Every travel is imagined, dreamed and conceived in a traveller’s mind for a particular reason or inspiration. The one that brought me to Sicily this year was that I suffered a very cold winter (at least it was in my perception). So I planned my journey to the South with the simple purpose of getting the warmth of the Sicilian island, in every sense.
What I didn’t know is that Siracusa (Syracuse) is not only a beautiful city, but also one of the most important historic sites of the Mediterranean area. It is located in the southeast corner of Sicily and it was founded by Ancient Greek Corinthians around 734 B.C. Later it became a powerful centre and the biggest city of the ancient world (even bigger than Athens). It is famous as the birthplace of the mathematician and engineer Archimedes.
During its history Siracusa was also part of the Roman and then Byzantine empires, that’s why it has so many archeological ruins and historical remains. If you are passionate about history like I am, Siracusa is everything you wish for and much more.
When speaking about this city, Siracusa is commonly divided into two districts: Ortigia Island and the “mainland”. This last one is the topic of this article and represents the modern and chaotic town, but also hosts some important gems of the Greek – Roman past.
Archaeological Park of Neapolis
This is the place where you can re-experience the vibes of the ancient times. In fact the Archaeological Park of Neapolis has the most beautiful ruins of the classical age in Siracusa:
- The staff of the park will suggest you to start your visit from the bottom of the park, that is also the most ancient area. The Greek Theatre was built in the 5th century B.C. and is today very well preserved with its bright stairs and large red stage. It could host up to 16000 people and it became the centre of the cultural life in Siracusa. The most important Greek tragedians such as Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus played some of their works here for the first time. Take a chance to just be there and imagine how this place could be during its golden era.
- Walking the paths from the Greek Theatre, you will find a place called Latomia del Paradiso (literally “Heaven Quarry”). It is an immense quarry of limestone full of caves and filled with citrus groves and palms. Yet besides that it was nothing “heavenly” in the past, because the Greek used the war prisoners to work the limestone and then kept them caged in the caverns. The most famous corner of this quarry is the so called Ear of Dionysius, a huge cave carved out of the hill and similar in shape to the human ear. Its name was coined by the painter Caravaggio during the 16th century. According to the legend, the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse used to eavesdrop the secrets of the captives inside the cavern thanks to its perfect acoustics. Dare to enter this place, it’s very impressive!
- Opposite to the Latomia is the monumental Altar of Hieron (or Great Altar of Syracuse). Built in the 3rd century B.C. as a sacred site for sacrificial purposes, it is said that during a ceremony they could slaughter up to 450 bulls. You will soon figure out the meaning of the huge hole in the middle of this area (where could all that blood go?). Today only the foundations of the altar survive, yet this is the place that probably impressed me the most.
- Further up the hill, the Roman Amphitheatre is the last site of interest of the Archaeological Park. Its remains give an idea of the monumental dimensions of the structure: it is the third biggest ampitheatre after the Colosseum of Rome and the Verona Arena. There were performed fights of gladiators and horse races. The rectangular pit at the centre of the arena was originally covered and used for machinery during the shows.
Other must-sees in Siracusa’s mainland
The Archaeological Park of the Neapolis is not the only place worth visit in the mainland district:
- Walking east from the Park, among ugly buildings and traffic congested streets, your eyes could stumble upon a bright gem shining in the surrounding grey: the Church and Catacombs of St. John. This sacred site has a charme which is out of time and out of the context. The church used to be Siracusa’s cathedral, while the dark and humid catacombs were used by Chistians to hide and pray (they can be visited through a guided tour).
- The Archaeological Museum of Siracusa is one of the richest I have ever seen. If you are into archaeology, you could stay inside this place all day long, and it wouldn’t be enough. Its collection is the biggest in the whole Sicily and include about 18000 artifacts. If you are not the museum kind of person, you could still do a quick tour of the several rooms (like I did) and get an impression of the Syracusan ancient past. Besides, the Museum is hosted inside the gardens of Villa Landolina, a nice place to stroll among exotic plants, greek capitals, sculptures, amphoras and wooden anchors.
- Basilica di Santa Lucia al Sepolcro: this church stands on the site where Lucia, Siracusa’s patron saint, was martyred in 304 AD. Its Norman tower and portal together with its columned portico are an impressive sight (for the fans of Vikings: the whole Sicily if full of Norman sites). While the church is currently closed, the 18th-century octagonal chapel known as the Sepolcro and the network of catacombs beneath can be visited on a guided tour.
Going south from the church of St. Lucia and towards the sea, you might enjoy some beautiful views of Siracusa:
And this is my lunch at Le 7 Spezie: it is very easy to eat fresh fish in Siracusa, just ask the owner or waiter what’s the best of the day.
Not to be missed: a performance at the Greek Theatre
Attending a classical play at the Greek Theatre of Siracusa is an experience that I strongly recommend to you. Even if you are not into ancient tragedies and comedies, seeing some super talented actors play the masterpieces of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides in the same place where they were played more than 2000 years ago is something unique. The performances are staged every year in May, June and July on alternate days, from the late afternoon. That’s why you have the opportunity to see a Greek tragedy while the sun is setting down, looking at the sea on the horizon. Check the website of Vivaticket to for the program. I attended The Phoenician Women by Euripides and I found it amazing.
I’ve told you a lot about Siracusa and its ancient past, but it’s not over. This city is so much more, and in the next blogpost we will go to the sea and Ortigia Island. Stay connected!