Visiting Sicily: between sea, traditions, ancient history, excellent cuisine, and last but not least warm hospitality, I think this island is one of the most extraordinary travel destinations in Italy. Let’s discover it!
Since now, I have been to Sicily three times, the last time in May 2018 when we made a one-week itinerary in the south-eastern part of the island, from the ancient town of Siracusa to the southernmost point of Italy, Capo Passero.
Siracusa, Siciliy: a little history of the town
Siracusa was the first stop of our itinerary. The history of this Sicilian town – inscribed among the Unesco Heritage – tells us of an extraordinary historical melting pot. Remarkable artistic and architectural testimonies reached us through of all the ages that have crossed it. Let’s summarize the history of Siracusa in these fundamental points:
- greek period: founded in 734 B.C., the town of Siracusa developed around its first original nucleus, the islet of Ortigia. It became one of the most powerful Greek polis, and its strategic port was one of the most important in the Mediterranean sea.
- roman period: between 214 and 212 B.C. Siracusa was under the siege by the Romans, the town resisted thanks to the aids coming from Carthage and thanks to the war machines built by one of its most illustrious citizens, the scientist Archimedes. He unfortunately died during the final assault to the town, which was definitively under Roman control in 212.
- medieval period: Arabs, Byzantines and Norman follow each other in the control of Syracuse, until the Spanish take the lead in the sixteenth century, giving the town the architectural imprint of today.
- the disastrous earthquake of 9th and 11th of January 1693 severely damaged many villages in eastern Sicily, including Siracusa, which was after then partly rebuilt in Baroque style.
First day of our itinerary: Ortigia, the heart and historical center of Siracusa
What to see in Ortigia? Here are the most worth sightseeings of Ortigia, the historical centre of Siracusa, check it out on the map:
First af all, one of the most pleasant things to do in Ortigia is simply walking through its alleys, and stop for a typical granita siciliana or a gelato in one of the cafès; we were there on a beautiful Sunday in May and there were many people around.
Staying outside Ortigia you will enter the old town by crossing the Umbertino bridge from which you can see the ancient Palazzo delle Poste, now converted into a luxury hotel 5*; after passing the bridge you will reach the Apollo temple square.
From the Apollo square we decided to proceed counterclockwise along the outer waterfront walkways, then to enter again into the alleys to reach the Cathedral square, which is one of the most impressive monuments of Ortigia.
The three most interesting historical monuments of Ortigia in my opinion are:
- Piazza Duomo, with the UNESCO World Heritage Cathedral and the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia: we were particularly impressed by the Doric columns of the ancient temple of Athena, around which the cathedral itself was built, an incredible historical melting pot in a single building.
- The Fonte Aretusa, a fresh water mirror located in the heart of the old town. It originates from an underground karst layer that has the peculiarity not to mix with the very close sea water; here grow rare papyrus plants, one of the only two papireto in Europe. Around this precious reserve of fresh water the human settlement in Ortigia survived the two year roman siege. Its name comes from the mythological Aretusa that according to the legend was spied while bathing naked by the God Alpheus. To run away from him Aretusa escaped into the island of Ortigia where the goddess Artemis turned her into a water source.
- Finally, the Svevo Castle or Castello Maniace, built in 1200 on the extreme point of the Ortigia island, whose purpose was to defend the town and the port. Entrance is at a fee but currently (2018) there is only a little to visit because the Castle is under renovation. We hope that the restoration will better value this significant monument.
After visiting the Castle, our itinerary in Ortigia continues on the other side of the island, passing in front of the Church of the Holy Spirit and in the square of the Diana fountain, and then again on the waterfront from which there is a magnificent view of the city of Siracusa.
Don’t miss the aperitif with a glass of wine and the excellent arancini fritti, I suggest you to stop near the Marketplace, they are really delicious.
The view of Ortigia and its lights as it went down in the evening was spectacular.
Second day in Siracusa: the Neapolis archeological park and the Greek Theatre.
After the day spent in Ortigia, the second day we visited another important historical monument of Siracusa, the Neapolis archaeological park. It is located in the western part of the city, the most modern one, at the bases of the Temenite hill.
Its most important monument is the Greek Theatre, still used to stage classical performances (the 2019 season program is available here), which you can reach shortly after the entrance, just past the Herlion Plow, a monumental altar of which only the stands remain today. At the top of the Greek Theatre you can admire the caves that served as dressing rooms for the actors.
The next step after the Greek Theatre, is towards the “latomie” (ancient stone quarries), among which the most famous is the so-called Dionysus ear (Orecchio di Dioniso), due to its singular ear shape, located just below the theatre. Finally, the last stop visiting the Neapolis is the Roman Amphitheatre, which we could admire very well unlike the Greek Thetare where instead the works were going to stage the first theatrical performance of the season, so quite off-limits.
Around Siracusa, what to see in the surroundings.
A interesting site located about 40 kilometers from Siracusa is the Necropolis of Pantalica, included with the town itself in the nomination to UNESCO heritage.
It is an ancient rupestrian necroplis that contains more than 5000 tombs carved into the rocks, dating back to the period between the XIII and the VIII century B.C.
To visit this site it is better to rely on a guide. I found little information about it and the site, despite being a World Heritage Site, seems little cared for and little reported. For more information, please consult the pantalica.org website.
After the visit of the archaeological park, we leave Siracusa and start heading south. We stopped for a delicoius fish lunch at the Fontane Bianche beach which is close to town, only 25 minutes far away by car.
Useful informations: how to arrive in Siracusa?
The nearest airport is Catania, from which Siracusa is about an hour by car. I suggest you to rent a car at the airport. It is not difficult to drive around by car in Sicily, and since there are no good local transportation like buses, this is the only way to get around if you are travelling by yourself.
Where to sleep and to eat in Siracusa.
Stay and park: we stayed for two nights in an Airbnb apartment located 5 minutes walk from Ortigia, outside of the islet itself. We chose it for the beautiful view on Ortigia and for the fact that it offered free parking.
Finding to park in Ortigia can be indeed rather difficult, so we preferred to stay outside the old town and move around on foot, which was quite a very good decision.
However, if you need to park your car in Ortigia, it is good to know that there is a large parking lot on the waterfront.
Where to eat: in the historical center you will find many restaurants and cafès offering ice cream and granita, I suggest you to try gelato at “Fior di Latte” right in front of the Duomo. For lunch we were recommended the Don Camillo restaurant, but being Sunday and without reservation we did not find place, it is better to book if you want to go on a specific restaurant on Sundays.