Our morning tours continued with the pastel, hazy sun rise in Siracusa. We were a bit sore and stiff from our run down the slopes of Etna, but creaks and pops and all; we forced ourselves up and out into the light. Exiting the small portal door of the hotel, we were out on to the street in the still sea air and heading back to Ortygia.
Ortygia, the historic old town section of Siracusa, is on an island separated from the main portion of the city by a narrow waterway that is crossed by several bridges. In Ortygia the streets were quiet and we wandered seeking the glow of the morning’s light.
By chance we found a vibrant outdoor market that was just coming up to steam (market details at the end). The booths of the market were overfilled with fresh, shining fish, and brightly colored produce. Storefront shops at the edge of the market extended their offerings on to street. All the basics of Italian cooking could be found. We salivated over the meat, sausage, cured hams, salt packed anchovies and sardines, cheese, pastas, olives, olive oils, and the like that were on offer.
The smells of the market filled the air. Vegetables were being roasted over wood fires. The fish stalls offered a beautiful collection of seafood on ice all glistening under the incandescent lights of the tents. Only the fresh smell of the sea was perceptible from the piles of the colorful ocean perch, sea snails, calamari, octopus, and the other varieties of fish on display.
Bustling with activity, sounds filled the market’s alleyway. Vendors were energetically hawking their wares to the patrons that were starting to filter in. Espresso sipping merchants were reinitiating their vigorous conversation with their neighbors in adjacent stalls. Hand trucks clattered across the cobblestones bringing in the goods. The noises of open air markets are familiar world wide.
Visiting morning markets like Siracusa’s is one of our favorite travel things to do. Our visit provided us with a glimpse of everyday Sicilian life without the overlay of the tourist business. And besides, we always come away with something good to eat.
We continued our morning trek through the alleys of the old town. There were almost no tourists about as the few residents we saw proceeded with their daily tasks. Narrow and winding and partially covered by lace ironwork lined balconies supported by ornate baroque stonework, the alleyways felt at times like tunnels. Ultimately, the passageways would lead into the light of an open space along the water or in a central square. After walking a while, we popped out into the open air of Piazza del Duomo.
Ortygia’s Duomo dominates the piazza with its baroque façade. On the inside, the cathedral incorporates pillars from the 6th century BC Greek Temple of Minerva. The Duomo has an interesting history having started as a Greek temple which was converted to a Christian church, then to a Muslim mosque, and then finally to its current state as an impressive baroque Catholic cathedral.
“Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica” is an UNESCO World Hertiage Site. Aside from Ortygia, the other notable area is the ancient Greek and Roman ruins a short walk away. This is where we headed to next.
At this point in the trip, I have to admit, we were starting to get a little “ruined out”. That being said, the Greek and Roman ruins of Siracusa were impressive. The 5th century BC Greek amphitheater that seated 16,000 people was literally carved out of the hill side. Weathered and foot worn, the steps and seats are still largely useable. Near the amphitheater, we visited the deep quarry. On the sides of the quarry were impressively tall and deep chambers, such as the Orecchio di Dioniso, that were built on the major cathedral scale and carved deeply into the rock. After a stop to visit to the Roman amphitheater, we headed over to see the catacombs.
It was a challenge to find the catacombs. The map said we were right next to the entrance, but it took us quite a bit of searching to find the door. By the time we found our way, the catacombs had closed for the siesta. For some reason, we could never seem to adjust to the concept that tourist attractions might close during the day. Unfortunately for us, it was time to move on to the next leg of our journey. We will have to save a visit to the catacombs for a future trip.
Back in the car we escaped the dense urban traffic of Siracusa, making it to the autostrada heading to Ragusa and the baroque towns of southeastern Sicily. Destroyed by the devastating earthquake of 1693, these towns where rebuilt in the baroque style. The “Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto” are collectively assigned as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We stopped on the way to Ragusa in the hill town of Noto. With our typical finesse, we drove and wandered the city for 45 minutes before we found the otherwise obvious main tourist area. Eventually we parked on a steeply sloped, narrow road near the main sites. The lower end of the road we parked on was seemingly threatened with a closure to define a pedestrian only area. We left our rental car uncertain that we would ever be able to drive it again as we doubted the Punta had the ability to climb back up and out on the narrow, steep street that was paved with slick cobblestones. Putting our future transportation concerns aside, we headed out to see some of Noto’s sights and to get lunch.
Noto’s pale yellow stone baroque buildings, constructed after the earthquake, are distinctive. The hue of the local rock used to create the civic structures is characteristic and common to all the major buildings. With a uniformity of color and baroque design, Noto’s central tourist area has the feel of a campus.
After a lunch al fresco, we managed to extricate the car from its steep parking spot and made it back on to the main roads with only minimal use of our favored thoroughfare, the sidewalks. We were on our way to Ragusa where we would spend the evening and dine at Ristorante Duomo.
For our stay in Ragusa, our instructions were to call ahead an hour in advance so our B&B proprietor would be sure to be there. When we called, we found that she would be late, so we took our time getting to Ragusa. Somehow, even the TomTom got into the act on this. For reasons only known to the TomTom, we were routed down back country roads through farm and pasture land fenced in with elaborate stacked stone walls. As we struggled to find out how to disable the “Take the Most Obscure Route Possible” function on the TomTom, we proceeded along the road less traveled. I have to give the TomTom credit, though. The TomTom’s route through the rocky countryside was scenic and informative. The rock walls were everywhere, mile after mile, each enclosing areas around the size of an acre. The walls themselves were 5 to 6 foot high, so there was truly a large amount of rock work (and rock!) involved.
Eventually, the rock and the rock walls faded out and we moved through hilly terrain past Modica and on to Ragusa. After climbing the hill and navigating Ragusa’s extremely narrow streets, we reached the parking area. We walked back to find that our B&B, Caleum Hyblae, was located off a long set of steps. Close to the top of the stairs, it wasn’t hard to rattle our luggage brigade down to the B&B’s flower-lined courtyard. We waited in the serenity of the town as the sun slowly set for our host to arrive.
During our short wait, the quiet was only broken only by the periodic clanging of the bells of the nearby Duomo. When our host arrived, we found that we were the only guests in the B&B that has 7 rooms. On the inside, Caleum Hyblae B&B was beautifully appointed in the modern boutique hotel style. Our room’s window looked out towards the nearby Duomo. For a better view, a set of steps from the foyer lead up to a comfortable roof top deck with a 360 degree view of Ragusa Ilba (the “older” portion of Ragusa). With no TV or internet access, the room was tranquil and calming. We had nice accommodations on this trip, but this was definitely the favorite place we stayed in.
When planning the trip, we wanted to visit the Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto. We had multiple choices of towns to stay in, but in the end, we chose Ragusa because it is home to Ristorante Duomo, the only two-starred Michelin restaurant in Sicily and considered by some to be the best restaurant on the island.
Before dinner, we had some time to tour Ragusa Ilba on foot in the light of the setting sun. The expression “magical” is often overused in travel descriptions, but it is an apt description when it comes to Ragusa. Compact and constrained to its hilltop location, the sparsely occupied town encourages exploration. Following the maze of narrow roads and alleyways permits peek-a-boo views of the surrounding countryside and glimpses of the dome of the Duomo highlighted by the warm sun. The town was still with few cars and people about.
Back in our room, we were ready for dinner. Ristorante Duomo was literally a stones throw from our room though nearly as far down as it was horizontally away. Out of room and down the staircase and we were at the restaurant and in the door in no time. We were seated and soon had our order taken by the Chef, Ciccio Sultano. The Chef taking the order was an unusual beginning to a meal at a fully staffed high end restaurant, for sure. We never were certain why, but we were the only table that the Chef waited on.
We chose the fish tasting menu for the table. The initial appetizers and tastes were spectacular, successfully integrating cutting edge modern techniques while being unmistakably Sicilian in flavors and styles. Many high end restaurants promise to reflect their regional cuisine, but somehow their pledges lose out as the food becomes stylized and international. This was not the case at Ristorante Duomo. The food was good, really good, Sicilian fare. It was also absolutely the type of food experience that you’d expect from one of the best restaurants in the World.
As the meal wore on, we reached the fish entrees or “secondis”. At this point in the meal, our palates were starting to be overwhelmed, perhaps from the numerous wines that were paired with food or perhaps our sense of taste had been saturated with the previous offerings. In any event, the fish dishes were good, but didn’t create the emotional response of the earlier offerings. Nevertheless, taken together, this was a great meal. Our dinner experience easily ranks in our top ten best meals, ever. Perhaps not to the level of our trips to El Bulli, The French Laundry, or the Fat Duck, but it was not far off and certainly surpassed our experience at a number of Michelin two and three star restaurants. Risorante Duomo is worth a significant effort to get to. And besides, a visit to the restaurant comes with the charms of Ragusa.
We were the first customers in to the restaurant and the second to last couple to leave. Rolling out the door, it took us a couple of passes around the spot lit Duomo before we gathered sufficient momentum climb the steps back to our room. With the window open to the cool air and gentle sounds of the town, sleep came easy.
V. Trento off P. Pancali, Monday through Saturday, 8 am to 1 pm, according to Let’s Go 2008 Europe
More information about UNESCO World Heritage Sites: