Before I get into this post on Ortigia, I need to correct something that might have been misleading in yesterday’s post. There, I said that, because the English-speaking world is divided on whether to call this city Syracuse or Syracusa, I am breaking my usual convention of using the English, rather than the local language version of the city’s name. That part is still true. But what’s not accurate is I’ve since learned that, in Italian, this city’s name is Siracusa. Syracusa and Syracuse are both English names for the city. I’m going to correct everything to Siracusa, which a subsequent search also found in a lot of English language texts. I think I might have just been following other people’s misspellings. Let that be a lesson to me. Never trust anything I find on the Internet, particularly if I wrote it. Or maybe never trust anything anywhere. Just don’t trust ever, but that might be going a bit far. Or, maybe not.
Siracusa comprises two distinct parts, Ortigia, an island, and the mainland. A narrow channel separates the two. Two bridges span the channel.
Once you walk a little deeper into Ortigia past the bridges it is quite delightful. As far as I can tell so far, the mainland, on the other hand, is quite bleh.
My hotel is on the mainland. The hotel is nice, but that choice might have been a mistake on my part. It would have been better if the environs of my hotel were much more picturesque than they are. Or, at least a little picturesque. A strip mall would only slightly detract from its charm. I exaggerate, but not as much as I wish were the case.
Then again, my hotel is close to an archaeological park and an archaeological museum. I plan to visit those tomorrow. If I have time, I might wander back to Ortigia after that. It’s worth it.
But today belongs to Ortigia. Fortunately, Ortigia generously shared today with me. The rest of you are on your own.
My time in Ortigia involved a lot of sauntering around, along with visiting some sights.
I’ll discuss the sauntering later, but, first, the sights.
Cathedral of Siracusa
The Cathedral of Siracusa (Duomo di Siracusa) has a very austere centre aisle, with few decorative elements. The stone columns between the centre and outer aisles are simple, but august. If the cathedral has a dominant theme, it is stone.
The columns on the outer wall bear note. They are Doric. That’s not what bears noting. There are plenty of Doric columns in this part of the world.
The cathedral that stands today was built in the 7th century, although it was extensively redesigned in the 18th century, including adding a Baroque facade. But those Doric columns? They’re about 2,500 years old. There used to be a Greek temple on the site. The builders of the cathedral incorporated the columns from that temple.
The sections of one of the Doric columns are out of kilter. The 1693 earthquake was responsible for that.
The wood ceiling of the cathedral has modest, gold-coloured decorations on it.
Decorated chapels hang off the aisle on right side. One of those chapels has a small display of carefully laid out bones set into one wall, and another almost identical display on the opposite wall.
I don’t know who the bones previously resided in. The cathedral is supposed to have a reliquary of the locally very venerated Santa Lucia. I don’t know if one or both of hose displays are it.
There is a separate Santa Lucia chapel in the cathedral. I didn’t see a reliquary there, but that chapel may more discretely contain his reliquary.
Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia
Close to the cathedral, still on the Piazza Duomo, stands the Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia. Man, they really do venerate Santa Lucia here, don’t they?
The Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia is much smaller than the cathedral, which is typically the case when it comes to churches versus cathedrals. The church’s modestly adorned, narrow facade fronts onto the back-end of the piazza.
The Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia is also much—very, very, much—lighter and airier than the cathedral. Complementing the mostly white walls, paintings hang on one wall and behind the altar. There are also paintings on the ceiling.
Bellomo Palace Gallery
The Bellomo Palace currently contains a gallery displaying paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and some archaeological artifacts.
In terms of size, I classify it as a Goldilocks gallery. Not too big. Not too small. Just right.
You might want to recalibrate that assessment somewhat. It doesn’t take a particularly large museum/gallery to induce catatonia in me. So, for you, the Bellomo Palace Gallery might be on the small size. On the other hand, if you hate with a red hot passion all museums and galleries, nonexistent would be a Goldilocks gallery for you.
The tour book I’m using said the Bellomo Palace Gallery contains little English inside. But it said the audio guide is helpful. So I spent three euros to rent one.
I don’t know if the tour book is out of date or if the author gets a kickback on the audio guides, but, in real life, at least today, pretty well all Italian text in gallery is accompanied by English translations.
Oh, well. It’s only three euros. And the audio guide does offer a lot more information than the signage provides in either language. So I learned a lot about the gallery’s works that is not included on the placards in the gallery.
Of course, me being me, I forgot everything within moments of hearing it on the audio guide. But, at least for a few moments, I was knowledgeable about the pieces.
The painter with the most paintings in the gallery is Unknown Artist. A few of the placards are much more familiar and just call him or her Unknown. It’s amazing the range of styles Unknown, or Mr./Ms. Artist, if you will, managed to capture.
The gallery has many more paintings than sculptures. But some of those sculptures are by Unknown Sculpture. I think it is just coincidental that they had the same first name.
The gallery also displays works by other painters and sculptors, but no single painter or sculptor has as many works displayed in the gallery as the two namesakes. So, I’ll ignore them here.
Church of San Filippo Apostolo
The Church of San Filippo Apostolo is nice enough. It’s small, with an almost all white interior. The tour book I’m using didn’t recommend it for the church per se, but rather for the catacombs beneath it. However, “catacombs” is only one-third accurate. And that one-third itself is only accurate if measured by the number of levels. By floor space, it’s far less than one-third.
The only way to visit the “catacombs” is by a guided tour. The tour is free, but they “welcome” a donation after the tour.
The church runs tours in the morning and afternoon, but not between noon and 3:00. I arrived about fifteen minutes before three. The church was open then. I looked around, trying to see where the tour might depart from. There had to be a door leading to some stairs. I didn’t see anything that looked promising.
A little before 3:00 p.m., three people from the church arrived independently, two women and one man. The man rode to the church on a bicycle with collapsible handlebars. He was dressed in business casual. After collapsing the handlebars of his bicycle, he took it into a backroom. When he returned from the backroom, he wore a clerical robe over his business casual street clothes. Okay, a cleric.
I didn’t notice when I entered the church that it has a two-panel metal grate on the floor just inside the entrance. One of the women pried the panels up. Tada. There are stairs under the grate.
The then upright grate panels formed a protective wall on one side of the stairwell. The church people then placed metal railings on two of the other sides, leaving only the stairwell open for someone to fall into or, preferably, walk down the stairs.
The second woman led the tour. She provided commentary in Italian first, then English.
I didn’t count, but I think there were about ten people on the tour. I was the only native English speaker. One other man spoke neither Italian nor English as his mother tongue, but he spoke both of them. He said his English was better than his Italian, so he listened to both languages to make sure he caught everything. All of the rest seemed to be native Italians.
The set of stairs, and then two more, led to three levels under the church.
The first level contained the actual catacombs. That’s where the organization that ran the catacombs brought bodies way back when.
One room on this level contained two vats. One held vinegar, the other alcohol. They placed the bodies of the newly deceased in each for a while to disinfect them and prevent the spread of disease.
After they finished treating the bodies in the vats, they placed the bodies sitting up on benches in the same room. The bodies remained sitting there for a period of a few days to a few months, depending on the wishes of the families.
After the bodies had a good sit-me-down, they were moved into one of three rooms, two for nobility, and one for common folk. Those rooms were their final resting place. Quite the rest, I’d say.
I don’t think any bodies remain down there today. At lease, the tour guide didn’t show us any.
The second level down isn’t a catacomb at all. It contains a series of tunnels dug by the Greeks in 700 BCE.
The tunnels extend well beyond the boundaries of the church above. According to the guide, from where we stood, one straight tunnel went on for two kilometers in one direction and a few hundred metres in the other direction. And they dug some shorter tunnels too.
For the Greeks, the sole purpose of the tunnels was to quarry the rock to build the city. They made no other use of the tunnels. But others who came after them did.
When the Romans came along, they dug a cistern on this level and carved channels in the floor to serve as an aqueduct.
During the World War II, the tunnels served as bomb shelters.
The third and lowest level, contains just a single, small, irregularly shaped room. Water fills the room. If you walk all the way down the stairs, by the third-last step, your feet and maybe your ankles will get wet. If you walk all the way down to the floor of the room, I’m not sure how much of your body will be wet, but a not inconsequential portion of it.
Pop quiz: Does anyone know what they used this room for back in the days when they used it? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Okay. Time’s up.
It was a mikvah, a Jewish purifying bath for women back in the 13th century. It’s believed there was a synagogue in the area back then. The guide said that the supposition is that it was smaller than the current church and possibly beside where the church stands today.
At the very end of the island of Ortigia sits Castello Maniace. It is big and beautiful castle, that also served as a fortress. Castello Maniace has a lighthouse, gunners positions, and offers points where one can see the sea. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Mostly because I’m tired.
Wandering Around Ortigia
I seem to recall mentioning above that Ortigia is quite delightful. It is. Very much so. And that bears repeating. I greatly enjoyed it.
Most of the streets are narrow. Signage restricts some of the streets and squares to pedestrians only. None of the buildings are more than a few stories tall.
Stately buildings surround the Piazza Duomo. And there are other smaller, but charming squares scattered about.
Some old ruins from a Temple of Apollo sit beside a street. Railings protect them from the hordes, but they are otherwise free for all passersby to view,
I saw two features in Ortigia said to be fountains. One with elaborate statues, the Fountain of Diana, probably normally is a fountain. I saw lots of water nozzles, but none of them spewed water when I was there. And the base of the alleged fountain was dry as a desert. I assume it is undergoing maintenance.
Another feature named as a fountain, Fountain of Arethusa, used to be a fresh water spring. Today it’s a small pond with lush vegetation around it. Ducks make a home in the pond.
Being an island, Ortigia provides plenty of opportunities to see the sea from around its outer edges, as all sensible islands are wont to do.
To sum up this lengthy narrative, Ortigia is fantastic and well worth a visit.
How beautiful. I was on the edge of my seat going level by level below the church of San Filippo Apostolo to a…mikvah! How satisfying a surprise. I thought it might be a wine cooler, or a bathroom. Well, I guess it was a bath room. And the sea! They let you see the sea. From charming streets. You obviously enjoyed the town so much you didn’t even tell us about lunch. Quite the recommendation.