The Sicily Series | Part VIII – Ortygia of Syracuse, the Venice of the South
The legend of Ortygia had come to us through the bathroom. Not that this should be misread as something smutty. For Ortigia the brand of timelessly elegant bath products, room fragrances and soaps is today one of the most prestigious purveyors of bathroom accessories on the market, with stores on Marylebone High Street and Sloane Square in London alone. And while the company, which hails from Sicily and whose packaging awash with leopards and palm trees is the very essence of the Il Gattopardo period, spells it’s name with the Italian ‘I’ it is otherwise the perfect ambassador for this equally stylish stunning little city in Sicily.
Ortygia is more of an island than a city, connected to the bigger city of Syracuse by two narrow bridges. With few cars, plenty of picturesque narrow streets, and surrounded on all sides by the sea, Ortygia has often been called the Venice of Sicily and it’s not difficult to see why. For in place of Florian’s cafe are a host of cosy little eateries with pale striped cushions, blue glass and understated elegance. In the place of ancient treasures sacked from Constantinople you have multiple ruins dating way before the roman times and literally peppering the streets (the incredible ruins of the Temple of Apollo being the first to greet you when you cross the bridge). And instead of Saint Mark’s the main Duomo of Ortygia is a masterpiece mix of the most ravishing Baroque with an ancient Athenian temple.
For me the Cathedral (not to mention the dazzling showpiece square surrounding it) is undoubtedly the highlight of Ortygia. With its elaborately decorated marble facade, the Cathedral shows but one face of an indelibly rich history which oozes from within. For one walk inside and you find an ancient interior not characterised by the Baroque at all. Rather the Cathedral is essentially a remanifestation of the ancient Temple of Athena which has always stood on this spot. It is not just built on the same foundations but is actually constructed over and amongst the original ancient columns which made up the temple. All they have done is filled in the space between the columns, put a roof on top, and that marvellous facade at the front. The effect is to receive an incredible immersion into the most ancient of civilisations, and really gain insight into what a temple back in the times of Ancient Greece would have been like.
Alas we could not spend too long in Ortygia. The sun bounced down on those ancient palazzos and that fine white marble which dazzled all around, and as the afternoon drew on, temperatures rose in unison. We therefore escaped to the air conditioning of our car and the promise of a prosecco back in Noto. But we left Ortygia with a real sparkle in our eyes, and, naturally, a little complementary purchase from its world renowned cosmetics store.
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