Naples and Sicily

If you were a Greek in about 750 BC and you wanted to get away from the city state rivalries of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, you might have sailed around the southernmost Grecian landfall and headed due west. After a relatively short cruise, you would have bumped into the island of Sicily and set down roots. Those roots became Syracuse, described by the great Roman orator, Cicero, as “the greatest of Greek cities.” More Greeks followed and settled around the rest of Sicily and up the southern Italian coast.

The political history of southern Italy is exhaustingly complex. It has been ruled by Greece, Carthage, the Romans, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, and even Italy. This part of southern Italy has always had a “Dixie” complex. Similar to the American Deep South, it has never really liked being ruled by the North. (Between Salt Water and Holy Water: A History of Southern Italy)

Savvy travelers have heard of the enchanting Amalfi Coast and the Isle of Capri, (accent on the first syllable). How can you even think of Sorrento without hearing Pavarotti’s virtuoso lament, “Sorrento”? (The Original Three Tenors Concert) Land of movie stars and “Mamma Mia!” Even Roman emperors built vacation homes here. We will leave you to find your own amore, if you can avoid the crowds.

Artist’s impression of the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii, before the eruption. By CyArk, via Wikimedia Commons

But, when it comes to ancient history, you will find that here, as well. Greek and Roman temples abound, from Syracuse and Agrigento on Sicily to Paestum on the mainland. The big deals are the legendary Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, smothered by the ash of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.

And that brings us to a short discussion on Italian volcanoes. You will discover that southern Italy has a very hot history. In fact, Naples is surrounded by caldera, including the Isle of Ischia just off the coast, to Campi Flegrei on the mainland west of the city, to Vesuvius to the southeast. Most cruise itineraries to Naples also sail to northern Sicily, passing the conic islands of Stromboli, Lipari, Vulcano and Panarea, on the way to Sicily’s Mt. Etna, the largest active crater in Europe. If you happen to cruise south of the island, you’ll pass Pantelleria and the submerged Campi Flegrei Mar Sicilia. This is the densest concentration of volcanoes in Europe.

Mt Vesuvius seen from the ruins of Pompeii. By Morn the Gorn, via Wikimedia Commons

The 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius clearly caught everyone by surprise with its timing and intensity. Pompeii and smaller Herculaneum were completely buried in ash, creating an archeological wonderland for future generations. They are still digging. (Pompeii: The History, Life and Art of the Buried City) The ash has done an incredible job of preserving this snapshot of ancient living.

When reflecting on Sicily, it is impossible to ignore the worldwide influence of the Mafia. There are the glossy Hollywood versions: The Godfather – The Coppola Restoration, Bugsy, and The Sopranos: The Complete Series. And there are the real-life versions: Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System, and Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires. It is a part of everyday life in Southern Italy.