My Kind of Place: Syracuse’s Ortygia Island

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.

“Second alley of the Jews”

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.

Central Sicily in a Day: Hill Towns, Mosaics and Unbeatable Views

We were reluctant to leave Palermo without visiting its renowned archaeological museum, below, so we squeezed in an hour there on our last morning. Seeing the magnificent sculpture and decorative arts of millennia past always helps put things in perspective.

Much of the museum’s permanent collection centers on architectural salvage from Selinunte, a Greek city on the southern shore of Sicily with a vast complex of five temples, which I never even heard of before this trip. Seems the city didn’t last long: it was largely destroyed by the Carthaginians around 405 BC, never rebuilt and abandoned a century or so later. Left behind: sculptures of stone, marble and terra cotta, grave goods, friezes, sarcophogi and more.

The museum’s holdings, along with such treasures as a basalt stele with exquisitely detailed Egyptian hieroglyphics of four thousand years ago, make it abundantly clear that these ancient civilizations were well-organized and highly educated, and parts of their societies, at least, lived far more graciously than we do now. We think we have such an advanced culture? Ha. It’s chauvinistic to think our modern civilization has much, if anything, on the ancient ones.

Human dysfunctions like war and slavery haven’t gone away in modern times, but I got no sense that women were particularly subjugated in ancient Greece and its outposts, perhaps because they worshipped goddesses as well as gods? The tidbits of knowledge I pick up on a trip like this never fail to generate more questions.

We hopped a bus to the Palermo airport to pick up our rental car and headed down through the center of the island. The day — Tuesday — was clear and bright, with puffy clouds, as we drove through a portion of the Madonie mountains and through cultivated hills of olive and cherry trees. I was thrilled to be enjoying such fabulous scenery from a major highway.

We stopped en route in Enna, the highest medieval hill town in central Sicily, but it seemed in our hour-long pit stop that the view of Calascibetta, above, another nearby medieval hill town, was the best thing about Enna.

At an otherwise deserted little bar, the kind woman behind the counter scared up some impromptu antipasti for a pair of American vegetarians who stumbled in ravenous at 4PM. And of course the wine — Nero d’Avola (a dark red) and Grillo (crisp but flavorful white) — like all the Sicilian wines I’ve tasted, were superb.

I had a bit of a meltdown in Enna when our car got stuck on an impossibly narrow street. Trying to follow GPS directions, which told us to turn onto one-way streets that weren’t sign posted and no wider than a single-car driveway, we got boxed in and had to undertake precarious maneuvers to back out, while other cars kept coming around the corner. The Fiat Panda felt like a truck as we tried to turn it around with centimeters to spare, especially while worrying about scratching the brand new car, which had all of 14km on it when we picked it up at the airport.

That was only the first of two such events that day; the second occurred when we were sliding backwards toward a staircase leading down a steep embankment. The stresses of driving in Europe, where the streets are as hilly as San Francisco’s and as twisty as a plate of linguini, and a distance of forty miles can take hours, are not small.

Enna was the first of three central Sicilian hill towns we visited in two days on our scratch-the-surface tour of the island. It seems that by following signs reading Centro Storico, you invariably come to a piazza with a beautiful Baroque cathedral and a belvedere (i.e., scenic overlook), usually a parklike strip with benches and fountains, bars and restaurants — but, if it happens to be between 2:30 and 7:30 PM, not a one open to serve hungry travelers.

Wednesday was socked in with rain and heavy fog. Fortunately we had planned a visit to Villa Romanas des Casales, below, an extraordinary late-Roman villa and UNESCO site that has only been open to the public since 2006.

It was possibly the summer palace of Marcus Aurelius and is now a major draw for visitors who come chiefly to see its extensive floor mosaics, often ‘themed’ to the purpose of the room. Outstanding among them: the 200-foot-long ‘hall of the hunt,’ an encyclopedic pictorial of how wild animals were captured in Africa and transported to Rome; another room depicting young women in bikinis training for athletic competitions; others of children playing; chariot races, banquets and more, all at amazing levels of detail.

Most of the villa was buried under mud for centuries, and only fully excavated, restored and and made accessible to the public in recent years. It has to be one of the remaining wonders of the ancient world.

Still in the rain, we drove up into the atmospheric (as are they all) and charming hill town of Piazza Armerina, above, took a few photos and checked out its requisite Duomo, then drove another half hour to the town of Caltagirone, top. We were interested in its signature ceramics, and also in lunch.We wandered in and out of shops to see the former, as well as climbing its 142-step staircase and admiring its Baroque architecture, but found none of the latter.

Luckily we had half a dozen oranges picked right from the trees outside our room at Vecchia Masseria, below, an agriturismo whose stone buildings have been converted to tourist lodging and where we stayed one cushy night in the area. It’s a luxurious full-service resort as well as a working farm with a lovely candlelit restaurant, where we had joined European couples of all ages for dinner the night before.

The stolen citrus tided us over until we arrived after dark at the Hotel Gutkowki in Syracuse for a two-night stay. The rain and wind coming off the Ionian Sea was appropriately Homeric, setting us up for further immersion in ancient history, trusty Blue Guide close at hand.