Things to Do in Syracuse
The captivating former Greek and Roman city of Syracuse wasn’t actually founded on Sicily, but on a tiny island just offshore called Ortygia. Connected by two bridges to the mainland and modern expanse of the city, Ortygia is where you’ll find Old Town highlights such as the Duomo, Temple of Apollo, and Fountain of Arethusa.
Syracuse’s Greek Theater (Teatro Greco) was one of the largest in the world when it was constructed, able to seat up the 16,000 spectators. Hewn directly from the side of the Temenite Hill overlooking the Sicilian countryside, the stone theater is a highlight of the UNESCO-listed Neapolis Archaeological Park.
Set in the hills of the Sicilian town of Syracuse is a large cave with the evocative name of the Ear of Dionysius. The name does not, however, refer to the Greek god. The name, Orecchio di Dionisio in Italian, was given to the cave by 16th-century painter Caravaggio, who named it after a vicious fifth-century BCE ruler of Syracuse. He is said to have used the cave as a political prison, and the cave's incredible acoustics gave him the ability to eavesdrop on his enemies. Another legend says he once used the cave as a torture chamber.
While the legends are unlikely to be true, the name stuck. The primary acoustic position in the cave is no longer accessible to visitors due to safety concerns, but the cavern is still an impressive sight.
The ornate 17th-century facade of Syracuse Cathedral (Duomo di Siracusa) is typical of many Sicilian baroque churches, but belies the unusual interior of this former Greek temple. Built in the fifth century BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena, the building was converted into a Christian church over a millennium later.
Built in the 18th century as a residence for the Nicolaci family, the Nicolaci di Villadorata Palace (Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata) in the city of Noto is one of the best examples of Sicilian Baroque architecture and features some of the most beautiful balconies in the city. The exterior features a plethora of sphinxes, winged horses, hippograffs and other mythical beasts, as well as two large columns topped by a large wrought-iron balcony and three smaller balconies on either side.
Inside, the palace is comprised of 90 rooms, although only a handful in the main wing are open to the public. Another wing is home to the municipal library of Noto, which was founded in 1817. The palace is also home to an annual flower festival.
Only in Italy could art dating back to the era of the Roman empire be unearthed in only the last thirty years. Discovered by archaeologists at a countryside villa and largely restored, its remains were part of a simple farm from the 17th century until recently excavated. Its most interesting details are the centuries old mosaics, lining its floors in faded colored geometrics and plant designs.
Though the original building was destroyed in a fire, the decorated mosaic floors remain. Some of the more intricate mosaics depict ancient Greek stories, with the work estimated to date back the 4th century. One of the more complete floors shows hunting scenes and African animals surrounded by a frieze.
While some of the mosaics are close to completely in tact, others have sustained more damage — but all are fascinating to examine in person. Because of its more recent discovery, the villa is less well known (and less crowded) than the mosaics than those at the villa of Piazza Armerina.
One of the Sicilian Baroque jewels of Noto, a city about 20 miles from Syracuse on the island of Sicily, is the Church of San Domenico (Chiesa di San Domenico), built in the early 18th century.
San Domenico is one of the Sicilian Baroque structures that is encompassed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation “Val di Noto,” added to UNESCO’s list in 2002. The cohesive style of the towns in the Val di Noto is a result of most of the buildings in those towns being destroyed in the same earthquake in 1693. They were all rebuilt during the same time period, which happened to be when the Sicilian Baroque style was created.
The church is on a Greek cross plan, and was designed by Syracuse architect Rosario Gagliardi. The facade glows with the familiar warm, yellow limestone that was used in buildings all over the Val di Noto during the Sicilian Baroque era. It’s the same material used on the facade of Noto’s gorgeous cathedral.
The interior of San Domenico features some of Sicily’s characteristic stucco artwork. There are five domes on the church, each one decorated with the stucco on the inside. One of the altars has above it an 18th-century painting by Vito d’Anna.
Officially known as the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, the Church of Santa Chiara (Chiesa di Santa Chiara) is one of several examples of Sicilian Baroque style architecture in the town of Noto on the Italian island of Sicily. Designed by architect Rosario Gagliardi around 1730, the church was modeled after elliptical shaped churches built by the Romans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The interior is considered one of the most beautiful in Sicily, with decorative stucco, gold gilding, a wooden choir with decorative inlays, 12 columns featuring the figures of the apostles and a main altar made of marble from ancient Noto. Also on display inside the church are important works of art such as a picture of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica painted by Salvatore Lo Forte and a sculpture of the Madonna and Child made of marble.
Visitors are well advised to climb up to the rooftop terrace of the adjoining convent to enjoy panoramic views of Noto.
Standing tall over its surrounding town square, the Basilica of San Salvatore (Basilica del SS. Salvatore) is one of Sicily’s best examples of Baroque style architecture. It’s at the heart of Val di Noto, a historic area designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The town of Noto was rebuilt after an earthquake in the late 17th century, and its structures represent not only the style but the detailed city planning and history that has endured.
Olive and lemon trees, small courtyards, and gardens still scenically surround the exterior. The church’s interior is intricately painted in mostly blue, gold, and pink, with a bell tower and several archways. Its vault is frescoed with a magnificent religious work called “Descent of the Holy Spirit.” And while the sandstone church is impressive inside and out, perhaps its greatest view is the one of the city from its rooftop.
An open-air science and technology museum, the Tecnoparco Archimede Museum (Tecnoparco Museo di Archimede) is dedicated to the of the Greek mathematician Archimedes. Explore the third-century inventor’s technological innovations, and learn how they are used today.
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