By Anne Spiselman
Ragusa in southeastern Sicily seems designed to confound the geographically challenged. It’s really two towns, Ragusa Ibla and more recent Ragusa, separated by a gorge, and although the older Ibla also is called “Ragusa Inferiore,” or “lower,” it spreads out over a high cliff that just isn’t as high as the one for the newer “Ragusa Superiore.” If you’re a fan of the television detective series, “Il Commissario Montalbano,” you’ve seen the aerial views in the opening credits, with the camera panning over cathedral domes, clusters of buildings and four long bridges.
To make matters even more confusing, Ibla defies the conventional wisdom that the oldest sections of European cities are the highest. This anomaly came about because, after the big earthquake of 1693 destroyed much of Ibla, which probably was founded in the eighth century near an ancient Greek settlement, the citizens couldn’t agree on where to rebuild. Some stayed to reconstruct the city that had been Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman, while others built a whole new town higher up. The two weren’t united until 1926, when they snagged the title of provincial capital from Modica.
When we arrive in the vicinity of Ragusa at about noon on April 4, we have no idea where to go. We drive back and forth across the bridges several times, and around some neighborhoods in what we think is Ragusa Superiore, but we really want to get to Ragusa Ibla. We never do find the right way in (apparently there’s a parking lot and free bus at one end), but after twisting around the cliff more than once, we notice a stone ramp up to something, so we park and set off. The ramp leads to a door that opens onto a long hallway to an elevator that goes up to the lobby of the San Giorgio Palace Hotel, a lovely modern hotel with helpful more-or-less bi-lingual staffers who give us a brief tour (great views from the restaurant) and a Xeroxed map (not very readable) before sending us out the door and into Ragusa Ibla.
The town, which basically is closed to traffic, isn’t very big, and it’s not hard to find our way around, especially once we pick up a better map. (There are tourist offices at either end.) Ibla boasts lots of important churches, monuments, and historic palaces, quite of few of them UNESCO World Heritage sites. But it’s a gorgeous sunny day – like all our days in Sicily – and we decide just to walk around, soaking up the beautiful Baroque architecture.
After checking out the palazzi and main church on Piazza Pola, we follow other sightseers into the long Piazza del Duomo, at one end of which is the towering Cathedral of San Giorgio with an impressive palm tree out front. Built between 1738 and 1775 to a design by Rosario Gagliardi, the cathedral has an imposing Baroque façade divided into three parts by columns and decorative motifs. More than 200 steps lead up to the main entrance, and visitors are told to use the side doors. Unfortunately, the place is locked up tight for lunch, so we don’t get to see the three naves and Renaissance sculptures inside.
Instead, we decide it’s time for some gelato. We investigate the five choices on the two squares and settle on Gelati DiVini on the Piazza del Duomo because the house-made gelati on display look really good, and some of them feature local wines. The chocolate, ricotta and blood orange flavors we try are terrific, and a local later tells me it’s the best gelateria in town.
Since we get lost trying to retrace our steps to the San Giorgio Palace Hotel, we see most of the quiet corners of Ibla before returning to the hotel and our car. For some unknown reason, the small pedestrian zone of Ragusa is easy to locate. We stop in at the Best Western Hotel to ask for a map and learn that it has an elevator down to the Ibleo Archaeological Museum, probably the easiest way to get there, though we don’t go. Our destination is the Cathedral San Giovanni a few blocks away. Constructed in the early 18th century, it’s spectacularly Baroque inside and out. It also has a wheelchair-accessible side entrance, which is nice.
By this time, it’s late afternoon and time to hit the road if we want to see Modica, even if it is only half-an-hour or so away. Like Ragusa, Modica was badly damaged by the 1693 earthquake and rebuilt in the Baroque style. Nestled in a gorge, it also has a “higher” and “lower” section and loads of churches and monuments.
But we’ve come with a specific goal: chocolate. Sicily was part of the Spanish empire for a long time, so it often got new foodstuffs from South America early. Cacao was one of these, and 400 years later, Modica still specializes in making granular chocolate (basically just ground cacao beans and sugar) based on Aztec methods and recipes, including spices like chile peppers, cinnamon and vanilla.
The best-known chocolate shops are in Modico Basso, spread out along Corso Umberto I, and almost all of them offer free samples. We start by picking up a map at the tourist office, stopping briefly to see the Mosaico Artistico Legno exhibit at the Palazzo della Cultura nearby, and making a beeline for Antico Dolceria Bonajuto, the oldest (dating to 1880) and most famous of the bunch. The Victorian-looking shop is charming, and the saleswomen have a practiced spiel, as well as an ability to take care of everyone relatively quickly, though the room is crowded with tourists. After availing ourselves of free samples in various flavors, we buy a mpanatigghi, a delicate pastry stuffed with a paste of chocolate, almonds, sugar and ground meat. It’s delicious – if a little odd.
Next is Antica Dolceria Rizza at the other end of the strip. A large group of teenagers is just beginning to clear out, so we edge in and sample some more but don’t wait to make any purchases. Across the street, though, Laboratorio Dolciario Casa Don Puglisi is a quiet and very pretty little store, with more free samples and a selection of interesting products, including local almond wine that Fred buys. The actual chocolate laboratory is in another location, as far as I can tell, and it offers demonstrations, as do some of the other chocolate-makers.
We think about having dinner at one of the restaurants I’ve read about, but we’re stuffed with chocolate, and anyway, it’s late, so we just drive back to Acitrezza. I make two mental notes: Return to Modica to visit the cathedral and other sights, and don’t eat so much chocolate next time. Much as I hate to admit it to myself, I don’t love the texture of Modica chocolate, though the taste is fine. Maybe the Aztecs knew what they were doing when they turned it into a beverage.
Photos by Fredric Swanson