The Conquest of Sicily
Historians and explorers are irrestibly drawn to Sicily, a beguiling melting pot of cultures. Ruling over its diverse peoples, the Norman conquerors formed a lasting frontier between Christian Europe and Muslim Africa. The result was a breathtaking hybrid of art and architecture from Islamic, Byzantine and Romanesque models. Thus, Western-style basilicas, Greek mosaics and elaborately carved Arabic interiors became fused for eternity. Perhaps Sicily’s best illustration of this is the astonishing Cappella Palatina, where glittering mosaics evoke Biblical scenes and the great ceiling depicts everyday Arab life. Palermo is the old Arab capital from which we explore Sicily’s people, power, art and faith.
- Exclusive access to Cappella Palatina grants us expert insights and the luxury of space and peace to reflect on this crown jewel of Norman architecture.
- Follow the path of the Norman Conquest across this island
- Trace the remains of the Byzantine empire before it fell to the Muslims
- Explore a kingdom that was like no other in Europe - a multifaith, multilingual and multicultural state
- Discover towns, palaces, churches, castles and landscapes of Sicily, which was once the richest and most densely populated region of the medieval period.
- Historic Churches
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Our flight arrives in Catania this afternoon, on the shores of Sicily’s east coast. From here we travel inland to our four-star hotel in Enna, our comfortable base for the next two nights.
This evening we enjoy welcome drinks and an informative introductory lecture at our hotel, before rounding off the day with our first dinner as a group.
Following breakfast we make our way to the hilltop town of Agira, site of the ancient Sicel city of Agyrion. In the 4th century BC the last of these Iron Age settlers was driven from the city by the Greeks, who turned it into a thriving colony. Later possessed by the Romans, then invaders from Germany, France and Spain, Agira did not become the formal property of Sicily until the 1400s. Here we find a wealth of fascinating sites, including two Norman churches, the remains of an Arab-Byzantine fortress and an old synagogue.
Our next stop is Troina, where excavations have revealed an old necropolis dating the town’s earliest inhabitants back to 7,000 BC. Troina’s location between east and west Sicily made it a good strategic spot for colonising forces. Despite significant damage in World War II, traces of the town’s multi-layered past remain – such as Greek walls dating from the 4th century BC, and the ruins of Roman baths.
This afternoon we travel to Nicosia Cathedral, a 14th-century church built over its Norman predecessor, and Sperlinga Castle, a sacred site for the Sicels which became a fortress under Norman rule. Step up on to these rock-hewn walls and admire the countryside views.
Our morning is spent in Enna, where we visit Lombardy Castle, one of the oldest and largest fortresses in all of Italy. Founded in 1000 BC by the ancient Sicadi people, the fortress first succumbed to foreign rule when the marauding Roman army snuck in through its sewer system. It has passed through several European dynasties since, all of whom have left their mark.
We continue on to Enna’s cathedral, marvelling at the rich interiors of this stunning Gothic-Catalan monument.
After lunch in the city we enjoy a scenic drive to the northern coast, and make our way to Palermo, Sicily’s cross-cultural capital, where our next round of adventures begins…
Prepare for the treasures of Palermo. We start the day at Zisa Palace, a Norman residence built by Arabic craftsmen, replete with Moorish architecture. Traces of vivid frescos remain within these honey-coloured walls, as well as dazzling mosaics and sculpted marble finery. A visual delight.
Moving from the sublime to the subterranean, we descend into the bizarre Capuchin Catacombs next, a complex containing some 9,000 bodies. Here we see corpses posed in rocking chairs, skeletons dressed in opulent clothes, and faces apparently frozen in time.
We pause for lunch before continuing our tour via the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, an enchanting blend of Muslim and Christian influences. Converted to a mosque at the time of the Islamic conquests, it was returned to the Christian church by the Normans in the 12th century, and remains a mighty monument of Norman-Arab Palermo.
Our final stop for the day is Cappella Palatina, a stunning royal chapel erected for the Norman kings of Sicily, gleaming with gold leaf and shimmering mosaics.
Tonight we dine at a local restaurant, in order to sample some of Palermo’s celebrated cuisine.
In the morning we rise to explore the seaside town of Cefalù, a Medieval settlement boasting one of the finest Norman-Arab cathedrals in existence: an iconic two-towered masterpiece in the Byzantine style, which, along with our destination this afternoon, has been formally designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Other sights here include the hilltop Greek Temple of Diana, and the Lavatoio, a tranquil courtyard of 16th century washbasins built above an ancient spring.
After lunch we continue to Monreale, on the slopes of Monte Caputo, a former hunting resort of the Norman kings of Sicily. Here we find another exceptional Norman cathedral, considered by many to be the “Sistine Chapel of Medieval Europe”. We admire the relics of the Treasury and ascend to the roof for incredible panoramic views of the valleys below.
Welcome to Cefalà Diana, a town founded by the Arabs which thrived under Norman rule. This morning we discover the well-preserved Arab Baths, dating from the 10th century AD – the only extant Arabic baths of this quality on the island – exquisitely decorated with archways, columns and mosaics.
Cefalà Diana’s main attraction is its Arab-Norman castle, thought to have been built in the 13th century. Its ruins stand some 600 metres above sea level, and feature an unusual triangular courtyard – a dramatic remnant of the Medieval age.
We return to Palermo this afternoon for a guided tour of the Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church established in the 12th century, which was built on the site of a Saracen mosque. Notable sarcophagi include those of its founder Walter Ophamil, and several royal tombs.
Our day ends with a trip to the Martorana, a glorious Byzantine church with eye-catching interiors, still used by the Greek Orthodox community.
The last of our full days in Sicily begins at Segesta, an ancient Greek site mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid. The amazingly well-preserved remains of a Doric temple stand just outside the city, while within the archaeological site we find a hilltop amphitheatre, the perfect stop for viewing the picturesque scenery around us.
It is believed that, following Roman occupation, the city was destroyed by the Vandals, a Germanic tribe who also sacked Rome in the 5th century AD. Recent excavations suggest that the site may also have been occupied by an Islamic community in the 1100s – a mosque and Muslim necropolis have both been unearthed on site – and that this community was most likely forced out by the Normans a century later.
This afternoon we pay a visit to San Giuseppe Jato, a village dating from the prehistoric era which flourished under Muslim control. A nearby hilltop archaeological park contains the remains of a theatre founded in the 4th century BC, a Temple of Aphrodite, public baths, a square, and a large colonnaded house.
We celebrate our final evening together with a special farewell dinner in one of Palermo’s best local restaurants. Raise a glass and join us in toasting this marvellous tour of ancient Sicily. Saluti!
We depart from Palermo airport and fly home.
- Expert Guide Lecturer
- Tour Manager
- Local Travel - Private a/c coach
- Meals - All meals included with wine at dinner
- Entries & Tips - Entry to all sites in programme; tips included
- Field Notes
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