shouting happily and pressing a glass of wine into my hand. Another smiles and calls me . Ahh, Sicily.

It was our first night in Palermo, and my husband and I found ourselves in the middle of a local wine-and-cheese festival. Wary of Sicily's notorious capital, we were thrilled to discover a delightful, elegant city of winding alleys, open markets, wonderful food and gracious -- gateways to an island filled with a rich history, stunning geography and beautiful people.

The island has an almost palpable pulse, even when the shops are shut tight for afternoon siesta. Perhaps it's because of the pounding sea, or the cathedral bells ringing to mark each hour. It may be the wandering stray dog or the pizza-maker chopping vegetables for the evening's repast.

Only a few hours' drive or train ride from east to west, Sicily offers a remarkable variety of experiences in between. It's something visitors discovered many centuries ago. For almost 3000 years, invaders from North Africa and across Europe -- Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Normans and Aragonese -- left their mark on the largest island in the Mediterranean. Not only in architecture, but in a racial heritage which asserts itself every now and then through a pair of startling blue eyes and pale skin beneath black brows.

Unless you dream of a sweltering beach vacation along Sicily's sandy shores, the best time to visit is in the spring or fall, when temperatures are moderate and tempers low. The landscape is at its best then. In the countryside, rich orchards are coming into bloom or fruit, and the rolling green hills of the interior aren't scorched in the 30o Celsius heat of summer. This is also a time for bargains, when hotels and aren't full, and the streets are crowded only with residents.

PALERMO
On a turquoise bay spilling into the Mediterranean, Palermo is both cosmopolitan and cozy. Narrow streets filled with produce stalls and clothing emporiums connect the city's sights in an easy stroll. While evidence is still visible of the heavy bombing by the Allies during World War II, the city is a delightful mixture of crumbling, well-preserved and modern architecture, with lovely gardens and wide-open .

The busy Quattro Canti -- meaning the four corners -- in the intersection of Corso Vittorio Emmanuel and Via Maqueda is a good place to start wandering through Palermo. Each of the elaborately carved corners is dedicated to a king, a patron saint of Palermo, and a season. Just behind it, in a small , is the famous Fountain of Shame: a tableau of nude men and women cavorting about. This 16th-century fountain earned its nickname because it offended residents when it was first unveiled.

Wandering down Via Maqueda to Via Ponticello brings visitors to one of several open-air markets and a maze of interesting narrow streets. Take time to just let your feet lead you where they may. A short walk along Via Vittorio Emmanuel leads to the Villa Bonnano, former palace of King Roger II. Now home to the Sicilian parliament, the Palazzo de Normanni sits in the shadow of a former city gate -- the Porto Castro -- and is surrounded by a lush green park. Unless parliament is in session, an escort will lead you through the palace to the 12th-century Capella Palatina, with its carved wooden ceiling and elaborate Byzantine mosaics.

If the weather's not so good, or the sun too scorching, take a trek down Via dei Cappuccini to visit one of Palermo's most unusual sites -- the catacombs. For centuries, the monks at the Conventi dei Cappuccini have perfected the unusual pastime of embalming and displaying the bodies of Palermo's citizens. Sorted by age, vocation and social class, it's proof that death is no escape from the public eye. The catacombs are grisly, but interesting, particularly to anyone with an interest in period costume, as many of the clothes are perfectly intact.

The catacombs are not for the faint of heart -- the bodies are stacked in coffins with their side panels removed, or strung up in niches of the wall. To lighten the atmosphere, presumably, here and there someone has stuck a dangling cigarette from an open jaw.

Only 10 kilometres from the heart of Palermo is one of Sicily's most breathtaking buildings -- the Cathedral at Monreale. On a hilltop overlooking the Concho d'Oro basin, the trek is worthwhile if only for the view. But step out of the sunshine and adjust to another golden brilliance: the gold mosaic interior. From floor to ceiling in the nave, the cathedral tells the story of the Old and New Testaments in storey-high mosaics. In the transepts are tributes to the apostles.

It wasn't easy to pull ourselves away from Palermo -- we had already stayed two days longer than planned -- but the island offers so many other wonderful sites and experiences.

CENTRAL SICILY
On a long crest stretching between the coast and the city lies one of Sicily's best-preserved reminders of its history. Agrigento was originally established by Greek colonists in 580 BC, and the settlers made sure to leave their mark. Its Valley of Temples is a stunning testament to Greek settlement on the island, and an excellent reason to visit the city.

The temples -- dedicated to Castor and Pollux, Hercules, Juno and Concord -- are perched on a ridge parallel to the sea. While all are impressive, they're also in various states of disintegration. The Temple of Concord is the best preserved of the lot, thanks to a forward-thinking church father. In the 6th century AD, the bishop of Agrigento, St. Gregory, consecrated the pagan structure to save it from destruction by zealous Christians.

 

Agrigento also boasts a beautiful, more modern city. With Arabic, Norman and Byzantine foundations piled on top of one another, the medieval and baroque quarters are worth wandering round. Along the main cobblestone streets and steep staircases are a mix of fashion boutiques, restaurants, churches and lookout points set high over the Mediterranean below.

After travelling through the dry, shrubby hills of southern Sicily, the region around Armerina in central Sicily offers stunning views across a green and rolling landscape, and unobstructed views of Mount Etna in the distance. Here, groves of oranges, peaches, lemons and olives grow in the mountain's shadow. Every bit of arable land is put to use. River valleys are crammed with dozens of varieties of greens. Furrows for crops trace a surprisingly long path up steep hills.

The pace of life is a little slower, a little simpler. The upscale cafés of Palermo and Agrigento are replaced by homey . Gentlemen play bocci -- lawn bowling -- in the park, while true to stereotype, grandmothers in black stroll to the cathedral for mass.

In almost every city, after the being wished a "," visitors are sure to be asked if they've seen the duomo. Those of the "you've seen one cathedral, you've seen them all" opinion should make a point to step inside the duomo at Piazza Armerina.

Its interior is as elaborate as any other, yet remarkably different. The surfaces are almost entirely sky-blue and white, giving the illusion of floating through the clouds. Or at least stepping inside a Wedgewood bowl. When you visit, go just as the sun sets -- the outside the duomo is an open square looking west over the countryside. Some thoughtful resident even provided benches.

One of Armerina's main attractions actually lies about five kilometres from the city. The Villa Romana del Casale is the sprawling remains of an ancient Roman country house. Its incredibly well-preserved and elaborate mosaics flow through 40 rooms, from the former baths, to the grand hall, to music rooms and dining rooms.

EAST COAST
Sunday afternoon is over. The abandoned streets slowly fill with strolling folk of all ages. As the sun sets, crowds soon pack the squares and cafés. A cultural ritual on warm evenings, the draws most of Syracuse's residents and visitors into the city's old quarter -- Ortygia. The passeggiata is a contrast to the normally lively pace of Sicilian life, where locals stride quickly between shops, or to work, or whiz past on mopeds.

Of all the places in Sicily for a leisurely walk, Ortygia must be the most picturesque. Fishing boats bob in the harbour, overlooked by a wide, tree-lined plaza. The elaborate faìades of crumbling buildings are hung with freshly washed white linens. Narrow streets suddenly converge on large open squares. One of my favourite memories of Syracuse is emerging from a dark passage at night to find myself in the Archimede, whose massive fountain of the goddess Diana is brilliantly lit.

Founded by Greek settlers in the 8th century BC, Syracuse still bears traces of a much earlier age. In a square surrounded by stands one of Sicily's oldest structures still in use. The city's cathedral, looming high above the area's other buildings, stands on the site of a 5th-century BC Greek temple of Diana. The existing walls incorporate the original massive columns.

One of Sicily's out-and-out most beautiful -- and expensive -- cities is Taormina. But city planners took pity on the budget traveller by offering plenty of places to linger and enjoy the sites.

A resort community perched high on the cliffs above the water, Taormina provides incredible views of the sea and Mount Etna from lush gardens and wide-open . The steep streets and staircases are free of traffic, and each turn promises a better view.

The main drag, a narrow passageway called Corso Umberto I, is lined with expensive shops and restaurants. Through an archway, it gives way unexpectedly to the April, a huge open terrace lined with trees, cafés, churches and, of course, an incredible view.

After window-shopping, head to the spectacular Villa Comunale, an opulent public garden overlooking the Mediterranean. Established by an English expatriate, the gardens have plenty of benches, lovely scents and are a great place to take a picnic. In fact, several excellent bakeries and delis line the road leading to the garden. It makes the perfect end to a perfect trip.

 

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