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Syracuse, Sicily

Ortigia

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A fantasy project on every corner

I woke to the news I’d failed to win the lottery. But, hey! I’d woken up in Ortigia. 

 

The sea twinkled azure, faint zephyrs darkening its surface. The crema on my coffee perfectly matched the ochre hues all around. The sun began saturating the golden stone. And the buildings slowly crumbled, as they’ve been doing steadily for almost three thousand years.

 

There’s something about breakfast on a roof terrace to whet the appetite for the day’s exploration, let you survey the treasures before you and plan on getting totally lost. It felt far better than winning the lottery … I imagine. I guess I’ll never know.

 

On the subject of significant numbers, it turns out there are a little over three reasons to hang out in Syracuse; 3.14 to be more precise - although, nowhere near precise enough, as we’ll see. 

The prodigious mathematician and inventor Archimedes was born in Ortigia and died fending off the Romans. In his time he conceived a staggering array of things we now take for granted; pumps, centre of gravity, calculus, buoyancy aids, levers, compound pulleys, the spiral, exponential numbers, density, the term ‘Eureka!’, naval defences and perhaps his greatest achievement, the Ang Lee film, The Life of Pi.

Now, I know you’re thinking that can’t be right. But it seems Syracuse was Greek for over 500 years, until those pesky Romans conquered it. Cicero later dubbed the place “the greatest Greek city and most beautiful of them all”.

 

You’ll start to notice the Pi symbol everywhere. It seems our mate Archie didn’t actually discover Pi. (We have the Babylonians to thank for that). But he was the first to calculate it accurately. With a little help from Pythagorean geometry, he was able to place Pi somewhere between 3.141 and 3.142.  It was to be another 750 years before anyone managed a couple more decimal places. (Nowadays, with computers we have it to 31 trillion places. We could carry on and on indefinitely, but that would just be irrational – sorry, nerdy maths joke!).

 

But I hadn’t come here for a maths lesson. Nor history for that matter. Double art was calling, with an extended period of photography. And Ortigia was on for straight A stars in both.

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One of several perfect spots,

The fortified island is tethered to Syracuse by two short bridges. It juts out from the region of Sicily dubbed ‘La Sicilia Orientale’ for its proximity to Africa and tropical climate. It was certainly oriental enough for me to swim in the sea in late October. Plus, there are colourful tuk tuks buzzing around cheekily, lending an Asian vibe. (Although these are mostly ersatz tourist excursions).

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Vivid sienna between jet black shadows

I'd arrived – tentatively - by car, so can testify that something small and nippy is definitely more practical in Ortigia’s grid of Baroque streets. As always, I chose to explore on foot, adopting Archimedes’ trademark ‘method of exhaustion’. This involves making progressively smaller and smaller steps until you’ve zoned in on the precise place you should be.

 

This way, I managed to find myself in several perfect spots. A gatehouse overlooking the Norman fort, an arch framing the courtyard of the papyrus museum, a fragment of sea wall thwarting the incoming waves, a vivid sienna church glowing between jet black shadows, the imposing Ministry of Finance piazza softened by fronds from sprawling palms, the colourful houses leading to the Italian fish and chippie, and the cappuccino stop with perfect views of a once grand mansion.


Along with my coffee came a provocation; the barely standing stonework opposite was advertising itself ‘Vendesi’. Although the dusty sign looked about as

antique as the building, just like the many other provocations that proliferated across town. I’m told the process of buying and renovating here is very … Italian, requiring those well-known Sicilian traits of patience, a cool head, diplomacy, flexibility and a willingness to keep delving into your pocket!  A project best left as a fantasy, perhaps? 

Oh, but what a fantasy!

 

Ortigia’s grid of once noble streets and protective sea wall evoke strong parallels with two other waterfront cities; Havana and Cadiz. All have successfully fought back the sea, but are struggling to halt the ravages of time. For Ortigia, it’s a case of salty air versus fancy stucco.  And the stucco is enjoying the last laugh, with the erosion creating patterns in the stone as ornate and beautiful as the original carvings (provided your taste spans Abstract Expressionism and Baroque).


Ever the plucky defender, Ortigia is fighting back with scaffolding and mini-skips. The words ‘boutique’, ‘suites’ and ‘terrace’ are popping up all around. And the recent renaissance has given the once no-go island a fresh lease of life. Although with few locals actually living here, the economics have tilted dangerously towards shopping, all-you-can-eating and sight-seeing (preferably without any walking). But you know what to do: Avoid the main street, the mini train and the menu turismo. That said, some of the smaller shops and galleries are worth a look. Your own tat-radar will tell you instantly which to avoid. Just don’t immediately tar them all with the same brush. 

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Backstreets

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Very decent crumble

Those looking for decent crumble should head to the Graziella Quarter on the eastern side. The Via Vittorio Veneto offers a classic base, with a fruity mix of architectural influences, from Greek to Maghreb. While the small streets off it add a touch of tartness and spice. And topping it all is the aforementioned chippie.   

 

My Sicilian fast food experience had all the elements of a classic British chippie, except stodge, vinegar and drizzle. OK, so it was nothing remotely like it. Picture an assemblage of perfect little calamarini, anchovies that came from the sea not a tin, and those little assorted fishes you always see in the market but don’t know what to do with. All held in a light tempura batter, served in a brown paper cone and washed down with an ice cold Moretti. Perfezione!

 

It’s funny how the perfect explorer experience requires a good dose of imperfection. This is a balance Ortigia has got spot on. Noble and fragile, imposing and open-hearted, far-flung and within reach. I don’t think I’ve ever felt better about losing, anywhere.  

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Courtyard

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Noto & Ortigia

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Piazza Duomo

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Viewpoint

A Few Links and Practicalities

(Just sharing the love. I absolutely don’t get paid for these.)

There are two must stay places. 

Lumé

www.lume-ortigia.com/en

Renovated to the highest quality and chic-est style, with a home-from-home feel.  If your Euros stretch to one of the fancier suites, you're in for a real treat.

Hotel Gutkowski

https://guthotel.it/en/home-english/

Where the smart money goes.  A bit less fancy for a lot less money, but still with an eclectic-mid-century-modern-ish feel.

 

F.lli Milazzo, Lungomare di Levante Elio Vittorini. 

This is the fish and chips place I bang on about.  It actually does sandwiches, sit down meals and whatever.  But it’s the fritto misto you want.

 

Anchovies restaurant

https://fadasiracusa.wixsite.com/anchovies

Aside from the chippie, this was my favourite meal. Looks a tad more designer than the myriad restaurants all around and it certainly showed in the food.

 

Scuola Alimentare is also worth an honourable mention.

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Don’t miss;

The Piazza Duomo, for its grand cathedral obviously, but also the square has smoothest worn stone tiles you’ll ever experience. 

 

Sunset. Ideally you want a view of the foreshore, not just from it.  Here’s pretty good.

https://www.google.com/maps/@37.0574718,15.2911851,163m/data=!3m1!1e3?entry=ttu

 

A dip in the sea. The Solarium Forte Vigliena is a convenient swimming platform. Ortigia's 'beach' is nothing special.

Ortigia makes a good first base for striking out and doing the Val di Noto.  Majestic and imposing Noto is about 45 mins drive away. Modica is about 1h 20.

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