Baroque and happy in Sicily's Noto Valley

The baroque buildings in the Ragusa Ibla area are the fruits of a massive reconstruction program after an earthquake leveled the medieval town in 1693.
The baroque buildings in the Ragusa Ibla area are the fruits of a massive reconstruction program after an earthquake leveled the medieval town in 1693. (Robert Camuto)
By Robert V. Camuto
Sunday, March 14, 2010

It is hard for me to be objective about Sicily. In the past couple of years, I've fallen under its spell as I've crisscrossed the island: from the chaotic markets of Palermo to the stillness of the cooled lava flows on Mount Etna to the vast, rugged interior that turns from deep green in spring to a barren brown under a searing summer sun.

Sicily has become my second home: I love the contradictions of this historic place that cherishes its medieval traditions and refuses to follow simple modern rules; the natural bounty of the land; the resilience of the people; the pace of life; a cuisine with one of the widest varieties of local ingredients anywhere; and the monuments, churches and palaces, so often decorated to operatic excess.

The Noto Valley in southeastern Sicily was the destination of a family vacation last year, chosen because it was sure to please our three principal travel objectives. For my wife -- once a fine-arts major -- there would be plenty of eye candy in a group of towns that were recognized in 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, representing "the final flowering of baroque art in Europe." For me, the epicurean, there would be languorous multi-course meals with exotic Sicilian food combinations, such as oranges and olives or chocolate with hot pepper. And to please our 14-year-old son in the mirrored Ray-Bans, we would "chill" in this friendly, laid-back part of the world that's nearer to Tunis than it is to Rome.

Within hours of driving from Catania to our base in Ragusa, we achieved all three of those objectives. Our first stop was the popular beach resort of Marina di Ragusa, about a 30-minute drive from the main town, where we sat at an outdoor table by the turquoise Mediterranean Sea. Our lunch at Da Serafino began with servings of raw marinated fish and seafood (crudo), including tuna sprinkled with pistachios and prawns marinated with oranges and onions. My wife and I drank glasses of dense white wine made from western Sicily's indigenous Grillo grapes. After the meal, the three of us adjourned to lounge chairs on the sandy beach and completed the "chill" portion of the program by drifting off for a nap.

Beauty and tragedy

Then it was on to the daily aesthetic-cultural fix I'd promised my wife. It wasn't hard to find. Ragusa is one of eight places recognized by UNESCO where the devastation wrought by a major earthquake in 1693 resulted in a massive public rebuilding program and the construction of fanciful late baroque palazzos, cathedrals, churches and other buildings. (The others are Caltagirone, Catania, Militello, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo and Scicli.)

Ragusa is divided into two parts. There is the modern part, which is further subdivided between the truly modern town, with shopping malls and an ugly and imposing asphalt operation, and a more graceful older quarter built in the 18th and 19th centuries. And there is the most historic part, Ragusa Ibla, the medieval town rebuilt in an eruption of baroque on the old footprint of coiling streets.

Our hotel was a former palace dating from the 18th century in Ragusa's older quarter. To get to Ragusa Ibla, we had to walk down the Via Scale, a collection of winding stone stairways that takes about 20 minutes to traverse on foot (there's a public shuttle bus between the two sections of the city, but that seemed like cheating) and offers dramatic views over Ragusa Ibla and its church towers. When we arrived in the old town, swarms of swallows were circling above the narrow streets. Many nest under the baroque balconies supported by fantastic carved-stone figures and fronted with ornate, potbellied iron balustrades.

At the center of Ragusa Ibla is the Duomo di San Giorgio, or Cathedral of St. George, which boasts both a dome and a towering ornate facade carved -- as are the other baroque monuments in the region -- out of local honey-colored limestone with the decorative pomp of an Italian wedding cake. Ragusa Ibla alone has eight churches and six other buildings on the World Heritage list. The soft, weathered stone gives a slightly melted look to these confections, and the bright white interiors elevate the pastrylike design with stucco putti and other adornment that looks as though it has been sculpted from cannoli filling.

We walked through the center of town, down the pedestrian Corso XXV Aprile and into the palm-lined public gardens that perch at the end of a promontory with views over the canyons and the flat-topped Iblei (or Hyblaean) Mountains. Had the day ended there, it would have been complete.

But there was dinner, and we'd reserved a table at Duomo, 40-year-old chef Ciccio Sultano's world stage in Ragusa Ibla and the only restaurant in Sicily with two Michelin stars. In these early years of the 21st century, Sicilian cuisine, wine and tourism have developed new sophistication, and Sultano, who worked in northern Europe and New York before returning to Sicily, is smack in the middle of the movement.

I was prepared not only to like this small restaurant, with its vaulted dining rooms, but to love it. The place was half-filled, mostly with visiting mainland Italians, who didn't look flustered by prices that seemed set for pre-crash Wall Street: tasting menus at $130 or more, pastas starting at nearly $40 and main courses from around $44.

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