Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ah, Siracusa. Bellissimo!

Siracusa, Sicily

There is so much that is wonderful about Siracusa, on the south-eastern tip of Sicily, that I hardly know where to begin. One hour’s drive in the rental car south of the airport at Catania, and some rather rough small-town outskirts appear, soon to be replaced by some elegant looking facades and churches. Then soon, across a small bridge, is the island of Ortigia, and you are in Old Siracusa. You are far from the first visitor. Plato came here. More than once. It was colonised by Greeks from Corinth in the 8th century BC. It is not possible to do justice to Siracusa in one short blog post, but I will try to give you a taste with this list:

Piazza Duomo, Siracusa

a.       Archimedes was born here in 287 BC. The famous mathematician and scientist from ancient times probably actually took his famous bath here: you may recall that it was while Archimedes was soaking in his bath that he worked out the principle that ensured his fame: that a body immersed in liquid is subject to a force equal to the weight of the volume of the liquid that has been displaced. It is said that he was so thrilled with this discovery that he leapt from his bath shouting “‘Eureka!” Today one of Ortigia’s delightful squares is named Piazza Archimedes. I sat in this piazza for an evening aperitif, and saw a bride, in her white gown, waiting at a bus stop.

Piazza Archemides

b.      The Greek Teatro in Siracusa is one of the largest and best preserved to have survived from antiquity. It has about 49 ranks of stone seats still in place (carved directly out of the rock) but is thought to have originally had 69 tiers. This means it would have held about 19,000 people, which is more than double the size of most surviving Roman theatres. Several rulers of ancient Siracusa were keen on drama, poetry and the arts, and plays performed here would have been by such stars of the ancient world as Bacchylides, Xenophon, Simonides, Pindar and Aeschylus. The Hollywood of 300 BC.

Imagine the shows here...

The Ear of Dyonisius
c.       Orecchio di Dionisio (“Dionysius’ Ear”): a huge and haunting limestone quarry where slaves would have hacked out limestone blocks for building. Its entrance is shaped like a human ear, many metres high. Inside, the excellent acoustic accidentally produced enabled a passing guide to treat us to a haunting Sicilian love song (before the school children came hurtling down to try out their lungs). The cave was given its nickname by the renaissance painter Caravaggio in the early 1600s, when he heard about Dionysius (a tyrant ruler of Siracusa) being able to hear the approach of his enemies because of the echo in the cave. Caravaggio was on the run at the time, having killed someone in one of his frequent lively rages. To the benefit of Siracusa, he left behind a number of paintings commissioned during his stay, one of which I discovered in a church on the Piazza Duomo.


And speaking of the Duomo – this has to be perhaps the most extraordinary church I have ever visited (and as you know if you’ve been following, I’ve visited a few spectacular ones recently). The Ortigia Duomo is a Christian Catholic church built on and around a Greek temple. Now, often churches were built on the same sites as pagan temples, but in this case the columns of the temple were preserved and incorporated into the church. The effect is spellbinding: the great columns of the pagan temple have been enclosed and roofed, and the space they mark out is once again a sacred space. The effect is difficult to describe; but the church interior is medieval with a minimal number of Baroque flourishes, so the overall effect is beautiful and soothing. And there are those great columns, standing where there have stood for about 2,300 years, doing the same job that they were originally carved and erected to do.
Inside the Duomo...incorporating the pagan.

e.      But the Baroque and the medieval mix intriguingly in the backstreets of Ortigia.  Tiny narrow streets date from medieval times, when the island was held by the Arabs; and later through the Baroque period when ornate balconies were added to many windows, almost meeting the opposite houses.  The balconies of Siracusa are a study in themselves. Wandering the alleyways of the Arabs, of the Jews, of the medieval merchants, of the little trattatorias and the rustic restaurants where the smell of cooking fish wafts out...

f.        The small island of Ortigia, attached to the ‘mainland’ of Siracusa by two short bridges, sits in the surprising harbour of Siracusa: a natural harbour, almost circular, with a narrow opening which was easily defended; explaining why Siracusa is where it is. There is also a strange effect where an underground fresh water stream emerges to meet and mingle with the salt water of the harbour in an odd and sudden combination. In a legend of antiquity, one of the nymphs of the hunter goddess Artemis, tormented by a hunter, was turned into a stream so that she might escape underground and re-emerge on the island of Ortigia as a freshwater fountain. Today the fountain of Arethusa can be visited, filled with a few ducks and some clumps of papyrus. Papyrus is another surprising find in Siracusa: lovely handmade papers can still be purchased.

g.       And Plato? He travelled to Siracusa a couple of times, and attempted to convince the tyrants then ruling the city-state that they had a great opportunity to adopt his model for government, based on his ‘Republic’. This didn’t go down very well with Dionysius, neither the Elder nor the Younger, and both ended up expelling Plato home to Athens. It could have been that bit about the ideal Republic being ruled by philosopher-kings.

Earth mother: feeding twins.
h.      The Archaeological Museum: with such a treasure-trove of ancient sites in Siracusa, they need a good archaeological museum, and they certainly have one. Every bit of pottery ever dug up here and in the surrounding countryside, from Neolithic times onwards, has been dusted off, identified, labelled and displayed in the most comprehensive museum of its kind that I’ve ever come across; all housed in an excellent and well-kept purpose designed building. There is also a huge display of bronze pieces, weapons, jewellery, utensils, raw metal, found in a Bronze Age hoard, one of the largest of the “Sicilian Hoards”.

But if Neolithic pottery shards aren’t your thing (and you can have too much of a good thing), the Greeks, and particularly Roman, finds from the archaeological site help to bring to life what you see of the foundational remains. At the outdoor site, in addition to the Greek Teatro, there is also a Roman amphitheatre (gladiators, naval battles, wild animals, cruelty and spectacle); and a massive alter build by one of the Siracusa tyrants named Hieron II in the 3rd century BC, almost two kilometres long and big enough to slaughter and barbeque 460 bulls at once. As in many of these prosperous ancient cities, everybody’s villa and garden was decorated with statues and carvings and votive figures and fountains. Both the Greeks and then the Romans liked to surround themselves with art and beauty. Bits can be found preserved in the museum, some of them quite lovely.

Add to all these unusual and fascinating aspects of Siracusa an extremely lovely small hotel (Agila Ortigia), one of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at (”Don Camillo”), balmy evening walks around the harbour, Sicilian gelato, Sicilian Marsala, Sicilian fish, Sicilian oranges....remind me why I have to leave?

Siracusa harbour, sunset. *swoon*

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