I’m relaxing in Pozzallo, content with walks on the beach, uninspired to post on my travel blog or chase Sicilian attractions. Daylight hours are long (6:30 am – 8:30 pm) and April weather is mild. Like most Mediterranean coastal areas, Pozzallo’s wind is fierce and unpredictable with temperatures changing quickly. We’ve had a few incredible squalls – dark, ominous skies followed by rain, thunder, and lightning – almost as exciting as African storms.
I’ve considered the best way to navigate Sicily and explore places of interest. You don’t need a car in Pozzallo. For other parts of the island, you can rent a car, bike, or take a ferry, bus, or train. There are multiple daily departures. Ferries are costly but buses inexpensive and reliable. Figuring out the schedule and pickup and drop off points is the hard part.
Buildings in Modica Alta “almost climb the rocks of the mountain”.
Bus stops aren’t marked and the website and learning where to catch buses is confusing. Contacting the bus company directly helps but don’t expect English.
Once you find the pickup point, if you have the exact fare bus drivers may sell you a ticket when boarding the bus. If you’re friends with the driver, a new pickup point might even be created in your honor… If not, you’ll have to figure out where to buy your ticket – sometimes it’s a nearby gelateria or café. You can miss a bus trying to buy your ticket – not fun but it happens in Sicily.
Tuesday, I took a day trip to Modica. It’s close to Pozzallo in the southeastern part of Sicily. The drive was beautiful with glorious scenery reminiscent of favorite coastal areas in Greece and Turkey. We passed stone villas and ruins, olive groves, vineyards, grazing cattle, and open fields of purple, white, and yellow wildflowers with patches of bright red poppies. Other passengers were mostly Sicilian men of all ages who fell asleep during the ride.
The Mediterranean climate encourages flowers year-round, but in spring Sicilian wildflowers are spectacular! They thrive in the rich volcanic soil “fed by ash and lava from the volatile tantrums of Mt. Etna and other volcanoes”.
In April and May, Sicily is “awash with a ribald rush of color”.
Baroque Architecture, Earthquake, Economy
Modica is an elegant Baroque town – population around 60,000. In 2002, It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Pozzallo it’s in Ragusa Province near the southern Iblei Mountains.
In 1693, a devastating earthquake reshaped southeast Sicily. It changed Modica drastically and destroyed its charisma and political importance. Reconstruction helped Modica regain its popularity and Baroque appearance.
I explored Modica by foot covering as much territory as possible in four hours. I couldn’t find a guide and didn’t see any other tourists. It’s off-season, so you do your own research. Later I heard about Hermes-Sicily – guides who organize visits in southeastern Sicily. I’ll contact them before visiting Syracuse and Noto.
I got sidetracked following networks of winding side streets with interesting buildings, stray cats, and cafés. I entered Santuario Madonna delle Grazie and spent time inside with about ten faithful Catholics. Some backstreet houses seem to be built into the hillside. The quiet cobbled streets were mostly empty with abandoned houses in disrepair.
Modica has Greek, Roman, Arab, and Phoenician ties. From the seventeenth until the nineteenth century it was known as the “City of Hercules“. Modica and other cities in the Valley of Sicilian Baroque were destroyed in the 1693 earthquake.
The Noto Valley has eight Medieval late-Baroque cities – Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa, and Scicli. These cities “were rebuilt (in part or entirely) after the 1693 earthquake”. Their exceptional architecture marks the end of one of Europe’s last Baroque Periods.
Modica’s economy is mostly agricultural, “characterized by olive, bean, wheat, and cereal production”. The area is known for prized Modicana cattle that flourish in the Mediterranean climate and produce “quality meat and milk”.
Modica – Bassa and Alta
As we approached central Modica, the bus veered sharply down a steep rocky ridge with stone houses sprawled along the hillside.
Modica Bassa is in a valley where two rivers – Ianni Mauro and Pozzo – meet. Because of destructive flooding, locals “covered” the rivers. Today, the area called Corso Umberto, is a historical center with spectacular churches and monuments. The third part of Modica – Sorda – is a new residential and commercial area.
I divided my time between Modica Bassa and Alta. Bassa buildings guaranteed to blow you away include:
- Benedictine Monastery now the Palace of Culture
- Baroque Church of S. Pietro
- Eighteenth-century Tedeschi Palace
- Seventeenth-century Church of S. Maria del Soccorso
- Nineteenth-century Garibaldi Theater
Notable Corso Umberto attractions include Palazzo Grimaldi – known as the “finest example of neo-Renaissance style buildings in Modica”. The Palazzo’s art gallery displays paintings by famous nineteenth century artists from the karst plains of the Iblean area. Palazzo Polara has exquisite Baroque architecture and Palazzo de Mercedari – attached to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace – which was previously a convent and hospital during the 1709 plague”.
Modica’s history dates to 1000 BC when the Sicels (ancient Sicilians) became part of a Greek colony in Siracusa. Following the Punic Wars, the Romans took over the colony and later passed it to the Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans.
The first settlements began during the Bronze Age. After Arab conquest, Modica became an important commercial, agricultural center.
Churches, Palaces, Monuments
Modica is a powerhouse of history, culture, and architecture. A day trip is a tiny intro to exploring and understanding its treasures. Known as “the city of a hundred churches” Modica is rich in Baroque cathedrals and monasteries. Most of these religious structures were built with “local golden stone”. There are brief descriptions of some in this post.
A special feature of Modica Baroque churches is that instead of overlooking squares, they face “imposing and spectacular flights of steps modeled on the slopes of the city’s hills”.
A “fanciful rococo church”, Cathedral of St. George looks like a “wedding cake topper”. Perched above 164 steps, San Giorgio is Modica’s mother church and on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Cathedral of St. George is a monumental symbol of Sicilian Baroque art. Italian architect Rosario Gagliardi helped reconstruct the church after the 1693 earthquake. It reopened in 1738.
The Church of San Pietro is at the top of a staircase lined with statues of “saints resembling a statuary welcoming committee”. San Pietro is the Patron Saint of Modica Bassa and a typical example of eighteenth-century Sicilian Baroque.
San Pietro’s original foundation dates to the 1300s. The current structure is from the seventeenth century. Destroyed by the 1693 earthquake, it was rebuilt on masonry structures that survived the earthquake. Statues of San Cataldo, Santa Rosalia, San Pietro, and the Madonna embellish the residence of the second order of mendicant nuns. The church façade has a sculpture of Jesus.
The Santuario Madonna Delle Grazie was built in 1615 after locals discovered a slate tablet depicting the Madonna with Child in her arms. The tablet burned incessantly for three days in a bramble bush without being consumed. The tablet is preserved in the central altar of the church. In 1627, Madonna delle Grazie became the main Patron Saint of Modica.
The Rock Church of San Nicolò Inferiore is the oldest church in Modica. It’s near the Jesuit College and a rare example of the Byzantine rock architecture of Ragusa’s Iblea area. Discovered in 1987, it reflects original architecture created by rock excavation. The interior has paintings of icons “articulated around a rectangular hall and an apse”. Jesuits built the Rock Church in 1629. Architect Rosario Gagliardi designed and helped rebuild it after the 1693 earthquake.
Known as “the city of a hundred churches,” Modica is rich in Baroque Period cathedrals and monasteries.
A fourteenth century Gothic-Chiaramonte style monument, the Church of Santa Maria del Carmelo (Carmine) accommodated Carmelite friars. A beautiful Franciscan rose window adorns the church portal. Carmine is one of few churches still showing “architectural traces from before the destructive 1693 earthquake”.
The seventeenth-century Baroque Church of San Domenico is in Piazza Principe di Napoli. The Dominicans built the church in the fourteenth century. It was destroyed by the 1693 earthquake and later rebuilt.
The Church of St. Mary of Bethlehem also dates back to the fourteenth century. Traces of its past are visible in “bas-reliefs depicting adoration of the shepherds”. Inside there’s a late Gothic style Palatine Chapel. The arch has Arabic, Catalan, and Norman elements and houses tombs of the family of the counts Cabrera.
Restored after the earthquake Duomo di San Pietro is one of the most beautiful churches in Modica. The façade has four statues representing San Cataldo, Santa Rosalia, San Pietro, and the Madonna. The church includes a sculpture of Jesus and statues of the twelve apostles.
Modica has a history of chocolate making detailed in its Chocolate Museum. The ancient chocolate recipe came from Spanish conquistadors during their domination of Sicily. They got it from the Aztecs. Modica produces chocolate in many flavours like orange, cinnamon, and chili pepper.
Palazzo della Cultura
Palazzo della Cultura is Modica’s Civic Museum. In the seventeenth century it was San Placido’s Benedictine Monastery and during the fifteenth century a palace for the Platamone Family of olive oil fame.
The most valuable piece in the museum is the Eracle by Cafeo, a bronze statuette “depicting Hercules naked in a standing position dating from the end of the 5th to the beginning of the 4th century BC”. Found in 1967 along the Irmino River, the statuette is one of the most important Hellenistic finds in Sicily.
Described as “a jewelry box of velvet seats surrounding an opera stage.” Garibaldi Theater’s first foundation dates back to the 1820s. Expanded and embellished the theater reopened in 1857 with Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.
After the unification of Italy, the theater was named for Giuseppe Garibaldi, a renowned independent thinker and leader of freedom and independence. Garibaldi theater became an important center of cultural life in Modica with opera, music, art exhibitions, and prose and theatrical performances.
Famous Modica Residents
Twentieth century poet Natale Salvatore Quasimodo was born in Modica in 1901. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959. The house where he was born is now a museum displaying his books and furniture.
Quasimodo’s archives are on display at Museo Civico F.L. Belgiorno in the Palazzo della Cultura. The museum has archaeological and historical collections and the modern art of Enzo Assenza.
Tommaso Campailla was an Italian philosopher, doctor, politician, poet, and teacher. Born in Modica in 1668 to the aristocratic family of Antonio and Adriana Giardina, he studied law in Catania at the young age of sixteen.
Castello Dei Conti Di Modica and Clock Tower
Castello Dei Conti Di Modica and the Clock Tower are two iconographic symbols of Modica. They dominate the historical center of town, and the Counts of Modica and County Governor lived there. Built for military purposes, the castle was the seat of Modica’s political and administrative power and was both a prison and courthouse.
Easter in Modica
Easter in Modica includes a special celebration. “On Easter Sunday two processions, one with the Madonna and one with the risen Jesus, start from two different paths and meet where the two hug and kiss each other. In the dialect the kiss and the hug are called ‘vasata’ – that’s why it’s called Vasa Vasa.” This popular celebration is held in cities throughout Sicily.
The “moving, engaging meeting of Madonna and Jesus” includes the release of white doves. It’s Modica Easter tradition to continue Easter celebrations on the Tuesday after Easter Sunday – Idria Tuesday – in the homonymous sanctuary on the hill of the Idria overlooking the city.
There is so much in Modica! This blog post doesn’t touch many cultural and architectural attractions or local restaurants and cuisine. Farm restaurants are popular and Modica has a renowned cookery school.
Buona giornata, più tarde…
So glad to see you be able to take your time and truly explore. Looking back over my blog post of that area, I note we saw Syracuse, Noto and Ragusa over two days, maximum!
Hi Gwen – maybe it’s part of the aging process :o( but I don’t do rushed well and am thankful for no strict timelines in my travels and realize that’s rare. Some might not find lingering in foreign countries appealing….but quick visits leave me feeling
frustrated and flustered. I’ll likely return to Sicily during another trip and concentrate on Palermo, Catania, and Agrigento. Would love to hike on Mt. Etna but it won’t be during this trip. It’s a beautiful place!
I’d do precisely the same in your situation. In my early twenties I wandered for four years; and that’s how I’d travel again if I was single.