A UNESCO archaeological area. The famous Valley of the Temples - surrounded by green olive groves, almond trees, citrus orchards and vineyards that stretch out to the sea with all its imposing and elegant monuments - fantastically evokes an atmosphere of 2500 years ago, when the ancient Akagras Agrigentum was a center of power and learning.
The discovery route of this Province starts out on Ortygia Island, barely connected to Syracuse by a few short bridges. Ortygia resembles a museum sitting between sea and sky, a city seemingly frozen in time. The piazzas, streets and sidestreets of Ortygia trace a border around this small jewel box and its rocky beach, and its buildings, churches, temples, walls and facades decorate each corner. The majestic Maniace Castle, a remnant from the Swabian era, dominates the extreme point of the island, an ideal position from which to survey incoming marine traffic.
Looking out on the side of the Porto Grande, the Adorno Esplanade in the delicate hues of 19th-Century buildings includes the Aretusa Fountain, outlined by green papyrus. This is one of Ortygia's most enchanting spots.
Beyond the seafront is a piazza dominated by the Duomo, an exceptional example of the stratification of mixed architecture that blends remarkably into one.
The Doric Temple of Athena is at the center of this Christian church built in the Byzantine Era. Renovated by the Normans, the church lost its façade in an earthquake before being rebuilt in the Baroque style in the 18th Century.
Not far away, in the former monastery of San Benedetto, one can visit Palazzo Bellomo, a clear example of both Swabian and Catalan influences. The Palazzo exhibits from the Regional Gallery, for example a precious art collection with sculptures by Domenico Gagini and Giovan Battista Mazzolo, along with works by Antonello da Messina and Caravaggio.
The Temple of Apollo stands on the wet dockside, first transformed into a church, then into a mosque by the Arabs, and again into a church by the Normans.
Crossing over to Syracuse on the mainland, we find a hotbed of great historical memoirs. One only has to visit the Neapolis Archeological Park to take stock of this fact. The picture that unfolds before our eyes will takes us back thousands of years in time.
The epic Greek Theatre, a portion of which is dug into the rocks, is the most famous in Antiquity. Today, it is still the stage for highly-attended theatrical productions.
On one side we find the Latomia del Paradiso with numerous stone caves, including the Grotta dei Cordari, the Grotta del Salnitro, as well as the one that Caravaggio nick-named “The Ear of Dionysius” for its particular acoustic effect. The Altar of Hiero II and the Roman Amphitheatre are other stand-out structures to see in the Park.
Do not miss a visit to the ”Paolo Orsi” Regional Archaeological Museum, containing almost 97,000 square feet of exhibits inside a modern structure. The collection lends a sweeping view, from Prehistory up to the Classical Age.
A fascinating page of Mediterranean history was written in Pantalica, one of the most ancient towns of the Island, where the allure of the past blends with nature. Five thousand cave-tombs dug into rocks and the Anàktoron, a monumental royal palace perched on the top of a hill, testify to the presence of man in these lands since prehistoric times.
The remains are enhanced by the Natural Reserve of the Anapo Valley, with its ravines and sheer cliffs.
From archeology to art:
Located on the highlands dominating the Asinaro Valley stands Noto, the cradle of Sicilian Baroque art, and one of the most beautiful towns in Sicily - in addition to being a World Heritage Site.
Noto is labeled the “Garden of Stone,” and when we walk through its streets, we can understand why: the buildings, churches, stuccowork, decor and embellishments narrate the ostentation that swathed Sicily in the 18th Century.
The Porta Reale demarcates the entrance to the historic center, passing through the elegant Corso Vittorio Emanuele, divided into three main squares. Piazza del Municipio opens out with its regal stairway leading to the Cathedral courtyard, itself delimited on either side by two bell towers.
Three 19th-century buildings – the Palazzo Vescovile, Palazzo Lanolina and Palazzo Ducezio - mark out the piazza’s perimeter, a jewel box of architectonic treasures.
A short distance away is the monumental Complex of Santissimo Salvatore, hosting a monastery, Basilica and seminary, each designed according to different styles perfectly blended harmoniously into one - a very picturesque and impressive synthesis.
A visit to the Church of Santa Chiara is a must on an itinerary of the Province. It is elaborately decorated with stuccowork, putti and colonnades that correspond to the interior sculptures and paintings.
Equally-beautiful is the Church of San Domenico, a masterpiece by Rosario Gagliardi; its convex façade, decorated with columns, anticipates the beauty within.
Vincenzo Sinatra, one of the architects who contributed to Noto’s rebirth, built the concave Church of Montevergini.
The Church meets Nicolaci Street, where we can glimpse the splendid balconies adorning the exterior of Palazzo Nicolaci Villadorata.
Finally, the exterior décor and precious frescoes of Mazza's Palazzo Trigona is a triumph.
The other Baroque gem of the Noto valley is Palazzolo Acrèide.
Ragusa, Scicli and Modica are three pearls that are also declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Ragusa can be defined as two cities in one. The old section (Ragusa Ibla) had to be rebuilt over the ruins of the 1697 earthquake, while the new section was built later, during the 18th-Century reconstruction.
The Duomo of San Giorgio is the symbol of the city’s rebirth, the work of Rosario Gagliardi, whose signature appears on many masterpieces within the Noto Valley. The church's columns, friezes and statues render the façade with that typical Baroque ostentation. Its three naves are delineated by stone pillars, topped by finely decorated capitals.
The Cathedral in new Ragusa is dedicated to St. John the Baptist, with an impressive façade dominated from above by a lateral 164-ft bell tower. The Church of Santa Maria delle Scale, equally lovely, features a 14th-Century portal that survived the aforementioned earthquake and was reused for the construction of the new Baroque church.
Refined and richly decorated buildings grace the streets of the city of Modica. Atop a great stairway floats the imposing façade of the Church of San Giorgio, a symbol of this beautiful city further inland from Ragusa. The town opens out at the foot of the cliff that hugs the ancient part of the town; picturesque alleys, roads and small stairways lend it its character. The Cathedral of San Giovanni is a must.
A look upwards reveals the impressive, elaborate adornments, and the flowing and sprightly perspective of its façade.
Modica is the birthplace of Salvatore Quasimodo, Nobel Prize recipient in literature; the house where he spent a part of his life has remained exactly the same, complete with his memoirs and his photos.
Sicli is one of the central highlights of the Sicilian baroque and of the Ragusa coast.
Finely-decorated balconies display their ironmongery and flower decorations, while portals are carved with elegant mouldings. Frames and friezes complete the design, mainly characterized by refined city buildings - of which Palazzo Beneventano is one of the best examples.
Three structures assembled together in a pyramidal form compose the exterior of the monumental Church of San Bartolomeo, the “queen” of Sicli.
Another artistic gem in the Province of Ragusa is the town of Ispica, that also offers bountiful natural attractions.
The 17th Century was a destructive one, whereas the 1800s were a rebirth. The onset of an eruption, then an earthquake, brought Catania to its knees. Resurrected from the rubble and ashes of devastation, it eventually triumphed with the beauty of its Baroque architecture, which can still be admired today.
Its Duomo is a magnificent example. Reconstructed with the use of materials recovered from Roman-era buildings - such as the marble columns that decorate its courtyards - it looks out onto the piazza carrying its name (which after the earthquake was designed to leave ample space between buildings in the event of another destructive earthquake). It is dedicated to the city’s Patron, St. Agata, whose statue surmounts the main façade designed by Giovan Battista Vaccarini.
Besides the church, the splendid Piazza Duomo is surrounded by the Palazzo Senatorio and elegant noble buildings arranged around the Fontana dell’Elefante, the symbol of the city.
The monument, also the work of Vaccarini, is a kind of historical stratification: the base (the elephant) recalls Carthaginian civilization, the obelisk recalls that Egyptian, and the cross, palms and globe refer to Christianity.
The artist also designed the Church of Badìa di Sant'Agata, very striking for the ornamentation on its façade, and the perspective of its portal, set further back in respect to the two lateral bodies.
Piazza dell'Università is dominated by the grand façade of the University, the construction of which was authorized by Alfonso V of Aragon; it was reconstructed after the earthquake, with a design by the ear's great architects.
Vaccarini built two floors of the internal courtyard, the colonnade and the dual-colored flooring.
The Collegiata or Regia Chapel is another magnificent example of the architectonic splendor that came about during the century of reconstruction (the interior was decorated by Giuseppe Sciuti).
Colossal, even if unfinished, is the Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò, with interventions by Battaglia, Vaccarini and Amato.
The Ursino Castle, commissioned by Frederick II, survived the catastrophic events of the 17th Century.
It was originally located on the coastal stretch, but a volcanic eruption modified its structure; thus, the castle is now set further back compared to its initial position.
The entire Noto Valley was reconstructed in the 18th Century; today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site precisely because of its stylistic features, the beautiful result of a tragic earthquake.
One of the Valley's eight cities, Caltagirone is famous for its ancient ceramic art that supplied the décor for many of the churches and buildings in its center. The highest expression of its baroque soul is Santa Maria del Monte with an impressive stairway decorated with polychromatic majolica.
Militello in Val di Catania is also part of the UNESCO network. Its center recalls in its structure and style the features of the reconstruction period.
Etna, one of the biggest active volcanoes in Europe, lies just north of Catania. This mountain lives, breathes and transforms itself and each time it awakes, red fiery flowing lava is deposited in its craters and, at the same time, overlaps with ancient flows, changing the mountain’s profile each time. The landscape changes greatly as one ascends higher. Pinewoods are divided into sections by fascinating fuming black lava and gaping craters. Fruit orchards, orange and lemon groves, oaks and majestic chestnut trees, luxuriant vineyards and expanses of beech trees also thrive from the volcano's fertile soil. All contribute to the mountain's diverse and incomparably-beautiful ambiences.