Our first stop was Taormina, about 45 minutes north of Catania. Taormina is compact town wedged between high cliffs and the sea. It was an easily defensible position anciently and in medieval times.
Roads and buildings seemed to be right on top of each other. Our B&B was on the north side of Taormina, right near the tram that takes visitors down to the beach area. We were within a 10 minute walk to the town. The main sight in Taormina is the Greek Amphitheater, rebuilt by the Romans in the 2nd century A.D.
The setting of this theater is one of the most spectacular in all of Europe, overlooking the town, sea and Mt. Etna.
After visiting Taormina we drove up to the village of Castelmola. Set in the cliffs just above Taormina it provides a panoramic view of the whole area. Castelmola is a small village and there is a car park right off the road before entering the village. We hiked up to the castle ruins at the top of the village for a great view.
From Taormina, we drove south to Syracuse (about 2 hours), with a quick stop in Motta Sant’Anastasia (picture below-left), just to the southwest of Catania. The Norman tower (“Tower of Motta”), built around 1070, was not open. The town built on a rock outcropping above the plain is quite a sight.
Our B&B in Syracuse was situated in an apartment building about halfway between the old part of the city (the island of Ortygia) and the Archeological Park Neapolis. Parking is limited in Syracuse-we had to find parking on the streets wherever we could. Once we found a spot, we tried not to move the car and walked around town for most of our stay. Ortygia is a small island connected to the mainland by a bridge. It is full of narrow alleyways, stately buildings and a very interesting Duomo (Cathedral-below) that incorporates the columns of a 5th century B.C. Greek temple and has a beautiful baroque facade. The Piazza del Duomo is quite beautiful as well. There is a good laundromat on Corso Umberto I just a few blocks from the bridge to Ortygia.
The next day we walked to the Archeological Park Neapolis which contains a number of old Greek and Roman ruins. We got there early to beat the tour buses. The street signs are clear and point the way to the Neapolis area. There is one entry fee (about €10) that provides access to the entire historical area. Sights include the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, Greek Theater (which workers were preparing for performances, held every two years), a votive area behind the theatre, the huge Altar of Heron where hundreds of animal sacrifices occurred, and the Quarry area including the cavernous Ear of Dionysius, where stone for the many monuments of Syracuse came from.
One of the other things we did that was very worthwhile was visiting the Catacombe di San Giovanni (Catacombs of St. John), which date from at least 300 B.C. There are at least 10,000 burial spots here.
It is located in the heart of modern Syracuse, close to the Neapolis. The church above ground is in ruins, but the catacombs below are quite well preserved. The only way to visit is with a guided tour. There are several tours each day, and we happened to arrive just as a tour was starting. The cost was about €4. The tour starts in the underground Cripta di San Marciano which is in the form of a Greek cross and includes some frescoes. The tour then proceeds through sections of the massive catacombs.