This region (“Val” comes from the Arabic word for “administrative area”) in southeastern Sicily was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2002 on account of its eight late-baroque cities: Caltagirone, Militello in Val die Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa, and Scicli. They existed during the Middle Ages, but were rebuilt after the disastrous earthquake of 1693 in the architectural style of the day. In terms of city planning and architectural embellishment, these cities represent the heyday of the baroque period in Europe.
Necropolis and Catacombs
The caves in the 13 km long canyon of Ispica have a turbulent history: From prehistoric times until 1935 they were inhabited from time to time. In between they served as necropolis or catacombs. Particularly worth seeing are the Grotta San Nicola and the Urutti Giardina, a Christian tomb cave.
Sicily's Grand Canyon
Over millions of years, Fiume Cassíbile has dug an impressive gorge into the limestone of the Hiblä highlands. It can be safely explored along narrow paths, some of which run along vertical walls high above the river. All around grows lush green bush, from which tall trees protrude. Sometimes you can see people clamber about the light colored rock faces. Usually they are archaeologists exploring the many burial caves. Down the valley, the gorge widens and offers a view of the sea. (round trip: 8.7 kilometers, 3:10 minutes, up and down: 470 meters)
The spirit of Romanticism behind a neo-Gothic facade
This 14th century castle was completed in the 19th century. Its neo-Gothic Venetian facade exudes the spirit of Romanticism. This is in keeping with the castle's name: “Donnafuagata” means “fleeing woman.” It probably dates back to around the year 1900, when the granddaughter of the castle's owner would disappear with her lover at night. The castle is open to visitors and there is a good trattoria inside.
Facades with mermaids and demons
Completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, the town south of Syracuse was rebuilt entirely in Baroque style. The artists' creativity must have been overflowing: Mermaids and demons, angels and winged horses and grimacing monsters adorn the facades of houses and balconies. Today Noto is one of the most beautiful cities in Sicily – especially in the afternoon when the sun gives this garden of stone a wonderful golden glow.
The smell of thyme wafting over the city ruins
The original town of Noto was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. While the new city with its Baroque architecture was being built, Mother Nature was reclaiming the old walls. Although only a few ruins still remain, the air is filled with the aroma of sage of thyme. If you head southeast from Noto Antica through the almond trees and the creek valley, you will come to an escarpment rising up to a plateau. This commands a view of Noto and the distant southeastern tip of Sicily. (round trip: 3:30 hrs, 12 km, elevation change: 320 m)
Baroque drawing board city
The origins of Ragusa can be traced back to the 2nd millennium BC, when several settlements were established in the area by the ancient Sicels. The current town of Ragusa Ibla probably sits on the site of one of these, identified as Hybla Heraia. The ancient city located on a 300 m high hill came into contact with the nearby Greek colonies and developed thanks to the nearby port of Camerina. In 1693 the city was devastated by a huge earthquake which killed some 5,000 inhabitants. The city was largely rebuilt, and many baroque buildings date from this period. Ragusa has two distinct areas, the lower and older town of Ragusa Ibla, and the higher section called Ragusa Superiore (Upper Town). This part of town was designed on the drawing board in the 18th centrury, which explains the checkered floorplan. The two halves are separated by the Valle dei Ponti, a deep ravine crossed by four bridges. The most noteworthy of them is the eighteenth-century Ponte dei Cappuccini.
Foxes, porcupines and tortoises at the Tellaro Estuary
First, a refinery was to be built. Following protests, plans for a large holiday resort were then developed. Eventually, however, the 1,450-hectare wetland was declared a nature reserve in 1983. Dotted with small lakes and coastal dunes it is home to foxes, rabbits, porcupines and tortoises. For migratory birds it is one of the most important resting places in the Mediterranean. In the summer the sandy beach to the south of the Tellaro estuary is a popular seaside resort of the local people. Of interest is the Torre Sveva, a fortified tower from the 15th century.
Baroque city and UNESCO World Heritage Site
This city was founded by the Sicels. It was later under Arab rule until it became a royal city under the Normans. During the rule of Friedrich II, the city was controlled by the counts of Modica. The city and the entire Val di Noto were destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, after which it was rebuilt in the Sicilian baroque style. It received the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to the unity of its architecture.
Largest cork oak forest in the centre of Sicily
The Sughereta of Niscemi is the last large cork oak forest in the center of Sicily. The clearing of the Niscemi area began at the beginning of the 17th century under the new feudal lord Branciforti. But after more than 100 years the senseless waste of resources could be stopped – by laws for the sustainable use of the wood. They were issued in 1718 and have ensured that to date 3,000 hectares of cork oak forest have remained standing. Between the cork oaks grows Ilex and evergreen Macchia. Botanists will be interested to know that recently the Helianthemum sanguineum was discovered, a relative of the sun rose, which otherwise only occurs in Morocco and Portugal and has been considered extinct in Italy for centuries. A path following a handrail rope leads through the reserve.