In order to help her escape from the river god Alpheus, the goddess Artemis changed the nymph Arethusa into a fresh water spring. She swam to Sicily from the Peloponnese and arose at the island of Ortigia in Syracuse. Legend says that when animal sacrifices took place at the Sanctuary of Olympia, the blood would flow from the Peloponnese and emerge at the spring in Ortigia,
Today, the freshwater spring of Fonte Aretusa emerges into a pond filled with Papyrus and fish. The area is full of bars and restaurants overlooking the water and both locals and visitors are enjoying a New Year’s Day drink in the sun.
As well as the Fonte Aretusa, I visit the Cathedral, which was built on the site of a Greek Temple dedicated to Athena. The 5th century Doric columns still support the building though they’re a bit crooked since the devastating earthquake of 1693. In the large piazza outside, two policemen are parading in very elegant dress uniform.
Also in the Piazza del Duomo is the 17th century church of Santa Lucia alla Badia which is dedicated to the city’s patron saint and features a painting of her burial by Caravaggio. Whilst in the newer part of town, is the Basilica di Santa Lucia, marking the spot where she was martyred in 304 AD. An octagonal chapel next to the church used to hold her remains until they were taken to Constantinople in 1038 and then stolen by the Venetians in 1204. She now lies in St Geremia Church in Venice.
The city of Syracuse may have lost their patron saint but they now pour their faith into the Madonna delle Lacrime (Madonna of the tears). On the 29th of August 1953, in a small house near to the port, a statue of the Madonna hanging in the bedroom began to cry. She continued to weep for 5 days and crowds flocked to see her. Scientists even tested the liquid and identified it as human tears. The house is now a small chapel where a replica presides over the altar.
The original statue is now located in a much grander place. The conical sanctuary can be seen for miles and was supposedly designed to look like a giant teardrop. The locals have given it the nickname ‘lemon squeezer’ and when I visit, to me it seems to look and feel like a concert hall. The cavernous interior echoes with each footstep as people approach the statue to pray for assistance.
Evidence of the miracles performed by the Madonna delle Lacrime can be found in the equally huge crypt, located below the main church and looking rather unfinished. Here I find a small museum with photos from 1953 and the slide and pipette used by the scientists to confirm the miracle. There are also hundreds of items of gold jewellery given in thanks to the Madonna and the robes worn by Pope John Paul II when he inaugurated the sanctuary in 1994. Another room houses ex votos, including many sets of crutches and half a dozen wedding dresses.