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Ragusa and Syracuse, Sicily

sunny 28 °C

After driving around Italy in 2008 Shelly and I swore we'd never drive in Italy again, but to get around in Sicily we decided we had no other option. We hired a little Renault Megane and although it was a tight squeeze to get three people and all our bags in, we were soon set and on our way. We headed south towards Agrigento with its Greek temple ruins.

Our GPS which told us Agrigento was only two hours from Palermo but it took us a lot longer driving through the dry Sicilian countryside. The roads certainly weren't the best and there was a lot of roadworks, but at least the traffic was sparse. We reached the city of Agrigento, which sits atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea, in the mid afternoon. It looked a good place to stop and explore with a collection of impressive churches and fortifications, but we we had accommodation pre-booked in Ragusa so drove through the city and down onto the coastal plain and the Valley of the Temples.
Agrigento's ruins are pitched as the best Greek ruins in Sicily - and probably they are - but they were not as impressive as we had expected. This was once the Greek city of Akragas which was founded in the 6th century BC and became a wealthy trading centre. The temples were built during these early boom years of the 6th and 5th century BC. The city managed to stay out of the 30 year Peloponnesian War in the 4th century BC when Athens fought with almost every other Greek city-state to maintain its imperial rule (Athens lost, largely because of the cost of its wars in Sicily). Later the city was incorporated into the Carthegian Empire but in the 3rd century BC the Romans fought a three generational war with the Carthegians, driving them out of Sicily and pretty much destroying the Akragas in the process.
Only a single temple is generally intact as it was converted into a Christian church in the 6th century AD.
It was a very hot day to be wandering around in the dry and dusty ruins, which dampened our enthusiasm so after walking the length of the site, we headed off to Ragusa.

Old Ragusa is a city of two halves. The old, old Ragusa is an ancient city built on a peninsula sitting in the bend of a river. It's a marvelous defensive position. In 1693 however, an earthquake destroyed much to the old city and the inhabitants moved across the gorge an rebuilt a new Ragusa there.
The new town was built with regular street planning and better facilities so many families never moved back to the old town, leaving it as a kind of ghost town. Much later the old, old town was restored and people began moving back. It's now a tourism hub, although its isolated position means most visitors stay in new old town.
We booked small apartment in the modern old town and we walked down to the old town that night to explore and eat. The first view of the old, old town from the edge of the gorge is particularly stunning. After getting lost in labyrinth of streets we made it to t he main square and I had one of the best pastas I've had in Italy - linguini with porcini mushrooms. It was spectacular. Pistachio is a popular ingredient in Sicilian food and Shelly and Emma had pistachio pasta and seafood with pistachio respectively, both excellent.
The next day we wandered back to the old town to see it in daylight before setting off to Sicily's old, old capital, Syracusa.

Syracuse was founded at the end of a narrow peninsula by Ionian settlers from Greece in the 6th century BC. By the time of the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC) Syracuse had become " the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all" (Roman writer Cicero 1st century BC). Syracuse was considered such a rich prize that the Athenians attempted to capture it three times during the Peloponnesian War, each time losing their entire fleet and army in the process, and ultimately bankrupting themselves into the bargain. A century later the Romans attacked the city, but found the city ably defended by war machines devised by Archimedes, Syracuse's resident genius. One particularly terrifying device was able to grapple Roman galleys and haul them out of the water onto the city walls. Unfortunately Archimedes' inventions could only delay the inevitable and he was killed when the city eventually fell after a 3 year siege. Syracuse then became the Roman capital of Sicily.
Sicily today is quite a dry place and it is hard to imagine that Sicily could ever have been a land of plenty, but under the Greeks and then the Romans, the province was one of the most productive in the empire. Wheat, grains, olives and fruit trees were extensively cultivated and, as the island had no borders with troublesome neighbours, almost no troops were required to garrison the island. Sicily was so important that when the Arabs conquered Syria, Egypt and North Africa in the 7th century the East Roman (Byzantine) emperor Constans II left Constantinople with a large army and settled in Syracuse to personally see to the island's defences. It seems like he decided to stay in Sicily as he soon began building a new imperial palace in Syracuse. This meant more taxes, which annoyed the Syracusans no end and in 668 he was beaten to death in his bath by one of his servants.
Constans' imperial palace is long gone but there are still a few Roman buildings remaining in the city, including an enormous temple (now converted into a gloomy church) in the main square.
Over on the mainland there is a large archaeological park centered around the Roman amphitheater. After walking around in the old city we attempted to find the archaeological park but our GPS could not find it and the street signs were of little help. After an hour of frustration we stumbled upon it, just prior to closing. As the entry fee was quite stiff and the singular ticket office was on the other side of the park we decided to give it miss. There would be more Roman ruins to look at elsewhere.

Posted by paulymx 22:35 Archived in Italy

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We really must see more of Sicily some day, so it's encouraging to read that you coped OK with driving there - something we've always been wary of attempting. Ragusa looks and sounds amazing!

by ToonSarah

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