Val di Noto
The Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (South-eastern Sicily) are eight towns that are examples of 'anti-seismic' urban planning executed in the late Baroque style.
On January the 9th 1693, a major earthquake struck this part of the world. Ten thousands of people died, and cities and towns were (partly) destructed. After this catastrophe, large public projects were started to rebuild the affected cities. The fashionable architectural style of the period was used: Baroque.
The 8 places that are included as 'Val di Noto' are: Caltagirone, Catania, Militello, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa, and Scicli.
Map of Val di NotoLoad map
On a trip around Sicily in September of 2021, I stayed several nights in Noto and visited Scicli, Ragusa, Palazzolo, and Catania each for a few hours.
Noto is pleasant and easy to explore (its historic core is built essentially on a grid pattern). Climbing to the roof terraces of San Carlo is highly recommended, and the balconies of Palazzo Nicolaci are definitely a remarkable detail. Stepping into churches for a few minutes is always an easy thing to do; visiting Palazzo Castelluccio or Palazzo Nicolaci is of limited reward. In general, as delightful as the exterior Baroque ensembles are in the area, the interiors behind them are somewhat underwhelming.
Ragusa is the most visually striking of all villages when Ragusa Ibla is viewed from the terraces of Ragusa Superiore (most specifically, the viewpoint by Santa Maria delle Scale). Both parts of town are worth walking through and there are numerous visual highlights, but just as in Noto, the church interiors felt not as remarkable as the exteriors.
Scicli's inscribed area is pretty small and looks monumentally attractive. Unfortunately, all churches were closed at the time that we visited, so I have no evidence of whether they continue the theme of being more impressive on the outside. One of the key architectural monuments, Palazzo Beneventano is a gorgeous Baroque building that can only be admired from the street. Palazzo Spadaro, which we visited on a whim, was barely worth a 15-minute walk-through for the negligible cost of entry. The town definitely felt less visited than others, even adjusting for Covid times.
In Palazzolo Acreide, both of the inscribed basilicas are actually comparatively impressive on the inside. We were the only visitors at both on that particular morning. At San Paolo, which is located close to the edge of the village, a local introduced himself to us as a guide and gave us a whirlwind tour of the basilica (mostly in Italian) and even interrupted the padre's conversation with one of the parishioners to show us the offices; he then, of course, demanded a donation to the church. At San Sebastiano, which presides over the main square of the hilltop village, we explored the church on our own. Piazza del Popolo and the immediate surrounding area, although only part of the buffer zone and not of the inscription proper, are among the most visually pleasing ensembles anywhere in Sicily, IMHO.
Catania deserves more than a couple of hours that we could give it in passing within the constraints of our overall itinerary. We walked through the fish market, took in the exterior sights in the central area, but all churches being closed midday, never went inside any of the buildings.
Overall, plenty to see and admire in all of these towns. With a car, the logistics are fairly simple and the distances are not too taxing, so technically covering all 8 towns should be possible in about 3 days (although any time you allocate only midday hours for a visit, you risk not being able to get inside any churches, as I found in both Scicli and Catania); in my case, giving my better half a few hours at the beach each day took priority over including every town on the itinerary.
Read more from Ilya Burlak here.
''Less is more'', they say. To me it seemed feasible to cover Noto and Modica by train with enough time to return and sleep in Catania, but then I was told at the train station: "Yes, there is a train doing Siracusa-Catania at those hours, but you cannot get a ticket for it. If you go to Modica, you will have to spend the night in Siracusa''. Right. Change of plans, skipping Modica and getting more time in Catania.
Since reviews have been written on Noto, I will just say that as of June 2021 the Duomo's renovation is done (the cupola has hipster-saints, if you ask me) and they are renovating now San Domenico (the one in Els and Ian's photos).
I found OUV in Catania as well. Noto's balconies reminded me of Valletta, Catania's Benedictine Monastery reminded me of nothing - I haven't seen those grey walls with white baroque details before. Underneath the peel you won't find limestone, but lava rocks. Catania's baroque was shaped in the aftermath of 1693, but with the help of Etna as well.
Which are the monuments? Sant'Agata Cathedral (Cappella della Vergine needs booking in advance, Cappella di Sant'Agata is open outside of mass times) Palazzo degli Elefanti (the City Hall) and Palazzo del Seminario dei Chierici (Museo Diocesano) in Piazza del Duomo with u Liotru in the middle (the elephant is maybe Carthaginian or bizantine, add possible inspiration from Bernini's in Rome for the monument and voilà), Chiesa della Badia di Sant'Agata next to the cathedral (you can climb for a view of the city, 5 euro cash only), Palazzo Biscari and Basilica Collegiata in opposite directions from the square, from Collegiata you are close to via dei Crociferi (churches of San Benedetto, San Giuliano, San Francesco Borgia + Jesuit College - congratulations to whomever comes back with great photos from that narrow street) and you can then walk straight to the Benedictine Monastery (pictured, hosting the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania, has guided tours) together with its church of San Nicolò l'Arena.
As for food, Ragusa is famous for its 2* Michelin restaurant, Modica for its chocolate (without cocoa butter and with undissolved sugar, this is not your typical Milka), while the fans of Chef's Table will find Corrado Assenza's Caffè Sicilia in Noto (if you want 3 flavours for gelato and you have nobody to share it with, be ready to sacrifice your diet and order 2 ice creams because they only give you 2 flavours per cornetto/cup). Everybody knows Catania's pasta, and some good local wine (sorry, Els) should help you get over the fact that you're eating (the dessert version of) a saint's breast.
During my second trip to Sicily in 2014, we visited also several Barroque towns belonging to this WHS. We went from Enna by car heading to Ragusa, where we took a hotel in the upper town, and we went through Caltagirone, but, unfortunately, we had no time to stop there. Next morning we continued further to the South and visited Modica and Scicli. After strolling in baroque towns we refreshed ourselves by swimming in Mediterranean near Pachino, spent night on the mountain above Avola and continued to Siracuse…
Thus, I explored the components of Ragusa/Ragusa-Ibla, Modica and Scicli, and I could see Caltagirone only through the car window that is not sufficient, of course.
Very recently, I checked the extent of the core zones, and I was really surprised as the inscribed parts of the towns are in some cases very different from what I thought.
In Caltagirone, the core zone is quite big and encompasses the whole central part of the town, but we crossed only the buffer zone by car…
In Ragusa, not only almost all Ragusa-Ibla but also surprisingly a big portion of the upper town including the main street below he Post office (including the hotel we were accommodated) and the junction between both districts is the part of the core zone.
In Modica, only the churches of S Giorgio (PHOTO) and S Pietro are inscribed and the rest - lower and upper towns of Modica are in the buffer zone only.
In Scicli, only small central square with three churches and one baroque palace form the core zone.
My general impression from this WHS is positive and I wish to visit the rest of components, especially Noto, in the future. The Ragusa-Ibla is really wonderful, and I enjoyed the evening stroll in its narrow streets with monumental baroque churches. Modica is also monumental town, and I loved to be lost in its vast urban landscape that forms however only the buffer zone. Scicli, I enjoyed probably the most – it is confined within the narrow valley.
Having forgotten my sweater on a bus and being in dire need of a new one, I made a short unplanned shopping stop in Catania. Catania is the hub for eastern Sicily and I was passing through anyhow on my way to Milazzo for the Eolian Islands.
My original plan had been to use Catania as my base for the remainder of my Sicily trip after returning from the Eolian Islands. The first 15min in Catania upon arrival made me revise my plans. The area around the train station is downtrodden and simply terrible. It really had me question the world heritage designation. The overall picture improved when I made my way to the core zone. Especially, the area along Via Etnea is nice with the Piazza del Duomo being the highlight. On sunny days you can see the Etna. Still, this is Italy, so nice is not good enough. As a consequence, I rearranged my travel plans limiting my time in Catania to a minimum.
My second stop was Ragusa. I came by bus from Catania. It's nice, but not spectacular. The nicest views were from the bridges connecting both parts of the city across a deep valley. Had I only visited Ragusa and Catania, I would have really doubted the inscription.
As my last stop, I made my way to Noto. Noto is a spectacular Baroque town dotted with plenty of churches. The most striking feature are the honey-colored limestone buildings.
One final remark on a common misunderstanding. You may think the Val in Val di Noto refers to a valley. It does not. It refers to an Arab administrative region (valli) in the medieval period. It covered southeastern Sicily including Catania.
Catania is the easiest as it's the central transport hub in Eastern Sicily (airport, buses, trains). If you are in the area, you will pass through. There are also direct bus connections to most of the other Val di Noto towns.
Noto, Scicli, Modica and Ragusa are all stops on the railway line from Siracusa to Canicattì. The trains don't run all that frequently, but you should be able to visit multiple cities in a single day by hopping on and off the train. You also get scenic views of some of the cities when passing by.
From Piazza Armerina (Villa Romana Del Casale) there are buses to Caltagirone. You should also be able to connect via Gela to Agrigento.
In my case, I passed multiple times through Catania, from where I took a bus to Ragusa. Note that the bus station in Ragusa is outside the city center. After Ragusa I hopped a train to Noto. And then later another train to Siracusa where I stayed overnight.
March 2019 - We passed the sites of Val di Noto several times on our journey. Day 1 we were in Catania. It definitely has some beautiful baroque churches and main street. The top attraction is the black elephant statue made from lava. Catania has a lot of food, Pasta Norma is a typical dish with eggplant and really delicious.
On day 8 of our journey we visited Caltagirone. Due to the bad wheather it was not as impressive as we anticipated. We spend the next night in Ragusa. We were amazed by this city build on two rocks. It does have some typical baroque cathedrals but basically its a small twon with windy, narrow roads. Escpecially at night it has a very unique atmosphere. Next day we went on to Modica. Nice but only for a few hours. Noto, which was completely build from scratch after an devistating earthquake, was worth visiting for a whole day. It has a baroque town planning and some amazing piazzas. The balconies with angels or horses, are worth a small detour on your walk through the city.
I visited this WHS in May 2015. This WHS is made up of a series of quientessential Sicilian baroque towns and cities. The most pretty and popular one of them all is Noto. I was lucky to visit during the Infiorata di Noto which takes place every year on third weekend of May. Via Nicolaci which is the street with the most famous baroque balconies is adorned with a huge flower carpet, while other important squares and sites have minor ones. For some odd reason, this year's theme was Catalonia! The best view to be had is from the Bell Tower of the Church of San Carlo. I knew that Noto would be packed during my visit so I decided to visit only after having visited all the other sites mentioned in the WHS inscription to be able to appreciate the Sicilian baroque architecture in a peaceful and quiet environment. Noto is closest to Syracuse and Catania so that makes it well on the beaten path for day trips. My first experience was in Catania which I had already visited when I was younger but I didn't count it as a visit because I feel it does not represent the OUV this WHS indeed has. Once again, I came back with the same feeling and I wouldn't recommend anyone wanting to pick just a few towns out of this series to visit Catania. Next I visited Caltagirone which is most famous for its ceramic tiles. Again I was not impressed although I preferred it to Catania. In Ragusa Ibla, I started to understand the authentic OUV of this WHS. The over-the-top baroque details are mostly visible around the main cathedral square. The balcony sculptures are not looked after as are the one of Scicli or Noto but still worth viewing. The famous Italian TV series of Montalbano was shot in this area so many Italians visit these sites for this reason rather than for their WH status. While I was staying in Scicli, I noticed that the filming of one of the latest episodes was taking place. Scicli I must say is my personal favourite out of the sites I visited. It is the most "remote" and it is clearly still home to many many locals and not a "museum town". There is plenty to see and everything has been cleaned up and restored lately so I was really impressed overall. The most imposing and representative church for Sicilian Baroque in my opinion though is the Cathedral of Modica. It's truly magnificent and after I visited I enjoyed a truly homemade icecream from an old local vendor who has been working as an icecream vendor with his vintage van for the past 70 years or so! He showed me old photos of Modica from his childhood and explained the hardships he had to endure during World War II. I really enjoyed visiting this WHS and I wouldn't mind visiting Militello and Palazzolo if I visit Sicily again in the future.
Over several days I managed to visit all 8 of the Baroque towns included in this WHS. All were accessible by train except Pallazolo Acredie which I reached by bus from Syracuse. The highlights were :
Pallazolo Accredie - the restored Basilica of St Paul, and the unrestored church of St Sebastian
Noto - the now fully restored cathedral of St Nicolo, and the church of St Domenico
Ragusa - with 9 churches and 6 palaces listed, the refined church of Purgatory and the masonry details of the church of St Mary of Itria in Ragusa Ibla, and the stylish Palazzo Schnina in Ragusa Superiore
Scicli - the tiled interior of the church of St Michael, the ornate balcony supports of the Palazzo Spadera (tourist office) and Palazzo Benventano
Modica - the church of St Peter and the spectacular interior of the cathedral of St George, well worth the climb to see this
Caltagirone - famed for its tiles, especially the monumental staircase leading to the church of Santa Maria del Monte, and tiled murals dotted through the town
Militello - the smallest of the towns with the church of St Nicolo (now a museum) and the church of Sta Maria della Stella and its campanile
Catania - the largest town with many Baroque buildings including 4 churches in via della Crociferi alone plus the church of Sta Agata opposite the duomo and the Palazzo Biscari.
Blas Miguel Martinez Toledo
I had the opportunity to visit all 8 cities being part of this WHS. Summer is hot in Sicily but one of the outcomes of such high temperatures is that you don't see a lot of people walking around especially during the warmest part of the day. I have good memories for each one of them. I was in Caltagirone during the Luminaria (end of July) and enjoyed the spectacle of lightning the scalinata with candles. I visited Militello in Val di Catania with the chairman of the local ArcheoClub who came to me just because I was taking pictures of one of the many churches that can be seen and wanted to share with me his knowledge of the town history. I combined the visit of Palazzolo Acreide with the old Akrai. I was amazed with the brightness of Scicli. I did find difficult to walk up and down hills in Modica. I couldn't avoid the fish market odours between the Duomo and the Ursino Castle in Catania. I found Noto being like an open museum, nice and clean. But the one I preferred was Ragusa (Ragusa Ibla more than the new Ragusa). Once I started visiting one I couldn't miss the other ones. My wife didn't cope with it and let me finish the tour alone.
The first days of my stay in Sicily I spent in the town of Noto. Its main street, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is lined with wonderful baroque palaces and public buildings: the ideal surroundings for an Italian evening stroll. The San Nicoló Cathedral unfortunately is hidden under scaffoldings at the moment, but there are plenty of other monuments to admire. The Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata was the highlight for me: its balconies are ornamented with cherubs, lions and horses, all very fine in detail. A great spot to try out my new camera!
Using a rental car, it's very easy to visit some of the other towns around Noto. I drove to Modica, Ragusa and Scicli on Easter Monday.
Modica is an elegant town with probably the best baroque church of the valley. There are amazing views. Ragusa is very different: all hills and steps. The main church (Duomo di San Giorgio) currently is also being renovated like the one in Noto.
Scicli finally is way off the beaten track, a huge block of houses in the middle of nowhere that looked completely desolate.
ICOMOS compares the Val di Noto to Mdina and Valetta on Malta. Also tainted by the same earthquake (though to a lesser degree), the same Arab influences and the elaborate balconies are there. The Valley is a good place to base yourself for a few days, and enjoy the high-quality architecture, the relaxed atmosphere and (as always in Italy) the food.
I spent a morning in the town of Noto, and enjoyed strolling along Corso Vittorio Emanuele, sitting in café’s and taking in the great façade’s. There was still a lot of restoration going on when we visited and there was no access to the Duomo, however the façade was viewable when we first turned up as the hoardings covering it were taken down, and it did look very impressive.
As with Els we were very impressed with the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata and its great balconies. The whole of this bloc of the town was had speakers playing soft rock (Michael Bolton) it was not really noticeable when we first turned up but became a little irritating after a while. The street leading up the hill next to the Palazzo was being prepared to host decorative flowerbeds so it would be lovely to see this all in bloom in the summer.
I really enjoyed our time here, and the architecture was very impressive and displayed many of the key characteristics of Sicilian Baroque. I had hoped to see a few more of the town however a delayed ferry stopped us from getting to these. I feel that I can claim this as a visited site, mostly based on intent.
Noto was a really lovely place to spend a few hours, and the architecture was very impressive, but unfortunately under extensive restoration. Still it was great place to wonder around and fuelled by the excellent coffee and ice cream.
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- Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (South-eastern Sicily)
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