Sicily really was the Key to Everything for Tony Verity, who travelled with us last year as one of our expert guest lecturers. His delightful blog shows why Sicily is one our guests’ favourite stops each summer. From the local markets selling unique delicacies through to the magnificence of the architecture, Tony’s blog will really make you want to visit, or re-visit, this amazing island.
“Sicily is indeed the key to everything: lying in the middle of the Mediterranean, it has been exposed through history to multiple influences: settled by Greek colonists, the first overseas province of the young Roman Empire, overrun by Arabs (who also brought irrigation, cotton, rice, oranges and lemons), ruled by Norman kings (the de Hautevilles, the same family as our William I) for an extraordinary 150 years of cultural fusion, languishing under distant Spanish rule for nearly 600 years, then the jumping-off point for Garibaldi’s 1860 revolution which unified Italy and Sicily.
The island has always fascinated me, as a student of Classical and Arab history, and nowhere more than Syracuse.
The Cathedral in Syracuse
When Aegean Odyssey docked in the early hours of 1 September, we were soon ashore after our usual delicious breakfast on the verandah deck. Cruise ships moor in the Great Harbour, near the ancient city of Ortygia, so it was only a short step to the noisy, colourful market, to pick up a small, dense block of bottarga di tonno (heavily salted and compressed tunny roe), used to flavour pasta in a typical Sicilian dish (an acquired taste, it has to be admitted).
Then to the Cathedral square and time for a coffee, reminding ourselves of the building’s unique history. Originally a Greek temple dedicated to Athene, it later became a Christian church when Sicily was briefly part of the Byzantine Empire, and was then enlarged by the Normans. If you walk round the outside you can see that the walls are punctuated by the original Greek columns; and the whole thing is topped off by Arab battlements. There can be few more striking examples of the continuity of a sacred space.
Then briefly downhill for an ice cream and the Spring of Arethusa, a freshwater pool a few metres from the sea. Legend has it that the nymph Arethusa was pursued in Greece by the river god Alpheus, dived under the sea to escape him and popped up here, hundreds of miles from home.
Luckily, the main archaeological remains lie on the other side of the cruise ships’ moorings, so pausing only for a light lunch back on Aegean Odyssey, we made for them. Syracuse was founded in 734 BC from mainland Corinth, and was in its prime the proudest and most powerful city of Sicily, with a population three times its present number.
Every city had to have a drama festival and a theatre, and Syracuse’s is one of the biggest and best preserved, i.e. it hasn’t been too obscured by subsequent Roman ‘improvements’. Its present form dates from the 3rd century BC, when it could hold about 15,000 spectators. You can read the name of the ruler who enlarged it, Hiero II, and his wife Philistis inscribed half-way up the seating area.
Greek Amphitheatre, Syracuse
Then for one of the most poignant Classical remains: a sunken park, laid out with elegant trees and thronged with strolling tourists, called the Latomia di Paradiso. ‘Latomia’ means ‘quarry’, and it was from here that stone was excavated to build the city’s monuments. It was also the place where later several thousand Athenian prisoners were kept in concentration camp conditions, after the failure in 413 BC of a huge expedition sent from Athens to conquer Syracuse and seize its fabulous wealth. Herded together, with no shelter, these Athenians, who had sailed from Greece two years previously with such high hopes, suffered extremes of heat and cold. Many died; a few – so the story goes – were released by their cultured captors because they could recite chunks of plays by the Athenian writer Euripides.
The Latomia also contains a lofty, oddly-shaped cave called by the painter Caravaggio ‘The Ear of Dionysius’, because it was rumoured that a ruler called Dionysius had kept prisoners there and listened from the top opening to their subversive secret plotting. It’s a good place to impress tourists by singing, better than a bathroom, as I discovered a few years ago.
Ear of Dionysius, Syracuse
At this point weariness crept up on us, and we reluctantly gave up the idea of revisiting the excellent archaeological museum and the catacombs of S.Giovanni, and the so-called tomb of Archimedes – yes, that Archimedes, of bath and screw fame, civil engineer and inventor to Syracusan royalty. Back in the comfort of Aegean Odyssey, with a reviving drink in hand, we looked out over the Great Harbour, picturing the sea battle that decided the fate of the Athenian expeditionary fleet, described in graphic detail by the Athenian historian Thucydides, and looking forward to the further delights that Sicily had in store.”
If you would like to follow in Tony’s footsteps, you can still contact us and book a late availability cabin on The Minoan Civilisation, a cruise from Athens to Rome departing in March 2012 and calling at Sicily and Syracuse in particular.
Anthony Verity gained a double first in Classics and Oriental Languages at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and after working briefly in the City taught Classics in three schools before becoming headmaster first of Leeds Grammar School and then Dulwich College.
His interests are in Greek poetry, drama, and religion, in Latin poetry and in the Arab world. He has lectured for many years on cruise ships, on both classical antiquity and the Middle East from the rise of Islam to the present day. He was joint editor of the classical periodical Greece & Rome for some years, and has published translations of the poets Theocritus and Pindar. His translation of Homer’s Iliad will appear in August 2011.
He teaches Greek literature to adults, governs an independent school, and enjoys living in Cumbria.