Over the centuries, Sicily has suffered from innumerable natural disasters, including devastating earthquakes. One in particular, the earthquake of 1693, flattened a number of towns and villages in southwest Sicily. Paradoxically, it resulted in rebuilt villages of great beauty whose architects embraced the then fashionable and impressive Baroque style. (Top: The Duomo and Piazza del Municipo)
Noto is perhaps the most bedazzlingly Baroque city of all. In fact, with its broad, car free main street – Corso Vittorio Emanuele – which one enters via the monumental Porta Reale, it feels a bit like a stage set for an Italian opera. The Corso is lined with one splendid palace, church, monastery, nunnery and municipal building after another, culminating in the over-the-top, twin-towered Duomo, completed in 1776. In scale and drama, it’s the city’s piece de resistance, and not soon forgotten.
Also decimated by the earthquake of 1693 was the hill town of Ragusa, which is now split in two: Ragusa Superiore lies above the charming older town of Ragusa Ibla. Viewed from above, Ragusa Ibla is especially stunning, although from almost any angle, as one moves down along curved streets, towards the heart of the old city and its dramatic Piazza del Duomo, the unfolding patchwork of ancient rooftops, domes and historic buildings is remarkable.
The small town of Modica, built at the bottom of a steep canyon, boasts a splendid Baroque Duomo di San Pietro, and charming main street. But the main reason most people visit Modica is to sample its unique and remarkable chocolate.
Since 1746, its been made according to a recipe inspired by the Aztecs and introduced to the town by Sicily’s Spanish Bourbon rulers. Modica’s chocolate bars, for example, are made from fifty percent cacao, no butter but plenty of sugar. They are crunchy rather than smooth and intensely chocolate. Either you love them or you don’t. Needless to say, I adored them. Of all the variations tasted, I preferred two: one with sea salt from nearby Trapani and, predictably, one with pistachios. I’m sorry I didn’t buy more to take with me, though I’m going to go on a scouting trip to Eately, New York’s all-things-Italian, to see if they carry them.
Ferla and Pantalica
The winding, twisting drive up to the village of Ferla (famous for having 9 churches and one priest), and beyond it, to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Pantalica, was one of the most beautiful drives of our entire trip. At times, surrounded by huge pine forests, deep gorges and dramatic cliffs, I thought I was in the American Rockies. The dramatic journey (only accessible by car) brought us to an eerie stone-age site, Sicily’s largest necropolis, discovered by an archeologist in 1880 – a honeycomb of about 5,000 tombs from the 12th Century B.C.– carved out of limestone cliffs in a craggy wilderness.
Further up the road were the stone foundations of a Greek palace, dating from about the 8th Century B.C. The cliff top setting was remote, windswept and desolate, yet, somehow, perhaps because there was so little to actually “see,” the site for me was particularly haunting, making me reflect upon the waves of tribes, cultures and civilizations that invaded Sicily, and wonder what their daily lives were really like.
Our final stop in Baroque Sicily was Palazzolo Acreide, a beautiful little town, UNESCO site, and delightful place to wander because of its mix of old and new buildings and breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. Radiating out from the town’s large main square, were long, narrow streets with trim, pastel colored houses, as well as charming, renovated alleys and courtyards intermixed with 18th Century buildings and gargoyled balconies. Other parts of the town had a more medieval feel to them. There is also a small museum, Casa-Museo di Antonino Uccello, housing a collection of the folk art traditions of rural Sicily.
Next, we head south to the coast of Sicily, and northwest to the largest city in Sicily, Palermo.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag.