“Sicily is the place where people kill each other – at least that’s the image people used to have,” says Aldo Bevacqua, a journalist and former resident, as our tiny bus negotiates another hairpin bend through the wild and rocky landscape of south-eastern Sicily.
I hate to be the one to tell him, but it’s an image that persists today: people are reluctant to give up their notions of horses’ heads in beds. But our destination, Ragusa, couldn’t be further from the spectre of common criminality which blighted other parts of Sicily. Due to a large, wealthy middle class and prosperous agricultural and oil industries, the baroque town and its hinterland are a pocket of affluence which remained impervious to Mafia penetration. It’s not for nothing that writer Gesualdo Bufalino described Ragusa as “an island within an island”.
Ragusans certainly consider themselves to be a cut above the rest: I have to say it,” says local tourist board employee Daniela Tardonato, “Ragusa is cleaner [than other parts of Sicily]. It’s the Switzerland of Italy!”
The elegance of the town owes much to a massive earthquake in 1693 which flattened Ragusa and its surrounding towns. The natural cataclysm spelled an architectural ground zero for the region. The aristocracy spared no cost to rebuild a town of baroque opulence.
These days, Ragusa and the other World Heritage towns of nearby Modica and Scicli (pronounced Shikli) make up a holy trinity of baroque preservation, a reminder of an age of excess when aesthetics became an end in themselves and not just an expression of religious piety.
The earthquake actually ripped Ragusa in half so that now there are two distinct areas, with the new town sitting high above the old town, Ragusa Ibla. Alive with the buzz of Vespas and choked with shoppers, the new town is an ugly conurbation of modern, boxy buildings (which doesn’t bode well for the next time an earthquake levels the area).
Ragusa Ibla, on the other hand, is exquisite. Perched on top of a hill above plunging valleys covered in lush vegetation of carob trees and prickly pears, it appears to have been carved out of the chalky, white limestone on which it sits. In contrast, the Palazzo degli Archi hotel – one of only two in the old town – sticks out like a big, red, sore thumb, albeit one that probably helps weary travellers find their way home.
The best place to see this spectacular view is from Corso Italia, on the edge of the new town. From here, you can make your way down to the old town via a series of terraces. The walk down is a crash course in baroque appreciation: doorways and windows are beautifully decorated with flowers, balconies adorned with cherubic gargoyles.
But it’s down on the ground that you can really appreciate Ragusa’s charm. The baroque principles of illusionary effects and space are all present and correct here. As we cross the square from the main street, the Basilica San Giorgio suddenly rears up in front of us with its majestic, three-tiered facade (the ‘wedding cake’ cliché springs to mind). Created by Rosario Gagliardi in 1784, it was built at an angle to the town square, which adds to the overall effect.
As we make our way through the warren-like streets, it suddenly hits me just how quiet they are. It’s like a ghost town. Except for the sound of a street vendor’s voice bouncing up and down the narrow streets advertising his wares, the place is empty and curiously devoid of visitors. This, though, is part of Ragusa’s appeal: you’re not going to find busloads of American tourists here. Visitors to Sicily tend to flock to the more popular attractions to the north of the island – Mt Etna and the area around Palermo. The same affluence that insulated Ragusans from the Mafia also acted as a buffer zone against tourism.
Fine by me – all the better to enjoy the landscaped Giardino Ibleo. It overlooks a stunning valley and, from where I was standing, organ music could be heard from one of the nearby St Agatha’s – a truly magical experience. Just outside the garden, you can see what’s left of an archway that once formed part of the old Gothic cathedral of St George’s. The church was demolished by the quake, but this surviving fragment gives some hint of what the town might have looked like before 1693.
Modica, a 20km drive from Ragusa, has more life. Another town rebuilt after the legendary earthquake, it has wide boulevards lined with palm trees. A lack of early town planning means the town rambles haphazardly over a cluster of hills. Home to noble prize-winning author Quasimodo (no, not the hunchback), it’s also almost entirely baroque. St Peter’s is incredible, fronted by a parade of statues, and gaudy and gilt-edged on the inside. St George’s, however, is the town’s centrepiece. Also thought to be built by Gagliardi, it houses an altar painting which survived the big earthquake. The church, began in 1702, is believed to be the prototype for all the other churches in the region.
By the time we reach Scicli church fatigue has definitely set in. I can’t tell them apart anymore. They’re all different, yet similar. Unlike Ragusa or Modica, Scicli sits squarely in a valley (reached after a serpentine journey through ragged countryside). Ominously, a convent overlooks the town from a clifftop. It’s fitting, however, because this is a very religious town with lots of religious festivals – and lots of churches with the main church, another baroque beauty, St Bartholemew’s, situated dramatically beneath rocky outcrop. And still, there are no tourists anywhere to be seen. Sicily isn’t Tuscany. Hopefully it never will be.