Following our wondrous trip to Museo Regionale, Liliana and I grabbed a quick lunch and walked towards the train station as the Sicilian sun beat down upon our shoulders. Our plan was to stop in Augusta for the evening so that the majority of the following day could be spent in Syracuse and the evening could be spent in Catania, where I would be flying out from the following day. When we got to our seats on the train, we quickly made friends with a few fellow travelers, one of whom was a teacher living in Italy, and when we realized they were also stopping off for an afternoon in Taormina, we decided to spilt the cab fare up to this beautiful little place with a Greek theatre and a glorious view!
The ride up to this town was incredible: as we climbed higher and higher, the view became truly indescribable. The coastline was comprised of a variety of browns and grays and it starkly contrasted with the bright blue hues that made up the sea. Strong yellows, pinks and greens surrounded us as the car lurched upward – Italian taxi drivers truly give New York City cab drivers a run for their money – and all too soon, we came to a halt and stumbled out into one of the main piazzas of Taormina. This town was very clearly a tourist destination in Sicily, and our first stop, the Teatro Greco di Taormina, was one of the reasons why. This Greek theatre was absolutely breathtaking. It was the first I had ever seen and because we had discussed Roman amphitheaters with Professor Kirin Makker throughout the semester in Rome, the contrasts and similarities between Greek and Roman archetypes became so much clearer during this visit.
Before leaving Taormina, Liliana pointed out the Duomo, Palazzo Corvaja and Palazzo di St. Stefano, briefing me once more on a bit of Sicilian history. I remember thinking, as she spoke (and as I ate the very best Sicilian granita of my life!) about how much I could appreciate the information she gave me in this moment. I think that there are two reasons for this heightened sense of appreciation, one being that I was physically standing in the presence of the history she discussed, which made it all the more tangible. The second reason was because I was hearing this history from an Italian, and specially, from a Sicilian. History, art and culture become so much more alive when you learn about them in moving, living, breathing ways. In this moment, I was so unbelievably happy.
We did not spend much time in Augusta – only one morning. In those few hours, however, the most incredible experience occurred. We walked along one of the busier streets of Augusta (and I use the word ‘busier’ loosely, for much of Sicily is very quiet and under-populated) and we eventually paused in the local church. The space, so quiet and yet so grand, was beautiful. Staring up at one of the many statues in the church, I sat down in a pew, a few rows behind an older man and a small girl. They two were looking up at the statue, one of the Virgin Mary. I quickly realized that this was a grandfather and his granddaughter, and I watched as he tenderly leaned down and whispered to her in fast, smooth Italian, using his hands and pointing up at the statue. Liliana leaned over and told me that he was explaining the faith to her, actively using the statue – the art – as guidance. This interaction we witnessed touched me so deeply, because I saw the very thing I am most passionate about being used in such a loving way. It was truly moving, and that moment has stayed with me ever so vividly.
In the early afternoon, Liliana and I took a train to Syracuse, or as the Italians call it, Siracusa. As a sophomore in Professor James Capreedy’s Roman Empire course (in the Classics Department), we had completed a mapping project on the Roman provinces in the late empire, and I remembered our discussion of Syracuse, a port city and therefore a great asset to the Romans. Liliana first took me to the Duomo di Siracusa, a space that had begun as a Greek temple dedicated to Athena and is now a cathedral dedicated to the birth of the Virgin Mary. The Doric columns stand visibly as the support for the cathedral’s walls, and the side chapels, one of which is devoted to Santa Lucia, serve as a reminder that this ancient Greek structure was later turned into a Baroque space – a contrast that makes it all the more spectacular.
Unfortunately, as with all of Italy, sometimes without warning, churches and museums will be closed simply for the reason that they are, and this happened when we tried to see the Caravaggio painting in the Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia and when we went to see the Teatro Greco (which was under renovation for the entire summer) – I was so upset! But on the bright side, we had more time to spend at the Tempio di Apollo, Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi, and at the Orecchio di Dionisio, or the “Ear of Dionysius,” which quickly became one of my favorite sites in Syracuse. According to legend, Caravaggio gave it its nickname; “the Ear of Dionysius” in reference to how the King Dionysius I of Syracuse allegedly used the cave. With its excellent acoustics, it is said that Dionysius housed political prisoners here in order to listen to their conversations and potential plans. Whether or not it is based in fact, how interesting!
After the very long day, we took an evening train to Catania, and I watched once more as the small Sicilian towns flew by. We walked around Catania for quite some time, having a late dinner in front of Cattedrale di Sant’Agata. The following morning I watched from the plane as Mount Etna became smaller and smaller. I was sad to leave such a beautiful island when there was a lifetime of exploring to be done, but I was also excited to return home to Firenze – just in time for the city’s celebration of its patron saint, the Feast Day of John the Baptist.