A sight to behold: The interior of the cathedral at Monreale

This has just become official World Heritage – the Cathedral of Monreale on Sicily – see near the end of this post!

In two previous posts, we’ve been celebrating the fact that two of the places we visit on our itineraries (Ephesus being one of them!) have been recently added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, that remarkable and still-growing catalogue of places that have been made singularly impressive or significant either by human achievement or by the eternal creativity of nature herself.

We did so by having a closer look at the UNESCO-listed sites we show guests on our tours and cruises in Turkey, and at those we experience on our trips in Greece.

Now, it’s time for the third part, on Italy. The country is actually the current record-holder in terms of World Heritage sites: it has 51, out of a global total of 1,031 (count in July 2015). About a quarter of them are already part of our Italy tours – including a newly-added one – and more will surely follow…

WORLD HERITAGE SITES ON OUR TOURS AND CRUISES IN ITALY

ROME AND LAZIO

It’s difficult to call a single region the “heart of Italy”, but the area around the country’s fabled capital is obviously a key contender. Our Exploring Rome tour is a profound engagement with that city itself and with some highlights of its surroundings – it currently includes three UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites, while at least one more site we see on that tour, the Via Appia, may be added soon.

Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura

The Arch of Titus and the Colosseum (both 1st century AD) in the heart of Rome (image by Alexander Z., Wikimedia).

Just a tiny sample: the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum (both 1st century AD) in the heart of Rome. (Image by Alexander Z., Wikimedia).

A cumbersome name describes one of the most complex and most fascinating of all UNESCO World Heritage sites. The protected area includes all of the city of Rome located within its 17th century walls, in other words a huge swathe of the historic city, including virtually all of its major ancient monuments, plus much of its medieval and post-medieval Christian heritage.

Rome was – according to legend – founded in 753 BC and that certainly had become a major centre by the 4th century BC; it rose to be the capital of one of world history’s great empires by the 1st century BC and stayed so for half a millennium, and even after that, the city was always a major player, not least as the seat of the medieval and Renaissance popes. Thus, it is impossible to even begin listing the many monuments contained in the UNESCO-designated area: they include the ancient Forum and Imperial Fora, the Pantheon and countless sanctuaries, the Colosseum and numerous baths and literally hundreds of other incredible sights of “Imperial Rome”. Seamlessly integrated with those are a host of important churches dating from all periods between Early Christian and Baroque, along with even more chapels, palaces, fountains, squares and so on.

Experiencing and understanding Rome is a challenge as well as a supreme pleasure – it opens up a whole set of windows into the human past!

Villa Adriana (Tivoli)

The "Canopus" at the Villa of Hadrian: an artificial pond imitating or evoking the scenery of the Egyptian city bearing that name.

The “Canopus” at the Villa of Hadrian: an artificial pond imitating or evoking the scenery of the Egyptian city bearing that name.

Just 30km (18mi) from Rome, Tivoli has long been an attractive retreat beyond the hustle and bustle of the city. One of the first to recognise this was Hadrian, the 14th Roman Emperor and one of the most cultured men to reach that position.

“Villa of Hadrian” (Villa Hadriana or Adriana) is an insufficient description for the immense complex he had erected between 120 and 130 AD as his personal “home from Rome”, as an official place of representation and eventually as his seat of government. The complex consisted of over thirty buildings on an area of more than a square kilometre (or 250 acres), housing the emperor himself as well as countless courtiers, guards and slaves, but also including bathhouses, places of worship, gardens and so on. Its architecture reflected Hadrian’s own interests and travels by incorporating Roman, Greek and Egyptian elements, making the Villa Adriana a microcosm of the Roman World, filled with precious works of art.

Even today, the remains – only partly excavated so far – are stupendous and beautiful.

Villa d’Este, Tivoli

A view from the gardens of the Villa d'Este.

A view from the gardens of the Villa d’Este.

The idea of using Tivoli as a not-so-secret hideaway outside Rome certainly did not stop with Hadrian. The Villa d’Este was built between the 1550s and 1570s, by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, a member of the Borgia Clan and grandson of Pope Alexander VI, for pretty much the same purposes as the Villa Adriana (minus the empire part). The edifice itself is a fine example of a Renaissance villa, now bereft of its original sumptuous contents, except a whole series of wonderful fresco paintings.

What makes the Villa d’Este extra special, however, is its enormous gardens, planned in the 1500s and developed throughout the following centuries. They are set on a series of terraces and interspersed with walkways, plant arrangements, grottos – and countless ornate fountains: there are more than 500 water spouts, fed by a diverted river! The villa and gardens are considered a major landmark and influence in European garden and landscape design. They are also a joy to visit.

BAY OF NAPLES AND SURROUNDINGS

The Gulf of Naples and its neighbouring areas are another cultural heartland of European history – and especially art history – from Greek and Roman antiquity to the very present. It is the backdrop to our Crusing the Amalfi Coast, which includes a further three World Heritage Sites – although one might argue that more places on that itinerary would deserve to be listed.

Costiere Amalfitana – The Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast

A stretch of the Amalfi Coast in all its glory!

Yes, the Amalfi Coast itself has been entered into the UNESCO list, defined as a series of stretches of shoreline on the southern coast of the Sorrento peninsula, including various historical towns and the inshore hinterland. Interestingly, this is not a “Natural World Heritage” entry, but very definitely a cultural one: the Amalfi Coast has been settled by humans since prehistory and its present appearance, in spite of the stupendous natural topography, is defined by millennia of human activity. As such, it is considered a prime example of a Mediterranean cultural landscape, it very appearance strongly determined by the harbour towns dotted along the shore, the cultivation of fruit in the coastal plains and the use of the uplands for browsing and pasture.

Nonetheless, a key attraction of the area is its long history, centering on the town of Amalfi itself, which was a major sea power and centre of trade and commerce in the Middle Ages. Its architecture, highlighted especially by the stupendous cathedral, shows strong Sicilian and Arab-Norman influences. A well-prepared visit to the region includes art, architecture and archaeology, but also the rich array of local products and specialities!

Archaeological Areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum nd Torre Annunziata

Cultural heritage second to none: the amphitheatre at Pompeii nearly fully preserved by the volcanic destruction that destroyed that vibrant Roman city in AD 79

The amphitheatre at Pompeii, nearly fully preserved by the volcanic destruction that destroyed that vibrant Roman city in AD 79, and just one sight in that whole city!

The Roman cities destroyed and preserved by the AD 79 eruption of Mt Vesuvius are obvious places of World Heritage, irrespective of any formal definition or recognition. No archaeological site on this planet is more famous than Pompeii and Herculaneum, where ashes (for the former) and lava-mud-flows (for the latter) have preserved not just the buildings of those once-thriving cities virtually in their entirety, but also their contents, from objects of everyday life via artworks of all genres to the remains of those who died in the catastrophe.

It is impossible to summarise how much about ancient life, Roman and otherwise, we have learnt, and still are learning, from those incredible places. Walking the streets, lanes and squares of those cities, entering their shrines, public buildings, shops and private homes, and admiring the sculpture and especially the vast amount of wall-paintings (but also graffiti) that adorn their walls is an experience like none other, a full immersion into antiquity. And an effortless one if accompanied by a good guide!

Historic Centre of Naples

A recent example of Naples' countless important buildings: the Galleria Umberto I, an 1880s shopping mall.

A recent example of Naples’ countless important buildings: the Galleria Umberto I, an 1880s shopping mall.

Another complex and multi-faceted World Heritage site, Naples is a city of incredible historical depth, with origins as a Greek colony back in the 9th century BC, refounded as Neapolis (New City) in the 5th. Over the millennia, the city was ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Sicilians, Swabians (Germans), Angevins (French), Aragonese (Spanish) and Bourbons, all of whom have left visible traces in the city’s very fabric, from the Greek street grid to the innumerable churches and palaces of subsequent periods.

For much of that time, Naples was the capital of a kingdom in its own right. As a result, the city, located in a wonderful panoramic setting on the bay that bears its name, rivals places like Rome in its wealth and diversity of architecture and its many facets of interest. In addition to those architectural glories, it is a city of great character, expressed in the local parochial architecture, the culinary tradition (Naples famously claims the invention of pizza), the distinctive dialect and much more.

A famous saying goes “”Vedi Napoli e poi muori! — See Naples and die!”, but there’s no need for that. See Naples and enjoy is just as good.

SICILY

Our two-week Exploring Sicily is currently the record-holder among Peter Sommer Travels’ itineraries as regards UNESCO World Heritage sites – no wonder, considering its rich and diverse history. Until earlier this year, it shared that position with Exploring the Peloponnese, at five listed sites each, but as of recently, the tour includes six sites that carry that distinction and there is potential for more, as Taormina and Mothia/Mozia (we’ve written about it) are on the “tentative list”. Our one-week Gastronomic Tour of (Eastern) Sicily takes in four of the current World Heritage sites.

Archaeological Area of Agrigento

agriegento temple of concordia from west sq

Miraculously well-preserved: the 5th century “Temple of Concordia” (we don’t actually know for sure which deity it was dedicated to) at Agrigento.

Although I have tried in the past, words basically fail me when trying to describe the beauty and fascination of Agrigento, ancient Akragas, one of antiquity’s great cities. The place is a miracle in many ways: its setting is fantastic in itself and would be remarkable even just for the baroque town or for no cultural site at all: a cliff-top slope of great fertility, overlooking the Mediterranean in the mid-distance.

What makes the site one of the most evocative on all of our tours (or anyone’s) is the series of fine Greek temples (mainly 5th century BC) lines up along the ridge that is misleadingly known as the Valley of the Temples. Not only are there seven ancient temples lines up along the 1.8km (1.1mi) of the ridge, but each of them has its own distinguishing characteristics. Especially well-preserved are that attributed (perhaps falsely) to Hera/Juno and, even more so, the so-called “Temple of Concordia”, which is nearly complete, one of only two Classical temples in the entire Greek World to be so!

Alongside its wonderful archaeological museum, full of unexpected treasure and the wonderful town next to the ancient site, Akragas is one of the most memorable places I have ever seen – and much bigger minds than mine agree!

Mount Etna

From a distance: lava flows on Mount Etna during an eruption in 2011. (Image by wikimedia user Cirimbillo)

From a distance: lava flows on Mount Etna during an eruption in 2011. (Image by wikimedia user Cirimbillo)

Mount Etna, the iconic volcano overlooking Sicily’s eastern coast, is listed as one of the “natural” sites on te UNESCO World Heritage list. The protected area is defined as about 200 square kilometres (about 77 square miles) around the summit/crater of the 3,300m (11,000ft) high volcano. That area in itself is hard to describe, as it contains virtually no infrastructure and changes frequently, due to the volcano’s constant activity.

Etna has been noted and observed by humans for over 2,500 years, making it not just one of Europe’s most active volcanoes, but one of the world’s most iconic ones. Scientific observation of volcanic activity began here with the ancient Greeks and continues to this day. The presence of the mountain and its activity has had both benign and catastrophic effects on its surroundings for millennia, making it a central part in the great narrative that is Sicily’s history.

On our tours, we view Etna frequently and from many angles, we explore it as far as possible, and we discover the distinctive historical/cultural expressions of its presence – as well as the great wines grown on the volcanic soils it provides.

Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (South-Eastern Sicily)

Modica on Sicily

A view of the Baroque centre of Modica.

As we just mentioned, Eastern Sicily is geologically active. In 1693, a very major earthquake shook the area and destroyed a large number of towns and villages – a catastrophic and traumatic event. But at the time, Sicily was wealthy enough for most of those places to be rebuilt in the style of the period. The result is simply extraordinary.

The desaster that was the earthquake led to an outpouring of creativity and thought, both in terms of urban planning and of individual architectural achievement. As the common style in Europe then was Late Baroque, the reconstruction led to the creation of a whole series of towns and cities in that style, one of the most sumptuous in European art history. Six cities are particularly noted for their consistency of design and its preservation to this day, and two of them, Catania and Modica, are on our itineraries. Their splendour is indicative of the period and of the very substantial effort made at the time – and they are both living cities!

Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica

In many ways a shorthand for the historical depth and complexity of Siracusa/Syracuse: the medieval and Baroque cathedral, built into and over the Classical Temple of Athena.

In many ways a shorthand for the historical depth and complexity of Siracusa/Syracuse: the medieval and Baroque cathedral, built into and over the Classical Temple of Athena, its Doric columns, unmoved for 25 centuries, still showing through the later walls.

This is one of those strange UNESCO listings that make little sense. Both sites listed are great and fully deserving of such status, but it is hard to see why they should be seen as one.

Pantalica, 25 km (16mi) from Syracuse, is a great example of an ancient necropolis: the limestone cliffs in the area received rock-cut tombs from the 13th century BC or thereabouts onwards, for more than half a millennium. It indicates great continuity in terms of locals burying their dead in a place that meant much to them.

The other part of the same listing is Syracuse, modern Siracusa. If we called Agrigento one of antiquity’s great cities (and we did), this one is a metropolis. The modern city rubs shoulders and shares a street grid with a Greek colony going back to the 6th century BC or further. Its harbours, walls, quarries, shrines and streets are all still appreciable in various ways. The best way to understand how this city has existed for over two-and-a-half millennia is to visit its Cathedral of the Virgin Mary: a 6th century Doric Temple of Athena is preserved inside it.

More sites and museums make Syracuse one of the most appreciable cities of antiquity – and a great place to be now.

Villa Romana del Casale (Roman Villa of Casale)

The "Bikini Mosaic" from the Casale villa shows girls training for various forms of athleticism, dressed in a practical way to protect their modesty.

The “Bikini Mosaic” from the Casale villa shows girls training for various forms of athleticism, dressed in a practical way to protect their modesty without hindering their movements.

Located near the village of Piazza Armerina (which is often used as its name), this site is relevant in two ways, one of historical interest, the other far beyond that. Casale was the seat of a Roman “villa”, not in the modern sense of that word but in the Roman one, namely as the headquarters of a latifundium, an agricultural estate, probably from the second or third century AD, if not earlier. The villa now known was erected in the 4th century.

It is an enormous site, only partially excavated to this day, but it includes one of the finest Roman villas of the time, especially due to its floor mosaics. Excavations have revealed the ancient private baths, reception rooms, dining rooms and so on – all the spaces that a rich Roman of the period would – if he could afford to – use for ostentatious representation.

That’s what Romans did and this is not the place to analyse it further. What the site gives us is an extraordinary high-quality array of mosaics showing different motifs – a treasure trove of that form of ancient art. The most famous is the “bikini” one, depicting girls in athletic training, but those are only one aspect of an array that includes hunting scenes, circus motifs, religious and mythological subjects and much else.

Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale

The mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, and below him the enthroned Virgin and Child, in the central apse

The mosaic of Christ Pantokrator (the “Ruler of All”) and below him the enthroned Virgin and Child, in the central apse of the cathedral at Monreale.

This is what makes Exploring Sicily our record tour – these monuments entered the UNESCO list just now!

What do you know? – I really cannot maintain an objective tone here. The ensemble of sites described in the title is logical and fine, but it lacks a key term! The “Arab-Norman” part of Sicilian history and art history is finely worded, but it is also misleading. It should be called “Arab-Norman-Byzantine” (and not necessarily in that order). What is most striking for any visitor to Monreale, Palermo (the Royal Palace and its chapel) or Cefalú is actually the strong Byzantine element that helps to unite all the strands. Is that a surprise? No – not if you try to understand the context.

Sicily is perhaps the best example of how local identity is global identity. That island,the biggest in the Mediterranean and at its very centre, has always been the recipient of many influences, on top of its own distinctive character and identity. That’s its beauty. The churches built under Norman rule, as we have discussed here before, are an embodiment of that extraordinary clear multi-cultural background and of the unique beauty and deliberate complexity entailed in the island’s peculiar history. The rulers who had these wonderful edifices built were actively aware of the strands they needed to combine. The best artists they could use – and afford, as it appears – were from Constantinople. Good for those artists, good for those rulers, perhaps good for the people they ruled – and certainly good for us. For jaw-dropping beauty, go to Monreale or Cefalú!

***

So, these are the UNESCO-listed sites currently on out itineraries in Italy. We have reason to suspect that their number will increase. But to tell you the truth, the point is not numbers. The point is, quite simply, to come and join us and our expert guides to see, experience, enjoy, savour, explore and understand these places and sights – and to walk away richer, happier, more understanding and – ideally – full of desire to see, feel and understand even more.

If you liked this post, also have a look at the other two parts of this series: about UNESCO-listed monuments on our tours of Turkey and on our trips in Greece.

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