Siracusa’s Old Town: Ortigia

Nestled on the southeastern coast of Sicily is one of its most historically important and most beautiful cities: Siracusa.

If you look at a map of Sicily, Siracusa is located at the point where two little doohickeys of land jut out into the Ionian Sea. Siracusa is located on the northern and smaller one. 2,700 years ago, this was considered a prime spot, and Greek settlers came all the way from Greece to establish a new colony here; not only was it a stop on several important trade routes between the Middle East, northern Africa, and Europe, but it also came with its own harbor, natural springs, easily defensible zones, and a large swath of fertile farming ground just inland from the shore. Besides that, the Delphic Oracle told them they should have it.

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After the Greeks set up shop, Siracusa quickly became a powerhouse in Sicily. Before long, a significant portion of the island fell under the control of the despot of Siracusa, and the city became a thriving capital of the region – a small empire, if you will. They were so powerful in the region, in fact, that they decided that they didn’t really need to depend on Athens for anything anymore, and in 413BC they rebelled against Athenian control and came into their own as an independent city-state. During the Punic Wars, both Rome and Carthage courted Siracusa for their support. This ended badly for them after the Second Punic War, however, when Rome vanquished Carthage and Siracusa was folded – not altogether gently – into the fledgling Roman Empire.

Under Roman rule, Siracusa was still an important stop on the trading routes and one of the most important trade cities in Sicily, but, due to the Roman tax system, it wasn’t as rich as before. The result – which has rather lasted until today – is a city that knows its own historical significance, but which doesn’t enjoy the fruits of its former glory.

However, it’s still beautiful.

When the Greeks first settled at Siracusa, the first part of the city that they built up was the little doohickey of land that juts out into the Ionian Sea. This little doohickey is, in fact, an island. Being an island, it was easily defensible in times of war – and those days were rife with times of war. To this day, this little island is the most interesting part of Siracusa (in my opinion). Ortigia (ohr-tee-jah) is a lovely little jumble of ancient streets lined with cafes, restaurants, shops, and bed and breakfasts.

Most of the interesting sites in Siracusa are on Ortigia, which is very walkable. One of the most central and important sites on Ortigia is the Duomo. Dedicated to the Natività di Maria Santissima (nah-tee-vee-tah dee mah-ree-ah sahn-tee-see-ma; The Nativity of Mary Most Holy), this church is fascinating from a historical standpoint. There used to be a temple dedicated to Athena on this very spot, dating from the 5th century BC. When Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, the Christians took over the site, which had been neglected in favor of a bigger and grander Athenian temple, and rebuilt it as a Catholic church. If you go inside the church (2€ entry), you’ll be able to see Doric columns set into the walls all the way around the church. If they look older than the rest of the church, that’s because they are: The columns themselves are from the original temple to Athena, and the Christians simply reappropriated them.

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Across the piazza from the Duomo is another church, dedicated to Santa Lucia (sahn-tah loo-chee-ah; St. Lucy), who is the patroness of the city of Siracusa. Inside, there’s a painting by the famous rapscallion Caravaggio, which was painted during his sojourn in Siracusa following his escape from a Malta prison. You won’t have to look hard for it. It’s hanging right above the main altar, and it’s rather large. You might even say it’s huge. After he escaped from Malta, Caravaggio made a stop in Siracusa, where the people welcomed the artist with arms wide open. In return for their kindness, he painted a depiction of the burial of their patroness: Santa Lucia. He did it as quickly as possible, then skipped town, lest the authorities from Malta catch up with him. Despite the artist’s less than loving attitude toward the painting, the people of Siracusa prized it above all their other art, and gave it a place of honor in their patroness’s church.

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Take a stroll out to the water, then turn left. If you follow the shoreline, you’ll come across a natural spring, which looks like a modern city beautification project. Its gentle curves, shoots of water grasses, and school of fish swimming about make it seem like a fountain added for the atmosphere. This is, actually, la Fonte Aretusa (lah fohn-tey ahr-eh-too-sah). This particular spring was very important in the city of Siracusa, in particular Ortigia, for one big reason: It’s fresh water. It’s less than ten feet away from the sea, but it’s fresh water. That meant that, in the event of sieges, the people still had fresh water to drink.

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At the very tip of Ortigia, there’s the  (kah-stel-oh mah-nee-ah-chey), which was built by Frederick II in the 13th century, after he took control of Sicily. As grand as the castle is, I’d visit solely for the panorama.

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