A trip inland from Syracuse leads into completely different territory from the coastal plain. The air is clearer and the heat less intense than by the sea and it is like a trip back in time to a more traditional way of life, lived closer to the land. Climbing slowly, the road reaches the Hyblaean plateau, an area of open vistas, farm land divided by low stone walls, rocky hillsides and deep gorges along the rivers, before arriving at the Hyblaean Mountains, whose name comes from Hybla, a Sicel goddess.

The area was first settled by the Sicels, who gave their name to Sicily, and then by the Greeks. It was devastated by the Arabs and then restored by the Normans. Badly damaged by the earthquake of 1693, the town centres were rebuilt in the Baroque style, which are now surrounded by dilapidated modern outskirts. Like mountain towns elsewhere, they are mostly neat and well kept, with a notable absence of the refuse that litters the coastal cities. It is an area of strong religious beliefs where the festivals for local patron saints attract large crowds. Since ancient times the area has been a source of agricultural produce and livestock, especially horses, for Syracuse.

Palazzolo Acreide, a town of 11,000 inhabitants, lies on the Hyblaean plateau, some 30 kilometres from Syracuse. It is the site of Akrai, the ancient Greek outpost of Syracuse founded in 664 BC to protect the city by controlling the road that leads to the south-eastern coast of Sicily. It earned its keep in 413 BC by preventing the Athenians from retreating inland, forcing them to head down the east coast to a disastrous defeat. The name Akrai comes from akros, the Greek for edge or extremity, referring to the town’s strategic position. The name Palazzolo apparently comes from a palace built here by the Normans.

The town has a number of decorative churches and palazzi, built in the local Baroque style, in particular the churches of S. Sebastiano, S. Paolo and the Annunziata. Ornamental gateways and elaborate balconies supported by carved figures are characteristics of the local architecture. Well worth a visit is the Casa Museo, in Via Machiavelli, no. 19, a museum dedicated to local ethnic traditions, showing old working methods and implements. There is an olive press, equipment for making honey and cheese, old farm tools and kitchenware, all housed in an attractive old house with a courtyard. Near the entrance to the town stands an impressive cemetery with many, large ornamental tombs and on the far side on a clear day, a good view of Mount Etna.

Ancient Greek theatre, Sicily

Akrai Greek theatre

Just outside the centre lies the ancient Greek site of Akrai. The site contains a well preserved Greek theatre, in miniature compared to that in Syracuse, with seating for around 700. It was discovered in 1824 by the local archaeologist Gabriele Judica and probably dates from the third century BC, in the time of Hiero II. It is likely that Akrai remained a military base under the Greeks until developed by Hiero II at the height of Syracuse’s prosperity. Adjoining the theatre is a small council chamber, while nearby lie the few remains of a temple to Aphrodite. The site also contains extensive, and elaborately worked, catacombs dating from the early Christian period. A second site, for which a guide is recommended, contains large sculptured figures, known as the “Santoni”. They include the near-eastern goddess Cybele, popular in the early Roman era.

Façade of S. Sebastiano church, Ferla

Façade of S. Sebastiano church, Ferla

The road to Pantalica leads through the small town of Ferla, with fine views across the open countryside. In the large central piazza stands the church of S. Sebastiano, which has a most impressive façade featuring sculptures that depict the saint’s martyrdom, among the finest in Sicily. The road continues past Ferla, ending in a car park from where one proceeds on foot. In summer it can be a very hot walk as there is little shade.

Pantalica was the territory of the Sicels, people from the Italian mainland who settled in Sicily from the thirteenth century BC. Their territory extended down to the coast and the remains of their king’s palace can be seen just off the road. It was the Sicel king who in the eighth century BC allowed the Greeks from Megara to settle on the land north of Syracuse that became the city of Megara Hyblaea. Once Akrai was founded, Pantalica was abandoned. Today it is considered the largest prehistoric necropolis in Europe and features more than 5000 tombs cut into the face of the rock. In 2005 it was included, along with Syracuse, on the list of UNESCO’s Heritage Sites.

It is approached on foot by paths over rocky ground, leading to a steep gorge at the bottom of which flows the Anapo River. The tombs can be seen carved like windows into the sides of the sheer cliffs that rise from the river bed, the black empty spaces making an eerie effect. Beside the path caves can be seen, some with wall paintings dating from Byzantine times, when people were seeking refuge from the Arabs. For the adventurous, it is possible to follow a path down the gorge for a swim in the river.

This is wild and rugged territory, the domain of eagles and wild flowers, dominated by rock and low scrubland, strong on atmosphere of the past. It has been described as a city of the dead, a huge cemetery to an ancient people who left little record of their civilisation.