The gorgeous island of Ortygia, the oldest and most fascinating part of the ancient city of Syracuse, is criss-crossed by a sprawling labyrinth of narrow alleyways and streets. At night, under a bright moon, meandering through them is a wonderfully enjoyable and atmospheric experience, the town’s long and glorious history seems to seep from the crumbling walls of centuries-old buildings. It’s a truly extraordinary place that can be visited on a day trip, but which benefits from a couple of days slow exploration.
Daytime wanderings reveal the many hidden delights amongst the nearly 3,000 year history of this densely packed area. This was the first city to be founded in what would become Magna Graecia, colonies established by Ancient Greece across Southern Italy and Sicily. The Greeks began arriving in the 8th century BC, and reminders of Hellenic civilisation can be found dotted around Sicily. Emerging out of the maze of streets in Ortygia brought us face-to-face with the remains of the Temple of Apollo.
A more dramatic example can be found in the Duomo di Siracusa, the 17th century cathedral that began life as the great Greek Temple of Athena in the 5th century BC. Today, you can still see the massive doric columns that were originally incorporated into the walls of the first Christian temple in the 7th century. The 1693 earthquake badly damaged the building, but the Greek columns withstood the disaster and were incorporated into the reconstructed cathedral.
The original Temple of Athena was famous across the Greek world, both Plato and Cicero mention it in their writings, and it stood proudly at the highest point of the island to welcome home sailors. The cathedral sits at the top of the beautiful, semi-circular Piazza Duomo, the town’s main square surrounded by Baroque palaces. It’s a calm and relaxed place in which to start your explorations of the island. A short walk from here either plunges you back into the warren of streets or brings you to the sea.
Ortygia’s labyrinth makes the island seem a lot larger than it really is. Even at its widest point, it takes less than ten minutes to walk from one side of Ortygia to the other. On our wanderings, we regularly found ourselves staring out over the brilliant blue waters of the Ionian Sea. We spent a couple of days slowly acquainting ourselves with the relaxed pace of life, visiting churches and museum, eating at some of Syracuse’s famed restaurants, and sampling Sicilian wines. When the time came, it was hard to leave.
In November, even one experiencing unusually high temperatures, there were few tourists around. Which meant Ortygia wasn’t as crowded as it can get in summer, but some of the more famous restaurants were closed for a holiday that extends for much of the month. Luckily, there seems to be a new wave of restaurants and bars opening that are not focused on business from tourism. In a town that can feel like a strange mix of down-at-heel but touristy, these green stems of regrowth seem very promising.
We stumbled upon a fantastic bar that served only local wines and Sicilian craft beers. It had been recently opened by a woman who’d returned to the island after ten years in New York. On our last night in Ortygia, we ate at a restaurant serving modern takes on traditional Sicilian dishes. Run by a young Sicilian woman, it was only the second night it had been open. It served up some of the best food we had on our entire trip. We were still talking, in slightly awed tones, about the squid ink arancini a week later.