On one side of the Duomo, you can see the columns that upheld the structure during its original iteration as a Greek temple; consecrated as a Christian church in the seventh century, the Norman cathedral was rebuilt, in its current Baroque splendor, after the earthquake of 1693.
Among Syracuse’s wonders is one of Caravaggio’s major — and most beautiful — paintings, “The Burial of St. Lucia,” which was done in 1608 when the artist briefly took refuge in Sicily, on the run from a murder charge in Rome. The painting, temporarily housed in the church Santa Lucia alla Badia, on one side of the Piazza Duomo, depicts the interment of the city’s patron saint, her delicate frame stretched out near the bottom of the canvas, surrounded by mourners and half blocked from our sight by the broad, powerful back of the gravedigger; all this — the action of the painting, as it were — transpires in a narrow band, beneath a vast expanse of empty dark space that has been restored since I last saw it (then in Syracuse’s art museum) to reveal a brick niche, dimly visible in the sepulchral gloom.
On the mainland, a short cab or bus ride (or longer walk) from Ortigia, is Syracuse’s archaeological zone, a sort of classical entertainment center featuring one of the largest and most impressive Greek theaters in existence, as well as an elliptical Roman arena that often served as the stage (and could be flooded) for simulated naval battles.
In the same park are a series of caverns, or latomie. Now surrounded by a pleasant garden planted with lemon and orange trees and heavily populated by songbirds, are the caves that were used as prisons by the region’s despotical rulers. Perhaps the most well-known of these caves, the Ear of Dionysius, was (at least supposedly) given its name by Caravaggio, who observed the way in which the cave’s entrance resembles an enormous ear.
Our granddaughters loved running in and out of these dark, slightly daunting natural wonders, and were suitably impressed by the unusual acoustics, where the slightest whisper can be heard throughout the cavern. Legend has it that this feature was used by the rulers to eavesdrop on the conversations of the unsuspecting prisoners, though it seems more probable that this natural amplification was ingeniously employed to increase the audibility of the plays performed in the Greek theater.
As in much of Sicily, the food in Syracuse is — to put it simply — great. One of the best meals we had on our trip was at Burgio, a sort of upscale open-air grocery store and restaurant in one corner of Ortigia’s appealing market. Burgio focuses on local produce — cheeses, sausages and salamis.
They serve sandwiches made to order, artisanal beers, local wines and elaborate platters on which are arranged small dishes of sliced meats, fish, cheese and marinated vegetables, each selection paired with perfectly complementary relishes. Eating at Burgio was our consolation for not being able to shop in, and cook from, the market, but it was by no means the only excellent restaurant in Ortigia.
Walking around, checking out menus, it’s not hard to find someplace where the food is superb and not terribly expensive. We especially liked Sicilia in Tavola, which has a terrific selection of seafood dishes — and pasta Bolognese for the girls! — and where I had pasta with sea urchin, pasta ai ricci, a dish with which I am obsessed and order every chance I get. We also liked a place called DiVino Mare, which is near the market and serves grilled, wonderfully fresh fish at unusually reasonable prices.
We spent much of our time (four days) in Syracuse just walking around and eating. I would have liked to spend more time traveling up and down the Ionian Sea coast, and to the inland mountain towns of Ragusa and Modica. I’d hoped to take the family to the fish market in Catania, where once, eating pasta with sea urchin in a little trattoria at the edge of the pescheria, I watched the restaurant and the market stalls empty as everyone gathered to marvel at a gargantuan tuna that one of the fishermen had brought in.
I would have liked to have lunch at the coastal beauty spots Aci Trezza and Aci Castello, and to visit Noto, the wildly Baroque town where every cornice and window sill appears to vie for the greatest complexity of decoration, and where a balcony might be upheld by mermaids, griffins or galloping horses carved from stone. I would have liked to make a side trip to the Villa Romana del Casale, near Piazza Armerina, a restored Roman villa with famously spectacular mosaics depicting a chariot race, an epic hunting scene, a parade of women in what appear to be bikinis.
But of the three generations traveling together, each one had their own reasons for wanting to relax, to take things slow and easy.
Ultimately, some of the most pleasurable moments were the most unexpected, and the ones that most fully disproved my father’s warning against returning to the familiar. I had an experience of pure bliss, riding through the gently rolling, unusually green Sicilian countryside between Cefalù and Syracuse, looking at ruins of ancient farmhouses and flocks of grazing sheep, and hearing my granddaughters sing at the top of their lungs along with Adele’s “Hello.”