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Winds of Change

Aerial view of Sicily

We got back to Italy about five weeks ago after spending two months in the US.  I like to think I can seamlessly go between cultures like a sophisticated traveler, but the truth is it’s an adjustment for me.  I moved to Italy in July of 2021 and in that time I have been back to the US twice.  The first time I found it difficult to adjust to life back in the US, and this time I’m having a harder time adjusting to life back in Italy.

This is a surprise and a puzzlement to me.  I thought after two-and-a-half years I would be completely settled into Italy.  That its belovedly chaotic way of living would have embraced me and taught me to slow down, have fun, and become the tranquil soul that I imagine myself to be.  But in reality, it’s still a struggle for me to let go of my Americaness enough to laugh at the absurdity of going to three different places for one transaction.  Sometimes I miss the straightforward efficiency of doing things the American way.


We arrived back in our Italian home and the wind greeted us with a ferocity that I’ve never seen.  Our house seems well insulated and has been recently renovated so we feel like it’s as secure as it can be.  This wind, however, found its way into nooks and crannies we didn’t know we had.  I was at the stove cooking and felt a cold draft and realized the wind was coming through the exhaust fan.  That’s but one example of how sly and strong and determined this wind was.  It was coming for us, no matter the barriers we thought we had erected. 

For our first 24 hours here, the wind never stopped.  It was as if Italy was asking us if we were up for it.  We had some business to take care of and knew that we would encounter the inevitable obstacles and the wind was reminding us of the challenges of Italian life.  It started during our first night back and continued throughout the next day and night without stopping.   It lashed at our house and roared around us.  The morning of our second day, I awoke to quiet.  It had stopped. 

Part of the reason this transition was so rocky was the absence of our dear Millie.  When she died in November, we left for the US two days later so we didn’t have a lot of time to absorb living here without her.  But returning here, seeing her bed and bowls and toys, opened those wounds that had started to heal over.  It was like she died all over again.  And I honestly didn’t care where I was in the world if she wasn’t by my side.  I had to figure out how to grieve for her and try and find joy in life again.

In an attempt to soothe ourselves, we decided to take a short trip to Sicily hoping it would renew us and give us some perspective.  And help us find our joy.


We decided on Ortigia as our destination for our joy-finding mission.  Ortigia is part of Siracusa (Syracuse in English), the oldest settlement in all of Sicily.  We thought we had seen old things – the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Etruscan ruins around Tuscany – but this was another level. Siracusa was founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BC.  The story goes that the Oracle of Delphi told the Corinthians to settle this land.  Ortigia is a small island just about 50 feet from the island of Sicily where Siracusa is located.  It’s about a kilometer long and about half that wide, making it a walking paradise. 

We arrived at about 3:30 after an exhausting and problem-ridden trip from Anghiari.  We were so glad to have the journey behind us that we struck out immediately to start exploring.  And we hadn’t had anything at all to eat all day, so we were both starting to get very hangry.  We stopped at the first place we saw and grabbed a table outside under the bright blue sky, ordered some local white wine and a couple of fish appetizers and felt all the travel stress start to melt away.  We were so focused on getting some food that we barely noticed the ruin right across the street from us. 

The Temple of Apollo dates back to the early 6th century BC.  It’s easy to walk by and dismiss as a pile of rubble, but upon further examination you can imagine the grandeur of it all those centuries ago. It has borne witness to the whims of the rulers of Ortigia and the religious trends of the day.  Starting as a Greek temple to Apollo, it became a Christian basilica in the 6th century AD, a mosque in the 9th century AD, then used as a barracks in the 16th century.  Earthquakes, wars, and the march of time decimated it into the jumble of rocks we see now.  But there it stands, a testament to antiquity and the ever-present need of mankind to honor something bigger than itself. 

After our well-needed fortification, we wandered through the alleys.  Ortigia was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and was rebuilt in a Spanish-Baroque style.  The stone facades of the buildings are a creamy ivory that turn gold in the setting sun.  We were so overwhelmed that we decided to stop into a really fancy hotel, The Grand Hotel Ortigia (the kind we would never stay in), for a look around.  The staff was so welcoming and nice and invited us up to their roof terrace for a drink.  How could we refuse?  The view from this perch above the harbor was incredible.  The sun was melting into the mountain across the bay and the water was sparkling like blue diamonds.  We had another glass of the wonderful, crisp white wine and more snacks.  Almonds and pistachios, two of the biggest crops in this part of Sicily, were served with olives and bruschetta.  The sunset was so amazing that the waiter even stopped to take a picture.  Heaven.

Orata in Ortigia, Sicily
Grilled Orata

Our first dinner was a fish place recommended by our hotel.  Despite our snacks, we were ready for a nice meal.  Ristorante La Darsena was just what we wanted.  We are both fish lovers and were craving fresh fish.  We vowed to eat it at every meal.  I picked my fish, a nice orata, and the waiter took it back to the kitchen for them to grill.  It arrived back to me crispy and lucious and was de-boned table side.  My guess is it was swimming in the ocean that morning. 


With our bellies full, the stress of the trip became a distant memory.  We slept the sleep of the contented, listening to the waves wash over the rocks. 

The Riches of Ortigia

Ortigia is the perfect place to experience a town fully.  I’ve been to so many places that I felt like I only skimmed the surface of, but Ortigia is so small and packed so full of so many historical sites that it’s easy to navigate.  I think we walked down every street on the island.  The heart of the island, the Piazza Duomo, hosts the main church.  A church that was built on the site of a 6th century BC temple to Athena.  The massive Doric columns are still visible from the outside and the inside of the basilica.  There are Byzantine mosaics inside as well as a Greek urn, the inscription still etched across the top. 

Another smaller church just across the piazza houses one of Ortigia’s prizes – a Caravaggio entitled the Burial of St. Lucy (Santa Lucia).  In typical Italian-Sicilian fashion, the church was closed when we arrived but a nearby gelato shop said it would open in 15 minutes.  We waited 30 and then gave up.  We explored the rest of the island and after lunch meandered back by and the door was open.  It was great example of Caravaggio – dark, brooding, graphic.  Caravaggio, that bad boy of Renaissance painters, spent some time in Ortigia after he escaped from prison in Malta.  Apparently, this work is one of his legacies to the city.

Fountain of Arethusa, Ortigia Sicily
Fountain of Arethusa

One of my favorite things in Ortigia was the Fountain of Arethusa.  She was a Greek nymph of great beauty who was being pursued by the river god Alpheus against her wishes.  She appealed to the goddess Artemis to help her.  Artemis carried her away across the ocean to Ortigia where she sprang from the ocean into a fresh water spring.  Alpheus, however, found her and had his watery way with her anyway, combining his river water with her fresh spring water.  It is said that when the annual animal sacrifices occurred in Olympia, the water in this spring ran red.  It is also said that if you drop a flower in the Apheus river in Greece that it will rise up in the spring in Ortigia.  I absolutely love these tales and as I stood there looking at this idyllic pond, with its papyrus and ducks, I couldn’t help but wonder if Arethusa was still lingering in her pool and if she had heard about the Me Too movement. 


The next day we meandered over to Syracuse, across the little strip of water that separates it from Ortigia.  We toured the Neapolis and Archeological Park.  This part of Syracuse is where the town center was constructed in the 5th century BC.  The crowning glory of the park is the Greek Theater.  One of the largest theaters in the Greek world, at its prime it could seat over 16,000 people.  It’s in remarkable shape considering it’s over 2,500 years old and has witnessed all sorts of demolition, both divine and man made. 

One of the most interesting sites in the park are the series of latomia (pits) where stone was quarried.  These quarries were worked by prisoners of war and I can imagine that the term “fight to the death” would have been the watchword of any good soldier of the day.  Being captured meant a life of slaving in such a place in dismal conditions.  Better to have died for your cause on the battlefield.  One particular cave is called the Ear of Dionysius, so dubbed by that dastardly Caravaggio.  He thought it resembled a human ear and the acoustics are so good that it was believed that Dionysius, the tyrant ruler of Syracuse in the 400s BC, could eavesdrop on the prisoners and foil any plans they made for escape.

A Great Finish

I had made a list of many restaurants that I wanted to check out but soon discovered that while February had wonderful weather and virtually no crowds, most restaurants were closed.  Our hotel, the Hotel Gutkowski, reportedly has a great restaurant and even it was closed.  We wanted a special meal to end our trip with and didn’t want to go back to one of the ones we had been to already.  There was one on my list that I didn’t even bother checking on because it was just too expensive.  But we were out of options and decided to give it a try because it was open.

Ristorante Regina Lucia is in the main piazza near the Duomo.  It was a great environment – comfortable, elegant, lots of character, and wonderful food.  We had the four course tasting menu which was all fish.  I was right – it was expensive but we were treated like royalty and had one of the best meals of our lives.  The food was creative in that way fancy restaurants have of presenting food as art and dinnerware as the canvas.  But oh so very good.  We left very, very happy.

Life Flow

I have come to the point in life where events are not always joyous ones.  Gone are the weddings, babies, first houses, career achievements and other things that mark a life on the way up.  I am now on the downside of living where disease, accidents, ailments, death and other maladies tend to dominate news of my loved ones.  The flow of life.  I do have news of happy events, but it’s generally news of generations coming behind me, not my peers.  No less joyous, but not the same.  Life moving forward.

While my Sicilian holiday did not heal the bruises on my heart, it did give me the perspective I needed to put things in place.  Visiting a place that’s 2,700 years old reminds you that humanity is built to survive.  We all know that sadness and loss are essential parts of life – look at poor Arethusa.  This trip did remind me that one of the great joys of my life is travel.  Seeing something I’ve never seen before and examining a way of life that is curious to me.  The world is such a fascinating place and offers us solace in the strangest ways.  Watching the vastness of the ocean as it moves toward the shore, hearing the birds sing, gazing at mountains and volcanoes, witnessing seasons give way to one another – these things all remind us that the rhythm of life has been beating for a very long time.  And will continue once we’ve all moved on.

The other day I went into a room and flicked on the light.  The first thing my eyes landed on was one of Millie’s beds with a toy laying on it.  I smiled.  It surprised me that I didn’t cry.  Maybe I am finding my joy again.

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