Pantalica, identified as the ancient Hybla (founded, it is alleged, as Megara Hyblaea in 728 BC by a group of colonists from Megara with the blessing of their last king Hyblon), has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. Towards the middle of the 13C BC, the Sicani moved inland from their original settlements in the coastal regions to a chosen site at Pantalica, for the coast at this time was subjected to attack and regular waves of settlers, and therefore no longer secure. The narrow valley through which ran the Anapo river, together with the Cavagrande (which becomes Calcinara in its final section) were naturally defensible in that they comprised two deep gorges with one means of access (the saddle of Filiporto, to the west); furthermore, the area was provided with two rivers that were considered of inestimable value.
Today, little survives of the original town, which was probably destroyed by the Syracusans before the foundation of Akrai in 664 BC, save for an incredible number of tombs in the steep limestone cliffs (excavated at the cost of huge efforts, probably using bronze or stone axes, given that iron had not yet been discovered). New life was breathed into Pantalica by the Byzantines, who installed small communities in rock-hewn dwellings there. It is probable that the site continued to be occupied during the Arab and Norman periods before being completely abandoned until the beginning of the 20C when the archaeologist Paolo Orsi began excavating. I
Access – The archeological site may be reached from two directions: from Ferla and from Sortino. The former is to be recommended as it provides better views of the necropolis and saves on the need to climb down to the riverbed, fording the river and climbing up the other side. More than 5,000 burial chambers honeycomb the walls of this quarry to make five necropoli through successive periods. The earliest in the north and northwest necropoli (13C- 11C BC) are elliptical in shape, while the most recent (850-730 BC) are rectangular. What is distinctive about these tombs is the way in which they are organised into compact family units, rather than into the more usual extended groups.
Follow the signs for Pantalica from Ferla; after 9km, stop and park at Sella di Filiporto (yellow sign), the ancient gateway to the town, where the remains of the fortification trench can still be seen. From here, a path runs along the southern edge of the upland plateau from which, looking back, the Fillporto necropolis can be seen nestling within a broad amphitheatre of rock. Further
along the way there are splendid views over the Anapo gorge below; the path then continues down
to a Byzantine settlement with rectangular rock-hewn dwellings, and to the Oratory of San Micidiario. Follow the path and, after about 1km, turn left for the anaktoron or Prince’s Palace: this is also accessible by car, by continuing along the main road some 1.5 km (note in passing the northwest necropolis on the left) and then taking a short path (yellow sign). The site accommodates the remains of a megalithic construction which, demonstrating clear Mycenaean influences, is thought by Orsi to be built by Mycenaean workmen in the service of the prince.
Return to the car, 11 km before Ferla the tarred road peters out (note the Byzantine - village of Cavetta just before this), leave the car and take the steep path down, enjoying, along the way, the marvellous views of the gorge of Calcinara and of the vast northern necropolis harboured by the wall on the opposite side (20min on foot to the river).
PROTECTED NATURAL AREA
An expedition through the protected area (soon to become a nature reserve) around the Anapo valley reveals an extraordinary landscape comprising a succession of gorges defined by vertical cliffs, along which ran the old Syracuse-Ragusa-Vizzini railway. For those who do not wish to walk the whole route (13km), there is an alternative clearly marked track which combines both natural and archeological points of interest, leading to the Cavetta necropolis (on the right immediately after the first tunnel), the southern necropolis (on both sides after the second tunnel) and the Filiporto necropolis (after 4km in the wall on the right). Furthermore, at the start of the alternative route, immediately on the right (level with a pier of the fallen bridge), can be seen a series of vents pertaining to the Galermi aqueduct, built by the tyrant Gelon to convey water from the river to Syracuse, which continues to be used for irrigation purposes.
Access – There are two entrances to the Anapo Valley via the Fusco gate (off the Floridia-Sortino road, turn left after about 12km at the fork marked with a yellow sign for Valle dell'Anapo; 700m further along, continue left (red road with wooden barrier), or via the Cassaro gate (from Ferla, follow the signs for Cassaro; at the first fork, turn left and continue to the bridge over the river, the Ponte Diga gate is located thereabouts (4km from Ferla).
Flora and fauna – The geological formation known as the cave iblee (or Hyblaean quarries), a series of deep canyons cutting through the landscape, has harboured a broad range of plants in a concentrated area. The tree varieties that make up the thickly wooded section up a rocky slope include white and black poplars, and willows; there is also a profusion of tamarisks, oleanders,
wild orchids and the nettle urtica rupestris, a relic from the Ice Age. Clinging to the slopes elsewhere are patches of Mediterranean maquis: forest of holm and cork oaks interspersed with, in the more arid parts exposed to the sun, an aromatic scrub of sage, thyme, giant fennel, euphorbia and thorny broom. The Oriental plane-tree deserves a special mention as it only grows wild in a very few places in Italy; the threat of a spreading fungus, a pathogenic canker, seems to have been
checked here for the time being, thanks to appropriate measures.
As regards fauna, the Anapo Valley also accommodates a large number of different species: foxes, pine martens, porcupines, hares and hedgehogs, painted frogs and other amphibians, dippers, stone chats, kingfishers, partridges and a pair of Peregrine falcons.
ALSO IN THE AREA
Ferla – Isolated on the limestone upland plateau crossed by the River Anapo, the town boasts several 18C religious buildings. San Antonio, built on a Greek-cross plan overlooking an attractive square-cum-forecourt cobbled with geometric designs, is graced with an elegant frontage comprising five convex panels, articulated with columns, and surmounted by two towers, one
incomplete. Inside, the stucco and painted wall and ceiling decoration, panels and statues combine to make a charming Baroque whole. The church of San Sebastiano has a highly decorative façade and bell-tower.
The road from Ferla to Sortino provides evocatively panoramic views over the surrounding plateau and the deep cleft hewn by water erosion.
Sortino – Completely rebuilt in the 18C on the top of a hill, the town is laid out on a rectilinear grid-like plan. The Chiesa Madre fronted by a forecourt cobbled with lozenges, has a fine façade of warm golden stone. The elevation comprises a doorway flanked by spiral columns ornamented with organic decoration and garlands of fruit; a level articulated by statues; and, along the top, an open balustrade. The overall composition is strikingly effective, especially at sunset. The interior ceiling and apse is frescoed (1777-78) by Crestadoro. The church belonging to the Montevergine monastery, enclosed within a secluded square, has a harmonious front and a bell-tower, contrived with concave and convex lines (18C).