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July 2020 - Summer escape to Syracuse, Sicily

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Fact: it's impossible to stop Europeans enjoying their summer holidays. By July, many countries within the EU had re-opened to European tourism; unsurprising given the economies of places like Italy and Spain depend so heavily on it. Having had Covid 19 (immune?) and with little prospect of returning to Australia anytime soon, I started looking at options to fulfill a strong craving to be on the Mediterranean sea.

Initially I thought southern France (around Nice) but the pull wasn't strong enough (I'd also already been there not that long ago albeit in winter). Then I was about to book a flight to Croatia when I noticed a sudden up-tick in Corona cases so scratched that off the list [it wasn't long before Croatia was listed in the Netherlands as a 'code orange' destination (return if possible / only necessary travel) so good foresight apparently]. Somehow I settled on Sicily: good flight connections, rich history, totally surrounded by the Mediterranean sea, high temperatures, very low tourist numbers, good food, and affordable. The flight was full, but as far as I could tell mostly Italians returning home (was one of the first flights out).

The aim of this escape from paradise (Maastricht and surrounds really are very nice) to a different form of paradise was not to travel around and try see everything but to hang out by the seaside and do a whole lot of not much. Even street photography was left to the side ...*gasp*.

If there is one consistent theme running through this entire 15 month trip, it's that I was constantly surprised by the sheer depth of history in places I thought I had a reasonable understanding of. Sicily, of course given it's location was always important, but a LOT went down here, possibly more than any place on earth, it's known as "the most conquered place in the world". And the most historically important place on the whole island is the city of Syracuse, where I was staying. I did not know this before booking. A summary of Sicily:

  • Settled in 8000 BC

  • Colonised by the Greeks in 800 BC and by 300 BC Syracuse is the largest city in the Greek world and described by Cicero as "the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all".

  • Around 200 BC, Rome conquers the island but there are initial problems with Hannibal and the locals also revolt, Archimedes is also killed in Syracuse.

  • Rome maintains control until 280 AD when the Franks conquer followed by the Vandals (Germans) in 440 AD and Byzantine Empire in 550 AD.

  • The Byzantine Emperor Constantine tries to move the Byzantine capital from Constantinople to Syracuse in 660 AD and partly for this idea he is assassinated.

  • Around 800 AD its time for the Islamic army to take control but this takes 100 years and shortly after this the Vikings arrive and well, there's lots of killing and stuff.

  • 1100 to 1200 AD - Southern Italians hire Norman mercenaries and under Roger I together with 700 Knights take control of Sicily. This Norman conquest triggers the concept of the Crusades. During this period Sicily is one of the wealthiest states in Europe; even wealthier than England.

  • 1300 - 1400 AD - essentially an independent kingdom, ruled by relatives of the kings of Aragon, but for all intents and purposes they were Sicilian kings.

  • 1500 - 1700 Spanish rule, and periods of Habsburg and Savoy rule

  • Kingdom of Sicily until 1860 when it's unified with Italy but it remains an autonomous region.

I tried to ignore the uncountable sights to visit in the ancient city of Syracuse and focus on the seaside that was just 30 seconds (literally) walk from my Airbnb in the old town of Ortigia. The daily routine was wake (9am, 26c), walk in just swimming shorts to the water for a swim, breakfast, not much, visit town, swim in the afternoon, eat, walk around town. Every day was around 25c at night and 30c during the day. The locals are absolute experts at enjoying life with much swimming, sun baking and eating. I did have an issue with the Airbnb making a terrible squeaking sound (water system) that was finally resolved and resulted in no hot water for the remaining 10 days (didn't need it anyway).

There were very few tourists in Syracuse making it a unique experience; normally it would be packed in summer (note there was barely ever any Covid 19 in Sicily so in that regard it was safe). The emptiness made it hard to resist some of the local sites, especially as seeing them would put some euros back into the ailing local economy.

The archaeological park has some very impressive Greek and Roman amphitheaters, the infamous Ear of Dionysius and the tomb of Archimedes. I rode there on my rental bike, a dangerous and sweaty undertaking. Using the bike I also rode the Rossana Maiorca trail, an old disused rail line along the dramatic (and razor sharp rock) cliffs that make up the coastline on this part of Sicily; these cliffs plummet a good 25 metres into a ridiculously beautiful ocean and are interspersed with small coves where you can swim.

A winding 40 km drive from Syracuse is the UNESCO listed necropolis of Pantalica in the mountains. It contains around 4,000 tombs carved out of the rock, dating to 13th - 7th century BC, pretty old stuff. It was hard to not see this place but because I no longer held a valid licence I paid a taxi a ridiculous amount to take me there. He got lost a fair few times and the car overheated once. I had very little time to see the necropolis being unaware that it's many many square kilometres in very mountains territory, but I did see some tombs and clambered down between scampering, stunning green lizards into a gorge for a swim in some absolutely freezing spring water (needed it, the heat reflecting off the rocks was almost unbearable). Beautiful place indeed, only now ruined by my underpants that I apparently left there.

Back to Syracuse, it's the evenings where it's at. It's still warm/hot, the colours are at their most vibrant, and the locals all come out in neat attire to stroll along the boulevard taking in the very dramatic sunsets that occur here. It's a great vibe, people really enjoying life. There's also fisherman getting ready to head out for the famous local delicacy, swordfish. One trip nets at most one swordfish, but they're big (2.5m) and fight for hours before finally being hauled aboard exhausted. I did try it once, was reasonably tasty, Italians are reasonable cooks.

Sicily definitely needs a revisit with more than 2 weeks and better transport (car), the potential here seems endless. Below the remaining photos.

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yingying Wang
yingying Wang
Sep 22, 2020

Nicely written, love the history, surprising facts and yes a lot happened there!

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