Looking Back at Syracuse
26 May 2009
Bonnie, with Notes added by Rick
Syracuse-Siracusa to Italians- is a preferred destination for cruisers. The large anchorage is well-protected from all directions except the NE and has good holding in 25' with a mud bottom. It is a quick dinghy-ride away from the baroque architecture, historic monuments and wonderful market on the island of Ortygia. (Go up the river and leave your dingy just past the first bridge.) An equally quick dinghy ride in the opposite direction brings you to within easy walking distance of a large "Famiglia" supermarket. (Leave your dingy near the police boat and large fishing boats and head NW on the main road. You can see the red Famiglia sign from the anchorage at night.) Potable water is available near the marina at the fishing boat dock.
Since Syracuse is at the crossroad of the eastern and western Mediterranean, many cruisers stop here to provision but also to enjoy the historic sites, beautiful landscapes and delicious food. The only drawbacks during our stay were a slight roll from swell and the dust from the construction at the docks on shore. It's a losing battle to keep an old boat in shipshape at the best of times, especially since we prefer to spend our time touring instead of cleaning, but after a few days we had no choice but to dig out the buckets and cloths.
You'd have to expect a bit of dust in a city that is over 2700 years old. Originally built by the Corinthians, it eventually became a force of its own, rivaling Athens and Carthage in size and power. This is the city of Dionysius- a charismatic and outrageous leader who lived life to the fullest but never fully succeeded in his goal of driving the Carthaginians from Sicily. (According to our Blue Guide, Dionysius is rumored to have died as a result of an over-zealous bout of celebratory drinking after he won first prize in a drama festival in Athens.) Syracuse was also the home of the great mathematician Archimedes, but even his brilliant defense strategies could not prevent Syracuse from falling to the Romans in the siege of 212 BC. Syracuse was the seat of the Byzantine Empire for a brief time in the 7th century AD, but then fell on hard times up until the great earthquake of 1693. Following the earthquake, much of the city was reconstructed in the baroque style which still predominates in Ortygia today.
The cathedral, or duomo, shows vestiges of each stage of the history of Syracuse. Rick is becoming weary of visiting an endless succession of cathedrals, but he has to admit that this one is special- originally a Greek temple to Athena, it still has the Doric columns from the 5th century BC. It was converted to a Christian cathedral by the Byzantines and an inscription inside describes this as the oldest Christian church in Europe. With the help of our Blue Guide we identify the baptismal font that was previously a 5th century BC burial urn, fragments of Byzantine mosaics, a Byzantine crucifix, a painting attributed to Antonello da Messina, and much more. We are very grateful to Jean Francois Bourely for recommending that we seek out the Blue Guides for our destinations. ("More books!" He says, "You do not have enough books!") Although sometimes difficult to find, these Guides provide the detailed cultural and historical information that adds context and depth to our experiences here.
I stop to take a photo of a bride and groom who are posing on the steps of the cathedral. The groom calls to me- "Where you from? Canada! Wonderful!" In the Piazza Duomo, we sip cappuccino and admire the beautiful baroque facades of the mansions and palazzos surrounding the square. An elegant young woman drives up in a sleek black car, ornate gates open and close, the car disappears into an interior courtyard. A lifestyle we cannot possibly imagine.
All the souvenir shops in Syracuse have postcards showing the stunning Greek theatre overlooking the sea. This theatre, the Roman amphitheatre and the ancient quarry are located in the Neapolis Parco Archeologico on a hill overlooking the harbour on the mainland side of the city. Our decision to walk there in the hot midday sun is perhaps not the wisest, so one of us is a bit out of sorts by the time we arrive at the gate of the site. We trudge down the hill to the theatre entrance, where we are told that we should have bought tickets at the top of the hill. "It's about 200 meters" says the girl at the entrance. By the time we find the ticket booth (actually close to half a kilometer away, tucked behind a cluster of souvenir stands across the street) the one of us who was already a bit out of sorts is now completely out of sorts, as are the French couple behind us who have made the same mistake. Rick (seething, but very polite) suggests to the agent that there should be a sign at the gate to advise visitors of the location of the ticket booth. "It's a very big problem" he says, slowly and carefully. "Yes", she agrees, "It's a very big problem for me too, you are about the hundredth one today". Armed with large bottles of water, we return to the theatre site, where we discover that the seats have been covered with bleachers for a Greek drama festival that is happening in May and June. The French couple say that it is "une grand deception" and although this actually translates to "a big disappointment," deception seems like exactly the right word. The Roman amphitheatre, described as being "only a little inferior to the one in Verona" could with equal accuracy be described as "significantly inferior to the one at El Jem" but the quarry makes the trip worthwhile. Once the grim workplace of 7,000 Athenians who were incarcerated here, it is now a serene garden with lemon trees and oleanders. A central attraction is the "Ear of Dionysius", a huge excavated cavern entered through a gothic arch. Inside, the acoustics are eerie, especially when a group of about thirty German tourists burst into song, complete with yodeling.
The rest of our time in Syracuse is spent wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere. We stumble across Greek and Roman remains tucked among baroque and modern buildings, a child's playground nestled under ancient Roman pillars. The morning market in the streets of Ortygia is a destination in itself: stalls piled with colourful fruit and vegetables, the smell of fresh basil and a cacophony of Italian voices as a backdrop. Italian is such an exuberant language...I want to speak Italian, I really want to speak Italian but after a seven-month absence we are stammering and hesitating and...oh no...speaking Spanish! Fortunately, no one seems to mind and they even seem to understand us. Outside a small corner shop with an industrial-looking façade, a man in a shirt and tie, sleeves rolled up, is preparing mozzarella balls, scooping fistfuls of the super-soft cheese from a large vat and squeezing it into cylinders. He offers us a slice and the flavour is smooth and smoky. Inside the shop, the beautiful girl working behind the counter offers us little tastes of almost everything in the showcase. She speaks to us in excellent English, while her male colleague (equally beautiful) just smiles at us. We assume that he does not speak English, but he corrects her when she writes some information for us and misspells cheese as "CHEES."
The main focus of the market is the fish- all your dreams of wonderful seafood come to life in a single location. Tuna, swordfish, mackerel, dorade, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels, vongole clams- we want to try everything, but finally settle on some vongole (so delicious steamed with a little wine and garlic and olive oil) and a piece of swordfish that we decide to cook in the Sicilian style with olive oil, garlic, cherry tomatoes and capers. One eats well in Syracuse, onboard and ashore. One night, Canadian friends Gerry and Ann on "Our Alibi" serve us a feast of mussels with fresh bread. Our most outstanding restaurant meals were at the Cordari trattoria on Via Cordari (simple, inexpensive and absolutely delicious) and La Gazza Ladra on Via Cavour. At La Gazza Ladra, an elderly Sicilan man arrives with a large entourage, visits the kitchen, tastes a few things, then settles in for a large meal in the restaurant. "Mafia" says Rick. Maybe.
When we left Syracuse, we were sad to say goodbye to Gerry and Ann and to Chris and Sandra on Deep Blue. Both boats will spend this season in the Adriatic, while we have decided to make our way to Greece. Perhaps we will see Dave and Sue from Night Owl there. Initially intending to spend only two summers cruising the waters of the Mediterranean, our list of places to visit continues to grow. Eventually we will have to turn back toward the west, since we have no intention of doing a circumnavigation. But for now, it's onward to Greece!