The Greatest City in the World; or, the time I did what the Romans couldn’t

Alleyway in Ortygia, Syracuse

Three days is too long in Siracusa, they* said. Go to Taormina instead.

How wrong can a person be!

Siracusa was, for a short period, the centre of the world. It was the largest city of the ancient Greek era due to its fantastic geographical position, both locally and in the Mediterranean. I arrived with so much enthusiasm because I’d just finished my specific Siracusa history book. It really enlivened my stay since I felt like I knew so much more about everything. The book is split into two parts: a history; and then a tourist guide. If anything, I wish I’d been there four days because the guide described this shrine/ruin that you get to via river which sounds just so magical.

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*by ‘they’ I mean the kind of cool, kind of annoying American who lived in Catania and took us to a very cheap bar, so fair play.

Basics

I arrived in the early afternoon by train from Catania. I stayed at LOL Hostel, a name that makes me cringe with anger but it was actually really great. Just down the road from the station and with ensuite bathrooms on all the dorm rooms. Also crazy expensive, but quite reasonable since its the only hostel in Siracusa.

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Day One: Ortygia

This is the oldest part of Siracusa. It was settled in 730BC and is actually an island, accessed by a bridge. This made it perfect from a military position since it was so easy to defend.

I had a wonderful evening walking around Ortygia. I also ate these incredible chips that were shaped like crisps (try explaining that to an American!). It’s the perfect place for a sunset: the sun falls down the narrow alleyways and creates this magical sense of stillness.

I didn’t go back on the evening of my second day which I think was an oversight. It’s somewhere I really need to return to. I didn’t even go to the castle! I also didn’t make it into a Jewish bath which turned out to be inside a hotel (which is why I couldn’t find it).

Siracusa Cathedral

A special shoutout is needed for this. It’s built on the site of an old Greek temple, which can be said for a lot of Christian sites. What’s different about this cathedral is that the old temple is still there: it’s part of the architecture of the building. It’s magical and definitely worth the small entrance fee.

The Burial of St. Lucy

This is a Caravaggio painted especially for a church on the same square as the cathedral. I didn’t take any photos because they ask you not to and, like so much art, the pictures online do not come close to capturing this masterpiece. Lucy is the patron saint of Siracusa  and was killed because she refused to surrender her chastity. It’s really wonderful and, if you go, please don’t do the tourist thing of walking in, taking a photo and walking out. I spent maybe 40 minutes with that painting and it was a beautiful moment.

Day Two: Archeological Park

I woke up very early for this. I know how archeological parks work: arrive after 10 and they are filled with children and other people and it’s always very hot. I was one of the first people in and got a good hour of sightseeing in before everyone else showed up.

I got a ticket to go to the park and the museum. The ticket office is, by the way, in a separate area about 100 yards from the park. It’s quite confusing but just follow the signs and it will work out.

Archeological Park

There are basically three sites. The first, on your left as you enter, is the Roman Amphitheatre. I think you can usually walk all the way around it, but when I was there some parts were closed for renovations. It’s a perfectly acceptable amphitheatre: I am something of a connoisseur but I was still satisfied!

The second site is the Greek Theatre. This is properly cool, it’s maybe the second or third biggest of the ancient Greek world (after the theatre at Ephesus, of course). I spent a very long time here. In fact, if you come during the summer you can see an ancient Greek play in the theatre (they were building the stage while I was there) which sounds incredible.

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The third site is the Ear of Dionysius. It’s a weird cave/quarry that was used as a prison. It’s super echoey and the theory is that the dictator of the day (Dionysius I) could hear the prisoners plotting due to the echoes. It’s weird, but cool (in more ways than one, I got my body temperature nice and low in here).

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Shrine to Our Lady of Tears

After the archeological park, I went in search of food. I was in the mood for a picnic which meant I needed a supermarket. I managed to find one eventually and had delicious cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch.

During the hunt for the supermarket, I found the Shrine to Our Lady of Tears. Basically, a painting started crying in the 1950s. It was a very exciting event and a bona fide miracle. They built a huge modern building to put the painting in, although you can’t get very close. You can also take a turn through the museum relating to all the gifts and offerings people have sent the miracle painting.

Archeological Museum

I ate my lunch in the garden of the archeological museum before heading inside. The guy at the front did not speak any English and, being English, I don’t speak any Italian. I ended up in the basement with a very enthusiastic lady who wanted me to look at coins. Every time I tried to leave she took my hand and showed me more coins. There were a lot of coins.

Aside from coins, the museum also has a huge collection of ancient artefacts. Everything from the archeological park, as well as stuff from nearby sites, had ended up here. There are Greek vases galore, as well as statues, plaques and other accoutrements of ancient Greek life.

Ok, fine, I admit it, I had a nap in the museum. I was tired! It was hot…

Day Three: Castles and Catacombs

This was the day of my big adventure. I wanted to go to Eurialo Castle. It was designed by Archimedes and is easily the oldest surviving castle in Europe (the world?). ‘Surviving’ is a strong word, it is mostly ruins, but still…

It did not get off to a good start.

Firstly, Google is a liar. The castle is NOT where Google said it was. Because Google is liar. It was easily a 50 minutes walk to the place where the castle was not, and another 40 minutes to get to where the castle was. It was hot, it was dusty. Fortunately, because I was in Italy (sorry, Sicily), I could call my mum and have a nice chat on the walk.

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The view down to Ortygia (on the left) from the walk to Eurialo

Secondly, the castle was shut. As in, gate bolted, lights off, no one home. I even found some Germans who confirmed it for me. I should have suspected: it was the Saturday before Easter Sunday and Italy (sorry, Sicily) is a crazy religious country.

However, I am not to be put off by a mere locked gate. I am an adventurer, intrepid and unstoppable. After all, what is a locked gate but a steady wall with well placed footholds…

Eurialo Castle

Having broken into Eurialo Castle (thus besting the Romans, who never managed to break a siege here), I had a very pleasant few hours. There were lizards and butterflies and nice millennia-old archways and corridors. Having been designed by Archimedes, the castle is full of tricky surprises: hidden rooms and gates, secret passageways. That sort of thing.

If you’re planning on making the trip, I would suggest phoning in advance to check (or getting your hostel/hotel to do it if you can’t speak Italian). Breaking in was very easy, but I think I’m understating the neurosis that went along with it. Plus, in order to stay out of the eye-line of the guard’s hut (even though I know there wasn’t a guard in it) I ended up walk across a hill with plenty of thistles, brambles and (undoubtedly) snakes, poisonous spiders, monsters, places to fall over and hurt myself…

Catacombs

On my way back to town, I stopped off at the catacombs of St. John. This turned out to be an awful idea since I nearly missed my train to Enna but at the time it was great: very atmospheric and cold and dark and ancient. They tell you not to take photos but obviously I did. Everyone else noticed and tried to take photos as well but the guide caught them! I am just mad sneaky.

After all that, I popped onto a train to Enna, arriving in the dead of night with nothing between me and the hostel but a 3.5 mile walk up a hill… Until next time x

 

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8 thoughts on “The Greatest City in the World; or, the time I did what the Romans couldn’t

    1. Oh no, don’t say that about the Jewish bath! Now I have to go back 🙂 Also, I just googled Castelmola and it looks incredible! So much to see…

      Liked by 1 person

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