The idea of visiting Sicily materialized last year when my Brit cousin Gill invited Spark and me to join her and her husband in Ortygia in September — since we’d be traveling to the U.K., would we like to catch a flight out of Manchester, England, and meet them in Sicily?
To say we jumped at a chance is an understatement. Gill and Geoff would pick us up at the airport in Catania, for the hour drive to Ortygia, an island city joined by bridges to mainland Syracuse.
I found a flat to rent on Airbnb owned by a Sicilian who could write in English — essential because my Italian is nonexistent. Even though the photos and reviews were great, I hadn’t a clue about where the flat was located, or if it was close to Gill and Geoff’s rental. My worries were put to rest when Gill got to Sicily and asked to see it, then let us know the flat was a five-minute walk from their place. She also assured us we would like the property. And we did.
Though Gianluca’s flat was reasonable to rent, it was modern, roomy and spotless, two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a living room, a huge shower and an added plus — a little balcony where one folding chair fit to watch all the comings and going on the narrow lane below us, where Italian voices lifted on the breeze, through floor-to-ceiling-shuttered doors.
That lane with its restaurants, bars and shops led to the Piazza del Duomo, believed to be one of the most beautiful squares in Sicily, its spectacular centerpiece the Duomo, (cathedral). Every time I rounded the corner and came upon the square I caught my breath at seeing such beauty and history come to life.
The cathedral, originally a temple built to honor the Greek goddess Athena, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, and was rebuilt in the baroque style, as were the cities of nearby Noto, the more distant Rugusa and others in southeastern Sicily. In fact, two-thirds of the population of Catania lost their lives in the disaster.
The cathedral has a statue of the Virgin Mary at its topmost point, but pillars remain on the east side of the Duomo from the Greek temple. The square itself is immense and totally laid with white stones that shimmer in the light — in fact, all of Ortygia has a stone floor, the labyrinth of lanes a darker color.
Once you get to Ortygia, it’s best to park the car. You can get around easily by foot, but must be careful of the buzzing scooters and locals who zip around the lanes like racecar drivers, forcing a quick jump onto the sidewalks as they careen past.
I relished walking, and each morning took off for the square, just three minutes from our flat, to see the square in different shades of light, before heading for a jaunt along the Mediterranean on a sidewalk that fronts the sea, views of aqua water dotted with fishing boats, catching all manner of seafood offered for dinner, most often eaten at 9 p.m. On boulders along the shore, swimmers basked in the sun like seals, or took dips in the crystal-clear water with its pebbled bottom.
Our five days in Ortygia were perfect — the weather in the low 80s, the sun incessant, not a cloud in the sky. It was lovely being with Gill and Goeff, having them away from work so they could really relax, which they did with us in the evenings, and during the daytime at Ortygia’s nearby beaches, which are said to be some of the most beautiful in the world.
Spark and I didn’t don our swimsuits. Instead we took a trip to Noto with a kind and knowledgeable couple from Ortygia, who owned Gill and Geoff’s flat. On other days we walked around Ortygia enjoying fruit from its vibrant market, and went to an eye-popping archaeological park in Syracuse, home to the ruins of a Roman amphitheater where gladiators fought, and a Greek theater built in the fifth century B.C. that still holds performances; no sound system necessary because the acoustics are spot-on.
As I write this week’s column, I’m far away from sun-drenched Ortygia — we’ve moved on to gray, rainy St. Andrews, Scotland, where Spark’s playing golf with a friend. No matter — Scotland has its own rugged beauty and this morning Ortygia’s brilliance remains in my consciousness as I record its delights.
This trip is offering the best of all worlds. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.