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Palazzolo Acreide (Sicily, Italy)

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Ancient Greek settlement in the south east of Sicily.

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      06.05.2003 02:26
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      Ancient Akrai was founded in 664 BC as the first colony of the Corinthian settlement at Syracuse, which was expanding its power into the vast Sicilian interior. The town prospered as a strategic way-station on the route linking Syracuse to Selinunte, the westernmost outpost of Greek Sicily. With the decline of the Greeks the town passed through periods of Roman, Byzantine and Arab rule, declining in importance until the 12th century when a village developed around a now ruined Norman castle, marking the origins of the present day Palazzolo Acreide. Devastated by the 1693 earthquake, the area was rebuilt and enlarged in the 18th century by master architects such as Tranisi, Sinatra and La Ferla. Along with the other Baroque towns of the Val di Noto, the modern town was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in June 2002 and is home to just over 9,000 inhabitants. GETTING THERE BY BUS AST buses from Siracusa depart from the terminal in Piazza della Posta, across the Ponte Nuovo bridge in Ortigia. The journey takes a little over an hour, though you can shave twenty minutes off this if you take one of the express buses that miss out the crawl through Canicattini. The return fare is €4.91 and tickets can be bought at the AST ticket office or on board the bus itself. A current timetable is available at http://www.aziendasicilianatrasporti.it/ORARIinvernaliSiracusa.htm BY CAR Take the S.S. 114 west out of Siracusa. ARRIVAL From sea level at Siracusa, it’s a gorgeous ride up to 670 metres through the rolling Hyblean countryside. Dry stone walls climb up and down hills, cows graze by the narrow roads and huge fir trees shelter the windward side of fragrant orange groves. After a gradual incline, the bus comes to a stop at the small roundabout in Viale Alighieri, a wide, dull road leading from the entrance to town past the Di Meglio supermarket. A sign points left for the town centre. THE MODERN TOWN Follow the sign up the sloping Via Mazzini, then turn right into Via Nazionale. The first left – Via Elena – leads to Piazza Marconi and the Villa Communale gardens, with its shaded paths, flowerbeds and ornamental trees (open 9-1 and 3-9) offering welcome relief from the blazing sunshine. Walking straight ahead along Via Nazionale brings you to Piazza Pretura where the Polizia Municipale building marks the beginning of the town’s Baroque heart. Via Carceri runs off to the left in the direction of the ancient Necropolis and the Santoni rock sculptures. To the right Via Roma, Via Garibaldi, Via Gaetano Italia and Via San Sebastiano lead to the centre of town. Take the latter, walking uphill past the Palazzo Sardo and its twin life-sized human sculptures holding matching balconies up on their shoulders, faces bulging under the weight of limestone and elaborately twisted iron and arms outstretched against the walls below for support. The street broadens at the top of the hill as it reaches the wide Piazza del Popolo. The imposing 19th century town hall is straight ahead, with the Chiesa di San Sebastiano off to the left. The church rises from a triangular flight of stairs, its sculpted limestone facade continuing up from an arched doorway through three ever narrowing tiers that culminate in a belfry and large clock face. The interior is nowhere near as impressive, though it does have some 18th century stuccos and oil paintings in the two aisles either side of its single nave. The town’s main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele III begins to the left of the town hall, where you’ll also find the small tourist information office. Pick up a free map and continue along the street, looking up for the Palazzo Judica on the right, whose beautiful Baroque balcony foreshadows the even more impresssive Palazzo Pizzo (at number 38), which has a wonderful spreading balcony above a cracked and splintered wooden door. A little further up the hill the Chiesa dell’Immacolata has a simple two-tiered concave facade, although you can barely see anything through the shroud of scaffolding. At the end of the street, Piazza Acre opens out either side of signs pointing right for panoramic views and left for the Greek Theatre and archaeological area of Akrai. The promised panorama does not disappoint – a crumbling terrace 50 metres from the piazza revealing a couple of deserted winding roads, a corner of ageing roofs angling lazily up a hill, acre upon acre of cultivated fields and sloping rock faces interspersed with tall green puffs of foliage. If you can ignore the pack of barking dogs in the nearby gardens, continue up the bank to the next corner where an even more impressive vista unfolds: a beige walled, red roofed jumble back across the valley, only the pale blue sky and a blur of hillsides beyond. Back to the increasingly mundane Piazza Acre, take the middle of the three streets branching off from the signpost and head for the brown Zona Archeologica sign straight ahead. Walk uphill through the terraced park behind the war memorial and turn left at the top onto the stepped pavements of Via Tearto Greco. The entrance to the archaeological park is at the top of this steep hill. AKRAI Admission to the park is free, so walk past the manned entrance and turn off the path on the right for the small theatre, discovered by a local aristocrat in 1824. Constructed in the 2nd century BC, the theatre was altered by the Romans, who added a small shrine and a pulpitum. Twelve semi-circular rows curve in front of the ruined orchestra, now no more than a pile of rocks surrounded by a wooden fence. The theatre once seated 600 spectators, though the limestone steps now throng only with daisies and dandelions. A dead silence hangs over the area, interrupted only by the rustle of the wind through the long grass behind and the birdsong from the drooping tre es in front. Duck down through the tunnel in the centre for the adjoining Bouleuterion, a tiny amphitheatre hidden below the high stone walls that once housed the meetings of the local government on its three rows of steps. A short flight of stairs on the right leads back up to the main theatre if you can’t face the low ceilings in the tunnel again. In the fields beyond the locked gate the beginning of the Plateia – the main street of the ancient Greek town – is clearly visible. Back towards the park entrance, turn right when you reach the path and take the steps that branch off almost immediately for the Latomia Intogliata. Most of the area is sealed off but several of the smaller caves, which were used as limestone quarries during the construction of Akrai, are still accessible. The ruins of the Temple of Aphrodites, dismantled during the Middle Ages, are invisible at the top of the hill across a wild, grassy valley. Take the main path again, winding past honeycombed rock faces used by the early Christians as catacombs and the ancient Greeks for the worship of the dead. Centuries old rectangles and smooth squares cut deep into the rock, propped up by rounded arches and chiselled columns. A bas-relief detailing the ‘Heroes’ Banquet’ is carved on to a long stretch of rock. Although weatherbeaten and rough in places the detail is nonetheless remarkable Back to the entrance. Down the slopes of the present day road to Noto, Via Primosole, which winds left downhill from Piazza Acre, quarries once used for festivals linked to the cult of the dead dot the hillsides and the Santoni (Big Saints), a set of twelve bas-reliefs hewn out of a 30-metre long section of rock, are to be found. All feature Cybele, the goddess of fertility, standing alone, seated with lions or surrounded by barely discernible figures. The workmanship is badly eroded but totally engrossing. BACK TO TOWN Follow Via Acre from the pi azza of the same name back in the direction of the town centre as far as Piazza San Michele, where the Chiesa di San Michele’s Corinthian columns are unfortunately obscured by green netting and rust coloured scaffolding. Turn right into Via Carlo Alberto, then left into the tiny Via Macchiavelli another hundred or so metres further on for the Casa Museo Antonio Uccello THE HOUSE MUSEUM Founded in 1971 by the eponymous poet and anthropologist, the Casa Museo recreates a typical rural house, focusing on the rooms belonging to the massaro (the landowner’s administrative agent). Free guided tours of the nine rooms and two courtyards are available from 9-1 and 3.30-7 everyday, though visitor numbers are limited to ten at any one time and there is no entry if a tour is in progress. A collection of baked clay plates adorns the walls of the entrance between small stone sculptures of angels and tomb ornaments. Stairs extend to a small courtyard where rainwater was formerly collected for household use from the tiles and gutters through to the combined kitchen and work room for the massaro’s family. Pictures of saints amd a horshoe with a red ribbon designed to ward off evil spirits hang from the walls next to the large, chimney-less brick oven, which was used both as a cooker and as a producer of smoke for the pork sausages hanging above. Bread making utensils and a stone hearth used to make the local ricotta cheese crowd into the space alongside the oven. The living room is similarly plain, clustered and functional. A sturdy double bed is overlooked by a large crucifix and yet more devotional pictures of saints.. A round container in one corner used to preserve wheat and a small statue of Saint Sebastian in another. A copper brazier, a baby’s chair, old family photos, musical instruments and a crescent shaped table complete the decorations. Through to the stables, where animal harnesses drop from the walls above si ckles, ploughs, hoes and a fodder trough. Decorated cattle collars reach from the ceiling down to the hard stone floor. Then it’s into the oil mill, dominated by a large millstone that was pulled by a blindfolded mule. The crushed olives were put in sacks and pressed again to produce enough oil for food, fuel and soap. Another press, this time manually operated, was used to produce a second-rate honey which was sold to wax modellers for the production of candles and religious figures. The next room is the small warehouse, which is currently home to a sun-dried clay and papier mache model representing the surrounding countryside. Wax statues and 19th century glass paintings are displayed alongside terracotta figurines made in Catania. Through the arched portico to the second courtyard and then into the main warehouse. Where once the harvest was stored now temporary exhibits such as waxworks, pottery, costumes and jewellery crowd the room. Finally, the old stable and its cobbled floor thought to date back to the 17th century housing toys and folk theatre posters, wrought iron carts and small puppets. BAROQUE Back out to Via Carlo Alberto, which eventually culminates at Piazza del Popolo. The town’s most interesting Baroque quarter is located around Via Bando Superiore, running right into Via Gerone and Via Bando Inferiore before eventually opening into Piazza Aldo Moro. A less convoluted option is the slope down Via Nicola Zocco, which intersects Via Garibaldi a couple of hundred metres downhill. When you reach Via Garibaldi continue straight ahead down the short Via D’Albergo for Piazza San Antonio and the unfinished church of the same name, a large faux-Romanesque structure that is worth a brief stop if you’re in the immediate vicinity. Back up to Via Garibaldi, turn right and follow the street past the wonderfully elongated Baroque balcony at Palazzo Zocco, all fancifully decorated with swirling patterns and grotes que figures. Reaching Piazza Umberto I, continue to the top of the square and look left for the Chiesa di San Paolo. Its facade rises in three levels through a number of friezes and ten sculptures up to a glorious belfry. You can enter the church through a side door on the left, though the interior is extremely unremarkable. Wind your way up the streets behind and to the left of the church towards the medieval Paltiolum: a maze of concentric streets around the ruined castle, or cross Piazza Aldo Moro for the Chiese Madre, grand in scale but boarded up and uninspiring compared to its near neighbour. Follow Via Roma from the stairs up to the church back to Piazza Umberto I. On the other side of the piazza, Via Annunziata leads to the oldest of the town’s churches, the Chiesa dell’Annunzia, which dates from 1400 and was extensively rebuilt in the eighteenth century. Its wheat coloured portal is flanked by two spiralling Spanish Baroque columns decorated with friezes of flowers and ripe summer fruit. Return to the piazza where either Via Roma or Via Garibaldi will take you back to Piazza Pretura and the bus back to Siracusa. OVERALL Although by no means an essential stop on a tour of Sicily, Palazzolo makes a memorable day trip from Siracusa if you’re spending time in the south east of the island. The biggest Carnival in the province takes place here in the days immediately before Shrove Tuesday and the local religious feastivals of Saint Sebastian (August 10th), Saint Paul (June 29th), Saint Michael (September 29th) and Our Lady of Sorrows (September 15th) are among the best times to visit.

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      Ancient Greek settlement in the south east of Sicily.