Wednesday, 3 October 2012



Syracuse (Siracusa) is a historic city in Sicily, the capital of the province of Syracuse. The city is notable for its rich Greek history,culture, amphitheatres, architecture, and as the birthplace of the preeminent mathematician and engineer Archimedes. This 2,700-year-old city played a key role in ancient times, when it was one of the major powers of the Mediterranean world. Syracuse is located in the southeast corner of the island of Sicily, right by the Gulf of Syracuse next to the Ionian Sea.

Syracuse and its surrounding area have been inhabited since ancient times, as shown by the findings in the villages of Stentinello, Ognina, Plemmirio, Matrensa, Cozzo Pantano and Thapsos, which already had a relationship with Mycenaean Greece.

Syracuse was founded in 734 or 733 BC by Greek settlers from Corinth and Tenea, led by the oecist (colonizer) Archias, who called it Sirako, referring to a nearby salt marsh. The nucleus of the ancient city was the small island of Ortygia. The settlers found the land fertile and the native tribes to be reasonably well-disposed to their presence. The city grew and prospered, and for some time stood as the most powerful Greek city anywhere in the Mediterranean. 

Though declining slowly by the years, Syracuse maintained the status of capital of the Roman government of Sicily and seat of the praetor. It remained an important port for trade between the Eastern and the Western parts of the Empire. 

After a period of Vandal rule, Syracuse and the island was recovered by Belisarius for the Byzantine Empire (31 December 535). From 663 to 668 Syracuse was the seat of Emperor Constans II, as well as metropolis of the whole Sicilian Church.

The city was besieged by the Aghlabids for almost a year in 827–828, but Byzantine reinforcements prevented its fall. It remained the center of Byzantine resistance to the gradual Muslim conquest of Sicily until it fell to the Aghlabids after another siege on 20/21 May 878. During the two centuries of Muslim rule, the capital of the Emirate of Sicily was moved from Syracuse to Palermo. The Cathedral was converted into a mosque and the quarter on the Ortygia island was gradually rebuilt along Islamic styles. The city, nevertheless, maintained important trade relationships, and housed a relatively flourishing cultural and artistic life: several Arab poets, including Ibn Hamdis, the most important Sicilian poet of the 12th century, flourished in the city.

In 1038, the Byzantine general George Maniakes reconquered the city, sending the relics of St. Lucy to Constantinople. The eponymous castle on the cape of Ortygia bears his name, although it was built under the Hohenstaufen rule. In 1085 the Normans entered Syracuse, one of the last Arab strongholds, after a summer-long siege by Roger I of Sicily and his son Jordan of Hauteville, who was given the city as count. New quarters were built, and the cathedral was restored, as well as other churches.

The Greek Theatre
In 1194 Henry VI of Swabia occupied Syracuse. After a short period of Genoese rule (1205–1220), which favoured a rise of trades, Syracuse was conquered back by emperor Frederick II. He began the construction of the Castello Maniace, the Bishops' Palace and the Bellomo Palace. Frederick's death brought a period of unrest and feudal anarchy. In the struggle between the Anjou and Catalan-Aragonese monarchies, Syracuse sided with the Catalan-Aragonese and defeated the Anjou in 1298, receiving from the Spanish sovereigns great privileges in reward. 

The city was struck by two ruinous earthquakes in 1542 and 1693, and a plague in 1729. The 17th century destruction changed forever the appearance of Syracuse, as well as the entire Val di Noto, whose cities were rebuilt along the typical lines of Sicilian Baroque, considered one of the most typical expressions of art of Southern Italy. The spread of cholera in 1837 led to a revolt against the Bourbon government. The punishment was the move of the province capital seat to Noto, but the unrest had not been totally choked, as the Siracusani took part in the Sicilian revolution of independence of 1848.

After the Unification of Italy of 1865, Syracuse regained its status of provincial capital. In 1870 the walls were demolished and a bridge connecting the mainland to Ortygia island was built. In the following year a railway link was constructed.

The Ear of Dionysus
Heavy destruction was caused by the Allied and the German bombings in 1943. Operation Husky, the codename for the Allied invasion of Sicily, was launched on the night of 9/10 July 1943 with British forces attacking the west of the island. General Montgomery's Eighth Army captured Syracuse on the first day of the invasion almost unopposed. The port was then used as a base for the Royal Navy. To the west of the city is a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery where about 1,000 men are buried. After the end of World War II the northern quarters of Syracuse experienced a heavy, often chaotic, expansion, favoured by the quick process of industrialization.

Syracuse today has about 125,000 inhabitants and numerous attractions for the visitor interested in historical sites (such as the Ear of Dionysius). A process of recovering and restoring the historical centre has been ongoing since the 1990s.

There are several delicacies to try in Siracusa that are made with local produce. Fresh tuna is for example, the basic ingredient of several Siracusa recipes, such as, for example “purpetti”, tuna-fish rissoles with eggs and Pecorino cheese, flavored with chiodi di garofano. Other dishes containing this tasty fish are salsiccia di tonno (tuna sausage) and tuna stew with onions and peppers. Fried porpoise fish in vinegar, grouper fish steaks cooked alla “matalotta” and polipo bollito (boiled octopus) are also typical of this area. First courses include many pasta recipes with fresh tuna and other types of fish, or maccheroni pasta with nuts, pine-nuts, olives and breadcrumbs, browned in the frying pan. Sauces for accompanying past are all based on the tasty Pachino cherry tomatoes. 

Honey and almonds are the main ingredients for sweets in Siracusa, especially the “giuggiulena”, which is a delicious nougat flavored with sesame seeds. “Cassata siracusana” is also much appreciated. It is different from the Cassata made in the rest of Sicily as it has no icing topping and is made up of sponge, chocolate and ricotta cheese layers. There are many types of biscuits made by the confectioners for religious festivals: “biscotti dei morti” for All Saints’ Day, “quaresimali” (Lent biscuits) which are made with toasted almonds and pistachio nuts, and “cuccìa”, a dessert that is made for the Santa Lucia festival from wheat-germ, milk, ricotta cheese, zuccata and candied fruit. Almond milk or a Granita made with almonds are alternative sweets, both made with the almonds that are grown in Avola.

It is possible to try an excellent Nero d’Avola wine in all the restaurants in Siracusa. This wine is made from the top-quality grapes that come from Pachino, a town near Noto. An excellent dessert wine, especially for accompanying almond-flavored desserts, is Moscato di Siracusa, the oldest wine in Italy as it was the direct successor to “Pollio”, which dated back to the 7th century B.C.

One of the most popular craft products in Siracusa is papyrus paper: the area around the Ciane River is the only one in Italy where this rare, valuable plant grows.
Paper is still made from papyrus today, following ancient methods that were invented many centuries ago by the Egyptians. The paper can be bought plain, or painted, with subjects that are mostly of Greek or Egyptian inspiration. It is possible to follow the processing of papyrus paper in some shops, starting from the stalks of the plant and finishing with the paper.

Other typical objects that can be found in Siracusa’s shops are gold or other less precious metal copies of ancient Siracusa coins that were used in the era when the city was compared to Athens and Carthage for its size and power.

The local pottery, sold in the characteristic laboratories-workshops so frequent in this part of Sicily is also worth looking at.

If you prefer to take home some food and drink as a souvenir, for yourself or for some relatives and friends, we recommend a bottle of Nero d’Avola or Moscato di Siracusa, or a jar of the famous “fish preserves” that are made in the Siracusa area: choice fillets of tuna fish or mackerel in oil, packaged in glass jars.

                                                        Syracuse’s Top 5:
  1. The Duomo The cathedral in Syracuse was built in Ortigia on top of the remains of a temple that dated back to the 5th century B.C. This was a Doric edifice with six columns on the short sides and 14 on the long ones: these can still be seen incorporated in the walls of the current church. The base of the Greek edifice had three steps. The interior of the church has a nave and two aisles. The roof of the nave is from Norman times, as well as the mosaics in the apses. The façade was rebuilt by Andrea Palma in 1725–1753, with a double order of Corinthian columns, and statues by Ignazio Marabitti. The most interesting pieces of the interior are a font with marble basin (12th–13th century), a silver statue of St. Lucy by Pietro Rizzo (1599), a ciborium by Luigi Vanvitelli, and a statue of the Madonna della Neve ("Madonna of the Snow", 1512) by Antonello Gagini. The building contains influences from various cultures within its walls, Greek, Byzantine, Arabic and Norman. The main façade was rebuilt in Baroque style after the earthquake in 1693. 
  2. The Castello Maniace is a citadel and castle in Syracuse, Sicily. It stands on a large promontory, where it was constructed between 1232 and 1240 by the Emperor Frederick II. It bears the name of George Maniakes, the Byzantine general who besieged and took the city in 1038. Originally, one could only enter the castle over a bridge spanning a moat (now filled). A notable feature of the castle is the decorated portal. Today the castle is open to public and is a local tourist attraction in Syracuse. Still, the castle has become run down since the Bridport family left in 1982.
  3. Orecchio di Dioniso. This is a deep cave about 65 meters deep, 11 meters wide and 23 meters high. It is famous for its special acoustics, which are due to the acute angle-shape of the ceiling that is similar in shape to the outer ear, hence its name “Orecchio” which means “Ear”. It has unbelievable acoustic powers: a sound produced inside the cave is amplified up to 16 times.
  4. Basilica of Santa Lucia, a Byzantine church built, according to tradition, in the same place of the martyrdom of the saint in 303 AD. The current appearance is from the 15th-16th centuries. The most ancient parts still preserved include the portal, the three half-circular apses and the first two orders of the belfry. Under the church are the Catacombs of St. Lucy. For this church Caravaggio painted the Burial of St. Lucy, now housed in the Church of Santa Lucìa alla Badìa.
  5. Aretusa Fountain. This is one of the city’s greatest tourist attractions. Over the centuries it inspired poets and writers such as Virgil and Ovid, André Gide and Gabriele D’Annunzio, fascinated by the legend that is linked to this place. The story goes that Alpheus, son of Oceanus, fell madly in love with the nymph Aretusa, the Goddess Artemides’ handmaid. The nymph did not share his feelings. To save her, Artemides turned her into a water source but Zeus also turned Alpheus into a river, allowing him to meet up with Aretusa.

Intrepid Travel

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