Sicily Unveiled: Hidden Gems of the Southeast
Feature by: Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller

Our SUV speeds along Sicily’s rugged northern mountains, snaking through long dark tunnels and across arched bridges spanning deep ravines. Every kilometer is being deftly maneuvered by Giuseppe, our fearless young driver who occasionally blurts out useful information using his two or three words of English amplified by exuberant gestures. “Where is all the traffic?” I wonder out loud. Palermo is already an hour behind us, and as we race through the coastal countryside, we are astounded by how much the island’s infrastructure has benefitted from Berlusconi’s largesse in the last decade—the former prime minister’s notoriety notwithstanding.

Picking up a little more speed, Giuseppe swerves south across open farmlands ringed with crimson poppies. From a rocky pinnacle on my right a waterfall spills noisily into a fast-moving stream below. In the distance I spot several hill towns, each crowned with a sizable church, always the tallest structure in the village. We have entered the breadbasket of Sicily, the fertile heartland that feeds thousands of Italian mouths. Deep in this rich agricultural region one of the island’s treasure troves lay buried in mud for more than 1500 years. Villa Romana del Casale is not a household word, and not many tourists have even heard of it, but it boasts the finest cache of Roman mosaics in the entire world.

Giuseppe maneuvers through Piazza Armerina, a picturesque Baroque town, and continues to the site just a few kilometers away. “Aspeto,” I wait, he announces, heading for an espresso, as a vivacious guide, our second Giusi, greets the four of us with a twinkle in her eye. I am dumbstruck again by the fluency and depth of knowledge that our Sicilian guides have demonstrated. “Villa Romana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected since 1997. It was built between 310 and 320 AD,” she begins as we stroll through a grove of Italian cypresses. “We think it was built for a senator or possibly a co-emperor who would come here to stay for six months at a time.”

Apparently, the ruling class preferred faraway places in their empire. After long battles or months of intense, hard work, they relished the serenity of their latifundia, the Roman word for agricultural pleasure palaces. “This villa was a real showplace,” Giusi elaborates. “Centuries later, a massive landslide occurred and it was covered by a deluge of mud which preserved many of its features. Let’s begin at the baths.”

At Villa Romana del Casale, “Maidens Wearing Bikinis,” is a spectacular mosaic floor
exemplifying an amazingly modern workout room for women.

Clearly, this is no ordinary ruin. Single-storied, it is built around a peristyle from which almost all the main rooms are organized, taking advantage of the slope of the site, the passage of the sun and prevailing winds. Giusi leads us through hot, cold and tepid bath areas, past guest quarters and a sizable kitchen complex, to the 200-foot Corridor of the Great Hunt which opens directly to a marble-floored basilica. Here the lord of the house officially greeted his guests. The elliptical peristyle spills into a huge triclinium with mosaics celebrating the labors of Hercules. In this grand room the villa’s VIP guests dined lavishly while reclining. “We are pretty sure that the mosaic artists were North African, judging by the style and colors of the designs,” explains Giusi. We are bowled over by the condition and completeness of the floors. “Look at how many animals we can spot in the hunt corridor,” Giusi points toward the magnificent sweep of mosaics that depict the capture of exotic live animals from all over the world destined to entertain the masses in the empire’s amphitheaters.

All-told, the mosaics cover more than 37,000 square feet, displaying an intense naturalism and a sense of joie de vivre not found elsewhere in the world. The private chambers of the lord of the house are impressive, but I am most taken by room number ten, where maidens in bikinis are shown working out. The private quarters include delightful images of children, leading Giusi to speculate that “the villa might have belonged to Diocletian’s co-emperor Maximian who ruled from 278-312 AD.” In the remaining rooms some of Homer’s mythological tales are depicted, not to mention all of life’s earthly pleasures--from eroticism and massage to sports, music and dance. Everywhere, rich polychrome mosaics evoke the great Roman Empire that today mostly endures as marble temples and aqueducts, the legacy of its brilliant engineering.

Caltagirone’s 142-step staircase is lined with exquisite majolica tiles that trace
the town’s history from Arab and Norman to Spanish and the modern era.
Giuseppe motions us to the waiting van and we continue toward Caltagirone, Sicily’s world-famous pottery center. A sizable late baroque town, it is blessed with a limitless supply of clay which sustains a centuries-old, proud tradition of glazed ceramics ranging from large, colorful heads and polychrome pots to plates and tiles. Pottery can be seen in shop windows everywhere and we notice that many stone walls, bridges and balustrades are decorated with tiles and figurines. Our van navigates the town’s narrow central streets, depositing us at the foot of a steep 142-foot stairway leading to Santa Maria del Monte, Caltagirone’s main cathedral. Each stair upright is faced with magnificent majolica tiles, representing different centuries in the town’s long history, from Arab and Norman to Spanish and even contemporary. Numerous ceramics shops border the stairs. “As you climb up, the prices go down,” we are advised by a helpful student.

The tiles and pots are dazzling, but we are too hungry to shop. On Viale P. Amadeo, a colorful bar and bakery, Judica & Trieste, looks inviting, its small tables packed with chattering locals. We select house made calzones and Sicilian beer, followed by amazing pistachio granitas, and in no time, our energy rebounds. At the foot of the stairs, Alessi’s shop is reputedly one the finest in Caltagirone. I am pleased to see that his handiwork is exceptional, ranging from centuries-old, traditional designs in gold, green and blue and large comical heads to more contemporary renditions. Giacomo Alessi is jovial and helpful. In tentative English he tells us that he is self-taught and that he works almost every morning in his studio. “I am very proud,” he confides, “that my son has been able to study in the United States.” The shop is busy and several patrons are making selections from two rooms packed with eye-popping displays. Making a decision is not easy, but we finally walk out with an oval jardiniere carefully packed in bubble wrap.

Siracusa, southeast Sicily’s largest city, is about a ninety-minute drive away. Part of the “Baroque Triangle” of the island, it was colonized in the 8th century BC by Greeks who first settled on the adjoining islet of Ortygia. By the 4th century BC it was the jewel of Magna Graecia and the greatest maritime power in the Mediterranean. Ruled by tyrants, Siracusa battled the Athenians, later vying for control of other Greek cities in Sicily. Here lived Archimedes, the brilliant mathematician and physicist of antiquity who discovered the laws of pulleys and levers and the principle of buoyancy. He was killed during the Roman siege of the city in 212 BC and his tomb attracts visitors even today.

The afternoon traffic outside Siracusa is building up. Giuseppe patiently inches his way to Ortygia, crossing the Ponte Nuovo to the island. Our hotel, the Algilà, faces the Ionian Sea in Mastra Rua, a historic neighborhood where the local nobility once resided. Dating from the 19th century, this boutique property integrates many ancient arches and artifacts found in situ during its renovation. There is time for a quick stroll in the late afternoon light. We meander through a maze of narrow lanes, past centuries-old, dusty palaces and ornate Baroque fountains, to a wide street crowded with animated shoppers, finally arriving in Piazza Duomo and Ortygia’s imposing cathedral. The Duomo is a hybrid, a one of a kind church incorporating massive columns and capitals from an ancient Doric temple dedicated to Athena that had stood on the site. The façade is pure Baroque, built in a local limestone that exudes a pinkish glow in the soft light of dusk. Inside, the interior is a mélange of many artistic styles, a veritable primer on the history of the island. Back at the hotel we inquire about restaurants. “We think you will enjoy Locanda Mastrarua,” says the helpful lady at the desk. “It’s a modern restaurant just steps from the Algilà.” Minutes later we are savoring their signature dish—grilled sea bass encrusted in almonds. A local white wine, Santa Cecilia, has a tinge of sweetness but is quite refreshing with the fish.

The morning light awakens us and we head to breakfast in Algilà’s coffered-ceilinged dining room. It is a meal to remember: crusty, earthy bread, just-squeezed blood orange juice, full-bodied, aromatic coffee and omelets made to order. “Wow,” says our friend Eric as he reaches for another slice of bread. “Amazing,” sighs my husband. “The Sicilians definitely embody the concept of farm-to-table,” I conclude.

Guiseppe whisks us out of the city heading southwest toward Noto and Modica, two unique Baroque cities that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In 1693 this corner of Sicily suffered a devastating earthquake which leveled most of its cities. Noto was completely rebuilt a few kilometers away from its original site, thoughtfully designed by several noted architects. Giuseppe picks up our assigned guide at a gas station off the highway. Hailing from nearby Ragusa, Nicoletta is young, bubbly and full of information. “Noto is laid out around a large central piazza connected to four satellite squares,” she explains. We head toward the Corso, Noto’s broad, welcoming avenue lined with elaborate Sicilian Baroque buildings. “Facades were important to Noto residents,” Nicoletta remarks, “because the people wanted to show off their personal artistic style. They totally resented the Bourbons who controlled Sicily then.” The buildings are impressive, with numerous rococo and classical elements mixed into the Baroque. We walk past a convent where local girls resided until they turned 25. “Once they reached that age, they had to make a choice between Jesus and Giovanni,” she smiles. “If it was Jesus, they remained in the nunnery.”

We make a circle tour of Noto’s highlights. Its massive cathedral experienced a collapse during the 1990s, but is now completely restored. Rising majestically above the Corso, it is reached by a grand staircase. But for us Noto’s highlight is the 18th century Palazzo Nicolaci Villadorata, renowned for its ornate balconies, perhaps the most beautiful in the world. They are supported by intricately carved corbels designed to deflect the evil eye. We gape at a profusion of sphinxes, lions, mermaids, centaurs and other mythological figures. “These corbels have become the icon of Noto,” Nicoletta smiles. “Aren’t they amazing?”

Sicily, like most of Italy, is known for its agriturismi, working farms that cater to the needs of tourists, offering rustic lodging, country meals and tours. Giuseppe heads in the direction of Ragusa, stopping at Macelleria Aziendale Casitglione, a working dairy farm operated by the Tumino family. Castiglione is famed for its ricotta, ragusano, provola and other cheeses. A hefty cow moos as we enter the dairy, as if on cue. Salvatore Tumino is all smiles, happily demonstrating each step of the ricotta-making process. Across the courtyard, the large dining room is set up for a hearty lunch showcasing their products. Ginetta Tumino brings out warm ricotta soup (strangely reminiscent of matzah balls), grilled sausages and steaks, red wine, rustic bread and assorted cheeses, followed by the largest cannoli we have ever seen. “Mangia, prego,” she admonishes us. Sicilians are among the world’s big eaters, but we can barely make a dent in the ginormous spread before us.

Modica is dramatically sited in a massive gorge, its homes and churches rising steeply above the confluence of two rivers that were dammed after a devastating flood wreaked havoc in 1902. Before the flood, the river was crisscrossed by bridges and Modica was known as “The Venice of the South.” The river bed is now paved over and serves as the town’s main boulevard. Long stairways lead to monumental churches and palazzi, mostly at the top.

“This town is known for its delicious chocolate,” Nicoletta divulges. “After the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in the New World they brought chocolate back to Sicily”. Apparently, it was an instant hit and Modica began to put out its own versions. “Our chocolate is popular all over Europe,” she adds with pride, leading us to Antica Dolceria Rizza where a knowledgeable sales girl, part of the Don Neli family that began producing chocolate products in 1935, has spread out samples of more than a dozen varieties. “We use no dairy in our chocolate,” she explains, “so if you are Vegan you can enjoy it. All our chocolate is hand-made according to ancient recipes. We are not industrial like the Belgians. Our process does not allow the sugar to melt completely and you can see and taste the crystals inside.” Indeed, the chocolate has a distinct crunchiness, a delightful taste sensation new to all of us. After sampling carob, orange peel, caramel, hot pepper, and several other flavors, we load up on bars to bring home.

Modica’s Church of San Pietro is more rococo than baroque, complete with statues of the 12 apostles.
The van climbs to Modica Alta where the cathedral of San Giorgio, another UNESCO church, rises dramatically above a 250-step flight of stairs that connects to the lower town. Nicoletta points to the crenellated Castello di Alcamo, built in the 14th century, complete with a watchtower and prison. We begin a slow descent to the lower town. About half way down, San Pietro comes into view in the golden afternoon light. It is quite ornate, more rococo than Baroque, complete with a majestic staircase flanked by statues of the 12 apostles. We continue to a Domenican convent that now serves as the town hall. “This was once the site of the holy inquisition under the Aragonese. Sadly, a terrible massacre occurred in Modica in 1474 during a period of religious intolerance,” she discloses. Apparently, more than 300 of Modica’s Jews were slaughtered by an angry mob, nearly 20 years before their final expulsion in 1492. As we leave, Nicoletta points to a black line on an arched wall. “This is how high the water rose when the town was flooded in 1902. Modica was deluged by heavy rain for an entire week and everyone had to evacuate.”

In Ortygia’s Piazza Archimede, an art nouveau fountain depicts the nymph Arethusa being transformed into a spring.
Back in Ortygia, seaside cafes are crowded with tourists and locals enjoying their afternoon cappuccino. Noisy school children are waiting in line at a popular gelateria. It’s a perfect time for a ritual passegiatta and I am delighted that this town still possesses an authentic edge that has not succumbed to mass tourism. Near the main bridge, we find the temple of Apollo, the oldest Doric temple in Sicily, built in 570 BC. Only about a dozen columns and parts of its cella still remain, not surprising since it was continuously repurposed by a succession of conquerors. We continue on Corso di Matteotti to Piazza Archimede, a large central square with a magnificent art nouveau fountain depicting the nymph Arethusa being transformed into a spring by Artemis. Not far from the Duomo, we encounter Arethusa’s actual spring. According to legend, she was being pursued by the river god Alpheus located near Olympia and swam across the Mediterranean all the way to Ortygia where she became a spring as she emerged. The pool of water, filled with papyrus fronds and a family of ducks, is a romantic spot popular with Ortygia’s young lovers.

At the end of the island Castello Maniace rises above crumbling sea walls. Built by King Frederick II, it has a timeless military quality that appeals to all visitors including several red-capped school groups joyously laughing as they cross its moat. Near our hotel we wander through the crowded La Giudecca quarter, where thousands of Jews lived until 1492. It is a warren of alleys packed with Medieval, Renaissance, Sicilian Baroque and Judaic styled buildings, some of which have been converted to B&Bs, restaurants and bars. A recently discovered local mikveh is the largest Jewish ritual bath ever found in Europe. It can be visited on Via Alagona, 20 meters underground below the Hotel Giudecca.

The ancient world’s largest Greek theater, built more than 2500 years ago, is being readied for
a production of The Wasps by Aristophanes. In its heyday it could seat 16,000 people.

On our last day in the Siracusa area, a new guide, Eva, meets us in front of the hotel. She is considered an expert on antiquities and we are thrilled to have her. Giuseppe heads straight out to the archaeological park in Neapolis where the largest theater ever built in the Greek world is sited on Temenite Hill. It was designed by Damocopos during the 5th century BC, hewn with hammer and chisel out of local stone. The great dramatist Aeschylus and the Greek lyric poet Pindar were among the first have their works performed here during the reign of Hieron I. “In those days dramas were part of day-long religious celebrations,” Eva explains. The theater is smaller now, but originally, there were nine sections of seats that could hold up to 16,000 people.”

We pass by a giant altar where the ancient Greeks made burnt offering to their gods. In front of us a huge grotto-like structure with a cavernous opening is crammed with visitors. “Welcome to the Ear of Dioynsius,” smiles Eva. “This is what Caravaggio named it when he discovered its amazing acoustical qualities. According to local lore, when the tyrant of Siracusa imprisoned his enemies inside, he was able to hear their conversations from outside.” “There is a definite echo in here,” says my husband as our voices bounce of the walls. Minutes later, several young students break into song which fills the whole space. “Notice that you can still see the chisel marks made by wooden wedges that carved out the cave,” says Eva. “It is 100 feet tall and was originally conceived as a tunnel. Even though it often floods in winter, it has never collapsed.”

We climb higher toward the theater. This year’s season is about to begin and the stage is being readied for its first scheduled performance, “The Wasps” by Aristophanes, one of the playwright’s 11 surviving works. It is a satirical comedy, critiquing the Athenian political parties of its day, and symbolic bee hives are being set up on the stage. “I am sure that this play would still be relevant in today’s Greece,” I tease. “Aeschylus made innovations in the presentation of drama,” Eva elaborates. “He introduced the concept of the second actor and added action to the drama to keep the attention of the audience.” Just as in Athens, the theater was dedicated to the god Dionysius and each year’s theater season was called “Dionysia.”

“Would you like to see our Caravaggio,” asks Eva? “It’s in a small church near Ortygia’s Duomo. But, first things first, let’s have a gelato at Gelati Bianca just opposite the Duomo!” Minutes later at Santa Lucia alla Badia, the painting depicting the burial of St. Lucia is definitely worth seeing. Eva relates the legend: “Lucia gave away her wealth to the poor when her mother was miraculously healed. She was denounced as a Christian, blinded and sentenced to enter a brothel. Miraculously, she could not be moved from where she stood. A church was built over that very spot. She is now our patron saint.” As we leave the church I realize Siracusa was very fortunate that Caravaggio, having escaped from a Malta prison in 1608, got a commission to paint this magnificent altarpiece. It is dramatic and evocative, like all his great masterpieces!

Back at the hotel, Giuseppe loads our bags into the waiting van. Our time in this ancient port city has come to an end. It has been a wonderful adventure, but we are already anticipating the next leg of our journey. Giuseppe heads due north, bypassing Catania, a city made famous by Bellini’s operas and delectable pasta, tracing the Ionian Sea toward Mount Etna and Taormina, the touristic jewels of the island. But that is a story for another time!