The next cave I reach is quite the contrast – so chilling I get a tingle down my spine. A low-slung ceiling droops above a dark space honeycombed with stone graves of all shapes and sizes, like bathtubs lined up in a showroom. Spiders have sheathed some with cobwebs, while tangled greenery is pushing up into others.
Local tour guide Barbara Sudano (www.barbarasudano.net)
explains that stone graves were very common in the region. “It has been proven that they were the main form of burial in Mediterranean countries,” she says. “Here, the soft limestone makes digging the graves easy.”
I don’t fancy climbing along the ridges between the graves as some visitors are doing, but once more in the warm sunshine, I can’t resist scrambling up the remains of a stairwell into a first-floor cave further along the gorge. I’m later impressed to learn that the caves would originally have been across at least five levels.
“There is a fascinating combination between natural setting and human activity at Cava d’Ispica. The contrast can make you feel as if you have magically travelled back in time,” emphasises Barbara. She adds that it is similar to some Turkish sites, such as Cappadocia.
There’s just one more area of the park to explore: the Hellenistic-Roman Gymnasium. I find myself in a large damp mossy cave with stone benches fashioned along each aspect like in a changing room. Along one wall is chiselled PRE (presbyteroi
– Ancient Greek for older people) and on the opposite NEO (neoteroi
The gymnasium was an institutional structure created in Classical Greece for military training, but it would also have functioned as a meeting room for assemblies and feasts. Here, it is so well preserved I can almost picture the men gathered.
After a morning’s exploration, the heat of the day has left me thirsty. In true Sicilian style, the artisanal café outside the park has just the thing – chilled limonata
made of fresh lemon juice, sugar and sparkling water. I sit in the shade and guzzle it, momentarily so lost in thoughts about lives lived long ago that another prickly pear thudding to the ground makes me jump. I half expect to see a person from another time emerging from the undergrowth.