A day trip from Siracusa to the historic inland towns of Ragusa and Noto involved a lot of driving around in circles (literally, because of all the roundabouts). The destinations, fortunately, turned out to be worth the getting lost on the way.
Neither the road signs nor the GPS helped us much, and the folks in the small towns of this part of Sicily didn’t speak any more English than we spoke Italian. But eventually we found our way to Ragusa, then to Noto. Ragusa’s old town, Ragusa Ibla, is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Naturally, there’s a Duomo (cathedral) and, picturesquely, a great big palm tree leads the way.
You can see from the above photo that the old town wasn’t exactly crammed with tourists, or with humans of any kind for that matter.
The 14th-century Chiesa di San Giacomo was damaged heavily in the great 1693 earthquake, the memory of which is still very much alive in this part of the world, at least in the historical signage.
Somehow, though, the most interesting church to me was the Chiesa delle Anime Sante del Purgatorio, on a piazza leading up into the old town. Its architecture blends Greek, Norman, and Baroque influences, and its facade features people roasting in the flames of Purgatory. (Thanks to JeffreyGardens for pointing that out.)
Our favorite part of Ragusa was the Giardino Ibleo, the public gardens.
From the edge of the gardens you get a beautiful view of the Valley of Irminio.
It wouldn’t be a Sicilian town without outdoor drinking and dining, of course.
Noto is another Unesco World Heritage Site, crammed with stunning architecture. It was constructed after the 1693 earthquake which destroyed the original, ancient town some 10 km away. (We didn’t have time, but you can visit the site.) The new limestone buildings were laid out along a linear town plan reminiscent of a stage set, as the Val di Noto website explains: “its perspectives were configured and implemented in an entirely original way, flattered and enhanced with curvaceous forms and curvilinear accents in façades, decorated brackets and keystones, curlicues and volutes, masks, cherubs and balconies with gracefully bulging wrought-iron railings.”
Naturally, we’ll start with the Duomo, inspired by Borromini’s Roman churches and completed in 1776, and proceed to more churches.
One of Noto’s main attractions is the Palazzo Villadorata with its famous balconies.
This view from one of the balconies shows part of the arched Palazzo Ducezio (town hall) on the left.
Inside the Palazzo, several magnificent salones show off the splendor in which you can live if you have a monopoly on tuna fishing, as the Nicolaci di Villadorata family did in the 18th century.
A tall staircase leads to another stately home, the Palazzo Impellizzeri.
Walking among these merchant-class palazzos on their relatively narrow streets actually felt to me a little like being in one of the neighborhoods of Manhattan where New York’s great merchant families built their mansions in the 19th century, like the Upper West Side or around Central Park. And I expect it says something about the importance of the merchant class after the earthquake, too, that the secular Palazzo Ducezio is such an impressive building.
Noto wasn’t jam-packed with visitors any more than Ragusa was, but we did experience some afternoon street life before driving back to Siracusa.
After returning the car and spending a last day in Siracusa we set out on our final Sicilian adventure: taking a bus to the southern coastal town of Pozzallo to catch the ferry to Malta. And it was something of an adventure. We took a bus to Noto and after a lunch break in the (non-historic but nice and lively) town square eating fantastic fresh sandwiches from a vendor (it’s really hard to find bad food in Sicily) changed to a second bus to Pozzallo. Aside from shaking off pushy taxi drivers who wanted to drive us instead (for a lot more money), the bus trip went smoothly.
But we would have been better off if we’d sprung for the taxi, because it turned out the bus stop in Pozzallo is a long way from the ferry landing. It was a very hot day and we had all our luggage – wheeled suitcases and backpacks – to carry. Turning matters from unpleasant to impossible, I was suffering from a painful pulled trapezius muscle that was making the whole drag unmanageable.
Then came what I have come to think of as the Miracle of Pozzallo. The entire town was practically asleep, baking in the sun, but one shopkeeper took pity on us when we stopped in to ask if there was any way to call a taxi. There wasn’t.
Instead, he closed up his shop, put our bags in his car and drove us the considerable remaining distance to the harbor. Just like that. Amazing.
We had to wait for hours until the ferry’s evening departure. But we were completely happy just to have gotten where we needed to be.
Continued in Malta, in Part 8.
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