An American couple, more golden travellers than silver, told us over lunch beside the market of Ortygia that they were moving on next day to Taormina. Had they seen the ruins of Neapolis? we asked. Yes, and seeing the Greek theatre made them realise why the one in California was called Greek. We mentioned they’d see a magnificent example with views to match at Taormina.
Everyone discovers something they feel foolish not to have known before. We took their acknowledgement of the theatre as intended, knowing that our discovery of the local bus tour as the best and cheapest way of visiting all the sights of Siracusa and Ortygia was in a similar class. It is an object lesson for tourist bus providers in the UK.
Having walked to the Archaeological Museum a day or two before we were glad of the bus ride to the Neapolis park, as well as the opportunity to see parts of Siracusa we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It was a few minutes’ walk from our apartment to the bus stop close to the market, and the re-usable ticket allows for fifteen or so stops in the fairly long day’s timetable.
Re-usable tickets are the key to the ruins also. Not only in combination (valid for three days) with the museum but within the site. There are at least three sections of the park, each with its own gate where tickets have to be shown. It is a bit of a worry that the tickets might not survive the day as attendants tear them each time.
We began with the Roman amphitheatre in mind but stopped first at the excellent cafe, a model the archaeological museum might follow. The Romans were more interested in spectacle (and blood) than drama so their amphitheatre was designed for animal shows, perhaps gladiatorial combat and certainly miniature marine battles. They had, as our Californian acquaintances may since have discovered, adapted the Taormina theatre to these ends.
A curiosity of this site is that in its pre-excavation days it was beneath a country road and wagons travelling that way had worn deep grooves into the stones later revealed as tiered seating. The ceremonial entrance in Roman times was from what is now the city, so perhaps that relationship is unchanged. The wagons had obviously followed the same route.
We did not spend much time on the huge altar of Ierone II, although on a previous visit the guide had explained the huge numbers of animals that had been slaughtered on it. There is in any case no access to the site. Our next visit had to be to the theatre.
There are examples on more beautiful sites: Taormina’s views and Segesta looking down on the sea one way and the temple another. Siracusa is magnificent in itself. It is also the starting point of an interesting novella by Andrea Camilleri, creator of Inspector Montalbano, from which he is led on a trail of the Caravaggio paintings in Sicily. It was also the case that Caravaggio was on the run, suspected of at least one murder. His paintings, at Santa Lucia in Ortygia, in Messina and Palermo, as well as in Rome and elsewhere around the Mediterranean, might be construed as acts of expiation. A shame the book is only available in Italian. Caravaggio of course misnamed the cave in the stone quarry as the ‘Ear of Dionysius’, from which it was believed the tyrant could hear the plans of his Greek prisoners, captured after the failed invasion of an Athenian fleet. Even on a mild October day the imagination is shaken by their enforced labour in the quarry.
A less threatening cave is the one called ‘Cordari’, after the rope makers who found its damp atmosphere helpful in their work. Both are in the area named the Pits of Paradise, which would have been cruelly if not sadistically ironic in the days of Dionysius. It now justifies the name with a profusion of plants and trees.
Paths are generally accessible for pedestrians and mobility vehicles, and buses and tour coaches stop close to the main entrance, with some not very interesting sales kiosks and another cafe.