There was once an ancient, thriving metropolis on the east coast of Sicily. Founded by Greek colonists, it quickly became so powerful that it broke away from the motherland and defeated it in battle. It then went into a slow decline punctuated by brief moments of glory – a decline that, incidentally, did the city’s fabric a favour by preserving it from the rebuilding that comes with prosperity.
Then one day, not so long ago, a crop of smart new hotels, bars and restaurants began to open for business, while at the same time, a tribe of fashion designers, architects and other movers and shakers from the far north and other parts of the world discovered the city’s old town, and began to buy up and restore its crumbling but charming houses. And so that old town – Ortigia – became once more, in its own small way, a sort of Manhattan on the Mediterranean.
Ortigia is the sea-girt isthmus that forms the centro storico of Syracuse (Siracusa to the locals) on Sicily’s south-eastern coast. Connected to the mainland by three short road bridges, it’s one of those Italian towns that feels organic, not manmade; its palazzi, churches and temples seem as ancient as the island’s gnarled olive trees.
And, indeed, the embrace of history is one of the factors behind the international discovery of Ortigia, which began in the early 2000s and has reached its apex in the past two years. There’s a glow of pride in the thought that one’s pied à terre – the one with the baroque ironwork balcony overlooking a winding street of rose-tinged sandstone houses poised halfway between cute and grand – rests on ancient Greek foundations. But at the same time, like certain Puglian coast towns, Syracuse has a saltiness to it, a rough-and-ready air. This, and the fact that it’s a bustling city of 125,000 people, means that it will never become a pretty-but-strictly-for-the-tourists destination such as Taormina.
Syracuse was battered rather than flattened when Etna shrugged in the devastating 1693 earthquake, and most of what we see today in its tight lanes and scenographic piazzas is the result of 27 centuries of urban evolution. The most obvious example of this is the town’s Duomo. When the time came for the city to get itself a cathedral in the seventh century AD, they simply filled in the spaces between the still visible columns of the Greek temple of Athena.
Emerging from the church brings you into elegant Piazza Duomo. Regular visitor Sue Townsend, founder of Crabtree & Evelyn, always makes a beeline for this space, which she sees as the “essence of Sicily”. Indeed, she was so captivated by its “layers of history, all beautiful and crumbling” that she paid homage to it by naming her own range of beauty products – Ortigia – after it.
Over dinner in their smart Regina Lucia restaurant in Piazza Duomo, Sebastiano and Francesco Italia, two Syracusan brothers who are investing in the rising reputation of Ortigia as a kind of Sicilian maritime Siena, chatted to me about growing up in a city already five centuries old when the Romans invaded in 212BC (inadvertently killing the ageing mathematician and inventor Archimedes in the process).
Whereas teenagers in other parts of the world hang out in the local multiplex or shopping mall, “We used to climb over the wall of the archaeological area and have full-moon parties in the Greek theatre,” says Francesco. The Area Archeologica della Neapolis, in Syracuse’s northern suburbs, takes in not only the third century BC Greek theatre, where plays are performed in the summer, but also the Latomie – ancient stone quarries pierced by deep caves including the “Ear of Dionysius”, a whispering gallery visited (and supposedly given its name) by Caravaggio. Also here is one of Italy’s most absorbing archaeological museums, the Museo Paolo Orsi.
Years before, I’d been taken on a private boat tour of the harbour by Barone Pietro Beneventano del Bosco, a post-Gattopardo aristocrat who owns a stunning Baroque palazzo also on Piazza Duomo (the excursion was a direct result of his incredulity that I’d never seen Ortigia from the water). As we puttered across the Porto Grande on his restored gozzo – a traditional fishing boat – the barone pointed to a partially submerged marble platform in the bay and told me, as if it had happened just last week, that this was where the Athenians set up a trophy after sinking 11 Syracusan ships in their ultimately unsuccessful seige of the city in 413BC.
But these days you don’t need to snap up a little appartamento in centro storico to enjoy Syracuse’s new buzz. When I first visited 15 years ago, the only real boutique hotel was the powder-blue Hotel Gutkowski on the brine-lashed Lungomare di Levante sea-wall road (they have to repaint the façade once a year because of salt erosion). This 25-room charmer is still there, though today there are several other options. If you like the idea of a city-beach break, you’ll love Musciara, a Milan-meets-Morocco style-bunny hangout that faces Ortigia from the other side of the Porto Piccolo. Carved out of a former tuna fishery, with its own private beach, the 17-room hotel is a poster boy for the glam Dolce & Gabbana side of the new Syracuse.
If Musciara is Dolce & Gabbana, Two Rooms is 10 Corso Como (right down to the name, which deliberately echoes Three Rooms, the guesthouse offshoot of Carla Sozzani’s Milanese fashion emporium). In characterful Via Vittorio Veneto, this B&B features a minimalist mix of Sicilian heirloom antiques, vintage design pieces and contemporary bathroom and light fittings; they also have apartments nearby. Another good long-stay apartment in Ortigia is Archimede, a sea-front property with a panoramic terrace, which is rented out by Sicily specialist Think Sicily.
Syracuse’s most unrepentant design hotel has to be Caol Ishka, a 10-room retreat owned and run by an Italo-Irish couple (hence the Gaelic name) on the banks of the Anapo river, famous along with its bosom neighbour, the Ciane, for its stands of papyrus reeds. It’s a little too far from the centre to walk, but once ensconced inside the compound, Caol Ishka is a nicely chilled refuge from the summer heat and colourful chaos of downtown Syracuse. The hotel’s Zafferano restaurant, helmed by talented young Sicilian chef Massimo Giaquinta, is one of the area’s best – definitely good enough for you not to need to pop back into town for the evening.
Indeed, the southern Sicilian restaurant scene has come on apace in the past few years. At the elegantly contemporary Regina Lucia, at one end of Piazza Duomo, dishes like potato gnocchi in spicy seafood sauce with tenerumi (the stems and leaves of a variety of long Sicilian courgette) are beautifully presented. Another good Ortigia option is Oinos: though the décor is more sober than romantic, the Milanese chef at this wine-oriented restaurant is a talent to watch, and her pièce de résistance – a pastry cannolo stuffed with walnuts and shrimps on a bed of carrots and sea urchins – is not to be missed. Just across the road, Tinkitè is a cute neo-bohemian café, teashop and wine bar that also stocks its own range of beauty products and designer craft items, including funky Sicilian coppole (Godfather-style tweed caps). Among Ortigia’s trattorias, Osteria Da Mariano stands out. This reassuringly old-fashioned place down by the Arethusa fountain specialises in the tasty cucina povera dishes of the Monti Iblei. They start you off with a plate of fresh pistacchio-dusted ricotta, and you really know you’re down south when they bring a bowl of ground almonds, rather than Parmesan, to sprinkle on your pasta.
Via Cavour, which winds north from Piazza Duomo, is lined with quirky shops such as Tamì, an emporium for Sicilan and international designs, and Olive – run by a French couple who fell in love with the city and moved home and kids here – where you can sample local olive oils, jams and other gastronomic treats.
Ortigia’s twin artistic highlights are Caravaggio’s dynamic, tenebrous Burial of Santa Lucia – now back where it belongs behind the altar of Santa Lucia alla Badia in Piazza Duomo – and the damaged but still exquisite Annunciation by Antonello da Messina in Palazzo Bellomo. But it’s a less exalted art form that best sums up Ortigia’s, and Syracuse’s, mix of refinement and rough-shod swagger: the Opera dei Pupi. This ancient puppet theatre – which comprises a museum, a workshop, a shop, a small auditorium and a study centre – carries on the tradition of the medieval courtly epics that have been told and retold in Sicily for centuries, sending armour-clad knights to battle ferocious sea monsters and rescue the fair Angelica.
In Syracuse, it would seem, the old stories are still the best ones.