If ancient history, culture, architecture, art and religion are not your thing, Siracusa may not be your top destination, because it is full of all of those things. Everywhere there are stones, gates, columns, carvings and structures with chisel marks made by someone hundreds, even thousands of years ago.
We are staying close to the famous Neapolitan archeological park, but in deference to the heat and to save some steps for a big visit, Peter gallantly drove there and managed to park.
It is a huge area that takes the visitors on a romp through history, starting with a Greek theatre that is used for all sorts of shows today. We did the reverse chronological order to avoid the tour groups, and were amazed at what is still standing of the Roman arena.
It was smaller than I expected, and I had very mixed feelings as I imagined how intimate this venue was for viewing the horror of gladiator and wild animals events that were all the go back then. There are the remains of a pit in the centre where they think the blood ran, and afterwards was accessed by locals for their ‘health’. Oh dear. It was built around the time of Jesus, and gladiator schools were fortunately disbanded about 400 years later.
My other reaction is sheer admiration for those who built these places well enough for them to be still standing a couple of thousand years later. Our council roads don’t survive the first heavy rain storm.
Random fact: there were stands of gum trees around the arena.
Long walks took us backwards in time to the Greek arena which was first built 500 years BC. I took one look at the steep climbs to the top and nearly piked out, but made it and we were wowed by the views and the sheer size of the theatre.
This venue has always had more pleasant functions – performance and culture. I always wonder who picked the magnificent site and started hewing into the rock. Near it is the quarry where it all came from, now turned into a lush garden.
As we had our recovery picnic at the top (we never go anywhere without water, juice, nuts and wrapped Italian treats), we met some Uruguayans who wanted to talk rugby. When they learnt we are from Australia, they started to do the Hakka…we are often seen as one country with NZ! They also wanted a photo ‘without the women’.
Sunday came around again and we felt in need of a quieter day. The heat is relentless and tires me out very quickly. Some reading and communication, and we tuned into New Pen online service again to hear Canon Glenn Loughrey, First Nations speaker who is a priest, artist and author. A great message. I am a solid Yes voter – we need to move forward and listen to our brothers and sisters, however it works out.
A Sunday drive seemed a good idea, so we headed out late afternoon to challenge ourselves on a mountain climb to Italy’s version of the Grand Canyon – Cava Grande di Cassabile. We drove south on the autostrada, almost nonchalantly now, and then turned inland.
Soon we were driving (not at all nonchalantly) on the steepest switchback road I have ever been on and I tried to stifle my squeals at every corner and look at the view, which Peter couldn’t do. So glad we have the smallest car we could cram into, as there is barely room for two cars on these roads and no centre line.
Incredible views of the eastern coastline, especially Siracusa on the horizon. A turn onto a short dirt road, and we hoped the place we had read about in blogs would be accessible. It was, and we had arrived at the rim of a huge gorge with a necklace of water holes at the bottom. People come to do the hike to the bottom and back, but it is actually closed off and not permitted, even if we wanted to.
In the late afternoon sun, the glow of the warm yellow rock in the gorge kept changing. We scrambled along the top, careful not to lean on the dodgy fence. In the freshening breeze, I was renewed with a sense of wellbeing and amazement at my new mountain goat persona. That knee replacement a year ago was worth the pain!
There was a small sign at the start of the walk that my limited Italian told me was about a concert. As people started to arrive and walk along the path we expected to have to ourselves, we realised that we were in the middle of a folk concert – real Italian Amore! It was magical as the the setting sun lit up the warm ochre hues on the opposite side of the gorge and the families settled in for the evening of music. Serendipitous for us, and memorable. I can’t seem to upload the video, but it is on Facebook if you haven’t seen it.
We needed one more excursion to the Isola Ortigia, as the heat had won over its attractions and ambience the first time.I think the whole island must heat up because after a while I was heat struck again and stumbled into the Duomo for refuge, like a mediaeval pilgrim. It is a beautiful, rustic church, built over the original Greek columns.
We made it down to the southern tip of Ortigia, passing millions of dollars worth of yachts and boats on the pier side. Castella Maniace is a huge fort built out into the sea in the 13th century for Emperor Frederick II. I can’t imagine what it was like to live there, but the views are spectacular. Apparently lightning blew up a tower in 1740, destroying most of the fort. The heat was radiating off the walls, forecourt and the sea, so I retreated to the shade of the alleyway and tied a wet hankie around my neck. Lunch was amazing – local pasta dishes involving prawns and anchovies. I have become addicted to ice cold Coke Zero – caffeine and ice with no sugar gives me a boost in place of alcohol.
Just a reflection on apartment living, which is how most people live here. I really felt the busyness of the city, with unceasing traffic noise (windows have to be closed tight, when I would prefer fresh air) and balconies are right next to one another. Laundry is dried over the railings, parking a challenge, chairs scraping on the floor above us a bit disturbing, and yet this is life in a big Italian city. It has been added to our experience bank and we adapted.
With one day left in Siracusa, there was an unfulfilled quest to locate and see a painting by Caravaggio. It used to be in the duomo on Ortigia, but we knew it had been returned to the church of the name of the painting, Santa Lucia. It turned out to be close by! Well, nothing is ever close with one way streets and lanes, but we found it. On a perfect evening, with the sea breeze finally cooling us, we arrived at a shaded piazza in front of the church. Children were playing, old men talking, families wandering to catch the evening cool.
And there it was – a massive painting occupying the front of the church. I did not know before that Caravaggio died at 39, and this painting was towards the end of his life. Imagine if he had lived longer! He had escaped from prison in Malta and and painted it after he fled to Siracusa. ‘The Burial of St Lucy’ portrays her unjustified death by stabbing, and the church is said to have been built where that happened. No wonder St Lucia’s somehow fought to get this painting back from the duomo!
it was a perfect farewell to the city and we bought some supplies for our trip at the little local cafe. Time to sort and pack for a road trip to our next destination – Agrigento. Our hosts came to say goodbye, still pressing gifts on us. Gentile e amichevole – kind and friendly are the words to describe Francesco and Donatella. We will never forget them or Siracusa and hope they will come to visit us one day.