Hello From Sicily – An Excursion into Antiquity – Siracusa

Finally, my first day of beautiful weather in Sicily, a perfect day for an out-of-town excursion. I started my day with a nourishing breakfast on the terrace of Hotel Villa Nettuno and I have to say of all the places I have travelled to, the view from this terrace and the garden itself must be one of the most beautiful vistas I have ever enjoyed anywhere. Maria Sciglio, who is in her 80s, takes such amazing care of this garden which is a virtual sub-tropical paradise. I was savouring every minute of my morning meal which included a fresh croissant, coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and a fresh Italian bun with jams and honey.

I was certainly ready to take on the day and began my 7-minute stroll to the Babilonia Language School. The Piazza Corvaja was already starting to fill up with people and the beauty of Taormina in the gorgeous blue sunshine was dazzling my eyes. Bright and early at eight am thirteen people were waiting in front of the school, and our activities coordinator Peppe walked just a few steps east to a local car rental to pick up two rented vehicles: a minibus and a small car. Our little Fiat Panda was rather cozy for five people, but that’s definitely something you need to get used to. Most things in Europe, including cars, a just a bit smaller than in North America.

We enjoyed a pleasant ride, exchanging stories from Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Canada, and about two and a half hours later we arrived at the Neapolis Archeological Zone in Siracusa, or Syracuse as it is known in English. For almost 3000 years Syracuse has been a major economic centre and has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The Corynthians founded this Greek city and it holds some of the best-preserved Greek archeological treasures in the world.

We got out of our vehicles and I noticed right away that this place was going to be rather crowded; not surprisingly, since a lot of people would make an excursion to a major archeological sites on a beautiful Saturday morning.

The entrance free to the archeological complex was covered by the Babilonia excursion and in we walked through the turnstiles. Our first archeological sight were the so-called Latomie, which are ancient stone quarries that provided the stone for many of the Greek monuments. At various times they were also used as prisons. The most impressive man-made cave in this area is the so-called Orrechio di Dionisio (“Ear of Dionysius”), which, as legend has it, allowed the local tyrant Dionysius to hear the whispers of the prisoners that were held in its depth. The shape of the cave is indeed faintly reminiscent of an ear and when the wind was blowing in the right direction during theatrical performances, a choir positioned in the cave could be heard in the Greek amphitheatre on the other side of the rock.

Another adjacent cave, the Grotta dei Cordari (Grotto of the Ropemakers) is not publicly accessible right now due to falling rocks, but it was used until recently for ropemaking. We then walked over to the Greek Theatre which was designed in the 5th century B.C. Many of the great ancient Greek playwrights wrote and staged their plays in this amazing setting.

Peppe explained that the ancient Greeks always built their theatres in stunning natural environments. Greek theatres were generally built as a semicircle into a mountain with a gorgeous view of a mountain range (Mount Etna for example, in Taormina), or the sea. Greek dramas would be performed in the late afternoon so the performance would coincide with the sunset. Of all the ancient civilizations that had invaded Sicily, Peppe explained that the Greeks had the greatest appreciation for nature.

Many of the original stones of the Greek Theatre were taken at the order of Emperor Charles V in the 1500s in order to build the walls around Ortygia, an island that forms part of downtown Siracusa. Every year in the months of May / June a theatre festival is held in Siracusa’s Greek Theatre that features Greek Tragedies as part of the Teatro Greco di Siracusa. This year’s festival theatre is scheduled for May 10 to June 25, 2007. Surrounding the Greek Theatre are rocks with cavities that were used for grain storage as well as burial sites.

We passed by the “Altar of Hieron II”: a sacrificial site where 400 bulls were sacrificed at one time. In addition to ancient Greek treasures, this archeological zone also holds Roman ruins: the Roman Amphitheatre was used for beastly fights. Peppe explained that these were not professional gladiators, but rather slaves that were being made to fight wild animals, mostly dogs. In antiquity Sicily was often used as a prison site, and prisoners were also often used in these spectacles. The underground holding areas and corridors for the animals and the gladiators can still be clearly seen.

After our visit to this extensive archeological zone we got into our vehicles and drove downtown. We parked our car on the Piazza della Posta next the waterfront and two minutes away we had a chance to explore the local market. All the local delicacies were awaiting, from all different kinds of fish to squid to shellfish to local vegetables and fruits. The displays were definitely a feast for the eyes, (for the nose not so much, at least the fishy part…).

From there we strolled past the Temple of Apollo on the Piazza Pancali, which provides the entrance to the island of Ortygia. This ancient temple, dating back to the 6th century B.C., was discovered in 1860 in the old Spanish army barracks. Through narrow streets with many Baroque buildings we arrived at the Piazza Duomo which features Syracuse’s cathedral, dedicated to Santa Lucia.

An imposing building with a beautifully detailed façade, this building impresses not just because of its size, but because of the ancient interior Greek columns that used to form part of a monument dedicated to Athena. Peppe pointed out that some of the columns are standing at a slight angle as the result of a major earthquake.

These columns also date back to the 6th century B.C. and are some of the most well-preserved ancient Greek columns in the world. The Duomo evolved from being a temple to becoming a Christian Church, at one point it became a Muslim mosque and today’s incarnation is a stunning example of Sicilian Baroque architecture.

After all these explorations it was definitely time for lunch and Peppe guided us to a local restaurant, located in a beautiful courtyard off a small street that served simple local fish and pasta dishes. Vines were hanging down on us from trellises and the shade provided by the surrounding walls provided a welcome opportunity to cool off on this warm spring day.

Appropriately strengthened our group headed out again and after passing through the old Arab Gate we explored an area called Lungomare Ortigia which features a beautiful piazza that faces out onto the waterfront. The Fonte Aretusa, a fountain that has been providing spring water since ancient times, faces the Porto Grande or Grand Harbour. The view across the water and down the waterfront promenade is simply precious.

This was a perfect time for some Sicilian gelato and off I went to grab a cone of delicious “nocciola” (hazelnut) and refreshing “limone” gelato. We strolled along the waterfront promenade and then headed into the old town again to walk in the shady narrow streets that are adorned by a myriad of unique balconies. We passed by Siracusa’s opera house which has actually been abandoned since the 1960s and was in disrepair. Despite its baroque beauty, Siracusa’s downtown streets and alleyways had a bit of a deserted feel to them.

We headed back to our vehicles and drove into the countryside just outside Siracusa. Our final destination for the day was the “Castello Eurialo”, an ancient Greek fortification built on a hilltop in 402 B.C. by Dionysius the Elder. It featured two moats and a tower to protect the town of Syracuse and in its bowels it holds an amazingly well-preserved series of tunnels. The view from the castle is splendid, and to the north you can see one of the largest petroleum-processing areas in all of Southern Italy. Ancient history and modern history can coexist quite nicely in Sicily.

After a really full day we started our trek back to Taormina, and sure enough, half an hour outside of town the skies started clouding over and it started to drizzle. After this long day of discoveries I was rather tired and had a quick meal in a local pizzeria, ready for another day of exploration.