by Jeremy Dummett
There are some spectacular hilltowns in the south-eastern corner of Sicily. The first of these, located around 25 kilometres south of Syracuse, is Noto, a masterpiece of the Sicilian baroque. After the earthquake of 1693 had destroyed the old town, Noto was completely rebuilt in golden sandstone further down the hill. It is unique, a whole town carefully laid out to display baroque architecture, sculpture and design at the peak of its development. Filled with the churches and palaces of the Spanish nobles, it resembles a theatrical set. The rebuilding was led by Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, supported by the clergy and wealthy nobles whose interests dominated the town.
Along the nearby coast lies the atmospheric nature reserve of Vendicari. The surrounding area contains two ancient sites, Eloro, a Greek outpost of Syracuse, and the remains of a Roman villa at Tellaro.
Noto can be reached by the motorway heading south from Syracuse. On entering the modern town look out for the Giardini Pubblici on your left and a road lined with ficus trees, in which there are spaces to leave a car. Entry to the old town is through a commemorative arch, the Porta Reale, built in 1843 for the visit of the Bourbon King, Ferdinand II. A long straight road, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, leads from the arch through the centre of the town on either side of which lie the principal monuments.
In the centre stands the Piazza Municipio with the Cathedral on the north side and the town hall, the Palazzo Ducezio, to the south. The Cathedral, dedicated to San Niccolò, is the work of Vincenzo Sinatra (1746) and is approached up a long series of steps leading to a high, elaborate facade supported by columns and crowned with statues. On each side is a campanile. Restoration work on this impressive building was completed in 2009.
Other buildings of note include the Bishop’s Palace, the Palazzo Landolina, (Landolina was one of the town planners), the Jesuit College and the church of San Domenico, with its façade built by Gagliardi in 1736, in Piazza XVI. An ancient statue of Hercules from Noto Antica can be seen in this same piazza.
The town is famous for its balconies that are supported by an array of carved heads and bizarre creatures. Some of the most original can be found in Via Nicolaci on the buildings leading up to the Palazzo Nicolaci. From the other side of the palazzo the Spanish noblemen looked down to the sea where their fishing fleet worked to provide the town’s food supply. Via Nicolaci is also the location for Noto’s spring flower festival when the entire street is laid with intricate pictures made with flowers. On the last Sunday in August a religious festival takes place in honour of the town’s patron saint, San Corrado.
Noto Antica lies some 2 kms inland on the road to Palazzolo Acreide. Originally an outpost of Syracuse called Neaiton, it was first settled in Greek times around 650 BC. It is reached through rocky territory, similar to the area around Pantalica, where signs of pre-historic settlements have been found. The site itself shows traces of the Sicel, Greek, Arab, Christian, Byzantine and Spanish eras.
Vendicari is a large nature reserve that lies along the coast just south of Noto Marina. It is an unspoilt area of low scrubland, wild flowers, rock, sand, salt pans, dunes, lagoons of salt and fresh water, the home of many species of birds including flamingos, herons, storks and spoonbills. There is a long stretch of beach with relatively shallow water suitable for family swimming, despite a layer of weed to be waded through. On the coast stand the remains of two buildings, a Swabian tower dating from the thirteenth century, built in the same period as the Maniace Castle in Syracuse, and from more recent times, a tonnara where tuna fish were processed. It is a pleasant place for a walk along the seashore but note that there is little shade.
Eloro, ancient Helorus, was one of the first outposts settled by Syracuse, probably around 650 BC. The settlement was named after the nearby river of the same name. It is located just north of Vendicari and is approached via a narrow lane that wends its way through olive groves. The site, which is unfortunately often closed to visitors, contains the remnants of a section of ancient wall, gates, part of the marketplace, a small theatre and sanctuaries to Demeter and Kore and to Asclepius. It was important in ancient times both for its strategic position on the coast and for the religious significance of its sanctuaries.
Tellaro is the name given to a Roman villa to be found just off the Noto-Pachino road, close to the Vendicari reserve. Tellaro is the modern name for Helorus, the river referred to above. The site is a monument to Roman Sicily, located in a landscape filled with trees bearing lemons, almonds and olives, some three kilometres from the sea.
The villa, which dates from the fourth century AD, was discovered in the 1970s. It is significant for the elaborate, coloured mosaics that decorate the floors. A typical Sicilian farmhouse, a masseria, was built over the site in the eighteenth century and has been preserved. The mosaics, now restored and open to the public, are rich in content and colour. They include scenes from classical Greece, a dancing satyr, a lively hunt featuring a lion, a formal banquet and numerous illustrations of birds and animals. Separate sections are decorated with geometric and floral patterns.
Although on a much smaller scale than the famous Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, the Tellaro villa contains mosaics of comparable quality and should not be missed.
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