Tag Archives: Cathedral Duomo

Syracuse, Sicily: Greatest Greek City in the World

Syracuse (often spelt Siracuse) in south-east Sicily, is often overlooked in favour of the more touristy Taormina but the visitor to Sicily should not miss this city that was described by Cicero as the greatest Greek city in the world.

Assaulted by Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, Sicily has absorbed these foreign cultures and made it her own, perhaps best exemplified by the Cathedral in the Piazza Duomo, the delightful pedestrianised square in the heart of Ortygia, the island in the centre of Syracuse.

The façade of the cathedral is 18th-century and like so much of Sicily’s architecture, it was erected following the earthquake of 1693. It is actually built on successive altars to the Temple of Athena, the doors of which were said to be made of gold and ivory. Round about the 17th century the temple was transformed into a Christian church which later became the Cathedral. Walk down Via Minerva to view the outside of the Duomo and see how nothing was wasted: the giant Doric columns of the Greek temple to Athena were incorporated into the church that superseded it.

Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the duomo
Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the Duomo

Syracuse Town

Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa
Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa

The Piazza is regarded as one of the most beautiful in all Italy with the Cathedral on one side and various Baroque palaces dotted around the square. Day and night the piazza is a scene of energy and life as the ground floors of the once-great palaces now mostly operate as restaurants, cafés and bars.  On a warm evening there is no better place in Syracuse in which to sit and enjoy an espresso or aperitif.

A Bridge Links Old and New Siracusa
A Bridge Links Old and New Syracuse

There are two main areas in the town, the archaeological area which includes Greek and Roman theatres and remains, and Ortygia, a small island that feels more like a tiny peninsula, with beautifully restored Baroque buildings, a number of fine hotels and some great restaurants.

The Archeological Area

Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Siracusa
Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Syracuse

In the Neapolis Archaeological Park situated in the northwest of the town, are a number of well-preserved Greek and Roman remains.

Greek Theatre, Siracusa
Greek Theatre, Syracuse

The main attraction is the Greek theatre (not to be confused with the more often photographed Greek Theatre in Taormina which has as its backdrop the snow-capped Mount Etna) where the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides are still performed from May to the end of June each summer as they were more than 2,000 years ago.

Started in the 5th century when Syracuse was one of the great cultural centres of the Mediterranean world, the theatre is considered to be one of the most perfect examples of Greek architecture to have survived and can accommodate up to 15,000 spectators in its 59 rows.

The Ear of Dionysis

The nearby fragrant lemon grove was once an old stone quarry used at one time to house 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war, the limestone dug from it in 500 BC being then used to build Syracuse.

The Ear of Dionysis 4

Wander into the vast man-made chamber known as Dionysius’s Ear, a 20m high pointed arch cut into the rock face which owes its name to a visit by Caravaggio in 1608. Used as a prison, the excellent Cathedral-like acoustics meant that the prisoners’ conversations could be heard from outside.

There is also an impressive Roman amphitheatre, approximately 140m long, built in the 3rd Century AD where traditional blood sports took place, gladiators and wild animals providing the blood-letting that was so much part of these offerings. The hole in the centre is believed to have been a drain for the blood and gore – as one guide told me – or, a space for scenic machinery – as another guide told me!

Roman Amphitheatre, Siracusa, Sicily
Roman Amphitheatre, Syracuse, Sicily

The Archaeological Museum is just a short walk from the park and if time allows, it is worth a visit.

Ortygia, 2,55 Years of History

At only 1km by 500m, the best way to see Ortygia is just to wander through the area admiring the Norman buildings and the Baroque decorative facades. Enjoy the sun at one of the cafes in the area sipping a café or an aperitif, or lunch al fresco at one of the many good restaurants on this tiny island.   Take a picnic and sit on the seawalls and admire the fish that swim lazily in the clear waters of the bay.

Clear Waters of the Bay in Siracusa, Sicily
Clear Waters of the Bay in Syracuse, Sicily

One could easily walk past the Fountain of Arethusa. filled with white ducks and surrounded by walls of greenery, as it looks so unpretentious but it is one of the most important sights in Syracuse.

Legend has it that the Arcadian nymph Arethusa, fled underwater to Syracuse to rid herself of the amorous advances of the God Alpheios and the Goddess Artemis transformed her into the freshwater spring that we see today.

The ruins of this Doric temple stand incongruously in the middle of the town (you can’t miss it as it’s on a main thoroughfare), on one side of which is a bustling market with sellers hawking clothes, handbags, umbrellas and anything else that will sell.

Temple to Apollo 4
Temple to Apollo, Siracusa, Sicily

It seems such a pity that the Temple is not isolated so that visitors could enjoy it in tranquillity, but then it was probably full of bustling life when it was in use back in the 8th century BC when it was at its most active. It is the oldest temple in Sicily and over the centuries it has been a Byzantine church, a mosque and a Christian church.

Citrus from Sicily
Citrus from Sicily

Plato visited Sicily several times as did Simonides and Pindar, and Aeschylus sang of its beauty. Its enormous military power made it capable of withstanding attacks from Carthage and Athens and it remained powerful until the Arab conquest in 878 when it lost its supremacy.

 

See also, Syracuse: The Other Bits

Today Syracuse is a pleasant town in which to spend a few days – more if you want to travel beyond it, say to Noto, a perfect day out.

Arethusa Spring, Siracusa
Arethusa Spring, Siracusa

Noto – Sicily’s Perfect Baroque Town

Sicily, with its dark history, rough mountains, ravishing scenery, and Etna, that brooding snow-capped volcano that is  never far from people’s thoughts, is one of the Mediterranean islands to which I am constantly drawn back.   I go there for the known attractions and for the food, heavily influenced by the cuisine of the many nations that conquered the island, and for the Baroque towns that sprang up after the earthquake of 1693 that devastated the south-east of the island.  All are beautiful, but the finest of them all is Noto, a town built of golden stone from a local quarry and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the earthquake, Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, employed the best architects of the day to rebuild the city just south of the original town: the result is a triumph of urban planning and harmony.  Noto is in the province of Siracusa, itself a gem of a city and one that should not be rushed through as it has some of the most beautiful buildings in the area, plus the world famous Duomo in the Piazza of the same name, a sea-front with a wall just made for sitting on while you feast on a gelato.  Noto lies about 35 kilometers southwest of Siracusa and is easily reached by local trains which run regularly.        

It was built almost entirely in the  prevailing style at the time, Baroque, and these near-perfect buildings are what makes Noto so special and which earned it the title of  UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is a very accessible town.  You can wander the length of the graceful Corso, stopping here and there for a coffee and one of Noto’s famous cakes, or a gelato or freshly squeezed orange or lemon juice.  Take a detour down the side streets and climb the steep steps to the top where the aristocrats lived, then come down to the next level which housed the clergy and other nobility, before arriving back at street level where the ordinary people lived.   One of the best streets in which to wander is the Via Nicolaci, famous for its buttressed balconies held up with playful horses, griffons, cherubs and old men, incongruous on an otherwise severely classical façade.

Just at the top of Via Nicolaci is the beautiful elliptical façade of the Chiesa di Montevirgine. I didn’t have time to count them, let alone visit them, but I was assured that Noto has thirty-two churches.  Think on that – thirty two churches.

So, what to visit when you are only there for a day visit.  If time is short my advice is just to wander.  Like Florence, the history of the town is in its buildings, their façades and the sense of life in the streets.  The Cathedral rises impressively above Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle and is approached by a wide and graceful flight of steps and its simple interior  

may well come as a surprise in contrast to its exterior.

I had initially mistaken the flamboyant Chiesa di san Dominica for the Cathedral, flanked as it is by huge palm trees and looking more Middle East than Mediterranean. The Municipio (town hall) has an exuberant trompe l’oeil ceiling and a “magic mirror” which is just a mirror of illusion.  My own favourite interior was the Vittorio Emmanuelle Theatre, still offering productions to its patrons, a fantasy theatre with red velvet and gilded boxes lining the walls echoed by heavy drapes curving round the proscenium arch.      

If you want to imagine what Italian towns looked like in the 17th century, then Noto should be on your list of towns to visit – it’s very special.