Our hotel is on the island of Ortygia, where Neolithic remains have been found, marking the first settlement as thousands of years ago. Two bridges link the island to Siracusa proper. A number of very early Greek temple ruins are scattered throughout. Later Greek and Roman works can be found on the mainland in the Neapolis Archeological Park, a large theater and a sacrificial alter built by Greeks, a great amphitheater constructed around the time of Christ by the Romans, and fascinating quarries from which all the stone to build the city was drawn.
Today feels like it’s going to be a grunt. Still, I enjoy my ridiculous shower. It won’t matter: the sun’s ablaze. Alice and I have been working this traveler thing so hard, our nerve and our stamina are a little on the frayed side. Electing to drive to Neapolis means electing to find parking there. Therein lies the bitches’ quandary. Park where, wiseguy? Where do we drop the fucking Fiat? It turns out there’s a dude with a beard providing guidance to those opting for a roadside slot.
As has been typical of many of these archeological sites, nothing is what it seems. The ticket booth has been moved to a dusty patch of nowhere at the far end of the pavilion of sixty-five bazillion trinkets. This dislocation does not bode well. They don’t ask for this ticket until you’re well within the park. The Greek theater is enormous. It dates from the 5th century BCE, though much restored and rebuilt over successive millennia, for example the ruins of the stageworks date from Roman times. A terrace dedicated to the Muses rings the top seats and a noisy torrent called La Grotta del Ninfeo spills from a cavity. The gush drowns out a wildly gesticulating tour guide, standing before a group of frying Germans. We don’t exactly know what we’re looking at half the time, but I have a reserve of guidebook factoids at my disposal and I’m not afraid to toss them around.
Alice and I wander the site, dodging into pockets of shades, while perspiring with reckless abandon. The quarries make for a cool-ish and otherworldly environment, sheer limestone walls, lush greenery, befuddled tourists. The most intriguing feature of this sunken area is called Orecchio di Dionisio, The Ear of Dionysius, so named by Caravaggio himself for its peculiar echoes. As we enter there’s a hubbub and we hear repeated calls of “Achtung” mit corresponding echo as a guide attempts to get her group’s attention.
After many cul-de-sacs and pointless exploratories, Alice and I find ourselves consuming adequate pizza and wondering how the fuck we would locate the antiquities museum four blocks away. This means finding another fucking parking space. But at least there’s a landmark to guide us. The Santuario Madonna delle Lacrime.
In 1953, a plaster bas-relief plaque of Our Lady of Fatima given to a young Siracusan couple as wedding present began to shed tears. A great to-do ensued. After much ecclesiastical scrutiny, the miracle was deemed genuine enough that a huge church was constructed. It is shaped much like a tepee and is visible for miles. I didn’t set foot inside the thing, but, man, do I have a lot to say.
Antiquities ‘R Us. The ingresso to this treasure house is obscure, hidden by trees and underbrush, not the shiny ticket booth, but the plywood one, and how about a front door, is that too much to ask for? Inside is a trove of shards and TMI in Italian. Case after case of what the two of us have come to call ‘action figures’; little goddess figurines used as votive offerings to the real goddess. There was some lovely statuary, a beautiful, unidealized Venus in particular, a Roman copy of a Greek original and a small but mesmerizing bronze athlete. The collection contains many wonderful things, but is way too cluttered. An editor would help and a little curatorial self-esteem.
We had parked in a strange limbo zone and stood around cluelessly, then almost got sucked into a poor German woman’s search for catacombs. She dithered and we bolted. When we return, the Fiat remains stalwart in its solitude. Back at the Hotel Livingston, footsore and crabby, the only thing that could possibly restore us is gelato. The Concierge points us in a direction. We pass by the Fontana di Artemide, Ortygia’s hub, and easily find delicious ice cream. “Hey, Alice, I think the Duomo is a mere block or two that way. Let’s go find it. It’s a Norman church built around the columns of the Temple of Athena.”
Here is a nuanced, yet factual, tidbit from its auto-translated Wiki page. During the terrible 1693 earthquake that leveled several towns in eastern Sicily, including much of Syracuse, the Duomo but remained standing, and despite its Norman façade was destroyed, its internal structure, including columns of the temple greek, remained Hello.
It is altogether fitting that our last sight is a spectacular amalgam of Greek and Norman with a Baroque façade. This is exactly what Sicily is about. On this island, history has many overlays, many variations. We will be forever enchanted.