Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Italy: 27 Centuries at Siracusa

Rocks at an Orytigia beach provide seating. Twisting paths through
the rocks provide access to open water for swimming. Most of
these people seemed to be locals who knew each other. 

Siracusa was founded in 734 B.C.E. by Greeks from Corinth and quickly became the largest and wealthiest city-state in the west, surpassing even Athens. In Siracusa's early centuries, it was ruled by tyrants, most famously by Dionysius (c. 432 to 367 B.C.E.), who imported Greek culture in the form of art, architecture and human talent, such as the playwrights Euripedes and Aeschylus and even the philosopher Plato.

Athens, jealous of Siracusa's wealth and power, tried to conquer Sicily in 413 B.C.E., but was quickly repulsed. It was another two centuries before Siracusa was conquered, and then it was by Rome. This history is essential to understanding what you're looking at in the Archeological Park of Siracusa (known to English speakers as Syracuse). There are Roman ruins, Greek ruins and ruins attributed to the tyrants and monarchs who ruled the city.

Today, Siracusa -- particularly its historic district on the island of Ortygia -- boasts Baroque architecture, lively markets, urban beaches, and, of course, singular ruins. We spent three nights on Ortygia, wandering around the island, trekking to the archeological park on the mainland, and visiting its rocky but delightful beaches. One of the open-air restaurants by the island's fish market provided two memorable lunches, one smoked fish, ham and cheese, and the second all-seafood. One evening we happened into the island's only Chinese restaurant for delicious duck dishes.  Late afternoons called for cocktails at open-air bars beside the island's marina. We asked an Australian crew member from one of the megayachts tied up there where it would be going next. "I can't tell you," he said. "Those things have to be secret." (Attention anyone who wants to stalk billionaires: That megayacht and others can be tracked online at

Our own next destination, not a secret, would again involve ancient Greek ruins, this time at Agrigento.

This is the site of the Ara di Ierone (Altar of Hieron, the tyrant who built it),
dedicated to Zeus and said to be the largest such altar ever built.
It was used for the sacrifice of hundreds of animals at a time. Only
the foundation of the altar remains.

Temporary seating covers the ancient stone seats at the Teatro Greco, the most complete
ancient Greek theater in the world. It was built in the fifth century B.C.E. to hold 15,000 spectators.
The great dramatist Aeschylus presented his "Women of Aetna" here in 476 B.C.E. His
"The Persians" may have premiered here, as well. The theater is used in May and June
every year for the presentation of Greek tragedies.

The Roman amphitheater is not so well preserved and was
built for a different purpose: circuses and martial sports,
not dramas. The corridor through which gladiators
and animals entered the ring is visible in the center
of the arena. It is thought to date to the Augustan age,
when Caesar Augustus turned Siracusa into a military

This is the entrance to the
Orecchio di Dioniso, the "Ear of
Dionysius," so called because
when the tyrant used the grotto
as a prison, its acoustics allowed
guards to hear any conversation
between prisoners.

Inside the Orecchio di Dioniso.
The grotto goes into the cliff
so deeply that it's pitch black
before you reach the end.

Castello Maniace dates to the early
1200s and was until recently used
as a military barracks. It is being
restored to its medieval design and
is only partly open to the public.
Castello Maniace sits at the
southern tip of Ortygia. 

The piazza in front of the Siracusa Duomo is, in typical Italian fashion,
lined with restaurants. One evening here we chanced upon the city band
giving a concert from the Duomo's front steps (at right). The 20-or-so musicians ranged
in age from perhaps 14 to 80 and presented a program of opera, classical
and popular music, including "We Are the World." Since Italy had just
installed an anti-immigration government, I took that selection as a
tasteful form of political protest. Not sure if the theme from "The Lone
Ranger" (the William Tell Overture) had any significance.

The Duomo, which dates to the 7th
century, incorporates columns from
a 5th-century B.C.E. temple to Athena.
The Duomo was built on top of the
Greek structure.

The Duomo's Baroque facade was added in the 1700s.

Inside, the Duomo is relatively unadorned, at least
by southern Italian standards.

The Fontana di Diana is the centerpiece
of the Piazza Archimede, named for
Archimedes, the third-century B.C.E.
mathematician, physicist and
Siracusa's most famous son.

Billionaires' yachts line up at the Siracusa marina, seen here from one of
many waterfront bars. This was taken around 4 p.m. when the sun was still
hot and these seats were not in the shade. By 6 this place was rocking.

Shade is a valuable thing in Siracusa, which seemed
to have a more sunshine than it really needs . This
allée is part of a pedestrian area below the city's seawall
and beside the marina.

The waters around Siracusa on a Saturday looked like a lake in the Ozarks,
filled with party boats, swimmers and sunbathers. Notice the couple
on the floating air mattress.

Almost every bit of shore around Ortygia gets used, no matter how rocky.

This is a non-beach lido, set up on a deck with ladders so swimmers can get into and
out of the water. That's the island's seawall behind it.  (Yes, the water is this blue.)

Children use a float that looks like a slice
of watermelon at one of the beaches
below the seawall.

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