Syracuse: Sicilian city is small, but has spectacular scenery
November 30, 2004
Sicily’s Syracuse — Siracusa to the locals — is an ideal place for a quick trip, although the small city has more than enough for a not-so-quick trip.
With Greek and Roman ruins, a British military cemetery, an Irish pub, Chinese restaurants, an aquarium, forts, and breathtaking seaside views, Syracuse has enough to keep visitors busy.
Or not so busy.
Located about an hour south of Naval Air Station Sigonella, Syracuse’s eastern border faces the open Mediterranean.
Syracuse’s sites are spread out through the city, which in Greek times (it was founded in about 733 B.C.) was about three times larger than it is now. While the majority of the ancient highlights are along the western edge of the current city, the best place to sample Syracuse is on the island of Ortigia, which is connected to the rest of Sicily by a few short bridges.
Ortigia is an island shaped like a human left hand with its index finger pointing up, or in this case south. Nearly bisecting the island is the town’s main roads, Corso Matteoti, and then the narrow Via Roma, which takes over halfway down the island.
These two streets serve as the main arteries for a visit to the island and have dozens of smaller side streets branching off from them, all eventually leading visitors to the raised street along the outer edge of the island.
Ortigia has a good blend of tourist and non-tourist character to it. Many of the shops seem to cater to the locals rather than the tourists, and with the island being nearly wall-to-wall houses it’s no wonder. Being November — not a heavy tourist month — may have also had something to do with it.
The obligatory Italian pottery is there, as are some shops that sell necklaces with dangly glass ornaments, and one that sells hand-painted silk. Many of the side streets also have galleries, shops or restaurants, and plenty of small hotels are available for those wanting to extend their quick trip.
The blend gives the island a feeling of being the true Sicily, not one solely dependent on the tourist trade.
On the western side of the town is a small aquarium, its neon blue sign beckoning from a narrow corner near the port headquarters. Along this side of town, which borders Porto Grande — the grand port — fishermen, lovers and dog walkers all take in the final few moments as the sun set over the Sicilian cliffs.
In the heart of Ortigia, along its well-lit streets, is the town’s oldest structure, its cathedral. The Greek temple of Athena, which dated back to 5 B.C., was on this spot and during the 7th century was turned into a Christian church. The temple’s original Doric columns are still in use inside the church.
Syracuse is also one of the most well-lit towns around, with bright lights mounted on the buildings giving the island a warming, golden glow even in the cool November evening.
As evening settled over the city, dogs and dog-walkers — seemingly more per capita than anywhere else in the country — took over many of the side streets. Old men gesturing with cigarette-laden hands and women of all ages walking in and out of shops seemingly materialized out of the woodwork, although like all other Italian cities, Syracuse is mainly stone.
For those looking for the Greek and Roman history, the main part of town is where all the action is, or rather was.
Within the town’s archaeological park are the Greek theater, Roman amphitheater, arches and tombs.
The archaeological museum, about a kilometer east of the park, was opened in 1988 and is considered one of the best in Sicily. More than 18,000 pieces from archaeological digs throughout the island are on display.
Whether they focus on Syracuse’s past or present, the city provides visitors a quick and easy getaway from Sigonella.
On the QT ...
DIRECTIONS: From Sigonella, take Autostrada A19 toward Catania. Exit to the south Tangenziale, and then take the Siracusa/Ragusa exit about 5 kilometers down. Follow signs to Siracusa and take the main exit into the city and follow signs to Centro (center). In the city signs will guide you to Ortigia and the archaeological sites.
TIMES: The aquarium is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; in summer to 10 p.m. The archaeological park is open Tuesday through Sunday 9 a.m. to two hours before sunset. The archaeological museum is open Mondays from 3:30 to 6 p.m. and Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3:30 to 6 p.m.
COSTS: The aquarium costs 2.60 euros for adults and 1.60 euros for kids. Entrance to the archaeological park runs 4.50 euros. The museum costs 4.50 euros for adults and 2 euros for kids. Three different combination tickets are available, and prices depend on which exhibits visitors want to see. For the museum and the park, the ticket runs 6 euro.
FOOD: Syracuse has everything from up-scale, full service restaurants, to streetside vendors.
INFORMATION: The official regional Web site for Sicily, goes into detail about the exhibits and has photographs of some. It’s at http://www.regione.sicilia.it/beniculturali/dirbenicult/musei/musei2/engorsi.htm. Frommer’s travel Web site lists free details for many of the town’s sites: http://www.frommers.com/destinations/syracuseandortygiaisland/