An Excursion into Prehistoric Sicily
Since Marco and I first started discussing getting a house in Sicily, I've spent countless hours Googling cool things to see and do on this magical island. During one online search, I turned to Marco and said, "Oh my gosh, did you know there are prehistoric rock-cut tombs near Melilli?!"
The answer was, yes, Marco knew about the tombs. In fact, he'd been to see some, but he was always eager to see more.
We agreed to add "prehistoric tombs" to our must-visit list for this first extended stay in Sicily.
So, when our friend and cousin Rosanna told us about Pantalica (we learned the emphasis is on the second "a," as in Metallica), we knew we had to go. Rosanna connected us with a fabulous guide, Paolo, and we scheduled a tour for the afternoon of August 1.
We thought it would be a grand adventure—but we ended up getting a bit more adventure than we bargained for! Read on for the full story.
So What Is Pantalica?
The park is situated where several majestic river gorges converge, creating a naturally defensible hilltop position. For six centuries, prehistoric peoples in the much-invaded Sicily had thrived here after abandoning some coastal areas. An estimated 5,000 hand-carved rock tombs, dating back to the 13th century BC, pepper the limestone cliffs.
Today, you can swim in scenic river pools while gazing up at these prehistoric rock-cut tombs. In our future is a trip to the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi, which digs into this part of southeastern Sicily's history and displays many of the artifacts unearthed in Pantalica.
But Pantalica isn't just about nature and archeology. It's also filled with living stories and legends. We had a few weeks before our adventure, so we asked around about what to expect.
Rosanna reminisced about family trips there where they'd take a whole watermelon and wedge it in the river for a couple hours until the fruit chilled to perfection. At another cousin's house we noted beautiful framed photos in the kitchen and asked where they were taken. The answer, accompanied by a reminiscent sigh hinting at days gone by, was Pantalica.
The night before our trek, we met up with Zio Angelo and his friend at Bar Campagna, a cafe on Melilli's main street. They agreed that Pantalica was a stunning place to visit and surmised that, due to the small sizes of the tombs, the inhabitants of Pantalica must have been quite short. Joking around about the challenges of converting from Fahrenheit to Celcius, I took a screenshot of the forecast for Melilli that showed the next 10 days of constant sun and almost identical high and low temps. Perfect weather for river swimming!
The Adventure Begins
Our guide Paolo picked us up in Melilli (since we are, after all, "gli Americani senza macchina"). While we sped down the winding hillside roads to Sortino and over to the entrance to the park, Paolo filled us in on the history and geography of Pantalica.
Along the way, we noticed some clouds moving across the sky—somewhat of a rarity during the summer here which is filled with day after day of beautiful blue skies—and joked that it looked like rain.
"I heard it rained on the other side of the island this morning," I shared, referring to a WhatsApp message from a friend north of us. "But the weather report said all sun."
Putting our faith in the meteorologists, we tumbled out of the car and pulled on our backpacks. Paolo and Marco grabbed walking sticks. Having growing up playing the "balance on rocks and driftwood" game, I preferred to have both arms free for counterbalance. Then we headed off.
The first vista exceeded any expectations we may have had. Stunning river gorges converged before us, the hillsides composed of layers of greenery interspersed with limestone cliffs. The black squares of rock-cut tomb entrances dotted the cliffs in seemingly impossible to reach locations.
The path down into the valley soon turned from packed dirt to solid limestone, where steps had been carved into the rock. The steps were a bit treacherous, though, as each one had an odd deep indent in the stone. Paolo explained that these formations had been created by the hooves of donkeys traversing the hillside and wearing down the stone over the centuries.
Were we walking in the footsteps of Marco's ancestors' donkeys?
Prehistoric Tombs and River Swimming Dreams
Soon we arrived at the first hillside tombs. We poked our heads into the small rectangular entrances as Paolo described how the tombs included a raised floor at one end where the deceased head could rest, like a pillow.
The bodies found here had been buried in the fetal position, often with two vases: one filled with water and one filled with food to nourish them on their journey to the afterlife. With average life expectancies at the time around thirty-some years, we all hoped the people here had gotten to go somewhere good.
Up close, the limestone hillsides were also pockmarked with smaller holes, some natural and some made by human hands. We also noted spots where someone had begun carving new tombs but, for some reason, had never finished. Did an individual recover from their death bed? Was the stone carver's work interrupted by Greek invaders?
Indeed, Pantalica was abandoned around 650 BC. It was reoccupied during the Byzantine Era, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. Across the gorge we could see larger square openings carved in the cliffs. These were tombs that Byzantine residents had expanded into homes.
We followed more donkey-worn limestone steps down to the bottom of the gorge. Here, fallen boulders guided the river into natural swimming holes, with water as clear as the Mediterranean itself.
Marco isn't much for swimming, but swimming in rivers is one of my personal favorite activities. I don't dream of sandy beaches or azure seas (though I do enjoy them). No, I adore rocky shores and leaf-shrouded swimming holes.
A series of caves along the river bank had become impromptu changing rooms. Despite the clouds, we were all dripping with sweat. I pulled on my swimsuit and intended to jump into the river. Except it was freezing!
Apparently the sun would've made the water feel a bit less frigid, which was what we'd intended. But I was determined. I eased into the water and, soon enough, took a full dunk. At one point I even started to head out, then changed my mind and dove under again.
Treading the frigid water, I took a moment to appreciate the serene beauty of Pantalica.
The serenity didn't last long though.
The Storm Rolls In
The moment I stepped out of the river, the first raindrop hit. At first it was a drop here and there, so I took my time finding a spot to change. Then Marco, Paolo, and I pulled on our packs and headed off to check out a large overhang under which people sometimes camped (illegally).
As we headed off down the river, I noted most of the other people at the swimming hole were packing up and returning home. I scoffed, figuring they'd been scared off by a few raindrops.
At this point, it's worth noting that Marco and I are huge horror movie buffs. You name it, we've likely seen it. The area beneath the stone overhang immediately reminded me of a classic scene at the beginning of a horror movie. You know, where the happy tourists are laughing and joking and decide to set up camp in the wilderness.
Paolo pointed out the remains of recent campfires, as well as much older caves and walls built as part of gunpowder production. I couldn't help but image the many ways my imaginary horror movie could unfold. We had potential ghosts from the ancient tombs. Paolo had mentioned a hermit. There were caves everywhere and who knew what creatures lurked within the darkness. The possibilities were endless.
We decided to check out a natural spring upriver next. But as we exited the covered area the rain began to fall in earnest. We crossed the river by stepping on stones, and ducked beneath a smaller overhang to get out of the rain.
As we stood there, munching on gluten free crisps, Paolo told us more about the hermit. He'd been living in the valley for years, but had recently moved downstream a bit. The hermit often left strange messages in the form of letters, tucked into the many crevices in the rocks. In one letter, he'd insisted that he knew COVID-19 was coming before the rest of us did.
Paolo had even met the hermit once. Apparently, the man was in his 50s, had left his family, and now lived here in nature.
"What does he eat?" I asked.
"Well," Paolo said, "I've heard his mom still brings him food once a week."
"Like a pan of lasagna?"
And we all pictured the hermit, huddling in his cave home, scrawling his missives, and awaiting his mom's weekly pasta and lasagna delivery. Even as the rain starting to come down in earnest, we all cracked up. "It is a very Italian story," Paolo observed.
The rain wasn't letting up, but we decided to make a dash for the spring anyway. We made it over one more river crossing before lightning flashed across the sky. A moment later a boom of thunder echoed through the gorge. The rain started coming down in torrents.
Oh My Gosh We're Crawling Into a Cave!
Without even discussing it, we unanimously agreed to make a run for shelter. At this point we were soaking wet, as if we'd just taken a dip in the river fully clothed. We followed Paolo and arrived breathlessly at an overhang big enough to keep the ground dry.
We set our backpacks down and took a moment to catch our breaths. By this time the rain was pouring down. There was no way we could hike up the limestone paths in this weather. We would have to wait it out.
I imagined the hermit, safe and dry in his cave, munching on lasagna from mom.
Noting that Marco and I were both in good spirits, Paolo asked if we wanted to check out a cave.
As much as I dream of swimming in rivers, Marco dreams of exploring caves. Except we couldn't just stroll into this cave, as with others we've entered. No, we had to crawl inside. Paolo promised the ceiling would get higher further in and that, at the other end, the passage opened to the outside.
Marco and I eyed the dark crevice.
"I've seen this horror movie," I said, and starting rattling off films in the lost-underground-with-unknown-creatures genre. "But I'm game to try if you are."
And so, with our cell phones as flashlights and our fearless guide Paolo leading the way, we left our backpacks behind and crawled into the darkness.
The cave seemed to go on forever. Unidentified bugs flitted past our phone flashlight beams. Cobwebs clung to the rough stone walls. The ceiling dipped and rose at various points, forcing us to walk crouched over. At one point, Paolo spotted a rodent dashing past.
As we traipsed onward, I wondered if we would ever reach the end. I'd been joking about horror movies, but what if we had actually stumbled into one?
After what seemed like an eternity, the cave floor dipped a few feet. Clinging to rocks, we half-climbed, half-slid down. The passage made a bit of a turn and then...light ahead! And, wait, was that music?
Finally able to stand up completely, we emerged to an opening in a sheer cliff face. Except we were halfway up the cliff looking down. Outside brilliant green foliage bent and shivered in the storm. Rain poured down. And, below us, someone sang along with a guitar.
We all laughed, covering both our nerves and sense of relief. We weren't in a horror movie after all. No, this was a feel-good family tale of perseverance and adventure. We sat there for a time, listening to our private concert.
Upon exiting the cave where we'd left our backpacks, we found the rain had only intensified. We waited around for a bit until the downpour finally began to ease.
Our mission was clear: Get back to the car before the sky opened up again.
All the stone paths were now slick from the rain. To take a faster route back to the entrance, we followed a man-made stone channel that led off from the river. Pantalica's long-ago residents had carved the channel to direct the water to a mill.
Paolo joked that, while other areas of the island had milled grain, at one point residents of this region used bat guano to mill gunpowder—which they then used to rob said grain.
Going up, puddles of water filled the donkey-hoof-carved indents in the stone steps. The sky was beginning to clear though, with the familiar blue peeking out between the clouds. At an almond tree, we used the walking sticks to shake loose a few nuts, which we cracked open right there on the rocks. A delicious impromptu snack.
A bit further on, we passed a traditional dry stone wall along the path that had collapsed with the onslaught of rain. Bit by bit, our clothes began to dry in the warm evening air. As we climbed into Paolo's car, we all agreed that had been one heck of an adventure.
By the time Paolo dropped us off back in Melilli, the streets were completely dry, as if it hadn't even rained here. We wondered if that was the case, though a few WhatsApp messages assured us that the storm had also passed over our village.
That night we crawled into bed, exhausted but as giddy as teenagers. We traded photos with Paolo. Marco posted pics on Instagram. We laughed about the hermit and his mom's lasagna some more.
It reminded me so much of a moment in Marco's novel, How Fires End, when the thirteen-year-old protagonist, David, sneaks out of the house and goes to an underground concert with friends. He dances with a girl for the first time, gets his head shaved into a mohawk, and is nearly caught by campus police. Later, David reflects on how all the ups and downs of the night out only added to the experience, as if he and his friends had ventured inside "a Ray Harryhausen adventure movie" like One Million Years BC or Jason and the Argonauts. In the end, he declares: "We all agreed, tonight was the best night ever."
Except in our real-life adventure, Marco and I had actually taken a journey into Sicily's prehistorical past (or at least the remains of it). And we cannot wait to return.