Sunday, July 08, 2007

May 2007 - Siracuse, Sicily - Ortygia Island

Siracuse, situated on the southeast coast of Sicily, has been an important city economically and culturally for 2700 years. From the prehistoric peoples that originally occupied the land to the Corinthians who founded the Greek city, to the Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Normans & Spanish who, respectively, conquered the city, to those who ruled during the Renaissance and the Baroque periods and the fascists who took over in the early 20th Century, the city's history is revealed in its buildings, streets and ruins. The island of Ortygia, connected to the mainland by a short bridge and dividing its two harbors, has always been the city's focal point. As many of Siracuse's important sites can be found on this tiny island, we decided to stay there instead of the mainland.
After settling into our bed and breakfast on one of the most charming streets in town (see below), we took a walk around the island. Here we are on its northeastern coast with the Ionian Sea (part of the Mediterranean) behind us. This shot faces the southern tip of the island.
And here's the view further up the island's northeastern coast, looking towards the mainland and Porto Piccolo, the smaller of Siracuse's two ports. The walkway along the sea wall lead to the Lungomare di Levante, the promenade overlooking the maritime heart of the city.

Walking along the southwestern side of the island, we came across Fonte Aretusa, facing the city's main harbor and the Porto Grande. The waters of this spring still flow as they did during ancient Greek times. According to myth/history (often blurred in Sicily as in Greece), Arethusa was a nymph transformed into a spring by the goddess Artemis.

At the southern tip of the island, where the temple of Hera and the villa of the Roman governor once stood, is Castello Maniace, built by the Norman ruler Frederick II in the 13th Century. Over the centuries, this square castle with four round corner towers served many purposes, including royal residence, fortress and warehouse. It's named after the Byzantine general Maniakes who overtook the city from the Arabs.
Here's Casandra in the main hall of the castle under the gothic vaulting and pointed arches.

And here she deeper in the castle towards the southern outer fortification, lined up with a series of rounded arched doorways.

After exploring some of the darker chambers of the castle, we headed towards the center of town, walking through a number of beautiful streets lined with colorful Renaissance and Baroque buildings adorned with characteristic wrought iron balconies and street lamps.

Soon, we came upon the island's largest square, Piazza Duomo. In addition to Siracuse's Cathedral, this square is home to . . .

the Palazzo del Senato, now the Town Hall, behind us to the right, and a number of other beautiful Baroque palazzi, including the impressive Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco, behind us to the left. The latter, built in 1779 by architect Luciano Ali, has a particularly elegant facade with a lovely balcony supported by the main doorway. Many important historical figures, including Admiral Horatio Nelson and King Ferdinand III of Bourbon, have stayed in the palace.

Sitting next to Town Hall is the city's Duomo, behind us, built in 1728-53 by architect Andrea Palma. The facade is a wonderful example of Sicilian Baroque architecture, which was introduced in this region of Sicily.
The most interesting feature of this church is how it incorporates the ancient Temple of Minerva (which, in turn, had been built over the site of a 6th Century BC monument dedicated to Athena). You can clearly see a series of massive columns from the temple on this north exterior wall of the church, . . .

. . . as well as on both the north and south interior walls. Here's Casandra standing between two of the colums against the south wall.
Originally an ancient temple, then a Christian church, then a Muslim mosque and finally a church again, the interior of the Duomo, in addition to the ancient columns, contains elements of its various uses, including a 13th Century well, Norman-era mosaics, a Renaissance-era sacristy with wooden choir stalls, and Baroque-era architectural elements, paintings and sculptures, including the architecture of the high altar (above), . . .

. . . and the colorful frescoes covering the vault and ceiling above it.

After visiting the Duomo, we headed over to the other large (and more central) square on the island, Piazza Archimede, named after the great Greek scientiest and inventor who was born in Siracuse and died there when the Romans conquered Siracuse in 212 BC. In the center of that square, behind Casandra, is the 19th Century Fountain of Artemis.

Next, we walked over to Piazza Pancali, near the entrance to Ortygia Island, to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, which were discovered in 1860 inside old Spanish barracks. The Temple was built in the early 6th Century BC, making it the oldest existing Doric temple in Western Europe.

Behind me are the only two intact columns, still supporting a small portion of the roofline. You can still see the fluting in the shaft of the columns and the simple design of the capital, two elements of the Doric order, the first of the three orders of classical Greek architecture. Over the centuries, this massive temple has served as a Byzantine church, an Arab mosque, a Norman church, and a Spanish military stronghold.
After sightseeing for a while, we headed back to our B&B to get ready for dinner. Here's Casandra on our street, one of the narrowest and most characteristic on the island.

At night, our street is even more striking, strung with lights, lined with dinner tables and peculiarly overlooked by an amazingly life-like manequin on a balcony, above.

We liked the street so much that we decided to have dinner at the restaurant whose tables, crammed on either side of the street, left barely enough room for anyone to pass by. Casandra snapped this shot of me and the manequin.
And I took this one of Casandra going to town on that garlic bread and fresh ricotta sprinkled with crushed pistacios and Italian herbs, which the waiter brought us within seconds of sitting down. But I can't blame her for the unabashed enthusiasm, it and the rest of the meal were absolutely scrumptious.

No meal would be complete without at least one self-photo. Please excuse the crazy eyes but it's the clearest one I took.

After all the sightseeing and that filling dinner, we were exhausted and decided to call it a night. Tomorrow, we explore the archaeological sights on the mainland.

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