For obvious reasons, there aren’t that many churches which pre-date the time of Jesus. But the cathedral in Syracuse is no ordinary place of worship: the original building on the site was a temple to the goddess Athena, and I find it easy to make out the columns from the Ancient Greek structure among the visible Christian additions from the Byzantine, Norman and Baroque years.
To a large extent, the cathedral is a metaphor for Syracuse itself. At the height of its powers, Ancient Greece had two major cities, Athens and Syracuse, and they were bitter rivals, coming to blows in 415BC in a battle which saw the defeat of Athens and the end of its dominance over the Mediterranean. In the following centuries, a procession of invaders came to Sicily and each left their mark, both in the island’s buildings and in its food; the Arabs for example brought in many of the foods which are now an essential part of Sicilian cuisine, such as pistachios and lemons. The real magic of Sicily in general and Syracuse in particular is in the way that, just like its cathedral, it manages to take a chaotic jumble of history and create something of genuine beauty.
Like most visitors to Syracuse, we spent the bulk of our time in the narrow lanes of Ortigia, the teardrop of an island on which most of the city’s historical attractions can be found. It’s the perfect place in which to leave the map in the hotel room and just wander. Five minutes in any direction will take you either to the sea or to the magnificent Piazza del Duomo, the large square at the heart of the city. The cathedral is well worth visiting – try to go in the evening too, when the crowds die down and you might even catch a bit of live music.
Also within the piazza is the church of Santa Lucia all Badia, which attracts large crowds thanks to the painting by Caravaggio behind the altar depicting the burial of Santa Lucia. It’s one of those moments where you can say that you’ve seen the real thing, but I couldn’t really claim to have seen it very well thanks to the many candlesticks and other objects blocking the view, and the fact that it’s so far from view. I had to look at the postcards in the gift shop to appreciate the details on the painting.
It’s very easy and pleasant to spend an hour walking around the entire island of Ortigia. Much of the waterfront area is made of grand houses and palaces; some parts have a busy promenade and others offer a short respite from the city’s tourist crowds. The area around the fountain of Arethusa gets very busy around sunset, and always keen to indulge in the sport of people-watching, we spent an enjoyable hour by the waterfront with an ice cream in hand, watching as the crowds stopped to take selfies and shop from the stalls on the shoreline.
For a different perspective of Syracuse, it’s also worth taking a boat ride from the harbour (touts sell various boat excursions throughout the day – most cost €10 per person). Some trips go around Ortigia, offering views of the old town and its grand waterfront buildings; others head north along the coast to see various caves and limestone formations in the rocks. Our visit coincided with a heatwave, and spending an hour on the water offered a chance to enjoy a cooling breeze as well the coastal views.
As one of Sicily’s main tourist hotspots, Syracuse has no shortage of options for food, especially around the old town of Ortigia. We had an excellent meal in the cosy A Putia restaurant, next to Piazza Archimide; the tuna with pistachio was delicious. And following a tip from a local ice cream devotee, we drove a mile or so north of Ortigia to reach Bar Tunisi, family run and very much a locals’ cafe, for our dessert. We were rewarded with a warm welcome and fabulous chocolate and ricotta gelato; it was definitely worth the detour.
by Andy Jarosz