A Visit to Siracusa's Ortygia Island
Founded by the Greeks over 2,700 years ago, Siracusa is one of the oldest and most influential cities of the Mediterranean region. The Greek Corinthians, who settled in this area around 734 BC, transformed the small island of Ortygia into the nucleus of this rapidly growing Mediterranean city. For a period of time, Siracusa was the most powerful and prosperous Greek city in the Mediterranean.
Today, this small island that is connected to Siracusa by three bridges is the historical heart and soul of this corner of Sicily. In 2005, Siracusa and Ortygia were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a distinction that is certainly deserved.
Surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea, the seawall that encloses Ortygia provides a dramatic route to walk around the island. From numerous vantage points, you will get spectacular views of the coast and of Siracusa with the Basilica Madonna delle Lacrime, which was built in 1994, oddly piercing the skyline. There is a reason why Ortygia is referred to as the historical section of Siracusa as it is home to numerous archaeological sites and one of the oldest and most beautiful piazzas in all of Sicily, the Piazza Duomo.
Ortygia is a very small island measuring only about 1 km long by 600 meters wide and as such can be seen in a day. Along with the Archaeological Park on the mainland, a full day can be split between Ortygia and a visit to the Greek and Roman Theatres in the park. The best way to see Ortygia is to walk and the size of the island makes it perfect for exploring on foot.
It is not recommended that you attempt to drive on Ortygia. The roads are narrow and many of them are only accessible by foot. If you are coming to Ortygia via car it is best to cross the Ponte Umbertino (main bridge) to the island and then immediately park.
Parking is easy on Ortygia. Immediately after crossing the Ponte Umbertino, the main bridge to the island, take either an immediate right or left for public parking.
Cathedral of Siracusa
The highlight of Ortygia is certainly the stunning Piazza Duomo. Strolling through the labyrinth of narrow ancient streets, the Cathedral of Siracusa suddenly reveals itself in the magnificent Piazza Duomo. This site dates back to the 5th century BC and the cathedral was actually built around the ancient Temple of Athena.
The ancient Greek Doric columns of the temple can still be seen inside the Cathedral. This is one of the very few surviving examples in Sicily where a temple was converted into a church.
The simplest of the three column types were founded in Greece. They have a crowned top, a plain shaft with 20 sides, and no base.
Church of Saint Lucia
At the far end of the Piazza Duomo is the less impressive and unassuming Church of Saint Lucia, the patron saint of Siracusa. Saint Lucia was martyred near this site in 304 and a feast in her name is celebrated yearly on December 13th. The Church of Saint Lucia houses one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, appropriately titled, the Burial of Saint Lucy.
Temple of Apollo
Located just across the bridge from mainland Siracusa on the island of Ortygia is the site of the Temple of Apollo.
Dating back to the 6th century BC, this is the oldest Doric temple in Sicily. Over the centuries the temple was converted to a Byzantine church, then to a Muslim mosque, and later back to a church under Norman control. It wasn't until the 1930s that the site was excavated and the remains of the temple were revealed.
Although in ruins today, it is clear that the temple was large and estimates put its dimensions at 190 by 70 feet. Only two of the original columns remain intact along with numerous partial and fragmented columns and one extensive section of the wall. The footprint of this site along with the remaining ruins makes it possible to envision the grandeur of this once imposing temple.
Fountain of Arethusa
Near the southern tip of Ortygia is the Fountain of Arethusa. This is one of Ortygia’s most beautiful sites and the fountain is actually situated in a sunken artesian pond that flows to the sea.
The pond plays host to a variety of ducks and in the center grows an island of papyrus. This area contains a number of outdoor cafes and makes for a great spot to sit and relax while soaking in some of that Mediterranean sunshine.
Piazza Archimede - Fountain of Diana
Siracusa was the home of Archimedes, one of history’s greatest mathematicians, astronomers, and inventors. Archimedes was killed by the Romans in 212 BC, at the age of 75, during the Roman siege of Siracusa. To honor Archimedes there is a piazza that bears his name in the center of Ortygia.
The Piazza Archimede was created in 1878 and contains the Fountain of Diana at its center. This beautiful fountain was built to honor the Roman Goddess Diana and depicts the myth of the nymph Aretusa. Piazza Archimede is surrounded by beautiful palaces and is pretty much at the center of Ortygia. Legend has it that the burial tomb of Archimedes is located in the Archaeological Park on the Mainland.
If you arrive in Ortygia early enough it is worth your time to visit the outdoor street market. Even if you are not shopping for produce, fruits or seafood the market makes for a colorful and entertaining visit. The market is located just over the bridge from the mainland and then to the left.
It is possible to walk from Ortygia to the Archaeological Park in Siracusa but it's a pretty good hike. Consider other alternatives (drive, bus, taxi) if time is of the essence.
The beauty of Ortygia comes not only from visiting some of its most famous landmarks but also from simply wandering its ancient streets. It is virtually impossible to get lost on Ortygia as a few minutes’ walk in any direction will take you to either the seawall or to the bridges that cross back to Siracusa.
As you stroll the streets of Ortygia you will notice the wide variety of architectural styles that range from Greek, Roman, Baroque and medieval Norman. This island is a treasure trove of over 2,500 years of history and combined with a visit to the Archaeological Park makes for a fascinating and educational visit. If you are planning a trip to Sicily be sure to include Siracusa and the island of Ortygia, they are not to be missed.
Ciao for now.
Other articles on Sicily:
- Visiting the Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina, Sicily
A must see on any visit to Taormina is the ancient Teatro Greco or Greek Theatre. This archaeological wonder is located in one of the most beautiful settings, and is remarkably well preserved.
- The Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily
The mosaics of Monreale are one of the greatest artistic creations in Italian history. Located on a hill just outside of Palermo on the island of Sicily, is the grand Cathedral of Monreale. This is the one church that you don't want to miss!
- The Valley of the Temples - Agrigento, Sicily
One of Sicily's most famous archaeological sites is without a doubt the Valley of the Temples. Located just outside of Agrigento, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a must see when visiting Sicily.
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© 2012 Bill De Giulio