Syracuse

Next on our tour of the East coast of Sicily is the town of Syracuse.

This historic 2,700-year-old city played a key role in ancient times, when it was one of the major powers of the Mediterranean world.

It’s a UNESCO world heritage site due to the amount of stunning buildings.

But before we get to that, of course we have to take a detour . .. to a market!

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Colourful prickly pears and red hot chillies are ubiquitous.

From ruby red to sage green, it’s a veritable rainbow of edibles.

Mountains of curry, cloves, peppers, cumin and other heady spices beg to be snapped.

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Pink beans and fancy salad leaves jostle for space with gigantic onions.

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A cornucopia of colourful fruits make the mouth water while tiny striped fish and every green veg imaginable can be found for sale.

More fishes, nuts and pomegranates tumble from every stall.

I can imagine artists and painters having a field day here trying to capture the textures and colours on canvas.

Even if your culinary experience is limited to sticking a ready meal in the oven, you might find yourself a convert to cooking from scratch with all this amazing fresh food!

Next up we take a look at some of the exquisite buildings that Syracuse is famous for.

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In the clouds at Castelmola

While the views from Taormina are spectacular, its tiny cousin Castelmola, 1,800 feet above sea level, offers absolutely stunning ones.

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Cobblestones, ruined castles and winding alleys almost devoid of tourists, offer a breathing space.

Although the sun was beginning to go down, as our little bus trundled up the hill towards the village, you begin to appreciate the views.

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You’re dropped off in the main square where pretty cobblestones and terracotta roofs retain the sense of unbroken tradition.

The castle in Castlemola is a ruin. There is little of the castle itself to see, but it’s well worth making the climb for the views. Below is the castle cafe seen from the village square.

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As is common around Sicily, every alleyway is an open air art gallery.

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Heading upwards to the ruined castle finally gives us the most spectacular views of our entire trip.

The name Castelmola apparently comes from the Norman castle dominating the centre of town and from the shape of the rock on which it stands, which vaguely resembles a millstone or “mola”.

A few more colourful details from around the town itself. Apologies for jumping around but this new “improved” WordPress layout seems to be a nightmare for inserting pictures!

Here’s another vertiginous view over the bay from the castle.

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More artwork on the ancient village walls.

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Head down, through Via De Gasperi, the main street of the village, past shops selling lace, embroidery and souvenirs and you pass the Bar Turrisi below which exhibits phalluses of wood, clay and ceramic.

We take a break for pizza and beer at a rustic restaurant and, if you squint, you can see the brooding Mount Etna in the background.

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Gargoyles and grotesques adorn the walls outside the famous Cafe Turrisi which has a bizarre collection of phallic decorations!

Below is the door of the church of San Niccolo’ di Bari .

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Final taste of Taormina

Here’s a final post about the pretty hillside town of Taormina before we head even further up the mountains to Castelmola.

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By now the sun is blazing and the narrow streets are congested with tour groups and serious shoppers. But there’s still a unique charm to be found in the meandering lanes and hidden corners.

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Whether you’re marvelling at the ornate stone carvings of the old buildings or rummaging for the ideal souvenir, you can easily spend a few hours meandering this tiny town.

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If pencils and aprons aren’t your thing then you can take your pick from the mountains of tasty local produce.

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Everything is so photogenic, even the packets of pasta!

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Don’t forget to look up though or you’ll miss quirky little details such as these colourful ceramic heads set into the windows.

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Peering down shady side streets or peeking through rustic doorways gives you tantalising glimpses of the hidden lives of the town’s inhabitants.

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Even the dullest of walls is enlivened with intricate carvings or detailed stone work.

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Headto the town’s main square Pizza IX Aprile and you can admire beautiful panoramic views out over the Bay of Giardini Naxos.

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Below is Pizza IX Aprile, Taormina’s main square.  The imposing pastel facade of the Church of San Giuseppe, looks out over the square.

The church, dedicated to St. Joseph, was built in the seventeenth century.

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The church was the centre of the “Brotherhood of the souls in Purgatory” so in the facade and inside the church you can see human figures in the flames that symbolize purification from sin. Cheery!

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Below is the clock-tower that acts as an entrance gate to the part of the town that historians call “the 15th century area”.

Originally dating back to the 12th century, the tower was razed to the ground during a French invasion in 1676. What you see today is a reconstruction from 1679, when a large clock was added to the tower.

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During the early 20th century Taormina became a colony of expatriate artists, writers, and intellectuals. D. H. Lawrence stayed in the town as did Truman Capote. Tennessee Williams, Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais also visited.

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It continues to be a home for artists who capture the stunning scenery around the town in vivid colours for you to take home and hang on the wall.

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Painted carts are a symbol of the island although I didn’t manage to catch sight of a whole one. The nearest I came was this ornately painted cart wheel.

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Below the man takes a break on the Piazzo Duomo fountain. This Barocco style fountain, built in 1635, is in Taormina marble.

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Ancient architecture sits cheek by jowl with cheerful tourist tat such as Limoncello aprons and intricate wooden toys that Geppetto himself would be proud of.

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You’ll more than likely spot lots of puppets or marionettes which are a core symbol of Sicilian folk-art. The marionettes are the major props in the Opera dei Pupi, a traditional form of Sicilian entertainment.

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The subject matter of the Opera dei Pupi comes from Sicilian history, works of literature, folklore and comedy.

A common performance pits Norman knights against the Saracens and you can see these puppets above and below.

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Below is The Duomo, Taormina’s main cathedral, which was built around the year 1400 on the ruins of a small mediaeval church. Plus close up detail of the Duomo fountain.

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Everywhere you look in the town you can find colourful artwork lining the streets and festooning the walls.

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The man refused to take a peak under the cardboard dude’s posing pouch, spoilsport!!

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Heading back along Corso Umberto, the town’s main street, I am distracted by the colourful fruity spectacle of ice lollies in every conceivable flavour.

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Lemon, raspberry, strawberry, orange. Whatever your fancy, there’s a sweet treat with your name on it!

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Shops and artwork line the streets offering souvenirs to suit every pocket whether it’s cute little miniature bottles of Limoncello or the tiny yet detailed Martorana Fruit marzipans.

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I was utterly distracted and enchanted by this particularly vibrant side street stall that was groaning under the weight of Italian specialities such as lemons, chillies and pasta.

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Just in case you’re tempted, signs give you far warning of the hot and spicy nature of the tiny yet powerful chilli seeds.

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Colourful tourist trail

Continuing on our breakneck, incredibly uninformative tour of Taormina now with yet more pictures of stuff that I have photographed!! (It’s no Lonely Planet blog – let’s be honest!)

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Aside from the multitude of colourful Maiolica pottery there are plenty of other artistic delights to pore over.

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From art shops and abstract images to tiny tiles spelling out everyone’s love of the town, there’s little dots of colour to be found everywhere.

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Here’s a few more of the colourful tiles and ceramics that adorn every street, wall, step and doorway.

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I am enchanted by the oversized, human head plant pots. Some are traditional Moorish style heads while others are a more contemporary take on the original style.

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Another common feature across Sicily are the intricate, hand painted tiles that adorn walls.

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Used as decoration and for advertising purposes, these detailed scenes are little masterpieces in their own right.

P1060818The Bam Bar is one particularly fine example of how these tiles are used to great effect to advertise local delicacies.

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Featuring Sicilian traditions such as the delicious crushed fruity iced treat Granite as well as Limoncello and Arancia – meat or cheese filled rice balls.

P1060819If all this tiling gets a bit too much then why not take some time to enjoy other expressions of individual artiness?

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Whether it’s an electricity meter or a corrugated garage door, nothing escapes embellishment and decoration.

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Even relatively grey, dull buildings get a dose of charm with eclectic collections of ceramics and plants.

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Here’s a close up of the delightful detailing on this backstreet door that had me very over excited!

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Clearly someone out there enjoys covering everything in pattern, (almost as much as I enjoy photographing it!)

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Ceramics a plenty!

Following on with our waltz around Taormina this entry is simply a riot of colour and pattern. Apologies in advance for the length of this particular post!

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Ceramics and pottery are in abundance across Sicily but seem to be particularly evident around Taormina.

P1060608Everywhere you turn there are displays of jewel bright plates, bowls, spoon holders and pots. It’s a pot lovers dream!

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Souvenirs aplenty line the streets and jostle for space on every available surface, from back scratchers and tambourines to magnets as far as the eye can see!

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At least one of these colourful delights was quickly snapped up for my epic fridge of magnets (which in itself I think should be classed as a wonder of the world)

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A speciality pottery of the region is Sicilian Maiolica ceramic. Maiolica is tin-glazed pottery finished in dazzling colours. Sicily is by far the most active centre for Maiolica or Majolica production.

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Tin glazing creates a brilliant white, opaque surface for painting. The colours are applied as metallic oxides to the unfired glaze which absorbs pigment creating vivid colours.

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The coloured glazes were thought to be initially brought to Sicily by the Arabs of North Africa in medieval times. The art of making Maiolica pottery then spread from Sicily across Italy during the Renaissance.

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It is thought that these type of ceramics were called “maiolica” because the glazing and firing techniques used to create them were similar to those used on Majorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands.

Moorish potters from Majorca are believed to have worked in Sicily and it is thought that their wares reached the Italian mainland from Caltagirone.

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There are lots of different styles of Maiolica ceramics, distinguished by their colour-schemes, the type of objects made and the motifs painted on the pottery.

A common theme in Taormina and the surrounding areas are the rather unusual and striking Moorish heads that sit and stare at you from steps, windows and doorways.

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The heads, also called Saracen heads, are typical of Caltagirone, a town close to Taormina.

The legend behind the Moor’s head vases says that a beautiful girl was living in seclusion and spent her days cultivating flowers on her balcony. One day a young Moor passing by saw her, ravished her and she fell in love with him.

However he then announced he was leaving to go back to his wife so she cut off his head and used it as a vase for her flowers – that way his love was forever hers. Since then, flowers grew lush in the vase and the neighbours, envious, built vases shaped like a Moor’s head.

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Another common ceramic motif to be found around the island is a woman’s head with three legs and no arms.

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This rather uncomfortable looking creature is called a Trinacria and is the symbol of Sicily – apparently its shape mirrors the triangular shape of Sicily.

The island of Sicily was known as Trinacrium by the Romans, meaning “star with three points.” The Trinacria symbol is made up of the head of Medusa surrounded by three bent running legs and three stalks of wheat.

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The three bent running legs represent the three capes of Sicily – Peloro, Passero and Lilibeo which also create the three points of the triangle.

The three ears of wheat represent the fertility of the land and Medusa represents the island’s protection by the goddess Athena, the patron goddess of Sicily.

These armless ladies can be spotted everywhere and it becomes a bit addictive to find them!

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There’s so many colourful joy filled things to snap that at least another post or two will purely be souvenir pics!!!

Taormina

Escaping the grime of Catania we head on a train to the gorgeous town of Taormina. Situated 250 metres above sea level the town has been a tourist destination since the 19th century.

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First off we nip off the train and hit the beach which is below the old town. This area is known as Mazzaró -Taormina Mare. Sadly it’s a grey day and it isn’t looking its best!

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After mooching around the shoreline for a bit we head up into the old town.

Usually you can grab the cable car up and this takes about two minutes but due to flash floods before we arrived, it was out of action so we took one of the tiny buses up the hill.

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The bus drops you off in a little square just below the old town. Heading up into the main area you are quickly in the midst of a bustling tourist throng.

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Taormina is a tourist mecca and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a gorgeous dollop of loveliness in a so far, rather grimy island.

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The main street is lined with at shops, restaurants and souvenirs stands. Straight away one of the most intriguing and colourful sights is the array of ceramics and pottery that can be found everywhere.

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Delicate lace parasols make for a pretty display.

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Meanwhile the man has found a classic vespa and quite fancies himself on it.

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Prepare yourselves for lots of pictures of ceramics and artistically painted doors . . . . .

Cross country to Catania

After a couple of days in Palermo we hop on the train across Sicily to the East coast and the industrial city of Catania.

We’re staying four days in the beautiful Ferrini Home Suite in Piazza Trento. Absolutely gorgeous, spotless accommodation with a balcony giving views out over the busy, commercial district.

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Catania is a large, sprawling and grimy city that doesn’t have that much to recommend it if I am totally honest, but it is a good base for exploring the east coast and its more picturesque sights.

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Most sights can be found in the Piazza Duomo above. There is a cathedral, town hall and weird elephant fountain thing.

(You might sense that I am a bit “meh” about the place. Probably something to do with the fact that by this point in the week I had over 25 mosquito bites, mainly on one leg and was suffering horribly!!!)

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*WARNING. I have mainly stolen the following information from Wikipedia as I can’t be remotely bothered with Catania!!!*

The area is known for its seismic history, having been destroyed by a catastrophic earthquake in 1169, another in 1693, and several volcanic eruptions from the neighboring Mount Etna volcano, the most violent of which was in 1669.

The ancient indigenous population of Sicels named their villages after geographical attributes of the locations.

The Sicilian word,katane, means “grater, flaying knife, skinning place” or a “crude tool apt to pare”. This name was adopted by Greek colonists.

Other translations for the name are “harsh lands”, “uneven ground”, “sharp stones”, and “rugged or rough soil”.

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Next we hop on another train, away from this boring city, and head to the coast and the gorgeous tourist town of Taomina. Full of winding streets, art and pottery.

Villa Garibaldi and La Cala port

Palermo has many public spaces and gardens. One, very close to our B and B is Garibaldi garden, also called Villa Garibaldi.

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The garden was built between 1861 and 1864 by the architect Giovan Battista Filippo Basile in Piazza Marina in Palermo ‘s historic district of Kalsa.

It was dedicated to the national hero Giuseppe Garibaldi to celebrate the recent birth of the Italian nation .

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It is famous for its spectacular collection of exotic trees including an ancient ficus tree – one of the oldest and largest in Italy, with a height of 30 meters, a trunk circumference of over 21 meters and a crown with a diameter of 50 meters

There are  groves of these spectacular, slightly sinister trees that I also know as Bayan.

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The last time I saw these types of trees, with their amazing aerial roots, was in the temple complex of Ta Phrom in Cambodia.P1060520

Apparently the garden and piazza also has a more sinister past as well, being a site of executions.

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Next up we saunter along to La Cala, the old port, as the man loves a bit of boat action.

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The horseshoe-shaped La Cala port was the main fishing port in Palermo until the 16th century when receding waters saw its demise with much of the maritime traffic moving to other areas of the shoreline.

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In September 2007 work was completed of dredging of the basin with the removal of 19 ship wrecks from the bottom.

A reinvigoration master plan has seen a lot of work done, to deal with sewage and sanitation issues, and the port is now home to lots of high end yachts and boats.

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We can but wander wistfully past and image life if we had (a lot) more money!!

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The port is a nice, refreshing little spot to escape to when the hectic grimy pace of Palermo gets a bit too much . . .

The stuff of nightmares .

Are you sitting comfortable dear readers? Then let me tell you the tale of the most unsettling tourist attraction ever . . The Capucchin  Monk Catacombs in Palermo where around 8,000 mummified and skeletal bodies reside.

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Apologies for the grainy images. Horrifically for a snap happy manic like myself no photos are allowed in the crypts themselves.

And though others decided to ignore the rules (some using camera flashes too like big nobheads!) above all, I am a rule follower . . so I bought the postcards and you’ll have to make do with snaps of those instead!

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Bodies are strung up in alcoves or lying in glass fronted or decaying wooden coffins stacked three or four high.

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There’s a women’s section, men’s, professionals, priests and saddest of all – one for children and babies.

You can still catch glimpses of the finery that they were interred in. Women with satin and lace gowns and little girls with tattered floral garlands in their hair.

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When you initially enter, along with a gaggle of chattering tourists, you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing. One too many late night horror films might have inured you to bone, and skin and death.

But linger a while. Wait till the crowds disappear and take another slow walk around. That’s when a palpable dread starts to descend.

That’s when it becomes a little too plausible that the dead might stretch bony arms and turn curious, empty eye sockets towards the living.

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The multitude of bodies were preserved in a variety of ways, dipping in arsenic or lime or by slow dessication in one of the “strainer” cells where your corpse was left to dry.

You can still peep through the bars into one such cell, the floors and walls stained with green. I shudder to think what that might be residue from.

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Above you can see two of the original Cappuchin monks, many have ropes around their neck. A sinister seeming addition but actually it’s probably to represent penitence.

Here’s a married couple, destined to nag each other for all eternity. Hubby still resplendent in his velvet jacket and wife in lace and satin.

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Some are far better preserved than others. Some still have skin, hair and clothing while others are just death head skulls sat atop oddly over stuffed bodies.

The most disturbing are those who’s faces seem elongated into permanent screams. Mouths slackly open as gravity takes its toll on the flesh.

Below are a few more of the dusty tomb’s inhabitants.

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On the right is the crypt’s most famous inhabitant. A little girl aged just two called Rosalia Lombardo who died in the 1920s but is remarkably preserved thanks to a secret method that was invented by Dr Solafia.

He took his creepy methods to the grave. Some might say thankfully.

What do you think? Do you fancy taking a turn along the musty corridors and gaze upon the faces of the long dead?

Not everyone’s cup of tea I must admit, but still a fascinating, head on reminder of our own mortality.