Saturday, December 09, 2017

Scintillating Syracuse and Monstrous Mosaics - Sicily (Part 1)

I simply love Italy. Its intoxicating mixture of passion, beauty, history and culture stands it apart from anywhere else I have been. It has therefore nagged me for a while that I haven’t ventured further south than Rome. This was the year to rectify that. After flirting with Naples and the Amalfi coast, I bought flights to Sicily and got busy planning…
It quickly became evident that Sicily was packed with more treasures then I imagined, scattered widely around its almost circular masse. Excited by everything, we went big and got set on a road trip right around the island.


We flew into Catania, hired a Fiat and braved the road south to Syracuse. This seemed a natural place to start with my Greek connections. For an age “Syracusa” was the heart of Magna Graecia, the ancient Greek colonies of the Western Mediterranean. 
Centred on Ortygia, a compact island thrusting out from mainland Sicily into a wider natural gulf, the core of ancient Syracuse harboured the ideal spot for trade and defence. Barely a river’s width of water separate Ortygia from the coast and kept would be attackers at bay for centuries. Settled by Corinthians over 2750 years ago, the city grew to the size of ancient Athens at its peak, was ruled by (in)famous despots and tyrants and threw its weight around the region.

We spent five great days exploring what Syracuse has to offer, but nothing surpassed our introduction. Shortly after dark walking the 200m from our hostel, we fell upon the Piazza Duomo. An arching conglomerate of grand baroque buildings, centred on the magnificent Duomo di Siracusa, all lit up in a soft orange. Perhaps the most beautiful civic square I have seen in the world. Quite a statement, but I mean it.
The imposing baroque fa├žade of the cathedral is impressive in itself, staying the right side of many of its overly gaudy fairy cake contemporaries, but this is just decoration. As our path took us past the front left corner, its uniqueness was revealed. One massive Doric column after another, soaring from base to roof and stretching the entire length of the cathedral. It looked like a near perfectly preserved giant Greek temple. And that is pretty much what it is!
Goodbye Athena, hello Jesus and Mary. After standing since the sixth century BC, the temple of Athena was usurped lock stock and barrel for Christianity. The result is the preservation of the most magnificent link to ancient times and the centre piece of a very special little patch of earth.

We must have spent 20 minutes, just gawking at the beauty of our surroundings, and chasing after the over-aeroplaned giggling small children. A memory for keeps.


The more you scratch at Syracuse the more you get. A place where civilisation has repeatedly refreshed itself, building on the foundations of those gone before. One minute you are walking past vast remnants of 2500 year old Greek buildings, the next you are lost in the twisting Baroque lined streets, before strolling into medieval fortress. The Mediterranean caps it off, never far away, lapping at the old city just like it did in the time of Gelon the Tyrant.
Cross the bridge from Ortygia to Sicily proper and there is much more to discover. Newer streets still house some interesting buildings, none less so than the Sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime (Our Lady of Tears). A madcap concrete beehive, not unlike the cathedral in Rio, which while ugly on the outside makes startlingly beautiful use of light on the inside.
Then there is the extensive archaeological site. For the kids, the twin highlights of scrambling around the large Roman amphitheatre and shouting into the quarries where Dionysius famously imprisoned Athenians and listened out for talk of treachery carried by the echoes of their cavernous prison.
For me, I loved the remnants of the nearly 200m long Grand Altar of Herion and just chilling out in the massive ancient Greek theatre. To cap it all off, we spent an afternoon around the impressive archaeological museum, housing floor after floor of world class items from the rich history of this area. To my happy surprise my four-year-old was enraptured the whole time trying to find every “highlight” pictured on the welcome leaflet. He succeeded.
On our final night we gave the kids (and us) a bit of a treat and took a boat tour around Ortygia. Packed into a small, low boat, we circumnavigated the island, in the shadow of the walls which repelled invaders for so long. From there we sped out towards the craggy coast of the mainland. We had some thrill seeking in store. It became clear why the boat was so low as we all ordered to duck as our boat powered into a narrow cave. The kids loved it. The helmsman somehow managed to avoid the edges through the chop as we backed out again and put the power on as we raced back to the city as the sunset ahead. 
As a final comment on Syracuse, a quick comment on its people. I had been told by Italian friends how the Sicilians were a people unto themselves. Distinct and different from other Italians. Our impression from the best part of 5 days around Syracuse was a great one. The locals were friendly at every opportunity and particularly welcoming to us as a family. Wandering into a nice restaurant with a 4-year-old, 3-year-old and 1-year-old we received only warmth. Oh, and the food was damn amazing. Pizza four nights running for me.


In certain places I can get strangely settled in a very short time. A mini life within a life. Syracuse was just such a place, so it felt a little sad to jump in the car we had abandoned on our first night and head West. Thoughts of Syracuse were soon left to one side as Mount Etna reared into view shortly after leaving the city. Europe’s largest active volcano dominates the East of the island, both in its own right (I nearly went off the road, drawn to its domineering reflection in my mirror) and in the landscape for miles around shaped into a broadly curving, dipping and fertile countryside by its eruptions.
It was a beautiful drive, mostly through sparse rural scenery, broken up by brief stops in small towns centred on the oddly grand architecture in which this part of the world was rebuilt after devastating earthquakes in the 17th century.

Our structural highlight was though of much greater antiquity – Villa Romana del Casale. Nestled a short distance from the town of Piazza Amerina (and very little else – it took us hours to get there) is a seriously impressive Roman site. Buried under crops for centuries are the remains of a huge Roman Villa. I would have loved to have been there when archaeologists first dug the site less than a century ago and bit by bit uncovered one of the most intricate, imaginative and vast collections of Roman mosaics found anywhere in the world.
We spent a full two hours exploring room after room of the 3000 square metres of wonderous mosaics. There are numerous majestic hunting scenes, showing tigers, elephants, deer and rhino. There are scenes of Gods and mythic adventure. 

Then there are those of dancing ladies and explicit bedroom stuff. You can just imagine the Roman master of the house residing on a couch, drinking wine and entertaining.
The detail and preservation are startling. The kids naturally focused in on animals. Chris and I loved everything. I cannot recommend the place more highly.

With the day starting to fail, we jumped back into the car and drove on and on into the dark to our new digs far to the South. We eventually made it to Agrigento. Nestled to the coast at the bottom of this great island, we were about to put the Romans aside and focus back on the Greeks. For here, 2,500 years ago had been an ancient Greek city of an estimated 200,000 people and many of its great monuments are still standing… but that’s for next time.
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