Harrow and Hillingdon Geological Society
Sicily September 2005
I wanted to go to Sicily but did not want to go alone so I asked around and in the end ten of us, Sally and David, Pat and Ron, Allan, Mike, Jean, Pat, Maureen and I set off. We booked into a small hotel in Taormina, close to the town centre. Taormina is perched on a promontory of Mesozoic limestone on the north east coast of Sicily. Pictures of Taormina show it dominated by the volcano, Mount Etna, but it was shrouded in cloud for most of our visit. Apart from the cloud around Etna the weather was perfect.
Sicily is the product of the subduction of the African plate under the European plate. This also produced Mount Etna, the last and most active of the chain of volcanoes running through Italy.
We tried public transport to begin with but it was a bit unreliable, so for the big excursions to the Aeolian Islands, Agrigento and the Villa Casale we went on organised tours. This involved us getting up at 5am to catch the coach at 6.15 am at the local coach station.
For the trip to Syracuse we travelled south past Catania. The railway and the motorway are both cut through lava flows on the way south to Catania. In fact Catania was badly damaged by an Etna eruption in1669.
On arrival in Syracuse we made for the museum which was very comprehensive and well laid out. After that we went to the Archaeological Area dominated by a vast Greek amphitheatre carved out of the solid limestone. From here we got a tremendous view over the city. Near the amphitheatre were the quarries from where the limestone was obtained to build the city. According to the books the Pliocene limestone was quarried using a pillar and stall type process, however successive earthquakes have brought down the roof and it is now an open park with big boulders. One of the caves remaining at the edge is named the Ear of Dionysius because of its shape and acoustics: the other and one is called the Cave of the Rope Makers. This made use of the fact that the damp atmosphere made the hemp more manageable.
In the centre of the island is a large roman villa, Villa Casale, with very many finest quality mosaics in different styles from the formal geometric, to athletes, to spectacular hunting scenes. We visited it on the way to Agrigento, a city and temple complex on the south coast, built of calcareous sandstone.
We took a train journey on the Circumetna railway in the foothills of Mount Etna, where the line was cut through lava flows.
Our most interesting trip was the Aeolian Islands of Lipari and Volcano. These old volcanic islands have been eroded and shaken by earthquakes so the years of volcanic activity have been exposed in places. Lipari has been inhabited since about 3000BC because it is a source of obsidian. Currently the there are large mines where pumice is exported for cement. On volcano it is impossible to escape the sulphurous smell. Below the, still-active, main crater is a side crater from the last eruption in 1888-90 and the basalt lava flow. A local vulcanologist told us this is where they expect the next eruption.
A thoroughly enjoyable trip, with still more to see.