There’s a little corner of Sicily where you can easily lose yourself for a week. Here the baroque towns of the south east offer a glimpse into a Sicily of the past.
They owe their reputation to the earthquake of 1693 that devasted this corner of Sicily. They were all slowly rebuilt, one by one in the following century, a time when baroque architecture was the style of the day. Eight of the towns, Modica, Ragusa, Noto, Caltagirone, Scicli, Militello, Val di Catania, Catania and Palazzolo were all included on Unesco’s World heritage list in 2002.
We based ourselves in Modica to spend a week exploring some of these towns. Modica itself is an interesting town. The main street runs along the bottom of a ravine on which the town has been built. This divides the town into two parts. On the older part of the city, lanes and alleyways lead to the high part of the town. The town’s two baroque churches stand out amidst these beautiful buildings .
One of these was the scene for our introduction to the town on the night of La Festa di San Giorgio. The Duomo San Giorgio is the home of one of Modica’s patron saints whilst further along the main road, a set of magnificent stairs leads you to another, the Duomo di San Pietro.
Returning to Modica every night after our day exploring, gave us the chance to join the locals in passeggiata along the main street, Corso Umberto, stopping at the chocolate shops for which Modica is famous and seeing many more of the baroque features in the town.
Noto is perhaps the most complete baroque town in the area. It was rebuilt 10 years after the earthquake, 16kms south of the original site. The stone used in it’s grand baroque style buildings, a soft tufa stone, has a unique pink colour giving it a special glow under the sun. Most of the beautiful old buildings of noblemen and the religious orders are built along the main street ensuring a picture perfect statement of a baroque town.
The features of this style of architecture can be seen all over the upper town whist down the hill, the new town spreads out keeping the two styles separate.
The decorative details on the facades and balconies that line the streets behind Corso Vittorio Emanuele exemplify Sicilian baroque architecture at its best. Curved balconies, complete with wrought iron decoration and held up by grinning masks, lion heads or putti. Jutting cornices, gargoyles, scrolls and ribbonned buttresses and any number of decorative embellishments can be seen, usually the more the better! There is a particular flamboyance to it that has given Sicily a unique architectural identity.
Via Nicolaci is one such street. Once a year, the Infiorata di Noto ensures the street is covered in flowers but at any other time, take a walk up this street to see some of the beautiful features that exemplify baroque architecture. Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata with its grotesque balconies is a prefect example.
Ragusa is another city built over two hills. Ancient Ibla dates back to medieval times whilst the new Baroque Ragusa was built after 1693. Buildings in Ragusa Ibla were rebuilt after the quake. The San Giorgio Duomo,the Circolo de Conversazione and the San Giuseppe Duomo are just a few of these beautiful baroque buildings that you will see as you walk from the Duomo to the magnificent Giardino Ibleo with its stunning views over the valley.
Caltagirone is famous for its ceramics. It is an interesting town where everyday life continues at a slow pace. The streets are lined with ceramic shops and workshops. The buildings are understated in comparison to some of the other baroque towns but are still significant.
Caltagirone’s well photographed majolica staircase, the Santa Maria del Monte Stairway leads from the Duomo to the main piazza below where the Duomo di San Giuliano takes pride of place. The exterior of the church was originally Norman, then baroque and was finally modernised in the 20th century.
Scicli is a fascinating town and, after Noto, the one that most exemplified the architecture of the area.
By the time of our visit we were well versed in the baroque features of the towns and easily recognised details on its churches and palazzi. The best are seen by walking along the paved Via Francesco Mormina Penna to the Palazzo Beneventano with its grotesque masks and rich decorations.
These towns only form a small part of this wondrous area of Sicily.
From here, you can easily visit the the southern most tip of Sicily, which includes the Vendicari Nature Reserve and the old tuna fishing town of Marzamemi. It is an easy trip to see the 4th century mosaics at Ville Romana di Casale near Piazza Armerina. The beaches are also nearby (don’t miss the fabulous restaurant Il Sakalleo at Scoglitti), wineries are not far away and of course there is always Siracusa, one of my favourite towns in Sicily.
Have you been to this part of Sicily
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Where to stay in Siracusa