Island of Ortigia: Art, history and a beautiful sea

Home » Island of Ortigia: Art, history and a beautiful sea

The Island of Ortigia is the oldest nucleus of Syracuse. Linked to the town by the Ponte Umbertino, Ortigia is surrounded by blue waters, where you can see sail boats, fishing boats and other ships.

The smell of saltiness and the shining sun on the sea waves encourage to enjoy a particular view of the island on a motor boat, taking a tour to reach natural caves. Among these, there’s a heart shaped cave, which is a favoured destination for romantic trips.

History reigns in Ortigia where, just before entering in the real core of the Island, the Majestic ruins of the Temple of Apollo (6th century B. C.) rise with their columns in limestone. This is a remainder of the Greek past of Syracuse, a town which rises from the dusts of time, leaving its evidence. Don’t forget, in fact, that in the hinterland the Greek theatre of Syracuse still welcomes the spectators with numerous representations inspired to the ancient comedies and tragedies.

The magnificent Fountain of Artemis in piazza Archimede, which shines in its own light during the evening, leads into via della Maestranza, full of shops and perfect for the lovers of shopping. Here you’ll find contemporary clothes shops just next to the handicraft ones. Walking up the alleys of this part of the town, you’ll reach the Giudecca, the ancient Jewish district. Now, you can go to the church of Saint John the Baptist, built with the typical limestone. Its architectonical features recall something older. This building – without a roof, set on arches, with a fifteenth century portal with a rose window on top of it – rises on a fourth century A.D. basilica. Visiting this church is a great experience: you have the opportunity to admire the yellow and rose reflections of the light on the stone, with the blue sky above your head. Probably, an ancient synagogue used to be situated next to the basilica.

Going on with the tour, you can immerse yourself in the narrow alleys coloured by fuchsia and red bougainvilleas. Then you can visit the oldest Jewish ritual bath in Europe,  situated just under the residence-hotel “La Giudecca“. It’s the mikveh of Casa Bianca, accessible thanks to a long staircase carved in the rock. The aim of the brief guided visit is letting you know the fascinating history of the site and discovering important information about the ancient Jewish culture.

Sicily is also famous for the so called pupi, colourful puppets dressed as knights with brilliant armors. You can also decide to visit the museus dedicated to them and discover more about this Italian southern tradition carried on by the Vaccaro family. Inseide the museum, you can see the studio where paperback cutouts are mixed with coloured tubes and paintbrushes under the watchful eye of wizards, witches and other fantasy creatures.

Turning to other rich of history alleys, you’ll arrive in piazza di Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy’s square) where the spectacular Cathedral (Duomo) rises in all its splendor with its magnificent Baroque façade. But there’s more: an attentive eye can catch some important details when entering the building: some giant columns support the roof, while rich Baroque fitments decorate the chapels. The Cathedral of Syracuse (Duomo di Santa Lucia), in fact, has an ancient story which once again sinks its roots in the Greek past of the Island: the columns belong to the Temple of Athena (5th century B. C.). Christians incorporated them in Saint Lucy’s sanctuary, creating a case of historical, archaeological and devotional stratification.

In the same square, art lovers will also find the little church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, where there’s preserved and displayed the magnificent Caravaggio‘s painting “Burial of St. Lucy”.

Like marmaids, the blue waters of the Syracusan sea need attention and it’s good to listen to their call, walking along the many alleys and eating cannoli or a arancini. Streets are now full of restaurants and pubs and it is possible to notice the reflections of a water mirror in a payrus forest. I’m talking about the Fountain of Arethusa, whose name come from the nymph who took shelter in Syracuse. Arethusa asked to be transformed in fountain but Alpheus, who had fallen in love with her, chased the nymph until Zeus, moved by compassion, diverted Alpheus’ river to Syracuse, meeting the Arethusa’s water again.

The Castello Maniace overlooks the sea. It’s a masterpiece of military architecture wanted by the Holy Roman Emperor Federick II, known also as Stupor Mundi, between 1232 and 1240. Its high steeples in the rooms meet the strong defensive wall. Finally, the Bellomo Palace Regional Gallery preserves and displays sculptures and artworks from destroyed convents of Syracuse and other places. It’s a little museum, divided into rooms situated both on the ground floor and the first one. From there it’s possible to overlook one of the two courtyards, the so called Palm Court, whose walls are full of massive marmoreal coat of arms.

The tour of Ortigia doesn’t end here: its narrow alleys are full of details and stories of a distant past, smells and colours, mixed with the traditions and smiles of the inhabitants who will always have a place in the visitors’ hearts.

Copyright photos of the article: Cristina Cumbo