On an Island in the Most Beautiful
City of Them All: Hotel Des Etrangers et Miramare
||"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, Aragonese, 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
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 rendez-vous, 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
Hotel des Ètrangers et
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 on board.
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
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 in and 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.
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.”
Manager Alessandro Innocenti
Executive Assistant Manager Patrizia Torri
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 20’s,” 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
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 the 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
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,” Patrizia 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.
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 pinolis, and the famous salted cod, poached and served
with pinolis 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 glass of wine and
stepped outside to breathe the spring air and take in a view that could
not be surpassed.
|“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.’”
# # #
Mario Triolo, driver
with Patrizia Torri
|Much as we hated to leave Ortigia, we had to move
on to Catania in order to make an early morning flight to Rome and a
connection from there to Tel Aviv. We wondered about the drive to
Catania from Syracuse. But no problem. The highly competent
Alessandro Innocenti arranged a limo transfer for us with the
excellent Mario Triolo at the wheel and booked a room for us at the
Grand Hotel Excelsior which, like the Hotel des Ètrangers, is an AMT
property. It was a perfect overnight stop. We spent a comfortable
night and woke the next morning rested and refreshed with time
enough for a leisurely airport check-in. When we return to Sicily,
and hopefully we shall, we would hope to spend a longer time at the
Grand Hotel Excelsior. Considered the most prestigious hotel in
Catania, the property which originally originally opened in 1953 and
underwent a complete renovation in 2001, is a splendid base for
touring some of the most beautiful sites in Sicily.
Excelsior Grand Hotel
Piazza Giovanni Verga
Phone: +39 095 7476111
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights
This Article is Copyright © 2003 by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer.
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