Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ortigia Island, Syracuse, Sicily

Guess what?! This is my 100th post! And I get to tell you all about one of my favorite places in the world...Ortigia Island in Sicily! 

This part of our trip around Sicily was definitely a highlight. We went with the tour group as a whole and then decided to stay on past our tour time and spend the rest of our afternoon wandering around the picturesque streets, have lunch, wander some more, have dessert and coffee and then wander some more before catching a cab back to the Villa.

 Because we tour in a large bus, and believe me, it's nice to have someone else do the driving, we parked off of the island and took the very pretty stroll across the bridge past the marina.
Right away I started falling in love with the architectural details.
This building faces the marina and is one of the first places you see coming onto Ortigia Island. Many of our group stopped to admire the lacy trim as well as the lush gardens in front of it.
 The biggest surprise was to find ruins in the middle of the square, the Greek Temple of Apollo.
Literally, in the middle of the square! The island has been built up over the centuries since the Greeks so you quickly get the idea that much of the architecture you will see is very ancient.

 We took a right and headed further into the main section of Ortigia Island. I have found that every major city seems to have a "flatiron" building. Ortigia isn't any different. I was charmed by the iron balconies on this one.

 One of the most beautiful sights to see is the fountain featuring the nymph Aretusa. This fantastical water feature is filled with some of the most wonderful details.
My favorite was the mermaid with her baby riding a seahorse. Of course the seahorse was actually a horse with a fishtail but, you get the idea. It was these fantasy based creatures that made this a really fun fountain to explore.
This was my favorite window on that square. I've never seen quite this ornate of a pizza place before, have you? 
From the square we took a right and made our way to the Duomo. Along the way we got to see some very picturesque streets.
 There were little restaurants along the way. I love how this place took various tables and chairs and created a very charming little spot to grab a bite to eat.
 While this is a residential area it is also one that depends on tourists so there are plenty of shops along the way. Most of them look like most of the others but every now and then you find one that is just so much more charming than the others. By the way, do you see the green bottle on the 3rd shelf? Yup, that's Pistachio Liquor! It's amazing! I bought a small bottle of that and a jar of Pistachio Cream and I have to tell you that they were simply incredible! Nice, small souvenirs to bring home with you.
 We finally wandered our way to the very large Piazza Duomo. It was filled with people getting ready to take a tour so if you want to find out more about the area and the church it is easy to join one of these tours.
 The details are simply amazing. This was just one of the many gates and one of the many gate designs that drew and held my attention.
 Standing back from the gate you can see the ornate detail of the marble around it is just as amazing.
 I saw plenty of people just turn left and walk into the church, or sit on the steps staring at their phones or guide books without actually looking around at the many statues and details, in marble and in iron, that adorn this beautiful cathedral.
 I'm always amazed by the way they can make it look like stone lace and how they did so without high tech tools. Remember to always look up whenever you visit a historical site. You will find some of the prettiest details that way.
 So take your time to explore the outer areas of the entry way and church before heading in through the interior doors. Details, like the columns in the photo above, are often missed by those who are quick to get to the inside of the church. If you are on a tour and need to keep up with the group then make sure that you leave the building slowly and take in what you may have missed on your way in.
 The inside is very dark but, as your eyes adjust, you will find that it is richly appointed. The altar is gloriously ornate and flanked by beautifully painted works of art on each side.
 As with most churches, this one is set up in the shape of a cross so there are the side sections to explore as well. I love cherubs, or "fat babies" as I call them, and in one of the sections there were these beautiful columns that had cherubs all over them! So lovely!
 One of the most fascinating things about this building is that it is built over another. The Temple of Athena was here first and the massive Doric columns can still be seen here. So the medieval style church was built around the Greek Temple. I know it wasn't the intent but I love that both styles of belief can be found here.
 Outside again I took the time to enjoy the buildings on the square. I was told that this was a government building. I love the lamp posts and the intricate ironwork on the balconies.
 Across the square were a couple of open air cafe's that were beginning to fill up with people. The look of the building with the details of the lamp post is an example of the type of aged architecture I fell in love with in Italy.
 We were there during the May festival of Santa Lucia. Yup, that Santa Lucia...like the song. She was a devout woman and Christianity was frowned up on by the powers that be at that time. She was due to be married and since she was very caring towards the poor she gave her entire dowry to them. This upset her intended, of course, and so she was put on trial and told to denounce her faith or be declared a witch. She refused and was sentenced to burn at the stake. But the wood wouldn't burn. The devout saw this as proof that she was a saint from God, the others saw it as proof she was a witch and, in the end, she was killed, making her a martyr for her faith. Now here's the really interesting part of the story. Each December 12th, the legend goes, Santa Lucia acts like Santa Claus to the kids. She sneaks in, leaves gifts and sneaks back out. Any child seeing her will be temporarily blinded by ashes. The kids are told to leave coffee for her, carrots for her donkey and a glass of wine for her escort, Castaldo. The "bad" kids will, of course, get coal instead. I'm behind any legend that starts off with "leave coffee = get gifts"!! We were not allowed to photograph inside the church due to the festival but the outside is its own work of art.
If you turn right around you will see the Piazza and the Duomo right next door. You can see a lot in a very short space of time so if you only have a short amount of time you will be able to see most of the highlights of the island while you are there.
We left our tour group at this point and decided to spend the rest of the day, our "free" time, here on the island seeing more of it. Someone told us that we should walk the perimeter so we did just that! We walked down to the Castello Maniace to find a place to eat. Unfortunately the castle was closed that day for major repairs but it is on our list to see when we return again!
We found a lovely little ristorante to have our lunch...and this was our view. When I think of Italy I think of ancient buildings like this one with painted shutters and flower filled planter boxes on the balconies.
Lunch began with fresh bread, lovely, colorful salads and wine...a bottle of red and a bottle of white for the table! That was a nice reminder that lunch isn't about eating, it's about the visit.
My friend ordered the sardine pasta plate. Sardines are a big deal in Sicily. I think we tried them in about a half dozen different ways over the two weeks we were there. I never did develop a taste for them but my friend simply loved it! 
After almost a 2 hour lunch we continued our walk around the town enjoying the views along the way. Many of the homes are built with an inner courtyard and an outer doorway like this one. Lovely.
Even when the entrance seems more plain you will always find something ornate in the details. For this building it was the ironwork on the balconies.
As I mentioned last week, I always seem to find kitties and lizards on my journeys. Ortigia Island was no different. This little guy was hiding in the chairs stacked by the side of an open air cafe. 
We decided to stop for dessert and, well, there's never a bad time for coffee to me! This image became one of my very favorites and I used it as my logo on Instagram for quite awhile before my new logo was designed. It is a simple presentation, no suns or cat faces or anything in the foam, but so very beautiful. 
And speaking of beautiful. This rolled cake was filled with pistachio chocolate cream, drizzled in chocolate sauce, topped with fresh whipped cream and crushed pistachios. Yes, it was even more delicious than it sounds!
But as amazing as the previous dessert sounds, this one is the one we have been trying to recreate since returning home. Blood orange gelato topped with limoncello liquor. Oh Em GEEE! Seriously good. Creamy, luscious but with this brightness that leaves you wanting more. We tried it again later in the trip with just orange gelato and it was still really good. 
And the view. Oh the view! What a lovely place to just hang out, enjoy my cappuccino and soak up the view. The promenade extends around the island with very few detours and we loved every moment.
The Fonte Artusa is a natural spring. It creates a little park-like area next to the sea. There is also a small aquarium underground where you can go and get out of the hot summer heat.
The above ground pond is beautiful as well. With koi fish swimming in it that are as long as your arm and beautiful lacy plants, it makes a very nice departure from the "concrete jungle" of the town.
We cut across town to catch the part of the promenade we had missed and be able to soak up the rest of the styles of architecture along our way.
The attention to detail isn't just in the churches or government buildings. The homes have lovely designs, like this one, around their doors and under their balconies.
I adore doors! Ortigia seemed to have a new style on every block. I actually had to pare down the number of "door" photos in order to give you just a sampling. This one feels very Art Deco to me. And, yes, that is a marble front stoop. Marble....for the stoop!
My favorite door was this one. I can not begin to imagine how much these solid carved wooden doors actually weigh. But with the frilly ironwork above and the carved lion heads it became my favorite door the moment I saw it!
With the last name of the family proudly displayed I couldn't help but notice this plain green door...or the bizarre Hand Knockers! Definitely the weirdest door embellishments we found on our trip.
The most endearing was this tailor. Hard at work, he seemed very pleased when I asked if I could take a photo of him. The hand arts are still in evidence here in Italy. Fine suits crafted by an artisan from scratch are some of the finest in the world and they are produced here. This Sicilian Tailor will remain a warm memory for me.
With one last look at the sea, so clear and beautiful, we headed back towards the ruins and the taxi stand so we could take one back to the hotel. It was truly such a wonderful day and if my steps lead me back to Sicily they will surely lead me back to Ortigia Island.

Next week we are off to the archaeological park in Syracusa and the many wonders we found waiting for us there! In the meantime don't forget to click on the smaller photos so you can see the full size images and come visit me on Facebook or on Instagram! If you do visit, please make sure to say HI!


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Villa Politi ~ Syracuse, Sicily

We have traveled with Go Ahead Tours several times and, with the exception of one hotel, we have been treated to some really wonderful places to lay our heads at night. None so wonderful as the Villa Politi in Syracuse, Sicily. 
Built in 1862 by Austrian noblewoman Maria Teresa Laudien after she met the love of her life, painter Salvatore Politi, this is an amazing place to call home for even a few days. We came in by bus, which has a totally different parking lot, but if you were visiting by auto you would pull into these grand gates and drive up the shaded driveway to the grand entrance.
Once you drove in you would be greeted by this grand double staircase entrance to the Villa.  The Grand Hotel Villa Politi lives up to it's name with it's grandeur.
Lush gardens with lovely statuary are found at every turn. 
The lovely front entry included this peaceful fountain that is in the recess of the dual staircases. In the morning the birds loved to flock to this water source and they didn't seem to mind if the people were there too. (Take a look at that lamp post on the left! SO grand!)
Of course they had had their own stone lions to guard the gates! This one was carved from marble and I loved all of the different tones in his "coat".
The staircases were so beautiful. Carved marble with elegant details and a grand sweep just took my breath away. The "Hidden Mickey's" made me smile. Yup, I'm a Disney fan and take joy in finding these wherever I travel!
Walking into the lobby you find grand chandeliers, a lovely carved wooden reception desk and beautiful marble floors. Just a hint of what this place was like in it's heyday when the Lady of the home was entertaining.
Many notable people came to visit here including Winston Churchill! They named the bar after him. Each night, for just a few euros, you could grab a drink and enjoy the little appetizer buffet they set out. It was quite lovely.
Walk a bit further and you will find this amazing reception room. It was a favorite place for some of our favorite travelers to hang out with a good book or a drink. To the right were the elevators but you could easily reach your rooms from the staircase.
Our room was simply elegant. The fabrics are expensive and you can tell that they would last many years with little wear. Modern conveniences were available too. Although the wifi didn't really work well from the room, I was able to access it from the front balcony easily. Perfect for those who wanted to use Instagram or just play on their tablets while relaxing.
We were overjoyed to find that our "window" was actually a door...to our own balcony! A few of the rooms share this balcony and it's beautiful view.
Our first night we splurges on champagne and took full advantage of our patio with it's balcony!
The "diningroom" was located in what was once the ballroom. 
The archways were lit up for dinner, casting a golden or blue hue on the intricate ceilings.
We loved the chandeliers in the Ballroom/Diningroom. They completely matched the grandeur of the room.
Breakfast was a wonderful combination of sweet and savory. Several juices and coffee/teas were provided as well. A good tip is to grab one of the fruits to take with you for your day. If you are exploring you never know when you might need a snack to carry you through and that orange will come in handy! The one downside of this location is that, other than a small snack/ice cream shop on the corner, there really isn't anywhere you can just take a walk to and enjoy a meal. The meals at the Villa are incredible but if you want to eat off-site then you will need to take a taxi or drive there.
We both loved the little intimate nooks where you could take your breakfast and enjoy the soft morning light while you enjoyed your food.
But, for me, well, I'm a coffee girl. I would end breakfast by grabbing a fresh cup and heading out to the balcony. This breezeway was a very comfortable place to relax with our fellow travelers.
The details, from the flooring to the trim to the lighting, is what makes this place so special!
The view of the sea isn't all so terrible either! Part of the property is this quarry. So you were able to get a bit of the ancient with the villa as well. 
Since part of our journey to Syracuse was going to involve exploring a very ancient archaeological area we were happy to find a taste of it right here at the Villa. Unfortunately we were told that it was too unstable for us to get a better look.
So I decided to take my coffee and my book and explore a bit more. There are various patios and balconies where you can wander and be totally alone and in peace. 
But there are also areas set up for entertaining so if you have a large group you can meet up on the patios and enjoy the day or evening together.
I was all by myself, enjoying this view and the peace and quiet of the morning. In May the mornings are quite mild with a bit of chill in the air but with my light jacket and my cup of coffee I was very comfortable and had a very nice time there.
However I got restless when the coffee was gone so it was time to go explore! Always take the time to tour whatever hotel you are in. Check out all of the areas from the pool to the conference rooms. You can find a lot of hidden beauty there.
That is how I found this room. It is easy to see why this room is popular for small weddings. It is so romantic.
The ceiling glass was my greatest find. I could see from our own balcony off of our room that there was another room below that had a stained glass ceiling so I made it a point to figure out where this room was...just so I could see the ceiling!
As you can see, I wasn't disappointed! This is one of the most ornate ceilings I have ever encountered anywhere in my travels. The colors and details are just spectacular!
After my wandering around we decided to head down to the ocean overlook, just a block or so away. The bougainvillea is in full bloom in May and are a lovely addition to these gardens.
Wherever I travel I seem to find cats and lizards. I don't know why, I just do! I was thrilled to find this little guy on the railing of the staircase. He posed for me for a few minutes and then disappeared into the Lantana flowers. Still one of my favorite images from this trip.
The ocean front is only about a block from the entrance to the Villa. At the corner is a beautiful Monastery of the Cappuccini monks and the rays of the late day sun seemed to be reinforcing the religious feel of the building.
The little details, on what are otherwise very plain buildings, is what I love about Italy and Europe in general. Make sure to take the time to enjoy the view when you are on your way to a destination. 
You have to cross a VERY busy street to get to the ocean walk. I can not stress enough that the drivers will NOT just decide to slow down and let you cross. You have to be bold and just step out there and DO it. I know this goes totally against the grain of everything American but it really works. I felt like I was taking my life in my hands but step out I did and yes, they stopped and let us cross. You just have to be brave...and look at this gorgeous reward!
Take the steps down to the War Memorial and enjoy the statuary and reliefs carved into the marble. As with all of the graffiti that you will find in Europe, the painting marring the memorial makes no sense here either. To deface something that commemorates the ultimate sacrifice of those who have protected the people feels even more disrespectful than normal graffiti. It made me sad to see it even as I enjoyed the beautiful artwork.
Many different eras of war veterans are depicted on the memorial as well as battle scenes in the reliefs. This is a popular picnic spot and we found many people sitting around it and enjoying the views. 
And the views from here are of the gorgeous Ortigia Island. We will head out to this amazing place next week on the blog!

Our time at the Villa Politi was pure luxury. It was definitely the most elegant hotel we visited and a favorite of everyone on our tour. Whenever we speak of Sicily the Villa is at the top of the list of our favorite things so if you get a chance, stop in, stay awhile and enjoy this beautiful hotel.

Remember to click on the small photos so you can enjoy the larger versions (especially that glass ceiling!) and drop on by my Facebook or Instagram to see what new images I post every day!

See you next week!