It seems like folks who’ve been to Italy fall into one of two camps: the “I am addicted to Italy’s beauty/food/history/culture and I would move my family there tomorrow” group and the “Italy is a touristy nightmare and I’m not in a hurry to return with my kids” team.
I’m sad to say that Don and I lived firmly in the second camp for many years. Between us, when we visited years ago, we fought the crowds at the Vatican, got a car window smashed in Milan, had a tent slashed outside of Rome and felt ripped off most of the rest of the time.
But we are here to tell skeptics like us to rejoice: There is an ancient seaside city that encapsulates everything Italy has to offer and will renew your faith in everything Italian.
Ortigia is the old part of the city of Syracusa, a 2,700-year-old ancient Greek civilization that was the birthplace of Archimedes. It is located on the east coast of Sicily, just an hour south of Sicily’s second largest city (and airport), Catania.
If our friend hadn’t recommended Ortigia, we’d have never heard of it. (Thanks Jen!) But it’s no secret to holidaying Italians and other Europeans. I was surprised to find more than 600 Airbnb listings in Ortigia alone.
The good news is that even with tourists, nothing seemed overcrowded or hectic. And the tourists have not yet displaced the permanent residents of Ortigia. The alleys and piazzas—both big and small—are filled with children playing soccer, laundry hanging on balconies, old men gathering for coffee and cigarettes, tiny cars whizzing through, and locals dining al fresco until the wee hours of the morning.
Ortigia encapsulates everything you want in an Italian city: ancient ruins, Baroque cathedrals and fountains, quaint alleys, Mediterranean swims and gorgeous Italian people/style/food. Every person, balcony, windowsill, potted plant, street sign, door, boutique and crumbling stucco wall was photogenic. I’m not joking: Every. Single. One.
Syracusa rivaled Athens in its heyday during the 5th century B.C. and much of the evidence remains: catacombs, temples and foundations of countless miscellaneous buildings. The ruins of the oldest known Doric temple in Western Europe stand amid a traffic roundabout at the entrance to Ortigia Island.
The Teatro Greco is one of the oldest still in existence and it holds nightly performances in the summer. Even though jetlagged and the play (Le Supplici) was performed in Sicilian and Greek, the kids were captivated by the staging and impressed by the experience of seeing a 4th century B.C. show in an amphitheater old enough to have debuted it.
The Duomo is a microcosm of the thousands of years of history of the town. What began as a temple to Athena is now crowned with a statue of the Virgin Mary and layered with relics from each architectural era since.
And more impressive was the celebration of life which takes place each day and night in the piazza out front: music, food, laughter, barking dogs, scooters, and singsongy Italian from throngs of locals, tourists and other partiers out until very, very late. Pearl and I were looking for the source of some classic Italian music and found a man walking through the crowd with a vintage boombox. Did not see that coming.
The Sicilian food of our dreams was everywhere. We were like deer in the headlights picking a restaurant: Pasta? Pizza? Fish? Tourist place? Local place? It was all too much. After failing miserably with our restaurant choice the first night, we found Enoteca “A Putia” della Cosse Bene which was so perfect we ate there twice: Pasta with eggplant and swordfish, spaghetti with sardines and bread crumbs, tomato and caper salad, tuna with pistachio pesto, grilled octopus, tomato and caper salad, lemon tiramisu. Local wine and housemade limoncello—oh and don’t forget the gelato afterwards. Bliss!
And why was everything so inexpensive? We never did figure it out—and we didn’t argue. Our dinner-plus-wine at A Putia never exceeded $40.
The same went for the rest of Ortigia: a couple pounds of fresh fruit—less than $2; an espresso—less than $1; a big slice of pizza bread or calzone—$1; a bottle of great wine at a restaurant—$15; a pile of laundry at our B&B—$5.
Did I mention the sea? Less than five minutes down the alley from our guest house, swim platforms hung off the edge of the sea wall. Covered with tanning tourists and local teens, our kids spent afternoons jumping into the blissfully cool Mediterranean—again and again and again and again… The perfect end to a day of sightseeing.
Many visitors spend the balance of their days at the beaches, which line the coast north and south of Ortigia. Since we were planning on beaching it later in our trip, we skipped the coast in favor of the nearby southeastern Baroque towns Noto and Ragusa. The countryside looked much like California: yellow hills and dark trees, olives and almonds, oleanders and cactii. (Remember the Sicilian garden in The Godfather?)
Although Noto and Ragusa were filled with impressive classic architecture, they lacked energy. Perhaps they got going once the afternoon siesta wrapped up? Perhaps genuine residents had been displaced in favor of preserved buildings and tourist facilities?
Whatever the reason, they did not hold a candle to Ortigia’s charm. The people of Ortigia and Syracusa were, to a person, delightful and welcoming.
Whether you are looking to abandon the Italy of your nightmares or find another Italy of your dreams, try Ortigia.
The Roam Report : Ortigia
Travelers : Don, Maryann, West (14) & Pearl (12) Thompson
Date : June 2015
Itinerary : Three nights/two days in Ortigia, then north to the Aeolian Islands
Budget : $350 day for four people, including activities and transfers
The Good Stuff
- Saturday Night Stroll I’ll never forget the Saturday night we spent roaming around the island. We began by walking around the sea wall and watching partiers on yachts, fishermen casting and reeling, families settling into promenade-adjacent tables to watch the sunset, and many, many brides and grooms being photographed in vintage cars, in front of crumbly walls, silhouetted against the sea and strolling arm in arm. (The town is so gorgeous that it’s a center for weddings—we saw so many brides and grooms that the kids began to joke about it.) After sunset, we migrated through the alleys and waited for the lights and people to fill the piazza. We sat down to eat at 9 p.m. with no problem. (Most restaurants don’t get crowded until late and are full way past midnight.)
Locals and tourists perched themselves on corners and benches, and watched others wandering by or stopping to check out the street performers. We gorged on gelato and did laps around the piazza. The music, the summer night, the sparkling lights, the joyful Italian being spoken everywhere—I’ll truly never forget it.
- Sicilian Food Enough said. The gelato became a twice-a-day obsession.
- The Mediterranean Swims It’s hot in Ortigia (see below). I’m not sure who thought of hanging a swim platform (Solarium Forte Vigliena) off the seawall on the north side of the island, but I’d like to buy that person a limoncello. The promise of a jump into the Mediterranean after a hot day of sightseeing kept my kids moving forward the whole time. And our kids couldn’t resist doing American Ninja on the bars under the platforms, either.
- Teatro Greco Who cares what’s showing? Get tickets and go. Shows are typically staged in May and June. Unlike the rest of Ortigia, it isn’t cheap (about $50 per person), but it is a great experience. If our kids sat through Le Supplici, your kids too will make it through whatever play they are putting on. The ambiance and people-watching are worth the price of admission.
- Great B&B La Via della Giudecca is ideally positioned in the old Jewish quarter on a small piazza next to a 300-year-old church, down the alley from the swim platforms, and just a few minutes from the Duomo, restaurants and shops on the island. The quadruple room is a good deal for families and the breakfast features local meats, cheeses, fruits, cakes, bread and yogurt.
The Not So Good
- It’s Hot Sicily’s high season is actually May; most people think it is too hot to visit in the summer. But we were there at the end of June and although “it’s a dry heat” (as they say in the American Southwest) it was really hot. We were drenched coming back from walks around Syracusa and the countryside towns, downing liters of water and cups of granita in nothing flat. It’s best to plan outings early or late in the day (especially given “Siestazzz” below) or expect faces like those below.
- Poorly Marked Ruins The only thing worse than dragging your hot kids (and husband) across town to wander around not-the-greatest Greek ruins is doing it and then having little-to-no idea of what you are looking at when you get there. At the Parco Archeologico in Syracusa, there were only a handful of signs in the entire site. We kept referring back to our Lonely Planet hoping for a description of what we might be looking at. Apparently someone convinced the hire-ups to install QR readers in front of some ruins, but we could not get any cellular reception to look up the information. The Ear of Dionysius was great, but we didn’t really know what it was—natural or slave-carved, as one critic commented. We tried to hire a guide but were told it was too expensive. So we weren’t crazy about the ruins (though we were able to buy tickets for the Teatro Greco performance at the Parco). And by the time we got smart and headed for the better-reviewed St. John’s catacombs, we were bummed to realize siesta had just begun. Doh!
Good to Know
- Siestazzz The Sicilan schedule takes some getting used to—especially when suffering from jetlag. Breakfast typically begins at 8:30 a.m. Stores open at 9 a.m. and then close for the afternoon. Things open up again in the late afternoon, but people don’t sit down for dinner until about 9 p.m. We saw toddlers in high chairs at midnight—impressive! Upon tracking down what our guidebook called the best gelateria in Sicily and finding it closed for siesta, we never forgot to check hours again.
- Taxi Tours We had planned to take the train/bus to Ragusa and Noto (for a day trip) and to Messina (to catch the Aeolian Islands ferry). The schedules were OK but not great and, worse, we were going to spend a lot of the day on buses or waiting for them. Don asked our hotel folks about renting a car for the day (expensive to do in Ortigia proper but not out of the question at the Catania Airport). They suggested renting a taxi for the day instead, which worked out great. To drive down to Noto and Ragusa and wander around for a few hours in each spot (about six to eight hours total), the driver charged us €100. We felt that approximately $25 per person for the day was more than reasonable to go and stop where we wanted; not have to drive, navigate and park; and avoid extra walking and waiting for public transport. When leaving for Milazzo, the same taxi driver charged us €200 to drive us to the port in Messina (about three hours one way) and stop for a couple of hours to see the super-touristy-but-incredibly-scenic town of Taormina. Again, $50 each for this trip is not the cheapest way to do it, but it was comfortable, convenient and allowed us to see a spot we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. (We felt Taormina was very much worth a stop but probably better to see for the day rather than having to stay there, given its crazy popularity.)
- Check Trip Advisor for Food We aimed for a couple of dinner spots that were written up in guidebooks and magazine articles and found them to be past their prime. Trip Advisor seemed to be the source for accurate, up-to-date descriptions of where you will want to eat.
- Duolingo for Italian Don and Pearl had great luck learning some Italian with Duolingo.
Good Family Trip?
GO! Go now. Oritigia – and the rest of Sicily, for that matter – is a classically beautiful Italian town that won’t stay classic forever. It would be a great place to take younger kids too – for long strolls through town, lazy afternoons at the beach, great meals every night and atmosphere galore. From Ortigia, move on to the rest of Sicily for more fabulous, delicious and relatively affordable experiences.
Maryann Jones Thompson, September 2015
© ROAM Family Travel 2015 – All rights reserved
Keywords: family vacation, family travel, family holiday, travel with kids, family vacation in Italy, Ortigia family vacation, Family vacation to the Mediterranean