Things I Learned in Siracusa, Sicily

Our first stop on the island of Sicily was the seaside city of Siracusa, which first rose to fame as an ancient Greek colony. We rented an apartment in the oldest part of the city, a small peninsula called Ortigia that juts into the sea on high walls.

It’s a place of narrow alleys and wide piazzas, of little neighborhood churches and a magnificent cathedral, all made from the warm, cream-colored stone that was quarried for centuries just a few kilometers away. Wandering its streets and exploring its churches, museums, shops, and eateries taught me a few things:

  • If you build alleys narrow enough, the fierce Mediterranean sun rarely penetrates all the way to the ground, so the alleys stay shady and cool. Plus, they’re too narrow for cars, so they stay fairly quiet.
Toddler in blue hat walking away down narrow alley
Francesca heads down the narrow lane where we stayed in the oldest part of Siracusa, Ortigia
  • Siracusa began its life around the 8th century BC as a Greek colony called Syracuse. By about 400 BC, it was one of the major cities of the Mediterranean. Among the famous Greeks who walked its streets—the same streets we strolled along—were the playwright Aeschylus, the poet Pindar, and the philosopher Plato. The latter’s time in Syracuse was the subject of one of Chris’s favorite books from childhood, The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault. That novel centers on an actor who often played in Syracuse, so it was a thrill to visit the ruins of the city’s magnificent Greek theater and imagine the luminaries who performed on its stage or sat enthralled in its tiers of stone seats.
  • History is everywhere under your feet. It’s said that you can’t put a shovel in the ground in Ortigia without unearthing something ancient. Excavations in the big plaza in front of the cathedral revealed ruins spanning the 17th century BC to the 14th century AD, which boggles my mind. In the corner of Ortigia where we stayed—the old Jewish neighborhood—owners renovating an 18th-century palazzo (large house) uncovered steps in the courtyard leading deep underground to a Jewish ritual bath, or mikvah, chiseled out of the bedrock. The spring-fed bath was used for almost 1,000 years before the Jews were expelled from Sicily in the 1490s, at which point it was covered up and forgotten for centuries.
  • Sicily is one of the few places outside North Africa where papyrus grows in the wild. The plant is thought to have been introduced from Egypt in the 3rd century BC and now grows along river banks. The sight of papyrus seemed so exotic to Northern Europeans visiting Sicily on their grand tours in the 18th and 19th centuries that they made special boat trips to see it and sent home sketches to their wondering relatives. Nobody is quite sure how the ancient Egyptians made paper from papyrus. No records survive of how they produced paper that was much smoother and thinner than the papyrus paper made later by the Romans, Byzantines, or Arabs. Starting in the late 1700s, various European scholars—many from Sicily—experimented with techniques to replicate Egyptian papyrus paper. They didn’t succeed until the 20th century. (This information courtesy of the Papyrus Museum in Siracusa.)
Papyrus plants in the Fonte Aretusa
  • Spain ruled Sicily for more than 500 years, beginning in the late 1200s. We visited a small church in Siracusa that was founded by Queen Isabella of Castile, the same Isabella who backed Christopher Columbus’s voyages. I’ve seen Isabella’s tomb in Grenada, Spain. It never occurred to me that she’d spent time in Sicily too.
The church of Santa Lucia, near the cathedral, was founded by Queen Isabella of Castile during the long period when Sicily was ruled by Spain
  • If you want to build a cathedral and you already have the perfectly good remains of an ancient Greek temple in the middle of your city, you simply build walls in the spaces between the old Doric columns and you have supports for your cathedral. Leaving the old columns visible in the walls gives your cathedral a nice romantic look and reminds worshipers whose religion won in the end.
  • There’s a line in the British comedy series Blackadder in which an Elizabethan courtier tells his bumpkin servant, “To you, Baldrick, the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people.” The same could be said of Sicily. Perhaps because of Spanish rule, Sicily largely missed out on the artistic innovations that were occurring in northern Italy. As a result, painting and sculpture were much less sophisticated here in the 15th and 16th centuries than they were on the Italian mainland.
  • Cute little girls (like our 16-month-old travel companion, Francesca Ferraro) who smile, clap, and wave at proprietors receive treats and toys in restaurants. Round-eyed, curly-haired Francesca doesn’t look as exotic here as she did when visiting us in Vietnam. But she still makes people smile and helps us break the ice with local residents.
  • Fish and chips are very different here than in northern Europe—light, nongreasy, and delicious. (Sorry, Belgium, the best fries I’ve had in Europe this summer have been in Denmark and now Sicily.)
  • Eggplant is much better and more versatile than I ever suspected. It’s the reigning vegetable here right now and shows up on every menu in various forms. Some of my favorites are thin slices of grilled eggplant topped with buttery breadcrumbs and a dish called caponata, which consists of chunks of eggplant stewed with tomatoes and other vegetables in a sweet vinegar sauce. Every restaurant seems to have a version of caponata, and no two are quite the same.

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