Sicily's South East Corner
When visiting or planning a trip or holiday to Sicily the south east corner of the island is a must do. The landscape is very much different from the rest of the island yet this small corner is rich in sights, boasts incredible beaches and offers fabulous hospitality and cuisine.
Since first starting to write my Blog seven years ago I have seen a shift in peoples preferences of areas to stay in Sicily and where Taormina always seemed to be the destination of choice a lot of my followers now delight in telling me about how they have fallen in love with Sicily's baroque south east with its dishevelled grandeur of times gone by.
Partly to blame for this new love affair is with thanks to the popular television series Inspector Montalbano.
Inspector Montalbano is an Italian television series based on the best selling detective novels by the author Andrea Camilleri. It has been broadcasted by the Italian television channel RAI since 1999 and came to UK screens on BBC4 with English subtitles. In 2012 RAI commissioned a spin off series The Young Montalbano. The Inspector Montalbano stories are set in the imaginary Sicilian town of Vigata. Much of the show is filmed in the Province of Ragusa. Montalbano's headquarters are in Scicli. Other scenes are filmed in Ragusa Ibla, Modica, Donnafugata Castle, the Port of Donnalucata and Marina di Ragusa. The opening shots of the programme show Modica and Punta Secca where the house of Montalbano is situated, renamed Marinella for the series. Despite being in Italian us Brits adore Inspector Montalbano and for this reason many flock to see the filming locations creating a whole new tourism scene in the south east of Sicily.
This corner of the island is also famous for boasting an amazing array of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In June 2002, UNESCO inscribed the towns of the Val di Noto on the World Heritage list as "representing the culmination and final flowering of Baroque Art in Europe". The listed towns include Modica, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa and Scicli. In 2005 Syracuse and the Necropolis at Pantalica were also inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The original settlements of the Val di Noto were completely destroyed by an enormous earthquake on the island in 1693 and thousands of people became homeless. Following the earthquake many towns were rebuilt on entirely new sites, such as Noto. The rulers of the time, Kings of Spain, granted a nobleman special authority to redesign the damaged towns which he did sympathetically by designing the new towns in a Baroque and Renaissance style. The towns were also specifically designed to include views of the surrounding countryside. Soft, locally quarried tufa stone was used and it adapted well to the carved Baroque decoration for which the buildings are famous for. The stone turns a brilliant honey hued colour as the Sicilian sun sets in the West creating a romantic ambience.
The south east is the perfect place for road trips and exploring and as you drive between the beautiful towns you will pass through breath taking countryside with glimpses of the turquoise sparkling sea in the distance along with the sounds of cow bells and goats and sheep bleating. One thing you will see a lot of as you travel around the countryside are low dry stone walls. The art of dry stone walling was inscribed in 2018 on the UNESCO representative list of the "intangible cultural heritage of humanity" for dry stone walls in countries such as France, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, Switzerland and Italy.
Another intriguing site you will see as you travel around the low hills are curious long white tunnels, hundreds of them, leading down to the sea. These are the tomato farms of Pachino, one of the greatest market gardens of Sicily. Pachino at the south eastern tip of Sicily is renowned for its tomatoes. Here they grow a variety of tomatoes, from little clusters of cherry tomatoes that explode in your mouth and large salad tomatoes to ugly green and red ribbed ones that have an exotic taste. The soil in this area is perfect for growing tomatoes being close to the sea. The saltier the land the more the tomato reacts becoming sweeter which balances out the acidity. Calcium in the soil makes them nice and firm. The temperature, the sun, the sea and the salt create the perfect tomatoes. Pachino tomatoes are much sought after on the Italian wholesale market.
It was in this area on the 10th July 1943 that the Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed 'Operation Husky' began. Operation Husky was a major campaign of World War II in which the Allies took the island from the Axis powers (Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany). It began with a large amphibious (sea) and airborne operation followed by a six week land campaign. The British under the command of Colonel Montgomery landed at beaches close to Pachino along the south eastern coast line. Along the coast you can still see the watchtowers that were used as observation platforms. In the dry stone walls that ribbon throughout the countryside you will see bright red wild poppies bursting through the cracks and stony ground as if in a nod to those souls who lost their lives here in battle.
Thinking of beaches, this part of Sicily offers incredible opportunities. The beaches south of Syracuse are some of the best on the island with crystalline blue waters with different vibes to suit sun worshippers. From beaches set in nature reserves and beaches where instagrammers like to be seen, to beaches that are hard to find which makes them all part of the charm. There are also town beach resorts with lively sea fronts. At some beaches you could be mistaken for thinking that you are not in Sicily but in fact in the Caribbean.
If you are a lover of golf then this is the destination for you. Whilst the western coast of Sicily boasts the gorgeous Verdura Resort that features 3 golf courses, in the south east we have the Donnafugata Golf Resort and the Borgo di Luce I Monasteri Golf Resort.
There are many exciting activities and things to experience in the south east including wine tasting in a winery where you can savour a glass of Nero d'Avola which is made from the most important red wine grape in Sicily. This wine is named after the town of Avola which is close to Syracuse.
This part of Sicily is also now very popular for destination weddings for a rustic countryside feel. The Italian fashion blogger and social media influencer Chiara Ferragni chose the area for her wedding in 2018 to Italian rapper Federico Lucia known as Fedez, choosing the gorgeous venue Dimora delle Balze, a secluded 19th century palazzo near Noto.
You will be spoiled for choice for accommodation in the south east, from hotels to private apartments and luxury villas both modern and traditional and homely agriturismi. There is a new trend of staying in a 'Baglio' which are ancient rural residences that have been renovated in a beautiful romantic style. These residences were usually surrounded by dry wall stone as protection for the landowners and the produce that they cultivated on their land. They usually also have a 'palmento' which is an ancient wine press that was also sometimes used as a mill for making olive oil.
Most recently during these Covid times renting luxury private villas with private chefs has become extremely popular due to an increased demand for socially distanced holidays. Mick Jagger, the lead singer of The Rolling Stones, has been spending his lockdown for the past eight months in Noto recording a new song.
With regards to cuisine food here is much like the rest of Sicily, delicious and gastronomic but the sweets and desserts really are unique in this corner of Sicily with thanks to milky almonds and fresh creamy ricotta, the perfect ingredients for sweet treats that will make your taste buds explode.
I hope that I have whetted your appetite to visit or stay in the south east corner of our beautiful island. If so here are my top tips:
NOTO ... Noto is a most beautiful Baroque city which has the nickname "The Stone Garden of Europe". It was lovingly reconstructed after the earthquake. The town fascinates visitors with its noble palaces and churches. Not to be missed is Via Corrado Nicolaci, a walk up this road is a must as the balconies have beautifully carved buttresses underneath with griffins, galloping horses and bald bearded figures and chubby cherubs. Another must do is a visit to Caffè Sicilia who serve some of the best Sicilian sweets and desserts on the island.
RAGUSA IBLA ... After the earthquake half the population chose to rebuild on the plateau above while the other half chose to renovate the old village (Ragusa Ibla). Ibla makes an impression with its terracotta roof tiled buildings clinging dramatically to the side of a cliff. The majestic Duomo San Giorgio is at the heart of the town sited on a rise to emphasize its great height. Many scenes from Inspector Montalbano were filmed here and when you visit you can envisage at any moment the inspector with one of his deputies speeding around a corner in a police car.
SYRACUSE ... This once mighty Greek colony and rival to Athens quietly exists today as a thriving city endowed with vestiges of its former glory. The tiny island of Ortigia is a bustling mix of temples, churches, museums, open piazzas, seaside bars and shops. I have to admit that Ortigia has a special place in my heart as it is one of the most pleasant towns on the island. The archaeological park is a must visit with its Roman Amphitheatre, Altar of Hieron II, Ear of Dionysius, a cavern with amazing acoustics which got its name from its large opening resembling a human ear, and the parks extensive Greek theatre which hosts performances and Greek tragedies on balmy summer evenings.
SCICLI ... Rebuilt after the earthquake, Scicli combines open tree lined piazzas, swirling Baroque façades, narrow lanes and buildings with weathered terracotta roofs. Scicli is now most famous for being the fictional Vigata in Inspector Montalbano and here you will see the police headquarters and recognise many other filming locations. You never know you might be lucky to gate crash filming just like we did a few years ago.
MODICA ... Modica is known as the town with one hundred churches, it is also famous for its chocolate production. The towns famous chocolate has been crafted here since the 1600's and follows a Aztec recipe. Chocolate can be eaten at the height of summer without it melting in your hands, this is possible with thanks to the cold processing of the cocoa solids that do not blend with the sugar. The look and taste of this chocolate is recognised internationally and a visit to Antica Dolceria Bonajuto the towns oldest chocolate manufacturer is a must, they have been producing chocolate in Modica since 1880.
ISPICA ... Whilst not as big as its neighbouring Baroque towns, the small town of Ispica is still worth a visit. It is most famous and most visited for its caves called Cava d'Ispica. Cava d'Ispica is a gorge which was carved out by an ancient river that is now an open air park with great walks and climbs. The cliff sides are hollowed and carved out to form ancient tombs and cells of religous hermits. Built prior to Greek colonization these dwellings were still used until the end of the nineteenth century.
PALAZZOLO ACRERIDE ... This is another splendid town which has an atmosphere as if it is suspended in time. Because of this charming quality the town was chosen by the designers Dolce and Gabbana as the setting for their spring/summer 2020 advertising campaign which was shot in black and white. Sicily is often at the centre of their fashion collections, Domenico Dolce is the Sicilian half of the fashion power duo.
AVOLA ... Avola is an ancient village nestled between the sea and mountains and is known as the gateway to the Baroque towns of the south east. It is also renowned for its almond production in particular the 'Pizzuta d'Avola' and it is also known for its red wine 'Nero d'Avola'. Avola has a lovely beach but it also hosts a secret place for sunbathing, Cava Grande.
CAVA GRANDE ... Cava Grande del Cassibile is known as the Grand Canyon of Sicily. It is a canyon of natural spring water and waterfalls and on hot Sicilian summer days you can throw yourself in the icy cold water to cool down and enjoy a massage from the many waterfalls. It is a area of much beauty and a perfect spot for a picnic. A huge nature reserve surrounds the canyon that boasts panoramic views and great trekking opportunities.
VENDICARI ... Vendicari is a spectacular nature reserve with sandy beaches set around an Aragonese Tower. The pristine coastline offers a peaceful natural experience. Its wetland habitat provides a resting spot for birds migrating to and from Africa and it is home to elegant wading pink flamingos. Calamosche is the most popular beach of the reserve with a secluded sandy bay that extends for 200 meters. This beach is a unique experience with its crystal clear waters but remember to take a picnic with you as there are no amenities nearby as this area is a protected site.
MARZAMEMI ... This charming little fishing village grew up around the 'tonnara' (tuna fishery). The old village remains but with the addition of modern resort features. Marzamemi is a perfect stop for a lazy seafood lunch and in the evening it takes on an Ibizan boho vibe. The nearby beach of San Lorenzo is a dreamlike place with soft sand and crystalline waters. I never need an excuse to visit Marzamemi.
FONTANE BIANCHE ... This village lies on a beautiful beach of fine white sand that gently slopes into turquoise shallow water that could easily be mistaken for one of the Caribbean beaches. The beach has a great atmosphere and is perfect for families but if you hate summer crowds it is best to avoid during July and August when the Italian families in the north come down to their holiday homes. It is definitely a place to be seen.
SAMPIERI ... Sampieri is a fishing hamlet near Scicli with old stone fishermen's houses. The beach has the nickname "The beach by the old brick factory" and indeed if you are an avid Inspector Montalbano fan you will see the "Fornace Penna" which is recognisable from many scenes in the series. Sampieri boasts a long and almost always deserted beach. When visiting here do stop at 'Gli Aromi', a wonderful Mediterranean herb farm owned by the lovely Rita and Enrico where you can have a sensory experience discovering Sicily's aromatic herbs.
DONNALUCATA ... Donnalucata is a small fishing village near Ragusa. It has become a popular tourist destination with thanks to its two beaches Ponente and Micenci and its promenade has become famous for the place where Inspector Montalbano likes to take a stroll. Donnalucata is thought of as a place for the perfect seaside retirement.
MARINA DI RAGUSA ... Marina di Ragusa is a short drive from Ragusa. The area is noted for its beautiful beaches and lively café and bar life. In summer it is a bustling tourist resort and in the winter months it becomes home to an international community who sail the seas throughout the summer months and choose the marina as their winter berth.
PUNTA SECCA ... Punta Secca is a small hamlet with rocky outcrops that reach out into the sea. This sleepy town has been propelled into the tourism eye with thanks to, yes you guessed it, Inspector Montalbano. The now iconic house of Montalbano is located here and you can take a dip in the sea in front where he likes to take an early morning or evening dip.
FURTHER AFIELD ... If you are staying in this amazing corner of Sicily you are still in the perfect and ideal location to travel further afield to visit Mount Etna, the glamourous jet set town of Taormina, Caltagirone the city of ceramics, Piazza Armerina with its beautiful Roman villa, Agrigento with its Valley of the Temples, plus visit a whole lot more enticing destinations. See you there soon !!!!!!!!
I have many lovely contacts in this stunning corner of Sicily, so please ask me for my recommendations for Accommodation, Experiences and Excursions, Tour Guides and Private Drivers and World War II Tours, but for now you might enjoy these posts from my Blog archive and then enjoy my photo gallery.
Inspector Montalbano ... Sicily's TV Detective https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2015/08/inspector-montalbano-sicilys-tv.html
The Montalbano Filming Location Tour https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2015/08/the-montalbano-filming-locations-tour.html
Syracuse ... The Island of Ortigia https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2015/03/syracuse-island-of-ortigia.html
Syracuse ... The Archaeological Park https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2015/03/syracuse-archaeological-park.html
Modica ... Chocolate and Churches https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2017/04/modica-churches-and-chocolate.html
Chocolate Heaven in Modica https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2017/04/chocolate-heaven-in-modica.html
Italo Barocca ... Sicily's Famous Dog https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2015/09/italo-barocco-story-of-sicilys-famous.html
Marzamemi ... the prettiest seaside village in Sicily https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2015/05/marzamemi-prettiest-seaside-village-in.html
Gli Aromi ... an abundance of Herbs https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2019/07/gli-aromi-abundance-of-herbs.html
Sicily ... a Foodies Paradise https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2016/01/sicily-foodies-paradise.html
20 Sicilian Sweets & Desserts You Must Try https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2020/09/20-sicilian-sweets-desserts-you-must-try.html
(Cover Photo: Fontane Bianche - WIKIPEDIA)
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