Described by Cicero as “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of all” Syracuse is the most storied town in the south of Sicily. Echoes of ancient civilizations still resound in the streets of this coastal city, and Baroque architecture narrates its eventual rebirth as sun, sand and sky envelop it with their brilliance. A journey to this corner of Sicily awakens profound sensations, as if one were crossing the threshold of time into thousands of years ago.
The city was colonized in the VIII century BC by Greeks who settled on the island of Ortygia. It wasn’t long, however, before this powerbase was seized by a succession of tyrants, like Gelon, Theron and Hieron and under their rule the city enjoyed success and splendor establishing its supremacy over the rest of Sicily. The city then fell to the Romans and to subsequent invaders- barbarians, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans.
The archaeological site, situated in the northwest of the town, is home to a staggering number of well-preserved Greek (and Roman) remains. The main attraction is undoubtedly the Greek theatre that dates back at least until the V Century BC, one of the most impressive theatre to survive from Antiquity. Its cavea is amongst the largest ever built: its 59 rows could accommodate up to 15,000 spectators. The theatre is still used for an annual Greek theatre festival running from the middle of May to the end of June.
In the Park of Neapolis you will also found the haunting cave known as the Ear of Dionysius (Orecchio di Dionisio), situated in one of the most striking former limestone quarries (latomie) in Siracusa. As its name suggests, the cave resembles an auricle, both in the shape of entrance and the winding internal space beyond. It was the artist Caravaggio who gave the cave its name during his visit to Sicily in the early 1600s, and legend would tell us that it was used by Dionysius the Tyrant as a prison for his bitterest enemies; he was able to hear his enemies without seeing them, thanks to the cave’s extraordinary acoustic. Don’t miss a visit to the Roman Amphitheatre, built during the imperial era and the Ara di Ierone, an enormous altar partly carved out of the rock and commissioned by the tyrant in the III century BC for public sacrifices.
On the Island of Ortygia, connected by three bridges to the mainland, you find yourself in the thick of the monuments. The piazzas, streets and sidestreets trace a border around this small jewel box and its rocky beach, and its buildings, churches, temples, walls and facades decorate each corner.
Piazza Duomo is an attractive irregular square where stands the magnificent Cathedral, built on the site of an ancient Temple of Athena as can clearly be seen from the original Doric columns that were incorporated into the building’s main structure. The 1693 earthquake caused the front façade to collapse; it was rebuilt in the Baroque style by the Palermo architect Andrea Palma.
The historical highlight of the western side is the Fountain of Arethusa. Legend has it that Arethusa, originally an Arcadian nymph, fled underwater to Siracusa in an attempt to rid herself of the persistent amorous advances of the river God Alpheios. The Goddess Artemis transformed her into the fresh water spring that we can see today. All was in vain, however, as Alpheios located his prey and mixed his own waters with hers. Today the fountain sustains palm trees and clumps of papyrus, ducks and drakes.
"SunTripSicily" tips: visit "Ortigia's Museo del Papiro": papyrus plant grows in abundance around the nearby Ciane river and was used to make paper in the 18th century. The museum offers a fine collection of papyrus documents and products.
Visit the Greek theatre between May and June and enjoy a live performance of Greek plays.