I walked out of a 14th century palace today (above), into a street lined with houses constructed in the 1600s or earlier, past a church that’s probably older. I felt like I’d been swept back in time 500 years. The island of Ortigia is a living time capsule.
People have lived here for 14,000 years (per Wikipedia). The walls of the cathedral began life as a Greek temple to the goddess Diana. The large archaeological museum here is filled with artifacts left behind by residents thousands of years before the time of Christ.
The oldest palaces line up along the southern edge of the island. Their facades date them to the 1400s when the Spanish were in control here or the Bourbons in the 1500s. Like Lecce, the 1600s found men making great fortunes here and demonstrating their wealth by building palazzi in the baroque fashion. The 1700s continued that trend, but fancier with roccoco style balconies held up by sculputured heads or leaves and flowers. The doorways communicate the time of a buildings origins: in the 1500s they were plain, in the 1600s they became a bit grander, and in the 1700s they were lavishly decorated.
Ortigia is an island that is part of the city of Siracusa (Syracuse in English) located on the southeastern coast of Sicily. Siricusa is just over a pair of short bridges. Siracusa holds the modern necessities: homes, offices, and so forth. The archaeological museum is there not far from the large Greek remains: a theatre, some of the coliseum, lots of rocks!
I’ve read that fewer than 5000 people actually live on the island. I have also read that 100,000 tourists come to Ortigia each year. I’m here in the off-season but even so on the weekend the piazza by the cathedral was packed with people with cameras, eating gelato and having a great day. The weather has been perfect this week. The people responsible for town government do a great job of maintaining its history while entertaining hordes of people and filling many of the ancient doorways with vendors of pizza and tourist magnets and fashionable clothing and sneakers.
My friend Nikki wrote to me yesterday about a visit here that she and her husband made a few year ago. She wrote this: “We walked in the amphitheater of the Greeks!! Don’t forget to try the blood oranges and the lemons unlike any you have ever tasted in America. We visited the grave of Archimedes and the church dedicated to St. Lucy, [the patron saint of Siracusa.]” As Nikki demonstrated, a visit here is one you’ll not soon forget.