Ortigia in Siracusa: Living History


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.


One of many thousand locally-found ancient artifacts in the Archaeology Museum in Siracusa, this one strikes me as a “photograph” of a couple of guys from about 2000 years ago.

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.


This house may be the most lavishly decorated in Ortigia. This photo shows the top of the entrance and a window above and part of the decor along the roof line. 

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.


St. Peter the Apostle Church in Ortigia is one of the oldest existing churches in Europe. A descriptor in the church quotes a source dating it to 326 AD.

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!

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People live here! It’s a busy place.

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.


This image of the cathedral in Ortigia shows the Greek temple in the illuminated section at the left.

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.



Palermo: enjoying its history and its future

Four hundred year ago Palermo was a very rich city. From the 1600s to the 1800s enormous palaces and churches were built to the highest standard here. Relics of that era are found everywhere. It sometime seems that there’s a baroque church and a rococo palace or two in every block. Those huge buildings are often used now as hotels, museums, offices and, more often, apartment buildings. Many of the churches have been re-purposed or closed permanently.

This is one a pair of grand portals opening onto a building that’s being restored (apparently). A pizza place is there now but it seems better days are ahead.

The many ancient palaces (called “palazzi” in Italian) seem to be faring better than the churches. Often the main door to the street is a two-story tall confection of carved stone, sometimes with the coat of arms of the family that built it at the top. Inside the door there’s usually a courtyard open to the sky, often made into a garden with tall palm trees and other Mediterranean plants.

Here’s my new friend Emanuele in front of the eastern end of the Palermo cathedral which I had completely missed seeing.

I’ve been fortunate here to have met a very knowledgeable guide, Emanuele DeGaetano. He has introduced me to some most interesting places in Palermo and has shared with me the history of each place. On two occasions we walked for hours, once in the city center and once in the marina district. Emanuele has shown me churches and museums but he’s also shown me giant murals and explained the murders of men who opposed the mafia. He is completely knowledgeable about his city.

The church tower at the end of this block is wrapped in scaffolding while being repaired. It’s one of two towers and the facade of a huge church that is now being restored. Note the narrow street in the historic center of Palermo and all the balconies. This street is typical of the center of Palermo.

Today Palermo is alive with the energy of young people, with the noise and confusion of a city where everybody seems to be in the street. Swarms of tourists from every part of the world add to the chaos. This is the most alive town I’ve ever been in. People sleep in ancient small apartments in the original city center but they live in the street. Sidewalk cafés are everywhere. Late Sunday afternoon I was surprised when I went to one of the main streets, Via Maqueda, and found it totally packed with people, reminding me of a state fair on opening day.

This picture wasn’t taken when the street was packed but it’s the same street, a pedestrian only zone lined with shops and restaurants, all of them locally owned. No McDonald’s or Starbucks here!

I’ve been to all the famous cities of Italy (some of them several times) and to other wonderful Italian cities that are less famous. Considering all of them, I’ve found Palermo to be the most fascinating and enjoyable. It is alive!


Postscript: March 21, 2019: This morning when I left the place where I stayed this week I found hundreds of young people marching up the main street nearby. When I asked a someone what it was about she said it’s an annual event in which students remember those who have been murdered by the mafia. It happens all over Italy on this day each year.The signs being carried also seemed to express a desire to rid Sicily of the mafia.

Emanuele DeGaetano is a professional guide. He has a thorough knowledge of his city and country. He speaks English fluently. If you will be in Palermo I recommend you arrange a tour with him. Reach Emanuele at info@palermotour.it. His website is under construction and is missing the English translation now but still provides many ideas for time in Palermo. Find it at www.palermotour.it

The photo at the top of this post is of one of the very elaborately decorated Baroque churches in Palermo. The dopey little computer I brought on this trip has a terrible monitor. Pictures on it look awful to me. I hope they look better on your screen.

Tomorrow I’m off to Siracusa, an ancient Greek city in Sicily. Stay tuned!

Loving Palermo!

My AirBnB apartment in Palermo is the best I’ve had. It’s been converted from the ground floor barn of a centuries-old building into a 21st century apartment with everything anyone needs for comfort. It’s located near the foot of Via Victor Emanuele, the principal north/south street, near the point where that street ends at the edge of the Mediterranean. This area is called Piazza Marina – it’s where the city’s pleasure craft marina is located. (The photo above shows the corner near my apartment: the church was built in the 1500s and the masts of sailboats in the marina are seen in the background along with one of the small mountains that protect the harbour.)

My apartment in Palermo is very comfortable.

The walk to the center of the city from the apartment is less than a kilometer. The city’s free circular-route bus is just outside the door. The wide street around the corner runs between ancient city walls and the Mediterranean Sea. Good, affordable restaurants are there and all over town. Sunday morning I found a large flea market outside my door. Less than 24 hours after I arrived I asked to stay another week and cancelled my plans for next week.

This photo of the cathedral of Palermo doesn’t include the entire exterior. The building is a full block long.

This city that has known may rulers over the centuries. There are layers of history to explore. Just one example — the cathedral. Quoting from the tourist brochure: “The cathedral was erected in 1185 by the Archbishop … on an ancient basilica, which had been transformed into a mosque by Muslims and was later reconsecrated to the Christian faith by the Normans.”  The façade dates from the 1300s – 1400s and the dome dates from 1781.

One of the many beautiful parks in Palermo.

The city of Palermo is alive with busy people, young and old. It’s filled with beautiful old churches. Many of them don’t get much use these days. There is an enormous opera house and many theaters as well as art galleries and museums. Parks are dotted all over town. The one across the street from my apartment is said to be the location of the largest tree in Europe. Another is a playground running for blocks along the edge of the sea. A well-regarded botanical garden and a neighboring park are near it. Small mountains (or big hills) overlook the city.

The wide walking area along the Mediterranean Sea in Palermo, showing a restaurant that specializes in pizza and gelato!

Yesterday I boarded the free bus that runs through the old part of town just for the free city tour it provides. I got on at the first stop about 9:00 in the morning. The bus took me to a part of town with modern apartment buildings, large stores (including one of those big German groceries that are covering the world), and past the hospital. Soon it was packed with people, most of them pensioners. The noise level was surprising. The lady sitting next to me was so insistent that another woman using a walker take her seat that she argued loudly when her offer was declined. At each stop the noise level increased as people pushed their way on and off the bus. It was all a new experience!

An out-of-focus photo of a family enjoying a day out in Palermo. Don’t miss the horse’s hat!

The people here are genuinely helpful and friendly. I got really lost a couple of days ago and asked a number of people for directions back to the cathedral, which is my major landmark. Invariably they smiled and struggled to understand what I needed and pointed me in the right direction. One woman actually interrupted her conversation with a friend to walk me part way “home.” I have found Italians to be this kind and helpful everywhere I’ve been.

Stay tuned for the further adventures in Palermo!


PS: Here’s AirBnB’s site for the apartment I’m loving.

Catania: Living Dangerously

Catania is Sicily’s second largest city. Home to more than a million people in the metropolitan area, it is located 24 miles from Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano.

Snowy Mount Etna looms over Catania. Here you see the main street, lined with 18th century buildings and leading directly to the volcano which is still very active. I stayed just two blocks from the yellow building in the background of this picture.

The city was destroyed by an eruption of Etna in 1669 and by an earthquake in 1693. Little remains of pre-1700 Catania. I have read that one-third of the city population died. There was so much lava that the city’s port was partially filled and the city’s area became much larger.

Much of Catania is built on the lava rock that was left in the late 1600s, The owners of this large building just left it there and built on top of it several centuries ago.

Today much of the city is comprised of large buildings lining the streets densely, most of them dating from the 18th century. Grand palaces are scattered throughout the city but today many of them are broken up into small apartments where laundry flies from the windows. Catania seemed to me to be smaller Naples. Like Napoli, there are no traffic lights in the busiest area of the city. I thought I was going to die in the taxi that took me from the railroad station to my apartment.

Beautiful old churches seem to be found in nearly every block. I thought this one was especially fine. Can you spot the angel?

Crossing streets is really a challenge!

Catania has two famous market areas: the fish market located just outside the cathedral  where I found the man with the swordfish head shown at the top of this post, and a larger market that stretches through the center of the city beginning within a couple of blocks of my AirBnB rental. That one not only sells food of all kinds but also shoes and clothing, household gadgets – just about anything you can imagine. If you’ve followed this blog for a while you know I love taking photographs of markets. Here’s some of my favorites from Catania.


Lecce: Things I’ll Remember

Wandering the narrow streets of Lecce (and always getting lost) over several days was one of the best travel experiences I’ve had. Although the city has a population of about 100,000 and a very active and successful business community, the ancient city at the center is protected, authentic, delightful. I thought it might be fun for you to read about and see some of the bits of Lecce that made it very special.

Roman around
On my first night in town, taking a walk without any idea where I was going or how to find my way back… stumbled upon the remains of the Roman amphitheater. Just behind it was a recently restored  14th century building that’s served as the center of town forever. The next day I found the stage and remaining seats of the Roman theatre. Everywhere I found late renaissance churches and palaces and ordinary homes. A block from the theatre stand the pair of ancient olive trees I’ve shown above. I wonder if the Romans planted them?  I think I slept in a renaissance barn. It was all enchanting.

Some of the extant Roman coliseum with the 13th century building at the upper left. Hidden somewhere in this picture is the symbol of a famous 20th century American institution. Can you find it?

Getting lost
No matter how hard I  tried, how much attention I paid, how much I planned ahead, how many maps I used, I got lost every day at least once.  This is a really small area! I got the most lost on the last morning lugging my bags to the train station. I had been there at least three times but I got so twisted up near my apartment! I came upon a group of men chatting on a Sunday morning and asked “which way to the stazione?” Two of them immediately disengaged from their friends and began leading me to the station, taking my luggage in hand. On the way there one of them had to head off in another direction but the other stayed with me all the way.  He was so nice, dragging my stuff, testing his English with me. I have found the young people everywhere I’ve gone in Italy to be very good to old ladies!

This lovely young woman allowed me to take her picture because I told her she looks like someone I know.

Hard-headed carvings
As reported in my last post, the soft stone of Lecce is said to be easy to carve. Saints and angels peer down at pedestrians all over town. The palaces (palazzi) have lushly carved window and door surrounds but my favorite thing about them were the balconies outside every window. Balconies held up for centuries by carved heads and shoulders of men and women and animals.

An example of frequently seen carvings holding up an 18th century balcony.

Another tradition in Lecce is papier maché. Our guide pointed out to us in one 17th century church that the ceiling was entirely made of the original papier maché.  But the most fun use of it appears as small souvenirs for tourists to take home and small street sculptures. Here’s one example.

A very old elephant made of papier mache and his rider.

Pastries, pasta and prosciutto
Of course food!  Good homemade (bakery and restaurant made) traditional food. Every day begins with a “cornetto” – a croissant filled with vanilla custard or Nutella or something equally good and a tiny cup of espresso used to transport several teaspoons of sugar into a body.  Cheese: I ordered a caprese salad and got an entire mozzarella the size of a baseball. Pizza everywhere! Naples style. Pasta with an unending variety of toppings.  Sandwiches and salads topped with ham, usually thin slices of prosciutto. My favorite restaurant was called Nonna Tetti (correct me if I’m wrong but I believe “nonna” means grandmother). A charming small trattoria with a varied menu and low prices.

Charming Nonna Tetti, a good restaurant near “my house.”

I must share with my friends this work of art I found in the town’s modern art museum.

This man has few admirers in Europe. I’m told the two-finger salute is the Italian version of the American one-finger salute!

Next: surprising Catania!  Come back soon.


In the Heel of the Boot!

If you look at a map of Italy you will see that it’s shaped like a high-heeled boot. This week I’ve been in Lecce, an ancient city in the center of the heel. There was an organized society living here 4000 years before the Romans came. The Appian Way, the most famous Roman road, ended here. In the next 1000 years or so following the demise of Rome a highly successful agricultural economy based on olive oil and wine developed here with Lecce the financial capitol. Some of the merchants and financiers became extraordinarily wealthy. They built massive, ornate homes that continue to exist today. They financed the building of a great many baroque and rococo churches.

I’ve been wandering through a maze of narrow streets that wind around those palaces (palazzi in Italian) for several days, getting lost every time I venture out, feeling grateful that the historic district of the town is too small to become permanently lost in. Google maps led me home most days. Let me show you a bit of what I’ve been seeing:

This church is my landmark, the nearest one to where I’m staying. It’s dedicated to Saint Matthew. Inside and out it is beautiful

Here’s another example of an ornate church. The map I’ve been using lists 25 churches like this within the old town walls. My guess is that the town is about 1 mile on each side.

An early evening view of the street behind one of the most decorative palaces — in pink and white stripes and with a tower.

This doorway surround is typical of many found on the old palaces. Huge doors insured the privacy of the inhabitants.

This town is a mixture of ancient beauty and the 21st century ugliness.

Here’s the street my tiny apartment is on. Too narrow for automobiles but ok for bikes. It’s quiet.

My corner of King’s Lynn


The beautiful home in which I’m staying is situated in a building constructed in the 1600s as an addition to a large place built as a medieval home and warehouse around 1350 and added onto in the 1420s.  Located on the river’s edge, it was one of the most important buildings in the town.  As recently as the 1930s it was a disaster. In the mid-20th century some people in the town of King’s Lynn organized a trust and raised funds to rescue this property and one other.  Now it houses 15 townhouses. One of them is owned by Helen, a gracious and charming lady who is hosting me for two weeks. Lucky me!

Each time I walk out the door I see a magnificent church built in the 12th century. Next to it a small row of brick cottages, originally part of a priory (monastery) from about 1100 AD.  I see the spectacular city hall built in the 1400s. Next door is a warehouse built by the Hanseatic League in medieval times. Nelson Street, on which this house is placed, is lined for its entire length by medieval and renaissance era homes. I love being here! Thank you AirBnB!

Please come out with me now, on a walk out of my medieval home in King’s Lynn.

This big orange building is Hampton Court. The house across the street is from the medieval period.

Here’s the entrance to Hampton Court. Notice how the oak threshold has been worn away over the ages. The black posts on either side are also oak, but they feel petrified: hard as stone.

The arched doorway on the left is the entrance to the part of the house built about 1320.

Here’s “my” door, with spring bulbs and primroses blooming in pots by the door in February.

When I walk out this is the first sight I see.

This old cobblestone street runs between Helen’s kitchen on the left, and a warehouse built by the Hanseatic League in the 1400s.

This is the backside of the priory cottages built in the early 12th century. Notice all the different patches of brick and stone used as the buildings have been patched and changed. The owners maintain container gardens in the small space between their cottages and the church.

I can’t resist including this photo of a spring time window in one of the priory cottages.

I write this blog to share the things I’m enjoying on my travels with my family and friends. Others are welcome to come along, but I feel a need to explain that I realize my blog is more personal than most, but that’s what’s intended.


Living History: King’s Lynn, England

The medieval town of King’s Lynn exists today. On narrow streets along the edge of a river named Great Ouse, buildings dating from the 12th century through Georgian times proudly serve as homes and offices.  An 12th century minster (a cathedral-like church shown above) anchors one end of town while the site of the ancient fair granted by a long-ago king is at the other.

Shakespeare played here! The 15th century theatre, one of the oldest in Great Britain.

A nearly 600-year-old theatre where it’s believed Shakespeare and his band of actors  once worked is still active.  Lovingly restored homes, inhabited by proud citizens of the town, bear plaques attesting to the century in which they were built. During the Middle Ages King’s Lynn was an important port city. Sifting sands moved the river, taking business and money away, and leaving the town in its original state. Today visitors can walk on the quays along the river and on the streets through original town, past relics of centuries past.

Originally a guild hall, today this 15th century building is the city hall. The “checkerboard” facade was created by alternating white stones with black.

One of the oldest and most important buildings is the town hall, built originally about 1400 by a guild of wealthy ship owners and merchants. The building was constructed one century at a time, but the checkerboard façade of white stone and shale keeps that a secret.

St. Margaret’s church was begun in 1101 and has been a place of worship since. The towers have both a clock and a “tide clock.”

Just across the narrow street stands the “minster.” A great church honoring Saint Margaret was built here beginning about 1100 AD. It would be a cathedral in another country. Extraordinarily long, the east end of the church is graced by a large stained glass window with a huge carved Tree of Jesse below it. A 20th century stained glass masterpiece can be seen on the western end.

The other very impressive old church in King’s Lynn is St. Nicolas, built in the 1500s by the the town’s rich merchants and shippers.

Another church, Saint Nicolas chapel, is at the opposite end of the mile-long center of town. Built during the renaissance by and for the many wealthy ship owners, traders and merchants, this church now only serves its original purpose on Christmas and other special occasions.  The hammer-beam roof is graced by a large winged angel attached between each pair of roof trusses. The floor is paved in memorial stones and polished stone 17th century sculptures memorialize entire families.

In a corner of St. Margaret’s: an old tree, some very old gravesstones and the buildings of the 12th century priory.

A priory, just south of the minster, dates from the early 1100s.  Today the row of ancient 2-story buildings where monks once lived advjacent to St. Margaret’s church are small homes sharing a secret garden. Medieval windows and walls built of a jumble of stone and bricks overlook the minster church.

Buillt in sections between 1350 and the early 1600s, Hampton Court is comprised of four connected former warehouses than now house large homes.

Remnant of an old monastery, the Red Tower is now the centerpiece of “The Walks,” the town’s large, central 18th century park.

All over the town buildings that are centuries old have become gracious homes and offices. One such is Hampton Court, a large connected group of 14th and 15th century warehouses rescued by citizens of King’s Lynn and converted into 15 gracious townhouses. The streets near the river’s edge are the oldest in town. Many Georgian-era fine brick homes are seen on the city’s streets interposed with older homes, some of them medieval. A large park forms the center of the city. Designed for exercising the upper class in the 18th century, today it’s perfect for walkers and runners. In “The Walks” as the park is known, the visitor finds the remains of a city gate and a small part of the old city walls. In the center of the park a small, squat tower on a gentle rise named the “Red Mount Tower,” built in the 1483 and restored recently is open to visitors. Nearby a Victorian library and a church built to “seat everyone” (unlike the other churches in the city which sold seating) represent community life in King’s Lynn in the 19th century as do terraces of large and small brick homes.

A view of the “”High Street” shopping district in King’s Lynn.

King’s Lynn’s traditional “High Street” shopping area is comprised of several blocks of popular retail shops as well as antique stores and theatres.

Two Sunday morning joggers pass by the charming Duke’s Head Hotel.

Continue the “historical” ambience of time spent in King’s Lynn at one of several long-serving hotels which are still active here.  The Duke’s Head hotel, overlooking the ancient marketplace, is a lovely shade of blue.  Near it, the Globe Hotel is also a long-time favorite. The Bank House is a fine hotel near the Custom House and the river. All these hotels have traditional English restaurants. Other fine dining establishments are found throughout the old town.  On river’s edge, Marriott Warehouse is a wine bar and popular restaurant – try their Sunday lunch!  Hotels and restaurants to fit all budgets are plentiful in King’s Lynn.

A repurposed old warehouse on the quay is a fine restaurant and summer eating space now.

To discover a town that proudly protects and enjoys its history, add this lovely small city to your next U.K. itinerary.

The Eden Project

The Eden Project is an environmental education project housed in six enormous semi-transparent domes in Cornwall, England. Created in 1999, it has continued to inspire and educate children and adults for the past 20 years.  I’ve wanted to go there for a long while and finally was able to do so recently. The leaders of this project can explain it much better than I can so I begin by asking you to view this 5-minute video to learn from one of the co-creators the history, the purpose and the aspirations of the project.
Please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8unx8-pZxg

Here’s the link to the Eden Project website: https://www.edenproject.com/

On the wall of the welcome center at the Eden Project I found the following. I want to share it with you and your family. On the internet I found it here: https://www.100people.org/index.php

If the World were 100 PEOPLE:

Gender 50 would be female
50 would be male
Age 25 would be 0-14
66 would be 15-64
9 would be 65 and older
Geography 60 would be from Asia
16 would be from Africa
10 would be from Europe
9 would be from Latin America & the Caribbean
5 would be from North America
Religion 31 would be Christian
23 would be Muslim
16 would not be religious or identify themselves
as being aligned with a particular faith
15 would be Hindu
7 would be Buddhist
8 would believe in other religions
First Language 12 would speak Chinese
6 would speak Spanish
5 would speak English
4 would speak Hindi
3 would speak Arabic
3 would speak Bengali
3 would speak Portuguese
2 would speak Russian
2 would speak Japanese
60 would speak other languages
Overall Literacy 86 would be able to read and write
14 would not
Literacy by Gender 90% of males would be able to read and write
10% of males would not be able to read and write
82% of females would be able to read and write
18% of females would not be able to read and write
Education 78% of eligible males would have a
primary school education
76% of eligible females would have a
primary school education66% of eligible males would have a
secondary school education
63% of eligible females would have a
secondary school education7 would have a college degree
Shelter 78 people would have a place to shelter them
from the wind and the rain, but 22 would not
Urban/Rural 54 would be urban dwellers
46 would be rural dwellers
Drinking Water 91 would have access to safe drinking water
9 would use unimproved water
Food 11 would be undernourished
Infectious Disease 1 would have HIV/AIDS
1 would have tuberculosis
Poverty 11 would live on less than $1.90 USD per day
Electricity 82 would have electricity
18 would not
Technology 65 would be cell phone users
47 would be active internet users
95 live in an area with a mobile- cellular network
Sanitation 68 would have improved sanitation
14 would have no toilets
18 would have unimproved toilets

These school kids from France were in one of the three school groups at the Eden Project on the day I was there.