15th May 2015
Ortygia, the island upon which Syracuse was founded in 734 BC, is small and perfect for wandering around at a leisurely pace. Remnants of 2,700 years of continuous occupation crowd the quaint streets, begging to be accidentally discovered.
The Temple of Apollo is usually first up for visitors to Ortygia as it is situated on the Piazza at the end of the main bridge onto the island. It is the oldest Doric temple in the whole of Sicily, dating right back to the beginning of the 6thC BC.
The temple was converted into a Byzantine church, then a mosque, then a church again under Norman rule and then a Spanish barracks. A model in the Syracuse museum helpfully helps us recreate what it originally looked like.
I headed to the Cathedral next, lured by the call of more ancient columns.
The Duomo hides a secret past behind the Baroque facade. The church recycles a temple to Athena built in 480 BC. Founded to commemorate Syracusan victory over the Carthaginians at the battle of Himera, the temple stood on the acropolis of the town. For the first glimpse of the ancient past of the Cathedral, simply glance at the side of the church where the Doric columns still stand, the spaces between now filled in.
The cella walls are in tact, if punctured with arches to create a typical Christian nave when the temple was converted.
Whilst I wish I could see the temple as it was, the Cathedral is undoubtedly beautiful.
The Piazza Duomo is a beautiful open space showing off the beautiful architecture I’ve been craving.
I love that the focal point of Ortygia is still on the site of the ancient acropolis. This space has been the heart of Syracuse for 2,700 years.
The Romans besieged Syracuse from 214-212 BC. Once victorious they were able to gain control of Sicily entirely. The siege was long and difficult for the Romans, and inevitably once the city fell the soldiers wanted to take retribution by looting and pillaging. The Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus understood this and did not prevent them from ransacking the city or burning buildings down, but according to Plutarch Marcellus nevertheless wept to see such a beautiful city destroyed under his own orders. I’d scoffed at this story the previous day whilst wandering around the scruffy mainland area of the city, but standing in the Piazza Duomo I finally understood.
Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier at the end of the siege (against the direct orders of Marcellus,) aged 78. The soldier found him working on an invention at his home and, annoyed at the interruption, Archimedes irritably told him to bugger off. It didn’t go down well… The soldier was probably unrepentant as Archimedes had spent the past three years creating inventions and machines to kill as many Romans as possible, including huge cranes with hooks that could topple over and sink ships and mirrors designed to reflect sunlight in laser beams to set ships on fire.
Nevertheless the Romans could not deny that the man was a genius and that he deserved his place in the history books. He was honoured with his own piazza in Ortygia in 1878. In 1907 and beautiful fountain depicting the goddess Diana was added, designed by Giulio Moschetti.
A more famous fountain named after a mythological Nereid is next to the sea.
At the very southern tip of Ortygia is a fortress dating back to 1240 AD named Castello Maniace. It’s been developed and adapted over the centuries to keep it usable in times of war, last updated in 1838. Anyone who knows me well will testify as to how excited I get by forts, so I was thrilled to visit.
I don’t make a habit of mentioning restaurants as usually I’m on such a budget that I eat cheaply, skip the odd meal and generally neglect to make dining a priority. Today, however I decided should be a #treatyoself kind of day.
Not far from the Castello Maniace is the Osteria Da Mariano. They’re tucked away on a narrow street, decorated in a simple, rustic style and offer old fashioned dishes that have been filling Syracusan bellies for generations. I’ve found that as a woman dining alone I can be a bit of an oddity to the social eaters that are Italians. However, the waiters here never once gave me a pitying or questioning look and made sure I was treated like a princess. The food is magnificent and they brought me a glass of moscato and some Syracusan sweets to finish my meal with, just because they’re lovely. If you ever go to Ortygia, go to Osterio da Mariano!
I ended my day with an hour long boat trip circumnavigating the island and ended up with some lovely views. Heaven.