Sojourn in Sicily Part 6: Syracuse

By Anne Spiselman

April 6. There’s nothing like an outdoor market to motivate me to hit the road relatively early, so it’s not too surprising that we set off for Syracuse (Siracusa in Italian) on the southeastern coast of Sicily by 9 a.m. When we arrive at around 10:45 a.m., we head straight for the island of Ortygia (or Ortigia), the oldest section of the city and find parking in a lot near the market, which is on the left-hand side as you go onto the island.

The market isn’t as big as those in Palermo or Catania, but it’s probably my favorite. Food vendors line the long central row, most of them hawking produce that’s in season: huge piles of artichokes in a variety of sizes, skinny wild asparagus, mountains of broccoli or cauliflower in purple, white and green. Long red bell peppers, roasted until charred on the outside and glossed with olive oil, are sold by the pan full, though we’re able to buy just a few (and later regret that we didn‘t get more, because they‘re so delicious). One cheese maker offers free samples of his silky ricotta, still warm from roasting in the oven and lightly seasoned with herbs. He pops a piece right into my mouth, and I immediately want another. We purchase half a round for a couple of euros. The stall next to his is an outpost of two-decade-old F.lli Burgio stocked with everything for a picnic: house-made caponata (more free samples, on tiny pieces of bread), loads of other condiments, sausages, meat and vegetable pies, breads, cheeses. Already picturing dinner on our terrace at Acitrezza, we stock up, then add a couple of 10-cent artichokes (the cheapest we find) to the mix. We basically ignore the stands selling clothing, gadgets and other stuff.

There’s lots to see on Ortygia, so we take a self-guided mini tour, starting with the ruins of the 6th-century B.C. Temple of Apollo in the Piazzi Pancali. The temple is one of the oldest examples of Doric architecture, but there’s not much left to see. A stroll down Corso Matteotti, the main road, leads to the very pleasant Piazza Archimede, a late 19th-century square with the lovely Fountain of Artemis in the center and impressive palazzi from different centuries all around.

We somehow miss the street off the square that leads to the Medieval Quarter, and instead go to the Piazza Duomo – after stopping for directions at a small hotel. Buildings with beautiful facades surround the plaza, among them the Senate House and the Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco, but the main attraction is the Cathedral. The result of a Byzantine transformation of a Greek Doric temple dedicated to Athena, it has rows of massive Doric columns embedded in the walls. The most important side chapel holds a silver statue of St. Lucy, the patron saint of the city. The Cathedral has a formidable Baroque façade, and so does the Church of St. Lucia alla Badia perpendicular to it. Inside we find a surprise: Caravaggio’s “The Burial of St. Lucy,” beautifully displayed, along with a couple of elaborately painted wooden crosses. I’d read that the Caravaggio was in the Bellomo Museum and don’t know if it has been moved permanently.

Miniace Castle at the southern tip of Ortygia is our next destination, but by the time we get there at 1:10 p.m., the fortress built around 1230 on orders from Frederick II of Swabia has just closed for the day, and the police guard won’t even let us tour the grounds. So we buy limone and mandorla (lemon and almond) granitas (they’re like slushies) at a nearby stand and make our way back to the Regional Gallery of Medieval and Modern Art, also known as the Bellomo Museum because it’s in the eponymous 13th-century palace remodeled in the 15th-century in the Catalan style. Handsome if slightly austere, the museum is one of the most wheelchair-accessible we visit, with wide marble ramps to spacious galleries filled with 14th to 16th century paintings and sculptures, many of them by relatively unknown artists including locals.

The afternoon is disappearing much too fast, so we check out the palaces on a few more streets, then return to the car and drive to the mainland. Realizing that we don’t have time to do Syracuse justice, we make our way to the Regional Architectural Museum, a sprawling striped building inaugurated in 1988 in the park of Villa Landolina. Archaeologist Paolo Orsi was responsible for many of the finds, and the incredible collection – one of the most important in Italy – numbers more than 18,000 pieces. Ramps lead you through room after room and gallery after gallery of glass display cases set at interesting angles and filled with artifacts arranged more-or-less chronologically and by region of Sicily, with sections on sites as specific as Ortygia and the Piazza Duomo. We ooh and aah over intact statues and ceramic fragments, figurines, metalwork and much more – acutely aware that it would takes days to read all the explanatory panels and see everything there is to see.

So, on to the Neapolis Archaeological Park before it gets dark. The Greek Theatre is the main attraction, but there’s also a Roman Ampitheatre and, though rough, pathways make much of the park wheelchair accessible. We take a special route down through a forest-y area to the “Ear of Dionysius,” a quarry so named by Caravaggio because of its peculiar vertical shape and exceptional acoustic properties. We join the other visitors a few feet in, and sure enough, even the slightest sound is amplified. Legend has it that Dionysius used to listen, from above, to what the prisoners he sent there were saying.

Our last stop before driving back to Acitrezza is the Grand Hotel Villa Politi, next to luxurious gardens that once were a Greek stone quarry. The hotel’s gracious public rooms offer a quick trip back in time to the 1930s or ‘40s, and it would have been fun to have been a fly on the wall eavesdropping on illustrious guests like Winston Churchill. The late 16th-century Convent of the Capuchins is nearby, as are the ruins of a Norman church, catacombs, and the great cone of the Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime, consecrated in 1994 to celebrate a miracle of 1953, but they all have to wait for another visit as we’re very tired.

We get a little lost on the way home and are more than ready for our feast of market goodies when we arrive. I definitely would like to spend several days in Syracuse and put it on my list of things to do on the next trip to Sicily.