Julie is the author of a number of guidebooks, including 'Melbourne's Best Bush Bay and City Walks' & 'Melbourne for Dogs' (with RSPCA). Read more of her adventures at her walks blog: walksmelbourne.com
For a week in Italy in winter, you can't beat Syracusa. Nestled at the southern tip of Sicily (Italy's 'boot'), the weather here at the start of January is a sunny, mild 17C. Perfect for wandering the old twisting, narrow streets and cobbled laneways of Ortygia and sampling the flavourful delights of Sicilian cooking at the many open-air cafes and trattoria scattered throughout the town.
Classified as a UNESCO World heritage site in 2006, Ortygia is the ancient town centre of Syracusa, and sits packed together on a tiny island joined to the main town with a series of bridges. It is just 1km long by 500 metres wide, so perfect for even the most reluctant walkers. Syracusa itself was once the largest city in the ancient world – even bigger that Athens! It was founded in 730BC, so what you see now represents a layering of the various civilisations which have laid claim to it over the past 3000 years. Consequently, Ortygia is graced with magnificent piazzas, grand churches and stunning palazzos. There is an ancient Jewish ghetto and even remains from when the city was taken over by Arab, Byzantine, Norman and Spanish invaders. There is even an impressive fortified castle on its southernmost tip: the Castello Maniace.
The main cathedral (Duomo) in magnificent Piazza Duomo, incorporates an earlier ancient greek temple which stood on the site previously, and you can still see the doric columns around which it was built, if you wander down its side.
Earlier doric columns incorporated in the Ortygia Duomo
On Saturdays and Sundays all year round, Ortygia is closed to traffic and residents and visitors alike have to park their cars off the island, making it an absolute pleasure to wander around. On Saturdays until 2pm, there is a regional produce market in the Piazza della Poste, near the bridges, where you can pick up fresh fruit, seafood, plump Sicilian salami and tasty treats.
Getting to Ortygia is easy, and even absolutely doable as a weekend escape or side trip from Rome. There are regular flights into Catania airport, with a short flight time of just 50 minutes, then a further 40 minutes in a car or taxi finds you in the heart of Ortygia and ready to kick back, relax and explore another world. The only difficult decision is where to stay: tucked into the winding streets, or with a view of the surrounding ocean? There are a number of lovely boutique hotels in the back streets, along with a variety of wonderful B&B's and genuine self-contained apartments inside ancient palazzos, all very reasonably priced. How to choose? A very nice problem to have.
Sunset promenading on a Staurday evening is de rigeur in Ortygia