Circumnavigation of Sicily May 08—17, 2008
Posted by Barry Lyon
The natural and historical wonders of majestic Sicily were on full display on our first ever Circumnavigation of Sicily cruise. On this trip, our latest in the genre of birds and history cruises, we experienced a different kind of island paradise—not one of palm trees and sandy beaches, but one of sun-splashed Greek ruins, ornate Norman cathedrals, medieval towns, and scenic pastoral landscapes.
For seven days, our enthusiastic inaugural group explored the premier sites of the island, combining birding field trips, excursions to the island’s magnificent Greek and Roman ruins, and walking tours of its centuries-old cities and towns.
In the island capital, Palermo, we enjoyed a perfect day of birding, sightseeing, and cuisine. The Villa Giulia Botanic Gardens provided a superb introduction to the birds of Sicily, with such exciting birds as Yellow-legged Gull, Blackcap, Wood Pigeon, Gray Wagtail, and European Serin offering a taste of some of the island's characteristic species. Traveling through the streets of Palermo and nearby Monreale, we were afforded an intimate look at the "real" Sicily. Streetside shops and homes competed for our attention with splendid historical landmarks. In particular, the incomparable Norman cathedral of Monreale must surely rank among the world's most exquisite artistic achievements.
Undeniably, the trip's centerpiece was Callisto, a handsome and well-appointed private yacht that served as our home for the duration of the trip. It is easy to imagine that any trip to Sicily in mid-May should be rewarding, but seeing the island from the decks of a private yacht provided the ultimate experience. Motoring from one port-of-call to the next allowed us at all times to absorb the island's fabulous historical sights and coastal scenery. Disembarking on the island's east and south coasts, in Messina, Ortygia, and Porto Empedocle, put us only minutes from some of the finest, most intact ruins from the Greek world.
In Taormina, the Greco-Roman amphitheater and inspiring views of Naxos Bay were the highlights of our time in this ancient cliffside city. The Greek theater at Syracuse was the chief attraction of our visit to this part of the island, where Athens and Syracuse waged epic war in the fifth century B.C. The nearby old town of Ortygia was equally interesting, offering imposing architectural splendors dating from before the tenth century.
The amazing ruins at Agrigento are said to be as impressive as any in the ancient Greek world, where the Doric temples of Hera and Hercules stand like timeless sentinels over the "Valley of Temples." Unlike the gleaming white marble that we identify with the most famous of Greek structures, the Parthenon, these Sicilian temples were crafted from a local variety of sandstone tinted the color of brown sugar. On the day of our visit, the lighting conditions were such that the temples burned golden under the mid-morning sun.
The fantastic archaeological museums at each of our destinations were themselves monuments to antiquity. Peering at ancient vases, urns, and statues—many of which date from almost three thousand years ago—was akin to looking through a porthole in history. With little effort we could imagine the hands of the master craftsmen of so long ago, hard at work creating these objects.
Continuing to the island's west side, we spent our last couple of days completing the roll call of Sicily's most significant historical sites. At Selinunte we toured the Acropolis and the large hilltop temple standing in lonely solitude. At Segesta we beheld a temple that was among the largest the Greeks ever built. Amid limestone hills, olive orchards, and wheat fields, the setting here was one of great tranquility. A notable highlight was Larry Wolff's flexing of his vocal chords within the ancient confines of the Greek theater. A final afternoon in the improbable mesa-top town of Erice was an experience unto itself. Elevated high over the surrounding countryside, scenic Erice emitted the charm of a medieval village while offering stupendous views of the sea beyond.
While Sicily, even among European birders, is not known as a top birding destination, we found the birding always interesting at the least, and sometimes even spectacular. Around the temple ruins we were always interrupting our historical interpretation to note new birds. Spanish Sparrows, Spotless Starlings, Eurasian Jackdaws, and Hooded Crows were among the more common species, but constant watching yielded a host of other exciting European birds including Common Buzzard, Eurasian Kestrel, European Honey-buzzard, Eurasian Blackbird, European Goldfinch, and European Greenfinch.
May is a time for migration, and Sicily lies directly on the flight path of millions of birds pouring north from African wintering grounds. Our field trip to Di Vendicari preserve outside Syracuse was special. We were finding birds faster than we could identify them, and this included some of Europe's most prized birds. Among the morning's spoils were Common Shelduck, Western Marsh-Harrier, Little Bittern, Black-tailed Godwit, Great Spotted Cuckoo, European Roller, European Bee-eater, Eurasian Hoopoe, Woodchat Shrike, and Sardinian Warbler.
Though the Mediterranean is not known for its rich seabirding, it does hold some important breeding colonies of Cory's Shearwater and the endemic Levantine Shearwater. On the afternoon we left Agrigento, we spent hours having great fun watching both shearwater species cut through Callisto's wake, arcing over the waves for all to enjoy.
It is said that Sicily lies at one of history's greatest crossroads, that every major civilization that once occupied the shores of the Mediterranean claimed her, or pieces of her anyway, as its own. First the Phoenicians, then the Greeks, then the Romans and on through the ages, from the Saracens, to the Normans, and the Spanish—each called Sicily its own, and each left indelible traces on the landscape and its people. It was against this luminous backdrop of history, culture, and birding that we enjoyed a trip none of us will ever forget. A special thanks is due Dr. Larry Wolff, of New York University, who served as our staff historian and who, through his lectures and endless patience in answering our questions, made sense of the island's complicated past.