A glimpse of the precious pearls on Ortygia island, Syracuse

A short stroll through Syracuse’s Ortygia island, its old historic centre, introduced me to a whole range of stories and legends, including Greek myths, Christian tales, and other traditions. A struggling writer would only need to spend a few days here to collect enough inspiration to fuel their imagination for years to come.

Though I could write a book about it, I will begin briefly with a summary. Let me tell you about some of the spots that really left an impression on me.

One of the first sites I came across as I walked through Ortygia was the Temple of Apollo. Built in the sixth century BC, this is the oldest temple in Sicily constructed in the Greek “Doric” style of architecture. Although it is just ruins these days, it still made me realise the scale of history of the part of the city I was about to explore.

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Wandering on further, I reached Piazza Archimede, with the impressive Fountain of Diana, or Artemis, in its centre. The fountain, built in 1907 by the architect Giulio Moschetti, portrays the goddess of hunting with Arethusa, a nymph who fled her home in Arcadia (Utopia) and was transformed into a fountain in Ortygia, to avoid the loving advances of the river god Alpheus. The modern fountain bursts with energy and beauty, conveying the dramatic moment of Arethusa’s metamorphosis.

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After admiring the fountain I walked on to the central Piazza Duomo. This is a really beautiful square that is a perfect spot for enjoying a glass of white wine in the sun. It is also the site of two interesting churches: Syracuse cathedral and the church of Santa Lucia di Badia.

The cathedral itself is a true pearl, in my view. It it situated in an area that has been a place of worship since even before the Greek settlement here, when Ortygia was inhabited by the “Siculi” Sicilian tribe. The church was built on the structure of an ancient Greek Doric temple erected in honour of the victory over the Carthaginians at Himera in 480 BC. Ancient columns from this temple can still be seen inside the church today, enhancing the sacred atmosphere of the building.

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It was in the cathedral that I also read in detail about Syracuse’s connection with Saint Lucy. According to the church’s information, Lucy was born in Syracuse at the end of the third century AD, and was from a noble and rich family. She was martyred in 304 AD, during Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, though the stories of her death vary. Latin sources say her throat was cut, Greek sources say she was beheaded. She is normally portrayed holding a plate with two eyes on it, because popular devotion connects her to eyesight, given that her name, Lucia, means “Light”. Some legends also claim that she had her eyes gouged out during her persecution. Here she is, for example, portrayed in this statue outside on the facade of the Duomo:

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The exterior of the cathedral, which was rebuilt in baroque style after the 1693 earthquake in this part of Sicily, is very different from the interior, but exceptionally striking and beautiful.

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In the centre of the facade you can see a statue of Mary:

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While to the left you can see San Marciano, another of Syracuse’s Christian martyrs and its first bishop:

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On the other side of the square, I reached another very pretty church, Santa Lucia alla Badia, which also has a pretty and intricate facade.

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Inside the church was not as beautiful as the cathedral, but there is one very important gem to admire: a painting by Caravaggio depicting Saint Lucy’s burial. I was not allowed to take photos, so I’ve borrowed this image from the public commons:

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Caravaggio painted this around 1608, after he escaped from prison in Malta. It was originally commissioned for the church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro, which stands on the site where she is believed to have been killed. It depicts two strong men digging Saint Lucy’s grave in front of her lifeless body, as mourners surround her and a cleric presides over her funeral.

The large, blank space above the mourners adds to the desolation and emptiness of the scene.

After leaving Saint Lucy’s church I headed down to the sea shore, where I found the Spring of Arethusa.

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It is a very beautiful spot, surrounded by cafes and offering stunning views of the surrounding bay. The story of Arethusa’s transformation into this spring, is also fascinating. Apparently it was even mentioned in the original Delphic directions that brought the first Greek settlers to Ortygia.

According to classical myths, Arethusa was a daughter of the sea god Nereus. One day when she was walking around in Arcadia she came across a clear stream and started bathing in it. Little did she know that the stream was actually a manifestation of the river god Alpheus, who was in love with her. Once she discovered it was him, she started to flee, as she wanted to remain a chaste attendant of Artemis. She turned to the hunting goddess for protection, who initially hid her in a cloud. When Alpheus kept pursuing her, she began perspiring with fear and turned into a stream. Artemis gave her another chance to escape, letting her stream flow under the sea to the island of Ortygia. Nevertheless, Alpheus pursued her here too and mingled with her waters.

The freshwater spring is unusual for the fact that it flows right to the sea shore. The myth of Alpheus “mingling” with Arethusa in these waters perhaps was invented to explain its slightly salty taste, due to infiltration of sea water.

I took some pictures of the fountain then I wandered further round the bay to have a better view of the sea.

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Finally, I strolled back up through Ortygia, admiring the white and cream buildings and their subtle and pretty decorations, imagining how pleasant it must be to live here.

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I definitely recommend a trip to Syracuse. In fact, I’m hoping to go back as soon as possible for more inspiration! The feast day of Saint Lucy, on December 13, could be a good time, when her statue is carried in a procession through the town.

Hope you also have a fabulous time in Syracuse darlings! x

 

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