Winter is an amazing time to visit Italy, especially to the places that are lower down the tourist must-see list. Here is the first in my series of photo posts from winter trips we’ve done in Italy, when everything can feel more local, more authentic, more glowing and even sometimes more freezing than you might expect.
This week I was working on a translation a website for a hotel in Sicily (“a magical place where you can dive deep into a world of myth” etc etc). One section of text was about Syracuse and I remembered the golden afternoon we spent in that beautiful city a few years ago. It was October which is, fair enough, not quite winter but the sun had that autumnal, almost-winter luminescence. I dug out the photos from our trip and here they are.
Syracuse – or Siracusa. Yes there is a city of the same name in New York state but this one in Sicily is that bit grander. It was founded by the Greeks on the east coast of Sicily and it was actually the capital of Italian Greece (Magna Grecia) for quite a while and at one point was the same size as Athens! A few notable people were born there, like Archimedes (yes, that one) and Santa Lucia/St Lucy who died here around 300 AD in a horrible way: suffice to say she’s the patron saint of eyesight. In fact December 13th, Lucia’s feast day, is celebrated in Syracuse in great style and indeed in many parts of northern Europe too – not least Norway and Sweden. I once found myself celebrating the day while processing with a bunch of Swedish women and girls in white robes in the Florence branch of Ikea, one of the stranger experiences of my life.
I have to admit I didn’t know much of all this history when we visited, I was just absorbing the atmosphere and keeping small people from having tantrums. And now, after living for two years in Tuscany, I’d happily go back and appreciate it better, compare it to the other places I’ve come to know; like many other Italian city centres it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. And I would taste the flavours of the food more carefully (almonds, pistachio, citrus, seafood) and pay closer attention to the dialect.
The historic core is on an island called Ortigia and the centrepiece is the fabulous Duomo (cathedral) and its surrounding area.
And for its history. It was built on a Roman temple to Minerva, acted as a mosque for 200 years – during the fascinating Arab period in Sicilian history – and the Baroque form you see it in today is due to its being rebuilt during the early 18th century after yet another earthquake.
The piazza really is at the heart of Syracuse.
This fountain of Diana is worth a visit, it’s early 20th century and nicely modern.
Not unlike Venice, this intriguing city is full of alleyways, strange facades, curious faces.
Golden streets, tobacco shops, lotto-playing dogs? Yes, this could be anywhere in Italy.
We found this amazing sunken garden off the beaten track, on the mainland before you reach the main historic core of Ortigia. Part of the huge archaeological park that’s centred around the 5th century BC Greek theatre, this bit is off to the back and casually called the Latomia del Paradiso, or Quarry of Paradise. This is where the stone to build the city came from and other, later purposes for such a unique space included gladiator bouts, horse races, ox sacrifices and in 413 BC (yes, BC) it housed the 7,000 prisoners of war from the Syracuse-Athens war.
Like many other experiences in Italy, magical moments are made when you find yourself wandering around a vast, incredibly ancient, barely-signposted or even safety-controlled space. The sharp-eyed man at the ticket office was chatty, warning the girls to put on some mosquito repellent, as if we were heading down, down into a Roald Dahl story.
Some old helmets were conveniently left lying around the stage – last used, who knows when? No-one else was around so we got to try them out, as well as the fabulous acoustics from this modern stage.
In terms of family memories from our day in Syracuse – highlights were the three separate trips to the souvenir shop to replace the snow globe that kept falling on the ground, discovering octopus in the risotto, more gelato, and popping into a pharmacy to get antihistamine for insect bites.
But that’s the great thing about taking lots of photos – you can always conjure up the ideal family day out in hindsight.