Syracuse - Abbey Travel, Ireland

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Welcome to Syracuse


Visitors to Syracuse may be forgiven for wondering whether they are on holiday in Italy or Greece. This city on the southeastern corner of Sicily's Ionian coastline once rivalled Athens as the most important city in the ancient Greek world. Its Greek heritage can still be found in abundance in both the ruins of buildings older and more splendid than the Parthenon and in the myths and legends centred particularly on its oldest quarter, the island of Ortygia. Archimedes once strode the streets here and today tourists who stroll around the Neapolis Archaeological Park on the Terminite Hill can still get a feel for Syracuse's golden age of power and prosperity. As well as the Hellenic relics, Syracuse also boasts more than its fair share of Roman ruins and some fine medieval Gothic architecture and art, all treasures to be singled out from among the uninspiring high-rises and motorways that make up the modern city. Parking is a problem in the city, particularly on Ortygia where most of the medieval sights and the best shops are located, and the heat can become unbearable in the height of summer; however no holiday in Sicily is complete without exploring the antiquities of Syracuse. Most visitors prefer to make day trips to the city from the more comfortable surrounding resort areas, where soft white beaches and fine wines can be enjoyed on the shores of the Ionian Sea.

Information & Facts

The official language of Italy is Italian. English is understood in the larger cities but not in the more remote parts of the country.

The Euro (EUR) is the official currency, which is divided into 100 cents. Those arriving in Italy with foreign currency can obtain Euros through any bank, ATM or bureaux de change. ATMs are widespread. Travellers cheques can be exchanged with ease in the large cities, not so in the smaller towns. Credit cards are accepted in upmarket establishments and shops around the cities. Banks are closed on weekends, but tend to have better rates than casas de cambios.

The second-largest city in Sicily, Catania sits in the shadow of Europe's highest volcano, Mount Etna, on the east of Sicily between Syracuse and Taormina. Ugly, decayed and crime-ridden today, it was once called the 'city of black and white' because of the use of white marble and black lava to construct its elegant buildings, many of which have since fallen into ruins or been destroyed by war, earthquakes and lava flows. In summer Catania sizzles; it is regarded as the hottest city in Italy, with temperatures often soaring to 104ºF (40ºC). Despite its unattractive aspects, Catania is an ancient city, founded in 729 BC, and boasts some interesting historical relics. There are two Roman amphitheatres, one reminiscent of Rome's Colosseum, and a 13th-century fortress, Ursino Castle, which is now a museum. The city's cathedral contains some royal tombs and was built in the 11th century.

Sicily's greatest natural attraction is the (very) active volcano, Mount Etna, which has been spewing lava and shaking the earth for centuries, most recently in 2008, while ash eruptions occur almost continuosly. About 20 miles (32km) from Catania the craters below the summit can be reached from the town of Piano Provenzana at the base by mountain bus or on foot. This town also serves as a ski resort in winter, and during summer is a base camp for hikers intent on enjoying the wooded scenery and exploring the interesting caverns in the area. Various species of oak and stone pine, birch and beech trees cover the lower mountain slopes, while frogs, toads, tortoises and Sicily's ubiquitous lizards hide in the forest streams. Foxes, weasels, squirrels and other small mammals stalk the forests and a plethora of bird species fill the trees and the Gurrida Lake area.

The Ponte Nuova(New Bridge) connects the mainland city of Syracuse to the island of Ortygia, where most of the area's worthy sights are located. The remains of the Temple of Apollo are sited in the Piazza Pancali: this is the oldest Greek temple in Sicily, built in the Doric style around 565 BC. The cathedral in the nearby Piazza Duomo is uniquely made up of the original walls of a 5th-century BC Greek temple known as the Athenaion, and near the sea, reached along Via Capodieci, is the mythical Spring of Arethusa. There are medieval relics on the island too, including Maniaces Castle dating from the 11th Century. Apart from the many historic sights, the island of Ortygia also offers numerous boutiques and craft shops, and restaurants and cafes galore. Several hours are required to explore the island fully.

Syracuse's archaeological museum is one of the most extensive in all of Italy, preserving relics and remains from the Greek, Roman and early Christian eras of Sicily's history. The museum building itself is ultra-modern, consisting of glass-and-steel exhibition halls connected in a hexagonal shape. The exhibits cover a vast range, from the skeletons of prehistoric animals to the renowned Landolina Venusstatue.

The Archaeological Park on the western edge of the city of Syracuse contains the celebrated rock-hewn Greek amphitheatre, capable of holding about 15,000 people, where Euripides and Aeschylus' works were performed in the days of antiquity. Today, Greek dramas are still played here on occasion. Inside a leafy quarry at the site near the theatre is the ear-shaped cavern the Orecchio di Dionigi, reputedly used by Dionysius as a prison. Nearby is the Roman Amphitheatre, built in the time of Augustus, where gladiators fought each other and wild animals in gory contests.

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