Sicily is an island filled with hidden jewels waiting for those with the curiosity and effort to find them. One of the greatest jewels is Ortigia, the small island at the center of the city of Syracuse, Sicily. Known as Città Vecchia (Old City), Ortigia is breathtaking in its beauty and its history. I cannot imagine how anyone can come to Italy and not spend time in Ortigia. I promise you: if you spend a day in Ortigia, you will spend a lifetime returning to this enchanting city.
We decided to stay at one of the oldest and certainly the best known of the hotels in Ortigia: The Grand Hotel Ortigia built in the 1800s in the grand tradition of that period. It retains its classic beauty and maintains the same high level of service. The staff strives to meet every possible need. We relied on a wonderful Sicilian woman named Frederica who planned everything from dinner to tours to shopping locations. We wanted to adopt her. The hotel was really a delight, including one of the best breakfasts that I have had in Italy. You eat overlooking the harbor and the old section of Syracusa. It is like stepping back into time when hotels catered to the needs of guests and did not try to nickel and dime them for every convenience. Our room overlooked the harbor and was huge and beautiful. We hated to leave the Grand Hotel Ortigia, which will spoil the most seasoned traveler.
The hotel recommended that we eat that night at Don Camillo, a famed Sicilian restaurant. We loved it. It was not just a restaurant with extraordinary Sicilian dishes but a massive collection of Sicilian wines. You eat within these massive Catalan vaults (they could dim the light a tad however because it is rather bright in the main dining room with the white vaulted ceilings). I had a risotto with wild pig or black pork that was the best that I have ever had. Leslie had one of the traditional Sicilian rice balls with meat that was out of this world. I also had the breaded pork chops, which were quite good. Leslie did not care for her seafood pasta which had a strong fish taste. However, this is the Sicilian style for such dishes and she understood that. Yet, the staff noticed that she had not eaten much of the dish and, after trying to bring her another dish (which she declined because she was full), they took the dish off the check without any fanfare. They did not want us to pay for a dish that we did not like. It was an insight into the level of care and excellence at Don Camillo. While it is a bit expensive, it is well worth the cost to enjoy the master work of Chef Giovanni Guarneri. It is Sicilian food at its most authentic and its very best.
In the morning, after a wonderful breakfast, we set out for the market in the center of town. Nestled between ancient streets with the Roman ruins on one end, the market was a classic Sicilian collection of cheese sellers, fishmongers, bakers and the rest — all yelling out the better attributes of their wares to the customers. It was a cacophony of hawkers and singers seeking buyers. We loved every bit of it and sampled the cheeses and other fresh items as we walked down the street filled with sounds and smells of Sicily.
We next visited the Duomo di Siracusa that is dedicated to the Virgin Mary with a church next door dedicated to the martyr of the St. Lucia and featuring the famed Caravaggio painting of her death. The Duomo is hands down one of the most interesting structures that I have encountered in my travels: a temple that was later converted into a church. The building shows a wide array of architectural styles that captures this fascinating city from Greek to Roman to Norman. It was originally a temple with Doric elements dedicated to Athena (Minerva) and converted into a church with the advent of Christianity. The church contains relics and masterpieces of great historical value.
Behind the Church dedicated to St. Lucia, we found a ceramic shop that was run by a man named Sebastiani. We had been looking throughout Sicily for the best place to buy some of the famed ceramic bowls. Sebastiani was our salvation. His little shop is on the way to the water after passing through the Plaza with the Duomo. Even in a country famed for its generosity and warmth, he stood out for his patience and help with us. After we piled a bunch of ceramics to be wrapped to take home, he sent us out to have lunch while he prepared everything for our travel home. Since his shop was closing, he showed us his home nearby and told us to call on him at home when we returned that evening. He insisted upon it and we later took advantage of his offer and came to his home. He had everything ready and was an absolute delight. When we think of Sicily now, we will think of our friend Sebastiani.
One of the most remarkable moments for me was our visit to the extraordinary archeological park in Syracuse, which its impressive ruins and the famed “The Ear of Dionysius” or Orecchio di Dionisio. Given my early work in the surveillance field as a law student, I have long written about the cave which was used as one of the first surveillance devices. The name actually comes the painter Caravaggio and refers to the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse who liked to listen to captives being tortured in the cave. The shape amplifies the sounds and allows for you to stand at the end of the cave and hear talk (or screams) on the other end. To finally stand in the Ear of Dionysius was an unparelled joy for me – on top of the other ruins and gardens in the park.
We drove from Syracuse this evening to Catania, Sicily and felt that we were leaving a wide circle of friends. I cannot recommend more for readers to consider a trip to this unique place.