Travel Story La dolce vita, Sicilian style

Photo of Rick Ardon

With sun, sea and history — not to mention the local hospitality and food — Sicily’s east coast is increasingly rivalling the Amalfi coast as a diverse southern Italian destination.

Sicily has always been different from the rest of Italy. While a typical Italian village may feature old men discussing life on a bench, in Sicily they sit on benches in the sea.

Not looking out to sea but, in true Sicilian style, looking back at the beach as they people watch from a bench in the shallows.

Almost everything in this autonomous region of Italy revolves around the sea, and especially so in the small village of Ortigia, the romantic island heart of Syracuse, on the east coast. To get to Ortigia, take a taxi or drive an hour south from Catania airport. That’s where the fun begins as you negotiate with the expressive cab drivers, their arms waving theatrically as though the final expensive price is a personal tragedy.

Our driver Daniele broke into song as we hit the volcanic coast, before happily adding a non-negotiable €10 ($15) to the fare when we arrived.

As you venture across the short bridge from Syracuse into Ortigia, you immediately notice a traditional Sicilian island way of life that is like no other.

Ortigia is such a small village, only a kilometre long by 500m wide, you can happily wander down historic narrow alleyways peppered with Sicilian cafes, never getting lost because you always end up at the beach. 

The beaches can be a bit of a shock to Australians used to fine white sand. On one side of Ortigia, the public beach has only a narrow strip of pebbly shore but everything else going on around you is a feast for the senses. There’s a narrow channel through the rocks to negotiate before you swim in the most beautiful blue water, looking back up at the beach promenade and ancient hotels that lead to the attractive alfresco restaurants. 

On the other side is the boardwalk, where the small Charme Hotel Henry epitomises everything Ortigian. Look for the smooth Fellini-esque owner Massimo hovering around the front desk, giving you the confidential heads-up on where to eat like a local. Venture out on to the terrazzo and you’ll find a stunning vista across the blue Ionian Sea through grapevines. This must be one Italy’s most memorable views.

Ortigia is only 150km from Africa, yet 700km by road to Rome. No wonder Sicilian food is infused with centuries of African influence, including herbs and spices such as cumin and sumac, hardly used in the rest of Europe. Traders and invaders are responsible for Sicilian dishes such as cuscusu, tiny balls of pasta that are a refined version of North African couscous. While the Arab recipe includes lamb, the Sicilians love their seafood so much that their version is boiled in water with the local fish for flavour. And Arab invaders introducing sugar cane is the reason for Sicily’s now-world famous cakes and desserts.

Sicilian food certainly has the tourist trifecta — it’s delicious, fresh and cheap.

Sicily’s east coast is increasingly rivalling the Amalfi coast as a diverse southern Italian destination full of sun, sea and history. Not to mention the Sicilian hospitality and food.

Catania airport is equidistant between the tourist hotspot of Taormina to the north, and Syracuse to the south, with a proud Greek history so entrenched that Archimedes was born there in 287BC.

You’ll see plenty of Greek ruins as you cross the Ponte Nuovo bridge into Ortigia, starting with the Temple of Apollo. 

Keep walking to the Piazza del Duomo, a charming pedestrian square that’s the true heart of Ortigia. Here you’ll find Ortigia’s striking cathedral showcasing the original Doric columns from the ancient Temple of Athena that once stood on this site. And across the square you’ll find the church of Santa Lucia, the village’s patron saint. On balmy summer nights, listen for the strains of the famous Italian song with the same name. 

Ortigia’s name is Greek for quail, because of the plentiful edible birds on the island at the time. Ortigia’s love of food continues to this day at its famous morning food market, a cacophony of traders displaying their colourful fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. Don’t miss the unforgettable deli at the end of the market called I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti, translated as “the flavours of lost tastes”. Foodies love buying the outstanding local cheeses, meats and local produce you won’t find anywhere else.

And if you notice Sicilians are a little different from most Italians, there’s a fascinating reason. 

Sicily was an independent kingdom from 1130 until as recently as 1816, and their proud island traditions are still evident today.

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