ortigia : syracuse : sicily

ortigia : syracuse : sicily

On our travels through Italy last year, we made the decision to explore the eastern coast of Sicily and having done some online research, decided that Ortigia (in the region of Syracuse), sounded like our kind of place. We took the car ferry from Reggio Calabria to Messina (about 45 mins) – tickets are bought at the port and a one way crossing was 41 euros for a car & 2 passengers.

Ortigia is approx 170km south – factor in driving near Catania as it’s very busy, and does add to your travel time. The drive south along the coast isn’t the most scenic (we took in the very pretty – and expensive! -Taormina, on the way back north), so we headed straight to Ortigia – which is actually a tiny peninsula, connected to Syracuse by a road bridge. You get to get quite close to Mount Etna though, and this is quite a spectacular sight – especially, if as it was when we were there, it is belching out plumes of white volcanic gases & smoke.

It’s an ancient city, packed full of antiquities, beautiful historic buildings and narrow, winding alleyways. It has a completely different feel to the Italian mainland – I can only describe it as “Sicilian”. It’s a real city of contrasts – monuments, fountains, frescoes mixed in with the daily working life of the locals. It’s loud and fast and busy in places, then tranquil in others. One not to be missed spectacle is the morning market – pure theatre…

The historical centre is absolutely beautiful – the Duomo was adapted by the Byzantines (and later the Normans) from a 5th century BC temple, the Temple of Athena. You can actually still see the original ancient Doric columns on the outside of the cathedral. The cathedral is open 8am-noon and 4.00pm-7.00pm and is free entry. It’s situated in a beautiful piazza, fringed with restaurants and with cobbled streets leading off and away from the Duomo.

Piazza Duomo is a great place for people watching as it’s lined with excellent restaurants and chic bars – and given their location, the ones we visited, weren’t at all expensive. Day or night, you’ll definitely find someone or something interesting to observe.

We stayed in a fabulous mezzanine apartment – Casa Marta – right in the heart of the old town, which we booked through Owners Direct. It was a beautiful mezzanine apartment, in a traditional Sicilian building right in the heart of Ortiga, which we stayed in for a week. This apartment was perfect for us. It is well equipped with everything you would need for a self-catering break, including wi-fi – although we were also trying to work whilst out in Sicily and found that the internet access wasn’t as good/reliable as back home. But hey, we were on holiday too, so got over it quite easily.

If you have children or mobility issues, it is worth knowing that the entrance to the apartment is on the first floor, up some external stone stairs, and that the bedroom is on the mezzanine level with an open staircase. Casa Marta is perfectly located for exploring & discovering Ortiga. It is literally 2 mins from the sea, although sunbathing options are limited as there isn’t a beach as such – there is a rocky outcrop, very popular with locals, but takes a bit of getting used to if you like to sunbathe on a beach. Piazza Duomo, the heart of Ortigia where the stunning cathedral is located, is a 5 minute walk away. The morning market is also just a 5 min stroll away.

Just around the corner from the apartment (which also had a lovely little flower filled balcony), was an amazing bar we discovered, called Clandestino – not only did it become our “office” when apartment wi-fi was weak, but it also has the best Spotify playlist. It was a super cool, laid back “office” sometimes the day, and a chilled out hang-out pre-dinner, in the evening. One of those bars that you remember for a long time.

If you’re a sun-worshipper, Ortigia isn’t abundant with beautiful beaches – in fact, there’s only really a bathing platform. Very inventive though! And, so totally, Italian. I’ve never a nation of people so comfortable with rocking up to a piece of concrete, rolling out a towel and stripping off. To lie on the hardest surface imaginable. And still look unfeasibly cool…

However, Fonte Bianchi beach is just a short drive away, and if it’s white sand and turquoise waters you’re after, this is the one for you…

We had a car for the duration of our time in Ortigia, which meant we could get out & about and explore beyond the city. (Just make sure you’re aware of parking regulations – part of the centre is closed to traffic between certain hours and if you are parking on the street, it’s as follows… yellow bays = residents only, blue bays = metered parking, white bays = free).

Being mobile meant we could get out to nearby beaches and we also took in Noto, a fabulous baroque styled town, to the west – and if you like visiting cemeteries, the one here is well worth a visit! We were also lucky enough to catch the annual Buskers’ Festival in Ragusa – a real highlight of our trip!

Having spent some of this year’s trip visiting part of the west coast, we can heartily recommend the east coast of Sicily. And, as an aside, I think Ortigia still holds the title for the best pizza, I have ever had. The simplest of simple – bufala mozzarella and cherry tomatoes – in a small. family run trattoria, on a Sunday afternoon. And, if hadn’t been raining, we’d probably have walked on by to look for something a little more trendy looking. So, thanks to having no umbrella, the memory of the Sicilian pizza lives on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

favignana : aegadian islands : sicily

favignana : aegadian islands : sicily

Trapani (or Birgi Airport, located about 19 km south of the city) is accessible by Ryanair from the UK. Once in Trapani, the Egadi Islands – Favignana, Marettimo and Levanzo – to the west, are as easily accessible by ferry. We chose to spend six days on Favignana – the butterfly shaped island. Were we right, and would we recommend that you do the same?

Ferry tickets, with Ustica Lines, can be bought from Egatours, located on the Trapani port road, right opposite the ferries to the islands. One way is approximately 10 euros. If you’ve checked out of your hotel and need to store your luggage before crossing, they also have a secure baggage storage room (3 euros per item) – worth knowing as it hot in this part of the world and dragging around all of your worldly belongings is not good! The crossing is about 45 mins on a hydrofoil – all inside seating, so again, worth knowing so that you can bag a window seat.

FAVIGNANA PORT

It’s very small, so can get very crowded, in peak season. Like the port, the island is very small (about 33kms all round the coastline), so the main form of transport is either bicycle or scooter, although a jeep is handy for less accessible beaches. We hired a jeep for two days from Noleggio Plaia, just out of the port road to your right – the guide prices suggested 70 euros per day, be we got it for 100 for 2 days, so worth asking. Turn right out of the road from the port & this will take you into Favignana “town” – although, all told, the parts you’d want to visit are no bigger than Didsbury village. Turn left, and you’ll still end up in town, it’ll just take a couple more minutes to get there.

When you leave Favignana, you buy your ferry ticket from the port – last office on the right hand side. Might be an idea not to turn up as the ferry is there – they tend to off load & onload pretty quickly, and the ticket office people do like chatting as they sell you your ticket…

THE TOWN

Favignana has the feel of a town that is just emerging as a destination. Although it can get very busy, with people coming over from Trapani & people staying, as we did, it still feels a very authentic Sicilian town – so, don’t go if you’re expecting full on amenities and a wide variety of upmarket bars and restaurants. Because it is a very traditional Sicilian, it also beautiful and very charming. The town is “T” shaped, with most located on the main road up from the port (although none are located in the port area) and then in the square the top of the “T”. If you’re there for any more than a night, there’s a large(ish) supermarket on the fringes of town, and a mini market on the main strip. Again, fairly basic – and you’ll definitely need a fridge wherever you’re staying, as we never found any white wine/beer that had been pre-cooled.

 

EATING & DRINKING

Being an island, as you’d expect, fish dishes are king, closely followed by pizzas. Food was generally good, but quite pricey – and no meal was a stand-out. Just under a week was probably enough time to discover the ones we wanted to discover – any longer & you’d be making a few return visits. If you wanted to cut down on costs, a tip would be to have a drink in one of the more trendy looking bars – they usually offered a “complimentary buffet” (drinks priced around 7 euro mark), & so you could quite easily fill up on small buffet plates. This food again was OK, but nothing remarkable. The one that was consistently pleasant was the Sicilian white wine (dry) – often the house wine, but we didn’t have one that disappointed. However, the fact that most of our food & drink photos, feature drinks, says quite a lot about the lack of restaurants, when we last visited…

ACCOMMODATION

I struggled finding somewhere that I liked the look of when booking online. I always find that putting in “boutique” as a search term will bring up something, and I did find what I was looking for, but there was no availability. We tried this cute fisherman’s cottage, found online, but sadly, and with hindsight, unsurprisingly – all booked. In self-catering terms this was a stand-out property – check for yourself. Not many properties seem to have had an overhaul and many are really dated, decor wise – but definitely very authentic. The island does boast one boutique hotel – Cave Bianchi Hotel – although full when we were there. We found it when out driving – you would definitely need transport as it is in the middle of nowhere, but looks beautiful.

We finally plumped for Hotel Aegusa – just be aware that there is an annexe, about 50 metres away from the main hotel. We were allocated a “triple room” here. Whilst it could be a lovely, it just seemed a bit, well – unloved. The room was big but again, very basic. The bathroom, whilst not awful, had seen better days and at just over £100 per night, I wanted something nicer. Reception were extremely helpful – and not at all surprised that we were requesting a room change. Unfortunately, they were fully booked too, but it turned out that they do have a sister hotel, Insula, a short distance away and a room would be available for three nights. Upon viewing it we swapped. Hotels are in short supply in Favignana, so we’d recommend this one – not amazing, but more than adequate. Breakfast in both hotels was good – staple Italian choices of bread, cheese, ham, eggs, croissants and cakes with good coffee. We did spot a hotel right by the port – perhaps not the best location, but it did look as if it might be setting a new trend in contemporary styling. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten its name…

THE ISLAND

Having a jeep for two days meant we covered most of it. The town beach was right under our noses – to the left of the port as you stand facing out to sea. The entrance to the beach is interesting, to say the least – a huge pile of abandoned wooden fishing boats and anchors, looking like an Antony Gormley sculpture. However, the beach over towards the old tuna canning factory – an absolutely beautiful building – is sandy and slopes down to very shallow, azure blue waters. Perfect that a little lone fishing boat, in the colours of the Italian flag, was bobbing on the water…

Sandy beaches are in short supply around the island. In fact, beaches are in short supply. Many “beaches” are actually rocky outcrops – so do like the Italians do & take a beach towel and claim your rock! However, there are some stunning coves – notably Cala Rossa & Cala Azzurra to the south east of the island and Cala Rotondo to the west. The colours are spectacular – but be warned, these are very popular destinations!

So, would we go back to Favignana? On balance, probably no – but glad we’ve done it. For me, the east coast of Sicily has the magic, but each to their own. And, you can’t knock the sunsets on the west coast…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ragusa ibla buskers’ festival : sicily

ragusa ibla buskers’ festival : sicily

We hit lucky when we were staying in Ortigia, Siciliy – a friend tipped us off about a Buskers’ Festival which was happening in the inland town of Ragusa, and so with very little knowledge about it, other than it was happening, we hit the road. The journey over to Ragusa from Ortigia was stunning – mountainous and winding. And long. We eventually arrived at the town of Ragusa but could see no evidence of anything that resembled a festival. It was deserted – but eventually it clicked. We were in the new part of town and we needed the old part – Ragusa Ibla, and there it was, on the top of the hill…

The old town of Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

The old town of Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

As is often the case in Italy, things don’t get moving until late afternoon/early evening – and the Buskers’ Festival was no exception. Slowly but surely, the narrow, steep roads started to fill up with entertainers pulling trucks and trolleys full of amazing equipment. Musicians started to pop up on street corners. Magicians performed tricks to growing crowds. Trapeze artists were limbering up. Fire-eaters were starting to warm up. A general feeling of something-about-to-happen was building up…

The old town of Ragusa Ibla, a place we’d never heard of and so had absolutely no intention of visiting, is magical. Cobbled streets wind their way up to the baroque Duomo San Giorgio, which towers over the town, and is recognisable as being featured in the opening credits of Inspector Montalbano. The Catholic Cathedral – Duomo di Ragusa, Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista – is as impressive, and because we were there in the evening and into the night, it was magical.

The Buskers’ Festival is annual event, which takes place in October, with entertainment filling the streets of the old town.

Ragusa Ibla is a beautiful town (Ragusa is the newer town) and well worth a visit. If you’re staying south of Catania on the east coast, it’s doable in a day. But to do it justice, or if you’re travelling over from Palermo or the west coast, or down from Taormina, it would be advisable to stay over as it will be quite a long trip to get there. Easily accessible from Ragusa, is the beautiful baroque town of Noto – with one of the most amazing cemeteries we’ve ever seen. Worth a visit in itself…

 

 

 

 

Ortigia Market : Syracuse : Sicily

Ortigia Market : Syracuse : Sicily

The early morning market in Ortigia, Siracusa (Siciliy), is a sight to behold. Whilst we do have some excellent fresh produce markets here in the UK, this Sicilian one blew us away…

Every kind of fresh vegetable and fruit seemed to be available, along with fish caught that morning, cheeses, breads, olives, oils. The sheer number of stalls was incredible – and the banter between stallholders, vying for buyers’ attention was a piece of theatre in itself. The market is raw and gritty and if you have a delicate constitution, certain areas should definitely be avoided! The fish section, for example – especially when the traders are competitively chopping, slicing, skinning and discarding the less savoury parts of the fish from the parts which will bring the most money.

The hustle and bustle is palpable. There’s no polite queuing here – if you see what you want, you have to push forward or someone else will have what you have your eyes on. Hands thrust forward, people jostle, and shout over you. Again, if you prefer the more sedate pace in Waitrose, Ortigia Market may be a bit of a shock. Underfoot, you’re likely to stand in produce which has fallen off stands, or the discarded parts of vegetables. It is sluiced down, but this all just adds to the feeling of chaos.

However, look closer, and you’ll see it’s not chaos at all. It’s carefully manged and orchestrated piece of open air theatre. All of the stall holders know their parts. The lead actors – the fish guys, it would seem – play to the crowd magnificently. Cameras and phones are held aloft, snapping away and recording this free entertainment, presumably to later be posted online. Making stars out of the performers.

The market, like all Italian markets, is not just about the food – but this is the star of the show. We saw people leaving with mattresses and bedding from the household section. Electrical goods are available, as well as agricultural. Religious artefacts can also be purchased. Clothes, ornaments, shoes, household products, flowers, plants, pet products. Everything you could need, in one vibrant corner of Ortigia.

If you ever visit this authentic, totally Sicilian city, our advice is, take in the market. If you need any more convincing, here’s what Think Sicily has to say…

Turning left at the entrance to the island will take you immediately to the colourful daily morning street market, which sells a fantastic array of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. At the end of the market is a must-see for food lovers: a delicatessen of rare quality, called “I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti” (literally the flavours of lost tastes). Here you can find cheeses, hams and cured meats of the very best quality, many of which, especially those produced in Sicily, you will find nowhere else. There is also an excellent assortment of wines, condiments, sun-dried tomatoes and other Sicilian delicacies made by the shop’s owners in their “laboratory”.