Friday, November 18, 2016

Sweet Siracusa--Portal for Varied Civilizations

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sweet Siracusa--Portal for Varied Civilizations
     Having checked out unofficially last night, I left the key in a mailbox (as instructed) closed the door behind me and left Hotel Gorizia in Catania at 6.00 am while the rest of the city slept it out on a Sunday. The usual 'bar' at which I had breakfasted for three days was closed. I had been given a coupon for breakfast at an alternative 'bar' closer to Piazza del Duomo and it was there that I chose a croissant and a coffee which I ate at a marble table right outside the café. Then, feeling far more strengthened for the long day ahead of me, I walked down Via Vittorio Emanuelle to get to the bust stop that took me to the main bus terminal where I bought myself a bus ticket for Siracusa (Syracuse in English) and boarded it at about 8.30 am.

Drive to Siracusa:
     Siracusa is south of Catania. It was a fairly interesting bus ride past fields that were mainly fallow at this time of year. When I did reach my destination, it was about 11.00 am. I alighted from the bus and went in search of my hotel, the Hotel del Coloniali which was on a quiet street, far from the more frequented part of town. After checking in, I found out that my room was very posh indeed compared to the rather plain and very utilitarian space I had occupied in Catania. It was very prettily decorated, had a TV (no English programs, alas) and a lovely attached bath that was luxurious. I had no time to enjoy it, however, as I merely stashed my backpack away and went out to make the most of the afternoon.

Exploring Ortygia:
     Siracusa can basically be divided into two parts separated by a small bridge: the southern bit is known as Ortygia--it comprises a maze of very narrow streets that are quaintly interesting and good to get lost in. Since I had given myself two days  to see Siracusa (which is chocful of antiquated sites), I thought it would be best to do Ortygia today and the northern part of the town tomorrow.
     I ended up walking all the way down south from my hotel to Ortygia. The first major site I passed was called the Fountain of Artemis--which, as its name suggests, is dedicated to the Goddess Artemis who dominates a very large sculpture that comprises all sorts of classical figures including horses and cherubs. The piazza in which it is centered is called the Piazza Archimede and is surrounded by a set of very handsome pallazos and official buildings that have been very carefully preserved. I lingered here for a while and clicked a few pictures before I took a narrow street that led to another major attraction of Ortygia, the Piazza del Duomo.
     This piazza is a long marble-bound space that is focused on a grand cathedral called the Duomo, in the Baroque style--both inside and out. Since it was a Sunday, I was keen to catch Sunday Mass and was delighted when I entered and found that Mass (in Italian) had only just begun. Needless to say, I stayed right through it and even received Communion. Apart from the spiritual experience, it gave me a chance to rest my feet.
     The Duomo (or Cathedral) was built on the footprint of a 5th century Greek temple to Athena (evident in the Doric columns to be found outside). Inside, it wows with its magnificent decorative details--there are paintings, grand marble sculptures and sparkling candelabra. The painted dome is simply stunning. After Mass, I walked around the various chapels and entered the one dedicated to Santa Lucia (or Saint Lucy) for more reflection.   
     When I had my fill of the Duomo, I made inquiries as to where I might find a huge art attraction in Siracusa--a painting by Caravaggio entitled 'The Burial of St. Lucy'. Painted in Malta, after he escaped imprisonment, the painting is said to depict his own anguish at the time--it also contains a self-portrait (he is the anguished person on the right). Masses of people pour into the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia just to see this painting--the rest of the church is rather plain as well as poorly lit (possibly to preserve the painting). Imagine having a masterpiece by Caravaggio in such a nondescript place. No wonder the prelates try to cash in on it. Photography is strictly prohibited but if you wish to purchase a small postcard of the painting, you will need to fork out a steep five euros! How un-Christian is that????
      From this piazza (which, I was told later, was the site for the shooting of a very popular film called Malena starring Monica Belluci), I walked further south to get to the water's edge. In doing so, you pass by narrow cobbled lanes that are lined by souvenir shops and pizzerias. There were crowds everywhere although the tourist season is long past--but this is probably because Sunday brings a lot of locals out to enjoy a sunny day.
     When I did arrive at the water's edge, I found myself in another crowded stone-clad piazza with a parapet that offered lovely views of the coastline. There was also a fountain of sorts here--but very different from the Fountain of Artemis. This one was more like a semi-circular tank. It had plants in it as well as swans! Real ones! I was not quite sure what to make of it.
     From this point, there is a lovely Promenade or walkway along the waterfront with pizzerias on the other side that leads to Castello Maniace (Maniace Castle). This massive stone edifice once guarded the port from intruders. It is worth remembering, at this point, that Siracusa was once a thriving port and that all sorts of invaders, conquerors and adventurers from Phoenicians and Etruscans, Greeks and Romans, Arabs and Europeans have sailed through its waters and arrived at its harbor. The castle rested quietly in the strong sunshine surrounded by low buildings in classical Greek style and soft shades of ivory and salmon pink. There was actually a little bit of beach at this point and sunbathers and swimmers were enjoying the sand and the water. The water was a clear aquamarine and quite lovely on that particular morning.
     From the Castle (which was closed at the time I tried to enter it), I took a small side street through Ortygia. Balconies sprouting from the buildings protruded out as if reaching towards those on the other side. These buildings have clearly seen better days. There is not much time or money devoted to their maintenance, but they do add to the authentic quaintness of the space. After a wander of about 15 minutes, I found myself back at the Piazza del Duomo and since Lonely Planet had extolled the economical virtues of a little eatery right opposite the Cathedral that offered wonderful people-watching ops, I chose to eat my lunch there as I was starving.

Lunch at Piazza del Duomo:
     When I arrived at the restaurant, I discovered that on Sundays they did a buffet brunch for 5 euros! I had a look at the brunch and found its offering to be more of the snacky sort--loads of bread filled rolls made small hamburger-style sandwiches, bruschetta, etc. Drinks were another 5 euros. I ended up with a small Campari cocktail which was very refreshing and all the fingers food I could eat--it really was a bargain! While seated there, I spied a young man that had conversed with me on the bus to Taormina yesterday. He was a Chinese student from Shanghai called Yang who is studying currently in London. I beckoned to him and he decided to join me for lunch. He passed on the buffet and got a pizza instead and it was the largest personal pizza either or us had ever seen. He invited me to join him in devouring it but, by that time, I had eaten my fill of the buffet and I politely declined! It was he who clicked my picture in the piazza after informing me about the movie shot here and about how famous it was. I had to admit ignorance.

Back in Hotel:
     Lunch done, I said goodbye to Yang. I was rather tired and decided to re-trace my steps back to my hotel to enjoy it for a few hours. It was a very long walk back--about 45 minutes--and there was no public transport in sight. Sicily is filled with African immigrants who make a paltry living selling souvenirs on the streets. Everywhere in Sicily that I traveled, I found the place filled with these new black migrants who do not speak English, have picked up a smattering of Italian and survive precariously through the kindness of the locals. There are also a lot of South Asian immigrants whom, I was told, are either from Afghanistan or Pakistan--everyone seems to be seeking safe harbor in Italy or a better standard of living--just as the ancients once did.
     I passed the pretty port and its jetties, walked over the bridge and left Ortygia to arrive at the more residential parts of the city. When I did get to my hotel, it was about 4.00 pm, but I was really tired and ready for a nice long nap in my lovely darkened, cool room. After a nap and a spot of reading of tourist literature (What should I do tomorrow? Where should I go and how do I get there?), I jumped into the shower and then with darkness falling over the city, scrapped the idea of getting dinner anywhere on my own. My lunch had been substantial and more than saw me through to dinner.
     Ortygia had been quite exciting but I was well aware that the bulk of my Siracusa sightseeing would occur tomorrow.
     Until then...cheerio... 

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