Syracuse, City on the sea

Trip Start Oct 24, 2010
Trip End Jan 16, 2011

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Where I stayed
Hotel Popolus
Syracuse, City on the Sea

Flag of Italy  , Sicily,
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

We left our Hotel Bellini in Catania. It looked worse from the outside than it really was. Inside it was clean and staff were terrific, providing helpful guidance for the city and beyond. The guidebook said that the Hotel was located in an area "with a lively bar scene outside." The book wasn't kidding. The noise of music and people went well beyond 3:00AM on the weekend, but was over at 12 midnight during weekdays. But it was cheaper than most and we thank Tom Smurro again for the great information.
Our last day in Catania, we walked to the main square to have a Cafe Americano and hot milk at our favorite little sidewalk cafe. While enjoying a croissant with my coffee, a group of students marched past. There were about 30 of them heading somewhere. We returned to the room, collected our bags, and toted them to the nearest bus station. We waited for, then boarded the bus to the Statione Centrale. As the bus rumbelled along it made it's final turn toward the station, then came to a compete stop. It was a traffic jam of some kind. We could see the station in the distance. Soon the car horns began blaring as the stuck drivers were getting frustrated. The bus driver, realizing he was going nowhere, opened the doors and we all poured out onto the sidewalk. As we walked the last block and a half to the station , I could now see that there was a much larger group of students massing in the parking lot in front of the train station.  I shot a short video clip of the action out front.

We entered the station through the only unlocked door available. They had locked most of the entrance doors. We bought our ticket to Siracusa (Syracuse). The train was set to leave in one hour and 15 minutes, at 12:45 PM. We went out to the loading platform and Barb sat down on her pack. About then, the stream of student protesters began. They were cheering and chanting and they just kept coming. The platform filled up, and they spilled over onto the tracks in front of a stationary train. They carried signs and banners, and had a drummer along to provide a beat for their chants.  While Barb watched my bag, I mingled in the group and shot a few shots and made a couple of video clips of the event.

I spoke with a college graduate who spoke English. The students were protesting the fact that they were going to have to pay for their college education in the future. Apparently it has been free up to this time. Tuition rates were going to increase. The graduate said he was amazed to see the demonstration because just a few years ago people would have been afraid to speak out. He said a few years ago the Mafia would have put a quick end to the protest activity. He thought the protesters were very brave. As I walked through the crowd, I could see the TV reporters and cameramen recording the event and talking to a young organizer.Very nearby the interview were several older men looking very displeased and listening carefully to the young activist who managed to shut the trains down this day. I hope the organizer is still OK,  two days after the event.
Energy and impatience, being what they are, soon caused the students to march off in a new direction. Slowly they filtered out of the station and off to a new target. Our train arrived a few minutes later and we boarded without incident. This was not the first time here that we heard of the Mafia and it's influence on this part of the world. For several weeks, the papers have been covering in the news about arrests of one gangster or another. A few weeks ago they arrested someone known as Bambino, because of his youthful appearance. During the chase in Naples, he jumped out of a second floor window before being apprehended. He has previously been tried in absentia and convicted for murder among other crimes. He had been on the run for years. I have shot a photo or two from the local papers. Someone at our hotel in Catania tried to convince us to use the bus to Syracuse rather than the train, "Because we like to support the new bus system, it is not run by the old system in Sicily."  Who knows, maybe he knew about the protest and was steering us away.

We were referred to Syracuse Hotel Popolus  by our hotel in Catania.  It is located between the old city on the waterfront and the archaeological ruins uphill in the park. It is a neighborhood that is being redeveloped and was not the best. The place isn't really close to anything. The staff had no maps, no help, and were rarely even there.  There was a very busy auto repair shop a few doors down on our side of the street. It was very busy and created a lot of noise during the day.
Our first night in Syracuse we walked to the old city on the waterfront island. The island today is served by three bridges. This was beautiful.  The streets were narrow, many for pedestrians only. Syracuse has had many different inhabitants and rulers. The Lonely Planet Guide to Italy states" Sicily's list of invaders features all the usual suspects. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Spanairds, and more suprisingly Normans, with their delightful Monty Python style names like King Roger, William the Bad, and Walter the Archbishop..." ( have been doing some genealogical research recently and am beginning to believe that my paternal family name may be related to the Normans, who famously invaded England in 1066. We have a lot of Williams in the family....)

Successions of rulers governed Sicily and parts of southern Italy. It was united in 1860 by the dramatic reunification led by Garibaldi. Nearly one million Sicilians  emigrated to the US between 1871 and 1914, before the outbreak of WWI.

Ironically, the US and allies helped in establishing the Cosa Nostra and it's stranglehold  on Sicily. During the invasion the US needed allies and leadership. They turned to the Cosa Nostra to help with ships, and other logistics. When Sicily became semi autonomous  in 1948, Mafia control extended right into the center of Sicilian politics. In the 1990s and at present there are significant efforts to push back. Sicilians, particularly the younger generation, are not enamored with an organization that derives it's wealth and power through the sale of drugs, human trafficking, and the old cash flow booster standby, extortion and protection which many experts say is paid by many businesses here today.
The news media here is full of recent arrests, and trials of suspected members of the mob. The daily news shows are full of energetic attorneys pleading the innocence of their Mafia Bosses. The Prosecutors and Judges need to have armed security details attached to themselves and their families. After reading the newspapers as best I could and watching TV, I have kept an eye out for anything suspicious.  I can't see under the cultural and language veil.  I have seen grown middle aged Grey haired men, well dressed, at dinner, talking on the cell phone, while covering their mouths so no one could hear or see what they were saying, maybe they were just being polite?) When I talk to older hotel staff here, they just say something like "Bad Publicity!" and they don't say anything else.  Younger people say it is still a real problem here. I am determined to keep an eye out for them.

While in Syracuse, we walked to the old city. It is located on the shoreline on an island, now served by three bridges. It was evening and the old city and it's narrow alleys and shops were beautiful. We visited the old cathedral in the Piazza de Duomo.  This cathedral also was once a Greek Temple, that was converted into a Christian Church after the island was evangelized by Saint Paul. The beautiful facade barely hides the temple of Athena's structure beneath. The fifth century BC Columns are visible from both the interior and the exterior.

There is a Patron Saint for this church. I do not know the story, but the ending for Santa Lucia was not pretty. There are statues here, of her with a sword through her neck. The is a portion of her arm bone on display in the side altar of the church.

We stopped in a walk back to the hotel at a sidewalk cafe and had a cold beer. There were several Moroccan Immigrants there. We enjoyed an evening and the conversation with Josef from Marrakesh and Aziz from Casablanca. We enjoyed the conversation. Barb spoke French to Josef, I spoke Spanish to Aziz. Barb and I both look forward to a trip to Morocco in the future.

The next day we visited the Archaeological Park of Neapolis.  It sits about 3/4 mile up the hill overlooking the old city of Siracusa. The first structure we saw was the Roman Amphitheater, which was  built in the 2nd century BC. It was used for Gladiatorial combat and also for horse races. It was very similar in design to the Colosseum, only much smaller.

Nearby there was a great Greek Theater. The Theatro Greco was hewn from the rock above the old city. This theater saw the last tragedies of Aeschylus (including the Persians) which was first performed here. This theater saw the birth of Comic Greek theater. The likes of Plato and Archimedes lived here in Syracuse. Archimedes tomb is nearby.

Between the theater and the amphitheater was a grotto. This was a profound deep canyon, which resulted from the excavations of stone used in the construction here. This canyon and the associated grottoes were used to house 7000 survivors of the war between Syracuse and Athens in the year 413 B.C.

We next visited the museum that held many relics from this site. I have included a few pics of the objects. One ticket covered both the park and the museum.

Once we returned back to our hotel, I walked out on the third floor balcony to get some air. There below me was the local mechanic who worked so hard and made so much noise.  He was standing on the sidewalk at least 5 doors from his shop. He was talking to two men. The mechanic was dirty from his work on and under the many cars in the street and in his shop. His hands were dirty and he looked tired. The two men who were talking to him were well dressed in slacks and sweaters. The conversation was in Italian and I don't speak a lick, but I watched quietly directly above the trio. The two were trying to persuade the mechanic to do something, the mechanic was holding his hands open, like he had nothing. He also moved his hands to his mouth as though he was saying ,"I have to eat."  The two would occasionally put both hands on his shoulders in a friendly way of getting his attention. I wondered why they were not discussing this in the shop with the other employees or over an automobile. I don't think it was a friendly banker making a visit. The conversation went on for 20-30 minutes. I should have recorded it, ,,,Or should I? I thought about the mechanic as I went to sleep. It is hard enough to make a living for yourself, without having to support some other chump who doesn't help at all. Maybe the mechanic had taken a loan, and now needed to pay the lender back. Who knows what's going on in Sicily? It looked like a shakedown to me.

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Bro Don on

Don't know the particulars of the Italian college tuition issue. Spent last weekend with an Irish American guy who was complaining about European social services being cut back due to heavy government debt (Greece, Ireland, soon maybe Portugal, Belgium and Spain). The bond traders remain protected and the first to lose are the most vulnerable.

Don McKee on

Great pics of the aqueduct and theater. I guess we have to rely on the movies to show us what they looked like in their prime. Although Janis and I saw some stunningly fresh looking Roman ruins in Spain. You really nailed the Mafia flavor with your description of the mechanic with the two suspicious looking charaters!

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