An Irish Roadtrip — From the Burren to the Dingle Peninsula

An Irish Roadtrip — From the Burren to the Dingle Peninsula

After a night in Galway City, we head south toward County Clare and the Burren. The road takes us by Dunguaire Castle, a small 16th century fortress rising from the shore of Galway Bay, and a fine exemple of the strongholds of Middle Ages’ chieftains. 

The medieval ruins of Dunguaire Castle tower over Galway Bay.

From there, with a passing glance at the quaint nearby seaport village of Kinvara, it’s a forty minute drive on back roads lined with low stone walls and disheveled hedges — and six thousand years back to Neolithic times.





Poulnabrone Dolmen

Poulnabrone is the oldest megalithic monument in Ireland.

Sitting on one of the highest points of the barren limestone plateau of the Burren, the Poulnabrone Dolmen (Poll na Brón in Gaelic, literally ‘the hole of sorrows’) is a monumental portal tomb.The oldest and largest megalithic monument in Ireland, it consists of three standing portal stones, each approximately 2 meters (6.5 feet) high, supporting a massive rectangular capstone. A separate slab lies on the ground nearby. It is supposed to have been used to close the back part of the portal, but has since collapsed.

The colossal back part of the portal has now collapsed.

Poulnabrone was built by Neolithic farmers, who chose the location as a collective burial site and a territorial marker. Radiocarbon dating places its use around 3800 to 3200 BC. All that remains today is the stone structure of the original monument. At the time, it would have been covered with soil and capped by a cairn. The site, including chamber, portico and cairn, was excavated in the 1980’s. The remains of 16 adults and 6 children from the Neolithic era were found, along with various stone and bone objects that would have been placed with them at the time of interment. A newborn from the Bronze Age was also uncovered on the site. These findings are now at the Clare Museum, in the nearby town of Ennis.

A World of Limestone

Limestone pavements were polished by ancient glaciers.

There is far more to the Burren than Poulnabrone. The name itself, derived from the Gaelic Boireann (‘rocky land’), says it all. While we are here, we take a moment to wander  (with caution) around the adjoining polished limestone pavements. Scoured clean by moving ice sheets some 16 000 years ago, the pavements consist of two separate parts: clints and grykes. The clints are the massive blocks of limestone that form the paving, while the grykes are the crevices that isolate the individual clints and provide a moist shelter where a surprising variety of perennial herbs and dwarf ferns manage to thrive.

The folded layers of Mullaghmore are reflected in Loch Gealain.

From the Poulnabrone area, a 30-minute drive east takes us to a very different landscape, and a major landmark of the Burren: Mullaghmore (from the Gaelic Mullach Mór or ‘great summit’). Initially formed some 350 million years ago, the area was then a seabed of compressed sediments. As the only part the Burren to have been subjected to subsequent major tectonic pressures, the barren hill is unique for its smooth contours and distinctive folded layers of limestone in varied shades for pewter and silver. And its refection into the serene waters of the small, spring-fed Loch Gealain, imbues the entire scenery with a sense of otherworldly tranquility.

The Cliffs of Moher

O’Brien Tower is one of the best vantage points of the cliffs.

An hour west of Mullaghmore, we reach the southwestern edge of the Burren and one of the most famous coastal sites in Ireland: the Cliffs of Moher. 

Stretched along 12 kilometers (8 miles) of coastline, they are one of the premier tourist attractions in the country. The striated black cliffs soar vertically from the churning Atlantic Ocean to heights reaching over 210 meters (700 feet) at their highest point, just north of O’Brien Tower. The circular stone tower was built in 1835 near the midpoint of the cliffs. It remains part of the main viewing area and one of the best vantage points to take in the jaw-dropping vistas of the Wild Atlantic Way.

The main viewing area offers a panoramic view of  the edge of the cliffs.

From there, with the waves crashing below and the seabirds whirling about, we can spot cave entrances, take in the panoramic view of the cliffs’ edge receding toward the horizon, and feel the call of the clifftop walking trails. It is the best place to appreciate the true scale of the cliffs and view the vertical, 67 meters (220 feet) high Branaunmore sea stack, formed by relentless waves eroding the main cliff over millions of years.


A Land of Photo Opportunities

Thatched cottages dot the backroads of County Clare.

This is the last leg of our journey around the natural and archeological treasures of Ireland. As we make our way south toward the Dingle Peninsula, we enjoy stretches of Wild Atlantic Way vistas that are the stuff Celtic legends are made of. In the ever-changing light, the foreboding rocky coastline can fade into the fog in an instant, while a beam of pale light in the distance reveals an off-shore islet. Or, along the narrow country roads, we come across perfectly coiffed thatched cottages and sheds, artfully painted barns, and the occasional proud ruins of an ancient castle.

Conor Pass

The road to Conor Pass leads by gushing waterfalls.

Conor Pass is one of the highest mountain passes in Ireland. It is reputed for its dramatic views of the Dingle Peninsula and the Wild Atlantic Way (in good weather).  From the outskirts of the tiny seaside village of Cloghane on the north side of the peninsula, a winding one-lane road rises over 450 meters (1500 feet) to the pass. It become steeper and more treacherous as we get closer to the top, weaving its way around sheer cliff faces, past high corrie lakes and gushing waterfalls. And we are driving into a blanket of fog. No picture-perfect views of the Atlantic coast for us today, only a ghostly landscape of gleaming black rocks and the gray silhouettes of staggered hills fading into a gauzy, uncertain distance.  

A glacial valley opens below the road.

We soldier on, now on the downside of the 12-kilometer (8-mile) white-knuckle drive south toward Dingle City. As we reach a lower elevation, the clouds split open to let in a shaft of sunlight. A sweeping valley opens below us, brushed with the Irish autumn palette of golds and coppers. 

While our Conor Pass experience is a far cry from guide books’ promises, it is equally remarkable and a worthy metaphor for the many faces of Ireland under its ever changing weather.

Mullaghmore and the layered hills of the Burren

Good to Know

  • Getting there — The Burren: Follow route N6 from Galway to Kilcolgan, and then N67 to Poulnabrone, the R489 to Mullaghmore and the Cliffs of Moher.
  • Visiting — The Burren are parts of the natural landscape so, technically, there is no charge to see these site. This is definitely the case for Poulnabrone and Mullaghmore. However, at the Cliffs of Moher, the Visitors Centre and the main entrance to the cliffs are on the main road and there are no parking options in the vicinity other than the vast “official” parking lot located directly across the road. Parking fee was € 10 per adult (not per car) at the time of our visit. The fee includes admission to the Visitor Center, and contributes to the conservation of the area.
  • Note — The Burren and the Cliffs  of Moher are a UNESCO Global Geopark which supports sustainable tourism. Thanks to its high number of bird species, it was also made into a special protected area for birds and wildlife back in the late 1970s.

Location, location, location!


Ciffs of Moher

Conor Pass

An Irish Roadtrip — Connemara

An Irish Roadtrip — Connemara

After a morning spent exploring the epic basalt column formations of the Giant’s Causeway, we leave the Atlantic coast of Northern Ireland and head south toward the iconic lakes region of Connemara.

The ruins of medieval forts punctuate the landscape.

The 320 kilometers (200 miles) south-westerly drive takes us through a picturesque rural scenery of verdant hills and quaint villages. The occasional ruin of an abandoned medieval castle punctuates the skyline, a stark reminder of Ireland’s long and turbulent history. 



A Land of Austere Beauty

Rushing torrents and peat bogs are ever present in Connemara.

Some four hours into the drive, we enter a wild land of pewter-tinged granite mountains rising from rusty peat bogs and slate blue lakes. We have reached Connemara, the startlingly beautiful northern hinterland of County Galway, known through the ages for its stark living conditions. The lower hillsides are streaked with a network of ancient stone walls, often partially collapsed, that delineate small plots of farmland and pastures.

The mountainsides are covered in rust-colored heather.

We are traveling along an exceptionally scenic stretch of road, known as the Connemara Loop, to Leenane (a.k.a. Leenaun), a small village nestled between the Mwelrea, Devil’s Mother and Maamturk Mountains and overlooking Killary Harbour – Ireland’s only fjord. The weather changes at kaleidoscopic speed. One instant, the pale autumn sunshine brushes the heather-covered mountainsides in rust and ocher tones. At the next bend in the road, angry black clouds and rain squalls all but erase the scenery in blurry shades of grey. 

A Coaching Inn

The Leenane Hotel boasts spectacular views of the fjord.

The downpour has decreased to a misty drizzle by the time we reach the Leenane Hotel, our destination for the night. Established sometimes in the 1790’s the Leenane is Ireland’s oldest coaching inn – albeit one that has been refurbished to high contemporary standards. It also boasts spectacular views of the fjord from just about everywhere in the house, including our room and the cozy hotel bar with its open turf fire. The restaurant entices us with the best of local specialties, such as the superb Killary Bay Salmon and Rack of Connemara Mountain Lamb. It’s the ideal place for dining in on this gloomy November night.

A Love Story 

A bend in the road reveals Kylemore Abbey rising from Pollacappul Lake.

It’s a short 16 kilometer (10 mile) drive along a picture-perfect country road to Kylemore Abbey. Originally built as a Neo-Gothic castle in 1864-1871 alongside Pollacappul Lake, the Abbey’s history of love and tragedy is the stuff of Irish legends.

Kylemore Castle was built by Manchester tycoon Mitchell Henry as a present for his beloved wife Margaret. They both fell in love with the area on their honeymoon and he purchased the 15,000-acre estate as a gift for her. The Irish architect James Franklin Fuller, who was responsible for some of Ireland’s best-known buildings the time, was commissioned to design the 40,000-square foot Kylemore Castle, which boasted “all the innovations of the modern age”.

An exquisite diminutive Gothic cathedral was built on the grounds of Kylemore Castle in memory of Margaret Henry.

The love story turned tragic when the Henrys went on journey to Egypt in 1874, where Margaret caught dysentery and died shortly thereafter. The inconsolable Henry built a diminutive Gothic “cathedral” in her memory a short walk from the castle. This exquisite building has many of the hallmarks of its large Gothic counterparts, including a fan-vaulted ceiling, projecting corner buttresses, angelic gargoyles and pointed arches. The marble columns that support the vaulted ceiling are made of four Irish marbles: reddish-pink from Munster, black from Leinster, white from Ulster and green Connemara marble from Connacht.  He also built a small mausoleum in the woods near the church where Margaret was laid to rest, and her bereaved husband joined her upon his own death in 1910.

From Castle to Abbey

The Abbey has retained its romantic Neo-Gothic elegance.

The castle changed hands a few times after that, until it was purchased by Benedictine nuns looking for a new home after they had to flee their monastery in Flanders during World War I. The nuns converted the castle into Kylemore Abbey, which became the first Benedictine abbey in Ireland. They subsequently opened an international boarding school, and a day school for local girls, which ran up until 2010.

The public rooms have been restored to their Victorian opulence.

Today, a number of the public rooms of the castle have been restored to the Victorian opulence of the Henry family’s days, including the drawing rooms, dining room, ballroom and Mitchell Henry’s study. They are open for guided tours only, but visitors are free to wander around the grounds including the church and the vast Victorian Walled Gardens, which includes a formal flower garden, greenhouses and a kitchen garden. The remainder of the Abbey is used by the Benedictine nuns and is closed to visitors. 

Today, Kylemore is one of the most visited attractions in the west of Ireland, and an integral part of the Connemara experience.

Connemara vista.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Connemara is a region on the Atlantic coast of western County Galway, in the west of Ireland. It is located some 75 kilometers (45 miles) from Galway City  and Galway airport. From there the best way to explore this exceptionally wild and scenic area of the country is by car. The N59 is the main road serving the area, following an inland route from Galway to Clifden.  Kylemore Abbey is located right on the edge of Connemara National Park, 77 kilometers (48 miles) north from the centre of Galway City and 17 kilometers (10 miles) west of Leenane via N59.
  • Visiting —  Kylemore Abbey opening days and times vary with the seasons. Consult the Abbey’s website for information and required advance booking for the guided visit of the Abbey .
  • Staying —  Leenane Hotel, Clifden Road, Leenane, Connemara, Ireland. Contact:  Tel: +353 095 42249, and e-mail.  .
  • What’s in a name?  A lot actually, when it comes to Connemara. The region is not just about landscapes, as breathtaking as they are.  It is also about the long and harsh history of an ancient people in a desolate land. The name derives from ‘Conmhaicne Mara’ (the tribe of Cormac by the sea). The Irish people  originally called it Conmaicnemara until, after centuries of British rule, it was It was shortened in the 18th century to Connemara — Which brings us to Gaeltacht. Although you may see this indication on the occasional road sign, don’t expect your GPS to find it. Gaeltacht (literally Gaelic language) identifies the few districts of Ireland where the Irish government recognizes that the Irish language (Gaeilge or Gaelic) is the predominant language of the home. Connemara is one of the last remaining strongholds and the largest Gaeltacht region in the country.

Location, location, location!

Kylemore Abbey


An Irish Roadtrip — Brú na Bóinne and the Giant’s Causeway

An Irish Roadtrip — Brú na Bóinne and the Giant’s Causeway

It’s a one-hour drive north from Dublin to Brú na Bóinne (Gaelic for Palace of the Boyne), and 5,000 years back in time.

 The River Boyne at  Brú na Bóinne.

Built around 3200 BC within a bend of the River Boyne, the Brú na Bóinne complex is the most prominent Neolithic site in Ireland, famous for the spectacular passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. These ceremonial structures, which pre-date the Egyptian pyramids by some six centuries, also hold the most important concentration of megalithic art in Western Europe.

Brú na Bóinne

The Brú na Bóinne Visitor Reception Center.

On the south bank of the River Boyne, the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Reception Center is the only access point to the Neolithic sites of Newgrange and Knowth, located north of the river. On the lower level of the Center, extensive exhibits include a life-size replica of the Newgrange Chamber, as well as a model of one of Knowth’s smallest tombs. Access to the actual sites begins with visitors crossing the river via a footbridge to reach the shuttle bus that takes them to the monuments for their pre-booked, time-allocated guided visit.


A narrow passage of stone slabs leads to the central chamber.

Newgrange is the best example of a Stone Age passage tomb in Ireland and one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in Europe. The burial mound is some 80 meters (260 feet) in diameter and 13 meters (42 feet) high. The narrow passage leading to the central chamber and its three side niches is 19 meters (62 feet) long, walled and roofed with sturdy, carved slabs. Above the chamber, the roof slabs are arranged to an astonishing steeple-like peak. Human remains and funeral goods were originally found here.

The roofbox allows the rising sun to reach the inner chamber.

However, the most remarkable feature of Newgrange is its roofbox (open panel above the entrance). Every year, on the days around the winter solstice, the rising sun gleams through the opening and for 15 minutes illuminate the passage within, down to the innermost chamber, brushing the decorations with amber light. (Note: for visitors at any other time, the event is now re-created electrically).

The passage stones display elaborately carved motives.

Over 200,000 tonnes of earth and stone were used in the construction of Newgrange. The stones are believed to have been quarried and transported from Wicklow, 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the south as well as the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Newgrange also plays a role in Irish Mythology, as the burial place of the lovers Dairmuid and Grainne, and as the place where the great warrior Cuchulainn was conceived.


The Knowth site consists of a one-hectare mound surrounded by smaller satellite mounds.

The Knowth site consists of one large mound and 18 smaller satellite mounds. The large mound covers one hectare (2.5 acres) and contains two passages, placed along an east-west line. The entire mound is encircled by 127 kerbstones, many of them decorated with megalithic art. Over 200 decorated stones were found during excavations. Most of the motifs here are typical: spirals, lozenges and concentric circles, as well as unusual crescent shapes.

The chamber contained basin stones used to hold creamated remains.

According to the virtual visit at the Visitor Center, the eastern passage of the large mound leads to a cruciform chamber, similar to that found at Newgrange. It contains three recesses and basin stones into which the cremated remains of the dead may have been placed. The interior of the actual mound is not open to visitors.


Although it is not part of the official visit, the main mound of the Dowth site compares in size with its famous neighbors at Newgrange and Knowth, and visitors are free to walk around the site. Its original roof collapsed long ago and was replaced, so that from the outside, the tomb seems preserved. There is no access to the interior of the structure.

The Land of Giants 

Walking the Giant’s Causeway is an exhilarating experience.

It’s a 220-kilometer (136-mile), three-hour drive north from Brú na Bóinne to the Giant’s Causeway, a dramatic promontory of massive basalt columns, stretching along 4 miles (6 kilometers) of the northern coast of Northern Ireland, on the edge of the Antrim Plateau. Here, more than 40 thousand perfectly stacked basalt columns create what looks like a giant set of interlocking bricks leading down to the ocean.

Massive step formations descend into the ocean.

This epic landscape was formed about 60 million years ago by a volcanic fissure eruption, when successive flows of lava cooled as they reached the water. Layers of basalt formed the columns, and the pressure between these columns sculpted them into polygonal shapes that vary from 38 to 51 centimeters (15 to 20 inches) in diameter and measure up to 25 meters (82 feet) in height. 



The hotel is a haven of timeless charm at the edge of the Causeway.

Since we plan to explore this storied coastal landscape at the first hour the following morning, we have opted to spend the night at the Causeway Hotel, itself an historic landmark, adjacent to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center and the head of the Causeway. The hotel was built in 1836 to create a place for travelers to stay when visiting the famous rock formations. Today, the cheerful white clapboard, 28-room property has retained its timeless charm, albeit with the addition of 21st century amenities.

Into the Myth

The basalt columns facade of the Center unobtrusively recedes into the horizon of the Antrim Plateau.

The next morning, after a gargantuan Irish breakfast, we head for the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center. Open in 2012, the Center is a remarkable creation of the Irish firm of Heneghan Peng Architects, designed to evoke the towering columns of the Causeway. Its facade, lines of irregular basalt column separated by vertical windows, unobtrusively recedes into the landscape and integrates itself into the top of the plateau. Inside, the space consists of multiple levels connected by ramps, staggered to accommodate the sloping site.

A first glimpse of the Causeway, seen from the Center..

Here, multiple interpretive spaces tell the story of the Causeway from different points of view. As is traditional, it features the mainstream geological view, which says the lava flows erupted some 60 million years ago. But it also features the local mythology, about the legendary Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) who built the Causeway as a bridge to Scotland to fight his Scottish arch nemesis, Benandonner. Then an immersive audio-visual experience places the viewer at the centre of the landscape’s dramatic geological formation. And at the far end of the building, the coffee shop also dishes out spectacular coastal views.

The Giant’s Organ Pipes.

From the Center it’s an easy 20-minute walk down a long scenic hill to the Causeway itself. Then the paved path leads all the way to the Amphitheater, along diverse surreal rock formations ranging from the Wishing Chair, the Giant’s Boot, Camel, Harp and Giant’s Organ Pipes. In case you can’t figure which is which, there is signage to give you a hint. And for the sure-footed, it’s ok to climb the rocks — at your own risk. 

I did not. But this walk along the wild Northern Atlantic shoreline and the awesome older-than-time wonders of the Giant’s territory remain an exhilarating highlight of my Irish road-trip.

Good to Know

  • Getting There — By Car to Brú na Bóinne: the  Visitor Centre is located approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Dublin via highway M1 to Drogheda. Take Exit 9 to Donore Village and follow Staleen Road to the Visitor Center. From Brú na Bóinne to The Giant’s Causeway: it’s approximately 220 kilometers (136 miles) north via highways M1 and M2 to Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway.  Note: About one hour into the drive, the bilingual (Gaelic and English) roadsigns used throughout the Republic of Ireland suddenly become English only. You have just crossed the open border into the British territory of Northern Ireland. From here on the speed indications change from kilometers to miles and the currency in use goes from Euro to British Pound. Also if you are planning to rent a car in Dublin for your roadtrip, you will need to purchase additional insurance for driving in Northern Ireland.
  • Visiting  Brú na Bóinne:  Access to the Brú na Bóinne archeological site is limited and advanced booking is required.  For opening hours and pre- booking your visit, consult the Brú na Bóinne website.  The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center, 44 Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU. Opening hours and access availability vary broadly with the seasons. Consult the Center’s website for details and strongly recommended advanced bookings. Contact: Tel. +44 28 2073 1855 or email. . 
  • Staying —  The Causeway Hotel, 40 Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU. Contact: tel. +44 28 2073 1210, or  email.  Hotel guests receive complimentary on-site parking and entry to the adjacent Causeway Visitor Center.
  • Getting Around —To reach the Causeway, you can either walk 1.5 kilometer (1 mile) down the long scenic hill or take the Causeway Coaster minibus. A popular option with many visitors is to take the 20-minute walk downhill to the main causeway and catch the shuttle bus back up the hill (fare was 1 GBP each way, or 1.25 USD at the time of this writing). Note: While access to the Causeway itself is technically free, there is a 13.00 GBP (16 USD) per adult charge for parking at the site. Ticket price includes access to all the amenities of the Visitor Center, including guided tour, audio guide, immersive exhibitions and café. Visitors are encouraged to pre-book an entry time slot. Parking-only tickets are not available.

Location, location, location!

Giant's Causeway, Ireland

In and around Palermo – The Great Byzantine Mosaics of Sicily

In and around Palermo – The Great Byzantine Mosaics of Sicily

Mosaics are one of the greatest bequests to western art to come out of the Byzantine Empire. Although mosaics made with cut cubes (tesserae) of stone, ceramic and glass had `evolved from earlier Greek and Roman practices dating back to the 3rd century BC, it was the craftspeople of the Byzantine Empire that developed it into a powerful religious expression.

Historical Context

Scenic wall mosaics began conveying the Christian message.

Constantine, Roman emperor from 306 to 337 AD, adopted Christianity early into his reign and subsequently moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), at the eastern frontier of the Empire. Christianity flourished and gradually supplanted the Greco-Roman gods that had once defined Roman culture. This religious shift prompted the building of Christian basilicas, where in addition to the mosaic floors with typical Roman geometric designs, scenic wall and ceiling mosaics became a prime medium to convey the Christian message.

King Roger II of Sicily commissioned some of the greatest Byzantine mosaics ever.

By the 6th century, with the reign of Justinian I (527 to 565) the Byzantine Empire had flourished into its first golden age. In 537, Justinian completed the construction of what was to become the global center of the Orthodox Church and the epitome of Byzantine architecture: Constantinople’s  Hagia Sophia. While virtually all of the early Christian mosaics were subsequently lost to political and religious conflicts, the mastery of the craftsmen who had created them endured, as did the demand for their work throughout the Christian states around the Mediterranean. In the 10th and 11th centuries, even states actively hostile to Byzantium, such as  the Republic of Venice and the Norman King Roger II of Sicily, imported its craftspeople to create the greatest Byzantine mosaics the world has ever seen.

Sicily’s Norman Legacy

The Norman rulers integrated the best of Byzantine and Islamic elements in their architecture.

Following the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries, Sicily endured a succession of invaders throughout the remainder of the first millennium. The Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs and Saracen all left their mark on the island. But it was the Norman conquest in the 11th century that transformed Palermo into one of the most brilliant and enlightened courts in Europe. As they established the seat of their power, the Norman rulers wisely integrated the best elements inherited from the Byzantine and Islamic cultures.

The Palatine Chapel

The Palatine Chapel features carved Arab wood ceiling.

The side walls of the center aisle depict scenes of the Old Testament.

The most spectacular example of this synthesis is La Capella Palatina, built in 1132 by King Roger II within the vast royal palace of Palermo. The chapel is an exuberant blend of artistic styles: an elaborate Norman basilica with a three-aisle nave topped by a Byzantine cupola. Pointed Arabic arches are set on 10 antique columns of Sicilian marbles and the interior is covered in glittering Byzantine mosaics, capped by an elaborately carved Arab wood ceiling. The dazzling, predominantly gold mosaics, enhanced with deep blues, greens and reds, and the figures outlined in black, cover the upper portions of the walls. There are three typically Byzantine representations of the Christ Pantocrator: in the apse of the right nave, in the central apse and in the dome of the cupola, where it is surrounded by a ring of angels attired in the sumptuous robes of Byzantine emperors. Meanwhile, the Old Testament cycle set along the side walls of the center aisle follows the Roman church tradition. Laid out on two levels (or registers) of multiple panels, its pictorial narrative runs chronologically from the Creation to scenes from the lives of the apostles Peter and Paul.

La Martorama

The traditional Byzantine interior decor of the Martomara was modified over the centuries.

Roger II in Byzantine dress is represented crowned by Christ.

A 10-minute walk from the Palatine Chapel, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (the church of Saint Mary of the Admiral, a.k.a. La Martorama) was founded in 1143 by George of Antioch, the Syrian christian admiral (or ammiraglio) and principal minister of Roger II. Originally intended to serve the Italo-Albanian community, who although part of the Catholic Church followed the rituals and spiritual tradition associated the Byzantine rite of the Orthodox Church. In subsequent centuries, the church became absorbed by an adjoining convent of Benedictine nuns (originally established on the property of Eloisa Martorana, hence its moniker). While the nuns extensively modified the structure and interior decor in the 16th through 18th centuries, a series of significant 12th century Byzantine mosaics remain. On the south side of the aisle, King Roger II – George of Antioch’s lord, is depicted receiving the crown of Sicily from Jesus. This depiction of Roger is politically significant in terms of its iconography. In Western Christian tradition, kings were customarily crowned by the Pope or his representatives. Here, Roger is shown in Byzantine dress, being crowned by Jesus in the Byzantine fashion. Meanwhile, on the northern side, George himself sits at the feet of the Virgin.

The Cefalù Cathedral

A majestic bust of the Christ Pantocrator fills the dome.

Consecrated to the Savior and to Saints Peter and Paul in the coastal city of Cefalù, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Palermo, Il Duomo di Cefalù was started by Roger II in 1131, just a few month after his coronation. Here, the main decorations are the mosaics in the choir, which cover only the apse and the bay in front of it. A majestic bust of the Christ Pantocrator fills the dome. Beneath it, the mosaics are divided into three registers, with Mary occupying the centre of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. In the two lower sets, the apostles are pictured on a smaller scale.

Mary occupies the center of the top register.

The pictorial cycle in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. The side walls present figures from the Old Testament, depicting sainted deacons, warriors and Latin and Greek teachers of the church. Angels of various orders are distributed across the caps of the cross-ribbed vault.




The Cathedral of Monreale

One of the main motives of the apse is an enthroned Madonna and Child between archangels and apostles.

The nave sides recount episodes of the Old Testament.

The sumptuous Duomo di Monreale, consecrated to the Assumption of the Virgin, was erected by King William II (a successor of Roger II from 1166 to 1189). Built in a royal park on the site of an earlier Greek sanctuary some 10 kilometers (6 miles) above Palermo, its interior is impressive for its spaciousness and rich decor.  Not only are there mosaics throughout, but also large antique columns with decorative capitals, marble paneling on the lower wall surfaces, and an elaborate ornamental floor in the sanctuary. The mosaics cover all the upper portions of the walls of the sanctuary and the nave, in all a surface area of roughly 7.600 square meters (82.000 square feet). The Monreale Cathedral thus represents one the most extensive mosaic decors in Italy, on par only with Venice’s San Marco (about 8,000 square meters or 86.000 square feet). On the vault of the main apse, the central focus of the multi-figured design is the majestic bust of Christ Pantocrator. The main motif in the lower part of the apse is an enthroned Madonna and Child between archangels and apostles. The apse’s vaults hold large enthroned images of the apostles Peter and Paul, and the walls present scenes from their lives. An extensive cycle on the life of Christ unfolds on three registers across the walls of the crossing and the transepts. The mosaic decoration continues in the nave where forty-two scenes from the Genesis are depicted in two registers and  the side aisles depict Christ’s miracles.

Good to Know

  • Mosaic techniques — Like other mosaics, Byzantine mosaics were made of small pieces of glass, stone, ceramic, or other material, which are called tesserae. However, during the Byzantine period, craftsmen expanded the materials that could be turned into tesserae to include gold leaf, silver and precious stones.They also perfected the construction of their mosaics. Before the tesserae could be applied, multiple layers of foundation were laid, the last one made of a mix of finely crushed lime and brick powder. On this moist surface, artists drew images and used strings, compasses and calipers to outline geometric shapes before the tesserae were carefully cemented into position to create the final image.
  • Getting there — Palermo’s international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights to and from most major European cities as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the center of the city, with frequent train and bus connections between the city and the airport from 5:00 am to midnight. Monreale is served by Palermo’s urban bus service (AMAT). Bus 389 runs from Piazza Indipendenza, in Palermo to the cathedral in Monreale. Cefalù is easily accessible by train or car from Palermo. Trains to Cefalù run approximately every hour, and the journey is about 50 minutes.
  • Visiting — The Palatine Chapel, Piazza del Parlamento, 1, 90134 Palermo PA, is open year-round, Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 4:15 pm and Sunday and holidays from 8:30 to 9:40 am and 11:15 am to 1:00 pm. The Cathedral of Monreale, Piazza Guglielmo II 1, 90046, Monreale PA, is open daily from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, and from 2:30 to 5:00 pm. The Cefalù Cathedral, Piazza del Duomo, 90015 Cefalù PA, is open daily from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm.

Location, location, location!




Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Agrigento

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Agrigento

Day Four—It’s an easy 15-minute drive from the beachfront outskirts of the modern city of Agrigento, where we have spent the night, to the most impressive site of Hellenic architecture in Sicily.

The Valley of the Temples

The Valley of the Temples overlooks the Mediterranean shore.

Once known to the Greeks as Akragas, Agrigento was founded around 580 BC on a plateau overlooking the southwestern coast of Sicily by settlers from Rhodes and Crete. Surrounded by fertile land ideal for agriculture, the city soon prospered into one of the leading trade and cultural centers in the Hellenic world. Its importance is demonstrated to this day by the extensive remains of the grand 5th century temples that still dominate the site.

The ancient Greek city of Akragas stretches across a ledge.

Now one of the main archeological attractions in Sicily, Agrigento, in spite of its ridge-top location, has acquired the moniker of Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples). In addition to its seven honey-colored Doric temples in various stages of conservation, the complex also includes a necropolis and sanctuaries located outside the city walls. As is frequently the case on the island, it is not possible to establish to which god or goddess a given the temple was devoted, so that the attributions are merely a tradition established in Renaissance time.

Notable Temples

The Temple of Concordia is the largest Doric temple in Sicily.

The giant bronze of Fallen Icarus was donated in 2011 by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj.

Named for a Latin inscription found nearby, the Temple of Concordia, the largest and best preserved Doric temple in Sicily, was completed around 430 BC. It owes its exceptional state of preservation to a 6th century AD bishop of Agrigento who converted the temple into a Christian basilica, thus protecting it from the destruction of pagan places of worship. Although the spaces between the columns had been walled at that time, and a series of arches added along the nave, the Christian alterations were removed and the temple returned to its Doric grandeur in 1785. Since 2011, an oversized bronze statue of a fallen Icarus lies on the ground nearby, giving the impression of having been abandoned ages ago near the front of the Temple of Concordia. Originally part of the temporary exhibit of 17 works by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, it was subsequently donated by the artist to remain permanently in place.



A total of 30 columns remain of the Temple of Hera Lacinia.

The nearby Temple of Hera Lacinia (or Temple D) on the southeastern corner of the Valley, 120 meters above sea level, didn’t fare so well, having been damaged by fire following the siege of Akragas by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. Dated around 450-440 BC, all that remains today is an impressive row of 30 columns, of which only 16 have retained their capital, and a long altar, originally used for sacrifices.


The Temple of Heracles is the most ancient in the Valley.

The Temple of Heracles, the divine hero, son of Zeus, was one of the most venerated deities in Akragas. Dated to the final years of the 6th century BC, it is the most ancient in the Valley. Destroyed by a long-ago earthquake, it consists today of only eight columns.



The Temple of Zeus was the largest Doric temple ever built.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was the largest Doric temple ever constructed. Built around 480 BC, it is characterized by the use of large scale Telamons (or Atlases), sculpted figures in the form of a man, which could take the place of a column. This temple was never completed and now lies in a jumble of ruins.



The Temple of Castor and Pollux is a reconstruction.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux (or the Dioscuri), the legendary twins born from the union of Zeus and the Queen of Sparta, is reduced to a corner consisting of four columns. It is in fact an early 19th century reconstruction achieved by repurposing pieces from various ruined temples nearby.

An Early Christian Necropolis

The cliff’s edge is lined with early-Christian sepulchers

The cliff-line served as a natural defensive wall during the Greek period. Then during the late Roman and Byzantine times, the living rock was hewn to accommodate early-Christian sepulchers, known as arcolosia, characterized by their single arched recess. Today, this ancient necropolis also affords a lovely view of the Mediterranean below.

The Archeological Museum

The Ephebe of Agrigento, is dated about 470 BC.

Just outside the Agrigento city center, the Regional Archeological Museum illustrates the history of of the region from prehistory to the stage of hellenization. Its rich collection of local archeological finds notably includes the Telamon from the Temple of Olympian Zeus, an early sculpted column in the form of a man that stands over 7 meters  (23 feet) high. Another exceptional piece is the so called Ephebe of Agrigento, a 102 centimeter meter (3.2 foot) high white marble nude of an adolescent youth, represented in the severe style and dated about 470 BC.

The museum showcases a large collection of craters.

It also holds one of the most impressive collection of Greek pottery I have come across anywhere in the Mediterranean world, including a number of both red-figure and black figure vases and craters.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—Agrigento is 130 kilometer (80 mile), two-hour  drive south of Palermo via highway SS121 and SS189. Then a five-minute drive to the Valley of the Temples.
  • Visiting—The Valley of the Temples, is open daily, year-round from 08.30 am to 7:00 pm. The Archaeological Museum  (Museo Archeologico Regionale “Pietro Griffo”), Contrada San Nicola 12, Agrigento, is open daily, year-round from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.

Location, location, location!

Valley of the Temples

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Into the Hellenic World

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Into the Hellenic World

Day Three – We leave behind the Phoenician world to travel eastward into Hellenic country and the ill-fated seaside city of Selinunte. Some 15 kilometers inland before we reach the city, we arrive at the western Mediterranean’s most overlooked archeological site.

Cave di Cusa

Some blocks remain in nearby olive groves.

Gigantic columns intended for Silenunte’s Temple G still lay in as they were originally abandoned.

Stretched across a 1.8 kilometer (1.2 mile) long ridge, the ancient limestone quarry of Cave di Cusa was actively mined beginning in the first half of the 6th century BC, its stone used to construct the temples of Selinunte. It was precipitously abandoned in 409 BC when the city was captured by the Carthaginians. The blocks of stones in their various stages of completion have remained exactly as they were some 25 centuries ago. Along with the column sections (or drums), there are also some capitals and square incisions for quarrying square blocks, all intended for the temples of Selinunte. Some the drums that had already been extracted were found ready for transport. Others, already on their way, were abandoned on the road. Some gigantic drums, definitely intended for what is now known as Temple G, the largest in Selinunte and one of the largest in the Hellenic world, are found on the western side of the quarry, also in the state in which they were originally abandoned.



The Quarrying Process

Some massive drums were in the process of being detached from the stone mass.

Thanks to the many column drums scattered in various stages of completion, Cave di Cusa provides a clear idea of how the temples at Selinunte (and presumably elsewhere) were built. In a nutshell: a circle of a specified diameter was traced on top of the stone mass. The quarriers then chiseled downwards around the circumference until they reached a depth of the specified height of the drum, which varied for the different structures, to a maximum of 2.5 meters (8 feet). The result was a perfect cylinder surrounded by a gap in the stone of about 60 centimeters (2 feet). Finally, the base of the cylinder was chipped away until it could be levered from the mother stone underneath. These drums were then pulled by oxen to the construction site, to be hoisted into position and embellished as needed.

The Cursed City

The fortified city of Selinunte overlooked the sea.

Founded in the mid-7th century BC, Selinunte, or Selinos as it was called by the Greeks, was once one of the richest and most influential cities in the Hellenic world. At its peak, it is estimated to have been home to 30,000 citizens and at least twice as many slaves. Beautifully located on a plateau overlooking the sea, it was the western-most Greek colony in Sicily and consequently often came into contact – and conflict –  with the Phoenicians and the native Elymian people of Segesta in the west and northwest of the island.

The city was reduced to a pile of rubble in 409 BC.

Then, almost overnight in 409 BC, Selinunte went from being one of the most progressive and eminent cities in Sicily to a vast expanse of rubble. The Carthaginian, who for many years had seen this powerful Greek city as a hindrance to their own influence in Sicily, took advantage of a conflict between the Greeks of Selinunte and the Elymians of Segesta to intervene. They sent some 100,000 men to lay siege to Selinunte, which was only able to hold out for nine days. The subsequent sacking involved the massacre of some 16,000 of the town’s inhabitants while most of the remaining citizens either fled to Mazara or where taken into slavery.

Selinunte Archeological Park

The Acropolis is surrounded by the ruins of several temples.

Today, abandoned for nearly 2,500 years, Selinunte is one of the largest archaeological areas in Europe, a 270 hectare (667 acre) treasure trove of remains of one of the most flourishing classical civilizations in the Mediterranean. The park is built around a vast fortified acropolis overlooking the sea, and surrounded by the ruins of several temples dedicated to Zeus, Apollo, Athena and Hera among others. Because of the difficulty of defining most of the deities they honored, the temples are designated by letters.

The Acropolis

Only the rocky basement and the altar remain of Temples A and O. A row of columns from Temple C stands in the background.

Situated on the highest point of the site, the Acropolis revolves around two perpendicular axes. In addition to the remains of five temples in various stages of preservation, it also includes a Punic sacrificial area with the sign of the goddess Tanit (Carthage’s main deity) found on the slabs. The most southerly Doric temples, O and A, dated from around 490, are dedicated to Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri), the legendary twin brothers, born from the union of Jupiter and the queen of Sparta.

Temple C stands out at the edge of the Acropolis.

Temple B and the Megaron (or great hall) show remains of Ionic columns and a Doric frieze. On the esplanade of the Acropolis, Temple C, with a peristyle of 6 by 17 columns is dated 6th century BC, and estimated to have been dedicated to Apollo. Beyond Temple D, similar to the previous one, the Agora, or business area includes a market, houses and workshops. 

The Eastern Zone

Temple E, dedicated to Hera, is the only one on the site to have been reconstructed.

Some 700 meters (half a mile) east of the Acropolis, the Eastern Zone holds three major temples. Temple E, tentatively dated around 450 BC, is the only one of the entire site to have been re-erected (in the 1960’s). This Doric style temple with a peristyle of 6 by 15 columns, measures 25 by 67 meters (82 by 220 feet). An inscription indicates that it was dedicated to Hera, the goddess of family and childbirth. Temple G was dedicated to Zeus or Apollo. With a peristyle of 8 by 16 columns 16 meters (52 feet) high, and dimensions of 50 by 110 meters (165 by 360 feet), it is one of the largest anywhere in the Hellenic world. Started in 530 BC, it was still unfinished when the city was destroyed. One of its columns, restored in 1820, still stands guard over the majestic ruin.

Temple C, believed to have been dedicated to Appolo, dominates the horizon.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — From Palermo: It’s a 90-minute, 120-kilometer (75 mile) drive via road E90/A29 from Palermo to the Castelvetrano exit. From Mazara del Vallo, it’s a 30 minute, 30 kilometer (19 mile) drive to the Castelvetrano exit.
  • Visiting — Archaeological Park of Selinunte, via Selinunte, Castelvetrano, is open every day including holidays from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 0924 46277. Cave di Cusa: via Ugo Bassi, 37, 91021 Campobello di Mazara is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm – however at the time of my visit (September 2021) the site was accessible by appointment only. Contact:  Tel. +39 0924 46277.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Cave di Cusa

Selinunte, Sicily