Posts Tagged ‘ortigia’

Back to Ortigia

April 23-24, 2008

On the itinerary, days 3 and 4 looked good. This day, we would visit Mt. Etna in the morning, drive to Siracusa, and then meet in the early evening for a walk and dinner. The next morning we’d visit the Archaeological Park, which would leave me nicely positioned to spend the afternoon at the museum. It didn’t work out that way, as Alfio changed the schedule. The day started well, despite an early start, with a good talk and good views from the coach. But our visit to Mt. Etna itself disappointed me. The place we stopped at was mobbed, and then we just got to follow a well-worn path round the rim of a small crater. A freezing wind tried to blow us off the mountain, and only dead black ash surrounded us. Alfio had told a stirring story about a close encounter with live lava on the way up, but we didn’t see so much as a spark. Then we stopped off in Catania on the way south for a walk round the town center and a disorganized lunch stop. I did fine – I picked the closest café, shared a table and figured out the buffet system, but others had more trouble. Then, back on the bus, Alfio announced that we would tour the Archaeological Park that afternoon, instead of the next morning. This meant that the tour would include two full “free” (i.e. no activity) days instead of one. I like having some free time, but I don’t see a need to pay tour prices for too much of it.

Rosa, our local guide for the Archaeological Park, was dynamite, bringing the site vividly to life. The Greek theater was disappearing under plywood in preparation for the summer drama series, but nothing could hide the size of the quarry behind it. The Athenians who had survived the disastrous (for them) naval battle of 413 BC had been forced to work there for seven years, before ending as slaves. Rosa was so good that, when we were given the option to tour the Duomo with her that afternoon, instead of with Alfio the next morning, most of us chose to do so. While I had admired the outside of the Duomo earlier, I had saved the inside for the visit with a guide, and was not disappointed.

Since there were no activities scheduled the next day I was able to get up a bit later. The tour was staying at the Residence alla Guidecca, self-catering apartments in renovated palazzos in the heart of the old town. I had a big bedroom with a lovely double bed, a sitting room with a mini-kitchen concealed in a cupboard, and a bathroom. My rooms were dark, as they looked out onto a narrow street rather than a courtyard, and there was an easily missed step a few paces inside the bedroom door, but otherwise this would be a good place to settle in for a few days. A couple of other women on the tour were also interested in visiting the museums in the new town, so we rode the shuttle to the train station together and then shared a taxi to the Papyrus Museum (now moved to new quarters in Ortigia). Good thing it was free, as the labels were all in Italian, and there wasn’t a great deal to see. Some papyrus sheets with Egyptian hieroglyphics and a couple of canoes caught my attention, but I soon moved on to the Archaeological Museum next door.

In Naples I had been disappointed in the Archaeological Museum because part was closed for renovation. Guess what, same thing here! At least they reduced the admission charge. The prehistoric section was still open, and I found this especially worth visiting as most of the Sicilian history I had read had started with the arrival of the Greeks in the 8th century BCE. Although the Greek section was also accessible when I was there, I was still a little Greek museumed-out from my six weeks there in 2006. I was more interested to learn that Sicily had been a magnet for invaders even before the Greeks – just too tempting to resist, apparently. And then there were the dwarf elephants – I had absolutely no idea that such things had existed, never mind on Sicily (and other Mediterranean islands too, it turns out). I finished with the museum around lunchtime, and walked back to Ortigia just in time to score a panini before the shops shut for the afternoon break. I ate it under the trees on the lungomare, and then revisited the Café Minerva for coffee and cannolo.

I had not forgotten that I wanted to take a boat ride. I had mentioned it to Alfio in the hope that he might pass the message on, but no. Luckily I ran into two people from the tour who were interested, and we agreed to take a boat around the island. Our boatman doubled as a tour guide, but he spoke no English – the Italian couple sharing the boat with us were able to help out with a little translation. We had a lot of fun – getting to see the castle at the end of the island, meeting up with a scuba diver who handed up a few sea urchins, and finally sitting in the bottom of the boat as the awning came down to get us under a low bridge.

Underneath the alla Guidecca’s main building lies a surprise – Jewish ritual baths dating back to the Byzantine era. Alfio arranged a reduced admission price for the group, and most of us headed down the steep stairs to have a look at the small, deep, rock-hewn pools before dinner. The water came from an underground spring, and I couldn’t help reflecting that it was mostly women who were supposed to purify themselves in the cold water, not men.

After touring the Duomo, we didn’t reach our hotel until 7:30, with no real orientation to the island, and only a couple of vague suggestions for dinner. (Alfio was swapping the group dinner on Ortigia with two lunches later on.) I had announced my intention of eating again at Il Fermento, where I had eaten my second night on Sicily, and several people wanted to join me, so I asked Alfio to make us a reservation. When he called me to say he couldn’t get an answer, I pulled out my restaurant list for Siracusa, and headed down a little early to meet my group so I could confer with the front desk. We settled on Oinos, just round the corner at Via della Giudecca 71, where I had perhaps the best meal of the whole trip. We had to split the group, and my table of three shared appetizers – asparagus with quail eggs, and a tuna tartare sampler. Then I had Argentinian beef with Jerusalem artichokes, and got a taste from the duck breast and leg with foie gras. Everything was delicious, and the wine, a Shiraz and Nero d’Avola blend, so good it seemed a steal at 15 euro a bottle. The next night I planned to eat dinner with the same couple, after confirming that Il Fermento would be open, but in all eleven of us showed up at the restaurant. We took over a big table in the back room, and fortunately one of the men spoke some Italian, and was able to translate the message that with so many of us, and only one person cooking, it would help if we didn’t order too many different dishes. The risotto and king prawns I had had before were popular, and I gathered that the ravioli and salad were appreciated, too.

Capital from the Duomo
In Catania

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19-20 April, 2008

I would visit the Archaeological Park in Siracusa proper with the tour group, so I had planned a day trip to Noto and then a day (Sunday) exploring Ortigia. Over breakfast I discussed my plans with my landlady. The bus station, which I had expected to find practically next door to the B&B, had been moved over near the train station, I learned. Marriott had bought a big building two streets away, and not content with renovating the building itself, was intent on cleaning up the neighborhood, and the bus station didn’t fit their plans. Even the market, which set up right below my window, was in jeopardy. The bus to Noto was either very late or very early, but when we passed a parade (demonstration?) on the main street I saw why. A whole line of inbound buses waited behind the marchers. Modern Siracusa did indeed look uninspired, but I enjoyed the countryside – again, wildflowers brightened otherwise rocky hillsides. I learned later that between the demands of shipbuilding and of agriculture, Sicily lost its trees many centuries back.

One thing you hear a lot about on Sicily, at least while you have a guide, and especially if that guide is from Catania, is the earthquake of 1693. This devastated many of towns in the east, including Catania itself (already largely destroyed by Mt. Etna in 1669) and Noto. I’m not quite sure why I wanted to visit Noto, as it was rebuilt after the earthquake in baroque style, and I’m not generally fond of baroque, but the pictures looked good. I had expected the town to be quiet, with scaffolding covering the damaged cathedral (the dome collapsed in 1996). Well, I knew my guidebooks needed updating, and I found that Noto had been discovered, and also cleaned up. No scaffolding in evidence. Just a main street punctuated by shining clean, honey-colored, impressive buildings. Very beautiful. Very sterile. Even though a wedding was underway in one of the churches, all those clean buildings combined with the tourist crowds made the whole place feel inauthentic. I took to the back streets and the Trattoria del Carmine, where I tucked into an excellent antipasto and so-so ravioli. Then I went back to the main street and took pictures – the crowds had disappeared, no doubt in search of lunch.

My landlady had warned me not to miss the bus back. This had worried me a little – I knew there would be few buses on Sunday, but did the service shut down on Saturday afternoon, too? I had been unable to find a timetable anywhere near the bus stop in Noto, but I finally discovered that you could find out the bus times in the same place you bought the tickets – the Tabacchi. Still, when I saw a bus show up I decided to take it, instead of exploring further. So, I started wandering round Ortigia a little earlier than planned, and was enchanted. I found a promising looking place to try for dinner, and then stopped off for coffee on a side street before retiring to my B&B to rest my feet. (I had recently spent a month limping round Budapest, Austria and Venice, but so far this trip my feet were holding up well – no reason to stress them too far, though.)

After my initial exploration of Ortigia, I knew I would spend the next day just wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the buildings and the views. Beautifully restored palazzos stood right next door to ones gently crumbling into ruin. In contrast, the main street had plenty of modern shops, and the whole place had a lived-in feel I had missed in Noto. I started down by the water and had the lungomare, the port and the Fontana Aretusa largely to myself. By the waterfront the lungomare, dark and cold two nights before, now basked in sunshine. Further back, a double row of big trees offered shade. I had been thinking of taking a boat ride, but this seemed an activity better organized for a group than a solo traveler – I would wait until I came back with the tour group.

At the fountain I took pictures of the papyrus – a pretty, feathery plant that I would never have imagined could be used to make paper – and the ducks, before moving on for more pictures of the Duomo and of the Artemis fountain in the Piazza Archimede. Here I picked up a copy of the Herald Tribune to go with an espresso macchiato at the Café Diana, a place that seemed popular with locals. I should say more about the Duomo, a spectacular building on a spectacular piazza. This day, I mostly admired the outside (Spanish), but later I would learn that it was the oldest continuously occupied religious building in Europe. (I think the tour guide said the world, but Europe seems more likely!) Not the same religion for all those centuries, of course. It started as a temple to Athena, and the 5th century BCE columns still support the roof. Inside I could feel the age – and the peace.

Lunch – less than 2 euros – was a mortadella and cheese sandwich from a nearby alimentari, followed by a siesta. For dessert and coffee I picked a different café – Café Minerva, near the duomo – with delicious cannoli. I’ve never had a sweet tooth, and now too much sweet stuff at the wrong time messes up my blood sugar, but I don’t really think of cannoli as sweet. On Sicily the shells were much lighter, and the ricotta much creamier, than those I’ve had at home. I wouldn’t waste any opportunity to indulge. I walked off some of the calories by exploring the southern end of the island, finding access to the castle at the very tip completely blocked off. The more time I spent on its back streets, the more I liked Ortigia. Yes, there were tourists around, but not that many. Yes, there were tourist shops, but not whole streets of them. Yes, the buildings were often baroque, but not aggressively so. Mostly, I think I liked the town because of the variety. Greek ruins here, a Spanish church round the corner, modern apartment blocks down the street. It had the feel of a place that had just grown over the centuries, rather than being designed and built all at once. Both evenings, there were crowds out on the streets and I strolled with them down the main streets. When I got home I watched the parking game being played below me, finally realizing that the helpful man directing cars into spaces was actually running the show, as the drivers tipped him.

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