Syracuse was my favorite city we visited on the trip. It seemed to have just the right combination of charm, beauty, culture, and grittiness, and the nice hotel we stayed in didn’t hurt either. Hotel Gutkowski was right on the water in Ortigia, a neighborhood of Sicily that is actually it’s own little island, connected by bridges to the rest of the city. The rooms were clean and crisp, designed as if to feel like a neat beachside cottage (and impression helped by the shores of the Mediterranean just outside our window). Ortigia, small and very walkable, is the oldest part of the city featuring many historic sites, such as the Castel Maniace, the Duomo, and the ruins of a temple to Apollo. We spent the morning of the first day walking around Ortigia to see these sights, and then took a break in the market district for lunch. The markets were chaotic, but were just what I would have imagined a Sicilian street market to be: dirty, loud, filled with strange scents of pungent cheese and seafood, and home to all sorts of things that one wouldn’t find a tame American farmer’s market. Right next to a stand selling prickly pear fruit was a bucket of little squid and next to those a massive swordfish head, and so on.
My birthday, the first one I’ve celebrated abroad, was on the first day in Syracuse, and we celebrated that night by doing the same thing that we did during all our free evenings: eat and drink.
Some of the guys on the trip had been lucky enough to be assigned to a palatial apartment-style room in the hotel, which had it’s own living room, so we had a little apiritivo party there before heading out to another incredible Italian dinner. I split a pizza diavole con olive (pizza with mozzarella, tomato, spicy pepperoni, garlic, and olives) and pasta alla norma (pasta with eggplant, tomatoes, basil, and cheese). And a free lemon sorbetto for dessert!
The next day, we visited the Neapolis, home to many of Syracuse’s ancient sites, including two amphitheaters, a quarry, monastic rock dwellings, and a giant altar. In the old quarry area is a cave called “The Ear of Dionysus,” which looks a lot like an ear opening carved in the rock, and has astounding acoustics. We all walked through the “canal” to the very back, where one of the grad students with an astounding voice sang while our eyes adjusted to the darkness. Once outside the ear (we decided it was time to go after someone got pooped on by one of the caves winged residents), we collected fallen limes from the many trees in the area on our walk to the exit, where a stand was selling freshly squeezed juice. The next stop in Syracuse were the Catacombs of San Giovanni, an underground labyrinth of early Christian tombs (now without bodies) that our hilariously bad at English tour guide gave us a whirlwind tour of before shooing us away so she could get off work for the day. On our way out of Syracuse we visited the Castello Euriale, ruins of an inland defensive structure, whose best feature was the stunning vista of the city, the sea, and the countryside.