Finding Ancient Wonders in Syracuse

It was a breakthrough that resulted from very little research and planning. Arrived by fast ferry, crossed the Ionian from Malta, landed on a fairly deserted part of the island, and disembarked after dark. A taxi driver met me at the parking lot. The whole adventure was born out of guesswork and ideas: I had a few extra days at the end of a week in Europe, wanted to see more of Sicily, so made a last-minute plan and basically picked the place at random. on the map, hoping for the best (that is, assuming everything works out).

The taxi driver drove us all night. I was hoping to get some local information from him, but he didn’t speak English. We meandered along the inky black sea, past the lights of small towns nestled on the beach or nestled in the hills. I hopped in the cab and googled local attractions and things to do nearby. Rising early the next day, I found myself in an ancient and beautiful city, completely unknown to me two days ago, a place steeped in history and a place where wandering brings its own rewards.

“Greatest city in Greece”

I was in Syracuse, known as Siracusa in Sicilian. Now a fairly small, out-of-the-way city (total population just over 120,000), it still retains remnants of its glory days as a mighty city-state. With no preconceived notions or real plans, I was ready to explore this place, often bypassed by international tourists and a bit of a mystery to Sicily and other Italians, for a few days on land and at sea.

Syracuse was founded 2700 years ago by the Greek Corinthians. Allied with Sparta and Corinth, it dominated the region as a city-state; In the 5th century BC, it gained equal status with Athens. The statesman and philosopher Cicero called it “the greatest and most beautiful city in Greece.”

It is mentioned in the Bible only once, in one verse; In the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul records that he spent three days here (no further details are given). In the 7th century AD, Syracuse briefly served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and the city later became part of the Emirate of Sicily for two centuries. The Phoenicians probably named the city from the word “seagull stone”. The Bourbons, the Normans, and others were swept along by the trade winds.

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Epoch Times photo
Aerial view of the archaeological site of the ancient theater in Syracuse, Sicily. (Michelle Ponzio/Shutterstock)

Walking down the street

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the heart of ancient wonders lies on the island of Ortigia. My hotel is only a few kilometers away, but right across from the city’s archaeological park, so I started a quick trip there. Inside, I found a 16,000-seat amphitheater in the fifth century, as well as catacombs and grottoes. One is called Orecchio di Dionysio, “Ear of Dionysus” by the famous artist Caravaggio.

A nice downhill walk soon led me through a wide boulevard and a small park. I headed east, past a small marina filled with yachts, and across a small bridge to Ortigia. Surrounded by water, this is the heart of ancient Syracuse.

The first thing that sits on the large square is the Temple of Apollo. The 6th century ruins are a perfect example of architecture built according to the civilization that marked this part of the Mediterranean. Originally dedicated to the Greek god Apollo, it later served in various incarnations including temples, basilicas, barracks, and Catholic churches. Some of the original stone columns remain.

Epoch Times photo
Remains of the ancient Doric Temple of Apollo in Syracuse, Sicily. (Andrei Nekrasov/Shutterstock)

If you take a few steps beyond the open-air market on one side of the street, the old town will swallow you up. Stone paths wind like secret passageways. Small squares are full of life, and in the central square I visited the city’s cathedral, built on a Greek Doric temple.

Inside, you’ll find relics of Syracuse’s patron saint, St. Lucy: a pair of shoes, a veil, a robe, and bone fragments. Around the corner is the famous Arethusa Fountain. In mythology, this is where a famous nymph escaped from her deep-sea home, and it’s mentioned by writers from Virgil to Herman Melville (in Moby-Dick). Today, the fountain is a sort of tropical pool surrounded by stone walls, shaded by palm trees, and filled with papyrus plants dating back to ancient times.

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And because it’s Italian, the food is really good. I fortify myself with lasagna at a sidewalk cafe, then a Spritz at a bar overlooking the Ionian Sea. And then, by chance, I stumbled upon a boat trip.

Syracuse on the Water

I slowly made my way down to the water’s edge, past the papyrus and past a simple wooden stand. The guy there told me they were offering the trip at half price. The next one left an hour later. I quickly paid cash and soon emerged with a small group of all Italians on a simple, open boat.

The first part was a little scary. As we passed through the canal, our captain, Giuseppe, told us to duck. He wasn’t kidding. We rode a motorbike under the Ponte Umbertino. At first its low arches seemed too low even for our small boat. As I crouched under the gun, the cold stone of the arch passed over my head, only a few inches away, and the bridge itself seemed to pass over the top of my hair.

Coming out the other side, the magnificence of this place unfolded. Giuseppe took us to a tunnel naturally carved into the cliffs. The whole breadth of Ortigia spread out before us over the water, its towers, bastions, and palaces piled one upon another. Captain expertly guided us around the island, and his young niece, Giuseppe, often took the controls like an old hand to take pictures (and take pictures on them too).

We arrived on the west side at sunset. These orange rays cast a long path over the water and warmed the walls near the city’s citadel. One of the Italian women said, “Mother!

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It was great and the night was just getting started. Soon I’ll be back there – on the shores of old Syracuse, where the streets will be alive again after dark. First a plate of pasta (with local pork, onion and fresh tomato sauce), then looking for gelato. Maybe one last limoncello as I prepare to take another day off in Syracuse.

Epoch Times photo
Fountain of Arethusa, Ortigia, Syracuse. (David Ionut/Shutterstock)

If you go

Fly: Catania-Fontanarossa International Airport (CTA), less than an hour’s drive away, is Sicily’s largest airport and has flights to major European cities (but not directly to North America).

Be: Mercure Prometeo is a good choice. Guest rooms are spacious, some with sofas and bathtubs, and there’s a pool and welcome bar at the rooftop bar.

Approximately: Getting around here can be tricky with public transport and there are no ride-sharing services, so walking is the best option. If you need to go further, especially if you need to go up from Ortigia to the Archaeological Park, taxis offer a fixed price (be sure to ask for this).

Take notes: It’s definitely a good idea to plan a few extra days in nearby areas. For example, Mount Etna, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a nearby active volcano rising above Catania. A tour of the old and recent lava flows is a very memorable experience.

Tim Johnson

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Toronto writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. He has visited more than 140 countries on seven continents, tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug up dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among half a million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to major North American publications including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.

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