Thursday, April 30, 2015

Villa Romana del Casale

 As our time in Sicily would soon be drawing to an end; and the weather was beautiful; it was time for a little road trip.  Other than the 2 long drives to Palermo last October we had seen nothing of Sicily except Siracusa and Ragusa.  There was an ulterior motive, however.  An Italian friend and fellow Amel owner had brought back something from the USA for us.  We had ordered this item some time back but it was not shipped until after our return to Sicily last month.  Our friend had graciously offered to bring it back for us on his next trip to the USA.  He arranged with another friend to deliver this item to Siracusa.  We needed to drive to Siracusa to collect our well-traveled package.  These Italians are such nice people!!

Cathedral in Siracusa
Bill entered our destination address in Siracusa into the iPhone to provide driving directions. He did not check the route -- as long as we got there it did not matter from which direction. Turned out that Google Maps directed us along the coastal road almost the entire way. This enabled us to see the town of Pozzalo which we had by-passed last September the day we sailed to Marina di Ragusa to dock for the winter.  We did not find this town to be anything special, just a typical commercial port town.  But the sea views were spectacular and we enjoyed the long drive.  

It was a surprise when we passed through Noto (pronounced Notto).  Noto is the hometown for the doctor who treated Bill's injured leg last autumn.  He had told us that we must visit this town as it is famous for being the most beautiful town in Sicily.   From what I found online, Noto is famous for its Baroque architecture.  Since 2002 it has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  According to UNESCO:

Generally listed as one of the 'must-see' tourist attractions of this part of Sicily, Noto is a pleasant and attractive little town, with a historic centre that is composed almost entirely of crumbling Baroque palaces, churches and houses. The town's striking architectural coherence is due to the major earthquake that struck Sicily in 1693. The old town of Noto was almost completely destroyed, and it was decided to to reconstruct a splendid new town several miles away. Thus Noto was rebuilt on its present site, carefully designed for functionality and architectural harmony.
The principal tourist activity in Noto is simply a wander around the narrow streets, admiring the golden-coloured stone buildings, the fantastical facades and balconies.

I found the town to be pretty but not prettier or more special than the old town of Siracusa situated on the small island where we had visited briefly last September.  The architecture of old town Siracusa had blown me away.  And still does.

We arrived in Siracusa on time and collected our parcel.  Thank you, thank you nice Italian guys for going out of your way to assist us.  There were plenty more hours of daylight left so we decided to continue onward to Piazza Armerina where there was an archaeological site of interest.  Piazza Armerina is located in the Erean Mountains in central inland Sicily, and Siracusa is located on the eastern coast.  About a 3 or 4 hour drive.  Easy peasy.

Cathedral in Piazza Armerina.
This is very high on the mountain, photo
does not indicate how hit it really is.
As we wound through the mountains after exiting the main highway I began to have the feeling that possibly Piazza Armerina was the mountain town that had the beautiful green domed church that we had admired high in the mountains when we had driven to Palermo. That dome in the old city high up on the mountainside had looked beautiful but we had no idea of the name of the place or how to get there.  Just a beautiful scene seen from the road which connected from the southern side of Sicily to the main highway running east to west to Palermo.  (There is only one main highway such on this on the island.)

Yes!  This was the place!  We spotted that green dome high in the mountains and wound round and round and up and up until suddenly there we were...right in the heart of the town. That green dome up so high is the Cathedral of Piazza Armerina.  This is a massive Baroque cathedral built in the 17th and 18th centuries at the site where previously stood a 15th century church.  Little remained of that 15th century church except a bell tower.  I am chagrinned to admit that we never made it to this cathedral.  But we enjoyed immensely gazing up at it from various areas of this mountain town as we walked around.

Piazza Armerina is one of the so-called Lombardic communes of Sicily.  The Lombards came to this area of Sicily about 900 years ago from the Lombardy region of far northwestern Italy, especially from Monferrato and Piacenza.  Genoa is located in this region.  The kings of Sicily encouraged the migration of Lombardi peoples to relocate in this region of Sicily for about 400 years.  The Lombards of Sicily are an ethnic and linguistic group speaking an isolated variety of Gallo-Italian dialects.  These are the so-called Gallo-Italic of Sicily.  The dialect here differs notably from that of the neighboring regions.

The reason for our visit here had nothing to do with that cathedral, beautiful as it might be.

Layout of the Villa Romana del Casale
This is a very large place. That straight light blue hallway on the right in this image measures
200 Roman feet long.  That is roughly 60 meters or 195 feet.

We were here for the mosaics!  

Exactly 37,674 square feet of floor mosaics to be precise. Plus wall mosaics and colorfully painted plaster walls.  All to be found in the Villa Romana del Casale.  This villa is one of the most luxurious of its kind.  The mosaics are well preserved due to an earthquake and landslide centuries past.  These mosaics are the finest in situ  which have been found to date anywhere in the Roman world.

Rather than bore readers with lots of details, here is a link that provides information about these mosaics and this sumptuous villa.

UNESCO information about Villa Romana del Casale

And here is a link to a video which I found somewhere on that site.  (Click the link and then click on the image of the mosaic to view video.)

UNESCO video about this villa

The video covers nicely what we saw except that today there are more wooden ceilings and wooden partial domes in several rooms of the villa.  According to the signs, when the villa was occupied the coffered ceilings would have been as depicted today. A concentrated effort is being made to restore the structure as closely to original as possible.

This place must have been extremely impressive during its heyday.  The owner was an important and very, very wealthy person.  Had to be.  Just to feed and clothe the servants or slaves required to maintain this residence would have required a fortune, not to mention the cost of construction.  We have seen a lot of mosaics in our travels in Turkey and were not sure that these would be worth the trip, but I am glad we came.  The mosaics are impressive but seeing the size and scale of this Roman villa is even more impressive.  At least for us.

Here are a few photos.  I am not posting very many because the linked video shows a number of the same ones I photographed.  By the way, there are signs everywhere stating "no cameras" or "no photography."  Obviously, flash photography is not allowed because the lights could further damage the mosaics.  But those signs are there to discourage tourists from inhibiting traffic movement of thousands of tourists who visit this place by holding people up while one takes a photo.  Because we were here at a time of year that there are extremely few tourists, there was no problem with me taking photos.  If it had been crowded, that would have been a different situation.  But with sparse numbers of visitors on the day we were there, the attendants did not care if I took photos, as long as no flash.

This large floor mosaic depicts the Circus Maximus of
Rome, on which a quadrigae is in progress.  The winning
charioteer  is being handed a palm leaf and a bag of coin.

Note the metal 'T' embedded
in the stone on this wall.
There were many of these.
Used to hold marble slabs onto
walls.  Metal was so rare that
many of the sites we visited
in Rome had been destroyed
just to reclaim these pieces
of metal to melt and re-use.

Large room floor mosaic scene of a hunt

Floor mosaic filled the room.  In upper left corner can see
what the floor scene was prior to being remodeled.
Maybe the purpose of this room was changed so it
required a new floor design.  Women exercised back then?

Think this was in the children's area of  home

Forgot what this was.  But had floor drains so must have
had a shallow pool inside the columns.  The mosaics
included many boats.

Note the wooden coffered ceiling and the wooden
'dome' at the end.  Supposedly, this was how
the ceilings were when the villa was constructed.

One of many circular rooms

The Villa Romano del Casale is situated a couple of miles outside the town or Piazza Armerina.  The villa is law down in a valley and the town is very high on the hilltops.  But one cannot see the villa from the town or see the town from the villa.  

Piazza Armerina is a picturesque town.  We enjoyed walking the old city to find a restaurant and then the long walk back to the hotel.  We were surprised to discover that at least at this time of year this town basically rolls up the sidewalks by 9 p.m.  That is very unusual in Italy. In little Marina di Ragusa the restaurants do not even start to get busy until at least 9 p.m.  Same was true in Rome.  Here the restaurants, except the one where we dined, were all closed by 9.  Very strange.  Maybe this early closing was because it is not yet tourist season.

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Romana and I would not recommend this hotel.  We were the only guests in the hotel.  Five floors of rooms and ours was the only room occupied. The manager and staff were very nice but it was not worth the price charged.  A very basic room and the air-conditioning did not work.  It was very cool outside and the windows opened.  But there was a lattice of some sort lined with a kind of plastic material which prevented any cool air from entering the room.  After one overly-warm night in the very cool mountain town, we were ready to move on.

Oh, yes!  The T.V. in our hotel room.  Almost forgot about that.  When we arrived it would not work.  After several tries the guy eventually found the right remotes and fresh batteries and finally got the T.V. to work.  Of course there were no English speaking channels but so what.  After we returned from dinner I turned on the television and spent the next hour enjoying the last half of the 1953 western movie 'Shane' starring Alan Ladd.  

Who would ever have thought we would be in the mountains of central Sicily and watching a 62-year-old American classic western Italian.

I loved it.


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