A Moment In Ortigia

Sometimes, when I travel, it’s good not to have an agenda. It’s good to just be. To be in the time, and in the place, and to wander whatever city I’m visiting.

Surprises happen on days like this. Sometimes. But usually they don’t.

The world doesn’t stop or anything as dramatic as that. In fact, the world keeps going at her languid pace; the sun rises and sets in his grand arc, and the clouds shuffle their way across the sky. Shopkeepers rise and open and close their businesses, and life goes on.

This is a good day to wander a street market on the island of Ortigia in the town of Siracusa, on the southeastern coast of Sicily.

To view the nuts and fruits and vegetables. To lust after the sun dried tomatoes and wonder if we can get them through customs.

You may cross the bridge for a brief foray off of the island, and pause to watch as a boat leisurely motors by. 

And you may stroll along the edge of the wharf inspecting the sailboats of those who have unmoored their lives from the anchors of place and now sail, as nomads, from port to port as the winds will guide them. 

Sometimes, on a day like today, Greek myth comes to life, and unexpectedly you look up only to realize that you have been standing on at the edge of the fountain of Aretusa. This font has been supplying fresh water to the island since the first settlers arrived. As the story goes, Aretusa, a handmaid of the goddess Artemis, was transformed into a spring in order to protect her from the unwanted advances of the river god Alpheus. Making her escape, this is where she surfaced.

Further down the island, you step into a 13th century Norman fortress that sits at the very end of the land, where the salty sea laps against the stony shore.

And you look to the southeast, across the Mediterranean, to where the deep blue of the sea kisses the pale blue of the sky. And you wonder about the settlers from Greece, who came to this land from beyond that remote horizon. Here, where they built homes, and temples, and cities, and lives. Here, where they waged peace and made war. And here where they said goodbye.

And you watch a catamaran frolic across the surface of the bay.

Finally, on a day like today, you may turn away and duck back into the city behind you, where you find the city’s cathedral, the duomo, with its grand baroque facade.

But the side wall tells another, much more ancient story, because there you find doric capitals and and fluted columns, with aggressive entasis (curves) peeking out from beneath the stony overcoat.

And you go inside. Within it seems at first another church, but if you look deeper, there is something more. The ceiling is triangular, rather than arched, and there is no transept, and the dome stands over the apse – a somewhat unusual location.

If you look deeper, there is definitely something more. You are not just inside a church, but also a temple. And you realize that over the years we have few remaining opportunities to actually step into an ancient Greek temple. Usually we are only allowed to view them from outside, one of the rare exceptions for me having been the partially reconstructed Temple of Apollo in Didim. But today, you find yourself standing in a temple of Athena, since become a church. Yet the temple of Athena is still there.

And the proportions feel different because of it. Or maybe I feel them differently. This is a place that feels sacred, and sacred places are are not simply seen, but are more strongly felt.

The world keeps hurtling frantically in her grand arc around the sun, season chasing season until the year is up and the chase begins again. But sometimes there are moments when it feels like the world is waiting, expectantly. And on a day like today, I am in one of those miniscule moments, and I am standing at one of an infinite number of apogees, points at which the fingers of the past intermesh with the fingers of the future in a prayer of memory and hope. In moments such as this, when we feel as much as we see, it is sometimes perfect to just pause and let it all sink in.

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