Dwight Peck's personal website

Sicily in December 2012

On the track of the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, Italians and Commissario Montalbano

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Syracuse Ortygia

Syracuse comprises 1) Syracuse and 2) the original city on the island of Ortygia. With Kristin's uncanny genius for turning up the best low-cost accommodations, this time at a moment's notice, we're booked into La Via della Giudecca (a "B&B Charme") in the old Jewish quarter on the island.

The room, an apartment in fact, is inexpensive and boasts not one, but two, rooftop terraces.

If it had a little more storage place for a few bicycles and the winter tires, we could easily live here.

Rooftop Terrace no. 1 (with stairs leading up from it)

The view from Rooftop Terrace no. 2

The church next door, in the Piazza San Filippo

The view southward along the Via della Giudecca

The rooftop view northward

Time to investigate the Old Town

60-odd steps to the street door, if I recall

The tobacconist in the Piazza San Filippo

Syracuse was founded on the island and nearby hillside by Greek colonists from Corinth, supposedly in 734 B.C., and soon sprouted sub-colonies in the region. In the early 5th century B.C. the tyrant Gelon of Gela made Syracuse his capital and the city, under him and his successor Hiero, entered into a prolonged cultural apogee. Aeschylus visited in the 470s at Hiero's invitation and wrote the lost Women of Etna in honor of the city -- in 480 Gelon and his allies from Agrigento saw off the Carthaginian threat at the Battle of Himera (near Cefalù) and Hiero's naval victory over the Etruscans near Cuma in 474 made Syracuse the pre-eminent trading power in the region.

The city's prominence drew it into the Cold War rivalries between the Athenian and Spartan blocs in the drawn-out Peloponnesian War, and in 414 B.C. the Syracusans inflicted a montrous defeat upon the Athenians' ill-considered "Sicilian Expedition", breaking the long siege, chasing the besiegers into the countryside and hunting them down, and imprisoning the mere 7,000 survivors in a Syracusan quarry and just leaving them there.

During succeeding centuries Syracuse maintained its leadership through repeated conflicts with the Carthaginians and Romans and remained culturally important -- Theocritus the poet was a native son -- but even the military innovations of Archimedes, one of the greatest mathematicians and engineers of classical times, were insufficient to prevent the incorporation of Syracuse and other Sicilian Greek cities into the Roman sphere in 212 B.C.

Following its short spell under Vandal rule, the Byzantine Greeks returned to Syracuse in A.D. 535 and remained until the appalling siege of the city by the Arabs in 878 -- thereafter, Syracuse participated in the same rhythm of conquest and dominance as the rest of Sicily: 11th century resistance to the Saracen Arabs under the Greek general Maniace, capture by the Normans in 1105, a succession of Swabian and Angevin lords and participation in the Sicilian Vespers, then possession by the Aragonese until 1702 and Bourbons until 1865, and then, of course, the Italians.

Speaking of General Maniace, that's the fortress of Maniace at the far end of the island of Ortygia.

That's the lobby of our B+B -- we're looking for advice about restaurants in the neighborhood.

The Lungomare Alfeo (= river god Alpheus) in the evening

We're comparing menus, lots of menus, and haven't yet found that special something.

We'll go inland and keep an open mind.

The city park near the Foro Vittorio Emanuele II and the Passeggio Aretusa, where everyone comes out to stroll about in the evening, like us.

The "Aquariu_" (like "The Hot_l Baltimore", unless that's the Sicilian version of the Italian 'aquario'), near the Arethusa Fountain

Street scenes

A night wedding at the Duomo

The Cathedral's façade dates from the 18th century, but the interior's much older.

The very interesting Cathedral was built in the 7th century on top of a 5th century B.C. Temple of Athena, though the nave and mosaics date from Norman times.

Duomo scenes

One big problem: the famous 16th century silver statue of St. Lucy is gone. The niche is just empty.

Saint Lucy was born in Syracuse in the 3rd century and martyred during that rabid Christianophobe Emperor Diocletian's time on 13 December 304, beheaded (or throat cut) for doing something unwelcome or not doing something required at the time. She's the protectress of eyesight and blind people, since Lucia = "lux" = "light". We can only hope that the kidnappers bring her back unharmed.

What can have happened to St Lucy? (What else can have happened to St Lucy?)

The Piazza Duomo at night

The beautiful Piazza Duomo

Piazza Minerva alongside the Duomo, a practice field in the daytime for aspiring footballers

Onto the Via Roma, a principal commercial thoroughfare (one of the few streets on the Ortygia island with cars on it)

The Via Roma, leading to . . .

. . . the central Piazza Archimedes

The Via Resalibera (also, by Ortygian standards, a kind of thoroughfare)

A beatific vision. New Enlightenment. A Vision of the Future. A menu.

Street scenes

Via Vittorio Veneto, we're progressing, we think, towards a recommended restaurant (Il Tempio di Athena).

Like all great European cities, Syracuse has provided its citizens with an environment-friendly bicycle rental system all over town. In many other cities, though, it's got bicycles to go with it.

The Lungomare Ortigia, on our way to visit the Maniace Castle

The Arethusa Fountain (the mythical Arethusa was a cute Nereid who was chased round under the earth by the love-struck river god Alpheus and got caught up with here in Ortygia) -- the natural spring was in early times the principal source of the city's fresh water, just a few meters away from the sea, and the head of Arethusa (surrounded by dolphins) was prominent on Syracusan coinage from the 5th century B.C.

The Lungomare Alpheo, named for the victorious rapist

We're through the first walls of the Maniace Castle and checking our little guide sheet. Despite its being named for Maniace (Maniakes), who won Syracuse from the Arabs in 1038 and built an earlier citadel here, the present structure of the fortress dates from the 1230s in the time of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Swabia, "Stupor Mundi".

Over the moat . . .

. . . and through the gate.

The interior citadel -- from the 14th to 16th centuries the fortress was home to successive queens of Sicily (later, like probably all surviving castles in Europe, a prison).

Reparations on the famous main doorway. In 1799 the grateful Bourbon then-king gave the place to Admiral Horatio Nelson for his help in killing off all his opponents, and through Nelson's niece it was inherited by the Bridport family, who lived here until they sold the place to the state in 1982.

Prominently displayed, a copy of Caravaggio's famous Beheading of St John the Baptist, a great brutal and nuanced work that he painted in 1608 during his exile in Malta -- he came here to Syracuse when he escaped from the angry Knights of Malta, but the original painting is still in Malta.

Through the Great Hall

The Great Hall

Extending out onto the point of land are the 18th century artillery batteries intended to defend the entrance to the port.

A look back at the city from the artillery batteries

The batteries extend on two levels out a hundred meters or so, with swivel-tracks in each of the bays for hauling the big guns around. It must have been really loud and smelly in here when history was intervening.

Back into the castle

Kristin loves nothing so much as a ram (and a marmot, and a kittie). The "Ram of Maniace Castle" is connected somewhat confusingly to two bronze rams decorating Agathocles' original citadel, which were set at the front door of George Maniace's 11th century reconstituted fortress here, and this is said to be "here reproposed in a true copy" of the original now in the Archeological Museum in Palermo, "after a long series of vicissitudes".

Kristin can never stay away from a Caravaggio.

Time to leave the Castello Maniace, after a last walk around the walls.

-- See you tomorrow then.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 26 January 2013.