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October, 2018

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So much recommends Ortygia, the island where the ancient Greeks established their first colony before developing the mainland area of Siracusa. Even today vehicles from outside are forbidden entry after 10 pm. Parking is at such a premium, even for locals, that there is little traffic movement in the evenings. Walking is a delight.

We stayed in an apartment on Via Vittorio Veneto, which at one time probably had the Lungomare or sea road at its back door. Opposite was a palace; along the road of course were churches, and there were bars and restaurants within easy reach. By day we had the freedom of all the delights day trippers have to rush around, including naturally the wonderful market. Fresh fruit, vegetables and especially fish were in abundance. Spices and herbs were a feast for eyes and nostrils.

A day visit years ago had whetted our appetites but had not prepared us for what we would discover at leisure. Walking along our street past other palaces, some of them now hotels we reached the sea at the junction with Via Nizza (actually just a continuation) and found the fascinating Papyrus Museum, founded by Corrado Basile, an enthusiast who is now the world authority, and Anna Di Natale in 1987. Our visit coincided with a tour he was leading for some students. We stood to watch a video of how the stems are cut only in the middle section and then progressively stripped to provide the warp and weft, after much pressure from a rolling pin and screw (as for wine or olives) press to produce the eventual material for writing.

Unfortunately, photography inside the museum is prohibited, otherwise there would be a view of blue sea beyond a vase of papyrus in a window. There are examples of boats developed from the ancient Egyptian craft and still used in East Africa. Sandals look as though millennia-old. The inevitable sales counter is one of the best of its kind, a great improvement on the commercial trade elsewhere. It is remarkable that Siracusa was the first natural source of papyrus outside Egypt, whether wind-blown to the banks of the River Ciane, or carried by traders we will never know. The plants still grow opposite Ortygia and in the Fountain of Arethusa reached by following Via Nizza until it becomes Via Capodieci.

In this last street also is the wonderful Regional Museum of Palazzo Bellomo, where it is permitted to take photographs. Between the two sites is the former Jewish quarter, or Giudecca, where an early medieval ritual bath was discovered during renovation of an hotel. Since the expulsion of the Jews centuries ago the bath had been filled, either by accident or design, with rubbish. Now cleared and open to visitors by appointment (no photography again) the baths are testimony to days when tolerance was normal.

The problem now is that the permitted photographs are too numerous for any review, so a selection must suffice. Specific sites, such as the Duomo and Temple of Apollo along with the underground explorations, deserve their own review.


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