Exploring Sicily’s Syracuse and around its region for just 9 days isn’t really enough time to see the main sights. So, some highlights on what to see on your fleeting trip…
Known as the ‘Pearl of the Mediterranean’, tourists have flocked to Sicily for the last couple of centuries, so, why not see what all the fuss is about?
About a two-hour drive from our apartment in Cosenza, Calabria, sees you arriving at the ferry stop at Villa San Giovanni. Nearing this town, just follow the signs to the ferry terminal, it’s pretty simple.
At the terminal, a tout will direct you to the ticket office and parking but then expects a tip. You don’t really need any help to find the office.
If you’re flying into Sicily, then the two main international airports are at Catania and Palermo.
At the time of writing, the price to take a standard car on the ferry across the Straits of Messina is €73 return. The ticket is valid for three months and issued by Caronte & Tourist S.p.A.
Apart from the main ferry stop from Calabria to Sicily, Messina seems like a busy city.
Although only having driven through some of its streets to head south to Syracuse, then on the return journey to cross the Straits back to Calabrese land, may not do this city justice.
Typically, the Autogrills along the highways in Italy are pretty good for a toilet stop, food, and excellent for a Cappuccino (€1.30). The Autogrill not far from Messina on Tremestieri Ovest 0142 on the way to Syracuse, is just as good and won’t disappoint.
Founded by the Corinthians in 734 – 733 BC and some 2,750 years since the city’s foundation, great philosophers such as Plato, mathematician and inventor Archimedes, are linked to this historical city.
Visiting Syracuse is like a walk through the pages of Ancient History books – there is just so much history here to experience…
Although it is mid-September, it is much hotter here than in Cosenza and surprisingly, still many crowds of tourists around.
With a plethora of archaeological sites to explore, you’ll be on your feet for hours and for several days. On the first day of exploring, we walked about 13 kilometres in scorching heat, just taking in the local sights of Syracuse.
Basilica Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime
The apartment’s balcony overlooks this basilica, which is right across the road.
For me, the concrete structure reminds me of a witch’s hat and doesn’t fit in with ancient Syracuse. Perhaps the French architects Michel and Pierre Parat Andrault tried to mix Christianity with Paganism?
Commenced in 1966, the church was inaugurated in 1994, and elevated to a minor Basilica in 2002, by Pope John Paul II.
The basilica was built as a shrine in memory of a miraculous event that of an effigy of Mary, weeping 300 tears in a couple’s house in Syracuse, during 1953 – thus, the name: Sanctuary of Our Lady of Tears. The tears of which it is said, cured people of cancer, paralysis, and other ailments.
Museo En Pleine Air
This Archaeological Park is just next to our accommodation and is free to walk around, although the museum’s entry fee is €10 for EU citizens and €13.50 for non-EU citizens.
La Villa Landolina
Surrounded by park grounds containing towering trees with a rich undergrowth, this romantic villa of the late nineteenth century is both picturesque and its park a welcomed respite, from the relentless sun. Many Mediterranean and exotic plant species adorn the park, which was inspired by Arab gardens.
Necropolis covers, dating back to the ancient Greek period, including Pagan and Christian underground chamber accesses, were also found in the park.
Parco Archeologico della Neapolis
When in the ancient city of Syracuse, a visit to the evocative Neapolis includes the Greek Theatre, Roman Amphitheatre, Quarries, and Caves. Expect to spend a full day visiting these sites as there is quite a lot to see for your €10 entry ticket.
Today, this grandiose Greek theatre, which is cut directly from bedrock, is UNESCO World Heritage listed and dates back to the 5th century BC. Rebuilt in the 3rd century BC, the theatre was again renovated during the Roman Period.
What’s surprising to me is that you can walk all over this piece of ancient history. During May and June each year, Classical Greek and Latin plays are performed in this theatre.
Via dei Sepolcri
To the left of the theatre is the Street of Tombs – a series of Byzantine tombs and niches cut into the rock face in which offerings were once placed.
Although not as well-maintained as the Teatro Greco, you can only see this amphitheatre from behind a fence line.
The amphitheatre has two entrances with stairs. A large rectangular centre space (once covered) has an underground passage, which house machinery used during shows. Behind the arena’s high podium, a gated covered corridor provided access for the release of wild beasts and gladiators.
Close to the Anfiteatro Romano and founded in the third century BC, not much of the Ara di Lerone (Alter of Heron II) structure exists today. In its day, the length of the altar was 195.8 metres and 20.85 metres wide.
Several views of the altar’s purpose swirl around with one explanation during the year 466 with the sacrifice of 450 bulls, to commemorate the removal of Thrasybulus (last Deinomenid tyrant of Syracuse). The celebration was the Eleutheria festival.
The quarry holes (Latomia) of Syracuse were worked on beginning from the sixth century B.C. and onwards, and their attached history is not particularly pleasant.
Although four stone quarries exist in Syracuse, I only visited two: Latomia del Casale (Quarry of Paradise) and the Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysus).
The Grotta dei Cordari (Ropemaker’s Grotto) was closed to the public in 1984. And, we missed the opening times for the Latomia del Capuccini (Quarry of the Capuchins), which is the oldest and largest in Syracuse. After suffering defeat by the Syracusans, seven thousand Athenians were forced to work in the Capuchin quarry.
Latomia del Casale
This quarry hole is impressive. Stone cutters first worked here in the sixth century BC and continued for many centuries.
The way in which these holes were created is worth mentioning.
Due to the stone’s hardness, drill holes were chiselled or drilled at the stone’s edges and timber wedges inserted. Wetting the wedges with water caused the timber to expand and cracked the stone – a long and onerous process.
Orecchio di Dionisio
Dug in Greek/Roman times as a water storage for Syracuse, this cave towers at 23 metres high and is 65 metres deep into the cliff.
The Italian painter Caravaggio coined the cave’s name in 1586, which refers to Syracuse’s tyrant, Dionysius I for his use of the cave as a prison. Legend has it that due to the cave’s acoustics, Dionysius could eavesdrop on his captive political prisoners’ whispered secrets and plans. Although another legend recounts that the cave’s shape was carved by Dionysius so that the screams of tortured prisoners would be amplified – horrific!
Syracuse also offers many walking trails starting from five-hundred metres up to twenty kilometres, from the city centre.
Look down on the footpath whilst you’re in the city and you will notice the symbol (below), which indicates the walking trail. A derivation of this symbol is also on Sicily’s flag – the Celtic symbol: Triskele.
Monumento ai Caduti Italiani d’Africa
Constructed from Carrara marble and white stone and dating back to the Fascist era, this monument commemorates the ‘Italians fallen in Africa’ (East Africa) during the Ethiopian War during 1935 to 1936. And also commemorates all Italian soldiers that died in Africa, during the colonial and war years. Six bronze statues portray the navy, air force, army, and indigenous troops in Africa.
Although closed to the public, the monument contains a small chapel, which is 15 metres in length and 5 metres wide. This part of the monument is dedicated to the Legionnaires, which also contains a sculpture depicting a fallen soldier in Africa.
Piazza della Vittoria – Santuario di Demetra e Abitato Ellenistico
Excavations during the 1970s and 1980s unearthed archaeological remains of Victory Square: Sanctuary of Demeter, and a Hellenistic settlement, which date back to the fifth century BC and up to the Byzantine period (sixth century AD).
Walking past this site several times during our stay, it was always closed, so I’m not sure if this site is actually open to the public yet.
A random photo for you, just because. I liked this concept for a Delicatessen.
Piazza Santa Lucia
Although this area was originally a historic district of Syracuse, the second urban district here commenced in 1885, with houses following a chessboard pattern.
Church and Catacombs of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro
On December 13th of each year, the Piazza becomes the epicentre for celebrations and a long procession from the Duomo, in honour of Saint Lucia the Martyr and for a week, the image of the Patron Saint remains in the church.
The church’s clean lines especially against a radiant blue sky, renders this building a pleasing sight.
Syracuse War Cemetery
Regardless of the country, we always make a point of paying our respects to the fallen and visit war cemeteries in the city, town, or village, if once exists.
With casualties from World War I and World War II, the Syracuse War Cemetery is immaculately maintained and with a fastidiously hedged perimeter.
The airbnb booking for nine days proved to be an excellent choice as a base
Our hosts (Otti and Vi) are super hospitable. Even received a Welcome drawing from their son on our arrival and during our stay, a homemade delicious Sicilian tart from Vi – very kind. The knowledge and history these guys know about Sicily is amazing and their willingness to share, extremely valuable.
I fully recommend a stay here as apart from the homely apartment being self-contained, it is right next to the Archaeological Park: Museo en Plein Air.
Although the apartment contains a basic kitchen, there is always the want to try the local cuisine but also the obligatory daily coffee and cake.
The food in Sicily is wonderful with choices for restaurants and cafes, endless.
Olivia Natural Bistrot
This is the first time I found a Vegetarian Bar/Restaurant in Southern Italy. Everything is made on the premise including bread at Olivia Natural Bistrot.
Prices for a glass of wine is a bit high (€5+) but the food is delicious, wholesome, and the service is great. (Cover charge of €1 per person, even if you sit and have a coffee inside.)
Cream & Cioccolato
Via Piave 24, serves wonderful coffee (€1+) and large scrumptious pastries (€1.20+) in a bright and airy modern Gelato shop. Staff are friendly.
I love the sign on the wall that persuades you why Gelato is so healthy for you: refreshing, good for your diet, a fountain of energy, makes you happy, and a couple more reasons.
Hotel Ristorante on Via Riva Porto Lachio 25, is a great coffee (€1+) and pastry (€1.50+) stop albeit smallish, with tables and chairs under umbrellas outside, to shield you from the scorching heat but overlooking the marina. Inside comfortable dining also awaits.
Along Riva Porto Lachio on the waterfront, this restaurant overlooking the water and marina, serves excellent locally-caught seafood in delicious traditional Sicilian meals. Friday night sees live music and offers a €25 all-inclusive meal (three courses including wine).
On Viale Teocrito N 71/B, this Bar serves good snacks (€2) and coffee (€1+) but as it’s close to the tourist area, a Cappuccino is €2 – a bit high for Italy.
You must try the divine ‘Cassatina’ (€3.50) at Voglia Matta on Corso Umberto, 34.
This desert truly is an ethereal and heavenly experience on a plate! Excellent coffee (€1.50) and service – definitely worth a visit.
Viale Teracati N. 34 – A really good supermarket jammed with all sorts of food including a fish market to stock up any dwindling supplies. Bottled water here is pretty cheap at six 2-litre bottles for only €1.74.
Island of Ortigia
As there is a lot to see in Syracuse’s Island of Ortigia and many photos to show you, so I’ve dedicated a whole post on the ancient island.
Day trips from Syracuse
The independency that a hired car provides is excellent to experience day trips outside of Syracuse as there is so much to see in the region.
Taking the opportunity to explore further over the nine days, we drove to Pozzallo and Noto, which are south of Syracuse, and north to Catania and Adrano. All are unique and definitely worth a visit, which I’ve prepared in a different post.
The sad day has come to say our good byes to our lovely hosts and head north once again, to catch the ferry back to Calabria.
With a couple of nights pre-booked in Scilla, Reggio Calabria, I hope to explore this gorgeous coastal village built on a rocky ridge that I’ve heard so much about…