If your city was leveled by an earthquake, would you rebuild in the same spot or start fresh on the next hill over? This was the dilemma facing residents of Ragusa, Sicily in 1693. Much of the aristocracy elected to move, and the town split into two parts. The taller hill (Ragusa Superiore) got a modern grid layout, while the lower hill (Ragusa Ibla) retained its original medieval streets.
In a frenzy of building over the next hundred years, Ragusa and other towns in the area developed a distinctive form of architecture known today as “Sicilian Baroque.” Exuberant and full of surprises, these buildings demonstrate Sicilians’ resilience and creativity. UNESCO declared the region a World Heritage site, noting that the Val di Noto area “represents a considerable collective undertaking in response to a catastrophic seismic event.”
The Val di Noto and the Baroque Triangle
Ragusa and the towns of Modica and Noto form the “Baroque Triangle” dominating the Val de Noto area in southeastern Sicily. For over a thousand years, colonizers considered the region a pleasant backwater. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and finally the Spanish monitored little besides the harvests.
In early January 1693, two massive earthquakes struck the area. At 7.5 on the Richter scale, either quake could have been devastating; together they reduced more than 50 towns to rubble. Aftershocks triggered a tsunami, extending damage along the coast.
The Spanish rulers tried, in their way, to provide assistance. But Sicily was only a small part of their vast empire, functioning largely as a colony to be exploited (and brought under Catholic guidance). In order to eliminate the dangers of cramped, winding streets, the Spanish introduced city planning based on a grid. Unfortunately, these plans reinforced the social hierarchy by focusing on the upper classes. In some towns, such as Noto, inhabitants sabotaged construction when their objections to the plans were ignored.
In spite of city planning controversies, the towns were rebuilt within a relatively short time. Structural improvements helped them survive until the present with their remarkable vivacity intact.
Visiting the Val di Noto
Travel times in the Val di Noto may or may not correspond to distance on a map. Train and especially auto routes wind circuitously between hills. Luckily, it’s hardly a chore to pass an hour or more gazing at the region’s landscape.
Many visitors are tempted to visit more than one Val di Noto town in a day – which is a mistake. The Baroque Triangle is not a place to rush, or even to follow a set itinerary. Moreover, the nights are pure magic. With limited time on our trip, we elected to stay in Ragusa for two days rather than dashing from one place to the next.
Arriving in Ragusa
Although accommodations abound in both parts of Ragusa, most visitors opt to stay in the more historic and atmospheric Ragusa Ibla. Since the train station is in Ragusa Superiore, the first order of business is getting to the other hill. When we arrived mid-day, the station was deserted, but we found a woman sitting at the bus stop who confirmed the route for us. (Linea Urbana #11 or #33 Monday-Saturday, #1 or #3 on Sunday and holidays. Purchase tickets on board or at a tabacchi. Buses usually run about every 40 minutes.) When we got on, an older gentleman riding with some buddies took it upon himself to make sure we got off at the right place. I had been tracking the bus’s progress on my phone map, but a volunteer guardian never hurts.
Ragusa Ibla: Piazza Del Duomo
Orientation in Ragusa Ibla begins with the iconic Duomo di San Giorgio and its sloping piazza. Here in the center of town, a modest building on a difficult site was reborn as a Sicilian Baroque tour-de-force.
Baroque buildings on the mainland inspired the Duomo’s undulating curves, clusters of columns, and decorative spirals. However, the cathedral also features elements unique to the region, such as a dramatic staircase and a belfry built right into the façade (instead of a separate bell tower). Balconies were all the rage, and there’s one here, too, although anyone on it would likely be deafened by the bell and maybe even knocked right off by its swing. The neoclassical dome was added later. Note: the piazza features prominently in the hugely popular Inspector Montalbano series, a television show based on Andrea Camilleri’s books.
Exploring Ragusa Ibla
Ragusa is better suited to wandering than to checking off a list of sights. Serpentine streets provide glimpses of the surrounding valley at unexpected moments. A secondary population of semi-stray cats monitors the humans (and occasional dog) in between naps.
Pedestrians are also watched over by grotesques clustering on the supports of the ever-present balconies. Sicilian Baroque architecture is famous for these stone heads looking down on and reacting to passersby with sometimes comic abandon.
Some scholars have theorized that the grotesques represent past horrors, particularly the plague, which hit the island hard enough to wipe out entire cities. Others have identified elements of folklore or superstition. Whatever their purpose, the grotesques contrast with both the ‘prettier’ ornamentation and the notion of a cleaner, more modern town. Sicily abounds with such seemingly incongruous combinations.
The Valley of the Bridges
Ragua Ibla spills down its original hill and back up the front of the next, with Ragusa Superiore spreading down the other side. Although the ravine between the two hills is known as the Valle dei Ponti (or Valley of the Bridges), there aren’t any direct bridges between Ragusa Ibla and Superiore. Instead, tiny streets and paths wind up and down through Ragusa’s most architecturally diverse zone.
Panoramic views further up make all the steps worthwhile. On the Ragusa Superiore side, the Santa Maria delle Scale (St. Mary of the Stairs) has a terrace with especially picturesque views of Ibla. The building itself, with Baroque elements filling in remains of the original Norman structure, shows Ragusans embracing contradiction in true Sicilian style.
Eating in Ragusa
Ragusa boasts an impressive range of eating choices, from casual pizza takeout to serious gourmet cuisine. Foodies can choose from three Michelin star restaurants, and a burgeoning “slow food” scene. Our most memorable meal was at the trattoria That’s a Moro, recommended by our AirBnB host. We loved its simple, classic pasta dishes made with local produce, cheeses, herbs, and olive oil. My favorite part, however, was the patio filled with Sicilian ceramic planters tucked under the trees.
We’d read about a gelateria with innovative flavors, and Gelati Divini (on the Piazza del Duomo) did not disappoint. Actually, the champagne gelato captured the flavor so well that I experienced some sensory confusion.
Where to Stay in Ragusa
Most younger Sicilians speak English fluently, and our AirBnB host gave us an overview of the town as he showed us the flat. On the roof terrace, we discovered an archetypal Sicilian scene. Across the road, a woman was out on her tile roof, feeding at least a dozen cats while laundry flapped nearby and the cathedral loomed behind her pink building.
Our flat also had a view of the hills across the ravine covered with rocky farming terraces before a soft sky. One of my favorite memories of the trip was going to sleep listening to the creek splashing down below.
Regardless of which hill they happen to lie on, Ragusa’s post-earthquake structures are still sheltering residents after more than 300 years. The Baroque Triangle demonstrates the potential for reconstruction to bring progress. As climate change ramps up, the increase in catastrophic headlines across the world erodes our sense of security. Witnessing a community like Ragusa, which transformed a tragedy into a means for creating something better, gave me hope.
The Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale