Blown Away in Siracusa

After spending just over a day in Taormina, a lovely village perched on a hill overlooking the sea, we drove an hour south to Siracusa. Despite enjoying Taormina, our first taste of Sicily, the change to Siracuse was welcomed for a couple of reasons. For one, the torrential rain in Taormina made walking the narrow stone streets treacherous and, just as importantly, despite repeated attempts I found it nearly impossible to correctly remember how to pronounce “Taormina.”  Fortunately, Siracusa sounded close enough to Syracuse that it was sufficiently simple for me to remember.

Siracusa was founded by Greek Corinthians 2,700 years ago and quickly became one of the most important Greek city-states. Cicero described Siracusa as “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.” The city still maintains its charm and is overflowing with history. The ancient old town was made even more dramatic during our visit by the strong wind that blew in from the north. Huge waves battered the walls of the city and the narrow alleys transformed into fierce wind tunnels. As the town endured the adverse conditions, it was hard to imagine the Greeks landing in the relatively unprotected harbor. Certainly, the few boats tied up in the marina were rolling violently and I was happy to be staying on dry land.

Being the offseason, the town was relatively empty and it was easy to spend hours strolling through the maze of streets. Although Siracusa has crept further inland, the ancient walled city is contained on a small island no larger than a couple of miles around. Like most Italian cities, there is an impressive church, a main piazza, a wealth of inviting restaurants, and a disproportionate number of fashion boutiques. After struggling to navigate the impossibly narrow streets that were obviously not intended for cars, we eventually found our bed and breakfast, which was a spacious loft in the old city. On the ground floor was a courtyard and some Jewish baths.

Our first night in the city, we enjoyed a fine meal of traditional Sicilian food. Brian opted for pasta drenched in the ink of an octopus, while the rest of us experimented with less black food. Afterwards, Brian and I explored the city in search of an elusive wine bar and finally settled on an intimate restaurant on the corner near our hotel. The next morning, we drove inland a few miles to view the ruins of both a Greek and Roman theatre. Built next to a quarry, the theatres were remarkably well maintained. In the shape of a semi-circle, the Greek theatre was built into a hill that focused on the stage. In contrast, the Roman theatre resembled a smaller version of the Coliseum and the stadium seating surrounded a larger oval in the center. The highlight of the quarry was a large cave known as “Dionysus Ear,” so named because the acoustics allowed the slave driver to listen in on the conversations of prisoners from a distance. It was from here that workers mined the quarry for the enormous stones that would be used in the theaters.


The rest of our time in Siracusa was spent exploring the old city. The narrow paths between leaning old buildings reminded me of Siena while the seawall and proximity to water called to mind Venice. In the morning, we strolled the fresh market that offered an astonishing assortment of colorful fruits, unrecognizable vegetables, and peculiar creatures from the sea. Near the piazza, we savored calorie-packed canolis. Not content with one desert, we then washed it down with Italian Hot Chocolate, a rich drink so thick that it could be eaten with a spoon.


After a couple of nice days in Siracusa, it was time to head west across Sicily. On the morning of our departure, we found the car covered in salt spray and foam from the sea that had managed to fly over the imposing seawall and across the street to coat our car. The wind continued to howl as we departed the city and we began the roughly three hour drive across Sicily.

The drive across the interior of Sicily was scenic. Rolling hills, remote villas, and the occasional traditional village made for a lovely landscape. The peaceful surroundings quickly gave way to the bellicose urban squalor of Agrigento. Traffic ground to a halt, rundown apartment buildings appeared in every direction, and the overwhelming sense of corruption was inescapable. Agrigento is famously a hotbed of mafia activity. Even without this knowledge, a few minutes in the city made it obvious that this was not a place where one wanted to linger.

For our part, we stopped in the city proper long enough only to grab a slice of pizza and then we drove to the outlying suburbs that offered an astonishing array of Greek ruins. Situated on a series of hills, there were six or seven massive ruins spread along a ridge known as the “valley of temples.” Never having visited Greece, I imagine that these impressive structures are common in that country. The first ruin we visited was a well-preserved temple that resembled the Parthenon. We furiously snapped pictures from every conceivable angle and marveled at how intact the temple remained after 2,500 years. It helped that there were very few visitors and it seemed as if we had the place to ourselves. This is one of the advantages of visiting Sicily in the off-season. The obvious drawback is that it was bitter cold.


Next, we hiked a quarter of a mile to a similar and equally well-preserved temple. Again, we sought to capture the majesty of the structure through the perfect picture. Walking further down the path, we were greeted by yet another temple. Then another one and then another one. Gradually, our amazement turned to apathy. Each temple seemed slightly less impressive and we picked up the pace as we moved from one temple to the next. By the end, we clicked a couple of pictures and kept walking.

Having been satiated on the ruins of temples, we hopped back in the car and drove another hour to a quaint bed and breakfast in Salinute. Owned by an English woman who lived on a working olive farm, we were the only guests for the night. The cozy rooms each had their own kitchen and bathroom and we opted to stay in for the evening to enjoy a simply dinner.

The following morning, we visited another series of ruins, this time in nearby Salinute. These ruins were equally impressive and even less crowded. We literally had acres of ruins to ourselves. Even more surprising, these ruins were completely open and visitors were welcome to walk among the fallen pillars and columns. Having taken the obligatory pictures, we proceeded to climb among the ruins, scrambling over massive stones. Similar to the ruins near Agrigento, the ruins in Salinute spanned a couple of miles and we meandered through impressive temples overlooking the rugged coast.


After a hearty lunch in downtown Salinute, we drove north along the coast to our final destination in Sicily, the capitol and largest city of Palermo. In Palermo, we would spend New Years’ Eve.

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