The Secret Staircase

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August 27th 2017
Published: August 28th 2017
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We have had a hectic couple of days so we decide that today we will relax at the nice beach that we drove to on the other side of the bay from Ortigia earlier in the week. We are tired so we sleep in. As we are about to walk out the door we happen to read a notice that was sent to us when we booked the apartment which says that the car park is closed between 10am and 8pm on Sundays. It is Sunday and it is 10.30am. I walk around to the car park in the hope that the attendants overdid the limoncello last night and have now forgotten that it‘s Sunday. They haven't. We Google buses to the village near the beach, but there are none, and Google says it will take two hours to walk there. We decide that maybe we won't be going to this beach today after all.

We decide to go to the very small beach in front of the apartment instead. We access our apartment from the same level as the Piazza Duomo, but we have noticed that there are apartments on the waterfront level below us, and we are curious to find out how the residents get into them. We walk along the waterfront to see if we can work this out.

Anyone who knows Issy well knows that she constantly craves Japanese food. She could live on sashimi without any trouble at all, and drools at its every mention. One of the things she has found frustrating in Italy is the lack of variety in the cuisine; it is very hard to get food that isn't Italian. Personally I can't see the problem with this, but she has a different view. We peer into the doorway below the window directly below our apartment window, which it seems leads to a restaurant. I hear Issy shriek. I panic and wonder what disaster has suddenly befallen her. It seems that this was a shriek of euphoria. She shows me a sign in very small letters below the name of the restaurant which says that it specialises in Sicilian and Japanese cuisine. In our experience there are only a handful of Japanese restaurants in the whole of Italy, and it seems that for the past week we have been unknowingly living right on top of one of them. We Google the restaurant. It says that it is six metres from our apartment. I assume that this is to the centre of the restaurant. I think that we could probably fall through our bedroom floor and land on a plate of sushi. Issy is already drooling and I think I have a fair idea where we will be going for dinner tonight. I think it's probably just as well we've only discovered this now on our last day here. If we'd discovered it earlier I think we may have been eating Japanese food every night.

The beach in front of our apartment is small and very crowded, and there is no shade, so we walk on. We pass Castello Maniace, which is the military area which was closed when we came past it a few days ago. Today it is open, so we go in. We read that there has been a fort of some sort here since the eleventh century, and that the current fort was built in the thirteenth century. It seems that it was significantly damaged in 1704 when someone got a bit careless with the gunpowder. The views from the fort back towards the rest of Ortigia are excellent.

We leave the fort and continue our search for somewhere to swim and rest in the shade. We pass a "solarium", but the attendant tells us that there are no sun lounges or umbrellas available today. The water ten metres below the promenade looks very inviting, but we can't get to it. This is a bit frustrating. We see some people swimming off the rocks below us, but we can't see how they would have got there. We then see a rusty and near vertical ladder down to the rocks, which you can access by climbing over the railing. We watch as a man carrying a spear gun climbs down. He seems to get to the bottom without shooting himself, but we decide that maybe this isn't for us.

We have lunch at a small cafe and then wander back around the waterfront to the apartment for a siesta.

Issy wants to rest up some more so I head off by myself to visit the Jewish Baths. These are accessed through the lobby of a hotel. A guide leads us down about sixty steps to an underground cave twenty metres below the surface in which the baths are housed. It seems likely that the baths have been here since the sixth century, but were only discovered in 1989 when the hotel was being renovated. There was a large Jewish population in Siracusa until 1492 when they were expelled while Sicily was under Spanish rule. It seems likely that the baths were then deliberately sealed off and hidden in the hope that one day the exiled population could return. They were originally used for ritual purification. Our small tour group is made up of four Italians and me. I feel sorry for the guide. She has a spiel which she needs to recite. It takes her a long time to get through the Italian version, and she then needs to repeat it in English just for me. The Italians are starting to look a bit bored by the time she finishes.

I move on to the Hypogeum of Piazza Duomo which is a very extensive series of underground tunnels which are accessed through an entrance off the Piazza. The tunnels seem to lead off in all directions. Siracusa was bombed heavily by the Allies and then by the Germans during World War II, and the tunnels were used as an air raid shelter. I guess getting bombed by both sides is what happens when you decide to swap teams halfway through a war. The armistice between Italy and the Allies was signed in 1943 at Cassibile, which is just outside Siracusa. The tunnels are mostly under the Piazza, but there is also one under the front of the Cathedral. The exit from the tunnels is at the waterfront on the west side of the island, which is several hundred metres from the entrance.

We go the Japanese restaurant. The owner is Sicilian and his wife is Japanese, and it sounds strange to hear a Japanese lady speaking what sounds to us like very good Italian. We tell them that we are staying in the apartment directly above the restaurant, and it looks like our living room is directly above the kitchen. I'm surprised that Issy hasn't picked up the smell of raw fish wafting up from the kitchen into our window. We finish dinner and ask for the bill. The owner says that they have disturbed us with their loud talking during dinner so he takes twenty per cent off the bill. We hadn't noticed even any soft talking, so we give them a large tip. They tell us that we can get back to our apartment using their "secret staircase" at the back of the restaurant. We had heard dogs barking during dinner. The owner takes us to the back of the restaurant, and rolls a wine barrel out of the way, revealing the staircase. As he does this two large dogs escape from behind the barrel and charge into the restaurant. We sense that now might be a good time to leave. We climb the staircase and magically emerge in the courtyard outside our apartment.

This is our last night in Sicily and we are now very sad to be leaving.

Additional photos below
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Our apartment window, OrtigiaOur apartment window, Ortigia
Our apartment window, Ortigia

Note the sign about the Japanese restaurant in the window below ours

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