Itineraries

Vendicari Nature Reserve

For anyone holidaying in the south-east of Sicily, one place that really shouldn’t be missed, is the Vendicari Nature Reserve. There are many reasons for this assertion, none more convincing than the fact that its beautiful selection of beaches are amongst the least frequented in Sicily……at least by humans.

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Situated on the southern-most part of Sicily’s east coast, Vendicari is a mixture of lagoons (pantano), sand dunes, rocky coastlines, and sandy beaches. It was instituted in 1984 and is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. The high salinity of the ground provides an ideal habitat for Mediterranean maquis, herbs such as thyme and rosemary and other prickly customers such as juniper bushes.

Thousands of migrating birds pass a few days here on their way to or from Africa. Flamingos, herons, storks and cormorants are regulars during autumn, while in the winter, ducks, mallards, pintails and terns take over. An ornithologists’ paradise, there are several hides for those who bring their binoculars. For those whose interests are of a more active kind, Vendicari offers a wonderful environment for a good seaside walk with only the sound of the waves, birds and the wind for company.

Swimmers (and sunbathers!) will find it hard to choose between the numerous beaches and rocky coves that abound.

For those whose interests are of a more active kind, Vendicari offers a wonderful environment for a good seaside walk with only the sound of the waves, birds and the wind for company.

There are three entrances to the park, all off the main Noto-Pachino road. The middle entrance, signposted Torre di Vendicari, gives you the opportunity of heading north or south. Wherever you decide to enter, you will have to park you car and walk some way, though this is a greatly pleasurable experience.

Also within the reserve are a series of buildings, including a 15th Century tower built by Peter of Aragon (known as the Torre Sveva), a tonnara (tuna fishery) and several old fishermen’s houses.

Tip : There are no lidos offering sun loungers etc. or bars, so it is essential to take water and something to eat with you. A picnic in this area of great beauty, however, is an absolute treat! Stop off at a bakery in Noto and they will make up delicious sandwiches for you while you wait.

For more info: https://www.vendicari.net/

Portopalo

At the southernmost point in Sicily, Portopalo di Capo Passero is a pleasant old fishing village. There are sandy beaches and reefs punctuated by little coves to offer something for everyone – for sunbathers, kids, stronger swimmers, snorkelers and divers, and those who want to fish.

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The town was historically tied to Siracusa, dating back to the ancient Greek epoch. But its primary industry was tuna fishing, packing and exporting, which it has done for centuries. The remains of the old tonnara stand as testimony of this ancient trade that is still an important one today. There is also abundant farming, with melons, tomatoes, citrus and vegetables being important crops.

The town is small but pleasing, with 4000 inhabitants and spectacular seascapes. You can enjoy both sunsets and sunrises here that are breathtaking. There are restaurants, shops and seafront cafes. The fancy Castello Tufari is an ornate mansion built at the turn of the last century that looks like a storybook setting.

The Forte of Portopalo is the 16th century fortress built to house the soldiers and artillery that protected against pirate raids. This point was especially prone to attacks, as Turks and pirates put in here to replenish their water and provisions. Next to the square squat Fortress is the tall lighthouse that protects sailors

The Island of Capo Passero sits just 250 meters form the coast and covers 37 hectares. There is an old fortress and some old tuna fishing warehouses where fishermen stored their nets and equipment. Today it a refuge for birds and marine life who love the undisturbed natural landscape. The smaller island, Isola delle Correnti, is tiny and connected to the mainland by a strip of rock. There is an abandoned lighthouse and light keeper’s dwelling. This is a popular spot for windsurfing.

Noto

Noto is, quite simply, the apotheosis of Baroque town planning and architecture. Completely destroyed by the terrible 1693 earthquake, it was rebuilt from scratch on a new site, about 10km from the old centre.

Under the supervision of the Duke of Camastra, the Spanish Viceroy’s right-hand man, three architects, Labisi, Sinatra and Gagliardi, set to work, intent on creating a new town based firmly on Baroque ideals.

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The idea was to create a linear, perfectly proportioned urban centre whose parallel lines would provide myriad panoramas. The town was divided into three parts by three roads running from east to west, thus ensuring the constant attentions of the sun. At the top lived the nobility, in the middle the clergy, and at the bottom, “hoi polloi”.

The main building material used was local compacted limestone, a substance that seemingly absorbs the sun’s aureate rays and transforms them into a soft golden-honeyed glow. The effect at sunset is quite something.

The main thoroughfare is Corso Vittorio Emanuele along which many of Noto’s most representative buildings stand. It begins at the Porta Reale and extends east via three piazzas, each with its own church. The public gardens are situated along this road (or at least looking on to it) as are the Monastero del Santissimo Salvatore with its graceful tower, the inspired Palazzo Ducrezio, the Cathedral (whose dome collapsed in 1996), the Church of San Francesco, the Jesuit Church and College and Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata.

Noto is, quite simply, the apotheosis of Baroque town planning and architecture.

All these buildings are obviously Baroque in style but each is unique with its own fascinating design. The architects seem to have been given free reign to run through the whole gamut of late 17th Century architectural devices and forms with a virtuosity that has visitors almost chuckling at their originality. Curvaceous concave facades battle for supremacy next to their convex cousins, while rectilinear edifices frown regally at their presumptuous frivolity. Grotesque masks, cherubs and curlicues jostle with volutes and other embellishments, and puffed-up wrought iron goose breasted balconies abound.

Near the end of the Corso is Piazza XVI Maggio with its magnificent Church of San Domenico and a magnificent Fountain of Hercules.

Running parallel to Corso Vittorio Emanuele further up the town is Via Cavour, the home of elaborate noble palaces including Palazzo Astuto and Palazzo Trigona Cannicarao.

At the end of May, Noto celebrates the marvels of Spring and the coming summer with a colourful “Festa” known as the “Infiorita”. The street of Corrado Nicolaci becomes home to flower artists who create the most beautiful mosaics using petals.

A UNESCO Heritage site, Noto is not to be missed, even if Baroque architecture is not your cup of tea. More than just a “Baroque” town, it is a subliminal expression of originality, fantasy, obsession and man’s resilience in the face of the overwhelming force of nature.

Tip: Caffe’ Sicilia, in Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 125, was voted best Bar in Italy a few years ago. Its cakes and granitas (flavoured crushed ice drinks) are divine! Try the peach and basil version in the summer.

 

Ragusa

One of the most fascinating towns in Sicily, Ragusa has caused many a visitor’s jaw to drop as they first set eyes on the lower part of the town. Essentially Baroque, the Ragusa you will see today dates almost entirely from 1693. Indeed, it was in this year that Ragusa, along with its neighbours, Noto, Modica, Scicli and Catania, was razed to the ground by a terrible earthquake that hit most of the eastern side of Sicily.

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Public opinion on where to rebuild the town was divided, and so a compromise was made. The wealthier, more aristocratic citizens built a new town in a different site, now Ragusa “Superiore”, while the other half of the population decided to rebuild on the original site, on a ridge at the bottom of a gorge, now Ragusa Ibla. The two towns remained separated until 1926 when they were merged to become the chief town of the province, taking the place of Modica.

While the upper part has its fair share of architectural delights, it is the smaller Ragusa Ibla down below that really draws visitors. Whether you approach it from Modica to the south or from Ragusa Superiore, the sight of the jumble of houses, churches and civic palazzi piled on top of each other, clinging to the walls of the gorge, is really quite breathtaking. Although seemingly Mediaeval from a distance, once you enter the town’s heart, the Baroque logic of its plan becomes more obvious.

The town is part of the Val di Noto UNESCO Heritage site and 18 of its buildings are protected by UNESCO patronage.

It would be excessive to list them all here, but a few gems to look at are listed below. The best thing to do is just to walk, and admire man’s resilience in the face of natural disaster.

In Ragusa Ibla 

– the Basilica di San Giorgio, built in 1738 by Rosario Gagliardo. It lies at the top of some 200 steps and has an impressive neoclassical dome that was added in 1820.
– “Giardino lbleo”. The Hyblean Gardens offer some fantastic views of the town.
– the Chiesa di Maria delle Scale (St. Mary of the Stairs) lies between Ragusa Superiore and Ragusa Ibla. It was not totally destroyed by the 1693 earthquake as can be seen from the Gothic Catalan-style arches in the right aisle. As its name might suggest, the church is reached via 242 steps, though the reward at the top is worth it. If you are a fan of the hit Italian detective series Inspector Montalbano, you may recognise the view from the Church of Maria delle Scale from the panoramic shots of Ragusa Ibla that set the scene for a great deal of the episodes. Many of the scenes from the series were filmed in and around Ragusa Ibla’s beautiful Piazza Duomo: see our ‘On the trail of Inspector Montalbano’ page for more details.

In Ragusa Superiore

The Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista, previously situated under the walls of the Mediaeval castle, was rebuilt twice, as the first version was deemed unsuitable. The version that you will see today was built in 1718 in an archetypal, extravagant Sicilian Baroque style.

Tip : The restaurant “Duomo”, in Via Capitano Bocchierei, 31, is double Michelin-starred and considered one of the very best restaurants in Italy, while La Locanda di Don Serafino and La Fenice both have 1 Michelin Star… Is Ragusa the gourmet capital of Sicily?

Modica

Drivers beware! About 15km out of Ragusa, the SS115 passes over the 300m-high Guerrieri bridge. At this point you may well hear gasps of surprise from your passengers. It is nothing to be alarmed about, however. It’s just that they have caught their first glimpse of Modica, deep down below, nestling at the bottom of the gorge you’re driving over. If your plans hadn’t foreseen a visit, change them!

Modica

Modica, like the other towns in the Val di Noto, was badly damaged in the 1693 earthquake and largely rebuilt in Sicilian Baroque style. It is divided into two parts, “higher” Modica and “lower” Modica, which are 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 whole.

The centrepiece is undoubtedly the beautiful Church of San Giorgio, though the “Castello dei Conti”, surveying the town from atop a rocky outcrop, is also very impressive.

If you’re a fan of the famous fictional Sicilian detective Inspector Montalbano, you may recognise many of Modica’s picturesque buildings, such as the Church of San Giorgio and the impressive façade of the Palazzo Polara, from the hit television series.

Typical of so many Sicilian towns, Modica has a long and varied history, complete with the usual toing and froing of successions of invaders. It came to real prominence in 1296, when Frederick II of Aragon (not to be confused with Frederick II “Stupor Mundi”) formed the “County of Modica”, a kind of “state within a state” that was initially governed by Mandfredi I Chiaramonte.

Its power base and administrative centre was in Modica, and other towns under the jurisdiction of the Conte di Modica included Scicli, Ispica, Ragusa, Chiaramonte Gulfi, Comiso, Giarratana, Monterosso Almo and Biscari. This special status was eventually revoked in 1812 and now the town is part of the Province of Ragusa.

Modica is custodian of a 400 year tradition of Sicilian chocolate-making. Being part of the Spanish kingdom for so many years meant that Sicily was often one of the first recipients of the new foodstuffs being brought back from South America. Cacao was one of these and today Modica still specialises in making granulous chocolate, often flavoured with chilli pepper, cinnamon or vanilla, that is based on Aztec methods and recipes. Chocolate shops abound and, for the real chocoholic, it is sometimes possible to watch the “chocolatiers” at work.

Just out of town, the beaches at Marina di Modica and Sampieri are absolutely splendid and relatively quiet outside August.

If you’re a fan of the famous fictional Sicilian detective Inspector Montalbano, you may recognise many of Modica’s picturesque buildings, such as the Church of San Giorgio and the impressive façade of the Palazzo Polara, from the hit television series.

Tip: Chocolate shops abound and, for the real chocoholic, it is sometimes possible to watch the “chocolatiers” at work.  Maybe the best chocolate shop, and certainly the oldest in Sicily, is the Antica Pasticceria Bonaiuto in Corso Umberto I, 159. And if that’s not enough, why not visit Modica in April* and take part in the Willy Wonkeresque Eurochocolate festival! 

*The date of the festival changes every year so it’s best to check first.

Siracusa

Syracuse (or Siracusa) was the most important city of Magna Graecia. It defeated the mighty Athens in 413 and was home to many a great Greek, including the inimitable Archimedes. At the height of its economic, political and military powers, the city had a population of 300,000 and, according to Cicero, was “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all”.

For those travelling to Sicily today, Siracusa is not to be missed.

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It is relatively easy to visit in a day, though obviously deserves rather more time. A visit can be split into two easy parts: one dedicated to the archaeological site, the other to the island of Ortygia.

The archaeological site

The archaeological site, situated in the northwest of the town, is home to a staggering number of well-preserved Greek (and Roman) remains. The main attraction is undoubtedly the Greek theatre that dates back at least until the 5th Century BC. Its cavea is amongst the largest ever built: its 59 rows could accommodate up to 15,000 spectators. The theatre is still used for an annual Greek theatre festival running from the middle of May to the end of June.

Just over the ridge from the theatre are the old stone quarries (latomie). While today there is a delightful, fragrant lemon orchard, they used to serve a different, more sinister purpose: 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war were kept here after the Sicilian Expedition in 413. Of most interest is the famous “Ear of Dionysius”, a 20m-high, slender pointed arch cut into the rock face that develops inwards for about 65m. The name was given by Caravaggio during his visit in 1608 and legend would tell us that it was used by Dionysius the Tyrant as a prison for his bitterest enemies. The excellent Cathedral-like acoustics meant that he could hear their conversations from outside.

The Roman amphitheatre, built in the 3rd Century AD, is also very impressive. 140m long, it is one of the largest to be found anywhere. Its function was far removed from the Greek version. Here, traditional circus fare was offered, with gladiators and wild animals providing spectacles of blood-curdling violence. In the centre is rectangular hole that is thought to have had one of two purposes: a space for scenic machinery or a drain for the blood and gore!

The Archaeological Museum is just a stone’s throw from the archaeological park (in Via Teocrito) and contains a great collection of exhibits from all over the Syracuse area.

Ortigia – Syracuse’s island heart

The best way to see the island of Ortygia is just to wander. It’s difficult to get lost (it measures just 1km by 500 metres), but packed with over 2,500 years of history. Architectural styles vary widely, encompassing Greek and Roman remains, Mediaeval Norman buildings and a great deal of (relatively) understated Baroque. Restaurants, trattorias and bars abound and it is especially nice to sit out on the western side in the late afternoon, warmed by the sun and with a view over the lagoon.

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On crossing the bridge from the mainland you have three possibilities: turn right and walk along the western part, turn left towards the eastern part or go straight on into the centre.

The historical highlight of the western side is the fountain of Arethusa. Legend has it that Arethusa, originally an Arcadian nymph, fled underwater to Siracusa in an attempt to rid herself of the persistent amorous advances of the river God Alpheios. The Goddess Artemis transformed her into the fresh water spring that we can see today. All was in vain, however, as Alpheios located his prey and mixed his own waters with hers. Legend also has it that the spring is directly connected under the sea to the river at the sanctuary of Olympia.

Going straight on will take you first to the remains of the Temple of Apollo, which, being built in the 7th Century BC was supposedly the first great Doric temple of its kind in Sicily. Continuing up Corso Matteotti will bring you to Piazza Archimede, named after the town’s most famous son.

From here it is a short walk to the real centre of Ortygia, the Piazza del Duomo. This delightful pedestrian square is home to the wonderful Cathedral built on the site of an ancient Temple of Athena as can clearly be seen from the original Doric columns that were incorporated into the building’s main structure. Also on this square is the beautifully symmetrical Baroque Palazzo Beneventano and the church of Santa Lucia, the town’s patron saint.

Turning left at the entrance to the island will take you immediately to the colourful daily morning street market, which sells a fantastic array of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. At the end of the market is a must-see for food lovers: a delicatessen of rare quality, called “I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti” (literally the flavours of lost tastes). Here you can find cheeses, hams and cured meats of the very best quality, many of which, especially those produced in Sicily, you will find nowhere else. There is also an excellent assortment of wines, condiments, sun-dried tomatoes and other Sicilian delicacies made by the shop’s owners in their “laboratory”.

From here wandering around the eastern limits of Siracusa you fill find a maze of streets that eventually open out at the southern extreme of the island and the inaccessible Castello Maniace, a true bastion built by Frederick II in 1239.

Other sights of interest on Ortygia include the Byzantine Miqwe (Jewish baths) under the Hotel alla Giudecca.

However, as already mentioned at the beginning, the best way of visiting Ortygia is to simply follow your nose and soak up the atmosphere.

Tip: At the end of the market in Piazza Battisti Cesare is a must for food lovers: a delicatessen of rare quality called “I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti”. Fill up on the very best cheeses, hams, cured meats, conserves and nibbles for the rest of your stay!

Feudo Ramaddini

Feudo Ramaddini lies at the very heart of the Noto wine-making area, the home of such renowned vines as Moscato and Nero d’Avola, and the green countryside around Pachino, a land of centuries-old vineyards and knowledge acquired over the ages within the walls of ancient wine-presses.

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Here, where whole generations of countrymen have learnt the rites and the secrets of the noble art of wine-making, Feudo Ramaddini has inherited a great wealth of history and values which has created an intimate relationship between the wine and the land itself and between the wine and the people living there. This has led the company to invest responsibly in new forms of production worthy of the long tradition.

The winery where Feudo Ramaddini store their wines and welcome their guests is here in this special place, and the wine pipe-lines still lead from here to the small port at Marzamemi. Here everything is witness to the magnificent history of wine-making in Sicily.

The Feudo Ramaddini wine warehouses are at Marzamemi which has been since the 1930s the main place for the exporting of wine in the Noto area, thanks to the railway and the port. Inside the Feudo Ramaddini wine warehouses visitors can see wine-making artefacts and records of the past. For more info: https://www.feudoramaddini.com/

Feudo Rudinì

It is enough to go on a brief tour around the countryside of Pachino in order to realise how in this area the history of the territory is closely connected to the growing of the vines. Today this area is object of a strong rediscovery on behalf of the numerous entrepreneurs in the wine growing and producing sector, which have found here a special zone where to obtain the wines “that have what it takes”, following a trend that sees the identification and the upgrading of the autochthonous areas of production. Following this renewed interest for this area new and more updated techniques of wine making have been introduced, oriented at the leading viticulture promoting the production of great quality wines.

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For more info: https://www.vinirudini.it/

Vini Sultana

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El Cachalote scuba diving center

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Cachalote

Fare Vela –  Marzamemi Sail and Nautical Club

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Gli Aromi

“Gli AROMI Sicily” was founded eighteen years ago. The founders’ passion is highlighted in their values: the passion for herbs and spices, love for their homeland and also traditional handwork are key elements to keeping the company’s quality standards high. Therefore, the plant is not considered a freestanding decoration cut from its place of belonging, but an important part of its context, an element to discover.

Nowadays the company produces and sells more than 200 different varieties of plants belonging to different families; including Labiatae and Umbelliferae, plants from the Sicilian south east coast and plants from different parts of the world – ornamental sages with unique colours!

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Since its founding, the caper plant represents the masterpiece of “AROMI Sicily” and it is commonly used between the stone walls and the stones of farmhouses, the plant gives a deeper sense of connection to the native land.

Recently the company expanded its range by including new varieties of ornamental sage, thyme, lavender, romarini, santoline, helichrysum and others.

The next challenge for the company is to start producing tropical plants and “ancient” Sicilian plants that once were endemic Sicily, but today are threatened with extinction.

The company looks to the future by staying loyal to its roots but at the same time keeping an eye on new challenges from all over the world. The family-run business still has a strong sense of identity and the awareness of being in the centre of the Mediterranean, the cradle of ancient Western civilisation.

For more info:  https://www.gliaromi.it/