Siracusa, Sicily is one of a handful of places around Europe that can lay a strong claim to once having been the most powerful city in the Western world. And in Siracusa’sancient core, the island of Ortigia, Sicily has one of the most beautiful cityscapes in Italy.
Siracusa – often Anglicised to Syracuse – started out as one of many Greek colonies in Sicily and southern Italy, collectively known to the Romans as Magna Graecia. Its heyday came in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. It defeated an attempted invasion by its great rival, Athens, and held sway over much of the Mediterranean and its trade routes, controlling territories as far apart as Corsica and the Adriatic, to the west and east of modern Italy.
Nowadays, like some other former greatest cities, like Cordoba in Spain and Ravenna on Italy’s Adriatic coast, Siracusa has gradually faded to become a provincial city. Its population in Greek times was 250,000 – twice what it is now, almost two and a half millennia later. The original colony was founded on the island of Ortigia, which lies just offshore from mainland Sicily. The city expanded onto the mainland, declining back to occupying only its island core after Roman occupation and eventually spreading back out again.
Ortigia – also sometimes spelt Ortygia – is where many visitors to Siracusa spend most of their time. We had booked an apartment on the island, and after arriving on a bus from Catania airport were amazed to find that Ortigia, the historic heart of one of the greatest cities in the ancient world – was served by one tiny electric shuttle bus every fifteen minutes. Our bus ran anti-clockwise around the island, with glimpses up narrow medieval backstreets on our left and views over the Tyrrhenian Sea on our right, and we alighted at Cala Rossa, one of Ortigia’s two tiny beaches.
We had booked a week on Ortigia to allow ourselves enough time to savour the atmosphere of this ancient place, to give ourselves time to explore all the backstreets and see the sights, while branching out to see some other places in south-east Sicily. We would recommend giving Ortigia and Siracusa at least three days and nights of your time – any less and you wouldn’t do it justice. If you’re looking for a Siracusa hotel we’d suggest looking for Ortigia accommodation first, as the island is so much more atmospheric than the mainland part of the city.
The island of Ortigia is just over one kilometre end to end, and only 500 metres across at its widest point, but it has over 2,700 years of history packed into its narrow streets.
Ortigia Duomo – the Cathedral
There is one building where you can see the layers of history grafted onto each other – the duomo, or cathedral. The first building on the site was a temple dedicated to Athena, which was superseded by another built to celebrate victory over Carthage at the Battle of Himera in 480 BC. Many of the columns of the temple remain, now incorporated into the structure of the Christian church which was built on the site, and you can see them both inside and outside the building. The Duomo also contains elements from the Byzantine, Norman, medieval and Baroque periods. Its stunning Baroque facade was built in the early 18th century to replace an earlier one which collapsed after the 1693 earthquake which caused immense damage across the region.
Ortigia Piazza del Duomo
We kept gravitating back to the Piazza del Duomo every evening, watching the late golden sunlight on the cathedral facade slowly fall beyond the horizon, and watch the square come to life as the floodlights and street lamps came on. Many of the locals came here on their evening passeggiata, or promenade, and our young son took great delight in running around chasing pigeons in the shadow of Baroque palazzi, knowing that a generous helping of gelato would follow before the end of the evening.
Ortigia’s Piazza del Duomo is one of the most beautiful, most magical squares in Europe. It’s a long narrow rectangle rather than a square, with another church, Santa Lucia alla Badia, dedicated to Siracusa’s patron saint, Lucy. It has a very intimate feel. We sat at the same table at the same cafe most nights, with a prime view of the duomo as the bright white lights picked it out against the deepening twilight blue background. It really comes into its own in the balmy spring evenings, as the buildings glow in the warm lights, the only sounds happy conversations from surrounding tables and children scampering back and forth, squealing in enjoyment, with the accordionist playing traditional Italian favourites in the background.
One evening we talked about other, better-known beautiful squares around Europe, like the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, Spain, Rynek Glowny in Krakow or the Old Town Square in Prague. They’re all amazing, but none of them have that sultry southern Mediterranean climate, nor that wonderful intimacy that the Piazza del Duomo has. On a more prosaic note, we enjoyed our caffe and gelato most evenings for considerably less than we would in any of the squares named above, and a fraction of what we would pay in Venice’s Piazza San Marco or Rome’s Piazza Navona.
Best Ortigia Walk – the Lungomare
Along with our evenings in the Piazza del Duomo, the greatest joy for us was to wander along the lungomare, the road around the circumference of the island. Many of the main Ortigia hotels can be found on this walk, including the Grand Hotel Ortigia, close to the bridge to the rest of Siracusa.
It’s best to do the walk – or if you prefer, sections of it – early in the morning or late in the evening, avoiding the heat of the day and catching the best of the light. We caught some lovely sunsets over the marina and, further down, the tiny beach near the Fonte Aretusa on the west side of the island.
Backstreets of Ortigia
We also spent a lot of time exploring the narrow backstreets, especially on the eastern side of the island around the Jewish district, la Giudecca. Our long walks brought so many surprises, from a string quartet playing in an open air ruined church, to hidden 18th century courtyards, to an unexpected view of a Baroque church dome down a narrow alleyway near our apartment. Every day we would take a different route, even if we often ended up in the same place!
There are lots of other things to do in Ortigia. Just down the hill from the Piazza del Duomo, the Fonte Aretusa is a lovely spot, a freshwater spring which was a big factor in attracting the Greeks to settle on the island. It’s now planted with papyrus and is a popular stop on the evening stroll. Its origin is steeped in Greek mythology – it’s named after a nymph, Arethusa, who supposedly swam to Ortigia from the Peloponnese in southern Greece to escape the unwanted attentions of the river god, Alpheus.
The Fonte and shoreline are overlooked by a row of cafes and restaurants with a spectacular setting. The view to the end of the island culminates in the 13th century Castello Maniace, which is used to this day by the Italian navy and, sadly, out of bounds most of the time.
Piazza Archimede and the Fountain of Diana
One of Siracusa’s most famous residents was the mathematician, scientist and inventor Archimedes. Among many discoveries, he was the first to work out how to calculate the area of a circle, and invented the screw pump, a means of raising water from one level to another. Ortigia’s busiest square in terms of motor traffic, Piazza Archimede, is named after him. He is also renowned as the subject of an anecdote in which he discovered how to calculate the density of an object, and was so excited by this, he jumped out of his bath and ran outside, forgetting to dress, shouting, “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”)
Ortigia street market
It’s a short walk down from Piazza Archimede which leads down to the large square Largo XXV Luglio, home to the remains of the Temple of Apollo and the fantastic Ortigia street market. As we were half self-catering, half eating out, we stocked up on vegetables, fruit, bread, cheese and prosciutto crudo, also known as Parma ham.
It was one of the best half hour’s shopping we had ever done, the quality of the ingredients was simply astounding. This kept us going for much of the week. We also sampled plenty of southern Sicilian cuisine, from classics like spaghetti alla Norma to a real surprise, pistachio and goat’s cheese pizza.
Siracusa’s ancient Greek ruins
Many of Siracusa’s ancient ruins lie on the mainland. The Parco Archeologico di Neapolis has the biggest concentration, including the spectacular Greek theatre which also hosts performances in spring and summer, as well as ancient quarries where it is believed that Athenian prisoners of war were forced to work for several years. One of the quarries, the Latomia del Paradiso, has an amazing cavern known as the Orecchio del Dionisio – the Ear of Dionysius – because of its amazing acoustics.
It’s also worth exploring the mainland district of Tyche, which was outside the old city walls. This area had a sizeable early Christian population, and many of the catacombs, where believers were buried, survive close to the ruined Basilica of San Giovanni Battista.
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