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Classics Trip To Sicily March 2016

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This year, our usual destination of Tunisia sadly being off limits, 20 pupils and four teachers set off on the first Port Regis visit to Sicily.  The island, which has been occupied by many powerful invaders through the ages, from Normans to Arabs, has some of the best preserved Greek and Roman sites in the world.  We were based just south of the beautiful town of Taormina in the Terra dei Sogni Agriturismo Hotel, set among citrus orchards and offering spectacular views of a fuming snow-capped Etna. The food here was first-class and the managers, Marco and Luca, could not have done more to ensure that  we were comfortable and well looked after.

We would be touring four World Heritage Sites during our stay, and the first was the town of Siracusa (Syracuse) in the south-eastern corner of the island.  Teachers leading their own groups around Sicilian sites risk a 3000 euro fine and a criminal record (we were told) and so we had to rely on locals to guide us around - always an unexpected package: some good, some not so good.  For Siracusa we had booked Diana, who was half Sicilian and half Irish, and whose enthusiastic delivery, wealth of anecdotes and fervent Sicilian patriotism quickly grabbed the attention of the group. First we visited the impressive Greek theatre before moving on to the extraordinary Ear of Dionysius, a deep cave which had  originally been  a quarry but was then used to imprison Athenian and Carthaginian captives. Its acoustics are remarkable as the children found out when their whispers were echoed loudly. Siracusa was the home of the mathematician and inventor Archimedes and our next port of call was to a park which celebrates his genius. Here were replicas of some of the artillery he had developed to fight a naval attack by Romans as well as working models of other inventions like his water screw. After a good restaurant lunch Diana led us through the ancient streets of Ortigia, the port of Siracusa, to the cathedral; this is an interesting building with the columns of the ancient Greek Temple of Athene built into its internal walls.

Returning to the hotel some of the children took part in a boules competition whilst others developed a throwing game involving windfall tangerines. Other evening activities included elementary Italian lessons with Mr Webb, a quiz called "Who Wants to Be a Sicilianaire" and a talent competition where the judges could not split Jo's trumpet playing and Yutong's magic tricks.

The following day Diana joined us again as we drove up Etna to take the cable car to 2500 metres where our own volcanologist, Mr Giannotti, filled the children in on key facts about the geography of the place . The snow was still deep and locals were skiing. Resisting the temptation of snowball fights, the children took part in a "Snowclops" competition, trying to make the most fearsome representation in snow of the one-eyed giant who was supposed to have been a local resident and who, according to Homer, ripped off the top of Etna to hurl at the ship of the escaping Odysseus. After lunch and stopping to buy honey  - Diana said Sicilian honey is the best in the world - we made the short journey to Taormina to visit the Greco-Roman theatre where to learn about Greek drama, sample Sicilian ice-cream ("invented by Sicilians and the best in the world"), and to shop for souvenirs. Before departing, we visited the smaller Roman theatre, the Odeon, to allow some of the children to perform in either English or Latin: some chose a scene from a Roman comedy, others a poem by Catullus, and Stanislav reprised his balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.  This gave Diana the opportunity to propound the theory that the Bard was in fact a Sicilian!  

 ( Just before Diana left us there was a charming recognition scene as she suddenly realised when talking to Dr Freisenbruch that she had recently read, and greatly admired, our Head of Classics' book "The First Ladies of Rome". Her only regret was that she would not be seeing us the following day so that she could get her book signed!)

The next day we covered miles travelling through stunning scenery to see the two gems in the Sicilian classical crown.  First we went to the Valle Dei Templi in the south of the island where there are the remains of three Greek Temples one of which, the Temple of Concord, is arguably the best preserved ancient Greek temple in the world. Our guide here, Michele, was drier than Diana but he clearly explained how the temples were built and how the Greek colonists had worshipped in them. We could not stay to sketch as planned for our busy schedule meant that we had to be at Piazza Armerina by mid-afternoon for our tour of the mosaics of the Villa del Casale, probably the country retreat and hunting lodge of a wealthy official and excavated only in the 1950s. These are undoubtedly the finest  Roman mosaics in situ anywhere and the children marvelled at their details and took many photographs, notably of the 60 metre hunting scene showing animals from all corners of the known world, the chariot race and, of course, the famous "Bikini Girls" playing ball in the gymnasium.

It is traditional on Port Regis classics trip to devote one day to less scholarly pursuits. Recently we have ridden camels in the Sahara and donkeys on the Greek island of Hydra, but this year on their final day the children took to the trees as they tackled the acrobatic ropes courses high among the pines in the Madonie National Park in the central north of the island. For the first time during the trip the sun failed to shine but this did not matter to the children as they quickly learnt the skills required  and were soon clambering and zip-wiring themselves through the trees up to 20 metres off the ground.  After lunch there was time for a quick ride on mountain bikes which ended with a steep climb so that only the hardy made it back to base, the rest being picked up by the following truck.

All too soon it was time to pack and return to Heathrow via Rome, but everyone took back happy memories of Sicily, its food, its people, its geography - and, of course, its classical antiquity. 

 


Pupils’ cultural development is outstanding.
Independent Schools Inspectorate