Syracuse, Sicily

Today the National Geographic Endeavour berthed in the old harbor adjacent to Ortygia, a tiny islet off the southeast corner of Sicily, where in 734 BC citizens of the Greek city-state of Corinth founded their colony. At first glance there is little in the skyline or narrow streets of what now appears to be a Spanish Baroque city that belies its ancient past. Long gone are the Greek trireme sheds, fortifications, and Archimedes famous siege weapons that enabled the Syracusans to defeat the Athenians, Carthaginians, and hold off the Romans for almost a year.

In order to gain a better understanding of Sicilian culture we began our morning walking tour with our guest chef, Joyce Goldstein, and the galley staff. We moved through the crowded food markets sampling sun-dried cheery tomatoes and olives, juicy peaches, and buying cheeses and herbs. We continued to wind our way through the narrow pedestrian streets of the old city until breaking out into the Duomo Square. The magnificent Baroque façade of the Duomo fronts the completely intact Greek Temple of Athena. Sitting quietly in the pews amongst the flickering offering candles, alone in our thoughts, we were transported back in time to the 5th century BC. As we stepped back into the 21st century, we were greeted once again by the sights, sounds and smells of Sicily: children riding bicycles in the piazza; animated shopkeepers and women hurrying home to cook the noon meal.

From Baroque splendor to Greek and Roman masterpieces, Syracuse has it all. In the afternoon we escaped the hustle and bustle of the modern city. Once through the gauntlet of postcard vendors, we found ourselves strolling along the oleander-flanked pathways of the archaeological park. We started our visit at the bottom of the Latomie, the ancient limestone quarry where Dionysius, the tyrant ruler of Syracuse, imprisoned more 7,000 Athenian soldiers in 413 BC. Our guide sang “Ave Maria” to demonstrate the extraordinary acoustic qualities of the “Ear of Dionysius” a 23 mile high man-made cave at one end of the quarry. As we climbed up the sun-parched, but now silent, stone seats of the ancient Greek theater, it was hard not to think about the 18,000 souls who once filled the seats 2,200 years ago. What manner of men lived through the wars and peace that punctuated the turbulent history of this city; made offerings to the gods on the alters before her temples; sold amphorae of herb-infused wine along the quay; or cloaked in leather and bronze armor, stood sentinel on the watch towers that ringed her city walls?