In the middle of May, Ornella and I returned to Sicily and precisely to the baroque sicily, a land that we love and that surprises us in all seasons included among the UNESCO World Heritage sites.
We decided to return to Sicily at this time to take advantage of the opportunity to witness another tragedy at the Greek Theatre of Syracuse, and then move to Noto for the annual floral display.
Travelling with short breaks of 3 – 4 days, allows us to visit places I wanted to see in depth, we are able to take advantage of off-season opportunities many times and most importantly we are able to spend some time together as our working days are very long and the moments of sharing.
In such a short period of time, however, it is not easy to pull the plug completely. Even though the very useful Don’t disturb option of my smartphone gives me a hand, the date of return is just around the corner and our desire to grasp all the particularities of a place makes us come back home more tired than we started out.
But the satisfaction is great and the emotion of being able to tell us many more experiences gives us a boost until the next trip.
The journey to Syracuse
We took a Ryanair flight from Pisa to Catania very comfortable because the arrival in the land of Trinacria took place at 9 am (euro 60 per person round trip), which allowed us to complete the formalities at the car rental desk quickly (Read also: How to rent a car) and to start our journey on the road with the whole day still ahead. We have been assigned a brand new Fiat Panda with which I immediately got on well.
To unravel the Sicilian roads, I recommend using the navigation system of your mobile phone, it is the cheapest alternative to renting a car. The most used applications are Waze and Google Maps.
I personally use Google Maps off line: before leaving I download the map of the places I will have to visit on my mobile phone. It takes up a bit of memory, but it allows me to save SIM data space, which is precious while travelling and also I will never have problems in case of lack of phone network connection in the area since the gps system of the mobile phone works even without line.
The distance from Catania Fontanarossa airport and the island of Ortigia in Syracuse is about 60 kilometres which we cover in one hour.
Even in the previous trip to Sicily we had been to see a performance of the Greek theatre of Inda, but we had never had time to visit Syracuse.
Our journey this time starts from what is defined as one of the most beautiful cities of art of Greek origin in the region born more than 2800 ago.
The history of Syracuse began with the Siculians, then came the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, Swabians, Aragonese, Catalans and Bourbons. All these overlapping cultures can be found in all the cities, but the one that stands out most is the culture of Baroque Sicily.
Ortigia and its treasures
We decided to stop on the island of Ortigia in Syracuse because it was one of the few destinations we still missed in Baroque Sicily. We booked at the bed and breakfast Magnolia in the historical centre for one night.
We were not looking for anything special except a place to stay, the room was modest in size and not too well cared for was located on a ground floor that opened onto an internal courtyard shared with other houses. Access to the B&B is via a small alleyway.
There was, however, a private parking area 50 meters from the structure, which was essential since Ortigia is a restricted traffic area. On the whole the quality/price ratio was right, double room with breakfast 62 euro.
Just the time to leave the suitcases and we went to discover this beautiful corner of Sicily.
The baroque style is the master and getting lost in the alleys was really a nice experience.
Ortigia is designed solely for tourism: clubs, restaurants and shops of characteristic articles are everywhere and they are a bit screeching – in the streets outside the tourist circuit – with the many structures abandoned or in need of renovation.
We continued down the very central Via Roma – full of shops selling typical products and souvenirs – to where the alley opens up to the immense square that houses the Duomo and many imposing buildings, strictly in Baroque style.
The cathedral of Ortigia
The square in front of the cathedral of Ortigia is truly a spectacle on the sunny day we were lucky enough to find.
The monochrome of Sicilian stone, used both for the buildings and for the paving, is a real breath for the eyes and a shudder of emotions.
The cathedral is there, imposing, dominating everything, although unlike the majority of churches of the same type, it is not isolated on all four sides but adjacent to a series of other buildings that, taken all together, delimit the enormous square. After wandering around, we decided to enter (euro 2,00 per person).
As soon as we got inside, we immediately got the idea of what a Greek temple could be: in fact, the structure of the church is entirely built on the remains of a pre-existing temple. The central nave was obtained by making huge arched openings in the cell of the pagan building, while the side aisles were obtained by transforming the Doric perimeter colonnade.
This is how Lawrence Durrel, an English writer, describes the cathedral:
Take a Greek temple, incorporate it in its entirety into a Christian building, then the changes for Christian worship used by the Normans, rebuild the facade demolished by the great earthquake of 1693. Then, without getting discouraged, you get back to work and, changing direction completely, replace the old façade with a delightful baroque composition.
At the end of the square, there is the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia which, although not exceptional from an architectural point of view, we wanted to visit for the common passion for Caravaggio.
In fact, inside there is “the burial of Saint Lucia”, among the minor works by Michelangelo Merisi, painted after his umpteenth escape from Malta to Sicily. It is considered a minor work, because it is defined as sketchy, but nevertheless imposing and one of the first works made in Sicily in the place where, according to tradition, Saint Lucia was martyred.
The Arethusa Source
After admiring our umpteenth Caravaggio, our wanderer takes us to the Fonte Aretusa. There are many legends linked to this fresh water source: thethe myth of Arethusa and Alphaeus, that of Ciane and Anapo and that of Damone and Finzia of Greek age up to that of Pillirina.
What really surprised me, however, is to find a freshwater chicken with a pond, separated from the open sea only by the city walls. Moreover, in the Arethusa spring in Ortigia, you can also find the only natural papyrus grove in Europe.
The Maniace Castle
A few hundred metres from the Arethusa source, we can see the Maniace Castle. The interiors were being renovated and we could not visit them, the exteriors, very beautiful but “naked” are worth a visit anyway. Imposing, they exude history, but above all they enjoy a view of the sea and of the very beautiful city.
Everything is out in the open, the glare of the sun is incredible. We did not have water or a hat with us, so we made the visit very quickly.
The Maniace castle, built in honour of General Byzantine who freed Syracuse from the Saracens, was built between 1232 and 1240 and was originally owned by Frederick II.
The war between the Angevins and the Aragonese for the dominion of the Kingdom saw him opposing it in defence of the city, as a nodal point of the city fortifications.
However, it was destroyed in 1704 due to the explosion of the powder magazine. In the Napoleonic age it lives again with military functions and is equipped with cannon mouths. In addition, in order to safeguard the uprisings unleashed throughout the kingdom in 1838, the Bourbons built a casemate there. In the years to come, the Castle was handed over to the Kingdom of Savoy and used until the Second World War as a storehouse for military material. It is currently under restoration.
After wandering around the streets of Ortigia, hunger begins to make itself felt and as a habit of mine, I connect to Tripadvisor to get an idea of the most popular restaurants in the area.
We chose one with a sea view, to the Levant.. Although the cars pass very close to the place where you eat, you can enjoy an excellent view of the sea of Ortigia and the experience was very positive.
I had the Octopus salad, a nice dish to see and good to eat; Ornella ordered instead a pasta with swordfish, pistachio cream and lemon, a really delicious dish. Right price, restaurant to try.We chose one with sea view, to the Levant.. Although the cars pass very close to the place where you eat, you can enjoy an excellent view of the sea of Ortigia and the experience was very positive.
Greek Theatre of Syracuse
Back at the B&B we prepared ourselves for one of the main stages of our tour: attending a classical performance at the Greek theatre in Syracuse. It’s not the first time, we came two years before and we were really ecstatic by the show. Personally I thought I was bored, but after only 10 minutes I was captivated by the context, the history and the skill of the actors.
The previous time we had seen Edipo Re by Sofocle, this time Sette vs Thebes by Eschilo. We chose a single-place show so as to keep costs down (20 euros per person), not considering that many others would have made the same choice. About 5000 people had the same idea as us, but after a bit of a queue to enter the show was magnificent.
Read the complete artricle: Seven against Thebes at the Greek Theatre of Syracuse.
After the end of the show we went back to the cathedral square for dinner. We went to the restaurant La Volpe e l’Uva, we ate a good pizza, tasted some spectacular arancini, but above all we enjoyed a fantastic view of this magnificent square.
View from the table of the restaurant in cathedral square in ortigia
Noto, Ragusa Ibla and Baroque Sicily
The next day we set off towards Noto to see the traditional floral display that takes place every year. It is a city that we love and always use as a stopover point for our raids on the island because it remains central to all the attractions of Baroque Sicily.
The floral display of Noto is the second key stage of our journey, it is a great event that starts on Friday with the preparation and ends on Sunday evening, but we are convinced that it is an event that is experienced all year round by the local inhabitants. Many people from all over Sicily come to admire it, and I advise – if you decide to go and see it – to do so on Sunday. Many, too many people!
The parents of Josè, a very dear friend of ours, are from Noto and have booked us a B&B very central the stone garden (60 euro double room). The room they had assigned us was not huge, but overall we had a good time.
Friday is a day of preparation for the floral display, but instead of staying in town we decided to take a trip south: Vendicari, Portopalo and Marzamemi are places we have already visited, but they are among our favourites.
We will come back in the evening not to miss the show of the actual realization.
Read all details: floral display of Noto. An event not to be missed.
We resume our Panda heading south, but as soon as we leave Noto we see the signs for the Villa Romana of Tellaro and we decide to make a diversion.
We find ourselves in front of a villa that originally had a size of 5000 square meters destroyed by a fire, of which today there are still some rooms where there are some extraordinary mosaic floors that some define among the most beautiful in Italy, representing hunting scenes, the redemption of Hector’s body and other themes. (Free Entrance)
The oasis of Vendicari and Marzamemi
Continuing southwards we arrive to the Vendicari oasis to make also some sea in the nature of the natural oasis. They told us that the beach of Calamosche is the most beautiful to visit, and we decide to head there. I got a bit worried because the road to reach it is a narrow dirt road in the countryside, but with confidence we arrived at a paying car park.
It wasn’t anything yet! To reach the beach there are no driveways and we walked 20 minutes in the Mediterranean maquis under the sun.
The sea is beautiful, the beach is isolated and sunny. Luckily, unlike the day before in Ortigia, we were equipped with hat, sunglasses, water and food. Stoically I also bathed but the temperature of the water was absolutely not in the comfort zone.
After some well-deserved rest, we resumed our journey to the beautiful village of Marzamemi, an old fishing village where an old tuna factory has been built and which today, partially restored, is set in a characteristic little square which is a spectacle for the eyes and the soul.
Lunch on the square of Marzamemi “is worth the price of the ticket”, someone would say, and after having breathed the beauty, we resumed our journey towards Portopalo and the island of the Correnti, the southernmost tip of the Sicilian island, geographically further south of Tunis. Here too some daredevils were bathing, but honestly I would not have succeeded. Anyway the place is very suggestive!
It’s getting late and we get back in the car for the return trip, it takes about an hour to get back to Noto. The central street of the city is already immersed in the preparation of the floral display since the afternoon. We dined in front of the cathedral, to make sure we didn’t miss anything, at the restaurant L’Opera, good food and excellent view; we spent a few euros more than the average, but it was worth it.
After dinner we enjoyed the preparation of the Infiorata in Nicolaci street: it is wonderful to observe the techniques that the carpenters use to make these huge coloured paintings with thousands of chopped flower petals. Preparation will go on all night, but for us it is time to go to bed and recharge our batteries for the next day.
Donnafugata and the places of Montalbano
The following morning we went back to Nicolaci street to see the carpets of flowers finally completed and then we left for the places where one of the series we love most of all was shot: the commissioner Montalbano.
We had already made a trip to the places in Montalbano set in Baroque Sicily some years ago, but our passion is so great that we wanted to complete it.
The first stop is the castle of Donnafugata, the home of the boss Balduccio Sinagra (in the movies).
As for many of the most interesting places in Sicily, there is no need to be scared if to reach them you have to pass through the countryside, with small roads bordered by dry stone walls and scented by wild fennel.
Once at the castle, the mind immediately goes to eighteenth-century Sicily, to the Gattopardo represented by Zeffirelli. Two wings of rural buildings now occupied by typical shops, a dairy with local products and some restaurants, accompany us to the entrance. Personally I really like this monochromatic effect of the local stone, it relaxes the eyes and it is the contrast between light and shadows that brings out all the ornamental details that are so different all day long as they change.
The Castle of Donnafugata is open only in the morning until 12.30 pm. We managed to visit it – in my opinion no more time is needed – in about two hours.
The interiors are very beautiful and well-kept, and even more so, they have plunged us into the gattopardo-like atmosphere. The Gardens were supposed to be just as beautiful, but already at the end of May they were burnt by the sun and therefore very barren.
We decided to visit again two of our favourite places where Montalbano is set: Ragusa Ibla and the house of the commissioner in Marinella.
The alleys of Ragusa Ibla are magical and the cathedral of San Giorgio dominates the central square with all its baroque elegance. We really liked the interiors and they are worth a visit.
After having taken the inevitable almond granita, with our inseparable car, we headed towards the house of the Commissioner in Punta Secca, Marinella in Sironi’s films for a walk on the beach and a good pizza by the sea.
We would have liked to have lunch at Enzo a Mare, one of Montalbano’s favourite restaurants, but alas until mid-June it’s closed… maybe business is going too well!
We opted for the Pizzeria a Musciara, I couldn’t tell you how we ate, I suppose well otherwise I would have complained, but I assure you that the food there definitely takes second place. Dining a few (real) steps from the sea, the view of the small beach of Punta Secca with the lighthouse and the house of Montalbano in the background is definitely an experience not to be missed.
The veranda that is omnipresent in the films of the series is there. Exciting, even though we had lived it to the full on one of our previous trips. When it is not occupied by the cast to shoot the episodes the house of Montalbano is a Bed and Breakfast where we slept for two nights.
The inevitable breakfast on the veranda with the lapping of the sea made me move more than once.
Having read all the books and seen all the TV episodes, living in that house and having breakfast on the veranda in the morning was the apotheosis for us.
Satisfied in body and soul the day is over, back on the road for the last night in Noto.
The following morning in the city there is a big party, visiting the carpets on Sunday is practically impossible for the thousands of visitors who pour into Nicolaci street. I suggest to dedicate yourselves to the floral display the day before. Savoured the atmosphere, the time has come to set off towards the airport of Catania to return to our lives until the next trip.