I was craving the warmth of the sun and the crashing waves of the sea, so Sicily proved to be great therapy for my grief blasted neurons. I chose the tiny island of Ortigia on the southeast Ionian sea coast for several reasons.
I wanted to be surrounded by the energy of the sea, and I wanted to be immersed and intrigued by the ancient Greek history.
Not surprisingly, I wanted to savour the foods and wines of Sicily. I had been reading about the restoration of Sicilian wines by vintners more interested in quality rather than quantity.
There are direct flights from Paris to Catania, the second largest city of Sicily. As the flight approached the city, I could see across the aisle the crater of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano poking through the clouds with widespread grey haze below.
A little over an hour bus ride headed south along the coast deposited us in Syracuse. After 15 minutes of walking, we reached the bridges to crossover to the island.
I remember being fascinated by the screeching Sirens and fear striking Cyclops as the treacherous wind blew Ulysses ship past “Ogygia”, which some scholars feel refers to either Delos or Ortigia.
The Greeks named the island Ortigia, meaning quail, because as seen from Syracuse, it does resemble somewhat a quail.
Tiny narrow “streets”, more like paths are interlaced throughout the island. Walking through them was like being in a labyrinth, suddenly caught dead ended in a pretty flowered courtyard with flapping laundry.
The whole island reeked of medieval Baroque charm, some with facades pitted with age and others still elegantly adorned houses with rococo balconies.
I feel that we are sometimes pulled to places where the exteriors are but a reflection of our psyches. Ortigia felt like a mirror to my own, crumbled by grief, with cracked facades in hopes of restoring.
Ortigia had an authenticity of life that has survived millenia, much of it left alone in its unpolished splendor.
Fresh laundry was undulating in the breezes, strung overhead on strings, or left to dry on racks in the streets, unmonitored by trusting owners.
Whiplashed by strong winds and currents of the Ionian sea buffeted by the confluence of the clashing currents of the Mediterranean just south, I felt the strength and tenacity of many souls emanating like rays from her rocky coasts.
The airbnb apartment I rented was cute with a wonderful huge terrace that offered a magnificent view of the ocean.
I enjoyed drinking my morning coffee while watching the huge ferries and cruise ships slowly inch more in view as they plied around the southern tail of the island towards the harbour of Syracuse.
Saint Lucia, a native of Ortigia is the patron saint, whose fame and devotion in surprisingly more widespread throughout Scandinavia, though her feast days are celebrated here too.
Her feast day of December the 7th is celebrated by Scandinavian maidens wearing candle lit tiaras on their heads in processions singing the enchanted song Sainta Lucia, that I wrote about in December 2014.
The nearby church Of Sainta Lucia alla Badia was always filled with tourists to see the impressive silver statue of Saint Lucia, in front of a Caravaggio painting of her burial after being stabbed, beaten and having her eyes gouged.
Aside from the visual beauty of the many churches, some simple to some more ornate with rococo woodwork and marble altars, it was visiting the perfectly preserved remnants of the Jewish culture that was predominate throughout Sicily till 1492 that left me awe filled.
After the fall of the temple of Jerusalem, Jews left the Holy Land and scattered wherever they landed in the Mediterranean basin.
Tiny Ortigia had over four thousand of them and of course there were Jewish ritual baths to serve the faithful.
There are some under a church and the ones I visited remained undiscovered for almost 2 thousand years. Before being expelled by the Spanish inquisition, the community filled these with stones and flooded the chamber, so to keep them from being desecrated.
During a renovation of a hotel in 1980, these Jewish ritual baths were discovered in an underground limestone room buried 18 meters below.
In the pretty foyer of the hotel, while I waited to be lead down the slippery steep steps, I could never have imagined the beautiful ancient sacred baths below.
For some odd reason, cameras were confiscated before going down, so the photos seen of the baths are from the net.
Literally carved out of limestone, they are believed to be the oldest known Jewish baths in Europe, dating from the 4th to the 6th century.
There were three central pools and on each side a pool hidden behind walls to provide privacy to those of the elite. Carved in the wall benches provided places to pile clothes prior to being immersed nude.
Of course the baths were not for cleansing the body, but for purification of the soul. Orthodox Jewish practicing women still go the ritual baths after the end of menstruation plus seven days and before marriage.
Men go before prayers and marriage and always at separate times or in separate pools.
I found these freshwater sources to be amazing in that the biggest one was bubbling up right next to the sea wall.
The Fountain of Arethusa, where white ducks and swans still swim around papyrus plants growing near the center is impressive. The Greeks named the freshwater pool after Arethusa, a Greek sea-nymph.
I can imagine that these freshwater sources increased the popularity of Ortigia as being the most strategically placed Greek colony outside of Greece. Not only did this tiny island hold guard over the entrance of the Ionian sea, but provided fresh water to Greek ships sailing around Mediterranean to their other colonies.
It is part of the Neapolis Archeological park, that includes a garden and a later constructed Roman arena.
What makes this Greek amphitheater special, besides the size and beautiful view, is that is was a master of excavation, rather than construction. The entire seating area of 67 rows was carved from a solid hill of limestone.
Just above the amphitheater, there are several caves and grottos, where one sees the gushing river that was channeled into the ancient aqueduct.
While there I kept hearing a buzzing sound, which I discovered was coming from a drone circling the whole area in surveillance. How ironical to see some of the newest man-made technology hovering over one of earth’s most ancient treasures.
Below the hill the Ear of Dionysus looked like a vast water carved cavern from another underground river, but actually was carved in limestone to store water for Syracuse. It extends 65 meters into the rock, where any tiny sound is magnified.
Not to be outdone, the conquering Romans built a much smaller arena for gladiator sports south of the Greek amphitheater.
Whereas the Greeks used theirs for theatrical plays, the Roman preferred their arena for violent and cruel gladiator games.
I did not make it to the archeological museums, not because of a lack of interest but time and frankly because I have been lucky enough to have visited the wonderful ones in Greece and Istanbul, and also the incredible Greek and Roman antiquities collections in the Louvre.
I like to do slow travel; in that rushing round non stop to cram every monument, museum and sights I find exhausting. I came to Ortigia to soak up the energy of the sea, the historical ambience and food.
Fortunately I have a very good sense of orientation, and rarely got lost, but it could be a challenge for those who don’t.
After 4 days there, I felt more energised and alive, which is exactly what I needed. The physical aspects of grief had left me without energy, and feeling numbed and unmotivated in general.
Being totally surrounded by all those electrolysed ions released with each crashing wave, left me feeling somewhat recharged.
The ambience and all the walking around made for great physical stimulation and for very pleasant visual distractions, much needed for the bereaved.
Knowing that Saint Lucia was born and lived there too was a plus, as she embodies illumination of the soul.
I will save writing about my culinary adventures there and meeting Georges the droopy eared basset hound next week.
A la prochain! Hugs