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The island of Sicily was already inhabited in prehistoric ages, but its claim to fame lies in the fact that it has changed hands so many times, leaving behind layer upon layer of cultural influences. The Greek came first, turning Syracuse into the most important city of Sicily in 480 BC. But already there was a strong nationalist movement making life tough for the Greek rulers. In the first Punic War (264 - 241 BC), the western part of Sicily was conquered by the Romans. Sicily quickly welcomed a lot of Roman immigrants, buying large manors and turning the island into fertile farmland, producing crops for the whole of Italy. Unrest among the original people of Sicily led to the fall of the Roman ruling, making way for the Vandals, Byzantines and Arabs. In 1860 Sicily officially became a part of the Kingdom of Italy.

Segeste Segeste Segeste Erice
Segeste Erice Erice Salt ponds at Trapani

At 10 am on Monday morning, Royal Clipper anchors off the town of Mazara del Vallo, the largest fishing port of Sicily located in the northwest of the island. By coach we set off from the dock, driving along the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean. The relative closeness of North Africa (we spot the Tunesian coast on the horizon) explains the stark, closed-in look of this part of Sicily. The further northeast we drive, the more lush the countryside, with mile after mile of glorious pink oleander bordering the highway. After a 90 minute drive, we arrive in Segeste where the Greeks built a remarkable temple between 424 and 409 BC. To this day, 2400 years later, the remains of the temple (that was never finished) remains perched on the hillside in the stunningly beautiful countryside. We enjoy a typical Sicilian lunch in a restaurant nearby before setting off to Erice, an ancient fortified town perched high on a rock near the city of Trapani. After the rolling countryside at Segeste, the change to the barren mountaintop town of Erice could not be more impressive. The wind blows through the deserted stone streets, where every corner is more photogenic than the last.

Roman ruins in Syracuse Syracuse street scene Syracuse cathedral Syracuse
Piazza Duomo, Syracuse Syracuse Syracuse Syracuse waterfront

What a treat it is to be able to visit Syracuse, the city that has been so vital in the rise and fall of Sicily through the ages. Royal Clipper docks on a cloudless Wednesday morning and we can't wait for the ship to be cleared by local authorities after seeing the old Medieval city glide by as we sail into the wide bay. With 127,500 inhabitants, Syracuse is a thriving city, complete with lots of scooters and noisy cars. While most important excavation sites (a huge amphitheater, ruins of Doric temples, bath houses and aqueducts) are found on the mainland, we decide to cross the bridge instead to the oldest part of town, called Ortygia.  We are not sorry, as strolling around Ortygia is like a exciting whirlwind ride in a time machine. 

Syracuse cathedral Syracuse street scene Ready for departure

The old part of town is like a maze of immaculately clean alleys with wrought-iron balconies, lots of flowers and pretty lanterns. It doesn't matter that we are completely lost; we love it here! One of the highlights is the grand Piazzo Duomo, with its 7th century cathedral on one side and a row of 17th century palazzos on the other, now conveniently turned into alfresco restaurants. The cathedral is a must-see, having been constructed using the remains of a Doric temple dating back from the 5th century BC. Inside, there are many more treasures to be discovered. And while the hymns of group of tourists echo in the tall, cool building, we continue our voyage through time, ending up at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the sea. Here, we much away on a delicious local lunch of bruschetta, veal in lemon sauce and pasta with tuna and peppers, meanwhile enjoying every minute of the restaurant's very Italian atmosphere. Some scoops of Sicilian ice cream later and we are on our way to the ship again.

Ready for departure Departure from Syracuse Flying the Italian flag Royal Clipper still life

That evening at 6 pm, the sails are out as Royal Clipper leaves Syracuse. While the Vangelis sailaway theme thunders across the decks, boats in all shapes and sizes accompany us out to sea. There, a school of dolphins take over, frolicking in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Our final goodbye to Sicily comes in a most unexpected form as a couple of helicopters, planes and a navy frigate appear on the horizon to salute our beautiful Royal Clipper. As the sun starts setting in the glass-like waters, we order another drink in the Tropical Bar and gaze towards the land that we want to visit again. And again. 


Photos and text: 2003 Bart de Boer - www.ShipParade.com

First published on August 30, 2003

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