If Ortigia is the place in Siracusa for the aesthete and eater, then the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis is the place in Siracusa for history buffs. (pahr-koh ahr-key-oh-loh-jee-koh deh-lah ney-ah-poh-lees; Neapolis Archaeological Park)
As Ortigia is too small for anything other than the absolute necessities of a town, the entertainment district was built on the mainland portion of Siracusa. The Greeks were the first ones to start building on this plot of land, which was rich with limestone. They dug out a quarry, and used the limestone to build the city of Siracusa.
Once the city was built up, however, they needed some way to entertain the people. This was a fair bit before the Romans articulated the theory of panem et circenses (bread and circuses), but the Greeks had the same idea. As any history or literary student will tell you (I’m both), the Greeks loved their plays. Stage productions played a large part in Greek intellectual life, and many of the playwrights also dabbled in philosophy, and vice versa. So, naturally, the Greeks built a theater. Where better to build it than right next to the quarry that the stone would come from?
The Teatro Greco (teh-ah-troh greh-koh; Greek theater) in Siracusa was built in the 5th century BC. While some of the theater is cut out of the hillside, most of it was built using that abundant white limestone which came from approximately 500 meters to stage right. Now, the Greeks built theaters pretty much everywhere their boats landed, but this one in particular is special. This is because some of the greats of Greek theater were performed here in Siracusa for the first time. For example, the last plays of Aeschylus, the tragedian, were performed here. Unfortunately, when the Romans got their hands on Siracusa, they altered the theater so that it was more suited to their lower-brow forms of entertainment, such as gladiatorial fights and mock battles. Modern Siracusans, however, decided to keep with the more intellectual tradition of Greek theater when they undertook to restore the area. Today, they hold a festival of Greek theater on this stage every year in late spring/early summer. Some of the wonderful plays that were originally performed in this theater are revived and performed in Italian for the benefit of modern spectators.
Another attraction in the Parco Archeologico is the Anfiteatro Romano (ahn-fee-teh-ah-troh roh-mah-noh; Roman Amphitheater). This is located just by the entrance to the park, and is likely the first thing visitors will see upon entering the compound. This amphitheater is very much a miniature Colosseum, and it functioned in exactly the same way, just on a smaller scale. It was built in the 1st century AD, after it was evidently decided that the Greek theater was wholly unsuited to getting up-close and personal with blood and gore. Roman amphitheaters are built much like modern arenas, and are designed to get as many spectators as possible as close to the entertainment as possible. So, the design is an oval with tiered seating. This amphitheater was built over an underground spring, so that it could be flooded and used for mock sea battles – yes, that was a thing in ancient Rome. When it was dry, gladiators were brought in to fight, sometimes to the death, with each other and wild animals. Clearly, this is not the genteel entertainment of the Greeks, but the Romans, considering themselves a great warrior people, enjoyed it immensely. Again, this site isn’t as well preserved as we would like it to be, because when the Spanish took control of Sicily, they used the amphitheater as an easily-accessible quarry. Even so, modern restoration efforts have made it possible for visitors to get an idea of what it would have looked like in its heyday.
The third most important site in the Parco Archeologico is the Orecchio di Dionisio (oh-rek-ee-oh dee dee-oh-nee-see-oh). To be completely honest, this was my least favorite place to visit at the archaeological park. The Orecchio is a man-made cave in the former quarry, which was built for an aqueduct. However, under the rule of Dionysius in Siracusa, it was used as a prison for the Athenian POWs captured during the Siracusan rebellion against Athens. The prisoners were kept in deplorable conditions – for starters, they were kept in a dark and creepy cave – and used for slave labor. The truly creepy aspect of this cave is the acoustics. From the entrance, you can hear everything that’s going on at the back, which is fairly deep into the hillside. Legend has it that the guards posted at the entrance would take advantage of the sound funneling to eavesdrop on the prisoners, who were all the way at the back of the cave. When Caravaggio was in Siracusa, the townspeople gave him a grand guided tour, which included the archaeological zone. Having just escaped a stint in prison himself, he was, quite understandably, less than thrilled about the Orecchio. It was he who gave the cave its name: the Ear of Dionysius. What he meant disparagingly, Siracusa took to whole-heartedly. I, for one, agree completely with Caravaggio, and didn’t venture very far into the Orecchio.
Visiting the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis:
Getting there: There are several bus lines that run out to the archaeological zone, which is a bit outside the city center. Ask the concierge at your hotel for details – bus tickets shouldn’t be more than 2€. There is also a parking lot near the site, in case you’ve rented a car. If, like me, you’re up for a bit of a bracing walk, the archaeological zone is about a half-hour walk from Ortigia.
Entry: Tickets can be bought in the tourist area across the street from the park gates. Follow the signs through the souvenir stalls to the ticket office. Tickets for the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis are 10€, with a student discount 5€. You can also purchase a combined ticket which includes entry to the Museo Archeologico (Archaeological Museum) for 13.50€, or 7€ with a student discount.
Hours: During the summer season, the park is open from 9:00 am until 6:30 pm daily. However, if you’re there in May or June, the park closes at 4:30 pm to prepare for the evening productions of Greek plays.
A word of caution! The ticket office and souvenir stands are across the road from the entrance to the park, and there are no crossing lights. There is also a curve just up the road from the crosswalk, and Italian drivers are not the best at slowing down for pedestrians. Be very careful when crossing the road, and when possible, move with a herd of other visitors.