“The greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all,” said Cicero, the Roman philosopher. He was speaking of Syracuse, the city along the southeast coast of Sicily founded by the Corinthians in the eighth century B.C. They were followed by the Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Bourbons, Aragonites, Normans and Swedes, and all have left their mark.
But it is the early Greek presence that is most deeply sensed, especially in Ortigia, the narrow island attached to the mainland by three slender bridges. Ortigia means “land of quails” in classical Greek, and the name was inspired by the abundance of quails from Africa that flew over during the migrating season. It remains a beguiling image and one that, along with a lovely waterfront situation, a view of the volcano of Aetna when the sky is clear, and the many reminders of “the glory that was Greece” — including a wall from the 5th century B.C. temple of Minerva — which today is the side of the cathedral, lends Ortigia its particular charm.
A particular source of enchantment is the Fonte Aretusa, an actual embodiment of a Greek myth that explains the mysterious source of fresh water that comes through underground channels into a park-like waterfront setting, then empties into the sea. The nymph Aretusa was bathing in a clear stream when the river god Alpheus spotted and fell in love with her. Fleeing his attentions, Aretusa called on Artemis to help her preserve her chastity. The goddess hid her in a cloud, but Alpheus persisted in his pursuit. Perspiring with fear, Aretusa transformed into a stream, whereupon Artemis broke the ground beneath it, and the stream flowed under the earth all the way to Ortigia, where it settled into a freshwater basin and fountain. Alpheus did not give up, however, but transformed himself into a river that flowed through the sea until it reached the stream where it merged with the waters of the Fonte Aretusa.
Through the centuries, the legend has held. Surrounded by tall stone walls and planted with clumps of papyrus, the Fonte Aretusa remains a popular strolling destination, the site of romantic rendezvous, the subject of a myriad of poems, and most recently, the source of a namesake across the way.
The Aretusa Spa and Wellness casts its own spell through a range of aromatic facial and body rituals, beauty treatments fit for a goddess (or god, for that matter), a full-size indoor swimming pool and complete workout center. Altogether contemporary, it nevertheless fits comfortably among the neo-classical and Art Nouveau-style elements of its home: the Hotel des Ètrangers et Miramare.
Built in the middle of the 17th century, the original pink and white stone structure served as the summer residence for a succession of rich and prominent Syracuse families, only becoming the Hotel des Ètrangers early in the 19th century. During the Nazi occupation of Sicily, it functioned as a hospital. From 1960 to 2000, it was shut down, the consequence of a conflict among the owners at the time. Upon re-opening, a private house next door was connected to the main building, and thus began the Hotel des Ètrangers et Miramare, a place – as the name suggests — for strangers, and one worthy of being seen.
What one sees in the newly born hotel is a 21st century property with every imaginable comfort and accoutrement in a setting of classical architectural details and inventive Art Nouveau features, such as a turn-of-the-last-century elevator, a dizzying spiral stairway of black and white marble, and furnishings — headboards, armoires, table lamps and bathroom fixtures in the 47 individually decorated guest rooms – that together are a nod to the omnipresent Greek influence on the one hand, and a reflection of the Syracuse Art School of the late 19th and early 20th century on the other.
It was at the time of the hotel’s reopening that Patrizia Torri, executive assistant manager came onboard. A native of Rome, warm and vivacious with short blonde hair and a bright smile, Patrizia is the daughter of an Italian father and Spanish mother (from Barcelona). “We are lucky to have her,” says General Manager Alessandro Innocenti, who arrived three years ago. “She is in charge, keeps things running, plans everything.”
Soft-spoken and handsome in the Italian manner with jet black hair, a small beard and soft brown eyes, Alessandro came to Syracuse from Rome. The change, he readily admits, took some adjustment.
“I didn’t know much about Sicily before I came here, but I have learned to respect all its traditions,” he told us when we met him and Patrizia for lunch on The Roof (the spectacular restaurant that sits like a hangar on top of the hotel). “When I first came here, it was not so easy. I was used to a different point of view, a different meaning of time. In Rome, if I say I see you in five minutes, it can take 30 minutes. So when my first appointment in Ortigia was set for around noon, I figured it could be anywhere between 11:30 and 12:30. By the time the man I was to meet came around, it was 3 o’clock. Here they open shops from 8 to 1 o’clock, then close for lunch and open again at 4 o’clock. During that time, you won’t find an open shop in all of Ortigia. People have to go home, sit down and have lunch, rest for an hour and a half, read the newspaper. At first I thought they will have to change their minds. But now I see I must try to go along with them.”
From a window-front table in The Roof, it was easy to understand the appeal of a long midday break. The dining room is a sizeable one-story structure, that together with the surrounding terrace, takes up the entire roof of the building and provides sweeping vistas of the sea, the Gulf of Syracuse, Mount Aetna in the distance, and the craggy roof-lines of the island, all the way to the mainland through floor-to-ceiling windows and glass doors framed with diaphanous drapes the color of eggshells. In addition to typical table settings within and out, white downy couches define little conversation areas, while an open kitchen along one wall gives diners a glimpse of the workings of a fine restaurant — dishes being prepared, waiters picking up orders.
No sooner did we take our seats, when Mt. Aetna suddenly emerged from behind a cloud, the gray mist that had hovered all morning evaporated, and the room was streaked with sunlight. If the gods were conspiring to make this a special occasion for us, their efforts were aided by the products of a young talented chef.
“Gianiuca Constanzo is from a town close to Syracuse; he’s only in his 20s,” Alessandro said. “When he was 18, he moved out to Germany, England, France and spent two years in the north of Italy where he worked with Fulvio Perengili, the famous Tuscan chef whose restaurant has two Michelin stars. Then he decided to come back to Sicily; he wanted to express himself in his own country.”
“I changed the menu,” Chef Gianiuca told us when we met him later on. “It was more traditional when I arrived, more a typical tourist hotel menu. My idea is to gear it to the local cuisine, to be inventive in terms of using the local ingredients. The vegetables here are the best because there is sunshine throughout the year, and the salt from the sea makes them crunchier. The culture is one of fishermen and locally grown foods. Everything that is needed for fine cuisine is right here.”
All this was reflected in the fabulous buffet that had been laid out: raw artichokes with toasted walnuts, eggplant with chopped tomatoes, black olives, tiny shrimps and cherry tomatoes in a vinaigrette, sun-dried tomatoes with calamari and fratatta (tuna fish eggs). And it continued with a choice of pasta: ravioli with julienned carrots and green peppers, risotto with pecorino and balsamic vinegar, chestnut gnocchi with cauliflower and bacon on pecorino cheese cream. And with the main course: a choice of filet of sea bass accompanied by grilled zucchini and cauliflower or salt cod with endive purée. There were two delectable deserts: a white cake with a layer of dark chocolate mousse within and a cannoli biscuit filled with (no hyperbole here) the most delicious cream we had ever tasted. Later we learned it was made from ricotta – so unlike the curdy version sold in the States.
“The chef has in him the traditions of Syracuse,” Alessandro said as we waxed enthusiastic over this truly sublime meal. “Before I came here, I hated fish. Now I have gotten to like it, especially Chef’s preparation with the pistachio crust.”
The passion for local products in The Roof extends to wine. “We have some excellent wines that are not well known throughout Italy,” Patrizia told us. “We try to give exposure to local wineries, give them the opportunity to be on the market.”
She suggested we try a Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico 2007 (a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola) which we had not heard of before. It is ruby-red, full bodied, fruity, and with a long, deeply satisfying finish.
Patrizia asked us to walk over to one of the windows with her while she told us about the Albanello grape, typical for the area. “Even though it has been grown for a long time in this region, it was never used for making wine until about ten years ago,” she said. “At that time, a local man to tried to cultivate the Albanello, and then he tried blending it with Chardonnay. Using traditional methods and only grapes that he has grown, he has gone on to win gold and silver medals in wine competitions in Canada and Belgium.” She pointed to a planted field in the distance. “The vineyard is right there. You can see it from this window.” We followed her finger, and Patrizia smiled. “It is a beautiful wine,” she said.
One could say this emphasis on using local products and local wines, on learning and respecting local traditions is a hallmark of the Hotel des Ètrangers et Miramare. But such an attitude applies to people as much as it does to products and customs. There is a commitment to the local populace, to making them feel the property is part of their world, an open and welcoming place.
“In the past, only the very rich families would stay in Ortigia,” Alessandro had told us, “but on weekends, people from the mainland would come over to experience the magic of the island. That custom continues. It’s only a twenty- minute ride by automobile, and it’s like another country. To come to Ortigia on a Sunday, to walk around by the waterfront, to shop in the little stores – it’s like a holiday destination. We want the hotel to be part of this scene.
“In Italy, a hotel like this one was typically seen by the residents as something just for the guests, only for the rich people,” he said. “The bell captain, dressed in his uniform, represented a figure of authority, something like a policeman whose job is to enforce a barrier between the guests and other people. We are changing all that. The owner of this property wants the people of Syracuse to enter the hotel and experience it. His feeling is you can’t count on tourists from other places alone. You have to communicate with the residents, make them feel welcome to come in for a coffee, a drink at the bar, a lunch or dinner in the restaurant.”
He continued, “One way we try to do this is by having a special lunch at a special price. When we offered this promotion, people called and asked, “Is this true? Are you really offering lunch: pasta, meat or fish, beverage for 18 Euros?” They were surprised. Now they come. They’ll book a table for 10, and we’ll discover it is for a birthday, an anniversary, a special occasion.”
It was our good fortune to see this policy in operation on our last day in Ortigia. Once again we were up on The Roof for a final lunch. We will remember forever the poached prawns with Sicilian oranges and braised leek, the ravioli from Palermo stuffed with anchovies and pignoli, and the famous salted cod, poached and served with pignoli and onions so sweet they could be fruits.
We will also remember that it was Sunday and absolutely gorgeous. There was music from “The Great American Songbook” playing. The sky and sea were an equal shade of azure. And for the first time during our stay, it was warm enough to dine on the terrace. All the small dining tables that were empty during the previous chilly days, were filled. Within, a large private party of local people were seated around a flower-filled table in the center of the dining room for a birthday celebration. But every so often, unable to resist the lure of the outdoors, one or two at a time, they took their glasses of wine and stepped outside to breathe the spring air and take in a view that could not be surpassed.
Other people were standing at the window of the open kitchen, fascinated by
the operations of the chef and his crew. The scene seemed a manifestation of Alessandro’s goal of breaking down barriers. “It was Gianiuca’s idea to have this open kitchen,” Alessandro had told us. “He feels it is important to let diners see what is going on. Normally hotels have walls between waiters, kitchen staff and guests. Gianiucca believes if you want people to understand your philosophy, you have to be closer to them. If they can see how you prepare the dishes, then even if you can’t explain it, the barrier is broken.
“I got this sense of how to work with people from Paolo,” he added, referring to Paolo Lorenzoni, the hotel executive who had been his boss and mentor at the Excelsior in Rome and is now general manager of the Gritti Palace in Venice. “I often think back to the beginning of 2009 when I interrupted my career with Starwood. The first thing I did after receiving this offer was to call him and tell him about it. ‘Paolo,” I asked, ‘what do you think?’ He said to me, ‘You’ve been number two for a long time; now it’s time to experience what it’s like to be number one, to have no one on top of you.’
“I thought Syracuse is so far. I called my wife. ‘Why not?’ she said. ‘It should be a sunny place.’
“We arrived on March 15, 2009 – a famous date in Roman history. We had our two kids with us. We were all wearing heavy clothes. The city was an explosion of sun. There was the blue sky, the light. We took a boat to have a tour of the island. The temperature was so sweet. Then we came up to the hotel to see the sunset.
“Later in the room, I looked at my wife and she said to me, ‘Yes, this is the place.’”
Hotel Des Ètrangers et Miramare
Passeggio Adorno 10/12
96100 Siracusa, Italy
+39 0931 319100