Syracuse has a history which goes back beyond the ancient Greek invaders of Sicily. The ancient heart of the city, Ortigia, is a teardrop of land surrounded by the sea and with much evidence of the different people who have settled here - a lovely place to wander.
Like much of man-made Sicily Syracuse is a Greek creation, first settled in the eighth century B.C. It became the greatest of the Magna Graecia towns and cities - those colonised on the coast of Sicily and the Italian mainland.
Phoenicians arrived in Sicily around the eighth century B.C. trading their famous purple dye with the Greeks from coastal settlements. The dye was made from crushed seashells and gave the Phoenicians their name - Greek for "purple people". The Phoenicians were peaceful settlers, not so the Greeks who colonised the east coast from around the same time. Phoenician trading posts fell to the Carthaginians. The Greeks expanded south and east, establising centres at Syracuse, Selinunte and Agrigento among others.
The ancient heart of the city is Ortigia, an island on the very tip of Syracuse, connected by three bridges to the mainland. It is a beautiful place, the baroque thankfully quite restrained in the lovely Piazza del Duomo.
The cathedral itself was built on a fifth century B.C. Greek Temple of Athena and the ancient Greek columns can still be seen. The Greek Temple was erected to celebrate victory over the Carthaginians and converted to a Christian church under the Byzantines in the seventh century A.D. Terracotta decorative fragments from an even earlier sacred building have been found on the Via Minerva running alongside the Duomo.
Inside the cathedral is actually beautifully plain, the baroque decoration having been removed in the early twentieth century. Columns from the 2500 year old Temple of Athena are still visible both inside and out.
Further evidence of the ancient Greek presence in Ortigia can be seen near the Ponte Umbertino. The Temple of Apollo also dates from around the sixth century B.C. and is the oldest known Doric temple in western Europe, slightly older than the temples at Paestum but not in such a good state. A few fragments of columns and walls remain, once the columns stretched 17 on each long side and six on the short sides.
Nearby there is an early morning produce market which is colourful with lots of beautiful fruit and vegetables, cheeses, and an abundance of fresh seafood.
Just to the south of the temple is the Piazza Archimede named for the famous mathematician born in Syracuse in 287 B.C.1 Archimedes was a brilliant astronomer and engineer as well as mathematician, particularly excelling in geometry, arithmetic and mechanics. He invented a water extraction device, now known as the Archimedes screw, which ingeniously lifts water from a low water source to higher ground and is still much in use. He is also said to have invented machinery and methods for the defence of Syracuse from attack by sea. These included massive catapults for firing boulders at ships, and a mirror system to reflect sunlight onto the sails which it was intended would catch fire. However the latter is almost certainly a myth.
In the south of Ortigia, at the western end of the seafront, a natural spring feeds a pool with a large clump of papyrus growing, populated by ducks and stacks of large colourful fish. Called the Fountain of Arethusa it is the fabled spring into which the nymph Arethusa was transformed by the Greek goddess Artemis so that she could avoid the attentions of the river god Altheus.
There are many restaurants on the seafront and it is a very pleasant place to have lunch. We spent a very long leisurely Sunday lunchtime at Lungo la Notte with excellent sea bream and cool white wine.
Just a little further east is the Castello Maniace. Originally dating from the eleventh century the current fortifications were built in the early thirteenth century when Sicily was ruled by the German Frederick II. It has a magnificent gothic hall with incongruous Corinthian columns; bare and unfurnished it has a certain atmosphere. The battlements are impressive, but not a place to linger on a hot day.
Ortigia is lovely to stroll around, full of small churches, piazzas, narrow alleyways, restaurants and palazzos.
Deep beneath one of the oldest palazzos of the city, now a hotel, is a very old Jewish ritual bath house, one of the oldest known anywhere in the world. The central three dips were apparently for poor people, with two more private baths enclosed behind walls to the sides, were for the more important or wealthier patrons. It is interesting, if rather expensive at 5 euros entrance fee.
Some of the palazzos are crumbling like the 18th c. Palazzo Bongiovanni but others, such as the very fine Palazzo Impellizzeri, look to have been recently restored. Thankfully the baroque decoration is restrained and includes striking grotesque human head sculpture, a feature of Sicilian baroque.
Palazzo Impellizzeri has been successively transformed from the thirteen-fourteenth centuries right up to the baroque period.
The principal Greek and Roman remains are to be found in mainland Syracuse. These include a rather nicely situated Greek theatre with fine sea views. A wooden theatre stood here from the sixth century B.C. replaced by a stone theatre which was inaugurated with a drama by Aeschylus (525-456B.C.).
Hieron II was responsible for expanding it in the third century B.C. to the theatre we can still see today. It could hold up to 15,000 people seated on stone benches cut directly into the rock in a great curving sweep of hillside. It is one of the largest Greek theatres ever built.
Hieron II was also responsible for the immense sacrificial altar nearby, dedicated to Zeus. At 198m long and 22.8m wide as many as 450 oxen could be sacrificed together. Little remains today apart from the basic outline of the structure. The Spanish used much of the Greek-era stonework in other building and defensive projects.
Behind the theatre are a number of caves cut into the rock. These are part of an enormous Greaco-Roman necropolis which extends some distance to the east.
Adjacent to the theatre is a huge quarry famous for the cave known as the "Ear of Dionysus". It was named by Caravaggio in 1586. It is said that Dionysus used it to imprison political dissidants and was able to eavesdrop on their conversations due to the curious accoustics of the cave. There are lots of bats in there.
Most of the quarry is now out of bounds for safety reasons.
Nearby are extensive Roman remains including a large amphitheatre dating back to the third and fourth centuries A.D. and one of the largest in Italy In its heyday it would have hosted games, gladiatorial combat, horse races and other spectacles.
It was immensely hot in August and probably not the best time of year to visit. This was our second trip to Sicily and we still feel there is much we have not seen.