Updated on September 15, 2017
Sicily off the Beaten Track
11 years ago I visited Sicily and decades after my first visit I still find Sicily a very captivating place. Sicily is a very charming and romantic island but as a keen photographer what also captured the attention of my lenses are the terracotta walls, the colourful clothes hanging outside to dry in the warm weather, the drama of Mount Etna erupting at any minute, the lemon trees, knowing that history and stories will lie just around the corner and the flavours of delicious Sicilian food and wine.
Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regards to history, arts, music, literature, cuisine, and architecture and you will be able to experience it all while exploring it. This time I chose to see this beautiful island from a different point of view and we explored its “off the beaten track”.
Acireale is an elegant baroque coastal town rising upon a hill overlooking the Ionian Sea and at the foot of Mount Etna, being considered one of the most beautiful seaside towns in Sicily built in an area which has been famous for its natural beauty: The Timpa nature reserve, from where you can enjoy a beautiful panoramic view down to the Riviera of the Ciclopi.
Although, Acireale has other attractions to offer. It is an art and history town, the birthplace of Sicilian baroque, with its magnificent Piazza del Duomo and it is home to numerous churches, including the Neo-Gothic St. Peter’s Basilica, the 17th century Acireale Cathedral and St. Sebastian’s Basilica in the Sicilian Baroque style, with its ten statues of old testament figures and the frescoes of the painter Paolo Vasta.
The evenings in Acireale can be spent quietly and peacefully. Within its noble atmosphere and baroque style, the city offers visitors excellent restaurants and bars.
Continuing up the slopes of Etna, an experience not to be missed is a train journey from Linguaglossa town to Randazzo to explore and appreciate the volcanic scenery of Mount Etna. Mount Etna is Sicily’s most prominent landmark; the tallest active volcano in Europe, and one of the most active in the world.
The town of Randazzo is a medieval town built almost entirely of lava stone and despite the damage suffered during the war the town has preserved intact its distinctive appearance. The most impressive building for me was Santa Maria church that has been made entirely by lava stone.
However, it was Noto that caught my eye, my lenses and a space on my ‘must-see list’ when in Sicily; gaining the tittle of highlight of the itinerary and making me feel like if I was photographing a film set.
Noto is a pleasant and picturesque little town, with an elegant walkway formed by Baroque palaces and churches. The main tourist attraction in Noto is simply a wander around the narrow streets, admiring the golden-coloured stone buildings, the beautiful facades and well decorated balconies. At the exuberant Baroque Palazzo Nicolaci you will be able to find one of the fanciest balconies, decorated with chubby cherubs and beasts.
Noto is stunning at any time of the day but it’s at the early evenings when the golden buildings seem to glow brighter and then the whole city becomes hypnotic. In 2002 Noto and its church were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Near Noto you will find a charming 18th-century country house called Villa Favorita, a truly hidden gem. This historic hotel offers the charm and class of the Sicilian Baroque and it is the ideal place for a stay by the scents, colours and the flavours of Sicily a few minutes from Noto and the sea.
Villa Favorita was born from the restauration of the property of the Di Lorenzo barons of Granieri marquis of Castelluccio family. At this day the villa is still run by direct descendants of the family. The Villa is the result of a family dream, love, dedication and a restauration which had the main objective of saving the original framework and structure on the basis of what the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage guidelines were. Each and every room is absolutely unique and offers all the comforts you would expect.
Dating back to the 4th century AD the Roman floor mosaics at the Villa del Tellaro may not be the most extensive in Sicily, but they are exquisite and well preserved. As this is a less-visited archaeological site, it is likely you will be blessed with having the place to yourself, enjoying the quiet location among the lemon groves.
Marzamemi is one of Sicily’s prettiest seaside fishing villages at Italy’s southernmost point. The charm of this quaint village lies in its history that flows from its buildings. Marzamemi started as a town for tuna fishing and packing, and continues in an artisanal form today. Here it seems you can really go back in time and enter into ordinary people’s life.
The compact town centre on the sea and its historical buildings give the town its charming effect. There are several open-air bars and cafes where visitors and locals mingle sipping on sundowners and cooling down with a relaxing atmosphere to enjoy. Marzamemi is worth visiting at any time of the year, but it really comes alive in the high summer months.
After sightseeing and photographing the whole morning we went for a light lunch with wine tasting at Villa Giulia, a country manor in the Sicilian countryside. Villa Giulia is a very quiet and elegant estate filled with oleanders, bougainvillea, thousand year old olive trees and jasmine. The old winemaking community has been turned into a lush and high quality hotel however it didn’t lose the touch for making delicious wine. The hotel offers wonderful fresh food from fruits and vegetables grown at the property to fresh cheeses, delicious homemade breads typical from Sicily, which are served in the hotels gorgeous dining room or outside on the terrace.
Punta Secca is an enchanting seaside town offering lovely landscapes and clear seas. The town lies in a point with beaches on both sides and a marina. The setting is so picture-perfect that the TV channel RAI uses Punta Secca as a film set for its series Inspector Montalbano.
Punta Secca was a fishing village in the past but it’s now a well-known beach destination. Its white lighthouse defines the town’s skyline and its white and pastel coloured buildings make it a very pretty village. Punta Secca has enough shops, outdoor cafes, restaurants and miles of beaches to walk along and enjoy.
Modica is an attractive historic town, one of UNESCO-listed Baroque towns and is particularly famous for its chocolate which worth a try. Modica boasts some very fine Baroque architecture, picturesque views, such as the view overlooking the city from the eighteenth-century hilltop clock tower, and historic lanes. It’s an interesting place to visit, though I found it slightly less charming than neighbouring Scicli and Ragusa.
Modica doesn’t have all its treasures located in a single street but they are spread around the town and require some exploring. From the Church of San Pietro we made our way to the bottom of the steep staircase of the Duomo of San Giorgio Cathedral. The Bougainville’s at the bottom of the church are particularly lovely and worth a picture from down there looking up at the church with the flowers on it.
The steep staircase is a challenge that worth doing as you will be rewarded with some great views across the city. If you still have some energy make sure you don’t miss the bell tower, for 2 euros you can conquer a few more steps and will be rewarded with a panoramic view of the city.
Scicli (in case you were wondering, is pronounced shi-kli) is less well-known than its neighbours (Ragusa, Noto and Modica) charming and very picturesque Baroque town – but just as fascinating and beautiful – with lots to see including a number of lovely churches such as Sant’Ignazio, San Matteo, San Bartolomeo and Santa Marìa la Nova. With that being said, the heart of Scicli, and part of tourists’ interest, is still on the dramatic ridge of the hill decorated by the church of San Matteo, even though the church is now abandoned.
While in Scicli you may like to take a pleasant stroll down the beautifully conserved baroque street of Via Mormino Penna where you can enjoy a lazy drink in the sunshine; watch the life going by at the town hall and visitors wandering around.
Thanks to its panoramic location Chiaramonte Gulfi is known as the “Balcony of Sicily”, offering amazing views over the Valley of the Ippari all the way to the Mediterranean sea and as far as Mount Etna if you look north with Caltagirone when looking west.
From almost every corner of the town you can enjoy a dramatic view.
The medieval form of Chiaramonte is completed by a baroque style dating from the post-quake reconstruction. The town has lots of charming corners like this decorated staircase leading up to the church.
Yet many tourists visit the town for gastronomic reasons since Chiaramonte produces highly rated, aka delicious, olive oil with the DOP stamp.
Caltagirone is well known for its ceramics. The ceramic production is an old tradition, which gives the town the title of one of the most important ceramic production centres in Sicily. Vibrant colours, swirling patterns and intricate details, the ceramic tradition is visible in every part of the town, not only in its numerous shops selling it, but also throughout the city’s churches, palaces, decorative features, architecture, balustrades, vases and public garden, embellishing the streets of the baroque town.
Caltagirone most famous landmark is the magnificent long flight of steps of Santa Maria del Monte decorated from top to bottom with colourful and diverse ceramic tiles. The 142 decorative multi-coloured tiles are different in every single step as they alternate between floral, geometric and figurative patterns.
One of the most fascinating towns in Sicily, Ragusa is a town of two faces: on the top of the hill you will find Ragusa Superiore, further down the hillside you will be amazed by its magnificent historic centre Ragusa Ibla.
Ragusa Superiore is the ‘modern’ part of town with its elegant streets, nice shops and restaurants. It also has its own Duomo, the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista, an eighteenth-century Baroque edifice which is worth a visit, but the best part of the upper town is the descent, via the winding road or the steps, towards Ibla, the view from the upper town over Ragusa Ibla on its own separate hilltop appearing before your eyes is an unforgeable panorama, giving Ragusa the title of one of the most picturesque towns in Sicily.
Ragusa Ibla is the reason why tourists go there. Ibla is the more charming area, with tangled alleyways, baroque palaces, handsome squares and picturesque lanes, cafes, restaurants and shops. Its main street is the perfect place for an evening passeggiata.
The best activity in Ragusa is wandering around losing yourself among its character-filled streets. Ragusa is the perfect town for a leisurely long drink at a cafe table on the pretty piazza in front of the Duomo, a wine-flavoured gelato or a splendid meal at one of the town’s small restaurants: My favourite restaurant was Giro de Vite – a very nice restaurant with a beautiful court yard and super friendly staff serving Sicilian food – our top favourite was the local antipasti.
Not far away from Ragusa lies a beautiful 14th-century castle called Castello di Donnafugata (Donnafugata Castle), a pseudo-Venetian-Gothic country villa in the countryside.
The castle is a strange mix of influences and artistic styles, including one Venetian Gothic facade and Baroque interior. However, this grand country villa is a very interesting and photogenic insight into the lives of the Sicilian aristocracy. The castle has 122 rooms but visitors can only visit the many decorated rooms on the first floor, which has already plenty to fascinate. Visitors can also explore its beautiful gardens where you can find a Maze and a neoclassical temple building.
Inside the castle when you enter the first room you begin to understand the attention to detail that the Sicilian nobility had: hand painted wallpapers decorate the walls and they were not shy to show case their coats of arms.
The smoking room wallpaper decorated with pipes and at the “salla delle donne” (women’s room) a jaw dropping-enormous Murano glass chandelier hangs from the ceiling.
You will also be able to see a music room with three mechanical pianos, a billiard room and a picture gallery.
Catania is Sicily’s second-biggest city and is also home of Sicily’s iconic pasta alla Norma and the extraordinary La Pescheria market, located behind the Piazza Del Duomo. This is the most vibrant and energetic city I have visited in Sicily, packed with cool bars and restaurants.
After my second visit to Sicily I can then affirm that this gorgeous island continue to seduce their visitors with lots of cultural treasures and its impressive diverse landscapes.