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The beguiling jewel that is Ortigia part one

This was my third trip to Sicilia but my first to this absolute jewel of an island, (a UNESCO landmark ) which is widely considered one of the most beautiful destinations in Sicily.

Inhabited for over 3,000 years, the island’s name originates from the Ancient Greek órtyx, which means “quall”, and is renowned for its Greek heritage.

Ortigia is the tiny historic heart of Syracuse, Sicily (about 1 km long, and less than that wide) and is accessed over three small bridges. Though the island is diminutive, that is part of what makes it so intimately knowable and ultimately magical.

Città Vecchia, (as its referred to,) is a treasure trove for camera or history buffs. The island is brimming with centuries of archeology, scores of baroque buildings, tiny cafes, narrow whitewash honey colored backstreets (echoing Venice of the 70s) running from sea to sea, an ancient fortress and the oldest Doric temple in the world, all beckon to be explored.

While one could walk the circumference of Ortigia in less than 30 minutes it’s best to get lost and linger. We enjoyed several sunlit mornings and rose colored afternoons spontaneously stopping for a coffee, gelato or an Aperol spritz and watching the world go by in a piazza, feasting at a little restaurant, or ogling the lux story windows on Corso Giacomo Matteotti, (think Beverley Hills Italian-style.) all within minutes of the glorious Ionian sea.

Another not to be missed experience, in this well loved and lived in city is Mercato di Ortigia.  This charming farmers market is filled with stalls selling exotic spices, jewel laiden fruits and vegetable, and of course catch of the morning seafood. The market is a terrific place to pick up a few local specialties for a picnic, including pistachios from Bronte, almonds from Avola, sun-dried tomatoes from Pachino and capers from Pantelleria. After tantalizing our tastebuds there, we feasted on an exceptional lunch at Fratelli Burgio. This buzzing deli/wine bar is a local institution that creates mouthwatering meat and cheese boards, fish platters, sandwiches stuffed with marinated vegetables and offers a fabulous wine selection.

The outdoors market is open daily (except Sundays) from about 7 am until 2 pm, although do note that some stalls can pack up before the official closing time.

While the visitor’s center provides a great map of the city’s highlights, (a few of which are described later in this article) we found an absolutely incredible guide from Sicily In Travel.

We initially booked a 1/2 day traditional fishing/snorkeling excursion with Sicily In Travel and were delighted. There were four guests on the tour, which was perfect. We explored the tranquil beauty of the protected coastline and got a chance to view Ortigia from another perspective. This experience offered us a glimpse into the lives of people who’ve called Ortigia home for generations. Along side the captain, we learned how to card, net and reel fish as he shared the history of fishing in the area, We stopped several times for a swim and snorkeled in the azure waters of the Ionian, then finishing up with sweets and a lovely aperitif. It was a blissful introduction to this special place.

Over the next week we also signed on for an exceptional tour of the sea caves (fascinating) and again were able to swim, but this time off the coast of the ancient Castello Maniace. Spectacular! The owner of the agency made herself available to us the entire week. Her numerous recommendations on everything from nearby towns to visit, fabulous local restaurants and even a shipping centers for our homeward bound packages, truly made our stay!