Sojourn in Sicily Part 7: Tiles, tiles everywhere, Piazza Armerina and Caltagirone


Sunday, April 7. Sundays seem to be synonymous with sloth, so I guess it’s no surprise that we didn’t get out of the house until 11:30 a.m. But the delay gave me time to catch up on my note-taking, while our host Marco led Fred on a tour of the villa, which was being renovated by the family to add another guest apartment or two.

Once we hit the road, we headed inland for the first time, a process involving complicated directions and several roundabouts. Our destination was Piazza Armerina in south central Sicily, or more precisely the Villa Romana del Casale a few kilometers away. One of the island’s most important archeological sites, this grand, sprawling villa was built and revamped repeatedly, probably starting around the end of the third century A.D. It was once thought to be a part-time country residence and hunting reserve, but recent excavations – which are ongoing – suggest that it was occupied all year. Well, at least until the 12th century, when it was buried in a landslide caused by a flood. One of the many things that isn’t known about the villa is who owned it, though several theories have been put forth based mainly on the placement, perspective and subject matter of the incredible floor mosaics that are the main attraction for most tourists. Best guess is that he was a Roman of considerable importance.

Finding the Villa Romana wasn’t easy, and we also had trouble figuring out the best place to park, because the main area, which had a snack bar, was down a steep hill from the ruins. After exploring nearer what seemed to be the entrance, we saw a smaller lot and settled on that with the encouragement of a guy who promised to watch our car for one euro. Since I was in my wheelchair, admission was free.

As Sicilian archeological sites go, the villa was surprisingly wheelchair-accessible. From what I’ve read, it has had elevated walkways to provide better views of the mosaics for some time, but in the last couple of years, the makeshift protective plastic coverings have been replaced by real roofs. Basically, the mosaics are enclosed by a maze-like structure with chest-high walls flanking most of the walkways and ramps up to them in quite a few places. But not all, so we occasionally dead-ended at stairways. The special accessible feature: windows cut into some of the walls at wheelchair height to facilitate viewing.

While it is wonderful – and essential – that the mosaics are being preserved, there was a slight downside. The set up and the crowds made the villa much less evocative than it could have been. The only exception was the ruins of a vast basilica in one area. We walked (well, I rolled) right into it, on floors made of huge blocks of marble, which probably were considered more precious than the intricate mosaics when they were constructed. Of the mosaics, the most famous may be the “Bikini Girls,” a group of young ladies in skimpy attire engaged in athletic activities. But I found the long corridor with scenes of a great hunt – including various wild animals being captured – even more breath-taking and marveled over everything else from the labors of Hercules to cupids catching fish. In some places, older mosaic floors with geometric designs peaked out from the corners of the colorful scenic ones. A few wall frescoes also remain, which is fairly unusual.

After wandering around outside to see baths that may have been built later (or earlier, I’m not sure), we drove to the town of Piazza Armerina to check out the cathedral, which is at the top of a hill. Started in 1604, it has a large Baroque entrance, but the bell tower is that of the previous 15th-century church. Some of the artwork inside predates the building, too, including a large crucifix painted on both sides and an Umbrian painting of “The Virgin with Child.”

We drove around town for a little while, then it was off to Caltagirone, which has been known for its ceramics apparently since the Arab period in the 9th to 11th centuries. Our goal was to see the Scala di Santa Maria del Monte, a flight of 142 steps covered with enameled ceramic tiles that are the centerpiece of town celebrations in May and July. The scenery along the way was beautiful, with towns perched on the crests of rolling hills. When we arrived and drove uphill to what we thought was a central plaza, a policeman let us use the handicapped placard to park in a noparking zone, and we popped into a church that was totally ramped. Locating the famous staircase was more difficult, but we finally found the bottom and took a few photos which, alas, didn’t come out. One of several arrows pointed toward Il Locandiere, a restaurant I’d read about, but when we got there, it was closed. So we went back to the car and drove around admiring the ceramics adoring balconies, bridges, and the facades of aristocratic palaces, especially on Via Roma.

Last destination of the day, a short drive west, was Gela on the southern coast. Founded by Greek colonists in 689 B.C., it was one of the most powerful city-states in Sicily a couple of centuries later, and reminders of those early days include a section of the Greek walls from the end of the 5th century B.C., ruins of Greek baths that flourished a 100 years later, remains of two Doric temples, and an archeological museum. We missed them all. The modern town felt industrial and poor, and when we got there around 6:00 p.m., there were lots of men milling around in the streets and squares, so we decided to leave.

Back in Acitrezza, we went to seafood restaurant La Cambusa del Capitano, another place I’d read about, tucked away on the deserted end of Via Marina. The cozy dining room was empty and the couple who ran it spoke little English, but they were very solicitous and we decided to stay for dinner. We were rewarded with huge portions of delicious, perfectly cooked pasta – called “primi” but sized like main courses and only 12 euros each. The spaghetti was generously laced with two kinds of clams, mussels, baby shrimp, octopus, squid, and tomatoes in a light sauce, while the pennette had fresh anchovies, tomato, herbs, and peas. They were obviously prepared to order and arrived piping hot. The 3 euro cover bought breadsticks and a basket of semolina bread; when we asked for olive oil for dunking, we were offered balsamic vinegar, too. With a glass of wine, a beer, and a bottle of mineral water, the total tab came to 35 euros. Even better, the meal was the ideal way to end the day.