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A sicilian gem: Ortigia

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Siracusa was the most important city of Magna Graecia. It defeated the mighty Athens in 413 and was home to many a great Greek, including the inimitable Archimedes. At the height of its economic, political and military powers, the city had a population of 300,000 and, according to Cicero, was “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all”. For those travelling to Sicily today, Siracusa is not to be missed. It is relatively easy to visit in a day, though obviously deserves rather more time. A visit can be split into two easy parts: one dedicated to the archaeological site, the other to the island of Ortigia. And it is right about Ortigia that i want to tell you.

Ortigia is the oldest part of the city and was chosen by the Greeks for their first settlements to found their colony on. Due to its position and the presence of water it was subject to many successful invasions: by the Greeks, Romans, Swabians, Aragonese and Arabs which is reflected in the beautiful buildings and monuments that nestle majestically among the island’s streets. Thanks to the Greeks Ortigia played an important political and administrative role. The earthquake of 1693 destroyed a large part of the island, which was later rebuilt in the Baroque style. After the Unification of Italy and above all after the II World War, the old town began to be abandoned. Today Ortigia is flourishing again and numerous redevelopment projects are bringing Ortigia back to its former glory. Ortigia island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My advice is to lose yourself in its more famous districts: Bottari, Cannamela, and Castello Duomo. Gancia, Giudecca, Graziella, Maestranza and Marina and admire the beauty these places have to offer. It’s difficult to get lost (it measures just 1km by 500 metres), but packed with over 2,500 years of history. Architectural styles vary widely, encompassing Greek and Roman remains, Mediaeval Norman buildings and a great deal of (relatively) understated Baroque. Restaurants, trattorias and bars abound and it is especially nice to sit out on the western side in the late afternoon, warmed by the sun and with a view over the lagoon. It is connected to the mainland by three bridges: Umbertino Bridge (the older one), Calatafari Bridge, Saint Lucia Bridge (the most modern).

For example, you can start your visit from the southern part of the Maniace Castle. One of the most important monuments from the Swabian period, built at the behest of Frederick II, it was the home to the king and defended the city. The castle was damaged by the earthquake of 1693 and other events that modified its original structure. Today just one of the four towers still remains. If you go north from the castle you’ll find the Arethusa Fountain a fresh-water spring whose history goes back to the earliest Greek colonists.. According to the legend, the nymph Arethusa was transformed in a fountain by the goddess Artemide to protect her from the god river, Alfeo that was trying to seduce her. Alfeo did not give up however and went underground to resurface in the harbour next to his beloved. A sculpture showing the scene is positioned alongside the spring. Surrounded by high stone walls, planted with papyrus and inhabited by white ducks, the spring is an important spot on the Ortigia passeggiata. Next door there is also a small aquarium that offers a burst of air-conditioned coolness in the summer. Nearby are piazza Archimede and via Maestranza that host an array of beautiful buildings: medieval, gothic and baroque palaces. In piazza Archimede you can also admire the Fountain of Diana that depicts the legend of Arethusa. A must see is also the Temple of Apollo, really impressive at night. It is the oldest temple in the city. It was built in 654 BC and was discovered only in 1862. The inscription on the Doric temple says that the temple was dedicated to Apollo but according to Cicero seems that it was dedicated to Artemision. In the northern part of the island do not miss the folkloristic and historic market of Ortigia. Its colours, smells and sounds attract many visitors, offering many varieties of local products and fresh fish. If the market stalls are too hectic for you, head to the end of the street nearest the sea, where you'll find a shop which is a foodie's paradise. The Fratelli Burgio store, Il Gusto dei Sapori Smarriti (Piazza C. Battisti, 4), wine lovers will find their oasis of delicacies. In addition to a wide selection of wines you can taste cheeses and any kind of seasonings such as sun-dried tomatoes and other delicacies. This is a great place to stock up on delicacies to take home, or even fine picnic ingredients (ask them to make up a roll with their cheeses). For high-street type shopping, the best place on Ortigia is Corso Matteotti. More gastronomic specialities, wines, gifts and souvenirs can be found at shops along picturesque Via Cavour, and around the Fonte Aretusa.

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The author

Eleonora Ruzzenenti

Eleonora Ruzzenenti

I am Eleonora, from Italy. I share with you a frenetic passion for travelling and an insatiable curiosity for different cultures. On itinari, you will find my stories about Italy.

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