Southern Exposure – Sicily [Part 2]

The second part of our Sicilian journey brought even more archeological sites: a couple Roman amphitheaters, another Greek theater, and the best preserved Greek temple in the world.** We had the pleasure of traveling along the eastern coast from Taormina to Siracusa, across the southern border to see Noto and Agrigento, and then finally north to see Monreale, a suburb of Palermo.  Sicily was an interesting place.  The island’s overwhelming beauty is combined with some not-so-great everyday occurrences.  We saw several blatant tax-evasion schemes, a couple “mafiosi” throwing their weight around, and a few very clever driving techniques.  Bobby and I agree that south of Rome, Italy is a completely different country and this was certainly capitalized, underlined, and placed in bold in Sicily.

Before I get into the pretty photos, Bobby and I had a long conversation in the car about the mafia and their influence in southern Italy, especially Sicily.  It truly is a way of life down there.  When a person owns a business and he doesn’t give a cut to the mafia, his business is boycotted and run into the ground.  When a teen doesn’t agree to be a runner for whatever “business” the mafia needs to accomplish, the teen and his family are threatened.  Sure, this is a generalization, but I got interested in how this whole network worked.  After reading some articles on the internet, we found out that Gela, the worst town in Italy we’ve ever had the “pleasure” to stop in, is completely controlled by the mob.  The mob is involved in the city government (and has an influence in police operations as well) and they have, for years, blocked any attempt at creating a tourism industry.  By holding the city back, they have suppressed the city’s economy and when the people have no where else to turn, the mafia is there to “help”.  Operations by the mafia have changed since the ’80s when the murder of public officials and kidnapping of high-profile figures were the norm (although this occasionally still happens).  The mafia has diversified their “business”, like any other “company” trying to be competitive.  Now, they make most of their money with drug and weapon smuggling, extortion, and by bidding on contracts on things like construction projects, where they cut corners and make money.  With the Italian economy struggling, the mafia is also Italy’s number one “bank”, with 65 billion euro in liquidity.  When small or medium-sized  businesses can’t get loans, they are now turning to the mafia, which gives the network even more power.  Although the Italian government has made some attempts at cleaning up the corruption led by the mafia, they’ve come up short.  A study a few years ago stated that out of the entire European Union, Italy was responsible for 50% of the corruption.  This is incredibly sad, and it makes us think that if the government could do something to suppress the mafia’s influence and recuperate these lost funds, its economy would be in much better shape.  More than 15% of Italy’s economy happens in the shadows, (the government releases an official estimate every year) costing the government about 100 billion euro a year. If 15% of the U.S. economy was in the black market, it would amount to $2 trillion, as much as we pay in federal taxes. And if Italy could get that percentage back, its economy would almost as large as France’s, even though France (in land area) is twice as large.

Although the sad sob-story of the mafia and Italy’s economy are issues I find interesting, I will now get on to the actual traveling.  First stop: Siracusa!


(Another) Roman amphitheater – Siracusa, Italy

The main tourist attraction in Siracusa, Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, lies just outside of the historical center of the city.  It contains a Roman amphitheater (that sadly is pretty decayed) from 21 BC, a Roman prison (that is shaped like a giant ear), a Greek theater (that is carved completely out of stone, not built with stone), and the Temple of Apollo.

Greek theater

Steps of the Roman amphitheater carved completely from rock

Although the “Ear of Dionysius” was used in Greek times as water storage, the Romans used it as a prison.  Legend has it that Dionysius used the cave as a prison for political dissidents, and by means of the perfect acoustics, eavesdropped on the plans and secrets of his captives. Another more gruesome legend claims that Dionysius carved the cave in its shape so that it would amplify the screams of prisoners being tortured in it. Yikes!

“Ear of Dionysius” – used as water storage and then a prison

View from the inside of the Ear – look at how little the people are!

Also in the archeological park, we found an altar that was the site of a 750 bull sacrifice to the gods.  Double yikes!

Greek sacrificial altar

We usually don’t take official tours at tourist destinations because we like to read the signs on our own (mostly to practice our Italian and save time)!  However, in Siracusa, we decided to take a short 30 minute guided tour of the church and catacombs of San Giovanni (because it was in Italian, unlike other tourist-y places).

San Giovanni church with original 14th century Norman walls

Although the walls were destroyed by an earthquake, the columns and altar still remain.  In summertime, they still hold church services and weddings here.

“Interior” of San Giovanni

The church that survives today was built in the 14th century, but the catacombs and earlier renditions of churches were present long before.  This is the site of the oldest church on the island of Sicily.  The San Giovanni catacombs date back to about 315 AD and connect with the catacombs of St. Lucia (closer to downtown Siracusa) to make the 2nd largest network of catacombs in the world (next to those in Rome). The San Giovanni catacombs hold over 20,000 graves.  Contrary to popular belief, burial in catacombs was not an exclusively Christian custom and the graves of dead Christians and pagans are located side by side, apparently linked by ties of kinship and not of religion.

Catacombs under San Giovanni

Although we couldn’t take photos in the burial vaults, I stole some from the internet to explain what it looked like underground.

Catacombs of San Giovanni

Small holes were for corpses of babies or bones (bones were relocated here when larger tombs needed to be reused for another person)

The Duomo of Siracusa was interesting because its walls were overlaid on an original Greek temple.  The columns were left as a framework for the new church.

Duomo of Siracusa

Original Greek temple columns still remain


Noto is a town, about 40 minutes southwest of Siracusa, known for its Baroque architecture.  We decided to head there for dinner and turns out, there were hundreds of people in the streets for an art festival!

Duomo of Noto

Art show in Noto

The salt art was my favorite.  4 artists combined their works to make a collage of salt climbing one of the streets in Noto.

Arte in Sali (art in salts)…..ita (salita – uphill, climb)

Up close of the salt art

It was 3D (a little hard to tell from the photo)

View from the top of the hill

In the middle of nowhere between Siracusa and Noto, we found a little part of America and France in an abandoned parking lot.  Who knows?

US plane and Paris….interesting.



Agrigento is home to the best preserved Greek temple in the world. (**Critics sometimes give this ‘award’ to the Parthenon in Athens, but we’ve been to both and think this one is in MUCH better shape.  I think they are just partial to the Parthenon because it is older).  The third best preserved temple site is in Paestum (near Naples).  Called “The Valley of the Temples”, the Agrigento archeological area is home to two major temples, the Temple of Juno and the very-intact Temple of Concordia. (Sorry about the haze in some of the photos.  Farmers in Italy burn their crop land after harvest).

View of the Valley of Temples from the Temple of Juno looking at Temple of Concordia

Temple of Juno

Temple of Concordia

Well preserved Temple of Concordia

The largest Greek temple ever built, the Temple of Zeus, is also in the Valley of the Temples.  Although only remnants of the foundation remain, the size of the boulders show its massive scale.

To the right: original walls from Temple of Zeus; To the left – artistic interpretation of walls

Bobby sitting in an part of the foundation of the Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus walls to the right

Like all other Greek Temples, the Valley of the Temples is dedicated to Greek gods.  Here, an artist shows the final resting site for one of the Greek gods.

Statue in front of Temple of Concordia



Originally, we planned to stay overnight in Palermo, seeing the small suburb of Monreale on the way.  After seeing Monreale’s cathedral (the reason to visit the town in the first place), we attempted to drive into Palermo to our hotel.  The traffic was insane and we tried 3 different routes to our hotel (blocked each time by dead ends, one ways, and a huge market).  We were tired of fighting the people, traffic, and trash to negotiate the streets, so we gave up.  Yep, that’s right.  We turned around and drove all the way back to Messina, took the ferry back to mainland, and drove 5 more hours to a hotel just south of Rome.  Bobby and I agreed that there are probably things worth seeing in Palermo, but it reminded us of Naples, another city we don’t really care for, so that was the end of our trip.

The Duomo of Monreale, however, was beautiful.  There are mosaics covering every surface (including even the window soffits and door jambs) except the ceiling and floor.  Every mosaic is composed from millions of tiny glass fragments, each one manipulated to create a scene or pattern.  It reminded us a lot of Ravenna, but on a larger scale.

Cathedral of Monreale – one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture in the world!

Ceiling over the altar

Another ceiling shot

Apparently I really liked the ceiling!

Close up of Byzantine Jesus – made of a glass mosaic


  1. Hi Bobby and Carrie,

    I’m Alyssa Tetrault (Bobby’s PM for the Olmsted Program :-)). My husband and I are in Florence for the next day or so and were wondering if you had any suggestions for a good place to get a nice dinner and truly experience the cuisine. Look forward to any of your recommendations!

    • TheFlammias says:

      Hi Alyssa,
      Right now, it is a little difficult to recommend places in Florence because many of our favorite places are closed for the whole month of August (when Italians typically go on vacation). However, you could try Cinghale Bianco or maybe 13 Gobbi. Both are walkable from the central historic district. If you have a car, we just ate at Il Piccolo Trianon, about 25 minutes from Florence and it was pretty good (its in the hill country north of the city). Take care and enjoy your visit!


  1. […] visiting the island.  On our first trip, we visited some pretty amazing places – Taormina, Siracusa, and Agrigento (to name a view), which are located in the eastern half of Sicily.  This time, we […]

  2. […] a stark white rock formation that juts into the Mediterranean.  On our last trip to the Valley of the Temples, we passed really closed but didn’t quite make it there.  This time we vowed to see the […]