It was too dark to see outside our hotel when we arrived on Tuesday night, so we awoke to a lovely surprise: Taormina is high on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Catania, and our rooms had great views of the beautiful northeastern Sicilian coastline below.
Hotel Villa Diodoro was old-fashioned but really nice, and the wonderful breakfast buffet area overlooked the Ionian Sea (I think—too many seas surround Sicilia!). I especially loved the tiny, aromatic croissants, and despite my daily vow not to, I always returned to the buffet for “just one more,” which always turned into just two more. Talk about lack of self-control!
My leg was killing me Wednesday morning, and I wasn’t sure I could do any walking on our tour to Syracuse that day. After breakfast I decided to at least ride in the van, and I took my Kindle with me in case I was too crippled. I hate to miss anything! Syracuse is about two hours south of Taormina, and by the time we got there, it felt good to get out of the van and walk around a bit.
Founded by Greeks around 750 BC, Syracuse became one of the major powers of ancient times. The Parco Archeologico della Neapolis on the western edge of town is home to Syracuse’s most important Greek and Roman buildings. The most impressive, the large Teatro Greco (Greek Theater), was carved out of a single piece of stone (!) in the 5th century BC, according to our guide. The plays of Euripedes, Aeschylus, and Sophocles are still performed at the Teatro Greco every summer, as they have been for centuries.
Outside the entrance to the theater is a stone quarry with a 197-foot entrance that looks like a donkey’s ear. Caravaggio, the painter, called it the “ear of Dionysius,” because Dionysius was rumored to force his prisoners to go there at night so he could hear everything they said.
The park also includes the Anfiteatro Romano (Roman Amphitheater) in which gladiators, wild beasts, and slaves performed for Syracuse’s citizens. That must have been quite a contrast—classical plays on the top of the hill and blood and gore at the bottom. Between the two is the base of the longest altar ever built (651 feet long): Ara di Lerone (Altar of Heron). Citizens enjoying the festivities in the two theaters stopped at this altar to eat the grilled meat from the animals that were sacrificed there.
I enjoyed the Parco Archeologico and our guide’s interesting stories, but I especially loved Ortygia Island, the old city of Syracuse. If we had seen more than 20 people there, I might have refused to leave! It is beautiful and has one of the best piazzas, Piazza del Duomo, that I’ve ever seen, but it is so, so, so quiet! “Winter is quiet here,” said our guide in a classic understatement.
Our guide whisked us into a small church on the southeast corner of Piazza del Duomo to see Caravaggio’s Burial of St. Lucy, which is hanging there until repairs are finished on its home. The guide, my favorite of our tour, was so excited to see the painting and described it with such love that it would have been impossible NOT to be thrilled to see it. It is exquisite. If the guide hadn’t been my favorite because of his good humor and great love for and knowledge of Syracuse, he was downright irresistible for his addition of a delighted “mamma mia” at the end of every other sentence!
Our guide unhappily made us leave Burial of St. Lucy to go see the Duomo on the other side of the piazza. He worried that the guard would close the cathedral early because that had been happening recently, and our guide was right to rush us because just as we got there, the guard pulled out his keys and began to lock the door. After a long, impassioned plea, our guide convinced the guard to leave the church open for just a few more minutes and hurried us inside to tell us about it.
The Duomo is beautiful on the outside and rather ordinary on the inside until you learn that the church was built over and incorporates a 5th-century BC Greek temple honoring Athena. If the Christians hadn’t filled in the spaces between the pillars to make their own church in the 7th century AD, the temple would have been torn down. I don’t know which is worse, rendering the temple nearly unrecognizable or tearing it down, but I suppose the Christians did the best they could.
After a wonderful “light” lunch (my second favorite, probably because of the panna cotta) at a nearby restaurant in which we were the only customers, we headed back to Taormina. We said goodbye to wonderful Giuseppina, and the group, except for the Kims, met in the bar at 7. We’d done that on Tuesday when we arrived in Taormina and were served by the most incompetent waiter I’ve ever seen. I thought it was miraculous that we all ended up with the correct food and drinks! Wednesday was even more chaotic because we had the same waiter, alas, and the restaurant had run out of chicken salad sandwiches—which I’d really enjoyed on Tuesday—and had only grilled sandwiches or veal salad sandwiches to offer. Kate and I opted for veal salad sandwiches, and I warn you, do NOT make this mistake! Mamma mia!!!
Weather = very overcast but no rain. Company = outstanding! Food and drink = great! Parco Archeologico = great, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, but I think I was Greek and Roman gloried out. Ortygia Island = fantastico! Guide = the best! Total score = 5 of 5