Modica – Sicily’s Surprising Baroque Masterpiece
My first encounter with Modica was late on a summer’s night. The approach to the city, across a broad plateau, gave no hint of the secrets that were about to be exposed. Below a small car park, lights sparkled as if a basket of stars, part souk, part late Renaissance fantasy, a mosaic of buildings which belied the complex history of one of Sicily’s Baroque jewels.
The two sections of the city, Modica Basso (below) and Modica Alta (above) were clearly apparent even at a late hour. The stunning façade of the Church of San Giorgio, patron saint of Modica Alta, and the monument lined approach to the Church of San Pietro, patron saint of Modica Basso, shimmered in amber light.
Modica’s sharp escarpment and valley were created by the Modicano, a river formed of two smaller tributaries; Pozzo dei Pruni and Janni Mauro. Noted for the number of bridges which once crossed the river, and for the commerce which lined its banks, the city became known as the Venice of Sicily. Following a catastrophic flood in 1902, the city installed huge culverts which now move the river safely under Modica Basso’s main thoroughfare, Corso Umberto I.
In 1693 the eastern side of the island suffered nearly complete destruction followingc a strong earthquake. Architects and stonemasons recovered from that disaster by creating a new style of building which has come to be known a Sicilian Baroque. It is a result of the spectacularly carved and intricately carved stones used in this new style of building that Modica shares, along with the nearby cities of Ragusa, Scicli and Noto, the unique distinction of being a UNESCO protected site.
When you visit the city, there are a few key sites I strongly encourage you to enjoy.
The Cathedral of San Giorgio: Located on a steep hillside, above a garden shaped like a large key, this is one of the most striking examples of Sicilian Baroque in Sicily. The facade was rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and the results are spectacular. One of the island’s first meridians, a means of tracing the seasons by the position of the sun on the floor of the cathedral, crosses in front of the main altar. It was in 1895, that the mathematician Armando Perinio received permission from the church to install the meridian.
The rays of sunlight that pierce the cathedral’s windows, particularly in the afternoon, create prisms of light on the surface of huge white interior marble column; an evocative sense of the spiritual in a spiritual place.
The Cathedral of San Pietro: Older than San Giorgio, this was the diocesan church of the city until factions formed around Modica Alta and Modica Basso. The ensuing divisions ended in their being two patron saints of the city – San Giorgio for the upper city and Saint Peter for the lower city. The statues of the twelve saints that stand along both sides of the entrance stairway to the church are beautiful, as is the interior of this historic church.
San Niccolo Inferiore: It was in the late 1960’s, when a car repair garage was being enlarged, that workers opened up a cave. It was determined that the cave had been used by early (4th Century A.D.) Christians as a place of worship. Located off of a small side lane along the Corso Umberto I, you have to ring a bell to enter this little known treasure in the heart of the city. A warden leans out of a window above you in response to the bell, then descends and opens the cave for you. The walls retain remnants of fourth and fifth century frescoes created by the artists of the day, gorgeous in their simplicity, moving in their beauty.
Chocolate in Modica:
You can find few chocolatiers in Italy that can match the history of Bonajuto (bon-aye-u’-toe) in Modica Basso. Established in 1880 by Francesco Bonajuto, the recipes used in this workshop date to the time of Spanish occupation on Sicily. The grainy texture of the chocolate (they do not allow the sugar to dissolve completely) mixed with ingredients as diverse as red pepper or lemon, are a delight. Guided visits can be arranged. See below under “IF YOU GO” for further details.
There are numerous options open to visitors who choose Modica as the base for their visit to this part of Sicily. Easily reached are the other famous Sicilian Baroque cities of Scicli, Noto and Ragusa. Lovely small fishing villages, like Sampieri and Pozzallo, dot the southeastern coast and offer quiet (except in July and August!) respite from the cities. The Cava d’Ispica, another site replete with the remains of early religious worship, is an easy day trip as well. For those more adventuresome, a longer day trip provides time to visit the extraordinary Valley of the Temples near the southern coastal city of Agrigento.
On many evenings, I have walked up to the piazza above the Hotel Palazzo Failla – see “Hotels” below (not for the feint of heart!) – and looked out over the valley of Modica. Despite the occasional group of local youths who gather as young people are wont to do, the timelessness of the buildings, the rugged beauty of the architecture and the evening shafts of sunset light evoke a different time, a different era, a different Italy.
No matter where your travels take you during time in Sicily, visit Modica. You will not be disappointed.
IF YOU GO:
The Palazzo Failla in Modica Alta. The Failla family opened this lovely hotel in their family palazzo. The restoration of their once family home is gorgeous. In 2008, the family opened a depandance across the road from the original hotel where suites that include every modern convenience (spa tubs, steam showers for example) are available. There are two restaurants in the hotel – the Gazza Ladra and La Locanda del Colonnello. The Gazza is one of the finest restaurants in Italy while the Locanda offers typical Sicilian fare.
Via Blandini, 5 – 97015 Modica (RG)
For those more interested in the quiet retreat of a country estate, rather than a city hotel, the Cambiocavallo offers guests the beauty of a resort with easy access to the sea and the main sites of southeastern Sicily. The resort is located about half way between Modica and the southern shore of the island, near Pozzallo.
c.da Zimmardo Km 5 provinciale Modica-Pozzallo
Tel. (+39) 0918.104.22.168
Osteria dei Sapori Perduti
In addition to the two restaurants listed in the Hotel Palazzo Failla, I also strongly encourage you to enjoy a meal (or meals!) at the
Osteria dei Sapori Perduti. This is a treasure of a place to enjoy a fabulous meal in Sicily. The recipes are generations old, traditional in every sense. The translation of the Osteria’s name (The Osteria of Lost Flavors) is not quite accurate as the flavors, rediscovered in traditional recipes, are unforgettable. This is a very affordable place and the service is matched by the owner’s dedication to satisfying even the most discriminating palate.
Corso Umberto I, 228, 97015 Modica, Sicily, Italy
Pizzeria Smile? Yes. A short walk from the Palazzo Failla in Modica Alta is this wonderful pizzeria. After long days of travel and visiting across this part of Sicily, the pizzeria offers simple and flavorful fare served in a very plain atmosphere. Weather permitting, the dining rooms open to the street and absent the occasional motos that rip past the restaurant, the cool evening breezes are a welcome respite from the heat of summer and welcome cool in the autumn and spring.
Via G. Marconi, 17
San Giorgio and San Pietro: 10:00AM until 6:00PM except Sundays. Sunday 1:00PM – 5:00PM. The schedule for masses are posted on the doors and interior entrances to the churches.
San Niccolo Inferiore: Via Rimaldi, 1. Tel: +39.331.740.3045. Hours vary by request. You must ring the bell at the entrance to the site to gain entrance with no reservation. If you wish to set up a time to visit, call the Italian cell phone listed in this summary and make an appointment. This is a place with no formal hours, absent 10:00AM to 5:00PM. It is catch as catch can, but well worth the effort!