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Siracusa: Urban Sicily Drenched in History

Syracuse, Italy

Seven hundred years ago, Syracuse was a leading Greek city. It even defeated Athens in battle. For a sense of its rich and many-layered history, we explore Siracusa’s old center. The top church is literally built into a Greek temple. Today, once-depressed streets are coming to life.

Complete Video Script

Like so much of Sicily, Syracuse has ancient Greek origins. The great city-states of Greece were expansive, searching the Mediterranean for more fertile lands. Athens and Sparta dominated, but lots of other Greek cities, like Corinth, were establishing colonies too. These new settlements created a broader Greek culture, known as Magna Graecia, or “Greater Greece.”

Greek culture flourished here in Syracuse. Founded in 732 BC by the Corinthians, it grew to become an even greater, more important city than Athens. In fact, Syracuse eventually defeated the Athenians in battle in this very bay.

The Temple of Apollo, marking the center of old Syracuse, was the first stone Greek temple in Sicily. It dates from 600 BC.

And Syracuse nurtured the brightest minds of the ancient world — like Archimedes. The inventions of this scientist/physicist/philosopher/genius from the third century BC helped his hometown defend itself from invasions.

Modern Siracusa sprawls across the mainland. But the city was born on the fortified island of Ortigia. That’s where you’ll find many of the ancient sights and most of the medieval charm. With its shabby-chic vibe, delightful back lanes, and breezy sea views, old Siracusa is for me the most enjoyable urban environment anywhere in Sicily.

Just a generation ago, Ortigia was a rough and unwelcoming zone, almost empty of commerce. And today, stoked by its influx of tourism, it has a bohemian energy that fills it with a joyful and relaxed ambiance.

The long and narrow side lanes are part of a street plan dating way back to ancient times. Balconies festooned with laundry are reminders that this is still a real neighborhood.

I always say, “If you like Italy, you’ll love Sicily” — and I especially feel that in its markets. Each morning this street hosts a lively fish and produce market. This shop is jam-packed for its beloved specialty: jam-packed panini.

To be sure we maximize the delights of our Sicilian experience, I’m joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Alfio Di Mauro. And Alfio is expert at connecting with the local characters.

Alfio: Quanda, quanda, Rick. [When, when]
Rick: Nice!
Alfio: Buongiorno, Angelo!
Angelo: Ciao! Ciao! Come stai? [Hi! How are you?]
Alfio: Ti presento — bene! — ti presento Rick. [This is Rick.]
Angelo: Grazie! Angelo.
Rick: Piacere, piacere. [Nice to meet you.]
Alfio: The swordfish — Angelo always has the best swordfish…yeah, he just caught it. This was used until not long ago to make needles to mend the nets.
Rick: Oh, for knitting the nets together?
Alfio: Yes. And even to do knitting needle.
Rick: This is really remarkable!
Alfio: It is very resistant.
Rick: Look at that.
Alfio: Very resistant.
Rick: Ancora. [Again.] Wow!
Alfio: And when you have fresh fish like this, the meat is delicious.
Rick: Fantastic. Angelo!
Angelo: Si?
Rick: Buon lavoro. [Nice work.]
Angelo: Grazie.
Rick: OK? Ciao.
Angelo: Bye-bye, ciao!
Alfio: Grazie, Angelo. Bravissimo. Bravissimo. [Very good.]

Sicily is brutally hot in the summer. I like to visit in spring or fall. And even in April — when we’re here — a stop for a drink at the kiosk can be really refreshing.

Rick: What’s this?
Alfio: It’s a specialty…Ciao!
Barkeeper: Buonasera. [Good afternoon.]
Rick: Ciao! Buonasera.
Alfio: Due seltz limone e sale. [Two seltzer, lemon, and salt.]
Rick: So, what is the name again?
Alfio: It’s a refreshing drink, OK? It’s seltzer, lemon, and salt.
Rick: OK; good.
Alfio: Ideal in the summer. Molto rinfrescante — very refreshing. Then, with a spoon…salt. Rinfrescante.
Rick: Rinfrescante.
Alfio: Perfetto! [Perfect!]
Rick: All right.
Both: Grazie.

Nearby, the facade of the cathedral provides quite a contrast. Built in the 18th century, it was inspired by the great Baroque churches of Rome, but amped up with a Sicilian architectural razzle-dazzle. The apostles Peter and Paul greet you at street level while Mary blesses all from above.

Stepping inside, you see the church is a lot like Sicily itself — a layer cake of civilizations. It was built into an ancient Greek temple. The temple’s 2,500-year-old colonnade survives as part of the church’s walls. And because a pagan temple had no transepts, neither does this church. The fine workmanship of the capitals survives from ancient times.

In Sicily, you hear the same basic story of the parade of civilizations over and over — ancient temple, church, mosque, church. Here in Syracuse, this was originally a Greek temple built to honor Athena. Then, a thousand years later, with Byzantine rule, the temple was made into a church. Next, in the ninth century, the Arabs sweep in from just over there in North Africa — Christians out, Muslims in…and it became a mosque. Then it’s a church again as the Normans from France conquer Sicily in the 11th century. After a huge earthquake hit in 1693, the cathedral was rebuilt in today’s super-charged Baroque style. Whew!

The cathedral square, or “Piazza Duomo,” is a mish-mash of architectural styles. It serves as a delightful stage upon which the story of this community plays out. Its graceful semi-circular design is a Baroque trick, designed to give the feeling that this is a theater for life in this community. It’s the gathering place of the town — a magnet for all generations.