Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Siracusa and Ragusa

Fisherman catching Sunday dinner on Ortigia

Siracusa has always been a glorious city, from ancient times till now, located here in the southeastern corner of Sicily. The city was once the most important in the Western world eclipsing Corinth and even Athens.  We are staying in the old part of town that is actually a tiny island (5 football fields wide and under a mile long), called Ortigia (pronounced: oar-TEE-jee-a).  This is the city that Anne has always dreamed of seeing.  Of all the places we have visited in Sicily, Ortigia is the most magical.
When we left Catania, we had a perfect plan to take the bus to Siracusa and arrived at the bus station with time to spare.  However, when we tried to buy our bus tickets, the abrupt clerk said, “No bus today; strike.”  A man of few words, but his message was loud and crystal clear: no bus was going to take us to Siracusa today!  Now what?  Fortunately, Anne pulled our bacon out of the fire; she had read in her travel research that the trains also run to Siracusa, and the station was only a few blocks away.  Only one lingering question: are the trains also on strike today?  When we hustled over there, we got lucky; the bus strike was not connected to the trains.  We had transportation!! 
We lost a few hours since the trains do not run as frequently – but we made good use of our time, working on our trip reports (love that Netbook!) as we sat in the station awaiting the train arrival.  Strikes are infamous in Italy, so it was inevitable that one would catch up with us.
Elaborate stonework on the elegant balconies of Ortigia

Back to the dreamy ambience of Ortigia.  The buildings on this island are totally made of an old world style stonework that exudes grace and elegance and reminds us of Venice sans the canals.  Many of these structures are former palaces with elaborate stone carvings decorating the windows and hundreds of different styles of wrought iron balconies.  This is a place Anne may never want to leave.

Piazza di Duomo in Ortigia

The Piazza di Duomo may be the most beautiful plaza in all of Sicily – a huge open expanse with a Duomo (domed church,) covered with statues, that turns a brilliant sparkly cream color in the glow of the late afternoon sun.  This area was once the acropolis of the Greek town, and the Duomo (with some Greek columns still visible) was once the Temple of Minerva.  Other Greek remains include the Temple to Apollo with its Norman arched window reminding us that Christian churches often incorporated the earlier temples into their own walled structures (which is why so many of the ancient buildings have survived).

Duomo in Ortigia

One of the most unusual sights was the Bagno Ebraico, the Hebrew ritual baths.  The ritual baths were sacred places fed by natural spring waters where Jewish men would bathe before entering the Synagogue, and Jewish women would bathe before their weddings, after childbirth, and after each menstrual period.  These baths date back to 75 AD, and were used until 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Sicily.  At that time, the stairs to the baths were blocked with rubble by fleeing Jews to hide and protect them.  No one knew the baths even existed until 1991 when renovations at the hotel next door revealed the old subterranean stairway.
The baths themselves are not terribly attractive, but are a fascinating place to visit with the undeniable mystique of a finding a secret place that had been hidden for over 500 years. The outer room contains three baths for the women, and private baths on each side, hewn out of solid rock for the men.  Each bath was entered by climbing down several steps, and a special prayer was associated with each step. 
Greek Theater in Siracusa
We spent a day in the larger and newer part of the city of Siracusa to see the 60-acre Archaeological Park and the nearby Museum.  The Greek theater was quite large and impressive and very well preserved; in its heyday, the bleachers held nearly 20,000 Greek theatergoers.  The Roman Arena at the other corner of the archeological digs was also quite interesting.  The arena was mostly in ruins (because many of the stone blocks were used to build Ortigia), but we could still easily see the elliptical shape of the arena, and the deep rectangular dugout in the arena’s center that was used to clean up the blood and gore after gladiatorial combat. 
That brings up an interesting dichotomy between the Romans and the Greeks – they both built arenas to put on “shows” for the entertainment of their people; the Romans put on shows of death and destruction, one gladiator killing another; while the Greeks put on stage shows and theatrical performances, no murders or killing.  Yet in battle, each faction could be equally vicious.

Anne does her ear trick in front of the
Ear of Dionysius

We also saw the ruins of the altar “Ara di Ierone II” which was the largest altar of its kind in the world.  The Greeks once slaughtered 450 bulls on this altar during an annual feast and celebration.  But our favorite sight was an ear-shaped cavern some 75 feet high, 30 feet wide, and 200 feet deep down in the quarries, called “Orrechio di Dionisio” (the ear of Dionysius).  The huge cavern was a remarkable echo chamber, and once inside, Frank was inspired to vocalize a few bars of the Verdi aria, “La donne è mobile”.  A woman further inside the cavern (and out of our sight) responded with the next few bars of the same aria!  Over the next 15 minutes or so, we heard several tourists going into and out of the cave singing the same tune; they must have heard Frank and picked up the same idea. Haaaa!  There is no living with Frank now – he is convinced that he is the next Pavarotti!

Raimondo and Raul
The nearby Archaeology Museum was a bit much for us with over 18,000 artifacts on display, most of them chards of pottery.  However, the excellent Roman sculptures (copies of the Greek) were carved in the sparkly local limestone and gave us an idea of how the people who used to walk these streets would have looked.  Frank thought they looked much like the hippies of the 60’s, with long hair and simple dress.

On the human interest front, we met a delightful family with two little boys named Raimondo and Raul (9 and 6 year’s old respectively) in a little café.  Frank got them going with some high fives and some picture-taking fun, but it was clear that neither boy could figure out why we didn’t understand what they were saying.  After we left the restaurant, Raimondo came running after us – with Frank’s sunglasses in his hand!  Yea, Frank had stupidly left his sunglasses on the table, and Raimondo wanted to return them.  Frank offered him a euro reward for his good deed, but Raimondo shook his head “no”, and sauntered back into the café.  What a great kid!

Boating on the Ionian Sea near Siracusa

On our last day, we took a boat ride around the island and along the craggy cave-ridden coastline.  We enjoyed splendid views from the water, and our boat captain Roberto steered us slowly into some grottos where newly formed orange coral contrasted with the emerald green water.

In front of the Castello on Ortigia 

Our fantastico Siclian feast!
We are staying at Arethusa Vacanze in an ancient building with a gorgeous rooftop terrace where we eat breakfast every morning, overlooking the blue-green Ionian Sea amidst an expanse of terra cotta rooftops.  We have a comfortable, roomy apartment (Sicily has some of the largest hotel rooms we have ever come across in Europe) with a romantic canopy bed and a small kitchen. 
One day, we shopped at the outdoor market and created our very own Sicilian feast.  We weren’t always sure what we were buying, but the shopping experience was priceless.  We ended up with Spigola (sea bass) “on the hoof,” Tenerumi (white zucchini), a baked ricotta cheese still warm from the oven, sundried tomatoes in olive oil, a baggie of spices con pesce (spices especially blended for fish) that included the freshest smelling rosemary and oregano, an onion, and Finocchio (fennel).  We weren’t sure what to expect from the finocchio, but it was a great fresh additive with a slight licorice flavor when we chopped it up like an onion and added it to the mix.  We had a blast buying, cooking, and trying new flavors – and with all those super fresh ingredients, the end result meal was fantastico!!
After 5 days of scenic wonder and great experiences here, Ortigia had captured Anne’s heart.  Frank had to carry Anne out of Ortigia kicking and screaming, but we managed to move on to the hill town of “Ragusa Ibla” (old Ragusa).  The entire town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, but it was completely rebuilt in the latest style of the time: Baroque.

Duomo in Ragusa

The town’s most beautiful square surrounds the Duomo, and we are staying in an elegant townhouse right around the corner.  Our room (a suite actually) at the Risveglia Ibleo B&B is immense with three rooms plus an enormous bathroom.  We have a separate bedroom plus two living areas furnished with a TV, two more beds, and even a large upright piano!   We can really spread out here – the big rooms are perfect for Anne to practice some Tai Chi!

The "money shot" view of Ragusa Ibla

Ragusa is actually divided into 2 towns, Ragusa the “modern” town, and Ragusa Ibla, the old town.  Each is its own hill town, separated by a valley between.  We took a bus to the upper “modern” town of Ragusa and followed a series of stone staircases back down here to the old town, where we are staying.  A young woman named Mona kindly helped us locate the staircase.  She was taking her little boy for a ride in his stroller when she found us two “lost” Americans.  She even asked Anne to watch her little boy for a few minutes while she ran into a shop.  Once Mona walked us across town (or so it seemed) to the stairs we were searching for, we had a great hike past stunning Baroque churches and fantastic viewpoints of the old town of Ragusa Ibla.
Tomorrow, we say a sad arrivederci to Sicily and take an early ferry to the nearby island of Malta – a new place and an all new adventure.  We will miss Sicilia; it has been our friendly home for the past 3 weeks!

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