Sicily is a land of charm, appreciated for its pristine beaches as well as for its archaeological sites, a destination that, thanks to the mild climate, is recommended for low season holidays or for themed itineraries, such as this focused on 5 late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto, a series of sites declared by UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
How to get to Val di Noto
Our tip is to arrive in Sicily by plane, choosing one of the two airports close to this area, for example Catania airport (45 minutes from Syracuse city center) or Comiso airport, 15 km from Ragusa.
We wrote why this part of Sicily is worth visiting in Val di Noto, 3 reasons to visit this wonderful area, and in this occasion we tell you what makes these places unique and what attractions are a must-see regardless of the season.
The Late Baroque style of the 8 towns of the Val di Noto (Caltagirone, Militello in Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa and Scicli) is due to the rebuilding following the earthquake happened in 1693 that destroyed the main urban centers of this part of Sicily.
At the beginning of the XVIII century, these towns were rebuilt in the same architectural style which today is considered to be the culmination of European Baroque, witnessed by churches, palaces and squares that differ from all the other tourist attractions of the island (such as Palermo, as you can read in What to see in Palermo, new UNESCO heritage site in Italy).
All the 8 late Baroque towns boast their own peculiarity, like a fragment of a mosaic or a fresco that is part of a unique cycle.
Here is a list of 5 destinations to explore on a weekend or during an extended stay in Sicily.
If we were to sum up Caltagirone’s identity in one element, we should choose ceramics, since the XVII century craft tradition has evolved into an art form, as can be seen from even the details, such as the Staircase of Santa Maria del Monte that you can see in the picture.
Visit the Church of Santa Maria del Monte, the Corte Capitanale and the Ceramics Museum (here are collected 2500 finds from various times, from the 4th millennium BC to the present, the Church of St. Peter and the Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi to have a more definite idea of the declination of the Baroque style in this town.
Thanks to the craft shops still in business, shopping along the streets of the historic center is a nice experience for those who cannot give up the pleasure of buying gifts, clothing and accessories on vacation.
A stop in Catania is also an opportunity to visit another UNESCO site, that is Etna, where you can join guided tours in total safety (for information on how to get to the summit of the volcano, please visit funiviaetna.com), however, you can take a stroll through the town to admire the monuments of great architects who completely redesign Catania following the earthquake of 1693.
These architects, Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, Francesco Battaglia, Stefano Ittar, Alonzo di Benedetto and Girolamo Palazzotto have devised a harmonious scenario in which ancient monuments are inserted between the wide streets of the historic center, Via Etnea, Via Vittorio Emanuele II, Via Plebiscito and Via Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Take some time to visit the churches and convents along Via Crociferi, stop by to see the symbol of Catania, the Elephant, a fountain sculpted in lava stone and limestone and topped by an obelisk, located in the center of Piazza Duomo.
The Cathedral of Sant’Agata is one of the most successful examples of late Baroque style reconstruction, though it has retained some elements of the original Norman structure.
After this dive in the Catanese monuments, we suggest going to Pescheria, the traditional and picturesque fish market that recalls an Arabic suq for the swirl of colors, the constant sound and the characteristic smells of the place. Buying fresh fish and getting in touch with people who live the town is an experience that we recommend to all the curious travelers who don’t want to visit only the most famous attractions of a city.
Militello Val di Catania
Despite the name, Militello Val of Catania is more like the Ragusan side of Val di Noto and is a city-museum, as the great number of monasteries, churches, noble palaces, fountains and even the remains of Norman age make it a town underestimate, though it isn’t well-known to anyone visiting Sicily.
This isn’t just a place centered on its glorious past, as you will also find two contemporary art galleries and the Treasury of Santa Maria della Stella, inaugurated in 1995, an exhibition of precious sacred works of art dating from XV to XVIII century.
Don’t forget the gastronomic specialty of this hamlet, the ficodindia, also to be enjoyed as a dessert and as an ingredient of many dishes of local tradition.
The ancient theater in the picture is a testimony to the origins of Palazzolo Acreide, which around 664 BC was known as Akrai. This hamlet is similar to Siracusa, in fact was a colony of that city, and became one of the jewels of the Val di Noto by virtue of the churches of St. Paul and St. Sebastian.
Our advice is to continue the journey by visiting the house-museum of Antonino Uccello, where a considerable amount of Sicilian ethnographic material is kept, interesting for those who want to deepen the history of the island in terms of ancient trades.
With regard to the archaeological area and the Greek Theater of Akrai, the visits are scheduled from 8:00 am to 6:30 pm and we invite you to check to the official website for further information www.palazzoloacreideturismo.it/a-akrai-palazzolo-acreide.html.
Did you know that Modica was defined “natural nativity scene”?
This name is due to the small houses facing each other, the lights dotting the landscape in the evening and the churches that make this town a pearl of Sicily.
Suffice it to think that the Duomo of S. Giorgio is considered a masterpiece of the Late Sicilian Baroque and that monuments such as Palazzo Polara and Palazzo Napolino-Tommasi Rosso have a remarkable visual impact on those who arrive for the first time in Modica, a place where Gothic, Arab, Norman and Catalan architectural styles are tied together.
If you are interested in old craft small shops you may be curious about the Museo ibleo delle arti e tradizioni popolari, located within Palazzo dei Mercedari, or you could visit the Birthplace of Salvatore Quasimodo, Nobel Prize in Literature in 1959, or see what remains of the Castello dei Conti di Modica, located on a rocky promontory, to admire the Val di Noto from above.
As for gourmet delicacies, Modica is worldwide known for chocolate, produced following the ancient recipes of South America.
The Modicians learned the chocolate processing from the Spanish, who had discovered this tradition of Aztecs, so in Modica you will find exclusive varieties such as chili pepper, carob, coffee and citrus chocolate.
After seeing the masterpieces of the Sicilian Baroque, you will be persuaded that Sicily isn’t only a place where to spent long days at the beach, but one of the richest regions in Italy for art, history and craftsmanship.
Preview photo Credits: Modica, Duomo di San Giorgio, Credits: By Ruggero Poggianella (Flickr: Modica, Duomo di San Giorgio) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons