Killing time in Ortigia, Sicily

Accordion player in the piazza (Photo: Brent Petersen)

Excerpt from a larger piece I’m working on:

Ortigia is a maze of winding, narrow streets.  Three story limestone buildings fill the island, blotting the sun from most of the interior streets, barely wide enough for a Fiat 500 to pass.  Pedestrians step into doorways to avoid being clipped by a slowly rolling four wheeled piece of Italian design and engineering.  It would be easy to get lost in the spiderweb of cobblestones if the island weren’t so small.  Keep walking and you’ll hit either the Ionian Sea or a piazza, most likely the Piazza Duomo, where the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary dominates.

The cathedral was built, technically rebuilt, in the early 1700s after the devastating earthquake of 1693 which destroyed not only Ortigia, but most of eastern Sicily, killing 60,000 people.  Baroque was the style in the early 18th century, so when the town was rebuilt, it was baroque.  Technically, Sicilian Baroque, flamboyant and ornamental.

But it wasn’t always that way.  Archaeologists have found pre-Hellenic artifacts under what is now the cathedral.  After that, the Greeks built a temple here.  Some of the Doric columns are even visible today.  Then, the Moors built a mosque on the site which was made into a church when the Normans kicked out the Moors.  Of course, none of them could compete with the power of Mother Nature who did her best to bring this part of Sicily to her knees with the devastation of 1693.

Perhaps it is this cross section of peoples from all over Europe and Africa that have battled for, won and been pushed out of Sicily, that makes this place a little more tolerant of arrivals than others.  Even so, skin color can be a flash point for anyone who is racist or has an ax to grind with the Africans who arrive on the shores of Italy every day.

The façade of the cathedral is massive, stretching hundreds of feet along the piazza.  On the steps, teenagers flirt and tourists crane their necks to take pictures with their phones, undeniable proof that they have actually been to Sicily.  An accordion player sits on a folding chair nearby, playing for tips and posing for pictures with the same tourists.  An African man walks by all of them to the far end of the façade and puts his sospiri, a round egg white cake pastry with a white sugar glaze filled with lemon custard, on the carved limestone railing next to him.  He strums his krar, killing time.

About the Author

Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to Lisbon, PortoSintraMonsaraz, and Evora in Portugal. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.

Author: Brent

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