Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Spell of Ortigia in Siracusa

I didn't fall under the charm and spell of Siracusa until about my third or fourth visit, and it was Ortigia (aka Ortygia), an island and the oldest part of Siracusa, that did it. I was afraid Siracusa was going to be another Oberammergau, a place that everyone raves on and on about it and I always thought, "This place is boring. What's all the fuss about?" But, no, Siracusa came through and hypnotized me as it has so many other visitors.

When I asked my friend Mary what she liked about it, she wrote, "The way the sun creeps up on it from the water, the 'ancientness' of it, the architectural history of so many civilizations who settled and mingled there and shipwrecked there, the 'recycling' of the Duomo, the Artesian water area, the Greek plays I experienced in the same Greek theater that hosted them way before Christ's time, and the myths and other stories, that, through endless retellings, present their lessons in real-time Siracusan locations. I'd love to live there, if it were just a bit closer to base!" (It's about 25-30 miles.)

In fact, several of us have expressed that same desire to live there--it has that kind of pull on us.

Oh, it's ancient, all right. It was the second Greek settlement in Sicily, founded by the Corinthians in about 734 B.C.! In ancient times, it was much bigger than it was now, perhaps several hundred thousand people lived there. Today is it less than 75,000. To read a quick overview of Siracusa and its history, complete with photos, go to The Classics Pages. There is plenty to see outside of Ortigia, but I rarely go there unless I have visitors who want to see it. Ortigia is the place I go to wander, wonder, marvel, and dream.

Most of it is in disrepair, making it even more charming and "ancient." It is a maze of tiny, twisted streets. There are few driving streets and practically no parking, so the lack of cars makes it very pleasurable indeed for walking. Besides just wandering and wondering, my top three specific locations are the Duomo, the seafront near the Fountain of Arethusa, and the Piazza Archimedes.

The present Baroque Duomo (cathedral) is most amazing because it was also Norman, possibly an Arab mosque,and most definitely the Greek temple of Athena in earlier times. The original Greek pillars are still visible in the walls, inside and outside! I love that kind of thing . . . . Since seeing that, I've noticed that all the other churches in Sicily have Greek pillar replicas (some just painted on the wall) on the interior. The baptismal font of Siracusa Duomo is an original Greek brass bowl.

The seafront on the west side of the island near the Fountain of Arethusa has several little restaurants in a row right on the edge of the water. This is the place to have something wonderful to eat (especially seafood) or just a drink, relax and take in the scenery and atmosphere, which includes the bay, boats, people, and surrounding older, more decrepit part of Ortigia. The fountain itself has papyrus growing in it.

I never leave Ortigia without going by my favorite fountain on the Piazza
Archimedes. It is beautiful in any season, any light, with a variety of statuary showing Arethusa's metamorphosis into a spring. Even if you didn't know that, you'd enjoy it, as I do, just for the sheer beauty of the fountain and the water against the background of the different buildings around the piazza.

Beyond these three places, it's best to just wander about, past the churches, palaces, the 13th-century castle-fortress, through the Jewish quarter. Stop, look, breathe . . .

There are countless old buildings and apartments for sale or rent in old Ortigia, most of them in dismal disrepair. We keep thinking this would be the place to buy, restore, and live. There are people, even foreigners, doing exactly that, so it's not impossible. We have no idea what that would cost, but it's a lovely, tantalizing dream.

(To see some of my photos of Ortigia, go here and here.)


At January 28, 2006 5:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those that are not aware...the 25-30 miles are anything but speedy and as such the commute would be tiresome to say the least. =)

At January 28, 2006 10:18 PM, Blogger Maryellen said...

Yes, but most of us already commute twenty miles or more, so why not live in a great place? Where's your sense of romanticism??


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