14th May 2015
I’d arrived at Siracusa the previous night. Not being able to afford accommodation on the prettier Ortygia, I’d found my run down hotel on the mainland after a bit of searching and swearing at my map. I had planned to spend today on the Siracusa mainland and the next day on Ortygia. Little yet did I know what a contrast the two districts would be.
Mainland Siracusa isn’t as much of a garbage dump as Palermo and certainly nowhere near as depressing as Catania, but boy does it give them a run for their money.
I only have myself to blame for the dreadful hotel. Even though my funds are extremely limited this trip I was unable to resist the pull of one of the most famous ancient cities in the world. The hotel tariffs do soar here and I’ve decided to stay for three whole nights. Hopefully the sites of Siracusa will make up for my tiny, inexplicably tomato-soup-orange room and the fact that if I want wifi signal I have to sit in the stairwell two floors below my room.
A restless night of sleep in my soup room has left me grumpy. A sure fire way to alleviate my grump is to head to a museum. Mercifully, the museum in Siracusa is brilliant.
To begin with there is a gallery of prehistoric finds (mainly pithoi burial urns,) leading up to the arrival of the Greek colonists.
The second room has archaeological finds from the earliest Greek cities arranged by colony, including Syracuse herself. As the main city in south east Sicily, the museum here is the largest and creme de la creme of artifacts are displayed here, with the smaller local site museums managing to retain a key piece or two. Seeing as many of the sites are difficult to get to without a car or bloody inexplicably closed, it’s great to see exhibits from places I didn’t actually manage to get to.
Then, a section devoted to Agrigento and Gela.
Moving upstairs there is a section devoted to Hellenistic exhibits.
Syracuse fell to the Romans in 212 BC after three years of siege. The Romans turned it into the capital of Sicily as a Roman province. Consequently much Roman art has been found here, whereas a lot of the Greek artwork was inevitably seized and transported to Rome to provide grand villas with some classy, ancient art.
The museum is a short walk from the Neapolis Archaeological Park, which I am itching to get to. First though, lunch is calling. I expect there to be a few restaurants to choose from along the way, even if they do only offer a menu turistico. There is nothing. What’s the deal, Syracuse? At the Park entrance there is a tiny cafe, the type with a few slices of hours old pizza and cheap plastic seating. I’m flummoxed, to be honest. After a quick, if bland, panino (and a couple of arancini shoved into my bag for emergencies,) I head into Neapolis Archaeological Park.
Neapolis is Greek for ‘new city’ as Syracuse was originally founded and limited to the island of Ortygia. The Neapolis area is where the population gradually spilled onto the mainland. The park boasts the theatre, amphitheatre, famous Latomie quarries and the monumental Altar of Hieron II.
Such a shame then, that I was only truly able to see one of the above.
The Roman amphitheatre is completely closed off. There are signs that indicate this may be for restoration purposes, although that’s little consolation to me by this point on my trip. My guidebook is teasing me with photos of what I’m missing and I’m not convinced that restoration work would or should close off the entire huge building. It’s the biggest amphitheatre in Sicily and the only one that looks fairly in tact on my itinerary. As a final middle finger to the coach loads of tourists here, the gateway that leads down to the amphitheatre is covered in plastic sheeting so that we can’t even peek at what lies beyond. There’s not even a sign with a photo.
Next along the road is the altar of Zeus Eleutherious (the Liberator) which was built by Hieron II of Syracuse.
If you’ve heard his name before, it’s probably because of his dealings with Archimedes, the Syracusan genius.
Hieron had commissioned a votive crown to donate to a temple. He suspected that the goldsmiths had cheated him and tainted the purity of the gold with a cheaper metal. He asked Archimedes to devise a method with which to test the purity of the crown without having to melt it down. Archimedes knew the weight of the crown but also needed to know the density to make his calculations.
Archimedes cracked his conundrum in the bath tub. He noticed that when he got into the water the level rose. Archimedes knew then that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of how much of his body was immersed in the fluid.
Suitably pleased with himself, he ran straight out of the bath and ran around the streets of Syracuse, naked as the day he was born, shouting “Eureka! Eureka!” (“I have found it! I have found it!”)
Turns out, Hieron was also right to be suspicious of the goldsmiths, they had mixed the gold with cheaper silver after all.
The altar was half built on existing rock and is a stadium long. It was designed for the ritual sacrifice of bulls in honour of Zeus.
It’s apparently only visible from the road and is fenced off. I’m not sure if that’s usually the case, but when I visit it is simply yet another thing I have to view from a distance.
Still, the theatre is next up and surely that won’t be underwhelming…
… apart from the fact that they are apparently preparing for a concert/performance and all the ancient seating is covered by opaque wooden and plastic modern seats. I was really excited to see the orchestra section, where Roman adaptations produced interesting pools and channels for the putting on of water games (colymbetra.) The entire orchestra was covered with modern staging, obscuring absolutely everything. Three out of four sites closed or obscured so far. I was beginning to resent paying full price…
At the top of the cavea is a sepulchre area containing Hellenistic votive niches and Byzantine rock cut tombs.
There is also the Cave of the Nymph, an artificial cave with fountain dedicated to the Muses that was sacred to actors.
Last up are the Latomie, one of the enormous quarries that provided Syracuse with the stones to build her monuments. The most beautiful, (as as far as I can tell the only one accessible,) is the Latomia of Paradise. It is 45 metres deep and produced 850,000 cubic metres of rock.
Within the quarry is the famous Ear of Dionysus, which is 23 metres tall and 65 feet deep. When Caravaggio visited it he noticed that it follows a curve just like the human ear and coined the name.
I leave the Archaeological Park seriously disappointed and underwhelmed and decide to cheer myself up with some early Christian catacombs.
I have a little while to wait until the San Giovanni catacombs reopen following their midday closure and there is still nowhere to eat a proper meal. I am reduced to sitting on the doorstep of a closed shop along the street from San Giovanni church. I am red, sweaty and tired. I take my slightly squashed arancini out of my bag and devour them as if I have been starved. Not an attractive tableau, yet still I notice a local man standing astride his bike watching me.
I’m embarrassed, I must look like a right state. He slowly draws a sausage from his trouser pocket. He keeps it close. I wonder why on earth someone would keep meat products in their trousers, especially on such a hot day. He starts to rub the sausage slowly. I push my prescription sunglasses further up my nose. Bugger me, that’s not a sausage he’s rubbing…
This is the second penis I have witnessed in Sicily. It’s important that I reiterate that my husband is at home in Berkshire…
I march towards the church and he throws me a look of regret. Heaven help me.
The catacombs are thankfully fascinating (and cool!) Entry is by guided tour only and thankfully my guide is happy to translate into English for the very few non-Italians that have bothered to visit. Photography is not allowed, something the Italians ignore completely whilst the rest of us scowl at them disapprovingly.
Cheered up and without any genitalia in sight, I refuse to give up on the rest of the day and head to Ortygia a day earlier than planned, just to wander a bit.
The island on which Syracuse was originally founded is a little shabby but has an air of graceful, charming dilapidation that contrasts sharply to the mainland. This is where most of the hotels and restaurants are located and if I could have afforded it I would have loved to have stayed here.
Soon after crossing the bridge I was immediately buoyed with the sight of a temple.
After a well needed proper evening meal I reluctantly head back to the mainland, keen to return first thing the next morning…