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 Ortigia, Sicily

Cannolo, Granita, and Puppets

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Ortigia (sometimes spelled Ortygia) might not be the first place you think of when planning a trip to Italy, but with Sicily’s newfound popularity, it should be.

Ortigia (part of the city of Siracusa) is filled with history dating back to the Greeks and its culture is filled with influences from each subsequent conquering superpower, from the Romans to the Byzantines to the Muslims, Germans, French and Spanish before Italian unification.

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A Short History

The Greek Theater in Syracuse is still used for performances today (Photo: Brent Petersen)

The Greek Theater in Syracuse is still used for performances today (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Ortigia and greater Syracuse has been inhabited as far back the Mycenaean Period of the late Bronze Age, but the city wasn’t formally founded until 734 B.C. when Greek settlers colonized it.

The Syracuse army defeated Carthage in 480 B.C. and built a temple to Athena to celebrate the victory. Today, the cathedral in Ortigia stands where the temple was built and some of the temple’s columns were incorporated into the cathedral’s design. Some of these ancient Greek columns are visible today.

Over the next two hundred years, Carthage and Syracuse (a military power) fought many battles in Sicily and around the Mediterranean. Syracuse prevailed but a new foe emerged; the Romans.

A Roman army laid siege to Syracuse in 213 B.C. While the Romans used new military inventions like grappling hooks during the siege, Syracuse employed a set of military innovations to thwart them.

Invented by the genius mathematician, and local hero, Archimedes, the Claw of Archimedes was said to pick Roman ships straight out of the water before dropping them back into the sea and sinking them. Archimedes also supposedly developed a series of mirrors that, when arranged correctly, were able to reflect and concentrate a light beam, causing the sails of the Roman ships to burst into flames. Archimedes was killed at the end of the siege and the Romans prevailed, taking over Syracuse and Ortigia.

Ortigia and Syracuse went through centuries of back and forth with a series of invaders and conquerors beginning with the Vandals in 469 A.D., followed by the Byzantines and then the Arabs, who held it for two centuries. The Byzantines reconquered Syracuse in 1038, followed by the Normans in 1085. French, Genovese, and German rulers took their turns during the Middle Ages. Bourbon ruled in the 19th century, and it wasn’t until Italian unification in 1865 that Ortigia, Syracuse, and all of Sicily became a part of Italy.

The upper facade of the Cathedral, built after the 1693 earthquake (Photo: Brent Petersen)

The upper facade of the Cathedral, built after the 1693 earthquake (Photo: Brent Petersen)

But, by far, the most important date in Ortigia’s history is 1693. On January 11th a massive 7.4 magnitude earthquake, centered between Ortigia and Catania, destroyed eastern Sicily. Most of Ortigia was leveled and a quarter of the population was killed. The rebuilding effort was done in the style of the time; Sicilian Baroque. This gives many of the buildings in the town their distinctive look.

Foodie Ortigia

Ortigia’s popularity means that some upscale restaurants have made the scene. They are often quite good, but some of the most interesting finds are at the local market and the small cafes on the island.

Ortigia Market

Video: Karen Campopiano

If you’ve heard of the food scene in Ortigia, it’s likely because of the outdoor market. TV travel shows have featured it recently as an authentic spot to sample the taste delights of southeast Sicily. YouTubers have made Caseificio Borderi’s sandwiches famous. They’re delicious and the show from the sandwich maker is part of the fun. Of course, with that attention comes tourists.

Still, even with the tour groups, the market is mostly patronized by locals doing their daily shopping.

Ortigia Market (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Ortigia Market (Photo: Brent Petersen)

The vendors at the market offer everything from local produce to spices to seafood to prepared foods. They even have stands with sweets (Sicilians love their sweets), including bars of chocolate from Modica. If you can’t make a trip to Modica (but, you should) then pick up a few bars at the market. They’re cheap and they make fantastic gifts (see below for more about Modica and its famous chocolate.)

One thing unusual about the Ortigia market that might throw you if you’ve been Italian markets on the peninsula is the displays overflowing with herbs and spices. This makes the market look a little like a north African market and there’s a good reason for that.

For two hundred years, the Arab dynasty of the Aghlabids from Tunisia ruled Sicily. They brought citrus, nuts (pistachios!), and spices with them that is still a big part of the cuisine of this part of Sicily.

My top recommendation for Ortigia is to get an apartment and stay for a few days. Shop the market for your meals (eat out a few times, too!). Go to the market each day, buy whatever is in season and eat like a local. Get an espresso at the same cafe each morning. Do this and after a couple of days the vendors will get to know you.

Fresh squeezed juice from our daily trip to the Ortigia Market (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Fresh squeezed juice from our daily trip to the Ortigia Market (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Items in the market will change with the season but you should especially look for pistachios (Sicilian pistachios are extraordinary), sun-dried tomatoes, the aforementioned Modica chocolate, blood oranges (in season during the winter), and ricotta salata.

Most of these items can be taken back to the U.S. if they are vacuum sealed or commercially packaged. We’ve had no issue bringing back chocolate, candy, pistachios, spices, and sun-dried tomatoes which are a revelation compared to what you can get in the states.

As for the cheese, most ricotta in Sicily is made with sheep’s milk. The ricotta salata is a salty cheese which becomes crumbly when aged; perfect for many Sicilian pasta dishes. But, the star of the ricotta show might be tricotta (called Ricotta infornata in other parts of Sicily). Tricotta means baked three times and that’s what they do with the ricotta. Do not miss a chance to get tricotta at Caseificio Borderi’s when you’re in Ortigia. In the video above you can see some tricotta sitting on the table.

Cannolo

Cannoli (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Cannoli (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Each morning I walked from our apartment to Bar Viola (bars are cafes in Italy, though some do sell alcohol as well.) for an espresso and cannolo. Except me, being a stupid Americano, asked for “Uno cannoli, per favore.” Why is that stupid? Because cannoli is the plural of cannolo. So I was actually asking for “One cannolis, please.” On the second day, the barista corrected me. “Uno cannolo, due cannoli” she said. By the third day, I made my request correctly. “Uno cannolo, per favore,” I said, using the same emphasis on the singular as her to show that I understood my mistake and I could laugh at myself.

Cannolo originated in Palermo as a treat during Carnivale, but, once again, the Arabs are to thank because they brought sugar cane to Sicily. Cannolo in Sicily is a tube-shaped fried dough filled with ricotta cheese. Since this is Sicily, the ricotta is usually sheep’s milk, although the cow’s milk version can be easily found.

Cannoli Del Re (PhotoL: Cannoli Del Re)

Cannoli Del Re (PhotoL: Cannoli Del Re)

For a unique take on the treat, try Cannoli Del Re. They roll their dough into a cone shape and fill it with ricotta and top it with nuts, making it look like an ice cream cone.

The key to a great cannolo is to make the pastry fresh and add the ricotta right there on the spot. That way it doesn’t get soggy (ugh). And, the pastry should be flaky and not have a hard cookie texture like many cannoli in the States.

Granita

You’re in Italy! Hurrah! So, get some gelato, right? Not so fast. You can get plenty of good gelato in Sicily, but why not get something that originated in Sicily?

Granita at Gelateria Fiordilatte (Photo: Fiordilatte)

Granita at Gelateria Fiordilatte (Photo: Fiordilatte)

That means Granita. Granita is a frozen treat, similar to sorbetto (sorbet). But, it’s also kinda like Italian Ice. In fact, depending on where you are in Sicily, it can be quite different.

In western Sicily around Palermo, Granita is chunkier with larger crystals of ice. But, in eastern Sicily, including here in Ortigia, Granita is smoother, closer in texture to sorbetto.

Voglia Matta (Photo: Voglia Matta)

Voglia Matta (Photo: Voglia Matta)

Granita can be made with any number of flavors. Lemon is especially popular because of the excellent citrus grown in Sicily. But, for my money, the best Granita flavors are pistachio, almond, coffee, and chocolate. You’ll notice that these aren’t the typical flavors of Italian Ice you might see in the States.

Two of the best places for Granita are Voglia Matta and Gelateria Fiordilatte. Both have gelato as well. And, if you’re near the Duomo, Caffe Minerva makes a nice chocolate Granita, although their prices are higher than most, likely due to their prime location.

Pizza

Okay, you’re in Italy, so you gotta get pizza. But, here’s the thing. Pizza means completely different things depending on where you are in Italy. Of course there’s the famous Neapolitan pizza, fired in a wood burning oven. There’s also the Roman-style which has a thin cracker-like crust.

And, then there’s Sicilian-style pizza. In the U.S., that means a doughy thick crust pizza. But, the thing is, that’s not really Sicilian-style pizza. That kind of Americanized Sicilian pizza is a take off on Sfincione, a Palermo street pizza.

Sfincione, literally sponge, is something quite different. The crust, as the name implies, is spongy but has a softer consistency that is quite different from American-Sicilian pizza. Sfincione is topped with tomato sauce, onions, caciocavallo cheese and sometimes anchovies with a drizzle of olive oil.

Pizzolo from Trattoria Kalliope (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Pizzolo from Trattoria Kalliope (Photo: Brent Petersen)

But, in Ortigia you won’t find Sfincione. Instead, Pizzolo is the local style of pizza. Now, the Pizzolo from Ortigia has nothing to do with the bastardized P’Zolo from Pizza Hut, which is some meat baked in a pizza crust. Yuck.

Ortigia Pizzolo is a double crusted pizza; a crust on the bottom and a crust on the top. Kinda like a calzone but a Pizzolo isn’t stuffed with insane amounts of cheese and meat.

A Pizzolo often has arugula (rucola), cheese, panchetta, and oregeno, but you can usually get it with a variety of fillings. And unlike the calzone, the Pizzolo isn’t hand food. Cut into slices like a pizza, the filling (or topping) can fall out if you try to eat it with your hands.

Trattoria Kalliope makes a fine Pizzolo and La Pizzoleria Ortigia is also a well-known spot.

Drinking in Ortigia

Sicilian Wine

Sicilian wine has really come into its own. What used to be quite pedestrian, many wineries in Sicily are now world-class. The wine produced in the volcanic soil of Mt. Etna (a couple hours north of Ortigia) is especially good for growing excellent wine grapes.

You can tour some of the wineries of Etna. Some tours even combine the winery tour with a trip to Mt. Etna’s volcano. But, a tour from Ortigia is quite an undertaking (most tour operators won’t pick you up in Siracusa) so I recommend the wine tour as part of a trip to Catania which is must closer to the Etna wine region.

Luckily, Siracusa has its own wine region, famous for the Sicilian grape Nero d’Avola, as well as Syrah and sweet Moscato. Several wineries are open for tours, including the family-run Pupillo. Reservations are required for a visit and a car is the easiest way to get there (only 30 minutes) although you can take a roundabout way on the train to Targia and walk 15 minutes to the winery.

If your schedule is tight, a better option is to find a wine shop with a good local selection. In Vino Veritas Enoteca is just such a place. Giuseppe hand-picks all the wines and he’s happy to help you select a bottle.

Buy your favorite and with your stash of bread, olives, and cheese from the outdoor market, walk five minutes to the jetty and enjoy a glass and a snack as you watch the sunset.

Aperitivo

While the Aperitivo has its roots in Turin dating back over 200 years, the concept has only recently become popular in the States. It seems you can’t visit a bar or restaurant without seeing everyone nursing an Aperol spritz.

Barcollo (Photo: Barcollo)

Barcollo (Photo: Barcollo)

Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of a bitter drink paired with some light snacks while meeting up with friends. But I can’t help but think “where have you been"?” when I see everyone jumping on the Aperitivo bandwagon.

The Aperitivo tradition is strongest in northern Italy. Milan is the Aperitivo capital and Turin, the origin point of Apertivo, also has a strong game, but Aperitivo has certainly migrated to southern Italy and Sicily, too.

Like tapas, you might get a free snack with your bitter drink, but it is often just a tiny cup of nuts or a few potato chips. If you want more, you’ll have to order it.

Lots of places offer Aperitivo in Ortigia. Look for signs outside establishments and you might stumble upon a new favorite. Barcollo does a nice job as does Tinkitè, and Taverna Giudecca. But, my all-time favorite spot in Ortigia is MOON. MOON stands for Move Ortigia Out of Normality.

Don’t let the name fool you, MOON isn’t some hipster spot with wax-mustached bartenders selling cans of PBR. MOON is elegant with frequent live jazz performances. Their Aperitivo is very good and they’re also my number one favorite restaurant in Ortigia.

Things to do in Ortigia

Piazza del Duomo

One of the most beautiful squares in all of Italy is right here in Ortigia. Ornate Sicilian Baroque buildings surround the long piazza with cafes and restaurants dotting the perimeter. Stopping to linger over a cool drink in the afternoon is always a good idea, but the real show happens in the evening, when the piazza comes to life.

Our young friend playing accordion near the steps of the cathedral (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Our young friend playing accordion near the steps of the cathedral (Photo: Brent Petersen)

On our first visit to Ortigia, we had a lovely dinner at one of the restaurants on the Piazza. A boy about 12 years old wandered around the square, playing tunes on his accordion for tips. I gave him a Euro and he happily posed for a picture. We saw him again the next day by the church, playing for coins. On our return to Ortigia a year and a half later, we kept an eye out for the young man but didn’t see him. I sometimes wonder what happened to him.

The focal point of the Piazza del Duomo is the Cathedral of Syracuse (Duomo di Siracusa). The facade was built in the fanciful Sicilian Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693. But, if you look closely, you can see vestiges of the church’s past.

A Greek Doric temple dedicated to Athena was built in 5th century B.C. on the site of an even older prehistoric temple. Columns from the Greek temple were incorporated into the church and are visible in the sanctuary and on the outside of the church.

The Greek Temple became a church when the Byzantine Empire took over in the 6th century A.D.

One of the statues in the facade of the cathedral (Photo: Brent Petersen)

One of the statues in the facade of the cathedral (Photo: Brent Petersen)

The church was converted into a Mosque in 878 following the conquest by the Aghlabids and back to a church again in 1085 when the Normans conquered the city.

While the facade is stunning, and you could spend hours examining the intricate details, the interior is worth a look as well. There is a chapel dedicated to the city’s patron Saint Lucia which has some of her personal effects and relics (bones). The stained glass, fanciful alter, and painted ceiling are also worth checking out.

Saint Lucia

The story of the patron saint of Siracusa is a fascinating one. Lucy was born into a rich family in 283. Her Roman father died when she was five and her mother later became ill. Lucy’s mom, Eutychia, went to Catania to pray to St. Agatha who had been martyred a half century earlier (read about Agatha an her gruesome death in my post about Catania.)

Young Lucy prayed to Agatha as well and the saint came to Lucy in a dream and told her that her mother would be cured. As thanks for her mother’s health, Lucia promised to give her family riches to the poor.

But, Eutychia had promised Lucia’s hand in marriage, and when her betrothed found out that he would not be receiving a dowry, he denounced Lucia to the governor of Siracusa who ordered the young lady to make a sacrifice to the Emperor of Rome. Lucia refused and the young virgin was sent to a brothel to be defiled.

Video is in Italian but you can see Caravaggio’s masterpiece “The Burial of St. Lucy.”

But, when Roman soldiers came to take Lucy to the brothel, they could not move her, even with the help of a team of oxen. So, the soldiers piled wood on poor Lucy and tried to set her on fire, but she would not burn. Lucy was finally killed when a Roman put a sword through her throat.

If that wasn’t grisly enough, in the 15th century, the story was appended to have Lucy predicting the end of the reign of Rome. The governor of Siracuse became furious with Lucy’s insolence and ordered her eyes gouged out. That’s why you’ll often see paintings of Lucy with her eyes gone or with them on a platter. Lucy is both the patron saint of Siracusa and of eye illness.

The church of Santa Lucia alla Badia is on the Piazza del Duomo and is, of course, dedicated to Saint Lucy. It’s odd, however, that her relics are not here, but inside the nearby Siracusa Cathedral.

There is a good reason to go inside the church. Here hangs the “Burial and St. Lucia,” a painter by the Italian master Caravaggio.

St. Lucia’s feast day is celebrated on December 13th, which is appropriate since it is one of the shortest and darkest days of the year. She is the patron saint of eye illnesses, after all.

Notice the eyes in place of leaves on the stem held by St. Lucy (Image: National Gallery)

Notice the eyes in place of leaves on the stem held by St. Lucy (Image: National Gallery)

On December 13th, a silver statue containing Lucy’s relics is taken from the cathedral and paraded around town.

Residents of Ortigia partake in the tradition of eating Cuccìa, a porridge-like dish made of boiled wheatberries and sugar. This is commemorate the arrival of a shipment of wheat on St. Lucy Day in 1646, which ended a famine. On this day, people are supposed to not eat any bread, and the only wheat to be consumed is Cuccìa.

Puppets

Puppetry in Sicily is a form of entertainment that goes back over 200 years. Differing from the art of marionettes in France which use strings to control the puppets, Sicilian puppeteers attach steel rods to make their little charges move. Typically, the stories revolve around brave knights defeating the evil Moors and saving damsels in distress.

In Ortigia, the Vaccaro brothers were some of the earliest purveyors of the art form. Their descendants, the Vaccaro-Mauceri family operate a wonderful puppet theater. Each performance has warriors slaying invaders in melodramatic fashion. Although the performances are in Italian, you don’t need to speak the language to understand the story. But, be advised, the bodycount of slain Moors could be too intense for very young children.

Puppet theater in Ortigia. Notice the bodies piling up. (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Puppet theater in Ortigia. Notice the bodies piling up. (Photo: Brent Petersen)

The Teatro dei Pupi is a family affair and all the puppets are made by hand at the workshop across the street. Visitors are welcome as heads are carved from wood and costumes are fashioned for the show.

A two minute walk from the theater is the Museo dei Pupi, a small museum that is a tribute to the work of the Vaccaro brothers and their descendants currently plying the puppet trade. Children might not be as interested in the museum, but I found it fascinating, especially some of the larger exhibits like the dragons.

Promenade

Young people enjoying a walk across the bridge to Ortigia (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Young people enjoying a walk across the bridge to Ortigia (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Fact is, Ortigia isn’t a big place and it doesn’t have a ton of blockbuster sights like the more famous cities in Italy. The best part of Ortigia is wandering around, finding a nice cafe, and enjoying being in Sicily.

One of the best ways to do this is to walk around the perimeter of the city. Ortigia was an island before it was connected to the mainland by two small bridges.

There are lots of places along Lungomare Alfeo to grab un cafe or a snack and watch the sun glitter on the water. Further north is marina where several yachts are usually moored.

View of Ortigia from the promenade (Photo: Brent Petersen)

View of Ortigia from the promenade (Photo: Brent Petersen)

If you stay on the perimeter of the island, next to the water, it’s almost impossible to get lost. But, wander into the tangle of streets in the interior, and it’s almost impossible not to. But really, that’s half the fun. Looking up at the crowded pale yellow buildings wondering where the heck you are and suddenly you pop out on the Piazza del Duomo or the outdoor market.

I’ve walked around the island many times at different times of the year and have never tired of the gorgeous views. Truly special.

Greek and Roman Theaters

During the time of the Greeks, Siracusa and Ortigia was an incredibly important city in Magna Graecia, or greater Greece. In fact, Siracusa rivaled Athens’ power in the Greek Empire.

The Temple of Aethna stood where the Cathedral now stands on the Piazza del Duomo with some of the original columns having been integrated into the current building.

There is also the ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Ortigia. You can’t miss it, it’s right near the outdoor market at Piazza Pancali. Most people walk by paying it no mind. The site dates to the 6th century B.C. and, like the Temple of Athena, became a church and then a mosque and then a church again, depending on which invading army had control of the city. The temple even was used as a barracks for Spanish soldiers.

The real highlight for any fan of Greek culture is a visit to the Teatro Greco (Greek Theater). The size of the theater (it seated 15,000) shows Siracusa’s importance in the ancient world. Opera and other performances are regularly staged here in the summer.

The Romans liked the site as well and built an amphitheater close by. Despite being built centuries earlier, the Greek Theater is in better shape than the Roman one.

Both the Greek and Roman theaters are part of the Neapolis archeological site in Siracusa. It’s important to buy tickets to the site at the ticket office across the street. It’s a long enough walk to the park entrance that if the ticket office there is closed, you’ll be cursing all the way back to get your admission.

The Ear of Dionysius (Photo: Brent Petersen)

The Ear of Dionysius (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Also in the Neapolis is the Ear of Dionysius. The area around the Neapolis was a limestone quarry and a cave (really a short passageway) has a curved shape that resembles a human ear.

The name “The Ear of Dionysius” was coined by the master painter Caravaggio after the dictatorial ruler of Siracusa, Dionysius, and the shape of the cave.

The legend is that Dionysius would place prisoners in the cave. Because of the shape, the cave has perfect acoustics so the tyrant could hear everything his enemies had to say. While a great story, it probably never happened that way; Caravaggio likely made the whole thing up.

Another question about The Ear concerns its origin. Since the area was a quarry, most people assume it was mined. But, the shape is unlike anything else in the quarry and the smooth surface has led others to believe that The Ear of Dionysius is a natural formation, created by a flow of water. On the other hand, if The Ear was used for water storage, that too could explain the smooth sides. Either way, it’s fun to walk through The Ear and whisper military secrets to your friends while trying to dodge Big Brother Dionysius.

Day Trips

Ortigia isn’t known for its beaches but there are cute little rocky spots to get some sun (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Ortigia isn’t known for its beaches but there are cute little rocky spots to get some sun (Photo: Brent Petersen)

If you make Ortigia your home base, there are several towns within easy reach for a daytrip.

Almost every guidebook will tell you that the bus is the best way to get around the island and that train service is slow and spotty. That might be true for some areas, but in this part of eastern Sicily I find the train service to be reliable and inexpensive. And it is oftentimes much faster than the bus. For example, the bus from Syracuse (the bus stop is a short walk from Ortigia) to Modica takes almost four hours while the train is as fast as 1 hour 40 minutes.

Time for a road trip, but I’m not sure how far you’re getting in this car (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Time for a road trip, but I’m not sure how far you’re getting in this car (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Be aware, though, that train service can end earlier than bus service and train stations are often 1km or more outside of town.

A car can make stitching a group of towns together easier. Ambitious travelers and early risers can do several towns in one day, but I think most of these towns deserve at least a full day, and in the case of Catania, several days.

Modica

Sicily might not be the first place you think of when you think of chocolate, but it should be. Chocolatiers still practice the traditional cold-pressing method of making chocolate that you can see up close.

Chocolate samples at L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Chocolate samples at L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (Photo: Brent Petersen)

By far, Modica’s most famous export is chocolate. But, the unique thing about Modica’s chocolate is how it is made. Almost all commercial chocolate undergoes a process called conching. A conche is a machine that scrapes and agitates chocolate to make it smooth, creamy, and uniform in texture. Conching also heats the chocolate to 120-180°. Even the artisan chocolate maker in your city who grinds cacao nibs on a stone hand grinder heats the chocolate. That’s because heat is required to dissolve the sugar and give the final product a smooth texture.

In Modica, a traditional cold-pressing method is used to make the chocolate. That doesn’t mean no heat. The cold-pressing method only heats the cocoa to 107-113°. This lower temperature prevents the sugar from melting and gives the chocolate a more grainy and crumbly texture. It also gives the chocolate a flavor that is a truer expression of the cacao bean, in my opinion.

Your first stop in Modica should be Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, the most famous chocolate shop in the city, operated by the same family since 1880. The importance of the Bonajuto family to Modica cannot be overstated. Their chocolate lab and retail store set the stage for all the other shops that dot the city now.

Don’t limit yourself to Bonajuto. There are lots of chocolate makers in Modica. It’s the business of the city. Wander the streets and pop into some of the chocolate shops. There are dozens of them. Sample chocolate from different makers and find your favorite. And don’t forget to pick up a few bars. For the $10 you spend on a bar of artisan chocolate in the states, you can get five bars of Modica chocolate. And your friends will be delighted with its unique taste and texture. Plus, it goes great with Sicilian red wine.

Looking up at St. George’s church (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Looking up at St. George’s church (Photo: Brent Petersen)

One of the most gorgeous sites in Modica is the church of San Giorgio. Not just for its design, but also because of its prominent location on top of a hill.

There are two parts of the city of Modica, Upper Modica (Modica Alta) and Lower Modica (Modica Bassa). Of course, the cathedral is in Modica Alta, and can be reached by car. But, there is also an elaborate staircase which was built in the late 19th century and connects Modica Bassa to Modica Alta. The climb is beautifully decorated with flowering gardens. Pause and enjoy them, you’ll want to stop anyway, because the 300 steps to the church are exhausting. The “heart attack climb” as my friend Mike jokingly referred to it.

View of Lower Modica from St. George’s church (Photo: Brent Petersen)

View of Lower Modica from St. George’s church (Photo: Brent Petersen)

The walk back down the steps is much easier, of course. In Lower Modica there’s another gorgeous church, San Pietro. Luckily, there are only a couple dozen steps to reach that church. The gate leading to the staircase and the edges of the staircase are decorated with full size statues of saints, including the church’s namesake.

We’ve done a detailed entry on Modica. See it here.

Catania

Catania is big city (the second largest in Sicily after Palermo) and worthy of a stay lasting several days. Patron Saint Agatha’s spectacular Sicilian Baroque church dominates the Piazza del Duomo and the student population keeps the city lively.

St. Agatha Cathedral (Photo: Brent Petersen)

St. Agatha Cathedral (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Two for the best outdoor markets in Sicily make for great shopping and people watching.

And the food. Wow. Arancini, pasta alla Norma, and cassatelle di Sant'Agata, a cake celebrating the martyred saint; Catania is an amazing and underrated foodie city. We’ve dedicated an entire entry on the website to Catania and we’ve also done a couple podcasts about the city. Listen here and here.

Taormina

Taormina has a gorgeous perch overlooking the Ionian Sea that’s well worth a day or two.

While I’ve advocated for the trains in Sicily, in the case of Taormina, the bus is the preferable method of transport. That’s because the train drops you at the bottom of the town which means you’ll need to take a taxi or bus to see Taormina. That, or hike up the hill. Not a huge deal, but the bus is easier.

Taormina is a resort town with high end hotels, spas, and shopping. But there are several sights to see as well. The best might well be just taking in the view at Piazza IX Aprile. The checkerboard square boasts views of Mount Etna and the water.

Taormina cable cars (Photo: traveltaormina.com)

Taormina cable cars (Photo: traveltaormina.com)

Another great view can be had by taking the cable car from the town to the beaches below. Only €6 for a round trip. The beaches are rocky and nothing spectacular, although it is nice to walk to tiny Isola Bella (beautiful island) at low tide.

The Greeks demonstrated the importance of Taormina by building a beautiful theater in the third century B.C. The Romans rebuilt it in the second century B.C. The theater is worth exploring for an hour or two and don’t miss the chance to take of picture of Teatro Greco with Mt. Etna in the background.

And speaking of photographic opportunities, don’t miss a chance to wander the Villa Comunale, a local botanical garden. While the gardens are beautiful (and free!), the story behind their creation might be even better. Lady Florence Trevelyan was a Scottish noblewoman who left her homeland after having an affair with the future king of England, Edward VII.

She arrived in Taormina and bought Isola Bella, building a garden there. But her masterwork is Villa Comunale. Definitely make it a part of your trip to Taormina.

Ragusa

Palermo has a magnificent culinary tradition. But little Ragusa (one ninth the size of Palermo) has more Michelin starred restaurants than Sicily’s largest city.

La Fenice and Locanda Don Serafino Ristorante have each earned a Michelin star while Ciccio Sultano Duomo has two.

Ragusa along with most of eastern Sicily was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. The city was rebuilt in two parts; Ragusa Ibla, or Lower Ragusa, was where the old town was located and Ragusa Superiore, or Upper Ragusa, was built as the new town after the earthquake.

Out of the 1693 tragedy, Ragusa rose under the flowery Sicilian Baroque style. It is best admired in the many churches that were built in the early 18th century.

Duomo di San Giorgio, Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Scale, Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista, and Chiesa San Giuseppe are just of the few of the best examples. But, be aware that, like Modica, there are TONS of stairs to climb. The heavy breathing is worth it, though.

FestiWall is an annual street art festival in Ragusa drawing talented artists from all over the world. Some murals are over fifty feet high!

Caltagirone

A close up picture of some of the tiles on the staircase. Notice the damage on some of these very old tiles.

A close up picture of some of the tiles on the staircase. Notice the damage on some of these very old tiles.

Caltagirone is known for ceramics and its best known landmark is the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, the staircase decorated with painted ceramic tiles that connects the lower town to the upper town. Built as far back as the early 17th century, the ceramic tiles weren’t added to the 142 steps until 1956.

Today, the Scalinata is not only a major tourist attraction, but also a centerpiece of local life. The steps are decorated with flowers and/or lights for holidays and specials occasions, the highlight being Fiesta di San Giacomo (Feast of Saint John) on the 24th and 25th of July when the steps are lit with thousands of oil lamps.

On either side of the staircase are cute shops and cafés where you can purchase ceramic trinkets to take home or just relax with an espresso before resuming your climb. At the top of the stairs is the Chiesa di santa Maria del Monte. If you’re up for more exercise, for a small fee you can climb the church’s bell tower for the best view of the city.

With the importance of ceramics to the local economy, it is no surprise that Caltagirone has a ceramics museum. It is divided into three sections, the first dedicated to prehistoric ceramics dating as far back as 5,000 years. The second room focuses on Medieval ceramics while the third on modern ceramics with a focus on local artisans. The museum may not seem especially inviting due to the lack of labeling on the pieces, but is worth a visit for those interested in the history of ceramics.

Ceramic head by Giacomo Alessi. Note the Arab influence common in Sicilian ceramics.

Ceramic head by Giacomo Alessi. Note the Arab influence common in Sicilian ceramics.

Giacomo Alessi is a self-taught ceramicist whose studio and shop is at the foot of the staircase. His pieces, reflecting the history of Sicily, have been exhibited all over the world. While there are some expensive pieces in the shop, you can also find tiles and small plates for under 100 Euros. Outstanding ceramics can also be found at the shop of local artist Riccardo Varsallona. Or, if you need Christmas decorations, check out Ceramiche d'Arte Floridia Salvatore for their unique Christmas tree ceramics in their shop crammed with cool stuff.

Mural near the church at the top of the staircase in Caltagirone, Sicily (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Mural near the church at the top of the staircase in Caltagirone, Sicily (Photo: Brent Petersen)

After all that stair climbing and shopping, you’re going to need a snack. Bar iudica e Trieste has cheap and filling Sicilian food. Try the arancini.

il Locandiere is a little more upscale with seafood being their specialty. The tuna is especially popular. 

The bus and train stations are about a twenty minute walk to the center of town. If you decide to walk, take the route along Via Roma so you can see the public garden. This will also take you right past the ceramics museum. Trains stop running fairly early, so be sure to check the schedule. We almost got stuck for the night but luckily some kind Sicilian women pointed us to the last bus leaving town that night (even the cops we asked didn’t know about it).

Transportation

Ortigia Marina (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Ortigia Marina (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Local transportation in Syracuse (and Ortigia) is good with regular bus and train service. A rental car might be a good idea if you are visiting several nearby towns or remote inland villages.

Catania Fontanarossa Airport (aka Vincenzo Bellini Airport) (CTA)

International airport with direct flights to most of Europe, Moscow, Dubai, and Kiev. No direct North American flights.

http://www.aeroporto.catania.it/?lang=en

Via Fontanarossa, 95121 Catania CT, Italy

Transfers from the airport to Ortigia

Bus service from the airport to Ortigia is available via Interbus. 1 1/4 hour. Website is not exactly user friendly but bus service is reliable.

http://interbus.it/

Train Station

Just across the bridge from Ortigia. 20 minute walk.

Via Ermocrate, Syracuse, Italy

Bus Station

Storm’s a brewin’ over Siracusa (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Storm’s a brewin’ over Siracusa (Photo: Brent Petersen)

10 minute walk to Ortigia.

Via Rodi, 11, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

Local bus

AST

Public bus transport in Syracuse. Also operates city to city service. Website is in Italian.

Website

Sd’A Trasporti

Convenient minibus service around Ortegia and to sites in greater Syracuse.

Download map here

Entertainment

Photo: getyourguide.com

Photo: getyourguide.com

Siracusa Food and Wine Walking Tour

2 1/2 hour foodie tour.

https://www.getyourguide.com/syracuse-l1115/syracuse-food-wine-walking-tour-t58984/

Hermes

Offers several tours in Syracuse, including a walking tour of Ortigia.

http://www.hermes-sicily.com/en/index.html

You, Me, and Sicily

Week long food and culture tours all over Sicily with visits to Ortigia.

https://you-me-sicily.myshopify.com/

Ortigia Island Excursion

Several small boat tours including happy hour and grotto tours.

http://www.ortigiaislandexcursion.com/home.html

Puppet Theater (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Puppet Theater (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Riva Forte Gallo, 2, 96100 Siracusa, SR, Italy

Teatro dei Pupi

Puppet theater with entertaining performances. Workshop is across the street.

Website

Via della Giudecca 22, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Puppet workshop-note the picture of one of the Vaccaro brothers (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Puppet workshop-note the picture of one of the Vaccaro brothers (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Museo dei Pupi

Fascinating puppet museum.

Website

Via della Giudecca, angolo Piazza San Giuseppe, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Piazza Duomo

One of the best piazzas in Sicily.

Piazza Duomo, Siracusa SR, Italy

Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia (Church of St. Lucy)

Baroque church houses Caravaggio’s “Burial of Saint Lucy.”

Website

Piazza Duomo, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

Duomo di Siracusa aka Cathedral of Santa Maria delle Colonne (Syracuse Cathedral)

Incredible Sicilian Baroque church with some remaining Greek columns.

https://www.secretsiracusa.it/en/where-to-go/duomo-syracuse/

Piazza Duomo, 5, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

Chiesa di San Giovanni Alle Catacombe

Huge labyrinth of catacombs under the church.

Via San Giovanni Alle Catacombe 1, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Chiesa di San Filippo Apostolo (Church of St. Filippo)

Church built on a synagogue with an underground Jewish ritual bath. Tours available.

https://www.facebook.com/sanfilippoapostolosiracusa/

Piazza San Filippo, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

Temple of Apollo

Ruins of a Greek temple dating to 6th century B.C.

Largo XXV Luglio, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

Maniace Castle

Medieval castle on the southern tip of the island.

Via Castello Maniace 51, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Parco Archeologico della Neapolis

Home to the Greek Theater, Roman Amphitheater, and Ear of Dionysius.

Website

Viale Paradiso 14, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Museo Leonardo da Vinci e Archimede

Small museum dedicated to the work of da Vinci and local hero Archimedes with reproductions of their work.

http://www.leonardoarchimede.com/en/

Ex Convento del Ritiro, Via Vincenzo Mirabella, 31, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

Tecnoparco Museo di Archimede

Hands on museum showcasing the many inventions of Archimedes.

http://www.tecnoparco-archimede.com/it/

Viale Giuseppe Agnello 26, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Fountain of Diana (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Fountain of Diana (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Fountain of Diana

Fountain is lovely, especially at night when lit up.

Piazza Archimede, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Pupillo

Lovely family run winery, 30 minute drive from Ortigia.

https://cantinepupillo.it/?lang=en

Contrada Targia, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Sights in Taormina

Piazza IX Aprine

Beautiful square in Taormina.

http://www.comune.taormina.me.it/la-citt/monumenti/piazza-xv-aprile.aspx

Piazza 9 Aprile, 6, 98039 Taormina ME, Italy

Taormina Cable Car

Easy way to get to the beaches below the city. Great views, too.

https://www.traveltaormina.com/en/how-to-reach-us/cable-car.html

Teatro Antico di Taormina (Ancient Greek Theater)

Beautiful Greek theater.

Website

Via del Teatro Greco, 1, 98039 Taormina ME, Italy

Villa Comunale

Gorgeous botanical garden. Free.

https://www.traveltaormina.com/it/monumenti/villa-comunale-taormina.html

Via Bagnoli Croci, 98039 Taormina ME, Italy

Sights in Ragusa

Duomo di San Giorgio (St. George Cathedral)

Beautiful expression of Sicilian Baroque.

Piazza Duomo, 97100, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Scale

Some of the original 13th century Gothic church remains. Baroque additions built later.

Corso Mazzini, 97100, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista (Cathedral of St. John the Baptist)

Originally in Ragusa Ibla, the cathedral was rebuilt in Ragusa Superiore after the earthquake.

Piazza San Giovanni, 97100, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Chiesa San Giuseppe (Church of St. Joseph)

Stunning Sicilian Baroque facade.

Via Valverde, 9, 97100 Ragusa RG, Italy

FestiWALL

Annual street art festival where beautiful murals are painted on buildings.

https://www.facebook.com/RagusaFestiWall/

Tiles near the Scala Santa Maria del Monte (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Tiles near the Scala Santa Maria del Monte (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Caltagirone

Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte

Magnificent staircase with antique tiles.

Scala Santa Maria del Monte, 11, 95041 Caltagirone CT, Italy

Food and Drink

MOON

Vegan or not, this is the top choice in Ortigia.

http://www.moonortigia.com/index.php?lang=en

Via Roma 112, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Caseificio Borderi

Busy sandwich and cheese shop in the Ortigia market. Believe the hype.

http://www.caseificioborderi.eu/?lang=en

Via Emanuele de Benedictis 6, Mercato di Ortigia, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Sicilia in Tavola

Photo: siciliaintavola.eu

Photo: siciliaintavola.eu

Fresh, homemade, and excellent choice.

https://www.siciliaintavola.eu/

Via Cavour 28, via Landolina, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Fratello Burgio

Little deli and shop with shelves of homemade local products.

Website

Piazza Cesare Battisti 4, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

A Putia Delle Cose Buone

Quality food, reasonably priced.

http://www.aputiadellecosebuone.it/

Via Roma 8, Ortigia, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Photo: sicilypizzeria.it

Photo: sicilypizzeria.it

Sicily Pizzeria & Lounge Bar

Interesting and creative pizza.

https://www.sicilypizzeria.it/

Via Cavour 67, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Regina Lucia

Michelin plate restaurant on Piazza Duomo.

http://www.reginaluciaristorante.com/

Piazza Duomo 6, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Apollonion Osteria Da Carlo

Small seafood restaurant hidden down an alley.

https://www.facebook.com/osteriapollonion/

Via Carmelo Campisi 18, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Retroscena

A Sicilian Greek fusion that seems very appropriate. Seafood is their specialty.

https://www.facebook.com/retroscenaristorante/

Via della Maestranza 106/108, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Taberna Sveva

Small restauarnt near Castello Maniace.

Unlabeled bottle of wine at Trattoria Kalliope (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Unlabeled bottle of wine at Trattoria Kalliope (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Piazza Federico di Svevia 1, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Trattoria Kalliope

Pizzolo on the menu.

https://www.facebook.com/trattoriakalliope/

Corte degli Avolio, 4, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

La Pizzoleria Ortigia

Known for their Pizzolo.

https://www.lapizzoleriaortigia.it/

Via Cavour Number 12, 96100, Siracusa, Sicily, Italy

Dioniso

Upscale Sicilian restaurant near the Porta Marina.

https://www.ristoranted.it/en/

Photo: gelateriafiordilatte.com

Photo: gelateriafiordilatte.com

Via Claudio Mario Arezzo 29, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Gelateria Fiordilatte

Well done gelato and granita. Two locations.

Website

Via del Porto Grande 10-14, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Piazza Duomo, 22 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Voglia Matta

Excellent gelato.

Corso Umberto I 34, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Bar Viola

Espresso cafe, sells alcohol later.

https://www.facebook.com/BarViolaSiracusa/

Corso Giacomo Matteotti, 51, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

Cannoli Del Re

Unique take on cannoli with cone shaped pastry.

https://www.facebook.com/Cannoli-Del-Re-419711688367097/

Piazza Duomo 6 | Ortigia, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Caffe Minerva

Cute cafe, but expensive.

Via Roma, 58, 96100 Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Photo: facebook.com/tinkitewinecafe/

Photo: facebook.com/tinkitewinecafe/

Tinkitè

Nice Aperitivo.

https://www.facebook.com/tinkitewinencafe/

Via della Giudecca 61-63 | Ortigia, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Barcollo

Chill spot for an Aperitivo near Piazza del Duomo.

https://www.facebook.com/barcollosiracusa/

Via Pompeo Picherali 10, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Taverna Giudecca

Rustic taverna with good Aperitivo.

http://www.tavernagiudecca.com/

Via della Giudecca 7, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Ragusa

Photo: cicciosultano.it

Photo: cicciosultano.it

Ciccio Sultano Duomo

Double Michelin starred, one of the best in Sicily.

http://www.cicciosultano.it/en/

Via Capitano Bocchieri 31, 97100, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

La Fenice

High quality ingredients, top-notch dishes, one Michelin star.

http://www.lafeniceristorante.com/

Via Gandhi, 3, 97100 Ragusa RG, Italy

Locanda Don Serafino Ristorante

Michelin star splurge.

http://www.locandadonserafino.it/ristorante-2/?lang=en

Via Avv Giovanni Ottaviano, 13, 97100, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

Caltagione

Bar iudica e Trieste

Inexpensive cafe in Caltagione.

Via Principe Amedeo 22, 95041, Caltagirone, Sicily, Italy

il Locandiere

Upscale seafood restaurant in Caltagirone.

Via Don Luigi Sturzo 59, 95041, Caltagirone, Sicily, Italy

Shopping

Ortigia Market

Small outdoor market, but one of the best in Sicily, if not all of Italy.

Via Emanuele De Benedictis, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

Papyrus at Galleria Bellomo (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Papyrus at Galleria Bellomo (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Galleria Bellomo

Papyrus gallery and workshop. Highly recommended.

https://www.facebook.com/Bellomogallery

Via Capodieci, 47, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy

In Vino Veritas Enoteca

Excellent wine shop in Ortigia.

https://in-vino-veritas-enoteca.business.site/

Via Dei Mille 21, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Giudecca Trentasette

Great spot for Sicilian souvenirs.

https://www.facebook.com/giudeccatrentasetteortigia/

Via della Giudecca 37-39, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Shopping in Modica

Photo: bonajuto.it

Photo: bonajuto.it

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto

The original and still most famous chocolate company in Modica. Free samples and bars for sale.

www.bonajuto.it/en/

Corso Umberto I, 159, 97015 Modica RG, Italy

Shopping in Caltagirone

Giacomo Alessi

Excellent ceramic shop.

https://www.giacomoalessi.com/?lang=

Corso Principe Amedeo di Savoia, 9, 95041 Caltagirone CT, Italy

Riccardo Varsallona

Another outstanding local ceramicist.

Via S. Bonaventura, 3, 95041 Caltagirone, Italy

Accommodations

Henry’s House rooftop terrace view (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Henry’s House rooftop terrace view (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Henry’s House Hotel

Darling boutique hotel with a relaxing rooftop terrace.

Website

Via Castello Maniace 68, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

L'Approdo delle Sirene B&B

Lovely B&B, reasonably priced.

http://www.apprododellesirene.com/home.html

Riva Giuseppe Garibaldi 15, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Antico Hotel Roma 1880

Perfect location right on the piazza.

https://www.algila.it/index/

Via Roma 66, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Balcony gardens in Ortigia (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Balcony gardens in Ortigia (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Hotel Gutkowski

Great location right across the street from the water. Ask for a water view room.

http://www.guthotel.it/

Lungomare Elio Vittorini 18, 96100, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Archè Holiday House

Bare-bones but clean and inexpensive Air BnB option.

Website