Syracuse

17 to 31 October 2018

When we told people that we planned to stop in Syracuse on Sicily on our way to our winter berth in Licata those who had been turned all misty eyed and sighed “ah! Syracuse!”. They then waxed lyrical about the cobbled lanes, towering churches and atmosphere of its old town island Ortigia. Our friend Oda told us, prophetically as it turned out, “you will stay at least a few days in Syracuse, it is fantastic”.

Three nights turned into fifteen when the wind changed from easterly to westerly and we had to get the engine fixed before we could go anywhere but everyone was right, there are certainly worse places than Syracuse to be stuck in.

Initially we confined our explorations to Ortigia, Syracuse’s island old town. With Pintail protected by its walls and buildings in Porto Grande, a walk around to the island’s seaward side was an altogether more bracing affair.

Next to the everyday market is a reminder that the Greeks first made Ortigia home. The walls and columns of the 6th century BC Temple of Apollo were uncovered in the old Spanish barracks.

Pastel yellows, oranges and blues give the otherwise dark streets a cheery atmosphere on even the most overcast of days

and there were always a light filled archway to peer into.

Ortigia’s Piazzo Duomo in contrast was bright white enough to have me reaching for my sunglasses when I stumbled on it by accident during a rainy walk. The white marble pavement reflects up at the cathedral whose architecture reveals its ancient past as the Greek Temple of Minerva.

Inside the ancient columns of the original place of worship still dominate its architecture. It is just the deity that has changed.

It is, however, its newer Baroque façade and surrounding buildings that really shine in every light.

A favourite Ortigia spot was the fountain dedicated to Diana. Everyone seemed to be having so much fun you just wanted to jump in and join them once the sun came out.

When it became obvious that we were not going anywhere fast we ventured off the island and further afield to the archeological park, Neopolis. There we found a Roman amphitheatre used for gladiatorial games. Stefan reminded me that, despite my aversion to Russell Crowe, I really must watch Gladiator if I want to make more sense of these places.

Neopolis boasts “one of the biggest and best preserved examples of a Greek auditorium” and it is pretty impressive but doesn’t knock Hierapolis off the top spot for us.

On the way out of Neopolis we entered the vast quarry cut out of the stone that was used to build the city. Used to house up to 7000 prisoners, the Latomie del Paradiso is also home to the 20 metre high Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysius). This high cavern apparently enabled the city’s tyrant ruler to hear the conspiratorial whispers of his prisoners.

To take our minds of our engine woes we took a day off boat jobs and started with a posh breakfast on the roof terrace at the 5 star Grand Hotel just on the waterfront. We enjoyed our first (but undoubtedly not last) taste of Sicilian cassata and cannoli with a view down to the boat (the one with the washing hanging out on the right of the pontoon). Fortified with enough caffeine and sugar to keep us going for hours we went in search of the Roman catacombs under the Basilica San Giovani.

On our way we passed a much more recent church, the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime, whose huge steel structure was one of the first buildings we had seen from the sea on our approach to Syracuse. The church was opened in 1994 to house a statue of Mary which allegedly wept real tears for 5 days in 1953. Its shape is supposed to represent a giant teardrop.

Breaking our rule of not intruding on places of active worship we tiptoed around the service being held in a side chapel of the enormous crypt space.

The museum housed a somewhat strange and macabre collection of headless brides and leg and back braces.

The modern architecture was a refreshing change from the ancient churches and mosques we have seen throughout the Mediterranean. “This would be ideal for skateboarding” Stefan said of the concrete and steel entrance ramps.

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But back to the ancient we went just a bit further up the road to visit the catacombs under Syracuse’s first cathedral, Basilica di San Giovanni. Photography was not permitted by order of the Vatican. Not out of respect for the 10s of thousands of souls who lay at rest in them but, our guide told us, to protect the image rights. So because the Pope wouldn’t let me take photos here is a photo of our ticket! The tunnels of the catacombs, 10,000 square metres housing 10,000 graves, were an example of ingenius archeological recycling by the early Roman Christians of earlier Greek aquaducts. Tunnel after tunnel housed graves carved into the stone. The vast number of tiny niches of the babies’ and children’s graves that lined the walls of the tunnels were unsettling and a little upsetting.

As we emerged blinking into the midday sun Stefan’s eyes started to glaze over at the part of the tour that took us around the ruins of the original Byzantine church.

It was only saved by the discovery that the fresco of St John in the crypt appeared to have been painted by ancient forebears of South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

With the engine still out of action we had time to explore some of Syracuse’s scientific, cultural and artistic heritage. The town was once the home of Greek scientists and mathematicians, Pythagorus and Archimedes. We spent time in the museum dedicated to Archimedes and Leonardo Da Vinci’s engineering designs, playing with the beautifully recreated pulleys and gears drawn by Da Vinci inspired by Archimedes works. Da Vinci didn’t build any of the machines he designed. They remained purely on paper. Perhaps to protect his copyright, no photos were allowed here either but not by order of the Pope.

Sicily has a tradition of puppetry and one afternoon I took myself off to the museum to learn a bit more about this form of entertainment dating back to the 1600s. It became most popular in the late 19th century when puppet operas focused on stories of the Crusades. However, there was evidence of more modern characters lurking behind the knights.

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After the museum I walked up the road to the theatre to watch a puppet opera for myself. La Fuga di Angelica was an ever so slightly camp tale of knights in shining armour, a fair maiden falling asleep in a wood, a magic fountain and a good old fashioned battle. Think Punch and Judy meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a beheading at the end. Entirely spoken in Italian, the animators did such a good job that not only was it possible for the almost entirely non Italian speaking audience to follow the story but also occasionally forget the rods and believe that Angelica, Orlando and Rinaldo were living and breathing.

In Chiesa di San Cristoforo we found a very modern take on an old painting. Mauro Drudi’s Lei (She) uses the face of Annunziata by Antonello da Messina on different surfaces, some rough, some smooth, some shiny, in a Pop Art reflection on women.

Frustrating as our stay in Syracuse was for other reasons, we were glad to be able to spend so much time getting to know the town. It certainly provided enough distractions whilst we waited for repairs and weather to cooperate with us…

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