Sunday, October 28, 2012


Syracusa is two cities, the old city and the new one. We stayed in the old city, which goes by the name of Ortigia (which may or may not mean Old City). The bad news is that our tour bus couldn’t drive into Ortigia, so we either had to take taxis or walk. The good news is that we were located near a really terrific square – Piazza del... I dunno, Duomo or something. It’s where the Cathedral is. We had a brief orientation walk around the city – to see where to find the square, the restaurant for dinner, and the nearby shopping street (which had lots of tiny little All Things Sicily souvenir shops, and which I ultimately named Street of Crap). Between our hotel and the square was a gelato shop, which I also took note of (and ultimately patronized thrice in our short visit to the city.)

The following morning, we had a walking tour of Ortigia (which, were it not for the hike over to our tour bus in Syracusa, would have again had less walking than our brief orientation tour). We got into the Cathedral, which was seriously awesome. I’d seen a few Greek temples which had been converted into churches (or, in some cases, raided for spare parts with which to make churches), but this one really preserved the colonnades into the church itself, and was quite lovely. My mother called it the most beautiful church she’d ever seen – and since she travels a lot, she’s seen a lot of churches. Photos to be inserted right here.

We walked down the Street of Crap, and also learned that, running parallel to it, was a street of high end shops (henceforth: Snooty Street). At the intersection of Street of Crap and Snooty Street, there were ruins of a temple of Apollo. Very ruined, but (as with Rome last year), I was taken with the way ruins are parked right in the middle of modern life. (Or, rather, modern life parks itself around the ruins.)

After the hike to our bus, we drove out to the Archeological Park proper, and checked out some serious ruins, including a Greek theatre and a Roman amphitheatre. (Our local guide was not fond of the Roman amphitheatre. The Greek theatre was the center of cultural and civic life, while the Roman amphitheatre was for watching brutal gladiatorial competitions. He didn’t care much for what the Romans were up to. There was a cute cat lounging around the amphitheatre, and I figured he was thinking about his lion ancestors, and contemplating how far he’d fallen.)

This pic is my mom contemplating the Greek theatre.  I usually try to avoid getting people in my photos, but sometimes mom looks so very contemplative.  Mom's a theatre geek -- she's the source of my own theatre geekery -- and I think she was really getting in touch with the origins of the art here.

(I regret that I did not get the cat contemplating the Roman amphitheatre.)

Back in Ortigia, we went for lunch at a Baron’s palazzo. The baron had the bestest view in, like, ever – he’s right across the pizza from the Cathedral. The baron was quite friendly, and his palazzo was very impressive (way more than the Principessa’s). He was also more or less what you’d expect from aristocracy – likes to hunt (trophies on walls, skins on the floor) and respectful (and proud) of his family’s history. He showed us a room where he discovered hundreds and hundreds of writings, from the time of the French Revolution, when his family was providing a refuge (for whom I’m not entirely sure, but I’m guessing aristocracy – and there was something in there about the Jesuits, too – he speaks English, but I lost a lot with his accent, and he was somewhat soft spoken), He has a little cantina at the bottom of his palazzo, and we had a yummy lunch there.

We returned to the hotel and had some free time (well, after the near-mandatory gelato). I thought I’d do some shopping, so wandered around the Street of Crap for a bit, and couldn’t find anything worth buying. I crossed over to Snooty Street and found that all of the shops were closed – this has been an annoyance for the entire trip. Shops close after lunch and stay closed until about 5:00ish. This does us no good. I realized I wasn’t going to buy anything, so wandered my way back over to the water (not hard to do on an island) and got myself a little boat ride.

(You know me, I’m all about the boat rides and the carriage rides and pretty much any sort of ride where I get to sit on my ass in the open air and someone points out sights. (No, my ass isn’t in the open air. Shut up.))

A nice man who speaks all sorts of languages (we’ll call him the hawker) told me (in English) how much the ride would cost and where it goes (in this case, pretty much around Ortigia). I asked him when the boat leaves. He said, “Whenever you want to go.” Since I had to be back to the hotel in about an hour, and the ride was 45 minutes, I thought “now” would be a good time. So he points me over to a guy in a boat (we’ll call him Luigi – the guy, not the boat). (We’re calling him Luigi because I think that was actually his name. Something Italian with an “L.” Maybe Leonardo?) So, Luigi helps me into the boat. It’s a, er, boat. Standard boat shape, benches running down either side, controls in the center for him to drive it. There’s a metal frame holding up a canvas roof over the top of it. I sit down for what promises to be my private tour of the coast of Ortigia.

We get about five minutes out and Luigi’s cell phone rings. The hawker has gotten more customers, so we’re going back for them. A family piles on the boat (mom, dad, cute blonde child, another woman – I’ve no idea how she fits in). They say “hi” to me but they’re not English-speakers. I can’t place the language – it has that edge like German, but I can make out some French words. Barring anything better, I decide to think of them as Belgian. There’s also a young American couple who joins us.

Sicily is an island. Syracusa is a city on the island. Ortigia is another island, damn near it. Really near it. You can walk across the bridge from Syracusa to Ortigia. In about a minute. Hopping on one foot. Our little boat has to go under a couple of bridges (connecting Ortigia to Syracusa) in order to circle Ortigia. One bridge is pretty low. Luigi says something to all of us in Italian. Or French. (I heard the word “tĂȘte” go by.) While he’s saying this, he’s pushing on the metal frame and lowering the canvas down on top of us. We duck our heads and the canvas keeps going down. It dawns on us (more or less simultaneously) that he’s dropping the top to the point where it is against the top of the boat, in order to clear the low bridge. We all sit on the floor of the boat with the top against our heads, giggling. The probably-not-Belgian mother says something to her kid about Harry Potter, which makes us all smile.

The ride around Ortigia is interesting. At the tip of Ortigia, not reachable by anything but boat, is a castle. Luigi told us about it, but since Luigi speaks Italian (and I don’t) I couldn’t tell you what he said. (He told us when it was built, but all I caught was “mille,” which, you know, narrows things down to about 1000 years.) I’d call it medieval. It had battlements and stuff. (You may or may not get photos of this eventually. I hadn’t thought I’d be seeing sights that afternoon, so didn’t bring a camera. I took a few snaps with my phone, though, and I’ll upload them when technology permits.) (It does!)

At one point, it got a bit breezy out on the water. The mother (Swiss? Perhaps they were Swiss) reaches into her backpack and starts handing out jackets to her husband and son. The other woman just sits there shivering. Luigi, in a bi-cultural act of chivalry, takes off his jacket and hands it to her. Totally sweet.

After the boat tour, we met back at the hotel for what our tour director promised was “a surprise.” This turned out to be a puppet show. Sicilian puppets are pretty nifty – ornate marionettes, controlled by three … things. (Two metal sticks – one on the top of the head, and one on one arm – and one string – on the other arm.) After the puppet show (also in Italian, but with lots of action, so we could follow it anyway), we met with the puppeteers and learned a bit about their craft. (They said that if you practice for about a month, you can make the puppet walk – much longer to make it expressive.) Very nifty.

Had dinner with my folks at a pizza place on the piazza, followed up with gelato, and went back to pack, for a very early morning the next day.

(And I've pretty much used up my time in the British Air lounge, so the rest of these posts will have to go up from America.)

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