Sicily has a colourful history of conquest, invasion and assimilation. It has been colonised by Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese and Bourbons and all of them have left their marks, especially in the South Eastern side.
First stop of the journey: Syracuse
Should you decide to visit this area, I suggest to arrive by airplane in Catania and rent a car from there, starting your visit from Syracuse, about one hour drive on the E45 highway. Road directions on main roads are very good but for alternative roads, in my opinion it would be good to rent a car with a GPS just in case your mobile does not have full time access to maps.
Aeschilus said about Syracuse ‘never a day without sun’ and Cicero called Syracuse ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all’
It was a powerful city that defeated the Athens army in 413 B.C. and still features great ruins from that past: a Greek theatre and a Roman amphitheatre. Both are worth a visit but please be sure to wear comfortable shoes and do not forget a hat during sunny summer days (not to mention UV screen!)
The Greek theatre – that could accommodate up to 15.000 people! – is the biggest and most important classical site in Sicily and surely the most complete surviving from the ancient times. It is also important for the peculiar character of being almost entirely excavated in the rock. In addition to performances, as it was the custom for the ancient Greeks, the theatre was used for public assemblies. After being adapted to games in the Roman imperial era, the theatre fell into disuse. In the sixteenth century, as well as other classical monuments, it was damaged by the Spanish, who used the good and beautiful warm white limestone to build the fortifications of nearby Ortygia.
Classic Tragedies are still performed here every summer, always with great success.
The stunning Roman Amphitheatre is so well preserved that the corridor from where gladiators and exotic animals entered the arena is still in good condition!
It is interesting and easy here to note the differences between Greeks and Romans because they appear so evident: drama was very important for the Greeks and was almost a religious ritual while for the Romans what was really important was great ‘performance’ in sports, games, combats.
Second stop: island of Ortigia
Despite my interest in ancient history and my passion for Greek architecture, the nicest part of this town, in my opinion, can be found in the island of Ortigia, where I discovered that mathematician Archimede was born. This is the stunning area where you can actually find the past of Greeks, Romans and Normans among awesome Baroque monuments.
Your accomodation in Ortigia
While visiting Ortigia, we stayed at Grand Hotel Ortigia, built in the late XIXth century, overlooking the sea and the colourful food market that is held every day from Monday till Friday. The hotel has been completely renovated years ago but still maintains the original architecture and the original Liberty style that is so frequent and beautiful in Sicily.
There is even an archaeological treasure inside: very well preserved Spanish Walls, kind of a little museum.
The great treasure though is the upper floor terrace and restaurant. Not only the view is incomparable, the restaurant serves the best food all over and the wine selection is just divine. Chef Maurizio Urso is extremely creative and elegant, dining here is absolutely a must!. We had an endless list of fabulous dishes, paired with the most suitable local wines. The food is carefully selected by the chef himself and the majority of it comes from the surrounding areas, with great attention to biological products.
The greatest wines we tasted are:
Vanzini Rosé Extra dry Oltrepò Pavese
Chardonnay Planeta 2015
Perricone Porta del Vento 2014
Moscato Don Nuzzo 2012
Champagne Gaidoz Forget Carte D’or
For the best enjoyment, the hotel also offers a boat service, from the end of June, taking guests to the fully equipped private beach.
Ortigia is easily accessible and it is pleasant to walk along the shiny limestone streets without getting lost. It is easy to reach the Cathedral, with one of the most beautiful facades of the entire Sicily, mixing baroque and rococo elements; this was once a Greek temple then a Roman temple, then a mosque and then a Norman Cathedral…
For a refreshing stop, there is a good variety of bars and I would suggest to go to Gran Caffé del Duomo, sitting outside and trying the typical cassata or the almond cakes; espresso lovers will be happy for the strong and delicious coffee brewed here.
At one end of this square, the smaller church ‘Santa Lucia alla Badia’ is absolutely worth a visit for the masterpiece inside: an oil on canvas 400 x 300 painted by Caravaggio in 1608, titled ‘Burial of Saint Lucy’ .
Walking along via Roma, at number 21, you will find the small shop ‘Ortigia’ – a company producing a bold range of scents, creams and soaps that are made with products indigenous to Sicily, distilled by local flowers and combined with olive oil, glycerine and organic colours. (Interested in perfumes? Check out my other article: How to make your own perfume).
What I like, beside the rare and special scents, is the lovely decorated packaging, based on Sicilian colours and images, reminding orange and lemon blossoms, palm trees, vines, cactuses, I am actually obsessed with it!
Next stop: Noto
Leaving Siracusa and Ortigia by car and driving along the E45, you will reach Noto in about 40 minutes .
Noto amazes every person for its lovely ambiance and the warm hues of the honey-coloured stones that become rosy-gold in the early evenings. From the first moment you percceive its character of noble city and you easily understand why it is today a Unesco heritage site.
Noto was completely destroyed, as most of the surrounding area, by the terrible earthquake of 1693 and completely rebuilt in a new site, where you find it today. Arriving by car along roads that overlook citrus trees, olive trees and almond trees is fascinating and so is watching at the beautiful facades all over the town, no matter if they are churches, noble palaces, homes. The impact is great, the colours are warm at any time of the day, all year round, with lights and shades playing on stone decorations, statues and majestic balconies in wrought iron.
The impressive staircase in front of the Cathedral underlines the imposing magnificence of the delicate baroque façade. Once you are on top of the stairs, there is a wonderful view on the town, and especially on the harmonious loggia of Palazzo Ducezio, Noto’s town hall.
Few meters away, on via Nicolaci, the stunning façade of the homonymous palace, is a perfect example of local artists’ skills. The striking work shows balconies supported by a swirling combination of grotesque figures (syrens, griffons, horses…) while the sumptuous indoor spaces feature rich textiles and frescoed celings,
During the annual festival called ‘infiorata’- the celebration of good season – this street as well as few other streets and small squares become a multicolored carpet made with flowers reproducing intricate designs This happens on the third weekend in May, every year.
After so many beauties and walks, do not miss the opportunity to sit at Caffé Sicilia on Corso Vittorio Emanuele for its iced coffee with almond milk granita. It is definitely a must and not a secret any more… They also serve a gorgeous hazelnut sponge cake, just in case you need to add calories to your diet…
Where to find traditional Sicialian food and wine
For those who are very hungry, head to Il Crocifisso for the best grilled octopus ever, with a good glass of cold crisp Etna Bianco. The vaulted ceilings and black and white tiles make a nice and pleasant backdrop to the fabulous selection of traditional recipes, edited with a contemporary twist, using Sicilian ingredients of very high quality. The wine list is a true complement for the menu list and privileges the best local producers, also offering national and international wines, selected from the most qualified cellars.
Another very good address is in the above mentioned Palazzo Nicolaci, whose ground floor cellars have been completely restored and redesigned in order to become a fresh and whimsy venue for food lovers, still focusing on Sicilian tradition and local fresh ingredients: Manna Noto.
Still in the Palazzo Nicolaci… another surprise awaits for you: the stylish Seven Rooms Villadorata with its seven historical suites, each one named from a wind. This unique boutique hotel is for sure greatly recalling the renowned hospitality of Sicilian aristocracy. I think his will be for sure my ‘must’ next time I stop in Noto as it has the charme that we look for when we travel: it has the feel of home away from home, warm hues, lovely lounge and cosy terrace. Elegant and classy, as one can imagine its former owners, the Villadorata princely family.
Last thing before you leave Sicily from Catania airport: stop at Nonna Vincenza – airside – after security check, while you wait for your flight. In this shop you will find all the passion for local ingredients typical from locals, do not miss the enthusiasm of the lovely girls at the counter and buy as many deli as you can. I am not listing them all, you just have to go and try, one by one… you will not be deceived and you will also find some surprising pesto for the delicious pasta you will prepare once back home.