While riding our bikes around southeastern Sicily we saw Siracusa from inside and out. The name is the same as the city in New York, which uses the Anglicized version, Syracuse, but the two couldn’t be more different.
Our first views of what was once one of the Mediterranean’s most powerful cities came when we rode across the peninsula that forms the southern edge of the Gulf of Siracusa. Rounding the point revealed fantastic views of the ancient fortifications across the bay.
The old city, located on the island of Ortygia at the opposite tip of the bay, was stunning.
It stood out starkly against the backdrop of snow covered Mount Etna, and a foreground of the Ionian Sea.
On that day we would only see it from afar, much like its founding Spartan and Corinthian Greek sailors when sailing in and out.
The next morning we would enter and stay a while.
After riding about 150 miles on our trust steeds over the past ten days, our VBT bikes were safely tucked away for the last day of the tour.
We set out walking and it felt good for a change, a break for our backsides.
Our goal was the Neapolis Archaeological Park on the mainland, which contains several of Sicily’s most famous historic sites, but in just a few blocks came to a square and decided to sit for an al fresco coffee and sandwich.
As we took in the fountain and surroundings, we noticed that this unassuming little piazza was dedicated to perhaps the greatest Ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, astronomer, and engineer in history, Archimedes.
Wonder if he feels like he got screwed, while a cute little piazza, we think he might have expected to get a little more for all of his gifts to mankind.
Digging Down to the Old Stuff
Before reaching the Neapolis, we found another important site just before we crossed the bridge to the mainland, The Temple of Apollo.
This Greek temple dates all the way back to the sixth century B.C., making it the oldest on Sicily.
Now the ruins stand surrounded by city, but with a little imagination we could almost see the toga-wearing worshipers weaving among the columns.
We couldn’t help but notice another place of worship looming across the bridge, the Church of St. Thomas.
This octagonal tower is commonly called the Pantheon by the locals and was built just after World War I as a monument to the fallen of the war.
Many of the soldiers that perished are entombed inside the chapel.
Walking a another kilometer or so, we began our exploration of the Archaeological Park at the Roman Amphitheatre, built nearly two thousand years ago in the time of Nero.
Although much of the stone was taken away over the years and used on other buildings, at one time this looked much like the famous colosseum in Rome.
It was also used in the same way, for gladiators and spectacular shows.
Get us to the Greek
Wanting to stay in the theater district, we climbed to the Greek Theatre – built some five centuries before the Roman ruins.
This is one of the largest such venues ever made by the ancient Greeks.
Again much of the structure has succumbed to the ravages of time, but enough remains intact that it is still used for performances on a regular basis.
Near the theater is an ancient quarry known as the Latomia del Paradiso.
As stone was cut away for construction projects, caves were cut into the rock walls.
Many of these were used as prisons, with the most famous being the Ear of Dionysius.
The enormous cavern is 76 feet high and 214 feet deep, but only 25 feet wide.
The name may come from the shape of the cave but, having heard the acoustics from the inside, we think that it has more to do with the amazing sound qualities of the cave.
Either that, or it was a great coincidence!
While we were standing all of the way inside, at the very back — in the pitch dark — a guide for one of the visiting groups began to sing an aria. Her reverberating voice was nothing short of incredibile, and the cave sounded like a cathedral.
Back on Island
An approaching afternoon rain shower gave us a good excuse for a nap, so we grabbed a cab back to our hotel.
After relaxing in the much-appreciated jacuzzi tub — which David was praying for on a daily basis during our bike tour — and watching folks braving the angry seas on the sea wall from our balcony, we made our way deeper into the old city.
With darkness falling we walked along the sea wall — dodging puddles and great mounds of seafoam accumulated on the path — for a great view of the Castello Maniace on the tip of the island.
Huge waves were crashing against the walls, but not to worry, they’ve been doing it for centuries. The fortress was built in 1232 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, but the name comes from the original fort that was built in 1038 by the Greek general George Maniakes.
Making a half circle around the southern side of Ortygia Island, we walked on and passed the Fonte Aretusa. This fountain strangely produces freshwater only a few meters from the seashore.
Building upon Buildings
The main plaza of Siracusa, the Piazza del Duomo’s cathedral dominates the square was built in the seventh century by bishop Zosimo on top of the Temple of Athena that had stood on the spot since the fifth century BC.
Poking around the corner to the left side, we found columns from the original temple that were incorporated into the walls of the church.
We couldn’t help but notice that, unlike most piazzas, this one features two churches.
On the far end of the plaza stands the Church of Santa Lucìa alla Badìa.
This, as with so many structures in Sicily, was constructed in the Baroque style after the huge 1693 earthquake. Santa Lucia is the patron saint of Siracusa, and the church is home to the masterpiece The Burial of St. Lucy by Caravaggio.
The architect, Juan Vermexio, was involved in building both churches, but we were more intrigued by a little secret friend that he left hiding in the plaza.
Juan’s nickname was Il Lucertolone which means the lizard, and many times he would carve a small stone likeness on his buildings.
Now it was our job to find him. A quest!
In 1629 Vermexio built the Palazzo Municipale, the city hall, so we knew where to start.
Scanning the carving along the cornice we found him, a little lizard just below the roof in a corner.
The whole building is hiding another secret too; it stands on top of a temple known as the Couch of Artemis, the god that Ortygia was dedicated to.
From the piazza we began working our way through the maze of tiny streets – hopefully in the general direction of our hotel. We could hardly wait to close our eyes and let our dreams float us through the centuries of history we had seen.
Our senses were filled with the secrets of Siracusa.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
A big thank you to VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations for providing this adventure where we could tour AND eat all the delicious Sicilian food we wanted to without worrying about the calorie count! As always, all opinions are our own.