I’ve found a spot I could make my base for a period of time some winter, when I’m not rushing through Sicily as fast as I can in the time allotted: it’s the island of Ortygia, a labyrinthine medieval quarter connected to the city of Syracuse by two or three short bridges.
I can see myself settling in for a spell and enjoying many a cup of espresso on its sun-splashed cinematic piazzas; taking walks along the embankment overlooking the calm, circular harbor on one side of the island and being lashed by serious winds off the Ionian Sea on the other.
Maybe I’ll read some Homer, take the sun on a bench overlooking the papyrus garden known as the Fount of Arethusa, buy fresh fish in the market alongside the remnants of the 6th century B.C. Temple of Apollo, above, whose remaining segments of fluted columns just sort of sit there, with no fanfare, in a commercial part of town.
I’ll cook up that fish (and pasta al dente, natch, with tiny clams, shrimp and chopped pistachios in a light tomato sauce) in a rented pied à terre with a roof terrace, do some hand washing and hang it out to dry in about five minutes on that roof terrace, swan around in the linen tunics and beaded jewelry they sell in the chic shops on Via Roma, chat with the artisans working in wood and leather in the rear of their shops, enjoy interesting conversations with people from exotic places like Tunisia and Cambodia, and spend time in one of Europe’s great public spaces, the searingly white, uncrowded Piazza Duomo.
If I lived in Ortygia, I might not pay 2 euros to peek into the duomo, one of the largest in Sicily, with a Baroque facade but built on the site of an ancient Greek temple, whose Doric columns were repurposed along both sides of the nave and are still visible inside and out.
If I lived in Ortygia, I might not visit the archaeological park just outside of town any more than New Yorkers visit the Statue of Liberty, but as visitors we surely did — first the well-preserved Greek theatre of 2,500 years ago, below, and then the Roman amphitheatre of half a millennium later, along with the nearby quarries from which the limestone to build them came.
Mulling over how, at the Greek theatre, acoustically perfect though built for 15,000 people, Aeschylus’s plays were staged (his “Women of Aetna” premiered there in 467 B .C.), while at the Roman theatre, animals and men mauled each other in a pit for the amusement of the citizens, I began to be convinced I preferred the Greeks.
Ortygia worked its way into my heart all the more when I remembered reading that there is a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) there, pre-dating the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily at the beginning of the 16th century, and that one-quarter of the population of Ortygia was once Jewish and that several streets — among the narrowest and most picturesque of them — were the Jewish quarter, still labeled as such today.
We walked to the address at which the mikvah was located and were met by a young woman who led us down about fifty feet of dark, dank stone steps to a vaulted, columned room, where four small pools are still filled with spring water and there’s a Hebrew inscription on the wall.
Even without the mikvah (“miqwe” in Italian), Ortygia is my kind of place. I left there feeling: not for the last time.