How much history can you take?
03 June 2018 | Syracuse
Geoff/hot and sunny
31st May: Catania to Syracuse
Syracuse is some 35 miles south of Catania. The weather was warm and sunny with little wind and we had a pleasant lunch stop at Brucoli approximately halfway. In Catania we saw a number of visiting warships from the UK, Spain, France and as well as Italy. On passage we saw more at anchor in the bay south of Catania and assumed they were part of the Libyan refugee rescue effort, using Catania as a supply base.
The initial approach to Syracuse is unpromising with modern identikit tower blocks completely disfiguring the low cliffs of the northern approach. As we got closer the old town came into view, gateway to the large natural harbour that has made Syracuse a target for would-be conquerors over the centuries. The old town occupies the island of Ortigia joined to the mainland by three bridges over a narrow canal. The buildings are primarily constructed of honey coloured sandstone or light grey granite (no more black lava). It is largely traffic free and is a pleasure to walk around. It has the obligatory fortress dominating the harbour entrance, narrow streets and many historic buildings.
The Duomo, dedicated to Saint Lucy of Syracuse (martyred in 304), is a magnificent building with a fine Baroque facade. It is built on the site of the the Greek temple of Athena, dating from about 480 BC and incorporates the substantial remains of the original temple. The building has been adapted over the centuries and today 26 of the huge Doric columns of the original temple provide structural support for the roof and side walls. The interior has been largely stripped of decoration exposing much of the original internal structure of the temple, making it very easy to admire the engineering skills of Ancient Greece. The columns are over 2500 years old and remain in every day use.
In the Piazza Duomo among other fine Renaissance buildings ,is a small church containing Caravaggio's masterpiece, the 'Burial of St Lucy' painted in 1608. He was fleeing from Malta at the time and sought refuge in Syracuse, maybe this was the price of sanctuary.
It is inevitable that the wealth of architectural treasures of Syracuse ranging from Greek, Roman to Byzantine, Norman and Renaissance attract tourists but at present it is relatively uncrowded making walking around a real pleasure. We have only scratched the surface of the history of Syracuse, the city where Archimedes died in 212 BC at the hands of Roman conquerers. It will repay a return visit and I could happily spend a month exploring it's treasures.
We were able to obtain tickets for a performance of 'Hercules' by Euripides, staged in the remains of the Greek Theatre. It was quite a privilege to see a Greek play in an original Greek Theatre even though it was in Italian. We checked out the plot beforehand so could follow the action without problem. Surprisingly the audience contained large numbers of Italian teenagers and having seen little evidence of their interest in classic Greek drama, surmised that Euripides is on the exam syllabus.
A real pleasure for me was to read, in translation, Thucydides detailed account of the siege of Syracuse by the Athenians in 415-413 BC. The siege ended in a vast sea battle in the Grand Harbour and total destruction of both the Athenian fleet and army. It was written contemporaneously from eyewitness accounts and I could identify the scenes of action from our mooring in the Grand Harbour. Apologies if I seem like a pretentious nerd!
We are now planning our trip to Malta but strong winds are forecast for the Malta Strait so we are waiting for a weather window before moving further south and attempting the 60 mile crossing.