Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Italy chapter on Sicily has to say about Syracuse:
“A dense tapestry of overlapping cultures and civilizations, Syracuse is one of Sicily’s most visited cities. Boosted by EU funding, derelict landmarks and ancient buildings lining the slender streets are being aesthetically restored.
Settled by colonists from Corinth in 734 BC, Syracuse was considered to be the most beautiful city of the ancient world, rivaling Athens in power and prestige. Under the demagogue Dionysius the Elder, the city reached its zenith, attracting luminaries such as Livy, Plato, Aeschylus and Archimedes, and cultivating the sophisticated urban culture that was to see the birth of comic Greek theatre.
As the sun set on Ancient Greece, Syracuse became a Roman colony and was looted of its treasures.
Despite its baroque veneer, the Greek essence of Syracuse is everywhere in evidence, from the formal civility of the people to disguised architectural relics.
The most obvious of these is the cathedral, which is, in fact, a Greek temple that was converted into a church when the island was evangelized by St Paul. The sumptuous baroque facade, designed by Andrea Palma, barely hides the Temple of Athena skeleton beneath, and the huge 5th-century-BC Doric columns are still visible both inside and out.
Just down the winding main street from the cathedral is the Fontana Aretusa, where fresh water bubbles up just as it did in ancient times when it was the city’s main water supply. Legend has it that the goddess Artemis transformed her beautiful handmaiden Aretusa into the spring to protect her from the unwelcome attention of the river god Alpheus. Now populated by ducks, grey mullet and papyrus plants, the fountain is the place to hang out on summer evenings.
Simply walking through the tangled maze of alleys that characterizes Ortygia is an atmospheric experience, especially down the narrow lanes of Via Maestranza, the heart of the old guild quarter, and the crumbling Jewish ghetto of Via della Giudecca.
Renovations at the Alla Giudecca hotel uncovered an ancient Jewish miqwe (ritual bath) some 20m below ground level. The baths were blocked up in 1492 when the Jewish community was expelled from the island and hadn’t been revealed since then.
For the classicist, Syracuse’s real attraction is the Parco Archaeologico della Neapolis with its pearly white, 5th-century-BC Teatro Greco, hewn out of the rock above the city. This theatre saw the last tragedies of Aeschylus (including The Persians), which were first performed here in his presence. In summer it is brought to life again with an annual season of classical theatre.
Just beside the theatre is the mysterious Latomia del Paradiso – deep, precipitous limestone quarries out of which the stone for the ancient city was extracted. These quarries, riddled with catacombs and filled with citrus and magnolia trees, are where the 7000 survivors of the war between Syracuse and Athens in 413 BC were imprisoned.
The Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysius), a grotto 23m by 3m deep, was named by Caravaggio after the tyrant, who is said to have used the almost perfect acoustics of the quarry to eavesdrop on his prisoners.
Outside this area you’ll find the en¬trance to the 2nd-century-AD Anfiteatro Romano. The amphitheatre was used for gladiatorial combats and horse races. The Spaniards, little interested in archaeology, largely destroyed the site in the 16th century, using it as a quarry to build the city walls of Ortygia. West of the amphitheatre is the 3rd century-BC Ara di Gerone II. This monolithic sacrificial altar to Heron II was a kind of giant abattoir where up to 450 oxen could be killed at one time.
In the grounds of Villa Landolina, about 500m east of the archaeological park, is the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi It contains the best-organized and most interesting archaeological collection in Sicily (and one of the most extensive archaeological collections in Europe) and certainly merits a visit.
The Museo del Papiro includes papyrus documents and products, boats and a good English-language film about the history of papyrus. The plant grows in abundance around the Ciane River, near Syracuse, and was used to make paper in the 18th century.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD