Sicily 2019: Siracusa and Catania

One of our favorite stops of the trip–the kind of place to which we could imagine coming back–was Ortigia, the ‘old town’ of Siracusa.  It stands to reason, as Rick calls Ortigia “the most enjoyable urban environment anywhere in Sicily.” Siracusa used to be one of the powerhouse cities in ancient Sicily, and Ortigia is a little island in the bay, connected by a couple small bridges.

We stayed in an adorable Airbnb there in the heart of Ortigia, and it might have been the best stop of the trip.  Ortigia felt very European, small without being too quiet, and full of color and vibrancy.

Looking back at Ortigia from mainland Siracusa.

While in Ortigia, we checked out the Piazza Duomo and Siracusa Cathedral, which seem a little out of place with their shiny marble exteriors and imposing size, tucked away within the winding, ancient lanes of the old city.

Siracusa Cathedral, the exterior of which is ornate and Baroque, is actually made up of ancient Doric columns (see the left side).
Inside the Siracusa Cathedral, more of the Doric columns are visible. The interior of the church reflects more of its Greek heritage.

The best part of Ortigia is the window-shopping. We found countless shops, like this one with artsy fish of all kinds, displayed in the most creative way. A highlight for us was finding a ceramic pinecone in an antique store and bargaining with the owner.  We managed to settle on a price, despite the language barrier, and he proceeded to babble on in Italian about our ‘bella familia.’

Handmade fish art at the Fish House Gallery on Via Cavour.
Museo dei Pupi (puppet museum) in Ortigia. We’d already seen a puppet show in Palermo, but it was fun to see the puppets up close and read more about how they are made.

When Andrew and I arrived in Ortigia, we saw cones and road signs set up in one of the piazzas.  We wondered what it was all for, the following morning, we got our answer.  Policemen were leading groups of youngsters around, explaining the street signs!

Italian schoolchildren learning the rules of the road.

Afterward, we spent most of our time seeing the sights on mainland Siracusa. We started with the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tears, a mid-century church built in 1953 to honor the ‘miracle’ of a weeping Virgin Mary statue. The church was certainly worth a visit, as it contained a basement ‘crypt’ with the statue in question and a room filled with ‘answered prayers’ in the form of wedding dresses and no-longer-needed prosthetics, as well as the unique, cone-shaped sanctuary on the floor above.

Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tears in Siracusa.

The main attractions in Siracusa are the Archeological Park and its accompanying museum, as well as the Catacombs of San Giovanni. After our catacombs tour, the highlight of which was standing where Paul, (as in Paul from the BIBLE) actually preached, we headed to the museum.

Remember that museum we went to at the Valley of the Temples? We were supposed to find a donkey-shaped baby bottle, but it wasn’t where Rick said it would be. Turns out, it’s been moved to the Paolo Orsi Archeological Museum in Siracusa!

Our next stop was the actual archeological park, where we saw more Greek theaters, and aqueduct and the Ear of Dionysius, below:

The Ear of Dionysius, covered with ancient chisel marks and apparently able to amplify the voices of the slaves within.

This post wouldn’t do Ortigia justice without a couple parting shots:

The current fort with views of the bay. During the Second Peloponnesian War, this was the site of the defeat of Athenian Army.
Piazza Archimede; the fountain is dedicated to Artemis.

The following morning, after a quick breakfast in our Airbnb, we hit the road to Taormina, our last stop.  On the way, we stopped in Catania, which felt far-removed from the tourist belt and even more ‘authentically italian’ and gritty than Palermo had.  Our GPS had routed us to the EXIT of the parking area, which caused great frustration as we then had to circle around the multi-lane, no-rules-whatsoever roundabout THREE TIMES before we were able to figure out where the entrance to the lot was.  Poor Andrew.  As we walked through the park, the only tourists in sight, I admit that I felt a little uneasy. #pregnancyparanoia

We arrived in time for the market, and followed the smoke to the roasting artichokes on the outskirts of the city.

Once we made it into the old city, I breathed a sigh of relief.  I’ve come to the conclusion that while I do enjoy getting off the ‘main drag’ to experience Europe more like a local (thanks, Rick!), there are also times in which I appreciate the relative comfort of being surrounded by other people as unfamiliar with the area as I am.

A Roman elephant made of lava rock supports an Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza del Duomo.

The highlight of Catania is, far and away, the bustling fish market.  We arrived well after its peak hours, but there was still plenty of action and excitement.  I chose sandals that day due to the beautiful weather, and I tip-toed and side-stepped to avoid fish guts as I waded around the fishmongers.  I get a little claustrophobic at times like this, especially after my unease upon our arrival, so I preferred to observe the market from the sidewalk above.  Andrew, on the other hand, was enjoying every minute and snapping photos left and right.

The fish market in Catania.

Since we were totally improvising (Catania hadn’t been on the itinerary–gasp!), we decided to take Rick’s walk around the city, ending at the remains of a Roman amphitheater:

Ancient remains of a Roman Amphitheater, right in the center of bustling Piazza Stesicoro.

It was time for lunch, and we found our way to Rick-recommended Via Santa Filomena, which houses a string of restaurants.  We chose one with outdoor seating and ended up having a delightful conversation with one of the waiters of the restaurant across the way who was standing in the street to drum up business.  Turns out he’s a fan of rock-n-roll and pinup girls, is a musician and photographer on the side, and has been to the United States a few times already. We bought him a beer in exchange for a gelateria recommendation.

A colorful café along our walk to find gelato.
Catania has been built and rebuilt many times over the years, either to reflect the architecture of the time, or to recover after an earthquake or WWII bombs. Now, it’s a mish-mash of styles, reflects both its history and urban present, and is on the rise again.

Up next: our last stop, Taormina!

5 thoughts on “Sicily 2019: Siracusa and Catania

  1. Enjoyed this post very much – cooo that you bought the waiter a beer and Convo’d a bit. And like the Roman elephant – oh and appreciate the photo of the fish market and seeing the pieces on this street – it I had sandals I’d stay a bit away too –
    Safe travels

      1. Never been to Italy but maybe in a few years – looking forward to it – thanks for asking – in the meantime I will enjoy posts like this

  2. What incredible recaps. I have read a couple of your posts and would love to know how you chose which airbnb’s to stay at?? I know for me I plan to travel to Italy in the next year because my cousins live there currently and I’d love to go on a similar trip that you’ve taken. Do you think you could link to the airbnb’s you stayed at if you liked them??

    1. Thank you, and welcome back! My husband does all the planning for our trips, so I’m not the best person to answer this question. However, I can add a couple things: 1.) We stay in more hotels (usually smaller, local places) than Airbnbs, mostly because check-in/check-out tends to be more convenient, they may supply breakfast (a nice perk), etc… 2.) DEFINITELY get Rick Steves’ book on wherever you are are going (Italy, Sicily, Rome, etc…) as it will provide hotel recommendations in all price ranges (in addition to all the info you need to plan your trip), 3.) Italy in general is pretty inexpensive, and you don’t need to splurge for a room you won’t be in much (since you’re there to sight-see!), so you can probably get by pretty cheaply and, 4.) location, location, location! That should be the most important point when you choose your lodging; it’s better to be in the heart of the city to decrease transportation time to and from your sightseeing. Or, choose a room near the train station if you’re taking the train a lot. Or, choose a place near your family if that’s more convenient, especially if they’re going to be providing some transportation. If you’re walking most of the time, spend more to be near the action.
      Ortigia is the only place we actually stayed in an Airbnb, and we loved the room: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/26918065?location=Island%20of%20Ortigia%2C%20Italy&guests=1&adults=1&source_impression_id=p3_1556895627_v0CyhQofuWLHX32V&s=OcCU-Khz
      Happy travels!

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