Sicily, beautiful Sicily, how I love you so!
Such a gorgeous and captivating island, filled with a variety of fine architecture, delicious Italian food and wine, picturesque landscapes and rich, rich history. What more could a girl ask for!
I have yet to see all of the island. She’s quite a big one actually! The largest in the Mediterranean Sea. I refer to Sicily as a “her” and “she” because to me, Sicily is very much like a seductive and beautiful ageing woman. With her ancient baroque cities, lush citrus orchards and temperamental volcanoes, bellisima Sicilia has her own unique charm. Weathered and slightly unkempt at times, but dignified, graceful and above all, absolutely breath taking, this island has a special place in my heart.
As I’ve already said, I haven’t been to all parts of the island, but I will give a brief summary of the places I have been below:
- Ragusa – The town has two faces one might say; Ragusa Superiore is a busy, more modernised town, in which most people from the area live. It has all the workings of a modern provincial city and is not the most picturesque. Ragusa Ibla on the other hand is the town’s historical centre, and absolutely magnificent to behold (and my absolute favourite). Set on a rocky, sloping hill, this old town is full of narrow, tangled alleys, colourful houses, handsome squares and piazzette and ornate baroque palazzi.
Getting lost amongst the narrow streets and enjoying a cafe in one of the beautiful sun drenched piazzas is an absolute delight, and not to worry, even if you do lose your way, you are very likely to end of in Ragusa Ibla’s main square, Piazza Duomo – as all paths seem to lead to this lovely central square. At the top of the sloping Piazza Duomo is the Cattedrale di San Giorgio, a beautiful 18th century cathedral with a large dome and intricate stained glass windows.
Whilst the interior of the cathedral is not very ornate, it is still impressive, especially when the sunlight passes through the stained glass of the dome, creating a mystical and ethereal effect within. At the eastern part of the city is the Giardino Iblea, a pretty public garden with some fantastic views of the surrounding hills and valleys. Great eateries are abundant in this beautiful city but I have to mention a fantastic restaurant which served absolutely DELICIOUS gluten free pizza. Antares is located right next to the Piazza Duomo. Service was amazing, as was the location and atmosphere of the place. Their gluten free pizza (as well as their normal ‘glutenfull’ 😉 pizza) was perfection, with a thin and crunchy base and a great variety of flavours and toppings. So if you are a coeliac, make sure to visit the place! You won’t be disappointed.
We stayed in the Hotel dell’Orologio when in Ragusa Ibla – it’s a pretty complex of apartments spread out all over the old town, with a central office and kitchen where a complimentary breakfast is served to the guests during the morning. The apartment I stayed in was very comfortable and extra clean, with a small kitchenette and a lovely little balcony overlooking the alleys of the city. The hosts were all very friendly and welcoming, and were happy to prepare some gluten free items for me during breakfast so I was very pleased with my choice!
- Modica – Similar to Ragusa Ibla in structure, Modica has a steeply stacked medieval centre with a lot of winding street and alleys climbing up a steep hill towards Modica Alta. The lower part of Modica, Modica Bassa, is a thriving and busy city, full of activity and heavy traffic. As you climb the steep slopes, through narrow lanes and alleys, towards the old medieval quarter, the town becomes quieter and more laid back. Higher up, within the old town, perches the dramatic Duomo di San Giorgio (yes… the Sicilians love St. George and his poor dragon victim). This remarkable building boasts gorgeous architecture and was created in the local Baroque style after a devastating earthquake in 1693 which had destroyed the previous building, amongst many others around Sicily. The Duomo’s grand façade rises up into a curved central bell tower and a pair of staircases climbing towards the church create a beautiful symmetry with gardens of wisteria and palms adding to the luxurious scenery.
Modica is known for something which is very near and dear to my hear (and taste buds) – CHOCOLATE!!! ❤ ❤ ❤ Aztec chocolate to be precise!! That’s right! This specialty, inspired by the Aztec original recipe for Xocoatl, was introduced in the County of Modica by the Spaniards, during their domination in the southern Italy. It’s rich, dark and crumbly and absolutely delicious. There are a number of chocolatiers in Modica, but the most famous is the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto in Corso Umberto I. There’s a multitude of different flavours to choose from such as vanilla, sea salt, citrus fruits and my favourite, chilli pepper! Be prepared to eat, eat, eat! You have to try most of the flavours as you’d be missing out if you do otherwise! 😉
- Noto – A city of ornate baroque architecture, Noto will not disappoint. This beautiful little city is less than 30 km away from Modica and is home to one of Sicily’s most dense and impressive historic centres. The gorgeous Corso Vittorio Emmanuele (the main road of the center) is an elegant walkway flanked by impressive baroque palaces and churches on both sides and is absolutely a delight to walk through if you’re a fan of architecture and art. It oozes history and culture and is a perfect place to sit down and just soak in the sights whilst sipping on a glass of local wine. Make sure to have a look at the Cattedrale San Nicolo, the graceful Piazza Municipio, the Chiesa di San Domenico and the Palazzo Ducezio (Noto’s town hall).
If you like delicious gelato and granite (duh), you absolutely MUST visit the Caffe Sicilia (Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 125). It’s rumoured to serve up the BEST gelato/granita in Sicily, made with the freshest seasonal ingredients. Dolceria Costanzo, it’s neighbour (50m) away, also vies for the same title of best gelateria and dolceria (check out the mandorle – nomnomnom!) – so if I were you I would visit both, just to decide for yourself which one lives up to its reputation!
- Scicli – smaller than its neighbours Modica, Noto and Ragusa, Scicli is still worth a visit with its once again, very pretty baroque setting. Overlooking the town is the an abandoned church – the Chiesa di San Matteo, perched on a rocky peak. A walk up to this view point will reward you with some fantastic bird’s eye views of the city and its surrounding landscape.
- Syracuse – Oh beautiful, beautiful Syracuse, home of dramatic baroque piazzas, lush citrus and olive orchards and ancient Greek ruins. Once the heart of civilisation, larger even than Athens, Syracuse is one of Sicily’s greatest archaeological sites, and a feast for the eyes!
Cross the bridge from the mainland and you get to Ortigia, the older part of the city, and in my opinion, the most beautiful also. Walking through the honey hued alleys you can easily find yourself in the Piazza del Duomo – a long rectangular piazza flanked by beautiful, ornate baroque palazzi, with a central masterpiece, the Duomo. The square itself sits on what was once Syracuse’s ancient acropolis (fortified citadel) but very little remains of the original Greek buildings. Even so, if you look along the side of the Duomo, you can still notice a number of thick Doric columns incorporated into the cathedral’s structure – these are the actual ancient greek columns which supported the actual Greek temple of Athena in the 5th century BC!!! WOW!!!
Just a short note for all the coeliacs reading this. The Gran Caffe del Duomo, which is just in front of the Duomo in the piazza, has a delicious gluten free selection of pasta and pizzas on its menu! I had dinner there twice during my last stay and I was not dissapointed!
The waterfront of Ortigia is also pretty amazing to take a stroll on, especially if you’re there during the warm spring or summer seasons! There are some great cafes and bars by the sea as well as ample gelaterias to soothe the cravings of any sweet toothed visitor (such as myself!!). Make sure to pass by the Fontana di Artemide in the Piazza Archimede when in the area. Legend has it that Artemis, the goddess of hunting transformed her handmaiden Aretusa into a spring (which can be seen on site) to protect her from Alpheus’ (the river god’s) advances. There’s a placard with the legend in prose near the fountain – read through it if you have the time!
If you would like a nice, comfy place to stay in Ortigia check out Vicolo 400 – it’s a lovely self service apartment with a small comfy kitchenette, air conditioning and a fantastic courtyard (all to yourself!) which is perfect to use if you’re staying in for dinner!
Another of Syracuse’s very famous attractions, (this time on the mainland, not Ortigia) and a definite must do is the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis. This archealogical park is home to the very impressive Teatro Greco, a 16,000 capacity amphitheatre which was literally carved out of a rocky hillside in the 5th century BC. Beside the theatre is a deep quarry out of which the old city of Ortigia was probably built, known as the Latomia del Paradiso. It’s now a beautiful, shaded garden which is filled with citrus and magnolia trees. You can see several catacombs carved out of the rock within the gardens and it is said that this is the place where the 7000 or so prisoners of a war between Syracuse and Athens were imprisoned in 413BC. You can also find a mysterious and very impressive cave within, called the Orecchio di Dionisio. It’s about 23 meters high and 65 meters deep and has amazing acoustics! Caravaggio himself named the Orecchio after the tyrant Dionysius – apparently the guy used to listen in on what his prisoners were saying through it!! Outside this area you can also see a large Roman Anfiteatro – originally used for gladiatorial combats and horse races. Close by is a HUGE monolithic sacrificial altar Heron II where up to 450 oxen could be killed at one time! The price to get in to this park is €10.00 if I’m not mistaken. You should definitely visit if you get the chance, it’s such a mysterious and impressive place. I would gladly visit time and time again!
A less popular, but just as impressive site is the Latomia dei Cappuccini. This quarry/garden is the largest and one of the oldest of any other in the Syracuse area, having a surface area of about 23,000 metres square (making it even bigger than the previously mentioned Latomia del Paradiso). Walking through the shaded pathways, I was struck by the sheer beauty and peaceful aura this place had. Huge stone pilasters reach up to support massive blocks of stone and large trees and shrubs surround the area, making it a sanctuary of quiet spirituality in an otherwise bustling city.
This is where I will endPart I of my take on Sicily. I still have a lot of places to describe including Agrigento, Catania, Trapani and Erice so keep an eye on this blog for more! Make sure to press follow to get regular updates on my travel tips and experiences!
Much Love 😉