My favourite place: Syracuse, Sicily

The latest in our historical holiday series sees Catherine Nixey discover the timeless beauty of Sicily’s ancient heart

The Fountain of Arethusa on Ortygia, the historical heart of Syracuse, separated from the main city by a small channel. (Photo by Alamy)

This article was first published in the September 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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I arrived in Syracuse feeling besieged. There is nothing remarkable in this. This ancient limestone city, jutting with almost indecent beauty into the Ionian Sea, has been the downfall of many. The flower of the Athenian army was crushed here in the fifth century BC. The great Greek scientist Archimedes met his end here, at the point of a Roman sword, in the third. So too did the Byzantines in the ninth century… the list goes on.

Admittedly, my struggle was not so dramatic. I was not contending with the might of the Roman army but merely with hordes of people. I was in Syracuse as a teacher on a school classics trip and, as we marched groups of students through various Italian beauty spots, we found ourselves in the midst of crowds.

As we approached Syracuse on that hot July evening, murmurations of starlings swirled in a deepening blue sky. Then, just as we got off the coach, one particular bird sent a sign. This sign fell, and landed with unerring aim on the hand of a pupil. The omens seemed ill.

Still, Sicily provides good precedent for ignoring augury. Before one third-century BC battle, the consul Publius Claudius Pulcher, according to custom, had sacred chickens released from their cages. The birds had refused to eat – a terrible sign that alarmed everyone except Claudius. “They can drink, since they don’t wish to eat,” he said, before throwing the birds into the sea and sailing into battle. We too pressed on. And unlike Claudius, who lost his fight, my persistence was rewarded.

When we entered Ortygia, the small island at the ancient heart of Syracuse, I fell in love. Home to the Corinthians who settled on the island in 733 BC, Ortygia’s great piazzas and churches and vaulted courtyards are astonishing. I was amazed at how untouched it felt, surrounded by bunker-like sea walls, in turn hemmed by the sea. These barriers once protected Ortygia from encroaching enemies; in modern times, they have protected it from encroaching supermarket car parks.

In so much of Italy the past feels untouched by modernity. But in Sicily there is a little more past than usual. In the fifth century BC, when Rome was just getting going, the territory of Syracuse was already one of the most important in the western world, with a population then numbering almost a quarter of a million people.

Evidence of this antiquity is everywhere. In the great Piazza Duomo stands Syracuse’s cathedral. At first sight it looks like a perfect example of Sicilian baroque architecture. Look closer and you see massive columns poking, as though half-submerged, through its exterior wall. This was a temple of Athena until a Sicilian bishop built a cathedral over it in the seventh century.

This ancient limestone city juts with almost indecent beauty into the Ionian sea

To the north of Ortygia is the city’s ancient Greek theatre, still in use today. Sit on its baking stone steps, and you will see a similar view to the one the audience would have seen while watching the premier of an Aeschylus play here in the fifth century BC. Behind the theatre, lies the vast quarry from which Syracuse was cut; the chisel marks of Greek slaves still visible on the limestone. It’s said that if Syracuse were placed back into the quarry, like a cut biscuit popped back into rolled pastry, it would fit perfectly.

Today the quarry is covered in orange and lemon groves but its wealth of caves were used to imprison soldiers captured after the failed Athenian military expedition of 415–413 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. One of the most impressive of these caves is the 23 metre-high L’Orecchio di Dionisio (the Ear of Dionysius). According to one legend, King Dionysius I of Syracuse used the cave’s impressive acoustics to eavesdrop on the secret plans of the political prisoners he held in there.

This, then, is a city that bewitches. And it always has done. Plutarch records that, before the Roman general Marcellus sacked Syracuse in that third century BC siege, he “wept much in commiseration of its impending fate”. Though, being a good Roman, he still did sack it. Some good came of that. It is said that the Greek statues Marcellus plundered from Syracuse were so wonderful that they taught Rome, for the first time, to understand the beauty of art. I can see how they felt because, on that trip, Syracuse taught me to understand the beauty of Sicily. Not to mention of Sicilian ice cream.

Catherine Nixey is a historian and writer. Her most recent book is The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (Macmillan, 2018)


Advice for travellers

BEST TIME TO GO Late spring, when Syracuse’s ancient Greek theatre hosts the annual festival of Greek theatre. Avoid high summer when the city’s stone streets warm up like an oven and its archaeological sites are too hot for anyone except the tortoises that trundle about the ruins.

GETTING THERE The closest airport is Catania around 45 miles away – an hour’s drive – along coastal motorways. And if you fly into Catania you get a splendid view of Mount Etna, which looms over the airport.

WHAT TO TAKE As boring and un-Italian as it sounds, sensible shoes. Those flagstone piazzas and marble church steps may be breathtakingly beautiful but they are also very slippery. Also take with you a good translation of Plutarch’s Lives. The biographer’s style lies somewhere between that of Herodotus and Hello! magazine, and his book is stuffed full of vivid descriptions of the history of Syracuse.

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WHAT TO BRING BACK Sicily’s specialities don’t travel especially well. Its mouth-watering ice creams, perhaps its greatest draw, are unlikely to prosper in a suitcase. Still, Sicilian wine will survive any trip, as will its bitter liqueur, Amaro Averna.