The southern coast and hinterland mark a welcome break from the volcanic fixation of the blacker lands to the north: here the towns are largely spacious and bright, strung across a gentler, unscarred landscape that rolls down to endless long sandy beaches and the sea. Sicily’s southeastern bulge was devastated by a calamitous seventeenth-century earthquake and the inland rebuilding, over the next century, was almost entirely Baroque in concept and execution. Noto, closest to Siracusa, is the undisputed gem, but there are Baroque treasures aplenty both at Modica and Ragusa. The coast, too, has some jewels: 10km south of Noto is the magical Riserva Naturale di Vendicari, and though certain stretches of the coast are marred by industrial development and pollution, there are some magnificent sands further west. Further west still, is Agrigento, sitting on a rise overlooking the sea above its famed series of Greek temples.
Slow cross-country trains and limited-exit motorways do little to encourage stopping in the island’s interior, but it’s only here that you really begin to get off the tourist trail. Much of the land is burned dry during the long summer months, sometimes a dreary picture, but in compensation the region boasts some of Sicily’s most curious towns. Enna is the obvious target, as central as you can get, the blustery mountain town a pace apart from the dry hills below. There are easy trips to be made from here, north into the hills and south to Piazza Armerina and the fabulous Roman mosaics.Read More
Riserva Naturale di Vendicari
Riserva Naturale di VendicariA line of small-town resorts stretches from Siracusa to Vittoria, and in between there are several sweeps of pristine sands: most notably at the Riserva Naturale di Vendicari, 10km south of Noto, a lovely coastal nature reserve. Paths lead to unspoilt beaches of white-gold sand and salt lakes, that, between October and March, attract flamingoes, herons, cranes, black storks and pelicans. Until recently turtles would nest on the beaches, but local appetite for turtle soup led to their disappearance. There are now projects under way to encourage the turtles back to Vendicari.
The Baroque towns
The Baroque towns
The earthquake of 1693, which destroyed utterly the towns and villages of southeastern Sicily, had one positive and lasting effect. Where there were ruins, a new generation of confident architects raised new planned towns in an opulent Baroque style. All were harmonious creations, and in 2001 eight of them were selected by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Funding has poured into the area, and in recent years there has been an explosion of new hotels and B&Bs. Noto, recently restored to perfection, is the most eagerly promoted by the tourist board, while Ragusa Ibla, a Baroque town built on a medieval plan, has become a destination for the stylish international set, with a handful of bijou B&Bs and a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants. Liveliest of the lot is Modica, a vibrant town famous for the production of chocolate.
Though handsome, well sited and awash with medieval atmosphere, AGRIGENTO is rarely visited for the town itself. The interest instead focuses on the substantial remains of Pindar’s “most beautiful city of mortals”, a couple of kilometres below. Here, strung out along a ridge facing the sea, is a series of Doric temples – the most captivating of Sicilian Greek remains and a grouping unique outside Greece.
In 581 BC colonists from nearby Gela and from Rhodes founded the city of Akragas between the rivers of Hypsas and Akragas. They surrounded it with a mighty wall, formed in part by a higher ridge on which stood the acropolis (today occupied by the modern town). The southern limit of the ancient city was a second, lower ridge and it was here, in the “Valle dei Templi”, that the city architects erected their sacred buildings during the fifth century BC.
A road winds down from the modern city to the Valle dei Templi, which is divided into two zones. The more spectacular remains are in the eastern zone – to avoid crowds come in the early morning or (in summer) for the night openings. The western zone may be less architecturally impressive, but gives more of a sense of discovery – and holds the lovely gardens of Kolymbetra.
The eastern zone
The eastern zone is unenclosed and is at its crowd-free best in early morning or late evening. A path climbs up to the oldest of Akragas’s temples, the Tempio di Ercole (Hercules). Probably begun in the last decades of the sixth century BC, nine of the original 38 columns have been re-erected, everything else is scattered around like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Retrace your steps back to the path that leads to the glorious Tempio della Concordia, dated to around 430 BC: perfectly preserved and beautifully sited, with fine views to the city and the sea, the tawny stone lends the structure warmth and strength. That it’s still so complete is explained by its conversion in the sixth century AD to a Christian church. Restored to its (more or less) original layout in the eighteenth century, it has kept its lines and slightly tapering columns, although it’s fenced off to keep the crowds at bay. The path continues, following the line of the ancient city walls, to the Tempio di Giunone (Juno or Hera), an engaging half-ruin standing at the very edge of the ridge. The patches of red visible here and there on the masonry denote fire damage, probably from the sack of Akragas by the Carthaginians in 406 BC.
The western zone
The western zone, back along the path and beyond the car park, is less impressive, a vast tangle of stone and fallen masonry from a variety of temples. Most notable is the mammoth construction that was the Tempio di Giove, or Temple of Olympian Zeus. The largest Doric temple ever known, it was never completed, left in ruins by the Carthaginians and further damaged by earthquakes. Still, the stereobate remains, while on the ground, face to the sky, lies an eight-metre-high telamone: a supporting column sculpted as a male figure, arms raised and bent to bear the temple’s weight. Other scattered remains litter the area, including the so-called Tempio dei Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), rebuilt in 1832 and actually made up of unrelated pieces from the confused rubble on the ground. When you’ve had your fill of the ruins, make for the Giardino Kolymbetra, an enchanting sunken garden of shady citrus, almond and olive groves, with a stream running through it, set between cave-pocked tufa cliffs that once formed part of the city’s irrigation system.
From a bulging V-shaped ridge almost 1000m above sea level, ENNA lords it over the surrounding hills of central Sicily. The approach to this doughty mountain stronghold is formidable, the road climbing slowly out of the valley and looping across the solid crag to the summit and town. For obvious strategic reasons, Enna was a magnet for successive hostile armies, who in turn besieged and fortified the town, each doing their damnedest to disprove Livy’s description of Enna as inexpugnabilis.
A thirty-minute drive to the south of Enna, PIAZZA ARMERINA lies amid densely planted hills; it’s a quiet, unassuming place mainly seventeenth and eighteenth century in appearance, with a skyline pierced by towers and houses huddled together under the joint protection of castle and cathedral. All in all, it’s a thoroughly pleasant place to idle around, though the real local draw is an imperial Roman villa that stands in rugged countryside at Casale, 5km southwest of Piazza Armerina. It was hidden under mud for seven hundred years, until excavations in the 1950s revealed a lavish villa, probably a hunting lodge and summer home, decorated with polychromatic mosaic floors that are unique in the Roman world for their quality and extent.