The Sicilian city of Siracusa used to be known as Syracuse, and that’s the name you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever read ancient history or sat through a class on the ancient Greeks. This ancient city was the birthplace of Archimedes, hosted first-run plays by Sophocles, and was the site of some of the more exciting wars in Ancient Greek history. Founded sometime around the year 735 BC by Corinthians (or so Thucydides says) it was likely named, not exactly glamorously, for a nearby marsh. Today, it is a beautiful and at times atmospherically-melancholy place—and there are Greek ruins everywhere. The place is lousy with them.
I drove into Siracusa from Taormina fairly early in the day, as I’d hoped to have lunch in town. While driving in, I was briefly stopped by Italian traffic police in their distinctive striped pants so they could ascertain I was not transporting any kind of contraband. They were pleasant enough to me, and I proceeded into the city, towards a public parking lot that was fairly close to my hotel. I had found a good deal on the B&B Nostos located in Siracusa’s newer city centre – it was only a short walk over a bridge from Ortygia island, the city’s ancient historical centre.
The B&B was a pleasantly modern and clean place (although the whole complex could have used some more outward facing windows) on the third floor of an ancient apartment building. I’d arrived at lunch time, and so I dropped my things off and headed right for the island of Ortygia, headed for lunch by the Mercato di Ortigia, the city’s old food market. Ortygia reminded me a bit of Venice, which is probably just an artifact of the Baroque-era style of many of the buildings and the fact that the entire thing is surrounded by water.
Sicily has this fantastic way with markets, in that they’re really good ones with lots of beautiful products and all the vendors yell a lot, but in that pleasantly fun way, and not in the way that makes you think they might want to kill you. They remind me of markets in Asia and that makes me happy. Sicilian markets never play host to a slightly bedraggled man wearing Crocs and an elderly tie-dye shirt plunking out Grateful Dead tunes on his guitar, which already makes them better than our markets. Siracusa has some excellent places to eat in the market area.
The Siracusa market has an extraordinarily famous sandwich shop called Caseificio Borderi. Which already had a line out the door at 11:30 AM, and I am, sadly, completely allergic to lines. I wondered if I should go wander around a bit and see if the line would die down. Then I noticed that there were a lot of people sitting down to gorgeous meat and cheese and seafood spreads, at a place with outdoor seating right next door to Caseificio Borderi.
This was Fratelli Burgio, another vendor of high-end meat, cheeses, wines, and preserved seafoods. I was quickly seated outside: I ordered the “terra mare” sampler, which included smoked fish, cold cuts and cheeses, and pickled vegetables. It cost 15 Euro, which actually seemed pretty reasonable for the obscene quantity of stuff – beautifully arranged stuff – that was plonked down in front of me. There was smoked white fish with radicchio, prosciutto with pepper relish, soft goat cheese with sun-dried tomatoes, salmon and pistachios, and God knows what else, I just ate it. With a glass of local white wine. Everything tastes better when it’s served on a piece of artisanal wood.
I had fed myself, and now it was time to go look at some old junk. I say this in a loving way, because I am one of those people who plan out entire trips – like this one – around looking at really old things that do not look anything like they used to 2000 years ago. The first stop on my tour was the Temple of Apollo, a gorgeous 6th century Doric temple which is conveniently smack-dab in the middle of Ortygia, right next to the high-end shopping street.
I suppose I should be horrified by this juxtaposition of crass mercantilism with this sublime, now-revived place – the most ancient Greek temple in Sicily – but, nah, no. I find it charming to see people living mundane, modern lives wedged right next to a gigantic pile dedicated to Apollo. I have so little patience with people who believe that everything beautiful and historical should be preserved perfectly as it is. It’s a tiresome hatred of worldliness that reminds of ascetic monks, except the people making these boring comments are usually Americans – just like me – who grew up in places where history doesn’t extend much past 1925.
Think about it: what if we actually did ensure that we kept all of our chain restaurants and cigarettes-and-magazine shops and worldly things a regulatory 100 metre distance or whatever from Ancient Wonders of the World? It is true that travel bloggers from California (like me!) would whine and keen less about everything being ruined, but it is also true that we’d have far fewer Ancient Wonders to be annoying about. The history of the Siracusa Temple of Apollo is a perfect example of this cheek-to-jowel layering of very old things with ever-newer things: indeed, places like Siracusa often are so fascinating because people have never stopped living in them, an unbroken chain of people doing annoying people shit, stretching from the Phoenicians to us, today, us poor slobs purchasing shiny sneakers from Superga. (Which I did).
The Siracusa Temple of Apollo was at various times a Byzantine church, a mosque, a Norman church, and then a barracks for Spain: by the 19th century, a notary named Matteo Santoro lived in apartment built over the temple. HI apartment walls were reportedly built in part from the Doric columns of the ancient temple., and tourists would ask to be let in to look at them. Eventually, the Municipal Antiquities and Fine Arts Commission decided to demolish the apartments and restore the temple.
The temple had remained surprisingly intact through all these years of conversions, and it is now easy today as a tourist to assume that it had always looked pretty much like this throughout the centuries, nobly moldering away as the rude activities of mercantile life went on around it. But that’s a modern illusion. It’s unlikely that this temple was ever not surrounded by scenes of crass mercantilism. We tend to think of ancient Greek forums as places of lofty political debate, but they were actually devoted in large part to buying and selling crap, just like market squares are used in some places today. You probably could buy offensive penis-shaped souvenirs to give your stupid friends close to this temple during the time of the Romans – who were really big on penis-shaped souvenirs.
I finished looking at the temple, and then I crossed the bridge back to Siracusa proper, and began walking East, towards the Archaeological Park of Siracusa. This sprawling park contains Siracusa’s archaeological crown jewel, the beautifully preserved Greek theatre. It also contains a Roman amphitheater and a beautiful and deeply weird area called Latomia del Paradiso, which are preserved ancient Greek quarries dug out by Athenian prisoners of war. It was a pleasant 2.2 kilometer walk through the city, and the October weather was perfect. The park itself contains what used to be called (perhaps rather boringly) “Neapolis” or new city: the ruler Gelon decided to build a new district of the city of Siracusa away from Ortygia, and the theatre ended up here sometime in the early 5th century, with renovations occurring around 476 or 470 B.C., possibly on the suggestion of Aeschylus himself.
I came up to the ticket booth, paid my entry fee, and walked into the park, headed first toward the Roman amphitheater. The park is covered with a forest of Mediterranean pine trees, which smell pungently fresh, and which rustle beautifully when the wind blows. October is the off-season, and (like everywhere I went), I mostly had the ruins to myself. Which was a wonderful thing.
It’s an immense luxury to be able to wander around ancient Roman and Greek ruins in perfect weather alone: also a little sad, in that Ozymandis sort of way, with all those huge white limestones, crumbling into nothing. The Roman amphitheater is reasonably well preserved, but there hasn’t been much maintenance or weed-pulling done on it lately, although this adds to the ambience. There are a few signs, and you can see where the wild beasts were held before gladiator fights, where the grandstands for the fancy people were, the usual trappings of a Roman amphitheater.
Close to the Roman ampitheatre is the Altar of Hieron II, which was once used to sacrifice bulls to the god Zeus. There isn’t as much left to see here as elsewhere in the park, but you can get the gist of how huge this platform was. Supposedly up to 450 bulls were slaughtered here at one time, which does stick me as excessive.
I then walked through the pines to the 5th century Greek theatre, which really does resemble whatever you probably have in your head when you contemplate “Greek theatre.” It was famous back in the day – Arschylus premiered “The Aitnan’s here sometime around 456 B.C (a lost work), and probably staged “The Persians” (which survives) here as well.
Like many Greek theatres, it’s set in a place with a particularly panoramic view. It was one of the largest theaters in the Greek world, and Greek plays are still staged here. The Greek theatre festival here lasts from mid-May to the end of June and is a particularly well-known event: I’d like to attend some time. From 1526 onwards, the Spanish under Charles V mined the place to reinforce Ortygia’s foundations, as is the case for many ancient monuments: still, plenty remains. It’s a nice place to sit, maybe have a snack, and contemplate the universe, especially if there’s a breeze going.
Behind the theatre lies the Grotta del Ninfeo, an artificial cave carved into the Temenite Hill that contains the theatre. It used to contains statues dedicated to the Muses (which you can see in Siracusa’s excellent archaeological museum): a fountain that still runs here was devoted to the Greek cult devoted to nymphs. Thus the name “nymphaeum” – a commonly used name for attractive fountains in the ancient world that might theoretically contain a nymph. If nymphs were actually a thing. This might have been the location of an ancient “Sanctuary of Muses,” perhaps where the actors in the theatre would hang out and make the requisite offerings (or, who knows, gossip and drink wine) before they went on stage.
Finally I walked towards the quarries, known as the Latomie del Paradiso., which translates to something like “latomia = stone cut ; paradise = garden, park.” (Or so this source says). It’s a pretty name for quarries that were likely cut by miserable Athenian prisoners of war, after Athen’s spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to capture Syracuse in the year 413. Walking here felt a bit like walking into the pleasantly menacing den of some sort of ancient forest spirit, what with the thick, drooping trees and the weird, not-entirely-natural hollowed out white shapes of the rocks around me. The quarry stretched away into a small valley, which had been planted in modern times with groves of citrus trees, and a floral, sweet smell of lemons and rotting leaves hung in the air. It was getting to be later in the day, which always has its own air of weirdness to me – what if you get stuck out there, or something, could something get you – and this created a nice sense of frisson.
I quickly came upon the Ear of Dionysus, an immense dark slit in the white limestone. Caravaggio – yes, that Caravaggio – named the cave this because he thought the place looked a bit like a human ear, which I guess it does if you squint at it. The name stuck in particular because of a story claiming that the famed tyrant Dionysus I had a habit of crawling up into the cave to spy upon his many unhappy prisoners, who were forced to quarry rock out of the place: he could rely on the acoustics to hear them inevitably trash-talking him. And then he’d have them executed. This seems like a really convoluted and inefficient way to torment people, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true. Another theory says that he was just really into listening to the amplified screams of people being tortured. But, hey, the cave really does have remarkable acoustic qualities.
Pretty much everyone goes to the very (dark, spooky) end of the Ear and yells to see how it works: I didn’t do this because I hate loud noises and human joy, but some other couple did and I was duly impressed at how the sound carried. What is perhaps most strange about this cave to me is that sources still manage to disagree on if it is natural or if it was carved by the aforementioned unhappy slaves. Someone should probably sort that out.
Next to the “Ear” is the now-walled off Cave of the Cordari, which apparently used to host a thriving guild of Sicilian rope makers. You can’t go in anymore, possibly out of fear of something falling on your head, but it’s atmospherically creepy to look at.
On my way out, I met some excellent cats.
For dinner that evening, I wandered towards the Piazza Duomo, which is sort of obviously named for the Duomo di Siracusa, a 7th century Catholic cathedral. The cathedral was built right on top of the 5th century Greek Temple of Athena, to commemorate the tyrant Gelo’s victory over the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera. Cicero described the plundering of this temple by Gaius Verres – a noted asshole – during his tenure as praetor of Siracusa from 74 to 70 B.C. You can still see the Doric columns embedded into the church walls.
I had a serviceable (albeit not incredible) sausage and broccoli rabe pizza at Ristorante La Volpe e L’uva on the square, with a view of the ancient Doric temple – a nice bit of ambience. Then I wandered back to the B&B Nostos. I would be headed for Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples in the morning.
Where I Stayed in Siracusa:
Corso Umberto I, 66, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy
This modern, newly-renovated B&B is on the upper floor of an apartment building in downtown Siracusa, across the bridge from the old city center. It’s an easy stroll from here to the citadel area, and it’s also easy to walk the other direction towards the Greek theatre and Roman amphitheater, as well as the museum. The rooms don’t have any kind of view – the windows open up onto the buildings outdoor courtyard, mostly – but I found it very comfortable and quiet, with a good breakfast and friendly staff.
Where I Ate in Siracusa:
Piazza Cesare Battisti 4, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy.
Ristorante La Volpe e L’uva
Piazza Duomo, 20, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy