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Ortigia: It’s Sicily, But It’s Not

“It’s beautiful. It’s old. It’s Italy, but it’s not.”  

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe was just one of the many travelers captivated by Sicily. Musing on his voyage throughout the island in 1787 he wrote,  

“The purity of the contours, the softness of everything, the yielding exchange of colours, the harmonious unity of the sky with the sea and the sea to the land… who saw them once, shall  possess them for a lifetime.”  

Goethe’s contemplations continue to resonate. When I think of my journey to the very end of Italy, my fleeting visit was enough to have a lasting impact. I spent less than a day on the island of Ortigia, which is tied to the island of Sicily by two short bridges, yet one short-lived glimpse was enough to sustain what will surely be a lifelong fascination.  

Ortigia is Sicily’s pearl. Located on the very edge of the south-eastern coast, it is a world entirely of its own. Anthony Bourdain wrote about Sicily,  

“It’s beautiful. It’s old. It’s Italy, but it’s not.”  

If that is so, then Ortigia is Sicily, but it’s not. I distinctly remember how we drove to the end of Syracuse, to a carpark that marked the threshold between ‘mainland’ Sicily and Ortigia. We walked through the charmless concrete jungle and among rows of cars that baked in the balmy August heat until we reached the Ponte Umbertino. We walked across it and we entered a new realm.  

Flanked by honey-cream buildings standing solidly but fraying with age, we followed the straight road leading from the bridge and were brought to the ruins of Apollo’s Temple.  Reduced to a few piles of 2,500-year-old stone, the site was the first visual cue of Ortigia’s long-standing past, while its history breathes through the entire island and can be felt as much as it can be seen.  

Although Ortigia is only one kilometre long and six hundred meters wide, it seemed that the deeper we walked into the island, the further away the rest of the world felt. Golden hour was approaching and we wound our way through narrow streets before stumbling into a vast opening that bustled with life both present and past. The Piazza Duomo’s pastel shades shone in the evening light and the cathedral’s glory glowed and stood supreme. The Duomo is Ortigia’s most striking example of its perennial and polychromatic life. It was Andrea  Camilleri who wrote of its chequered past, 

“Sicily has suffered thirteen dominations from which she has taken both the best and the worst. The sequence of different cultures has made Sicily a fascinating place, quite unlike any other.”  

The cathedral is layered with varying architectural styles as different civilisations, religions, and populations arrived, settled, and reigned on Ortigian soil. The first building to be erected on the site of the Duomo was a temple dedicated to Athena in 5BC and some of its ancient columns still stand today, fossilised into the current 18th-century structure. Its Baroque design is further peppered with Byzantine, Norman, and medieval influences, and its imposing beauty sweeps through the entire piazza as the crowds bustle through on their way to aperitivo or dinner. The cathedral felt just as alive as the people.  

It is with some mysterious power that Sicily remains so embedded in your mind. Goethe and  I do not stand alone in the intensity of our feelings towards the island. D.H Lawrence was also never able to shake off its profound effect, 

“And anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia of it.” 

Sicily has such strong effects on the senses that the nostalgia which Lawrence speaks of is indestructible. The views of Ortigia’s creamy stones and peaceful shores, the smells of its famous street markets mingled with salty sea air, the ceaseless sound of animated life which travels through the alleyways and piazzas, the feeling of walking through time itself, and the indescribable tastes… It is as much a joy to be enveloped by sentimental longing for Sicily as it is torture in the wish to return. More than anything, Sicily is a luxury. So much so that Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote,  

“Going to Sicily is better than going to the moon.”  

There is no denying the gravitational pull of the island, drawing you in with its mythical atmosphere and leaving you in an altered state forever. Like the moon, Ortigia has a crater of its own. The Fonte Aretusa is a natural fountain on the island’s westside. According to Greek mythology, the nymph Aretusa fled from the underwater world of Arcadia to escape the clutches of the river god Alpheus. To further protect her from Alpheus, the goddess Artemis transformed her into an ephemeral cloud but as she sweated with fear of him, the cloud of  Arethusa began to rain down and she metamorphosed into a stream. Eventually, she trickled to the site on Ortigia but Alpheus flowed from the sea and mingled with her waters.  Alongside Saint Lucy, the patron saint of Syracuse, Arethusa is the region’s patron figure. She is further evidence of Ortigia’s heterogenous past that continues to be celebrated today.  

Sicily and Ortigia’s impact is marked by how visitors write and respond to their time there. The words focus on how these islands can infuse a sensation that is so deeply personal but which influences anyone who travels through them. They write about how the islands differ from anywhere else in Italy (or the world) because their beauty is not standardised or orthodox. Reading extracts on Sicily by figures ranging from the ancient Plato to the  Romantic Goethe to the modern Marquez, it is easy to resonate with their words. Sicily is eternal in its wonder, and anyone who may travel there will carry their version of it with them forever. They will also leave a part of themselves on the island. They will spend their lives yearning to collect it.