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Monthly Archives: August 2015

Towards the end of our trip in Sicily, we spent a night in Catania before catching an early morning flight home. Relative to Taormina or Siracusa (including Ortigia), Catania is a much bigger urbanized city and looked a bit gray and tired. We wandered around looking for a sushi restaurant near the port and found this point of interest (as noted in our guidebook), Palazzo Biscari, quite accidentally.


The palace is accessed through a large portal facing via Museo Biscari. It leads to an inner courtyard, which features a large double staircase. On either side of the courtyard, there are apartments where members of the Biscari family reside, as well as the offices of the Department of Culture of the Municipality of Catania.


The lintels on either sides of the staircase are richly decorated with cherubs.


Like typical historical feudal homes, the walls are covered with paintings of members of the family going back generations, and interestingly also painted maps of the land owned by the family.


On that evening, it happens to be tango night !

The 17th century ballroom was turned into a milonga. We suspected that they began the evening with lessons and demonstration. Judging by the stalls and racks near the entrance, we could have rented clothes and shoes and partake in the dancing if we were interested.


Instead, we met a young architecture student who was volunteering to give a brief explanation of the palazzo (while his female friend was tango-ing with another guy). He was eager to practice his English which was very good.

The floor was covered by wooden planks, protecting whatever that is underneath it from the kicking and dragging involved in tango. May be it is marble in which case it may be too slippery.


Palazzo Biscari was constructed after the 1693 earthquake on its fifteenth century foundations which was spared by an earthquake. The initial phase of construction was commissioned by the 4th Prince of Biscari, and concluded by Ignatius Paterno’ Castello, the 5th Prince of Biscari who helped the palace acquired fame as a cultural center. In 1758 the prince inaugurated a museum that displayed his precious archaeological collections.


Apparently the palazzo is decorated in the late baroque style of Rococo (18th century), with a complex decoration of mirrors, stuccoes and frescoes. Our guide remarked that the Rococo style was on its way out when the palazzo was constructed since Sicily is in the countryside far away from Florence or Rome.  The heart of the palace is formed by its halls, conscientiously restored after the 1991 earthquake. The paintings and frescoes were also restored to their original status.


The small dome, situated above the center of the ballroom, has a frescoe depicting the glories of the Paternò Castello di Biscari family. It is for use by the orchestra, and accessible through a staircase decorated in stucco within the gallery facing the sea.


While the organizer of the dance used a Macbook to provide the music, they seem to be observing the tradition of the milonga regarding choice and exchange of partners. Some dancers came alone and found partners of similar skill level on the sides of the floor.


According to their website, “the Biscari palace is composed by seven hundred rooms, it is located in the old quarter of Catania behind the popular down town area, overlooking the port on the famous marina arches, where trains still pass. Up until the 1920’s, the ocean water reached the precipitous bastions”. The external balcony which would have overlooked the sea is richly decorated with a high relief that symbolises abundance, fertility, prosperity and wisdom.


In a room between the main hall and the windows there is a staircase that raises and folds like a cloud. We believe this staircase leads to the orchestra area above the ballroom.


The palazzo can be rented out for weddings and some of the rooms are available for use in connection with the event. This reminds us of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (click here to see the post) we visited in Georgetown, Penang, the abode of another rich and powerful person from the past which has been converted for cultural, touristic, or entertainment purposes.

While in Siracusa, we explored the Parco archeologico della Neapolis where the Greek Theatre is situated (see earlier post here). For the remainder of the afternoon, we visited the Siracusa Archaeological Museum (Museo Archeologico Regionale ‘Paolo Orsi’), which is not far from the park. But we found it only after some serious map-reading.

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And unfortunately we had barely 30 minutes left before closing, so we literally ran through the museum without the chance of pausing to read the explanations (perhaps it is all in Italian, so it may not have mattered).

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The museum space, designed by the architect Franco Minissi was inaugurated in January 1988, and then in 2006, new space was made available on the upper floor. In 2014, a final extension was opened to show the artifacts of the catacomb under the duomo in Ortigia.

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The museum contains artefacts from the prehistoric, Greek and Roman periods found in archaeological excavations in the city and other sites in Sicily.

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From 1895 to 1934 Paolo Orsi directed the museum and did a lot of work at the nearby archaeological park. He made so much valuable and academic contributions that the museum bears his name.

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In 1890 Orsi won a competition to become inspector of excavations and museums. He was invited to Syracuse, where he devoted himself to studying the origins of the Sicani and Sicels, and of the cities of Thapsos and Megara Hyblaea.

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There is plenty here to satisfy a curious traveler but it must be a great place to linger for those interested in archaeology, classics, history, and ancient art.

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We stayed mostly at the sector dedicated to the Greek colonies in Sicily from the Ionic and Doric period.

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These are definitely greek.

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Wish we could say more about what we are showing here but it was such a rush and a shame really because there are lots to see in the museum.

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Many of the excavated finds at the Greek Theatre, which may be ornamentations of the theatre or scenes, are displayed here.

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With so many antiquities on display, the place really feels like a serious “museum”.

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Here is the museum’s website.

In Siracusa, the Teatro Greco (Greek Theatre) is a major historical and cultural landmark. It overlooks Siracusa and commands a view of the bay and Ortigia. The theatre was first built in the 5th century BC, rebuilt in the 3rd century BC and renovated again in the Roman period.

This aerial view of the theatre (we did not have a drone) was borrowed from Wikipedia, as do most of what we say about the history below.


As much as the theatre is a major touristic site, its entrance from the street was not easy to find after purchasing a ticket. This is the second Greek theatre we saw in Sicily, the other was at Taormina.


Given Siracusa’s statue as a major city of wealth and culture in ancient times, it was befitting that the city has one of the most impressive theatre.


The cavea (seating section) is one of the largest in the Greek world, and originally had 67 rows of seating, mostly cut into rocks and divided into nine sectors (cunei) by access stairs. A pathway (diazoma) runs around the theatre halfway up the cavea, dividing it in two.


Having been abandoned for centuries, the theatre underwent progressive destruction as blocks of stones were taken to construct new fortifications on Ortigia (around 1500’s during Spanish occupation).


This process led to the destruction of the scene building and the upper part of the seating.


At the back of cavea is a terrace as well as several grottos.




Around 1750’s, the ancient aqueduct was re-established which brought water to the top of the theatre, allowing the creation of several water mills in the cavea.


In 1914, the Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico (INDA) began the annual performance of Greek drama in the theatre. The ancient Greek tragedies are performed at sunset. Each theatre season begins in May and ends in July. As we were there during Easter, the stage and seating for the 2015 season was just being constructed.


Sophocles’ Electra, Alcestis of Euripides and Seneca’s Phaedra are the three works that will be part of the fifty-second cycle of classical plays at the theatre in 2016.


The Teatro Greco forms part of the Parco archeologico della Neapolis which includes several ancient limestone quarries (“latomie”). We briefly explored the Latomia del Paradiso which is now planted with orange and lemon trees.


Many sections of the quarries are roped off, either because the caves are too delicate or unsave, or we were too early in the touristic season and the park may be understaffed at the time.


La Grotta dei Cordari – entrance blocked


In one corner of Latomie del Paradiso, a narrow cavern 23 meters high and up to 65 meters deep is carved into the limestone walls.


It was referred to by Caravaggio in 1608 as the Orecchio di Dionisio (“Ear of Dionysius”) – presumably due to its shape (a bit too Martian we thought, like Spock’s), or its remarkable acoustics, allowing a person to stand at one end and hear whatever that is spoken at the other. We tested it, and indeed it lived up to its reputation.


A local legend speaks of Dionysius using this cave to hold his enemies and its acoustics to spy on his prisoners.


As it was getting late, we did not manage to look into the alleged tomb of Archimedes (the naked genius who shouted Eureka, see earlier post here) but here is a picture of it from outside the fence.

It was August 1, Switzerland’s National Day and everything was closed around us. Our friend A and F thought – why not spend a day in France ?  Since many shops were holding an end of the summer sales, we could benefit from some dernière démarque, tax-free shopping. So off we went to Annecy.


Annecy was super-busy and we were so glad that we booked our table at La Ciboulette in advance.


We made a one’o clock reservation, the restaurant was full; and we were the last to leave, hence, the empty tables.


La Ciboulette serves contemporary continental fare. It was the first time for all of us.


The dining room has modern oak paneling, and during the summer it is opened to a courtyeard filled with plants.


Interesting silver salt and pepper shakers (Angry Birds) and bougeoir on each table.


We all had the “Gourmandise” set menu which started with an amuse bouche – a cool cerviche.


We were very happy with our lunch, the service and thought that the whole experience calls for one michelin star.




Well, when we looked the restaurant up online back home, they do indeed have one michelin star.


Cheese course – the trolley and cheeses is ….






We ended the day with one of the most fantastic fireworks shows we ever saw. Annecy had its Fete de Lac on that day and the fireworks were synchronized with music from the 70’s to the present. The show ended with Sia’s Titanium.


We are happy to know this place as Annecy is packed with touristy restaurants.

Highly recommended.


Let’s take a look inside Siracusa’s most celebrated landmark.

Siracusa’s Duomo (cathedral) sits on the highest point on the island of Ortigia.

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The cathedral incorporates the remains of a Greek temple dating back to the 6th century BC. The temple was dedicated to Athena (Minerva in Etruscan) – the Roman goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. It has a highly complex baroque facade.

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Despite the exterior shows the styles of the Baroque and Rococo, the interior includes parts built by the Greek dating back to the Middle Ages and parts built by the Byzantines in the seventeenth century as seen today.

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The main entrance is flanked by a pair of highly decorated Rococo columns.

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Doric columns of the Temple of Athena inside the cathedral.

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When the first Christian church was built herein the Seventh Century, the doric columns were incorporated into its structure.

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The Duomo holds statues, relics and remains of saints, martyrs and nobles of the city. The patron saint of Siracusa is Santa Lucia, born locally (284-304 AD) and died as a young Christian martyr.

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Siracusa was a Roman province under the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (r.284-305) who mounted some of the fiercest persecutions of members of the Christian church.

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There are two legendary stories about Santa Lucia’s eyes. As Lucy had beautiful eyes, the pagan man who was proposed to marry Lucy, wanted Lucy’s eyes. One story says that the christian Lucy gifted her eyes to the pagan man, and asked him to leave her alone.

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The second story says that while she was taken by the governor for being a Christian, during the torture, she was stabbed in the throat by a dagger to stop her from speaking about Christian faith and her eyes were taken out.

In both stories, God had restored her eyes.

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The emblem of eyes on a cup or plate apparently reflects popular devotion to her as protector of sight, because of her name, Lucia (from the Latin word “lux” means “light”).

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Santa Lucia is represented in Christian Art is generally represented as bearing a dish or platter with two eyes on it.

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A highly treasured silver statue of Santa Lucia, made in 1599 in Palermo, had been stolen in the past. It is now locked up in a silver box stored somewhere in the cathedral, and only brought out on religious occasions. Photos of the statue and the box are shown instead.

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Her feast day is celebrated on December 13 and once coincided with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. So her feast day has become a festival of light widely celebrated in not only Italy but also as far away as the Scandinavia.

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Santa Lucia and her eyes is definitely one of the more macabre legends of Christian martyrs we came across.

While in Siracusa, IT and I(Chris) had lunch at a very popular salumeria – F.lli Burgio – next to the market on the island of Ortigia. They claim to be a specialist of artisanal products of Sicilian gastronomy.


On their website, they listed a taste laboratory and a showroom (which was where we were). They also listed several stores in France which are likely their export partners.


The counter was packed. They offered tastings too.


Anchovies (Chris and Sue have divergent feelings about this item)


Sun-dried tomatoes made from a special local variety – Pomodoro di Pachino (yes, the Godfather actor probably took his name from this commune in Siracusa) – especially Ciliegino (cherry size).


Olives – it’s DOP.


The drier and hotter climate likely cause sicilian agricultural products to taste slightly different from the mainland version. We cannot yet tell the difference because everything was new to our taste buds.


Cheeses: fresh provole (provolone-like, pear shaped), goat cheeses – Cinniri (flavored with ash of almond trees) and Zubia.

buglio-14These provole must have been smoked.




The store was mobbed as it was lunch time. So we sat outside in the Piazza where they have set up picnic tables. The menu is simple. Each person orders a platter of cured meat, smoked fish or mixed. All comes with unlimited bread.


The way they present cold cuts, dried sliced fish, salads, olives, pies and cheese wedges on a wooden board is unique. It comes in about 10 or so small glass containers -from sharp appetizers, hard cheeses (not too stinky), salty meats, to sweet dessert. The dessert was a cannoli (inside out) in a small champagne flute.


Outside on the piazza, some people had a whole table full of meat, cheeses, roasted veges, sun-dried tomatoes and bread.

A rock band was playing in the background during lunch time.


We suspect that these whole table servings came from a sandwich shop immediately next door to F.lli Burgio. That shop was also very popular. Every  sandwich was made to order by this grandpa-like person. There was a long line of hungry customers and onlookers, all licking their lips.


We really enjoyed the food, the crowd, and the ambiance !

Continuing with our trip to Siracusa, Sicily … the apartment we rented is situated on the island of Ortigia and overlooks one of the newer and straighter main street on the island – Corso Giacomo Matteotti.ortigia apartment-15

The apartment is located on the top floor of a relatively new, mixed-use building. There is a Zara on the street level, government offices on the second floor, and several residential apartments on the higher floors.

Entrance hallway inside the apartment
ortigia apartment-1Notice the horizontal stripes, there are vertical stripes in the apartment too. The style of the decoration is bold to say the least.

ortigia apartment-2There was a bedroom opposite these chairs that were not opened to us (the place could officially sleep at least six people).

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Kitchen – dining area

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A bottle of local wine awaited us on the dining table. Nice touch by the owner.

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The dining area is connected to the sitting area.

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One wall of the sitting area is covered by a giant poster, advertising the re-presentation of the classical greek tragedy – Oresteia  (Orestiade di Eschillo; written in 458 BC) by Aeschylus  – one of the few complete plays that had survived.

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Aeschylus is recognized as the father of greek tragedy and pioneered the concept of a “trilogy” – each play serves as a chapter in a continuous dramatic narrative.

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The sitting area faces southwest and has a wrap-around terrace. The french doors fills the room with sunlight every day (particularly in the afternoon).

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The terrace overlooks Corso Giacomo Matteotti and the Palazzo Greco across the street. The National Institute of Ancient Drama (L’Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico, INDA) which celebrates their 100th year in 2015 is situated in the palazzo (photo below). Given the poster concerning a greek tragedy faces the palazzo, someone who lived in this apartment must have something to do with INDA, we think.

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The layout of the apartment resembles that of a loft, even though there are hallways and corridors. The walls of the corridors and rooms are not structural.

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This psychedelic corridor leads to our bedrooms and the bathroom.

The rather dramatic crimson red and inky blue master bedroom.

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The boring second bedroom with three long empty bookshelves. Perhaps, it was used as a study.

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The bathroom consists of two sets of sinks and toilets at opposite ends of a space joined in the middle by a tiled shower and sunken “tub”.

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Ethnic vs modern ends of the bathroom.

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Sue found the apartment really relaxing, with the doors opened and sunlight streaming into the living room.

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The manager, Alessandra, was also very hospitable and helpful with information, and we had a very nice stay.

This is part 2 of our post on Siracusa (read part 1 here). The city of Siracusa was named as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006. This 2,700-year-old city played a key role in ancient times, when it was one of the major powers of the Mediterranean world.

Piazza Duomo with the Duomo di Siracusa

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Next to the Duomo is the Palazzo Senatorio (the Senators’ Palace), home of the city hall, built in the 1600’s on the ruins of a Ionian temple. The oval piazza is really beautiful.

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The medieval Episcopal Palace is also here.

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Palace Benventano del Bosco also in Piazza Duomo

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Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia at the other end of Piazza Duomo

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The city was founded by ancient Greek Corinthians and became a very powerful city-state, being allied with Sparta and Corinth. It equaled Athens in size during the fifth century BC.

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Surrounded by the Ionian sea, the island is connected to the main part of Siracusa by two bridges.

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View of the Ionian Sea from our apartment.

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The most important cultural artifact in Siracusa is the Temple of Apollo (Greek: Ἀπολλώνιον; Apollonion).

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It is dated to the beginning of the 6th century BC and is therefore the most ancient Doric temple in Sicily.

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A truly world famous person from Siracusa is Archimedes (287 BC to 212 BC) – a mathematician, physicist, inventor and indeed a very important scientist of the ancient world. This piazza is named after him. We can see the fountain from our apartment just up the street.

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Archimedes is famous for sitting in a bath tub and solving the problem of measuring the volume of an irregular object by submerging it in water and measuring the displaced water. So excited by his discovery, he took to the streets naked, that he had forgotten to dress, crying “Eureka!” (Greek: “εὕρηκα,heúrēka!”, meaning “I have found [it]!”).

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Many young people left Ortigia for work leaving empty homes. But the older parts of Ortigia is slowly being gentrified, many turned into B&Bs or boutique hotels.

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Lots of narrow streets and little piazzas to explore.

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One can get lost easily as the streets and alleys are not organized as a grid and most houses would look too similar to the tourists.

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Ortigia is a truly historic place. You can’t get any more mediterranean than what’s on this island. See part 1 with photos of the shoreline of the island here.

Siracusa is one of two cities we stayed for several days on the eastern part of Sicily. Taormina is the other, see our earlier posts about it here and here.

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The city of Siracusa itself is not very scenic, so we stayed instead on the island of Ortigia (or Ortygia in English) at the southeastern tip of Siracusa.

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The island of Ortigia at less than 1 square km is the oldest part of Siracusa.

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While we explored the island, we managed to walk pretty much the entire perimeter of the island, except the very tip where there is a fort. See the Italian coast guard’s boat at the port of Ortigia.

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Fontana Aretusa – apparently a fresh water source – right next to the sea ! No wonder the ancient sailors liked the place.

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A typical narrow street on Ortigia, often with a view of the sea in the distance.

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Luongomare Alfeo along the western side of the island

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The island is surrounded by the Ionian Sea.

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Luongomare d’Ortigia on the eastern side of the island

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The pictures here were taken on different days at different hours.

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The name Ortigia originates from the Ancient Greek ortyx (ὄρτυξ), which means “Quail”.

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A line of rocks were deposited here to break the waves on the eastern side of the island.

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The fortification here looks modern but we suspect that it was built on top of an older base.

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On the east side of the island, one can see the city of  Siracusa in a distance.ortigia shore-13

We will show you more of the streets of Ortigia in our next post.