Baroque Architecture in Sicily’s Southeastern Hill Towns

Baroque architecture, on a grandiose scale, and with whimsical features, delight visitors in Sicily’s southeastern hill towns.

Sicily beckons to travelers for so many reasons. Many of them reflect blessings of Mother Nature. The island is surrounded by crystalline seas, there’s a volcanic mountain you can hike, and the farmland yields the freshest of vegetables, superb citrus fruit, cheeses made from sheep which graze on rugged hills and bountiful catches of fish from the Mediterranean, all of which, in some variation, can be found in the wonderful Sicilian cuisine.

But there is also its sublime architecture. Sicily’s southeast corner of hill towns full of palazzi, villas, churches and fountains and monuments that are splendid, grandiose and often bizarre examples of imaginative and impressive Baroque style.

There is no shortage of Baroque splendor in this part of Sicily. Indeed, this wealth of Baroque architecture — so different from much of that on mainland Italy — inspired UNESCO, the U.N. culture agency, to put a cluster of hill towns in a valley on its World Heritage List deserving of special protection and attention.

You might want to sample two or three towns in day trips. Or perhaps devote an entire week or more since each town has its own character. One possibility is to base yourself in a nearby sea town to stretch your legs on sandy beaches or along panoramic promenades after climbing the steep streets of these towns, it’s easy to customize a holiday built around Baroque immersion.

Baroque found its opportunity in Sicily after the 1693 earthquake, which leveled centuries of public buildings, churches, villa, Reconstruction was fueled by a fervent determination to erect dazzling monumental buildings, as if testimony to the proud new to forge a new cultural legacy.

Scicli is one of those Baroque gems, a town with layers of history. Under Sicily’s Norman rule, it was a royal city, perched on a high vantage point to keep watch over a strategic river. But after centuries of glory, a plague in the early 1600s and then the quake, left the town devastated. The city rebuilt itself gloriously. Visitors can see the ”new” churches and palazzi by climbing streets seemingly more designed for mountain goats. The local elderly residents, smiling and nodding, walk effortlessly past breathless tourists.

Among Scicli’s highlights of the local, late-Baroque style is Palazzo Spadaro, built during the 18th century. It is striking for its eight iron rail balconies featuring floral and geometric motifs. The railings apparently allowed a passerby to look up and appreciate the sumptuous dresses of the ladies of that era. Interior highlights include splendidly colored ceramic tile flooring made in Caltagirone, a Sicilian hill town famed for its decorative tiles.

Displaying how Sicilian Baroque architecture and decoration went wild, so to speak, compared to what was happening on the Italian mainland is Palazzo Beneventano. A delightful feature of this palazzo and of many others in Scicli are the carved fantastical stone animals that decorate “mensole” or ”’shelves” supporting the balconies. Arches around windows are dressed up with ”mascheroni,” whimsical or eccentric face figures. On another Scicli landmark, Palazzo Fava, the ”mensole” sport carved griffins, winged horses and bearded figures.

Break up your Baroque tour with a refreshing walk in one of the town squares. If the weather is warm, order a granita, or shaved ice treat made with whatever fruit is in season, such as luscious gelso (mulberry), or get a caffeine boost with a coffee-flavored granita. Fans of the wildly popular TV series, Inspector Montalbano which follows the fictional local police chief Commissario Montalbano and is based on a character created by best-selling author Andrea Camilleri, will recognize backdrops frequently used in the filming in Scicli and several other Baroque towns nearby.

Chocolate lovers will want to put Modica on their Baroque-to-see list. Consisting of an upper and a lower town, Modica is home to the Church of San Giorgio, approached by a grandiose staircase. Modica’s main street is lined with shops of chocolate makers, each, it seems claiming to be several more generations older than the other. Many allow tasting of the various flavored chocolates.

The classic Modica chocolate bar is rich and grainy, almost crumbly, running to bitter on the taste range. It lends itself well to being shaved over ice cream, yogurt or atop cakes and keeps long in the refrigerator. One local favorite features orange flavor, reflecting the excellent production of Sicilian citrus. At this writing, Modica’s chocolate ”sagra” or festival dates for 2018 hadn’t been announced yet, but past years have seen it held in early December.

The list of towns is a long one, but if only two or three will be your destinations, Ragusa is a fine choice. Like Modica, it also consists of an upper and a lower town, Upper Ragusa, or Ragusa Superiore, has one of the few churches to survive the quake, 14th-century Church of Santa Maria delle Scale. “Scale” means stairs, and this staircase has 242 steps leading to a terrace with a dazzling view of the lower town, known as Ragusa Ibla.

The lower town boasts the Church of San Giorgio, designed by one of the Baroque masters who worked in the area, Rosario Gagliardi of Noto. Many experts of the local architecture tag Noto as perhaps being the star of all the towns, with the cathedral and Church of San Domenico star attractions.

If chocolate rewards Modica’s visitors, Ragusa’s treat is the nearby Marina di Ragusa, a casual seaside town with sandy beaches. A strategically placed bike rental shop makes it possible for visitors to take to two wheels for exploration of a string of charming villages along the Mediterranean, many of them simple trattorie serving the fresh catches of the day.

For those wanting to appreciate Baroque touches off the more noted tourist path, all it takes is some careful observation along town strolls. For instance, whimsical carved monster heads abound, like the ones adorning the balconies of the city hall in the town of Acireale, near Catania. The Palazzo Modo’ in Acireale sports ”mascheroni” with gaping mouths.