Ortigia (Ὀρτυγία) is a small island, which is the historical center of the city of Syracuse. The island, also known as Città Vecchia (Old City), contains so many historical landmarks, that when you walk around you feel like going back in time. The name originates from the Ancient Greek ortyx (ὄρτυξ), which means "Quail".
Besides the historical facts, Ortygia has a leading role in ancient Greek mythology. The Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo has it that the goddess Leto stopped at Ortygia to give birth to Artemis, the firstborn of her twins. Artemis then helped Leto across the sea to the island of Delos, where Leto gave birth to Apollo. Other ancient sources state that the twins were born in the same place, which was either Delos or Ortygia. Nevertheless, Ortygia, according to Stravo was an old name of Delos, which seems reasonable if you consider that Delos and the islands around it are a seasonal habitat of quails. So, the myth is a bit ambiguous …but, a myth is a myth!
As I narrate later, Ortygia was the mythological home of Arethusa (Aretusa), a faithful nymph fleeing the river god Alpheus (Alfio), who was transformed by Artemis into a spring, traversed underground and appeared here, thus providing water for the city. Arethusa and her pursuer came from Arcadia in Greece, not far from Corinth. Coincidentally the colony of Syracuse was founded by Greeks from Corinth.
Ortygia, being an island just off the coast, was easily transformed into a natural fortress with harbors and was big enough that it could hold a significant population in ancient times. Therefore, the history of Ortygia is synonymous with the early history of Syracuse. Ortygia is located at the eastern end of Syracuse and is separated from it by a narrow channel (strait).
Two bridges connect the island to mainland Sicily: Ponte Umbetino and Ponte Santa Lucia.
Statua di Archimede
In the middle of the strait there is a small islet (actually Ponte Umbertino passes over it), which accommodates the statue of the most famous son of Syracuse: Archimedes of Syracuse. The statue (Statua di Archimede) is not old and a bit out of place for my taste, but …. It is from here, from the statue of the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer, that one should start the walk around the island.
Temple of Apollo (Tempio di Apollo)
Just across the strait stands the beautiful Piazza Emanuele Pancali, after which is located the most important ancient Greek monument on the island: the Temple of Apollo (Tempio di Apollo). It is dated to the beginning of the 6th century BC and is therefore the most ancient Doric temple (of the proto-Doric period) in Sicily and more or less, the first temple which corresponds to the model of the temple surrounded by a peripteros of stone columns, that became standard in the whole Greek world.
The temple underwent several transformations: it closed during the persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire, later became a Byzantine church, and then an Islamic mosque during the Emirate of Sicily
Later it restored to its previous purpose as a church, becoming the Norman Church of the Savior, which was then incorporated into a 16th-century Spanish barracks and into private houses. These successive renovations severely damaged the building, which was “rediscovered” around 1890 inside the barracks and was brought to light in its entirety, thanks to the efficient excavations of Paolo Orsi. Today, the area is enclosed by a protective metal fencing and you cannot enter in it, but, one can admire the temple from the rails.
Old market (Antico mercato di Ortigia)
To the north of the temple, stands the beautiful 1900 building of the Old market (Antico mercato di Ortigia). The building has the characteristics of a covered market, we see also in other Italian cities. It houses shops in an area of 1500 m². In the middle of the building there is a rectangular courtyard with an ornamental fountain. The Old Market building played the role of the main city market until the end of the 1980s, when it was decided to transfer the agri-food and local handicraft resale activities to the rear of Largo De Benedictis, home of the current Ortigia market.
The Old Market was the subject of a restoration that ended in 2000 and since then, it hosts events of different nature, including the farmers market on Sunday (suspended in the summer) and various musical and cultural events. Today, vendors have spread their trading benches on the surrounding streets and like in all markets across Europe, one can find, besides food, clothes and electronics from Far East.
From Largo XXV Luglio in front of the temple, take Via Savoia, a wide commercial road, till Porta Marina, which is part of the 16th century Spanish fortification of the island. From here, take one of the west-east little roads which lead to Via Cavour, most probably the most beautiful street on the island. Via Cavour is the main commercial road (traffic is not allowed in these narrow streets), but today shops mainly cater for the tourists. Nevertheless, walking in this street is a real pleasure.
Via Cavour leads to the most important square of the island: Piazza Duomo. The piazza, located at the highest point of the island, is full of monumental buildings and churches, and has been the center of all activities till the ancient greek times. Before entering the piazza, admire the Chiesa del Collegio dei Gesuti and the many pallazi, among them Palazzo Francica Nava and Palazzo Chiaramonde. On the piazza, next to the Duomo is located also the City Hall.
Duomo (Cathedral of Syracuse)
Of course, the piazza is dominated by the Duomo, the Cathedral of Syracuse. I have to admit that Sicilian Baroque churches do not really appeal to me and as a non-specialist consider them all to be very much alike to each other. This one is neither the best or the biggest in Sicily. BUT, there is something that really left me dumbfounded: the church has incorporated an old Doric temple, and the battered columns of the latter can be seen today, both from the inside and the outside!
The great Greek Temple of Athena was built in the 5th century BC at this site. The temple was a Doric edifice with six columns on the short sides and 14 on the long sides. Plato and Athenaeus mention the temple, and the looting of its ornament is mentioned by Cicero, in 70 BC, as one of the crimes of the governor Verres. Archeological site excavations by Paolo Orsi in 1907-1910 show the Greek temple to have been built on even older foundations, and uncovered a wealth of archaic and pre-Hellenic artefacts. The present cathedral was constructed by Saint Bishop Zosimo of Syracuse in the 7th century.
The battered Doric columns of the original temple were incorporated in the walls of the current church. The building was converted into a mosque in 878, and then converted back to a church when Norman Roger I of Sicily retook the city in 1085. The roof of the nave is of Norman origin, as well as the mosaics in the apses.
As part of the increased building activity after the 1693 Sicily earthquake, the cathedral was rebuilt and the façade redesigned by architect Andrea Palma in 1725–1753. The style is classified as High Sicilian Baroque, a relatively late example. The double order of Corinthian columns on the facade provide a classic example of carved Acanthus leaves in the capitals. Sculptor Ignazio Marabitti contributed the full-length statues on the facade. The interior of the church, a nave and two aisles, combine rustic walls and Baroque details.
The Duomo is a magnificent sight, best admired from one of the cafés in the piazza in front of it. The piazza Duomo was the main setting for several films, of which Tornatore’s “Malena” is the most celebrated. Monica Bellucci crosses the Piazza Duomo under the gaze of her fellow citizens.
As of 2015 the cathedral holds a number of relics of Santa Lucia, the patroness of the city: a number of bone fragments, a robe, a veil, and a pair of shoes. Twice a year on the first Sunday in May and on December 13, her feast day, a statue of Santa Lucia by sculptor Pietro Rizzo (1599) is brought out of the cathedral and paraded through the streets. The silver statue incorporates three fragments of her ribs within its chest.
The entrance to the Duomo costs 2€.
Santa Lucia Alla Badia
The cathedral shares the Piazza Duomo with the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, a short walk to the south, which owns and displays the Caravaggio painting “Burial of St. Lucia”. Originally the site of a 15th century monastery, the Church of Santa Lucia Alla Badia was entirely destroyed by the earthquake of 1693, and the reconstruction can be attributed to the mother abbess of the Cistercian nuns between 1695 and 1703.
The façade, previously on the narrow Via Picherali, and now facing the square, has two overlapping levels separated by the entablature with a balcony equipped with a wrought iron railing.
The lower level is characterized by the presence of the baroque portal in the center, framed by twisted columns that support the pediment, to whose both sides there are Spanish royal crests. Pseudo-Ionic style pilasters are part of the lower level. In the upper level there are still pilasters, slenderer and in pseudo-Corinthian style, inspired by the Rococo style. The facade reaches a total height of about 25 m. On the top there is a jagged gable with heads of putti and a cross above it.
The church is famous, though, for housing a famous painting. In the apse, behind the main altar, stands the large canvas of the "Burial of Santa Lucia" ("Seppellimento di Santa Lucia") painted in 1608 by Caravaggio, during his stay Syracuse.
Entrance to the church is free, but taking pictures of the painting is supposed to be prohibited.
In works carried out in 2016, several engravings in the wall of Via Picherali were identified. These are ships and other symbols left by fishermen and sailors. One of the boats is certainly a vessel, typical of the late 1700s. It may perhaps be the vessel of Admiral Horatio Nelson who landed in the great port of Syracuse in 1798 with his impressive fleet.
Continue south on Via Picherali till you reach the beautiful open space of Largo Aretusa. The square has great views of the Gulf of Siracuse and lots of restaurants and cafés, which continue all the way to the southern tip of the island, on Lungomare Alfeo. The main attraction here, though, is the Fonte Aretusa.
Fonte Aretusa (Arethusa Fountain)
Fonte Aretusa (Arethusa Fountain) is a natural fresh-water fountain. According to Greek mythology, the Arcadian nymph Arethusa (Αρέθουσα), a handmaiden of goddess Artemis (Diana) and the patron figure of ancient Syracuse, fled underwater through the Ionian Sea from Greece to Sicily. She wanted to escape the persistent advances of Alpheus (Alfeo), God of Rivers, who was madly in love with her. Arethusa asked Artemis for help and the goddess transformed her into the freshwater spring we see today. Alpheus left his home in Peloponnese (Greece) and followed her. According to one legend Alpheus is still looking for his beloved nymph, but according to another he finally located his love and mixed his waters with hers here at this spot.
Arethusa has inspired all forms of art: literature, sculpture, painting and music. As a patron figure of Syracuse, the head of Arethusa surrounded by dolphins was a usual type on their coins. They are regarded as among the most famous and beautiful Ancient Greek coins. The fountain became a source of inspiration for many of the great poets, and is mentioned in John Milton’s “Lycidas” as well as Alexander Pope’s “The Dunciad” and Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”. These writers would have known the fountain from references in ancient Roman and Greek sources, such as Virgil's “10th Eclogue” and Theocritus' pastoral poem “Idylls”. Virgil reckons the eponymous nymph as the divinity who inspired bucolic or pastoral poetry.
The fountain has changed in appearance many times over the centuries; the last was in 1540 when, constructing ramparts around the island of Ortigia, the Spanish reduced the lake created by the spring of approximately 200 meters, reducing it to the much smaller, semicircular pool (at the foot of the wall) that we see today. Demolished in 1847 the overlying walls, the bases of the ramparts were transformed into the Belvedere (rearranged in 1947) that one can admire these days, and from which one can appreciate the fountain from above.
No architectural barriers exist, and the descent between the top and the base of the ramparts is served by a ramp and not a stairway. Those who wish to admire the fountain from ground level can enter the Aquarium (with a ticket), make their way to the exit on the sea, and directly reach to the wall of the fountain.
The Fountain of Arethusa and the river Fiume Freddo in the province of Catania are the only two places in Europe where wild papyrus grows. To the delight of youngsters, freshwater fish and domestic ducks swim in the deep water of the spring.
Leave the fountain behind and walk on Lungomare Alfeo to admire the views and have a bite or a drink at one of the many cafés and restaurants here. At the end of the wonderful promenade, on your left you see the huge ocher-colored building of the Syracuse Faculty of Architecture. Pass by this building into the Arena Maniace, the huge open space located in front of the Castello Maniace.
The Castello Maniace is a citadel and castle situated at the far point of the Ortygia island promontory. The first fort was built here in 1038 by George Maniakes (thus, it bears his name), a Greek general and later the Catepan of Italy, after he captured Syracuse from the Arabs on behalf of the Emperor Michael IV. Frederick II, as King of Sicily, had his architect Riccardo da Lentini rebuild it in 1232-1240. King Peter III of Aragon resided here with his family in 1288.
From 1305 to 1536 the castle was used as residence by numerous queens of Sicily. In the 15th century it was used as a prison. In the following century it was included in the fortification defending the harbor and the city. A huge explosion damaged it in 1704, after which it was renovated and adapted to the use of guns. It was bestowed by the King of Sicily upon Lord Nelson as Duke of Bronté, and was owned by subsequent Dukes.
Originally, one could only enter the castle over a bridge spanning a moat (now filled). The castle is open to public, but I could not enter into it...you see we are in Italy, where everything closes for a siesta, exactly the hours when most of the visitors arrive into the city!
Teatro Massimo Comunale
Back to the city by walking northbound on Via Roma and Piazza San Giuseppe, where Teatro Massimo Comunale is located. The theater was inaugurated in 1897, remained in operation until 1962, when it was closed for maintenance work, and officially reopened to the shows on 26 December 2016. For many years the theater has been talked about as a "cursed" structure, having had difficulty building it and opening it from the first moment. The idea was born from the popular legends since the building was built on an ecclesial land expropriated and built with stones recovered after the demolition of the church and the convent. A bit further east on Via Larga you can visit Museo dei pupi (Puppets Museum).
Fountain of Diana (Fontana di Diana)
Continue on via Roma till Piazza Archimede to admire the monumental Fountain of Diana (Fontana di Diana). At the center of the fountain, created by Giulio Moschetti between 1906 and 1907, stands Diana (Artemis) the goddess of the hunt, with bow and a dog, in all of her calm and pride. At her feet there is Arethusa that stretches out while her transformation into a spring is in progress. Behind Diana, Alpheus looks amazed for what is happening to his beloved nymph. The fountain complex also includes four Tritons riding two seas horses and two sea dragons.
From here head eastwards, wander in the narrow streets before exiting on the coastal road, which offers views of the Ionian Sea. At the north-east side of the coastal road stands an elevated platform (it looks like a castle wall), from where one has views over the city to the north beyond Ortygia and the Mount Etna in the background.