Of the various places that I stayed on my tour of Sicily it would be fair to say that Siracusa was my favourite. It had an unfair advantage in providing me some of the best weather of my trip but there were far more reasons that the temperature for my response to the city. Perhaps my view will change when the motoring fine that I incurred catches up with me!*
Whereas Palermo wore its Arabic history proudly, Siracusa, on the opposite side of the island, was colonised by Greeks at the same point in history. There have been many other cultures present in the city since then, but for me the Greek influence was the one that I remember most strongly.
There are plenty of rival distractions from other points in history and I’ll begin with these. At the very tip of the island of Ortygia, which was the heart of the original city, stands the Swabian fortress of Castello Maniace, built by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor in the 13th Century, yet the name is derived from George Maniakes, a Greek general who had taken the city on behalf of the Byzantine empire two centuries earlier. Ok, so not an ancient Greek, but a Greek nonetheless and he built a fort here first!
A little further from the coast is the Piazza Duomo, a sumptuous open space with classical Italian architecture, a cathedral with a magnificent baroque facade, and a nearby church that features a Caravaggio painting The Burial of St Lucy, who was martyred in the city. What could be more Italian? Well Santa Lucia’s mother was called Eutychia, a Greek name, and though her father was Roman, this is no clue to his geographical origins. Even so Lucy was half-Greek.
Then there’s that cathedral, which features frescoes that would not be out-of-place in Rome itself, but the body of the church feels different somehow. Perhaps it’s the muted lighting you might think, but no. Take a walk around the side and you see an interesting feature in its construction; fluted columns. This was the Temple of Athena in the 5th Century BC, the period when Athens was at the height of her powers, and yet Siracusa, which was allied to Sparta, was equal in size.
Perhaps a trip to the archaeological park where a great cave once held prisoners and was named The Ear of Dionysus by that man Caravaggio, because of the acoustic phenomenon that allowed guards stationed above to hear every word spoken in the cavern. Except that it’s not a natural cave. It was quarried out as a water storage facility in Classical times. Ah, but perhaps the Romans did this, after all there is a Roman amphitheatre on the same site? Sadly one dwarfed by the Greek theatre that is also here, and which remains in use to this day.
But above all there is one man responsible for my seeing this as a Greek city, a man who pioneered mathematics, invented war machines to destroy invading shipping, and designed a water pump for large vessels whose design is still used in irrigation systems. You probably know him more for his bath however.
*It seems to be recent trend in Italy to create camera controlled pedestrian areas and I’ve no problem with that, but the SatNav companies haven’t caught up. If you’re planning to drive around the country then Google Italian Motoring Fines and be afraid!