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E + 1 : Syracuse - Million Mega City?

The old Norman Fortress Maniace, which the Spanish rebuilt into a mighty gun fortress

Pulling into the ancient harbour of Syracuse where they defeated the Athenian Fleet more than 2'400 years ago is always spectacular. We arrived just before 8 am - the crossing from Malta took 11 hours. As we slipped into the bay, the sun bathed Castello Maniace, the Norman Fortress, in bright morning light. It looked beautiful even though it is just a "war machine" and was not designed for aesthetics.

The locals use the Fort's wind shelter for their private boat parties

The crossing had been more rocky than anticipated. Top wind speeds reached 32 knots and for many of us sleep was elusive. But nobody got sick and everybody met for coffee at the AFAET's back at sunrise. Wonder whether the shallow sea bed had anything to do with it. The waters between Malta and Sicily are only 100 meters deep. During the last ice age, there was a land bridge linking the two island and there are dwarf elephant skeletons in Malta's Museum of Palaeontology. They walked from Sicily to Malta 30'000 years ago. Must have been a sight! Waters over shallow ground are usually more turbulent - just a guess.

The Ice Age Land Bridge is now 100 m below sea levels

After the short night we took it easy this morning. We joined up with our stranded Belgian guest and the crew is now complete. Went shopping for shoes for climbing Monte Vulcano on Thursday since I forgot mine in Switzerland - others just went for a walk. Early afternoon Masha, our Russian guide who came to Syracuse in 1999 and now speaks Italian like a native, picked us up for a historic walk through Ortygia, the old town.

There are Oleander Trees everywhere - an Oleander drop a day takes your husband away - so the Sicilians say ... interesting that locals know such stuff - what business are they in?

Apparently, Greeks from Corinth came to this place since 1'100 BC. Syracuse was formally established as Corinthian colony in 400 years later. The Greek settlers were attractive by the fresh water in Ortygia. Due to a quirk of geology, a layer of limestone conducts water from the inland mountains below sea level and pushes it up on the island. The island is basically a huge artesian fountain! No wonder Greek settlers liked it. A good harbour, fresh water sources, solid limestone to build on. Ortygia became the Acropolis of Syracuse, a save place where to erect temples for the Gods, establish public buildings and keep the town's treasure. The Acropolis of Athens is the same - albeit on a rock. Here, the Acropolis is built on an easily defensible island. Nevertheless, giant sea walls protect the island as well.

The Dorian Columns of the Temple of Apollo, the first

Greek Temple in Sicily - built on the Ortygia Acropolis

Ordinary people lived mostly in Neapolis (new town) on the mainland, which we are going to visit tomorrow. It seems that Syracuse was much larger than we assumed. A safe guess is that the town had 250'000 people which makes it larger than Athens. But recent archeological digs indicate that there may have been up to one million - the size of Rome in its heydays 500 years later. If this was confirmed, Syracuse would have been the biggest town in antiquity before Rome - amazing!

Syracuse was a Pentapolis - a settlement made from 5 towns - Ortygia was just one of them

Syracuse was not only a trading centre and harbour for agricultural exports, it was also the home to a thriving shipbuilding industry. Some sources say that the best ships in Ancient Greece were built here. With the ready supply of oaks and pines from the nearby forests, this comes as no surprise. It would also explain why Syracuse had an engineering tradition which produced Archimedes. Athens built its large fleet thanks to silver found in Attica - but had to import all the materials. Here, they were just outside the town walls.

Syracuse's Cathedral della Navtivita is built inside the

Greek Temple of Athene!

During our walk we also learnt that Syracuse was "Genovese" from 1201 - 1224. Genova did not need colonies in southern Italy to secure its trade route. As the main shipper for the Crusaders, they secured lucrative concessions and custom privileges in most ports to the Levante. Genovese traders must have been skilled diplomats. They got concessions first from the Byzantine Empire, then after 1098 from the Norman Kings and eventually from the German Emperor Frederich Barbarossa. In one of these deals, German Emperors conceded Syracuse to Genova's rogue Admiral Alamanno da Costa. Describing him as a trouble maker would be diplomatic. He was pompous and insisted to be called "by the grace of God, the king and the commune of Genoa, Count of Syracuse and familiaris of the lord king". He did not last - of course. By 1221 he was gone.

The Baroque Piazza del Duomo built by the Spanish after the earthquake of 1683 - the Spanish owned the island for seven centuries

On the way to the cathedral which is built inside the old Temple of Athena, we crossed the former Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods with their narrow alleys and streets. Both the Jews and the Arab had to leave Syracuse in 1492, when Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon issued the edict of Alhambra. Primarily designed to cleanse Southern Spain from the Moors, it had its most devastating effect in Syracuse. The vital trading connections which took centuries to build were destroyed overnight. It ruined Sicily's thriving export business. Syracuse never recovered. Reminds me of what is currently happening in the UK. Brexit may be the equivalent to the decree of Alhambra.

With the sun setting down, the outdoor screens for the

European Championship Final Italy vs England lit up

Our day closed in the streets of Syracuse where a young crowed watched Italy beating the English team for the European Championship title. They were enthusiastic full of positive energy and joy. The celebrations continued with fireworks until way after midnight. If only all this energy could be harvested to build a working Italy. But the stifling bureaucracy that state imposes on its citizens does not give much space for optimism.


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