Are you looking for a vacation or a tour to Eastern Sicily, but don’t know how to start? Well, this blog post is just for you. Eastern Sicily is a large portion of my island and it is hard to visit it all at once. It includes Catania, Syracuse and the internal villages of both of these two provinces. In turn, these are also included in Noto Valley. I suppose you know that it is impossible to visit over 100 villages in a couple of weeks, but it is also impossible to do that in over a month, also. To visit the East of Sicily easily, you must start from the heart of the East of Sicily, this heart is called Ortygia, or Ortigia in the Italian language. This is a piece of land tied to this Greek city through a bridge. Indeed, the ancient settlement of Ortigia was a small islet of one square km. Follow the paragraphs below to know what to see in Ortigia and how to reach the Eastern Sicily from there.
As I said, Ortigia island is the most ancient part of the ancient Syracuse. It is the heart of this Greek city and contains the best tourist attractions of this city. It is also defined the most beautiful city built by the Greeks in Sicily and island in the island. For its small sizes, one square km and not over 4500 inhabitants, Ortigia is also regarded as a district in Syracuse, the main district, of course, to admire stunning and picturesque buildings and Greek ruins. In addition to the ruins, you can see charming baroque churches and stroll its evocative alleys, on foot. Indeed, cars are forbidden in Ortigia and to reach the other districts of Syracuse, in the mainland, you must cross two bridges: Umbertino bridge and Santa Lucia bridge. The first was built during the kingdom of Umberto I, King of Italy and for this reason, it was called Umbertino. It represents a prolongation of Umberto I street and links the ancient Syracuse to the new districts of the city. There are no car parks in Ortigia because, as said, cars are forbidden on this island. You can visit this beautiful district on foot and on cycle. Sometimes, cars are allowed only for Umbertino bridge (see the image).
Ortigia Island was the primitive village where the Greeks establish their ancient settlements. Even though that is an island, it is linked to the mainland through Umbertino bridge. You must cross the bridge to go to Syracuse and vice versa. The name of Ortigia (Ottiggia in Syracusan) has a Greek origin and means “ quail”. Full of water sources, this island has been inhabited since the Bronze age, as proved by many archaeological findings dating back to between 3500 and 1200 B.C. Strolling this zone and admiring the buildings, you’ll enjoy centuries of history, tradition and culture and perceive the unforgettable passage of the Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Spanish civilizations.
What to see in Ortigia
Arriving from the main bridge Umbertino, you’ll see the ruins of Apollo temple ( see the image), one of the most important ancient monuments in Ortigia. It was discovered in an old Spanish station and was brought to light in the 1940s. It was modified and in front of it you can see an ancient Byzantine stair. A few meters of distance, you can see the fish market, it is very picturesque if you visit it in the morning.
Continuing the stroll, you’ll arrive in the square of the cathedral, namely Piazza Duomo( see the image). This is regarded as one of the most beautiful squares of Italy. Moreover, for his beauty, Piazza Duomo has been included in the World Heritage list by Unesco. There, you can admire the cathedral of Syracuse, a magnificent baroque church built in the V century as a temple dedicated to Athena goddess and turned into a Christian church, centuries later. The external façade has a clear baroque style, while the internal entrance is sober. On the left, you can still see the ancient Greek columns. There are no words to describe the sensation you’ll feel when you arrive in this square. Here, other noble and stunning palaces overlook, such as Vermexio Palace, namely the municipal Palace, Beneventano Palace, Santa Lucia Church, Bishop Palace and Borgia del Casale Palace. The municipal palace is a mix of Renaissance and baroque style. Santa Lucia Church, instead, the protector of Syracuse, contains a painting by Caravaggio depicting the burial of the Saint.
Strolling the south part of Ortigia, on the seafront, you’ll reach Maniace Castle ( see the image), which overlooked the sea to defend the natural port of Ortigia. Built by the Byzantine captain Maniace, was modified along the centuries, but it is still the most relevant medieval castle of this islet. Square shaped, with angle towers, it dates back to the Frederick II age. Particularly evocative and charming, the ogival entrance and other gothic style features.
From Maniace Castle, strolling toward the west of Ortigia, you’ll see another tourist attraction, namely Aretusa Fount ( see the image), a soft water source flowing into a water mirror, a few steps from the sea. This fount is the symbol of Syracuse, where people meet during their free time. In the rounded basin, the fount hosts papyrus plants. The name of this fount is tied to a legend, according to which the nymph Aretusa, to escape his suitor Alfeo asked for help to Artemide, who, to save her, turned her into a fount.
At a short distance of the fount, you’ll find Archimede square, namely the square dedicated to the most eminent and brightest Greek Scientist of Syracuse which shows the Diane fountain and palaces summarizing the history of the city, with a gothic, medieval and baroque style. This style is also in the nearby Maestranze Street. Walking toward the north zone of Ortigia, you’ll admire the local market, a picturesque place with stands, sounds and tastes of the best typical Sicilian products, such as local food and wine, but also clothes, Sicily coffa bags and accessories. Here, everything is made in Sicily. In the evening, there is also another market where you can buy exotic gadgets. You can also taste delicious local food and wine at the likewise picturesque restaurants in Ortigia.
Even though the Ortigia island is also a district of Syracuse, it is further split in several historical districts you can visit during your vacation. These are: Bottari, Cannamela, Castello, Duomo, Gancia, Giudecca, Graziella, Maestranza, Marina, Mastrarua, Sperduta and Turba. What I described above, are the Duomo, Castello and Maestranza districts. However, since Ortigia is very small and you can explore it on foot, you can admire all the districts I just mentioned. They are in small and picturesque alleys where buildings tell about their ancient history. Maniace Castle, for example, is in the district called Castello. Don’t forget to visit also the districts of Marina and Giudecca. Nestled in the lanes of a medieval district, Marina is a district called like this, because you can reach it from Porta Marina ( A potta da marina in Sicilian). This was the Spanish entrance to Syracuse and allowed to reach the city from the ancient Spanish fortresses. It has still some Spanish features in a stone kiosk where stone is worked, carved and nearly turned into a flower decoration. Giudecca district is in the namesake street, soon after Maestranze street. This was the ancient district inhabited from Jews and Muslims. Here, you’ll find three ritual baths used by the Jews for spiritual purification.
They compose the so called Miqweh that proves the existence of the most ancient Jewish community of the Mediterranean sea. Placed at 18 meters below the street level and fed by fresh, spring waters, it is the unique Jewish bath in Europe that keeps its original structure. The ticket to visit this bath is five euros. You can visit it all over the year from 11 to 17 and the tour is offered in a double language: Italian and English. For groups, you need to book on the phone. Unfortunately, due to the steep stairs, this tour is not suitable for disabled people and I am very sorry for this. Anyway, Jewish baths are also managed by the namesake hotel Alla Giudecca. Disabled people can ask them to visit Jewish baths.
The hotel has been built in the underground tunnel taking to the baths. The entrance leads you straight to the tunnel dug into the rock. At the centre, you’ll see three baths where there is still a flowing water coming from the Aretusa Fount. Jews dived into them to delete their sins. Inside them, you’ll also see arches dug into the rock, which serve as support pillars, and other tanks placed in niches near the main room of Miqweh. Outside, in the uncrowded alley of this district, you’ll meet also a pretty shop with local products, such as Sicilian wine and ceramic you can take with you as a sweet remembrance of your vacation in Sicily.
Ortigia has a beautiful sea with rocky and pebble beaches. Here, you can’t bath, but only sunbath at the facilities that offer sun chair and solarium. Just behind Aretusa Fount there is a small beach which should be outfitted with solarium. Furthermore, thanks to a ferry service, with a few euros, you can reach the nearby promontory from Ortigia port. Here, you’ll discover a wonderful sea and a nature reserve with stunning flora and fauna. This reserve is called Plemmirio ( see the image). It is also possible to enjoy sea tours by boat to visit the likewise wonderful beaches and grottos of the shoreline, among these: Arenella beach ( 8 kms from Ortigia) and Noto beach ( 25 km from Ortigia). I avoided to mention Fontane Bianche because I visited this beach once and I didn’t find it very comfortable. Arenella and Noto beach, instead, are beautiful and suitable for bath. Anyway, even though you stay in Ortigia, you can admire a wonderful landscape with the best crystal sea of Sicily and boats docked to the shore as an ancient fishing village.
How to reach Ortigia
You can reach Ortigia from Catania airport. After landing here, take a taxi that will lead you to Ortigia. You can contact me for this ( my brother in law is a taxi driver). This district is only 50 kms from Catania. Ortigia has a favorable position to visit the entire city of Syracuse, such as the Greek Theater and the archaeological site. From Ortigia, you can also visit the East of Sicily with the pretty , baroque, inland villages and the beaches, such as Noto and Avola. From there, the distance is only 30 kms from Noto and 35 from Avola. Instead, if you want to visit Etna mount and Taormina , the distance is longer and between 80 and 100 kms. Try to stay in Ortigia and Syracuse only, and move to Arenella and Noto. With this tour you’ll see the whole beauty of Eastern Sicily. Ortigia has also hosted some episodes of the famous Tv movie Inspector Montalbano.
What to eat in Ortigia
If you stay in Ortigia, you’ll eat only local Sicilian food, such as fresh fish, hams, Sicilian cannoli, Sicilian Cassata cake, organic almond, Sicilian hunter rabbit style. Typical local recipes are grouper at low altitude ( cernia alla matalotta) and Syracuse’s fish soup. You’ll also taste the best Syracuse wine, such as Syracuse Syrah, Nero D’Avola, Passito, Moscato, Bianco, Rosso and Moscato sparkling wine.
Where to stay in Ortigia
In Ortigia, you can stay in luxury villas, apartments and seafront homes. The villas are very expensive in Ortigia and can also have a price of 2000 – 3000 euros per week in high season.
The best solution could be the apartments. They are located in the picturesque alleys of Ortigia, but they are not sea view. Usually they are suitable for three, four people, only. Prices are 500 euros a week in low season and 1000 euros per week in high season. For this reason, it is better to find pretty cottages facing the sea in high season and with a similar price, so that you can enjoy the Sicilian sea in the summer.
If you want to book accommodations in Ortigia like the ones I described, click here.
Maniace castle: Francesca Palazzi
Aretusa fount: Virgilio.it
Jeiwsh baths : naturasicula.it
Ortigia alley: Siracusanelmondo.com
Nature reserve Plemmirio: nuovosud.it