Syracuse (Italy)

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Syracuse (Italy)

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Review of "Syracuse (Italy)"

published 09/03/2017 | cr01
Member since : 13/05/2008
Reviews : 651
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About me :
Now writing music gig reviews for free tickets. Sorry ciao, less time for you now; just wish you hadn't stopped paying for music reviews.
Pro Interesting city
Cons Nothing absolutely ummissable
Value for Money
Ease of getting around

"Syracuse - A visit to the Ancient World's Largest City"

Roman Theatre Syracuse (Italy)

Roman Theatre Syracuse (Italy)

Syracuse is one of the larger cities in the Italian island of Sicily and as it lies on the touristier east coast it is a place that is familiar to many visitors.

For tourist purposes, the city is divided into two main portions; the archaeological ruins located on a hill to the edge of the modern city, and Ortigia, the island (with bridges) at the end of the spit of land which is host to the original maze of tightly knitted buildings and narrow streets that formed the heart of the city. The modern part of Syracuse is not unattractive but fairly standard, and most people choose to stay in Ortigia where you can lose yourself in the history and romance rather more comfortably.

It’s worth remembering that in Greek times (2500 years ago or so) Syracuse was the largest city in the world. Today the city has around 120,000 inhabitants but 2,500 years ago there were around double that number living in the Syracuse area; probably about the same number as in Athens. That seemed as good as any reason for us to take a pit-stop for a couple of nights during our winter break to Sicily.

It’s all Greek and Roman to me

One of our first explorations was to walk the mile or so up the gentle hill from the bus station towards the ancient site on the edge of town. There’s a 10 Euro entrance fee to cover a number of attractions here, and there are a couple of rather unexciting looking log cabins selling tourist tat (and most importantly a (charging) loo) at the entrance.

The first thing you can visit is the Roman Amphitheatre. This rather seems like an “add-on” given there are quite a number of better preserved Roman sites around (and particularly in this part of the world). If you can hang on, there’s a free loo here too.

I was disappointed with the fairly limited signage of this part of the park, but as it turned out it would seem the managers got bored even after half heartedly labelling up this part and it was actually by far the best described. Fortunately, I’m something of a lover of the ancient world and I’ve seen enough Roman Amphitheatres in my time to be able to get the gist of the layout without reading the (scanty) notice-boards.
Many of the marble blocks that formed the original building here were reused in the 1600's to form part of the fortifications of Ortigia on the island and today you rather only see a crumbling shell of what once was. In truth it’s rather atmospheric as the weeds grow through the site, but it is still clearly what it is.

Unfortunately, in common with much of the site on our visit, the place was blighted by faded “no admittance” tape and while you can get a view of the remains, there is no access to the rubble itself. Instead we contented ourselves by talking to a local cat that seemed to be complaining that wintertime was a hard place to be given the decline in soft-hearted food providing tourists. I couldn't help but wonder whether an ancestor of this cat also stood on the site 2000 years back begging for scraps from the fast food sellers that would have serviced the theatre goers.

Further along is the better preserved Greek Theatre although again it was rather marred by scaffolding and faded no admittance ticker-tape. We sat in one of the old seats enjoying the sun and the view for a while, and walked around the outside of the theatre for a while admiring the faded brickwork and how a more modern building had been built within to take advantage of the original structure.
I have already written in my review of the Grand Villa Politi Hotel about the most interesting element of the park; the limestone quarry and the Ear of Dionysius.

The Ancient Greeks used prisoners of war as slaves to mine and live in the quarry for the rest of their days. While you can walk along safe and easy walk ways down to the huge cave where the slaves apparently spent their nights (the fore mentioned Ear of Dionysius), there were many other paths that were closed off and overgrown. I would have rather risked slipping (if that was what the problem was) as the routes all rather looked flat and safe (if moss covered).

Further I was rather taken aback to discover very little signage or information about the cave (the ear of Dionysius). I assume it started as a natural fissure in the rock which was then taken down as the base of the quarry sank (not least the sleeping prisoners of war would find it more and more difficult getting to their beds at night as the ground level was dug away) but that was guess work. In fact, everything I knew about the history of the mines came from my reading of a guide book at the hotel rather than at the archaeological museum which at best feels like something of a lost opportunity.

While I was honoured to go and take a look at the ear (the whole experience took less than 30 minutes, and included going right to the dark back curving wall (the cave goes back into a spiral - I had taken a small torch which was helpful but not necessary), I felt the place was distinctly undersold overall.

Local Eats

The Medea Café is on the main road leading back to town and you could do far worse than to take a pit stop here. The set lunch is at 8 Euros for a couple of courses and a bottle of water. The venue is a very clean and tidy basic light tiled modern café type place and perfectly acceptable. The owner was pleasant and friendly.

The pasta dish was a lovely fresh tasting chunk of lasagne. I don't really like the rich cloying cheesy effort that chain restaurants present, thinking the punter will be dazzled by stodge; no, this was a fresh light heavy on the tomato kind of dish and very generous in portion. It was lovely.

Seconds was not just a standard Italian meat dish; a piece of chicken and either rice or chips. Instead it came with fresh spinach and absolutely gorgeous and plentiful fennel. The fresh veggies really made it shine, and it was definitely cooked in the Italian way. Our meal came in at 20 Euros for two including a generous tip for the nice filling food. For we impoverished post Brexit Brits living with a terrible Euro exchange rate, that's nothing to be sniffed at.
Old town Ortigia

It has to be said that without the historic island of Ortigia at its tip, then Syracuse would be little more than a couple of hour’s slightly disappointing bus trip to the archaeological museum. Ortigia is the original Greek part of the town, although it soon spread onto the mainland.

Today Ortigia has the plushest shops with a main street of expensive designer gear (don't hope for bargains), the island is also where many of the restaurants and bars are and it’s well worth wandering the narrow streets mainly dating from the 1600's to just explore the place. It's a little like Venice backstreets although not as grand, and thankfully unlike Venice it is still a living and breathing place, rather than feel like a tourist shrine. I got a vibe of the bottom part of Barcelona too where residents live cheek by jowl and shops, hotels and restaurants are dotted around.

I enjoyed taking a look at the magnificent Cathedral square (I'm not telling you about a hidden gem here dear reader), but I can imagine in summer it being ruined by tour groups making the place look untidy. In winter it's the place where on Sunday afternoons the locals parade around, and also I loved pondering some of the places down on the portside by the water's edge, where I can imagine Archimedes looks out to sea, thinking about his scientific levers, contraptions and theories and how they may be put to good use to defend his city from invaders. It's rather ironic that Archimedes died at the hands of an invader in the end given he put much of his scientific talents into improving defences.

Castello Maniace

Having been brought up on the South Welsh borders, I'm both a sucker for an historic castle and also regularly disappointed by many of them, as they don't cut the mustard compared to those I romped round as a nipper.

As we wandered towards the top end of Ortygia Island, I spotted first a lighthouse and then a sign to explore the marine fortifications at the tip of the island. The fee to enter was a princely 2 Euros which made me suspect I was going to enter one of those big empty former garrison type places. Dear reader, I've been around the block a time or two.

The fort occupies a large space and incorporates a big parade ground and a series of walls. We wandered around wondering what the place felt like for the common man stationed here. Some no doubt found it a prison; others no doubt loved the protection of those solid walls. My beloved was spurred to say something rather poetic but alas we shared a bottle of wine later on, so it's gone from my head.
The long pointed end of the fort does take a good 5 minutes to walk through and you can choose the exposed top deck or the subterranean arched level below. We managed to scramble our middle aged form to hoike ourselves up to peer over the wall and admire the view back over to the mainland and back over the crowded island behind us.

Unfortunately we were not inspired enough to go back to the start and then repeat the experience on the lower ground level. I did spot "windows" or spaces for local warriors to blast incoming invaders with weaponry downstairs so I assume if you take the low road you also get a view. There are a few sloping wooden walkways about, but it was easy walking overall.

While we didn't feel our trip was a wasted wander, it was indeed rather a wander around an empty garrison. I think the place dates back to the 1200's but once again there was no signage and I didn't get a feel for how much was original or whether the site had been used for defence going back to Greek city time. While I'm not really one for those sterile lack of imagination audio tour things, I couldn't help but think that this venue could make more of what it has, and not least a bar or restaurant or even a music venue in the big empty space in the middle.
Casa Bianca Mikvah

It's not everyday that you get to see a traditional Jewish bathhouse dating back 1400 years, but in the old Jewish quarter in Ortigia a little museum in the basement of a hotel allows you to do just that.

The original owners dug deep beneath the foundations of their home to hack through the rock to the natural spring below ground where they created a series of bathing pools for religious purification purposes. The water ran at 18 degrees and constantly drained away to keep it fresh and clean. The communal bathing area was used right up to 1400 and something when the Spanish inquisition forced Jewish people to either convert or be banished. Local residents perhaps hoping they would somehow return, buried the pools in mud and hid the entrance way. No one found the secret until the late 1980's when the current owner of the house discovered the false wall and had the space behind cleared out.

The water course has been changed by the fortifications around the city, meaning the place has to be pumped out and on rainy days the chamber may be too flooded to be opened to the public. The tour consists of stepping down into chambers (its not disability friendly) and to hear the retelling of the original purpose of the pools, why they were hidden from view and how they were rediscovered.

A charge of 5 Euros is made and you are not allowed to take photos although given the pools are used for religious purposes from time to time, it would in any case feel disrespectful to do so. It would not have been the only bathing pools given there were anything towards 5,000 Jewish people in the area (it would have generated quite a queue if it were the only one!) so it's interesting to think that there may be other such places still waiting to be discovered in other local buildings.
Museo Leonardo Da Vinci e Archimede

I would have been rubbish if the middle ages expected me to progress technology and science. A few sarcastic words about a travel destination is about my lot; don't expect a new method of gearing cart wheels so they go round bends better from me. So the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and his wonderfully inventive mind fascinates me,

As we were going past the place in Syracuse, we both decided that a 6.50 Euro investment to improve our minds and get to know a bit more about Da Vinci and his Greek predecessor, Archimedes, would be money well spent. The museum has little scale reproductions of a number of their inventions and most of them allow you to turn a handle to see and understand how it operates in practice.

In truth the non engineer mind in me did grasp the rudimental principle behind most of the designs; the ability to lift heavy weights more easily was well explained and I kind of even got that gear on a cart wheel thing. I liked the health and safety elements that Da Vinci in particular incorporated into his cog wheels to prevent heavy loads from crashing down onto straining workers. This would be a perfect experience for a science or maths mad young person as I could imagine it bringing Da Vinci's brown faded drawings to life and meaning.

While we were impressed with the displays overall, it was not without fault. The exhibition felt a little too expensive given there were just 4 smallish rooms of exhibits. It rather felt it was the mid section of a larger exhibit about Da Vinci's life. There was little about the man himself, nor were many of the inventions brought into context. Were they just theories or were they brought into operation? Likewise Archimedes was something of an added afterthought because he was a famous son of Syracuse. There was even less about his work and it felt like a tag on.

Overall, I thought this exhibit was worth it if you had a keen interest in the work of Da Vinci but as a holistic and complete exhibition then it felt sadly wanting.

Dining Suggestion - La Volpe e L'Uva in the Cathedral Square

Rules are sometimes for breaking and while we were enjoying the vibe outside the main cathedral of Syracuse, my beloved took an idle view of the menu of the nice looking restaurants opposite to sneer at the outrageous prices and came away pleasantly surprised.

There are two main restaurants opposite the main cathedral entrance and we chose the slightly more expensive and quieter option a little further away. The food here looked just a tad more interesting. One thing we have noticed in this part of the world is that local people all tend to like to eat at the same time so you can suddenly find yourself surrounded by a packed restaurant within about 10 minutes - my tip is that if you find yourself hungry and you are looking at a fairly empty restaurant then grab a seat; you will beat the curve of everyone wanting service at the same time. It was the same here; no sooner had we ordered then the place filled up. I’d like to think that it was my devilishly handsome looks and stunning style that made the place the spot to dine but alas I’m guessing not.

The restaurant is located on part of the ground floor of a grand old building and the handsome waiter proudly strutted around in his back suit and pristine white shirt and stiff punk hair style. Cool dude man and he was a busy and excellent waiter too.

We fancied salad and there was quite a range on offer. I chose the rustica which was cured beef slices, Swiss cheese and white beans and leaf while my beloved went for the standard tuna and olive. Both were excellent and filling and at a bit over 10 Euros perhaps 2-3 Euros more expensive than you might pay elsewhere. The only slight disappointment came with the accompanying bread which was a little more supermarket than nice fresh local bread should be.

The house wine came in half litres for 8 Euros and sad to say as we can drink half a litre in a heartbeat decided that rather than order 2, we would buy the cheapest full bottle; a very pleasant bottle of local wine for 13.

We really enjoyed watching the world go by on that sunny Sunday lunchtime; young dads with pre-school kids while mum sorts the home out, dogs with unnecessary doggy coat accessories, and older men with unfeasible hairstyles. The Italians like to dress well and promenade and this is a good place to people watch. I would advise you choose a table a bit in from the edge, as it seems some like to legitimise begging by putting a badly cut out image of Mary into a plastic beaker and then stand over your table arm outstretched while adopting a suitably humble poise. Call me hard hearted if you wish, dear reader, but nothing gets between me and my food.

Overall our bill for two came in at a touch over 40 Euros for 2, which was probably about 10 Euros more then we might have paid for a lunch without such a prominent viewing point, a premium which personally I found worth it given we enjoyed our meal.

* This review is a mix of new content and some “sketches and thoughts” that I’ve already posted onto my account at TripAdvisor about our few days in Syracuse in December 2016.

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Comments on this review

  • jb0077 published 24/03/2017
  • torr published 17/03/2017
    Absolutely agree with you that Ortigia is the main point of a visit - and what an excellent point it is. I too found the archaeological sites on the outskirts a bit of a disappointment for access and presentation. Regret that I never found the Medea Café, though; sounds excellent value.
  • raspberry_ripple published 15/03/2017
    Back with an E!
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Product Information : Syracuse (Italy)

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Listed on Ciao since: 29/08/2001