Travel Notes: Siracusa, Caltagirone, and Piazza Armerina

In May and June of 2011, I spent 5 weeks traveling around Europe. This post is one of a series chronicling the different places I visited on that trip.

After Taormina, our next major stop was the town of Siracusa. Where we were staying – the old historic center of town – is quiet, with tiny streets and some abandoned buildings (apparently, many people moved to the “new town” after WW2). At first, we weren’t really impressed. But then, we took an orientation walk with the group and things started to click. We wound through some tiny back streets until suddenly, we found ourselves walking into a big, open space with beautifully colored buildings – Piazza Duomo. We didn’t take the most direct route to arrive there, but we took the route that offered the most beautiful view of the cathedral and square upon arrival (you can only see a building for the first time once, our guide said). It was amazing:

After our walk, my mom and I headed to a little place that was sort of a hybrid grocery store/butcher shop/deli. We were a little intimidated because we had to custom-order our sandwiches – but I was able to get sandwiches for my mom and I, and afterward the sandwich guy told me I spoke Italian very well. Not going to lie – I was pretty proud of myself. We headed back to our hotel and ate our sandwiches while watching Top Chef dubbed in Italian which, in case you were wondering, is hilarious (note: there is no translation for Carla’s “hootie ho.” So you hear a rapid stream of Italian punctuated with cries of “hootie ho.” Amazing).

The next morning, we started out by visiting the National Archaeological Museum. We were led by Rosa, an awesome local guide. She was hilarious and had an irrational hatred of Romans – so any time we came across a Roman artifact, her disgust was pretty funny.

The highlight of the museum was definitely the coin and jewelry collection. The jewelry was beautiful – so colorful. And the coins were incredibly intricate – I was blown away by the level of sophistication that these ancient artifacts had. The coin engravings also went way beyond your standard faces – some had animals and other complicated shapes. I even found a set engraved with octopi!

After the museum, we headed to the outdoor archaeological park. By this time, it was extremely hot and sunny out, so things got a little gross. The first thing we saw was a gigantic Greek theater (the second largest in the world, after Epidavros in Greece – which I’ve also seen. Apparently I’ve been on a tour of the world’s best ancient Greek theaters without even knowing it). The second thing we saw was the Ear of Dionysus – a gigantic cave named for the fact that its incredible acoustics allowed rulers to eavesdrop on the prisoners kept there. Our tour guide sang “Amazing Grace” so we could get a sense of the acoustics. It was a goosebump-inducing moment; she was seriously talented!

After exploring the ruins, we headed back into old town. Mom and I walked around the water for a bit before grabbing lunch at a seaside restaurant. I didn’t like my meal, so mom traded with me. I ended up with a delicious calzone. Don’t tell her, but I for sure got the better end of that deal.

In the evening, we went to a traditional puppet show. I’m fairly certain the story was based on Orlando Furioso, which I read (or attempted to read – old school Italian is no joke, people) back in college. Even though we didn’t really understand what was going on during the play, it was really cool to watch. The costumes and sets were very beautiful!

The whole operation was family run, so afterward the entire family came out and answered our questions. The little girl who “helped” with the puppets was so adorable!

The next day, we headed on to the town of Caltagirone, which had one of the most unexpectedly wonderful sites of our trip. All our guide would tell us was that we were visiting a church that had “something special” inside. That something special turned out to be a gigantic nativity (presepio, in Italian) scene. Everything about the nativity was hand made – intricately carved figurines, animals, houses, bridges, rivers, and barns. Everything was also mechanized, so the little figurines were moving. It’s hard to describe the level of detail and the quality of execution – suffice it to say I was blown away!

After the presepio, we headed down the street to a ceramics workshop where we saw how the beautiful pieces were made, from start:

To finish:

I thought the most fascinating part was the painting – it’s all done by hand, and the precision with which they execute it is pretty phenomenal.

After the demonstration, mom and I headed to lunch at Non Solo Vino. The highlight of this restaurant was an antipasti buffet – there were some many delicious things to choose from:

Of course, no meal in Sicily is complete without cannoli, so after lunch we headed to a bakery to pick up a few:

From Caltagirone, we headed to the Villa Romana del Casale, just outside the town of Piazza Armerina. The Villa contains a huge collection of Roman mosaics. Everything is under construction, which was a little disappointing, but the mosaics are still pretty cool – and I’d love to see what it looks like once the construction work is finished; I’m sure it will be pretty spectacular. The most famous piece at the Villa is the mosaic with the so-called “bikini girls,” which I gather was a little ahead of its time thousands of years ago! We were there in the afternoon, so the light was not cooperating with me and this was the best shot I could get:

Our final stop of the day was our hotel, an agriturismo near Piazza Armerina. The agriturismo was lovely – we had a few hours to relax and walk around before yet another spectacular meal that night. Here are a few of my favorite snapshots from around the agriturismo:


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