Syracuse: rivals some of Sicily’s better-known tourist locales

Enriched by 3,000 years of history, Syracuse rivals some of Sicily’s better-known tourist locales

For many tourists to Sicily, with its multiple layers of art and history to explore, there are two approaches.

One is the classic ”giro di Sicilia” — literally a spin around the sun-kissed Mediterranean island — with an itinerary embracing archaeological ruins, picturesque fishing villages and mountain towns and cities famed for art and architecture from diverse civilizations.

But with so much to see — and taste — in Sicily, basing oneself at one end or another of the island to explore nearby attractions with more leisure is another popular strategy.

If you are intrigued by remnants of ancient glories literally embedded in buildings centuries older, appreciate seeing art by some of the greatest painters who worked in Sicily, like Caravaggio and Antonello da Messina and like to break up sightseeing by lounging on uncrowded beaches or motoring through countryside with stunning sea views, choosing Syracuse (Siracusa in Italian) as your base in the southeast will amply reward you.

On an island renowned for spectacular ruins of Greek temples on panoramic hills, palazzi reflecting Arabic architecture, Norman cathedrals and Baroque towns galore, Syracuse easily stands up to its rivals.

Besting rivals is practically in Syracuse’s DNA. The city took on Athens as the biggest and most beautiful metropolis in the world of ancient Greece, and, for a spell, eclipsed it as the top city after the Athenian fleet was defeated and largely sunk in Syracuse’s harbor. Archimedes’s inventions of war contraptions tried to defend Syracuse from the ancient Romans.

Byzantium’s history is entwined, too, with Syracuse, with at one point the empire’s capital moved from Constantinople to the city in Sicily. The Arabs followed, then the Normans.

Amazingly for so many chapters of heady history, modern-day Syracuse is remarkably and conveniently compact for sightseeing. Most attractions are found on Ortygia Island, linked to the rest of the city by bridges, and lined with charming streets.

On Ortygia’s elegant main square is a cathedral with Doric columns from the 5th-century B.C. Temple of Athene embedded in its side, a striking contrast to the Rococo touches on the ”modern” church. On the same square, inside the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia is a masterpiece by Caravaggio. And lining the same square is a palazzo belonging to the Borgia family and decorated in a sumptuous, noble style that will seem familiar to fans of the movie classic “The Leopard” with Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.

Ortygia has a colorful food market and a fascinating “underground culture,” so to speak. Despite being at the edge of the salty Mediterranean Sea, freshwater pools of water flow through pools that in centuries past served to hand-wash laundry.

Stepping across the bridge to the ”mainland” of modern-day Syracuse takes one to a church with Norman roots built atop extensive catacombs dating to the 2nd century. Peaceful gardens were cultivated by friars in the quarries where ancient Syracuse had imprisoned the defeated Athenian soldiers.

Hungry for even more history? There’s a necropolis and an ancient theater, used first by the Greeks, then by the Romans, who held gladiator bouts there, as well as an amphitheater dating to the 3rd century.

Drive a few miles from Syracuse and you’ll skirt even more history. In the last decades, more than a dozen shipwrecks from Greek, Roman and Byzantine times were located in the sea near the southeastern corner of Sicily. Under a country farmhouse some 50 years ago, the ruins of a Roman villa, with wonderful mosaics, were discovered.

Drive barely an hour more, and you’ll reach Noto, one of Sicily’s splendid Baroque cities, which were highlighted in previous Destination Inspiration newsletters. Along the route, delightful detours beckon, like the fishing village of Portopallo di Capo Passero, the cape on Sicily’s southeast tip. Perhaps you’ll convince some fishermen to take you to the tiny island of Capo Passero with is 17th century ruins of a castle.