“To know the character of a community, I need only visit its cemeteries.” (Benjamin Franklin)
Judging by the thousands of prehistoric burial chambers (some with porches) honeycombed into limestone rock high above the rivers In remote Mount Iblei, the air honeyed by wild flowers and herbs, silent save for the buzz of honeybees and singsong of birds, I’d say the Sicels—the prehistoric civilization that gave Sicily its name—had the most honourable community on earth. If I believed in paradise, it would look a lot like springtime in Pantalica.
Magellan and I were really looking forward to this hike. Gillian Price, author of Walking in Sicily, writes that it’s “The best walk in this guide.” And Butterfield rates it “The second best walk in Europe” on its list of eight trails. Even with this high praise, we were awed by the grandiosity, solemnity and mystery of Pantalica. Of the many trails we’ve hiked around the world, Pantalica stars in our top five.
When Homer was writing the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Mycenaean people of the legendary Agamemnon were sailing the seas looking to establish new communities—this is the time of Pantalica’s origin. Pantalica was always the land of the dead. And, at times, of the living. For five centuries, it was the capital and the most important Bronze Age settlement in Sicily. Its name derived from the Greek word for caves, Pantalica has more than 5,000 tombs carved into rocky walls, each section belonging to a certain phase in Siculi civilization. The largest open-air necropolis in Europe, it’s now a 2600-hectare nature park and was named a UNESCO site in 2005. Cesare Barndi describes Pantalica so well
It was the mythical kingdom of Hyblione, whose most recent remains date back to the 13th century BC, the age of Troy. It’s a rocky valley with thousands of black holes: the tombs of an immense necropolis. They were dug in the limestone with great effort, using bronze and stone axes—before the Iron Age began. People from all over Sicily brought their dead here.
Pantalica is not a town but a remote location for a necropolis; it might have also been the nucleus of a Sicilian kingdom during Mycenae’s time, and later a small Byzantine hamlet. After this whole sequence of events, Pantalica is like a skull: large, empty orbits and rough-hewed, heavy stones, lined up like the remains of a castle. The empty orbits are prehistoric tombs where perhaps people lived, later…
We hiked Pantalica in mid-April (I can’t imagine a better time) on our way to Siracusa. And what a bonus that was. Two days later we saw artifacts from Pantalica’s tombs in Siracusa’s superb archeology museum, dedicated to and named after Paolo Orsi, the archeologist who discovered Pantalica—and they allow photographs.
There are two parts to the hike. We began with the short walk to Necropoli Nord, part of the area’s First Phase during the Late Bronze Age from 1250-1050 BC. It’s a spectacular cemetery of about 1,000 tombs covering steep slopes overlooking the Calcinara River. Imagine the Sicels, indigenous pre-Greeks from the coast of Sicily, carving these tombs then transporting the dead and their treasured possessions to these precarious mountain chambers.
Then we drove a few kilometres to another part of Pantalica’s First Phase. On this natural fortress, a high plain dominating the valley to the south, are foundations of a megalithic block structure that archeologists call Anàktoron or “The Prince Palace.” There’s not much to see. But Magellan, who in his next life may return as a sculptor and in this one has done some bronzes, was excited that Paolo Orsi found evidence of a bronze foundry here. The knowledge required to create the Anàktoron points to a potential interaction between the Sicels and the Myceneans. Evidence of a Greek connection was also discovered in items found in Pantalica’s tombs. Like shiny, red-coloured pottery on high tubular feet and fibulas (brooches) in the shape of a violin-arches.
(Of less interest is Cassibile, the Second Phase of Pantalica from 1050-850 BC during the transition to the Iron Age. As Cassibileis a hamlet near Siracusa, it’s believedPantalica was uninhabited at this time and just used as a necropolis. The pottery found in the necropolis from this Phase is painted with feather patterns and fibulas are shaped like a bent elbow, similar to the style of objects from this period found in Spain, France and England.)
The most fascinating place is Pantalica South, the Third Phase from 850-750 BC. Until 728 BC the area was still largely abandoned. That year, according to mythologiy, the Sicel King Hyblon granted the Greeks the right to settle in this area. (Legend has it that when Persephone was abducted, Hades, the king of the underworld, hid in the river Anapo River.) For over a kilometer on the southern flanks of the mountain along the Anapo River, Necropoli Sud extends, revealing 1,000 cave tombs, the remains of about 150 rock-cut dwellings and a Byzantine rock church dedicated to San Nicolicchio.
When we started down the trail to the Anapo, the solemnity was interrupted by what sounded like forty teenagers all talking at once. It was. The trail is narrow, so we stepped aside to let them pass. Judging by the flips flops, bare midriffs, reddened faces and heavy breathing, most of them didn’t get the memo to wear sunscreen, bring water and dress appropriately. They were the only people we saw on this part of the hike. Which isn’t surprising. Pantalica has always been described as somewhat inaccessible and while that’s not completely true today, it’s off the beaten path and not easy to find. Necropoli Nord receives more visitors as you can walk it in an hour and the trail isn’t rugged. Unlike Necropoli Sud where nature and man have abandoned Gillian’s directions and those in Sunflower’s guide, too. The trail to Tombe Grandi a Camereis is so overgrown it’s inaccessible. Don’t turn left at the fork for Chiesetta Rupestreunless you want to walk through pricks of chest-height thistles. In three hours, we saw one splash of red paint marking the trail. And the museum at the railway station looks like it’s been closed for some time. Ditto for the adjacent (locked) toilets.
What a relief from the heat it was to cool off In the Grotto Cascitta. We ate our lunch at a nearby picnic table along the Anapo, a place that offers the best views. Here Necropoli Sud looks like a plein-air work of abstract art in black-and-white.
We didn’t walk to the village of Filipporto because even in April, the afternoon was blistering hot. So we missed the Filipporto Necropoli, Belvedere Necropoli Sud and the Grotta di San Micidario, which is said to “preserve very faint traces of frescoes and attest the presence of small monastic communities.”
Although we didn’t see any signs of Arab influence, during the Middle Ages the Muslims found this canyon to be the perfect hiding spot for a community. They named it Buntarigah, the Arabic word for caves. Ironically, it became Sicily’s major point of defence against the Arab invasion of 800-900 AD when 4,500 people lived here. After the Normans inhabited the valley, it was abandoned again.
From the early 1900s until 1956, a narrow-gauge railway connected Siracusa to Vizzini. The abandoned Pantalica Railway Station signals the last development, a nostalgic reminder of the modern world.
Why did the Siculi go to such trouble to climb to the tops of craggy mountain plateaus, then (it’s hypothesized) descend by rope over plunging gorges to hew burial tombs out of limestone rock with primitive tools? Since the dawn of civilization, the ancients have found ways to place the dead where they’re safe from the underworld, the malice of ghosts and the wrath of gods yet near enough for the living to pay their respects. Perhaps this area of spectacular desolation, quiet rivers, meandering gorges, perfumed flora and lyrical fauna appeared so mystical, so paradisical, that they felt beholden to turn it into an everlasting monument. Oh how they succeeded. RIP.
The Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi of Siracusa is well worth a visit.
Price, Gillian. Walking in Sicily. Milnthorpe: Cicerone, 2015. Our favourite hiking guide for Sicily.
Sicily Car Tours and Walks. London: Sunflower Books, 2016.
The UNESCO site has a good piece on Pantalica.