Syracuse: an expedition indeed
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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The books confirmed that so with new friend Kate I'd met over beers and a delicious cheese and salami antipasto at our Catania hostel, we sallied forth the next fine day to see for ourselves.
After an interesting drive through a long strip of 'industrial zone' situated on prime coastal land heading into town, we jumped off the bus at Post Office square and delved straight into a lively market brimming with seafood and fresh produce that made our pre-lunch mouths' water. Flapping fish and strange fruits didn't interest us but after the dinner last night the exotic cheeses and salami did, so before long we'd stocked up for lunch for the paltry sum of $E2.40.
From there we headed into Ortygia - a small, defensible island with all the necessary amenities which has been the centre of Syracuse in both ancient and modern times. The extravagance of its period architecture is obvious, even if most does seem a little past its prime today. It didn't take long to get thoroughly lost but that gave us the chance to hit the back alleys and see how decrepit many of the buildings are - most of the sights are under scaffolding and many smaller buildings are supported with heayweight girders just to keep them upright. I haven't been to an old town like it - if there is an earthquake here the whole place will be levelled!
By the time we'd made the main Duomo square the sun was baking on the white stone paving and everything was engulfed in the shimmering heat. Man it would get hot here in summer! Unfortunately a couple of the main facades were draped in construction capes, including the Duomo itself, but the pic above right gives you a little idea of what this piazza ringed with palaces is all about.
Inside the Duomo Cathedral at least it was cooler, so everyone was jamming in there (and of course not letting anyone get out). The internals are large scale and pretty impressive, though this Catholic style is less ornate than Orthodox counterparts in recently visited countries. I made friends with Jesus by bashing my camera against a giant padlock, dropping it and blaspheming loudly, then immediately repenting for these sins (for which I was genuinely sorry) before bending my camera zoom lens back into the right shape. Someone must have heard me up there because somehow the camera still works. Would have been a great week with technology if it didn't (a dead laptop and a dead camera - brilliant Rosco).
Back outside and we headed to one of the important amenities that the ancients in particular would have relied heavily upon, particularly in the siege by the Athenians in 413BC known as the 'Great Expedition'. On the western shore of the island lies a large fresh water artesian fountain that would have been essential in times of trouble, although now only the ducks and carp rely on it for survival. Draped in vibrant bougainvillea it is a pretty sight, but as you have to pay for the neighbouring Aquarium to get your feet wet we just looked on longingly.
After a failed attempt to breach the castle at the south of the island (it closed at 1pm) we headed onto the mainland to devour the cheese and salami and then go subterranean. The Basilica of St Giovanni has the only public access to extensive catacombs beneath the city and if it was going to be cool anywhere, I figured a crypt would probably be the place to be. Kate wasn't so convinced and once we heard a combination of the price, no photography allowed and the probability of missing our return bus to Catania we decided to give it a miss.
You have to admit though that the facade does look pretty spooky (love the skull and crossbones above middle) even in the noonday sun.
Neopolis was the area devoted in ancient times to social and spiritual matters, so along with the theatre and stadiums you find areas of caves, tombs and votive niches. Although the Theatre would be a cool place to see a modern day performance the scant remains covered with boards and lighting are quite disappointing compared to other sites in the region. And since it is the major drawcard here, no matter what your book says, you might feel a little let down by the 'Parco Archaeologico'.
Still, the nymphaeum that is still fed by an ancient aqueduct is pretty refreshing (and the only one I've seen actually still functioning - if it is the original water source) and the quarries in a valley below the theatre are interesting too. Much of the stone used in the surrounding temples and buildings was cut from here and today it is a shady haven for both people and bees, as the masses milling in the caverns and the perfectly located hive in the cliff face pictured above both attest.
The cave known as the Ear of Dionysis is the main drawcard down here. Legend has it that this early 4th century BC leader used the acoustics of the cave to eavesdrop on conspirators, but the name probably stuck solely because it looks like giant (Vulcan) ear from the outside. What the historians do know about this place is that more than 7000 Athenian prisoners of war were imprisoned in the curving cave (and others nearby) under atrocious conditions for years, which didn't ingratiate the Syracusians with the rest of the Greek empire.
Another 'anfiteatro' sits nearby, built later by the Romans in their lust to see the blood and gore of the ancient circus. Not so exciting there now though so on the whole we were glad that it's currently the 60th anniverary of the Italian Republic and that entry to the Parco was 'gratis'.
Our visit to Syracuse was short and reasonbly sweet, but if you have limited time on Sicily you can probably spend it better elsewhere. Cheers to Kate for some good laughs and keeping me sane under demanding conditions - hope to see you in London sometime down the track mate!
Next entry -> Valletta on Malta
Old Rossian Proverb
When using your brain takes too much energy, it's time for a beer.