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Italy by Campervan - Sicily

In the Baroque Giardino Iblei.

Noto, Ragusa, Modica, Scicli

The Hyblaean Plateau is a part of Sicily that unfolds through memories, fact and fiction; a unique stage that has inspired the pages of many authors. With its houses clinging to the rock, stones clad in the golden light of sunset and the Baroque sensuousness of the churches silhouetted against the clear blue sky, the Hyblaean Garden of Stone will host our visit. In the background we have the discreet company of Italy's most famous literary and television police inspector.


Queen of the Baroque

Noto offers an important architectural repertoire. The town, founded by the nobility and clergy 16 km from the pre-existing Noto or Netum destroyed by the terrible earthquake that brought the island to its knees on 11 January 1693, was the first in eastern Sicily to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, had the remaining buildings of the old town demolished and started reconstructing the new Noto according to an urban plan with orthogonal axis. He asked the best engineers, architects and artisans of the time to complete the work, which was finished in less than fifteen years. The result was the miracle of Baroque harmony that can still be admired today.
We will begin our exploration starting from the public gardens of Piazza Marconi where there is the bus station, taxis and Porta Reale or Ferdinandea, the entrance arch to the historic centre. Once through the arch we find ourselves on Corso Vittorio Emanuele which crosses the most representative area of Noto, with the three main squares.
Immediately to the right is the spectacular setting of Piazza dell’Immacolata with the raised church and convent of San Francesco, the steps and the adjacent monastery of Santissimo Salvatore, with its large windows and curved grates. Opposite, there is a series of buildings including the Civic Museum which, in addition to the art gallery and antiquarium, houses a contemporary art gallery.
On the ground floor you can buy tickets for the combined tour of groups of monuments managed by various associations: it is thus possible to access places that are usually reserved, such as the hall of mirrors in the Town Hall or the auditorium of the Theatre with four orders of boxes. In particular, the combinations include reaching the terraces of two churches, Santa Clara and San Carlo, with views to the east and west of the monumental centre. The blue sky of Sicily and the golden colour of the buildings make the view from above an unforgettable experience, hard to capture in photos.
The two buildings have beautiful features: the oval plan, the ambulatory and choir of Santa Chiara, the concave façade and the three impressive naves of San Carlo.
The main destination, however, is the very central Piazza del Municipio, with the Town Hall, Palazzo Ducezio (named after a legendary king of the Sicilians) and, preceded by a huge stairway, the restored cathedral of St. Nicholas with its vault, which collapsed in 1996, recently returned to its former splendour. At the sides is Palazzo Landolina, where an exhibition documents the cathedral's restoration, and the Bishop's Palace with the Basilica of the Saviour, that closes the eastward setting.
To the west of the square, having the same name as the building with fancy baroque balconies facing it is Via Nicolaci, which forms a backdrop to the characteristic “Infiorata” flower festival held every year in May. Concluding the view is the semicircular façade of the church of Monte Vergine in Via Cavour; almost a barrier to the "minor" historic town located on the plateau. It can also be reached by the parallel Via Pirri, where the beautiful Loggia del Mercato with fountain can be seen.


Noto has several equipped parking areas: there are four (attended and by payment), two of which close to the historic centre. In the shade of a lemon grove in Noto Parking, on request there is also a custom shuttle service for getting around the narrow streets more easily, without having to use your own vehicle.

Ragusa Ibla

Aristocratic charm

Leaving Noto we head towards Ragusa, the next stage on the Hyblean Plateau.
Ragusa offers two old hearts: that of the 18th century, which is also its administrative and commercial centre, and extends to the top of the plateau; and that of the underlying Ibla, a charming town of medieval origin wedged between two canyons. Marking the middle of the two centres is a public garden from where you can head down towards Ispica - Syracuse, to reach the large parking areas forming a link between the two parts of the urban centre. After parking the vehicle, an exciting hike through time and space begins; it takes a few hours, but anyone can do it (with some reservations for those having trouble with ramps and steps).

The walk starts just beyond the parking area, at the road junction of Piazza della Repubblica. To the left of the church of the Purgatory and next to an old-fashioned barber's shop you enter the heart of Ragusa Ibla, guided along the narrow streets by the dome of the cathedral of San Giorgio that emerges between the buildings, many of which being restored.
The cathedral (built in 1744), preceded by an imposing stairway, is located in a scenically oblique position with respect to Piazza del Duomo and stands out for its remarkable and massive architecture that surrounds the dome. The interior reveals the hand of Rosario Gagliardi, architect and town planner renowned in Sicily as one of the best architects of the reconstruction after the earthquake in 1693.
Moving further down towards Corso XXV Aprile, a stop not to be missed is the Conversation Club. Founded at the end of the 19th century by the nobles of Ragusa, here in its rooms, between large mirrors, frescoes, endless card games and red velvet armchairs, time seems to have stood still. Around the square, ice-cream shops prepare delicious sorbets, and the classic almond granita is perfect for a refreshing break and the ideal companion of fragrant Sicilian brioches.

Continuing on, we visit the nearby Piazza Pola and the church of San Giuseppe with its characteristic convex tower façade. Walking past refined noble palaces, east of the built-up area you will reach the complex of San Francesco, restored in Baroque style but of older origin, and further on the Giardino Ibleo, a public park dating from the 19th century. With its many palms and shady trees, the garden hosts the 16th century church of San Giacomo, rebuilt in the 18th century, and that of the Cappuccini Vecchi which preserves a precious altarpiece by Pietro Novelli. Further down is the Portal of San Giorgio, a monument symbol of the city of Ragusa, built in the Chiaramonte Gothic style and dating from the 12th century.
Made of pale pink soft limestone blocks, it is the only preserved part of the old church to which it belonged, after the collapse in 1693.  The lunette above the lintel depicts the knight slaying the dragon, with the queen of Berito who is watching the scene down on her knees. In the upper space is the eagle of Ragusa. The interstices between the arch columns are decorated with figures representing arts and crafts, and all along the surface are monstrous and imaginary figures, amidst flowers and leaves, as a legacy of medieval bestiary.

Returning towards the cathedral, you climb to the higher area in the direction of Santa Maria Delle Scale. Here, from its lookout, you can enjoy the view of the town in all its nuances: Ibla stands like a nativity scene carved into the rock, kindled by a pink light that illuminates the Baroque shapes at sunset. The view is postcard perfect, as can be seen in the scenes of many films.


Surprising and exciting

Along the streets leading to Corso Umberto I and Piazza Buozzi, we reach the historic centre of Modica, perched on the sides of two converging valleys. Near the train station is a large parking area perfect for putting the vehicle and organising the exploration on foot, starting from the nearby former monastery of Mercedari Fathers where there is the Civic Museum and the interesting Ibleo Museum of Arts and Crafts.
Under the blue Sicilian sky it is the warm architectures and the Baroque features that steal the show. Following Corso Umberto I there is the Carmelite church in a widening, then the Town Hall and the porticoed buildings that mark the intersection with Via Marchese Tedeschi, then the ruins of the medieval castle overlooking the street and the church of Santa Maria di Betlem which closes the view. The street continues with the church of San Pietro, high up on a stairway adorned with statues of the apostles, Palazzo Tedeschi with its rich balconies, Santa Maria del Soccorso arranged lengthwise and the 18th century Palazzo Manenti that marks the corner to reach the cathedral.
The cathedral of San Giorgio stands out amidst the narrow streets with its splendid convex tower façade, and in its architecture we again recognise the mark of Rosario Gagliardi, already "met" in Ragusa Ibla.  The 250 steps of its long stairway are like the flowing parts of a waterfall that gushes from the churchyard. The white limestone façade is a Baroque triumph of smooth movements extending around the belfry. The five-nave interior is no less spectacular and worth a stop before continuing up through the narrow streets of the medieval centre. Then, once outside the cathedral, we follow the fragrance of chocolate, stopping at an old confectionery shop, perfect for gourmets and famous for its chocolate: it boasts 300 years of history and a unique recipe based on a very old method for processing cocoa, in an extraordinary combination with pepper essence, cinnamon or citrus peel.
And after this stop of absolute pleasure and taste, we continue on.
Final destinations are the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, built in the early 18th century in the highest part of the town, and the nearby Pizzo lookout, from where Modica looks as through drawn on a map. Through the narrow streets we return to the campervan, discovering even more unforgettable sights and places of interest.


“Perhaps, the most beautiful town in the world”

Going down towards the sea we visit Scicli. Here it is like being in a screenplay: everything recalls a film. In the words of writer Elio Vittorini, "perhaps the most beautiful town in the world" offers extremely suggestive and photogenic settings, also thanks to its location where three valleys converge:
the heart of the town is situated in the central open area, at the sides are gullies pierced by caves that run into the plateau, the rocky heights show the lookout and the old city walls, and in particular, the church of San Matteo which dominates the town from above and welcomes those who arrive in the very central Piazza Italia.
In this square you can stay temporarily in the regulated parking areas (otherwise you can try the adjacent open spaces) and from here, from the mother church of Sant’Ignazio, the palm garden and the elegant 18th century buildings in Scicli, starts our exploration on foot.

Taking Via Nazionale, a refined music stage marks the pedestrian area of Via Francesco Mormina Penna with the Renaissance-style Town Hall built in the 20th century. A little architectural gem.
Via Mormino Penna, on the other hand, is one of the most beautiful streets of Sicily, for the spectacular sequence of churches and noble residences. Here the church of San Giovanni, with its convex façade and elliptical plan, is a veritable ode to the Baroque. Alongside we can admire the impressive church of San Michele and the 18th century Palazzo Spadaro with its elaborate wrought-iron balconies. A little further on, Via Nazionale reaches Piazza Busacca dominated by Carmine complex, church and convent, and lying partly in the old torrent of the Santa Maria La Nova quarry, now entangled in a choreographic stone bed.
Going up the quarry, there are two more churches: the Consolazione and, of course, Santa Maria La Nova, one of the largest with its singular neoclassical shapes.

We return to Piazza Italia and head towards Palazzo Beneventano.
This noble residence hidden in the narrow streets is one of the most interesting in Scicli for the wealth of decorations. We continue towards Via San Bartolomeo and visit the church of the same name, that rises majestically from the rock and where an artistic Nativity Scene of Neapolitan school is preserved. Behind the building, going up another dry torrent, we see a spectacular landscape offered by the numerous caves on the side of the gully of Chiafura: the caves were inhabited until the 1950s.
Returning towards Palazzo Beneventano and going up, we start an excursion on the Hill of San Matteo. You climb the hill, starting from a narrow alley that gradually gives way to ever broader views, until reaching the top, beyond the churchyard of what was the original mother church of Scicli, abandoned after the earthquake in 1693, but still very suggestive.
The path then climbs to the ruins of the castle of the Three Cantons, offering a full view of the town. Nearby is the baroque church of the Spirito Santo and from above you can see the previously mentioned rock settlement of Chiafura.
To the south, where the historic centre fades into the horizon, is the blue sea and, in the distance, the seaside village of Donnalucata.
How can one resist the lure of a refreshing swim?
We are ready for a new start.