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D + 27: From World Power to Frontier Town

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

To everybody's surprise, the outbord engine of our tender went on strike last night and would not get back to life despite a lot of TLC. Luckily, Syracuse has water taxis and Massimo offered to bring us to town and back so we could get the pistachio gelato we were looking for. Speaking Italian when you do not really speak it is fun. But it always kind of works.

Sunrise this morning over Syracuse - photo taken from the back of the AFAET during coffee


Syracuse is today a sprawling town with more than 120'000 people and large suburbs full of modern, concrete apartment buildings. It's ancient core, the Island of Ortigia, is well preserved however. Completely rebuilt in baroque style after the devastating earthquakes in 1542 and 1693, it was also heavily fortified by the Spanish Kings. It was just one sailing day away from Malta and the Ottoman threat was always on everybody's mind.

The Greek Theatre could sit up to 36'000 people for a performance


The Syracuse we see today is albeit a shadow of its former self. In 415 BC the town had around 250'000 inhabitants and covered an area of 120 hectares. It was of comparable size to Athens but with a much more fertile hinterland. Right to the west of Syracuse, rich volcanic soil stretches for miles and miles. The hot summer and wet winter make it very fertile. Syracuse was and still is today an agricultural powerhouse which produces everything that mankind wants to eat!

The big Temple of Apollo at the entrance to the Island of Ortigia which matches the size of temples we have seen in Selinunte and Agrigento

Ancient Syracuse and Spanish Syracuse - the Greek Theatre is between the two towns

One of the many alley ways on the Island of Ortigia - all houses are built in a uniform baroque style and remind of La Valetta in Malta or the town of Ragusa further west. Sadly, many of these beautiful houses and palaces are not well maintained. Often, windows are boarded up and the SALE signs are everywhere. The town has a lot of charm though.

The heavily fortified eastern waterfront - the sea is so clean the locals are swimming here

The southern tip of Oritigia Island was heavily fortified by the Spanish who added large gun batteries to the Maniace Castle which dates back to the time of the German Emperor Friedrich II, Barbarossa.


Syracuse had almost world power status in the 5th century BC. All parties in the Peloponnese War (Greek civil war between Athens and Sparta) wanted to have Syracuse on their side. It proved to be a distraction though. Whilst Syracuse was involved in the politics of its former home country, two powers built up on its west and east that would eventually crush it: Carthage and Rome. During the Punic Wars it lost its independence and became Roman in 212 BC - 26 years after the rest of Sicily. Becoming Roman had enormous economic benefits though. Syracuse and Sicily became Rome's granary. Agricultural business was booming. The town was growing again and could maintain its population.

Dorian pillars provide the structural support for Syracuse's Cathedral - one of the very few visible examples in architecture of Roman temples becoming Christian churches

The beautiful baroque facade of Syracuse's cathedral does not give away its Dorian origin


The collapse of the Roman Empire hit Syracuse hard. Long-distance trade and with it the market for its agricultural products disappeared. The town shrunk dramatically and retrenched to the Island of Ortigia. During Arab and Normand times, there was a certain revival of its agro-business but when Sicily became Spanish, the new overlords suspended all trading with the "infidels". Syracuse became completely dependent on Spanish hand outs. It became one of Spain's border towns against the Ottoman Empire.

Today, Syracuse is in a difficult spot. It is beautiful but far too expensive for what it offers. The harbour fees are close to extortion and the restrictive building regulations in the old town deter private capital from investing. There are some public investments but they are far too few to bring the town back to life. It seems as if everybody has accepted the slow, but inevitable decline of Syracuse.

Whilst vital questions on Syracuse's future remain unresolved, Italian life as we know it continues. Markets are full of produce and it is fun going shopping. So much choice! Basically, it is still a rich agricultural place - if it were simply liberated from its shackles.

Yummie fresh tuna on display

Plenty of fresh mussels and oysters on the stall next door - all very affordable

And the local delicatessen shop around the corner is a dream. You do not want to leave!

We leave the town with the feeling that this could be a first class holiday destination if there was a concerted effort to make it happen but wondered whether anybody will actually do it.

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