Here we are in the “Porto Grande” (Grand Harbour) of Syracuse (or Siracusa in Italian). We didn’t get off the boat at all on our first full day here as the winds were pretty strong and we would have got very wet in our little inflatable going ashore. So after kicking our heels on board and even resorting to trying some tunes on the penny whistle at one point, we finally made it to dry land yesterday.
We explored the oldest part of the city first, the island of Ortygia which was where the first Greek colonists established themselves back in the 8th century BC. It’s a wonderful medieval town today with the usual southern Med mix of beauty and total dilapidation and great glimpses of the very blue harbour water at the end of narrow alleyways. The take-your-breath away moment was when we entered the “duomo” (cathedral) and saw the twelve massive fluted Greek columns of the 5th century BC Temple of Athena embedded into the walls of the early Medieval Norman structure. In the afternoon we looked around the Archaeological Museum and their model of the original temple gave us a good idea of how it would have looked when built.
The Archaeological Museum actually had the most incredible number of exhibits, almost all to them from burial sites. We tried to take in everything, but had overload fatigue after a couple of hours. The earliest stuff, mainly pottery dated back to 4000 BC and of course there was an enormous number of ancient Greek vases, statues etc. How would we know so much about our early ancestors if they hadn’t taken such great care of their dead? One site from which exhibits came, had over 4000 rock-cut tombs!
Today, Saturday, we hit the outdoor market and swooned at the quantity and quality of produce on sale. After stocking up on fabulous tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, we had a cheese tasting session at a stall where they make all their cheeses fresh in a little shop just behind. We bought pecorino and some other types whose names we didn’t catch. We then bought some fresh ricotta from another stall and some wonderful roast peppers and capers mix. We plonked all our bags in the dinghy and headed back out to our boat to stash it all away.
We were back in town shortly afterwards to walk up to the site of the Greek amphitheatre and huge altar on the edge of town. They were pretty impressive, although the theatre has been adapted for use today and still performs Greek dramas at this time of the year. It takes away from the atmosphere a bit when new seats are placed over the old stone ones in places. But the Greek words carved into the stone to mark the seat blocks of the nobility were still amazingly clear.
Near the theatre is a very unusually shaped cave that is supposed to have been used as a prison by Dionysius, the infamous Greek tyrant in Syracuse. It was quite a spectacle and is known as “the ear of Dionysius”.
We finally looked at a 3rd century AD Roman theatre and liked its peaceful rural setting and “non-improved” state of repair. You could still see the structure, the tiers of seats and the tunnels where the gladiators/animals would have entered the arena. We almost had the place to ourselves and picnicked on Sicilian bread, cheese and tomato sitting in the shade on a block of Roman stone. We wondered how many sites combine a Greek and Roman theatre so close together, what a place!