The Greek-Roman archaeological site of Tindari in Sicily, Italy


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Torrenova near Capo d'OrlandoDriving along the Palermo-Messina motorway between Capo d'Orlando and Milazzo you will undoubtedly notice what seems to be a large church perched on a rock high above the sea. This is the Sanctuary of the Black Madonna of Tindari, a place of pilgrimage but also the site of an ancient Greek town.

The archaeological site

The southern part of the hill on which ancient Tindari stood is protected by the original Greek walls, but most of the remains are on the north-western sea-facing side. Here there are Roman habitations and baths, complete with wonderful floor mosaics and ingenious radiator heating systems. Further on is the Basilica, a fine example of Graeco-Roman architecture built around a series of arches, and the well-preserved theatre, built in the 4th Century BC. Here, in the summer months, it is possible to see performances of Greek plays and other theatrical events. Complete with stunning views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Aeolian Islands, the tongue of sand and the Sicilian coastline, Tindaris is certainly one of the most interesting archaeological sites in Sicily.

The Black Madonna 

The story of how the Black Madonna arrived in Tindari is the stuff that legends are made of. According to local tradition, the statue, which is certainly of Byzantine origin, was one of many works of art smuggled out of Constantinople in the 8th and 9th Centuries during the period of Iconoclasm initiated by Emperor Leo III. A storm forced the ship carrying the Black Madonna into the port of Tindari, where the sailors deposited their load at the local abbey for safekeeping. She now sits behind the altar with the inscription "nigro sum sed formosa" (black am I, but beautiful).

Another legend regarding the Black Madonna recounts how one pilgrim, on making some uncomplimentary remarks about the statue, incurred the not inconsiderable wrath of the Madonna. The lady in question turned in horror to see her child plummeting down the cliffs towards the sea. However, in an act of mercy and a demonstration of her unworldly powers, the Madonna made a bank of sand rise from the sea to cushion the child's fall. Hence the curious geographical formation of which more later.

The history of the town

Hidden away on the north-western side of the rock are the fascinating Graeco-Roman remains of ancient Tindaris. The town was founded in 396 BC by the Tyrant of Siracusa, Dionysius I, and soon became one of the most important Greek centres in Sicily. In 254 BC it changed hands and became a Roman outpost for several centuries. With the arrival of Christianity and the Black Madonna, Tindari assumed a certain religious renown and an abbey was built. However, despite the presence of its famous icon, Tindari was unable to foresee or prevent the series of vicissitudes that fate had in store her: in 836 the town was destroyed by the Arabs, rebuilt, burned to the ground by Frederick II of Aragon during the Sicilian Vespers for having sided with the Angevins, rebuilt once more, and finally sacked by the marauding menace of the Mediterranean, the pirate Barbarossa (Red Beard).

The town was founded in 396 BC by the Tyrant of Siracusa, Dionysius I, and soon became one of the most important Greek centres in Sicily.

The tongue of sand

Way below the archaeological site and the Sanctuary is the extraordinary "linguetta di sabbia", a sandbank stretching 1.5km into the sea, defiantly resisting the destructive, relentless raids of the Tyrrhenian. Clearly visible on satellite photos, the "tongue" is raised about 4 metres above sea-level in its highest points and creates a kind of lagoon on its land side. Several small lakes dot the surface and provide an ideal home for a large variety of flora and fauna (indeed it is now a nature reserve). All in all, somewhere we strongly recommend you to visit, whether it be for a swim or just an excellent walk.

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Good Thinking

A stunning spot for a a picnic in the sun: the theatre behind you and wonderful views of the sea and the Aeolian Islands in front of you...

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