We climbed up the steep steps of the well-preserved Greek theatre and sat for a while on the hard stone seats. Green foliage covered the hills in front of us. Every summer this theater comes alive with performances of classical theater. Little was left of the nearby Roman amphitheatre, but it gave me much food for thought – just considering the close proximity of the two structures and how they related to the two great Greek and Roman civilizations.
If only these medieval walls could talk, I thought as I wound my way through the narrow streets of Ortigia Island in Syracuse. Our hotel was located in a charming square next to a Catholic church, formerly an old synagogue, in Guidecca, the old Jewish quarter.
The small square came alive at nightfall with local school children laughing and cruising around the plaza on their skateboards. People were engrossed in animated discussions at the outdoor cafe across the street. One evening clanging church bells preceded a religious procession that passed through our plaza. A statue outlined in lights seemed to glide effortlessly above the crowd and then disappeared with the parade down a narrow dimly-lit street. Silence ensued.
One evening we visited the oldest Mikvah in Europe (a ritual Jewish bath) which was under a nearby hotel. This hotel was formerly a home owned by a rich family which they think had Jewish ancestry and converted to Catholicism in 1492 to survive the Inquisition. The Mikvah, which was accessed by a steep stone staircase, had been covered up for centuries. Cold water from an ancient Greek well was flowing among the five pools. The air was so heavy with moisture I felt like I was in a cave. The Mikvah is occasionally used today by the few Jews that still reside in Syracuse.
Syracuse has lovely squares with beautiful fountains, fascinating historic architecture, and a lively outdoor daily market. Many of the narrow medieval streets end at the old city walls, offering stunning views of the Bay of Syracuse. Others lead into expansive plazas, such as Piazza Duomo.
On one side of Plaza Duomo is a historic, grand cathedral. On the other side is the elegant Palazzo Beneventano. The Greek Temple of Athena from 5th century BC had been incorporated into the cathedral. Interestingly, some of the temple’s ancient pillars that are currently supporting the structure could be seen from the outside. Tourists relaxed in a cafe under a sun umbrella taking in the drama of the plaza. The scene was so perfect I felt like I was in a movie set.
The bustling waterfront market on Ortigia operates in the shadow of the ruins of the ancient Greek Temple of Apollo. Each day I stopped here to buy some fresh fruit. The local apples were especially delicious. The owner of an inviting cheese shop offered free samples in the form of a cheese sandwich whenever we passed by. Of course we felt obliged to buy some cheese from him; which we did. One morning a priest dropped in to bless this business. Everyone around us stopped for a minute as he offered a prayer.
Fishermen in their colorful fishing boats constantly ply the waters just outside the marketplace. They often gave us a smile when they spotted us taking a photo of them as they passed under the bridge where we were standing.
One evening around sunset we were captivated by a group of athletic young men in kayaks playing a form of water football near one of the small bridges that connects Ortigia Island with the mainland. Splashing and kayak-bashing seemed to be part of the game. An appreciative audience, some just passers-by like us, cheered them on.
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