An Ionian seaside town, Avola is a mix of old and new. The town focuses heavily on the sea, with its history as a tuna fishing port. Today, the remains of the Vecchia Tonnara at the wharf are a stone backdrop to the sandy beaches. Avola dates back to a pre-Greek people called the Sicani.…
When I discovered this city – I was driving quite often towards the south to hang around and be away from Catanian trash and dirt. This historical city has much to offer and makes you come back again and again. Where to start?
Syracuse is mentioned in the Bible in the Acts of the Apostles book at 28:12 as Paul stayed there. Good start?
The city was founded by Ancient Greek Corinthians and Teneans and became a very powerful city-state. Syracuse was allied with Sparta and Corinth and exerted influence over the entirety of Magna Graecia, of which it was the most important city. In certain moment it was equivalent to Athens in size and population proportion. Ancient Greek celebrities like Cicero and Archimed lived here.
Eureka! or, I found it! – was said by him, Archimed while he was running naked the streets of Syracusa. Famous for many inventories such as attacking the battle ships with mirrors reflecting the sun rays or finding the Pi (π) in circle. “Nōlī turbāre circulōs meōs!” is a Latin phrase, meaning “Do not disturb my circles!”. It is said to have been uttered by Archimedes—in reference to a geometric figure he had outlined on the sand—when he was confronted by a Roman soldier during the Siege of Syracuse prior to being killed.
The siege of Syracuse by the Roman Republic took place in 213–212 BC. The Romans successfully stormed the Hellenistic city of Syracuse after a protracted siege, giving them control of the entire island of Sicily. During the siege, the city was protected by weapons developed by Archimedes.
So the Syracuse became part of the Roman Republic and then Byzantine Empire.
The Temple of Apollo is one of the most important ancient Greek monuments on Ortygia. Just to explain, Ortygia is a small island which is the historical centre of the city of Syracuse. Just passing the three-bridge Santa Lucia (like the one in Ljubljana, if you remember 😛 ) The island, also known as the Città Vecchia (Old City), contains many historical landmarks that I will write about here. The name originates from the ancient Greek ortyx which means “Quail“. Dating to the 6th century B.C., this temple is one of the most ancient Doric temples in Sicily, and among the first with the layout consisting of a peripteros of stone columns.
Perhaps the best way to describe the transition from Greek Hellenic to Roman is the Fountain of Artemis/ Diana. In Roman mythology, Diana was the goddess of hunting, and in later times, the moon and chastity. Cypress trees were sacred to her. She was the daughter of Jupiter and the Titan Latona (or Leto). In Greek mythology, Diana was called Artemis.
Strolling down the streets of Ortygia, you will arrive to Piazza Duomo with the Cathedral of Santa Lucia.
Its structure is originally a Greek doric temple The Temple of Athena. When you enter, if you pay attention, you can see the columns are doric. The present cathedral was started to be built in 7th century. The building was converted into a mosque in 878 after Arab conquers, then converted back when Norman Roger I of Sicily retook the city in 1085. The roof of the nave is of Norman origin, as well as the mosaics in the apses.
The cathedral holds a number of relics of St. Lucy, the patroness of the city: a number of bone fragments, a robe, a veil, and a pair of shoes.
Lucia was born of rich and noble parents about the year 283 AD. Her father was of Roman origin but died when she was five years old, leaving Lucy and her mother without a protective guardian. Her mother’s name Eutychia seems to indicate that she came from a Greek background. Lucia wanted to consecrate her virginity to God, and she hoped to distribute her dowry to the poor. However, Eutychia, her mother, arranged Lucy’s marriage to a young man of a wealthy pagan family. When she refused, she has been sentenced to be defiled in a brothel. The Christian tradition states that when the guards came to take her away, they could not move her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, but would not burn. Finally, she met her death by the sword thrust into her eyes. When her body was prepared for burial in the family mausoleum it was discovered that her eyes had been miraculously restored. This is one of the reasons that Lucy is the patron saint of those with eye illnesses. If you watch carefully, you will see that she always appears with the sword and a tray with the pair of eyes.
To go back to Hellenistic time just for a moment, as the Fountain of Arethusa can be found in the middle of the island. It is the source of fresh water that flows directly to the sea. It was used by women for washing the clothes. However, the greek mythology says it is the shelter place of nymph Arethusa, hunted by Alpheus. It is quite a unique place, as the papyrus plant grows out of the small lake where the fountain comes.
Time for an aperol? This is now a good place to sit. Just at the fountain, begins the Lungomare Alfeo. There is a restaurant called Spizzica Al Vecchio Lavatoio (Snack At The Old Washhouse).
The best part here is the view, of course. It is a lagoon with many boats ancored and youth partying. If you observe carefully, you would notice the system of purchasing food and beverages from the bars by using the basket technique. 😛
In Syracusa there are many churches yet to be discovered by myself. So far I have entered to the Chiesa San Paolo Apostolo and discovered interesting paintings. If you know Christian narrative, you will understand the paintings.
And as well; Basilica of Santa Lucia Extra moenia: a Byzantine church built (after Norman rebuilt), according to tradition, in the same place of the martyrdom of the saint in 303 AD. The current appearance is from the 15th–16th centuries. The most ancient parts still preserved include the portal, the three half-circular apses and the first two orders of the belfry. Under the church are the Catacombs of St. Lucy. For this church Caravaggio painted the Burial of St. Lucy.
Strolling the streets, enjoying the hidden gems, baroque facades, bars and restaurants, balconies that are decorated with many beautiful plants. It’s a vibe 🙂
The total peak of the Ortygia island is the Castello Maniace, constructed in 13th century, as an example of the military architecture of Frederick II‘s reign. It is a square structure with circular towers at each of the four corners. The most striking feature is the pointed portal, decorated with polychrome marbles.
If you’d like to buy a souvenir here, you should definitely buy Teste di Moro. You can spot them on many balconies as pots. Why? Once upon a time, Sicilian girl had a balcony of beautiful flowers. Moore (Moroccan) was passing by and made her fell in love. It was forbidden love, of course. They married secretly but only shorty after she discovered that he has a family in the land of Saracens. So she beheaded him and used his head as a pot on her balcony. A reminder to never mess with Ladies.
A Sicilian specialty, granita is a cold, sweet treat made from water, sugar, and fruit that is never completely frozen. It’s mixed continuously to obtain a texture that is simultaneously grainy and creamy. I could never understand how an ice cream could be eaten with a brioche, but here we are. And it’s not that bad. If you sit at the main square, in front of the Cathedral, in the cith caffee, you can for sure say you have become almost local.
One grey Saturday in December in Sicily I have traded for visiting the archeological site Neapolis.
I started my day with macchiato and amaro siciliano. Bitter than usual. But when you observe the locals and how they behave, it becomes sweeter and more enjoyable.
An underground path lead me to discover the largest catacombs in Siracusa, an extraordinary place of worship rich in beauties and history. The amazing Basilica of San Giovanni Evangelista. It is a stunning open air church with subterranean treasures: the painted San Marciano’s Crypt and the San Giovanni’s Catacombs.
The ancient district of Neapolis contains the most important monumental testimonies of the Greek and Roman city. The arrangement of the area follows an idea of the tyrant Dionysius I who in 405 a. C. wanted to transform the Neapolis district into a monumental area, able to contain many of the architectural testimonies of the classical city.
The location’s entrance starts with the valley that once was inhabited by slaves whose task was to carve the stone for the construction of the city.
Inside are many caves like Grotta del Salnitro. The name derives from the production of the salpetre, a deposit constituted by mineral salts located on the moist walls of the cave. When I entered inside the cave, I noticed the water drops down and grass and greenery are covering the stone.
Walking around I could have not noticed how everything was green, full of orange and lemon trees and with the smell of sweet nectar. Even though it was December – it felt like tropical paradise.
Inside the Archaeological Park of Neapolis is the Altar of Hieron II (3rd century BC), dedicated to Jupiter Liberator (Zeus Eleutherios), in honor of which the feast of Eleutheria was celebrated, with the sacrifice of 450 bulls at a time. It is a grandiose monument with two entrances, to the south and to the north the latter was once flanked by two Telamons, of which only the feet of the one on the right remains. Only the base remains of the building because it was demolished in the 16th century by the Spaniards as they needed the stone for the construction of the city walls for defence.
Latomie are the best known as the Paradise which leads to the Ear of Dionysus, an artificial cave surrounded by lush, funnel-shaped vegetation, dug into the limestone, about 23 meters high. The cave has exceptional acoustic properties (sounds are amplified up to 16 times). These acoustic characteristics and the shape induced Caravaggio, who visited Syracuse in 1608, to call it the Ear of Dionysius, giving strength to the sixteenth-century legend according to which the famous tyrant Dionysius had built this cave as a prison and locked his prisoners there to listen, from an opening from above, the words magnified by the echo.
My claustrophobic inner sense has pushed me to go up to the end. I followed some man who was 5 steps ahead of me. It was total dark but I realised how quickly my eyes started to adjust to the darkness and see the edges and the walls of the cave. What was driving me crazy and making me loose my orientation was the echo. I have heard people from all around (even though there were only a few of us in the cave and none of us was speaking) and not able to keep my mind clear. I guess this was exactly what drove the prisoners crazy.
The Greek Theater of Syracuse is today the most famous monument of the city, but also in antiquity it had great international fame and prestige being the most important building for shows of the Greek-western world, very high example of civil architecture. It was also a place of worship and large popular assemblies, the site of public trials and, in Roman times, it was also adapted for circus and a variety of exhibitions.
Archaeologists have studied it since the 1800s but the theater continues to be still a fertile place for research and studies for archaeological science. Its history begins in the Archaic period: the base of a temple discovered on the terrace overlooking the theater from the north can be dated to the end of the 6th century BC. In the third century BC the theater adapts to the constructive principles of the architecture of the Greek-Eastern world, wisely exploiting the conformation of the Temenite hill where it is placed and perfectly combining the architectural values with those of the landscape. Giuseppe Voza, one of the great contemporary archaeologists who has dedicated so much of his activity to the theater, maintains that it shows how it was Syracuse that transmitted the principles of Hellenistic architecture to the Roman world.
Syracuse was the place to be in the ancient times. Loyalty, scientific passion (Archimed), philosophic and political idealism – lead Plato – one of the fathers of classical philosophy – to travel to Syracuse (5th century BC). In this land, the great philosopher, perfected the concept of political utopia expressed in his work The Republic. In this particular script, Plato explains the perfect government is led by philosophers who are not interested in political gain.
Standing at the top of the greek theater with the broad belvedere, thinking of Plato standing there too… little political scientist in me was trembling.
Just behind is the Nymphaeum cave and the waterfall. It is artificially excavated from the rock connected to the aqueduct. An imposing work of hydraulics from the Greek era, which transported water from the mountains down to Syracuse.
The Roman Amphitheater, of elliptical shape, has considerable dimensions (140 meters x 90), it is completely excavated in the rock, except in the south side. In the 16th century the Spaniards used the large square blocks that characterized it to build the defense bastions of the island of Ortigia. It is relatively small when compared to the other roman amphitheaters across the ancient Roman world. In the center is the pool – an interesting feature.
Time for refreshment. It has been more than 15k steps by now. 🙂 A perfect reason to have original Sicilian lemonade. Bitter and cold. Even though it’s December. Crazy, right?
The Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum in Syracuse is one of the most important museums in Europe. There are objects and artifacts that introduce the territory and its historical events, to its use in time and space. The exhibited material includes artifacts between prehistory and the Byzantine period.
Starting from the prehistoric dwarf elephants: fossils found in Puntali cave on Sicily reveal that this elephant stood around two metres tall and weighed around 1,000kg. The thing becomes super interesting when pre-history intertwines with ancient mythology, such as greek mythology.
There is an argument that the Greeks and Romans had a long history of using fossil evidence to support existing myths and even create new ones. Such as a fossilized pygmy elephant skull found in Sicily.
Ancient Greek mythology is full of fantastic beasts and monsters. One of the most famous examples is the brutal one-eyed race of giants, the cyclopes. But where did the Greeks get their inspiration from? Were the cyclopes just a figment of their imaginations, or was something else at work?
These cyclopes were a group of one-eyed, savage giants who were man-eating shepherds. Odysseus and his men ended up on the cyclopes’ island looking for supplies during their long and eventful journey home. One of the cyclopes, Polyphemus (son of Poseidon), captured Odysseus and his men. He began eating Odysseus’s men one by one. Using his wits, Odysseus got the cyclops drunk and blinded him, before fleeing with his remaining men.
It all seemed to line up. Pygmy elephant skulls have eye sockets that are very small when compared to the large nasal cavity left by the trunk. The fossils are also usually found with other fossilized bones. To the Greeks, this could have appeared to be evidence of the cyclops’ savage diet.
The neolithic culture and bronze age left much evidence of life in Sicily. I knew there was a trace of life, but in fact, there were so many settlements across the island. Such as Castellucio culture, Thapsos culture, Lentini…
Greek colonisation started at Naxos – the very first settlement from 8th century BC. Following by Megara Hyblaea, Ortygia etc. Let me show you this terracotta Gorgon, It looks very like Mayan at first! But no, it’s ancient Greek-Sicilian, from the 6th century BC, and it was found in Siracusa. Archaeologists know it was part of a relief–not much more is known about it; however, it gives me a chance to tell you about the Gorgons, which important to note, are not gargoyles. Gorgons in Greek mythology were 3 winged, monstrous sisters. The youngest is Medusa, with her hair of live snakes. If you looked at her, you would turn to stone. There were two other seductive and irresistible-to-men sisters: Stheno and Euyale. As you might imagine from this relief, they were mysterious, fascinating to look at, and for fun, they destroyed men with their sharp fangs, manes of spewing snakes, and literally breathtaking looks.
I tried to find the evidences of Phoenicians. But with not much success. In Sicilian history, the Phoenician presence began around 800 BC and lasted until around 500 BC. By that time, with the original Phoenician settlements of Sicily underpopulated, the Carthaginians “rediscovered” Sicily. That’s when they encountered conflict with Greek expansionism. I guess the history is written by the victors.
The Sarcophagus of Adelphia is an early Christian, circa 340 AD sarcophagus found in the Rotunda of Adelphia inside the Catacombs of San Giovanni – earlier mentioned and visited. Remarkable work – witnessing the times of Roman Empire and early Christianity.
After all of these great discoveries, I have decided to treat myself with the local delights: sea food and an orange salad in olive oil with sea salt and spring onion. Somehow, the taste was amazing. So was the wine – fresh from Mount Etna. 🙂