The sculpted faces in the glass cases in the archeological museum in Siracusa are a parade of Athenas, Minervas, Madonnas – seamlessly slipping from Greek to Roman to early Christian. But a significant difference is the proud straight-on view of the Greek and Roman goddess morphing to the downward, perpetually sad eyes of the Madonna. Later on morphing again to the upward, beseeching gaze of various saints. Local patron St. Lucia – martyred, stabbed, eyes gouged out and held aloft on a plate (but still in her face — this isn’t Oedipus, after all) – is pictured everywhere (on the right below). Her 3,000 lb silver statue (left below) is paraded annually through the Siracusa streets on December 13, carried by 48 men rotating positions for seven hours, and deeply honored to do so.
Here in Ortygia, the original Greek island city attached to Siracusa by bridge, founded in the 600s BCE, the warren of tiny streets and hanging balconies had fallen on pretty hard times until 30 years ago, and since has been lovingly restored (OK – gentrified) with properties purchased by vacationers who are so charmed that they don’t care about the lack of parking, the absence of elevators, the antique plumbing, the historic building code restrictions. This is a good thing for those of us dropping in for a few days, as you get to be in a Disnified fantasy land of old Italia, although the tourist mobs have followed, and the tiny streets throb with their flamboyant declarations (lots of local tourists and there are no quiet Italians – they are just too jubilant about everything, even boring details). But late at night, sitting in the lighted, elegant, white marble piazza, presided over by the fabulous baroque Duomo, it’s magical…
We collect our car, standard shift, and after the usual stalling out in roundabouts as three lanes of traffic merge into one, D perfects his technique and we head for the hills of Palazzolo Acreide, a UNESCO baroque town that appears to be empty – evacuated for lunch, evidently which is still an iron-clad rule from 1:00 to 4:00. How does anyone get anything done? Stores don’t open until 10:00 and slam shut for most of the afternoon. We try to find a restaurant, trattoria, pizzeria, anything that is open — no luck, chuiso!
Instead we head above the town to the ancient Greek ruins of Akrai – empty and atmospheric, moody with skies gathering clouds. There is a small intact Greek theatre, several tombs, remnants of a small senate, and a beautifully preserved road running off to the horizon, almost inviting you to follow. These ruins are the perfect antidote to the very disappointing archeological park in Siracusa — which, although with a much larger preserved theatre — is so overrun with tours, guides, groups, all yelling at top volume that any effect is ruined.
Back on the road we head to Noto, another UNESCO Baroque town rebuilt after the devastating 1693 earthquake (the entire SE of Sicily was destroyed) and looking like a stage set of contortionist churches and palazzos, many recently restored in the on-going resurrection of these neglected and overlooked towns.
Just as storm clouds are about to break over the golden skyline of Noto, we see these orange lantana, set against the purple crepe myrtle tree in a perfect mix of color.
The skies open up and despite this we continue in the rain to the the old tuna fishing village of Marzamemi, almost at the southern-most tip of the island, about 120 miles from the coast of North Africa. Tuna fishing is still prominent in the area, but these decaying fishing huts are being restored to summer cafes and restaurants with terraces overlooking the sea. The clouds break long enough for us to explore and then we brave the roundabouts and rush hour back to Siracusa.
Back in Ortygia we hit the daily morning market. Gorgeous, fresh, local and cheap!