The Enchanting Province of Ragusa

The Enchanting Province of Ragusa

At the southeastern part of Sicily is a province so enchanting, romantic and astounding in its architectural details, that in 2002, eight of its towns were included as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The province is Ragusa, whose namesake capital, lies about an hour’s drive from Siracusa. Known as the Val di Noto, the towns are Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Scicli and Ragusa. These towns were devastated by a massive earthquake that stuck in 1693. The rebuilding that took place during the early 18th century was in the prevailing style of the day – Baroque. These eight towns are like a string of pearls presenting the magnificent architecture and artwork in churches and cathedrals that must be seen to be believed. For most visitors, Ragusa is off the beaten path, but that means that they are treated to a more tranquil experience as a result.

The city of Ragusa is really two towns that were combined into one municipality in 1926. Lower Ragusa, known as Ragusa Ibla, or simply Ibla, was the ancient city, rebuilt after the earthquake. Upper Ragusa, or Ragusa Superiore, is the main part of the new city, built on the ridge with most of its churches and major buildings constructed in Baroque and Neoclassical styles.

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Ragusa Ibla’s best-known church is the imposing Basilica of San Giorgio, whose entrance is reached by climbing a spacious set of elegantly decorated curving stairs. The majestic dome of the church towers above the town and dominates the Piazza del Duomo, with its neat rows of palm trees beneath it. The basilica was built in 1738 by the noted architect Rosario Gagliardo, who was responsible for designing several churches in the area, especially in Noto. This basilica is considered to be Gagliardo’s Baroque masterpiece.

Continuing down the Corso 25 Aprile, you will pass the beautiful Church of San Giuseppe, while the opposite direction will take you to Giardino lbleo, whose gardens offer spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, among the most scenic in Sicily. The Church of San Domenico is located inside the gardens and is notable for its bell-tower decorated with Maiolica ceramic tiles from Caltagirone. There is another church in the vicinity of the park which is called the Church of the Cappucini Vecchi, noted for several paintings by the 16th century Sicilian artist Pietro Novelli.

Crossing into Ragusa Superiore from Ragusa Ilba, you will encounter the Church of Santa Maria delle Scale (St. Mary of the Stairs) on the Via XXIV Maggio. The Church was restored in the 18th century and contains some sculptures attributed to the Gaginis, but is also well-known for the 242-step staircase that leads up to it.

The town of Modica is sometimes described as the undiscovered jewel in southern Sicily. It was the capital of the region in the 12th century and is divided into two parts (upper and lower) connected by numerous flights of steps. Palazzi and houses rise from the bottom of the gorge seemingly stacked one on top of the other. Magnificent churches, with their inspiring domes, bell towers and intricate facades, punctuate the red-tiled roofs and one is struck by the uniform beauty of the entire town. Unlike most others in Sicily, the town is built in a valley instead of a hilltop and it is nestled between sandstone ridges. Terraces climb up the gorges interspersed with Baroque churches and Rococo palaces in an area that is rich in history and some of the most beautiful architecture in Sicily.

The upper part of Modica is home to the magnificent Baroque Cathedral of San Giorgio, called one of the Seven Wonders of the Baroque World, it is even more spectacular than similarly named basilica in Ragusa. This golden 18th century church looms over the town and visitors need to ascend 250 steps to reach it. Also rising above the city is a stately clock tower which stands on a high peak, adjoining a beautiful stone structure overlooking the ancient city. The clock device is the same one used in 1725 and has to be manually wound the old fashioned way. The well-preserved tower represents the predominant late Baroque style architecture of the city below.

Modica is also known for its delicious chocolate and is one of the most famous products of the Ragusa area. The incredibly rich chocolate is still made the traditional way, in methods that date to the 16th century – without cocoa butter or additives. Many flavors are available, including vanilla, cinnamon, white pepper, citrus and sea salt.

Noto, arguably the most crowded of the Val di Noto towns, is also the grandest. The city was constructed in an orderly, linear fashion, a prime example of late Baroque city planning. Noto sits on a plateau dominating the valley of the Asinaro and its citrus plantations. One of the pearls of the province, this tiny jewel is endowed with an opulent beauty in a spectacular composition of streets and buildings, including noble palaces and richly decorated churches. A visit must include the Cathedral of San Nicolò and Palazzo Ducezio. The former was completed in 1776 and needed to be extensively rebuilt following damage sustained as a result of an earthquake in 1990. The latter, located across the piazza, was designed in the mid-18th century and features a partly convex facade, with graceful arches supported by Ionic-capital columns. It now houses Noto’s town hall.

The town of Palazzolo features a medieval center and the new city that subsequently developed. Of particular importance are the Churches of San Sebastiano and of Saints Peter and Paul. At the top of the hill where the acropolis used to lie, are the ruins of a small theater built of white stone which dates from Roman times.

Visitors to Caltagirone cannot fail to notice the thriving industry now synonymous with the name of the city – brightly painted ceramics not only fill shop windows, they also decorate bridges, balustrades, balconies and of course, its famous ceramic steps. All bear witness to an art which is as old as the town itself. Caltagirone’s rich architecture and the beauties of its facades are found in the churches of Santa Maria del Monte and San Giacomo Apostolo, as well as in the palazzi of Corte Capitanale and the Civic Museum.

Last, but certainly not least, is the magnificent city of Scicli, where churches and villas make for a visibly-striking urban panorama. Specifically, Palazzo Beneventano and its glorious facade is an architectonic and artistic masterpiece. Scicli lies in a valley amidst rocky mountains where the San Bartolomeo, the Santa Maria La Nuova and the Fiumara di Modica rivers join. Thanks to its elegant palazzi, churches and its picturesque shape, Scicli is yet another jewel that adorns the island of Sicily.

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