As a history nerd, I was excited to visit Siracusa because it was the site of the Athenian navy’s misbegotten siege in 414-413 BC. That debacle signaled the approaching end of the Peloponnesian Wars and, a decade later, the collapse of the Athenian empire.
But the lively culture of today’s Siracusa wiped all such thoughts from my mind, at least temporarily. Our hotel, the Mediterrano, lay short walk from the medieval section known as Ortigia, which is actually a small island connected to the mainland by two bridges spanning a channel plied by all sorts of seafaring craft.
You enter Ortigia through the 19th-century Piazza Archimede (Archimedes was from Siracusa), with its Fountain of Diana by Giulio Moschetti, showing the nymph Arethusa being transformed into a spring by the goddess Diana. We got to know this square well both by day and by night during our numerous walks to and from the old town.
And this being an old Italian town, naturally the duomo (cathedral) was an important stop on our itinerary.
Beautiful at first glance, this particular duomo was also the most fascinating of all those we saw in Sicily. Not only was it built on the site of an ancient Doric temple to Athena, but two rows of columns from that temple remain as part of the structure of the church, one row inside the cathedral, the other visible along an exterior wall. For a history buff, a structure that shows multiple layers of history in such a dramatic way as this is a true treasure.
We didn’t have a lot of sightseeing time on our first day after our epic drive through the mountains to get here. But we didn’t mind; nighttime is pretty nice in Siracusa too, whether in the truly grand Piazza del Duomo with its outdoor cafes, or at the edge of the water.
Some of the city’s most important historical sites are on the mainland side of town. One is the Catacombs of St. John, a honey comb of burial chambers established, according to my guidebook, in what used to be underground aqueducts used by the Greeks. Unlike the more modern catacombs in Palermo, these are ancient Christian burial grounds. You enter with your guided tour through the ruins of a Norman church, the Chiesa di San Giovanni.
We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, of course, but the Galleriaroma website has excellent ones of the twisting caverns, long-ago plundered tombs, and evocative fresco remnants. You’re not face-to-face with actual corpses as you are in the Palermo catacombs; rather, this place looks like something out of a feverish dungeon master’s imagination, or a brilliantly executed CGI movie about somebody like Lara Croft. The depths of history here are truly awe-inspiring to sink into.
We made an even deeper descent at a site you won’t find in the guidebooks. Among the Ortigia’s warren of narrow medieval streets is the old Jewish Quarter. While it hasn’t been Jewish for centuries (the Inquisition and all that), its streets still bear names that translate, essentially, to “Jew Alley 1,” “Jew Alley 2,” etc. (see the sign in the image to the right). And not long ago, deep beneath the Alla Giudecca Residence Hotel, renovators discovered a 1,500-year-old mikvah – not just a Jewish ritual bath but really a small bathhouse, fed by an underground spring. The hotel concierge runs hourly tours (if she’s not too busy tending to guests) and I highly recommend seeking this out, whatever your religion. It’s a steep descent, so wear good walking shoes.
Far outside the Ortigia lies the city’s famous Archeological Museum (alas, closed for renovation at the time of our visit), and beyond that, an unforgettable complex of archeological sites I’ll never forget. Before entering the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, buy your tickets at a nearby lot full of food and souvenir vendors (figuring this out can be a little confusing). The only part you don’t need a ticket for is the Roman Amphitheater, where gladiators, slaves, and wild animals slaughtered each other starting in the time of Augustus.
The Greeks staged more civilized entertainment at the Teatro Greco. I’ve seen a number of these ancient Greek amphitheaters, in Greece and now here in Sicily, and they always have a powerful hold on me.
An unusual feature of this amphitheater is a row of alcoves up top with water running into them. I couldn’t find any reference to what these were used for.
The Archeological Park also encompasses the great limestone quarry Latomia del Paradiso (Paradise Quarry). Why “paradise”? I don’t know. It’s certainly a gorgeous area today, green and lush, and decked out with dramatic and unnatural rock formations. I could have spent all day here. The quarry’s star attraction, though, is a big cave whose special acoustics, known since ancient times, earned it the name Orecchio di Dionisio or Ear of Dionysius. That’s not the god Dionysus, but Dionysius I, the “tyrant of Syracuse” beginning around the year 405 BC. Some 65 meters long and rising to 11 meters high, it’s said to amplify sound up to 16 times. Having heard a bubbly chorus singing Abba songs in the farthest reaches of the cave, with the sound reaching way out into the open spaces of the quarry, I believe it.
All of that doesn’t cover everything we saw and did in Siracusa. But it should be enough to convey the idea that if you have a chance to visit Sicily, don’t miss this town. I’ll end this installment by noting that there are interesting vistas and sights looking out over the water, too, where that ancient Athenian navy appeared millennia ago so fatefully. Today, fearless of invasion – unless by refugees from Arab Springs gone bad in North Africa – locals turn an uninviting rock into a makeshift beach.
We had a good amount of time, and a lot of delicious food, in Siracusa. I could have stayed longer.
During our stay there, we took a day trip to two historic towns in the interior, Ragusa and Noto. To be continued in Part 7.
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