Syracuse is an important historical center and substantial modern town situated to the south-east of Sicily, where its occupies the Ortigia peninsula and surrounding area.
Because of its monuments and historical importance Syracuse is now listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Syracuse - ancient monuments
Syracuse originally developed on several sites, the first of which was the island of Ortigia, which has handed down for posterity the two oldest temples in the city:
(1) The Temple of Apollo (VII-VI century BC, almost 60 meters long, with 17 columns on the long sides). The cell was separated by two rows of interior columns in two rows of three naves, a structure that confirms the antiquity of the temple and
(2) the Temple of the goddess Athena, in Doric style (V century), which was always the most revered temple,built to commemorate the victory of Imera against the Carthaginians in 480 BC.
Later as the city grew it spread to other districts including Acradina, Tyche and Neàpoli. Above the city there was a place called Epipoli, with fortified city walls.
Among the most remarkable artefacts in Ortigia is the Syracuse Cathedral on the Piazza del Duomo. It was erected on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess Athena (Minerva) and the ancient temple still exists with ten columns (out of a total of 40) forming the peristyle of the temple.
The cathedral façade, in baroque style, was rebuilt in 1728 after the earthquake of 1693. Inside it has three naves, and a baptismal font of white marble, found in the catacombs of San Giovanni, and bearing the name of Bishop Zosimus (VII century).
In the two side chapels you can see a beautiful picture by the painter Agostino Scilla (1629-1700), and a statue of Saint Lucia, the Patron Saint of the city, adorned with gems donated by believers, by Pietro Rizzo (XVI century).
Among other precious objects in Syracuse cathedral are a calyx of amber and a book of parchment decorated with golden letters. In Norman times, the cathedral was transformed with the raising of the walls of the nave, new window openings, and the apses were covered with mosaics.
Also noteworthy are the statues (the Virgin of the Piliere in the centre, Saint Lucia on the right, San Marziano on the left), and works by Ignazio Marabitti. Particularly remarkable is the Sacrament Chapel (XVII century), attributed to Giovanni Vermexio ('-1648) - the chapel is polygonal and has a barrel vault with frescoes by Agostino Scilla (1657) and a ciborium by Luigi Vanvitelli (1752) [1700-1773].
Nearby is the Chapel of the Crucifix, with a rectangular plan, from the 17th century. The high altar, of the Baroque age, is also attributed to Giovanni Vermexio.
Bellomo Palace & the regional Gallery
Also not to be missed druing your visit to Syracuse is the 13th century Bellomo Palace. Here you will find the Regional Gallery, which includes several sections with Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance sculptures.
The Art Gallery is well stocked with tablets dating from the 15th and 16th century, including paintings of the centuries XIV-XVIII, and, in particular, the "San Lorenzo", attributed to Lorenzo Veneziano (1356-1372) and the "Annunciation" by Antonello da Syracuse (1430c.-1479). There are also furniture, textiles, ceramics, potteries and works of jewellery.
Other Ortigia highlights
Another admirable example of a medieval artefact at Ortigia is the Maniace Castle, built by Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250) and named after George Maniace, a Byzantine General who in 1038 opposed the invasion of the Arabs. It has a square plan with angular cylindrical towers.
The entrance portal, of Gothic style, was originally flanked by two bronze sculptures of rams (one is exposed at the "Salinas" Museum in Palermo).
The Euryalus Castle stands on the Epipoli, built by Dionysius the Elder (430-367 B.C.). Under the castle there are many tunnels which were used for movement of troops, and a cistern for water supply.
With this structure Syracuse gives us the most magnificent and interesting example of Greek military architecture in the whole of Sicily.
At the end of the fifth century BC, after the Carthaginian threat had passed, Dionysius very quickly expanded the city walls to include the entire Epipoli hill overlooking the city.
The new fortified walls stretched for approximately 28 kilometres, crowned on the highest point by the Euryalus Castle, the most comprehensive military work of Greek Sicily.
Next you can see the monumental complex of the so-called "Gymnasium", built in honour of Timoleon (411 c.-337 B.C.) and originally a place where they put a lot of statues of famous people.
In the Archaeological Park of Neàpolis you will find the most important ancient sights of the ancient city of Syracuse.
First of all the theatre, the largest on Sicily, attributed to Demokopos (V century B.C.), which could hold 15 000 spectators and was built in several stages from the sixth century BC, at which time the stage was still made of wood. Excavated into the rock, it is of semicircular shape with a diameter of 138 metres and 46 rows of stairs.
Under the stairs there is a semicircular auditorium for the chorus and opposite is the esplanade where the stage was situated. Next to it is a huge altar for public sacrifices, and a late Roman Amphitheatre, possibly of the fourth or third century BC, dug in the rock.
Elliptical in shape and measuring 70 x 40 metres, the centre was occupied by a tank into which water arrived by two channels. The stairs were originally covered with slabs of stone, with two entrances while under the stairs there was a corridor which allowed the entry of wild beasts and gladiators.
Another place of great archaeological interest is the Latomie Caves Paradise. These catacombs consist of a series of corridors and thousands of tombs of both aristocrats and commoners. Most of them were stripped and violated throughout the centuries, by the Geiserics Vandals, Totilas Goths (549) and Arabs (878).
Among the curiosities of the place is the famous Ear of Dionysus. The name comes from Caravaggio, who visited the cave in 1586 and named it after its resemblance to the human ear. From this was born the legend that Dionysus would have dug the cave to use as a prison and to listen to the speeches of the prisoners, given the acoustics properties of the cave.
Landolina Villa Museum
In the garden of the Landolina Villa (on Theocritus Avenue) there is a Museum, on two exhibition levels with artefacts dating back to prehistory.
The rich pre-Hellenic finds shows the civilization of the ancient Sicilians, with various collections of vases from the necropolis of "Fusco" and Megara Hyblea, which was razed to the ground in 482 BC by Gelo.
The statues, though not numerous, are representative because there are two statues, the famous Venus called Landolina and an ephebic torso from Lentini - a very beautiful marble statue of Kouros from the fifth century BC. The torso represents a young athlete in the prime of his physical vigour.
There are also some finds from the Doric colony of Megara Hyblaea - votive statuettes of Demeter and Kore, a Gorgon and the Venus Anadyomene.
This is a statue which has aroused considerable interest for the great accuracy of the anatomical details of the back and hips. It represents the traditional Praxiteles ('-326 B.C.) view of the goddess as slightly 'bent forward' with a dolphin beside him, while he is out of the water and is covered with a mantle shaped-shell.
See also the collection of coins, which, in addition to the potteries, is one of the main attractions of the museum.
Syracuse restaurants and cuisine
Syracuse is a city which overlooks the sea and it is surrounded by a fertile plain rich in citrus fruits and vegetables. This particular position enhances the gastronomy of Syracuse with local dishes of fish, vegetables and other typical products.
Among the starters try pasta with walnuts (a pasta with meat sauce and walnuts) and the 'fried pasta from Syracuse' (spaghetti with a sauce of olive oil, garlic, anchovies and breadcrumbs). Also very tasty is the tuna cooked with potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and onions; and a dish made of rabbit meat, green olives, celery, tomatoes and capers.
Popular local desserts are made of marzipan, also the 'Eyes of Santa Lucia' (cookies); the 'Buccellati' (with candied orange, figs, raisins), the 'Cassata', Sicilian cake or ice-cream with candied fruits (sponge cake, marzipan, ricotta and candied fruit) and the 'Cubbaita' (nougat made of sesame seeds).
Also renowned are the almonds from Avola and the 'shells' of Noto (marzipan shaped shell filled with jam). Fine wines include the "Moscato from Noto" and Moscato from Siracusa.
Related article: the history of Syracuse