Syracuse, situated in south west Sicily, is a city whose history spans three millennia; a city which Cicero once called the “greatest Greek city and most beautiful of all”; a city which boasts some of the finest architectural history in the Mediterranean; a city with winding streets, cobbled roads and a coastal location that has been attracting humans for eons. An absolute must-visit whilst in Sicily. Modern Syracuse, a city troubled over its three-thousand-year history by almost constant warfare and political maneuvering (from the original settlers to the Kingdoms of Two Sicilies), is a comparatively peaceful city, buzzing with metropolitan life whilst retaining its ancient allure.
Columns still visible inside the Duomo
The Temple of Athena was constructed in the 5th century BC by one of Syracuse’s many tyrants, Gelo. From the violence of the Carthaginian war, and his subsequent victories, Gelo dedicated his efforts towards turning Syracuse into the crowning jewel of the Mediterranean. He built theatres, a defensive wall, and the Temple of Athena. The temple is still visible in modern times, built into the shell of the Cathedral of Syracuse. Changing hands many times, the Temple of Athena was consistently present in the husk of the Cathedral. This everlasting legacy of the original Temple of Athena reinforces its grandeur. The temple was worthy enough to stand the test of violent and rapidly changing times.
The island of Ortygia
Syracuse’s UNESCO status encompasses most of the city, but the real core of historical Syracuse is Ortygia. This is where the first Corinthian settlers were said to have started their colony, on the easy to defend island, separate from the Sicilian mainland. This small island boasts almost three-thousand-years of history. Do not seek it out: the island is only small, but a whole afternoon can be spent roaming the narrow streets and stumbling across cultural treasures.
Temple of Apollo
The Temple of Apollo is understood to be the oldest Doric temple – you know that iconic image of a Greek temple, surrounded by pillars? The Temple of Apollo on Ortygia is considered the very first. Its history is no less bloody or formative than its sister, the Temple of Athena. Changing hands multiple times, it’s stunning that the temple still stands in such good form: the remains of the pillars are still visible, and with a little imagination you can be cast back two-and-a-half-thousand years.
Fountain of Arethusa
The Fountain of Arethusa is rooted in Greek mythology. It’s said to be where the patron figure of Syracuse, Arethusa returned to the surface after escaping her underwater sanctum in Arcadia. The fresh water so greatly reflects the pale white of the Baroque buildings and the clear blue sky, as to become inestimably deep. Pause for a moment on your exploration around Ortygia and admire the peace of an area that still oozes the atmosphere of quiet, unassuming mysticism.
Off the coast juts the Castello Maniace, on the very southern tip of Ortygia. Constructed by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick the II sometime between 1232 and 1240, the Castello Maniace is physical testimony to Syracuse’s strategic positioning and violent past. You could previously only reach this fortress over a bridge, across a moat. The Castello Maniace was designed to defend the crucial port of Syracuse, and never saw battle. For almost two-hundred years it was used as a residence for the many queens of Sicily, and eventually turned into a prison in the 15th century. Now you can cross over to the fortress: keep your eyes above you, the entrance portal to the Castello Maniace is delicately designed.