Siracusa (28 June to 1 July 2024)

Cicero called it “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of all”.

Founded by the Corinthians in 734BCE in south east Sicily, Siracusa grew to become the biggest and most important city of Magna Greacia – greater Greece – with a metropolis larger even than Athens.

After the Greeks had their turn, the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Bourbons all left their mark.  The result?  The multi-layered historical beauty that is Ortygia, a small island jutting out from the tip of modern Siracusa, with a maze of ancient lanes connecting honey-coloured palazzos, Baroque churches and hidden piazzas flanked by monumental buildings.

Siracusa’s showpiece is Piazza Duomo, a majestic rectangle flanked by palazzi.

And the city’s magnificent UNESCO listed, 7th century Duomo.  It’s almost the history of Siracusa in a nutshell – first a Greek temple, then a Catholic Church, a mosque for two hundred years from the mid 800s when the Saracens ruled, then re-converted to a church when the Normans kicked the Arabs out of Sicily in 1085.

Each time, the conquering religion built on what was there before rather than demolishing the existing building.  But, of course, firmly putting their own stamp on it.  The Christians have had the final say.  A statue of Mary occupies the highest arch instead of the golden statue of Athena which topped the original temple like a beacon welcoming homecoming Greek sailors.

Down toward the seafront is a spring, the Fonte Aretusa which was treasured in ancient times as the only source of fresh water on Ortygia.

According to Greek mythology, the nymph Aretusa was bathing in her home place of Arcadia in the Peloponnese on mainland Greece when she attracted the unwanted attention of the river god Alpheus.  To help her escape him, the goddess Artemis transformed her into a stream running underground.  When Alpheus continued his pursuit, Artemis punched a hole in the earth on the shores of Ortygia, where Aretusa emerged in the form of a freshwater spring.

This led the Romans to believe that the source of the spring was the Alpheus River in the Peloponnese which somehow ran under the Mediterranean Sea.  They believed a wooden cup thrown into the river would emerge in Ortygia.  We’re guessing no one ever actually made that work.

It’s also one of only three places in Europe where papyrus grows naturally.

Guarding the southern tip of Ortygia is a castle fortress built in the 13th century and reinforced by the Spanish in the 16th.

Ortygia is small, only about one square kilometre.  There are a few main thoroughfares and otherwise a maze of pretty lanes.  Some filled with shops and cafes, others quiet and residential.  All good to wander around.

Siracusa’s most famous son is Archimedes.  He was born and died in Siracusa, and it was here he had his famous ‘Eureka’ moment in the bath.  It’s almost certainly not true that he went running naked down the street, but it’s a good story.  One of Ortygia’s main piazzas is named for him, with a fountain to the goddess Diana in the centre.

There are quality beaches a bus ride away but if you don’t feel like travelling, there’s a couple of spots around the Ortygia perimeter where you can take a dip to cool off.

The Old Market has been operating for centuries.  There’s a string of modern stalls around the outside selling textiles, souvenirs and clothing.

Inside it’s still a thriving food market with fruit, vegetables, spices, fish and seafood at prices vastly less than we pay at home. And little restaurants scattered throughout as well.

Near the market is the remains of the Temple of Apollo.  Dating to the 6th century BCE, it’s one of the oldest Doric temples in Sicily.

But most of the ancient Greek and Roman remains are located in the Neapolis Archeological Park on the edge of modern Siracusa.

The Greek Theatre built in the 5th century BCE, could seat 16,000.  The seating area had a diameter of 139 metres, one of the largest in the Greek world.

The works of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus were performed here.  Between May and early July, the stands are covered with temporary modern seating for sunset performances of the old Greek tragedies.

There wasn’t anything scheduled for the nights we were there.  Just as well.  John said nothing on this planet would be incentive enough for him to sit through 90 minutes of ancient Greek drama, in Italian, in this heat.  It was very hot.

Not to be outdone by their predecessors, the Romans built a bigger amphitheatre of their own.  It was largely created by cutting into a rocky hillside.  Excavations have revealed underground passages for access to the arena by gladiators and crypts for housing wild animals for contests.

The arena measures 140 x 119 metres, one of the largest in Sicily.  Its upper tiers were stripped away by the Spaniards in the 16th century to build the ramparts around Ortygia, but enough of it remains to get a sense of its once monumental size.

The park is one of the largest protected archeological areas in the Mediterranean.  Ancient remains – John would say ‘piles of rocks’ – are scattered over a vast area.  Until 2025, thirty huge pieces by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj have been placed around the park.

They all reference ancient Greek and Roman figures or stories.  We won’t bore you with the art gobbledygook that accompanies them, but we had to concede some of them are quite atmospheric.

The most interesting thing in the park is the Ear of Dionysus, a 23 metre high limestone cave carved out of a hill.  It has extraordinary acoustic characteristics which allow even small sounds in the cave to be heard at the entrance.

Caravaggio named it during a visit in 1608.  According to legend, Dionysus used the cave as a prison so he could lurk outside and listen to what his enemies were saying, even if they whispered.

It really does work.  John stood at the back of the cave and lightly scraped his foot on the ground.  Julie could hear it, loudly amplified, at the entrance around a curve and more than 60 metres away.

There is also a site in the park named ‘the tomb of Archimedes’ which may be the spot speculated on by Cicero two centuries later as maybe being the burial location of the great mathematician.  That’s a lot of ‘maybes’.  The reality is that he was killed during the Romans’ siege of Siracusa and no record was kept specifically identifying his final resting place.  It almost certainly isn’t his tomb, and in any case it’s currently not accessible to visitors.

Outside the park is the separate Tecnoparco Archimedes, a permanent exhibition displaying replicas and scale reproductions of some of Archimedes’ inventions.

At the request of the two kings who ruled during his lifetime, Archimedes came up with various inventions which proved decisive in defending Siracusa from invasion during the Punic Wars.  Until, that is, the Romans got some intel from traitors which allowed them to work out ways to defeat them.

A guide takes visitors around explaining the exhibits, many of which were existing devices such as the catapult to which Archimedes applied his knowledge of physics to create mechanical advantage so the weapons worked more effectively or with reduced human effort.

An hour of fun for geeks of all ages.

Back in Ortygia, another treat was waiting.  Italy has a long history of puppetry, which reached its zenith in Sicily with the ‘Opera dei pupi’.  The stories of Charlemagne and his paladins who fought for love, glory and their king probably came to Sicily with the Normans in the 12th century.  Opera dei pupi transformed the stories into puppet performances with ever more ornate costumes and courtly splendour.  Despite the name, nothing to do with opera of the musical kind.

Puppet making and puppet performances lost their popularity with the emergence of modern entertainment forms, but a small theatre and workshop in Ortygia is working to keep the tradition alive.

There’s a small museum with displays of puppets.

And a daily show.  One hour, in Italian, but at least one of the puppeteers gives a synopsis in English before it starts so you have some chance of following it.

John thought a talk about Archimedes’ discovering mathematical stuff was way more interesting.  Julie didn’t.

An aperativo in the piazza as the afternoon sun lit up those glorious buildings was better than both.  On that we were agreed.

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3 Comments

  1. Therese Bowes
    July 5, 2024 / 10:37 am

    So Ancient Greek theatre 🎭 is not your thing John? With all the walking & fantastic sights to see I can’t say I blame you x

  2. Chris Cameron
    July 10, 2024 / 9:15 am

    The Duomo building is stunning, amazing considering it’s been added to over the years. The puppets look into.

  3. Chris Cameron
    July 10, 2024 / 9:17 am

    Sorry meant to say the puppets look good too. Must remember to check what preemptive text has changed things to 🤨

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