Syracuse is a city on the Ionian coast of Sicily, known for the ruins of antiquity. The central Archaeological Park of Neapolis contains the Roman amphitheatre, the Greek Theater and the Ear of Dionysius, a cave carved out of limestone in the shape of a human ear. The Regional Archaeological Museum Paolo Orsi displays terracotta artefacts, portraits from the Roman era and scenes from the Old Testament carved in white marble. UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2005, the city stands in the frame of a suggestive natural port, closed to the east by the island of Ortigia and behind the Epipoli plateau. Let’s dwell on its suggestive locations and discover them together!
Ortigia is the toponym of the island which constitutes the oldest part of the city of Syracuse.
Its name derives from the ancient Greek ortyx which means “quail”. Its extension does not exceed 1 km² and its population amounts to 4,269 inhabitants. Here, some splendid buildings of various eras arise here, which trace its history from the Greek period. The remains of some important temples persist in eternal memory of a historical moment in which the island acquired its importance.
Temple of Athena
The most famous, the temple of Athena (erected in the 5th century BC), today sees its columns and stepped base incorporated in the most modern Cathedral of Syracuse, built in the 17th century in full Baroque style. This imposing building stands in the homonymous Piazza Duomo, which together with Piazza Montalto represents one of the most important centers of the island. It underwent several transformations: it was a Byzantine church (the front staircase and traces of a door are preserved), then it became an Arab mosque. Such a troubled history seriously damaged the building, which was rediscovered around 1860 inside the barracks and was brought to light entirely between 1933 and 1943.
Temple of Apollo
Over the centuries, the oldest Doric temple in Sicily has been transformed into a Byzantine church and an Arab mosque, a Norman church and – even – a Spanish barracks. So, passing in front of it (it is located in the center of Ortigia) it may take a little imagination to imagine the majestic original structure. Fragments of the splendid polychrome terracotta cladding that decorated the upper part of the temple outside by covering its wooden elements are preserved in the “Paolo Orsi” Regional Archaeological Museum.
The south and west sides retain the remains of the sanctuary’s enclosure wall (temenos). The remains of a wall and a tower leaning against the temple on the west side belong to a fortification of probable Byzantine age.
Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia
There are also many religious architecture, among which the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia stands out: a beautiful Baroque building, once part of a convent of nuns, for several years it has been deconsecrated and it now houses a splendid work of art by Caravaggio, the Burial of Saint Lucia. The date of foundation of the church and the adjacent monastery is unknown, but sources testify to the existence of the monastic complex as early as the mid-fifteenth century.
The church has always had a prominent place in city life, both for its location in the heart of Ortigia, and for the link with the patron saint of Syracuse, whose iconographic symbols are carved on the extraordinary Baroque facade.
The floor of the church has been completely restored taking up the original eighteenth-century decoration, composed of quadrangular tiles of painted majolica. Visit this historical place in Syracuse by taking a Sicily vacation package of the Chiesa di San Giovanni Alle Catacombe in Italy.
The place is sometimes home to exhibitions, an important appointment for every tourist.
Church of San Giovanni alle Catacombe
It has no roof and between its naves – what remains of the ancient Norman Gothic style church – there are bushes and palm trees. The charm of the place is undoubted, especially at sunset, when the stone takes on strange colors and a truly magical atmosphere is created.
From the south side of the church you can also go down to the catacombs of San Giovanni, part of the ancient underground Christian necropolis (the only complex of catacombs open to the public in Syracuse).
The Swabian period is instead represented, in Syracuse, by the Maniace Castle. Built on the extreme tip from the island of Ortigia by Emperor Frederick II of Swabia around 1200, the castle was to appear as impregnable and threatening to enemies who came from the sea, or particularly desirable to soldiers returning from the Crusades.
Today a walk between the towers and the ramparts offers an incredible 360 degree view of the sea around the city, since it stands on the extreme tip of the island, once considered a strategic position to monitor what happened on the open sea.
Aquarium of Syracuse
The tropical Aquarium of Syracuse is located in the heart of the island of Ortigia, under the square overlooking the sea. Tropical fish from all over the world are welcomed, divided into various tanks: visiting the aquarium is a beautiful experience even for the little ones.
It is divided into sectors with different tanks built in such a way as to reproduce exactly the natural environments of origin of the hosted fish. A significant part is reserved for the marine life of the Mediterranean which is reproduced in its peculiar beauties: the marine biotype found in that part of the sea that laps the coasts of the Province is recreated; moreover, in some bulletin boards there are some of the most beautiful shells of Mare Nostrum.
Located in the oldest part of the city of Syracuse and immersed in the green of the papyrus, this source of fresh water reaches underground to the island and then flows a few meters from the sea, creating a small semi-circular pond full of ducks and fish.
According to the legend, Arethusa was a beautiful nymph. The god Alfeo, son of Oceano, fell in love with her – seeing her naked while bathing. Arethusa was not to be particularly enthusiastic about the god’s advances, so she escaped to the island of Ortigia, in Syracuse, she was transformed by Artemis into a source. The “official” (but less fascinating) explanation of why there may be a source of fresh water a few meters from the sea concerns the peculiarity of the local water table … but it doesn’t matter. The circular source is one of the symbols of Syracuse, and green papyrus plants grow there: these of Syracuse are one of only two papyrus existing in Italy.
The Cathedral of Syracuse
The Cathedral of Syracuse is one of the jewels of Sicily. This majestic building stands on the elevated part of the island of Ortigia. It is located on the ancient foundations of a Doric-style temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena by the Greek-Siceliots, in the fifth century BC.
Symbol of the city, the religious building is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005, together with the Pantalica Necropolis. The Greek history of Syracuse always comes to light: thus, even the most important religious architecture of the city, the Duomo, was in the past a Greek temple, dedicated to the goddess Minerva. Located in the highest part of the island of Ortigia, the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Nativity of Maria Santissima in Syracuse boasts one of the most beautiful facades in Sicily, designed and completed in the first half of the eighteenth century in a mixture of baroque and rococo elements. The older interior also houses a beautiful Byzantine-era crucifix and a rich treasure.