You’ll be following in the illustrious footsteps of the scientist Archimedes, statesman Cicero, evangelist St. Paul, martyr St. Lucy, painter Caravaggio, and naval hero Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, on a visit to Siracusa. Seeing its ruins will be one of the highlights of your trip to Sicily, because of all the Greek cities of antiquity that flourished in Sicily, Siracusa was the most important, a formidable competitor of Athens and, in its heyday, it dared take on Carthage and even Rome. What remains of the city’s classical past? Among some unattractive modern development, is impressive, and the still-functioning Teatro Greco amphitheater is where Aeschylus premiered his plays and Archimedes is said to be buried.
Much of what you’ll want to see is on the miniscule island of Ortigia, accessible via the Ponte Nuovo built in 2004. The picturesque island is crammed with ancient monuments clustered around one of the most attractive squares in Italy, the Piazza del Duomo, and its beautiful Duomo (cathedral) is the oldest church in Europe. Where Archimedes ran through the streets shouting “Eureka!”, Ortigia is a must on a trip to Sicily because of its temples, castle, palazzi, churches, and bustling market. Allow yourself at least 2 hours to explore, plus another hour to visit its labyrinthine alleys lined with crafts shops, boutiques, restaurants, bars, and cafes, which make it a lively spot during the summer. The local specialty is swordfish, freshly caught by local fishermen.
Ortigia, inhabited for many thousands of years, is also called the Città Vecchia. It contains the town’s Duomo, many rows of houses spanning 500 years of building styles, most of the city’s medieval and baroque monuments, and some of the most charming vistas in Sicily. In Greek mythology, it’s said that it was ruled by Calypso, daughter of Atlas, the sea nymph who detained Ulysses (Odysseus) for 7 years. Heading out on the Foro Italico, you’ll come to the Fonte Aretusa, also famous in mythology. The river god Alpheius, son of Oceanus, is said to have fallen in love with the sea nymph Arethusa. The nymph turned into this spring or fountain, but Alpheius became a river and “mingled” with his love. According to legend, the spring ran red when bulls were sacrificed at Olympus.
At Piazza del Duomo, the Duomo of Siracusa, illustrates more than any other structure in town the changing colonizations and architectural styles that have dominated the city over the centuries. The present cathedral incorporates architectural fragments from a 5th-century-B.C. temple honoring Athena. In its heyday, this Greek temple was spoken of in revered tones by the people of the Mediterranean. Twenty-six of the temple’s Doric columns are still in place. In 1693, an earthquake caused the cathedral’s facade to collapse, and in the 18th century the structure was rebuilt in the baroque style. Once inside, look in the first bay on the right for a beautiful font fashioned from a Greek marble krater. It is held up by seven stunning 13th-century wrought-iron lions. The Duomo is also rich in statues adorning its chapels, including one honoring patron saint Lucia.
The irregular Piazza del Duomo is especially majestic when the facade of the cathedral is dramatically caught by the setting sun or when floodlit at night. Acclaimed as one of the most beautiful squares in Italy, it’s filled with fine baroque buildings. They include the striking Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco, with its lovely courtyard, and the Palazzo del Senato, with an inner courtyard displaying a senator’s carriage from the 1700s. At the far end of the square stands another church, Santa Lucia alla Badia.
The other important landmark square is Piazza Archimede, with its baroque fountain festooned with dancing jets and sea nymphs. This square is directly northeast of Piazza del Duomo, forming the monumental heart of Ortigia. It’is not the cathedral square, is the main piazza of the old city. Original Gothic windows grace the 15th-century Palazzo Lanza here. As you move about Ortigia, you’ll find that Piazza Archimede is a fine place from which to orient yourself. Wander the narrow streets wherever your feet will take you, and when you get lost, ask for directions back to Piazza Archimede.
At Piazza Pancali on the island of Ortigia, the 6th-century B.C Greek Tempio di Apollo is the oldest peripteral (having a row of columns on each side) Doric temple in the world. The inscription says that the temple honors Apollo. However, after Cicero came to Siracusa, he wrote that the temple was dedicated to Artemis. Regardless, the temple faced a rocky future, it was first turned into a Byzantine church before the Saracens took over and converted it into a mosque. Later, under Norman rule, it was turned back into a church. You can see the fenced-off ruins anytime in the square across the bridge to Ortigia.