Where part of the back wall of the scena

of the Greco-Roman amphitheatre

has collapsed, we can see the sun setting

on Etna, its smoke drifting like a veil

over the sea. The town’s orchestra –

of mandolins, lutes, guitars, double bass –

with its plangent, sentimental, heart-

rending timbre plays the prelude to act one

of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata’…


We saw the opera at the Bolshoi –

with its gilt chairs and the Romanov box

with the hammer and the sickle above –



So many colonisers here in this

terra amara, this bitter land –

from Ancient Greece to Bourbon Spain,

from Ancient Rome to Scandinavia,

from the Caliphate to Swabia – fitting

therefore that our cable car cabin

should be muti-lingual, each of us

keeping our space, averting our eyes.


As we descend from Via Luigi

Pirandello to Isola Bella,

past terraces with sun loungers, over

the Campo Sportivo and the tangled

scrub in the gorge,



A young woman, with a babe in arms, sits

beneath a mosaic of the Virgin

and Child under a medieval arch and begs.

Set in the tower above them is a clock,

which plays ‘Ave, ave, ave Maria’.

The narrow space is clogged with tourists

from the cruise ships and the tour buses.

Most do not give. She might be roma:

like the woman, begging with a toddler

near the amphitheatre, to whom we gave

but said nothing, did nothing seeing a

child of that age,



The street is built into the steep mountainside,

hence ‘salita’, ‘slope’. It is a wide street of steps –

edged with granite, inlaid with pebbles

and set in cement bordered by brick.




From our balcony, there is an impassive,

inscrutable vista of the old town’s

semi-circular, interlocking

clay roof tiles of varying shades of

terracotta and the occasional

Moorish-style chimney – finally

the public gardens’ umbrella pines and

the Ionian Sea becoming sky.



Ships ride in Syracusa’s harbour

a couple of hundred metres below.

The amphitheatre, seating twenty thousand,

is a monolith carved from the limestone hill.

Behind us a natural fountain pours.

Near it is a square hole cut in the rock.


Shaped by design like the auditory

canal and tympanum of the human ear

this slave-made cleft in the limestone, some

forty feet high, echoes with the babel

of snatched arias and football songs.

At the entrance,