The setting June sun was casting a golden glow on the stunning honey-toned baroque buildings of the southern Sicilian town of Noto. A few British friends and I were admiring the architectural beauty when one of them made a borderline insensitive remark: "They're lucky the earthquake happened when it did. Imagine what this city would have looked like if it happened in the 1950s."
By now my friends and I had learned that in 1693, Sicily -- then under the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs -- was hit by a massive earthquake and a subsequent plague that killed off an estimated 5 percent of the population. The medieval town of Noto was essentially leveled. So when the decision came to rebuild and relocate Noto about 10 miles away, the new town was executed in the ornate baroque style of the time.
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Southern SicilyGetting there: There aren't really any direct flights on U.S. airlines into Sicily, though Eurofly/Meridiana (euroflyusa.com) runs direct flights twice a week from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to the Sicilian capital of Palermo and the eastern city of Catania in the month of June.
Your best bet is to fly to a major European airline hub city and then continue on from there. An obvious choice is the Italian airline Alitalia (alitalia.com/us_en) which has regular flights to Sicily's major airports, though I was able to join a friend from London's Gatwick airport on the discount British airline easyJet (easyjet.com).
The recently opened Comiso Airport (near a former NATO base) is located in Southern Sicily, but the airlines that service it are limited or on seasonal schedules. Many more major and discount airlines fly to Catania Fontanarossa International Airport (also known as Vincenzo Bellini Airport) on the island's eastern coast.
It's probably best to rent a car. Be aware that if you pick a compact rental, you may end up with a two-seat Smart Car. It's great for navigating narrow city streets, but it has minimal space for luggage.
Where to stay: A travel site that deals directly with renting luxury Mediterranean vacation villas is thethinkingtraveller.com. Weekly rates vary depending upon the season. For instance, the Gioi villa I stayed at is around $3,450 in the early spring, and about $6,940 at the height of summer (all rates converted from euros; exchange rates may vary).
Many Southern Sicilian towns had basic chain hotels built in the 1950s and '60s on the outskirts of major cities, while intimate bed-and-breakfasts and pensiones can be more readily found in historic city centers.
More info: For official tourist information, see italia.it.
I chastised my friend for being so glib about a deadly disaster, even if it was more than three centuries ago. But she immediately compared the beauty of Noto, nicely restored since it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002, to the dreary modern architecture of the English city of Coventry, which lost much of its historic architecture in Nazi blitzkrieg bombing during World War II. Having once visited Coventry, I immediately saw her point.
The historic baroque center of Noto is just one of many sightseeing joys of southern Sicily. I'm now ashamed to admit that in the past I hadn't given much thought to visiting the Mediterranean Sea's largest island, frequently taught to kids on European maps as the ball being kicked by the boot of the Italian mainland.
But when several British friends asked me to help split the costs of staying in a Sicilian villa for a week, I jumped at the chance. After all, isn't renting an Italian villa on most travelers' bucket list?
Scanning through the "Think Sicily" portion of the travel site thethinkingtraveler.com, we ultimately decided on a recently built villa named Gioi on the outskirts of Noto. The property was designed to accommodate a party of eight, with extra mezzanine-level beds for kids, and prominently features a private infinity-style swimming pool overlooking a vast lemon grove.
I agreed to go as long as I could see some Greek and Roman ruins that I learned about in my high school art history class. In particular, I knew I couldn't miss the elaborate and highly concentrated ancient floor mosaics from the ruins of the Roman Villa of Casale (Villa Romana del Casale) at Piazza Armerina in central Sicily.
Luckily, the eight people in our party agreed beforehand that we could all do our own thing. One contingent was keen to use our rental villa as a home base to make sightseeing day trips. Another villa contingent was content to mostly relax by the pool.
That laissez-faire attitude may have resulted in an environmentally unfriendly pileup of four rental cars jammed into the villa's sloped gated driveway, but we each had the freedom to come and go on a whim.
Greek (and Roman) for me
Sicily teems with a rich history that has been influenced by the series of invasions and rule by ancient Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans.
This successive mix of cultures is physically embodied in the Catholic cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo on the island of Ortygia (also spelled Ortigia) connected to Syracuse (Siracusa in Italian). The structure was originally built as a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena in the 5th Century B.C., and it has been altered and changed faiths through the centuries alternately serving as an Islamic mosque and a Christian house of worship.
The cathedral still has its original Doric Greek columns, with some peeking through one side of its exterior and another row supporting the roof on the interior. Yet the main facade is in a high 18th-century baroque style, since the medieval Norman one collapsed in that 1693 earthquake. The cathedral is part of a lovely baroque piazza, with a number of restaurants offering wonderful summer al fresco dining.
Ortygia also has the ruins of a temple to the god Apollo, which is fenced off from the general public for its own protection. Even more Greek and Roman ruins can be found further into Syracuse proper at the city's most-visited tourist attraction: the Neapolis Archeological Park (or Parco Archeologico della Neapols in Italian).
The site prominently features the ruins of a Roman amphitheater that was once used for gladiator fights and horse races, gardens built around ancient limestone quarries and the classical Teatro Greco that can seat up to 16,000 people.
The Greek theater is still in use for the Teatro Greco di Siracusa Festival, which runs in May and June and typically features two ancient Greek dramas (performed in Italian translations) by the likes of Sophocles or Euripides rotating in repertory. The ancient stone seats are covered with modern wood paneling for the festival, but it's still wise to bring along a cushion or blanket if you attend a performance.
Tiles far and near
You can get even closer to the way life was lived in Roman times by visiting the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. These ruins of a wealthy Roman official's residence dating to the reign of Diocletian (AD 286-305) are filled with an eye-popping 3,535 square meters of ancient floor mosaics in amazing condition. The site lives up to the hype of guidebooks listing it as a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Sicily.
Villa Romana del Casale was buried over by a landslide during Norman rule in the 12th century, only to be rediscovered in the 1950s. The playful mosaics depict domestic life, Greek mythology, geometric patterns and even exotic animals being captured abroad. Thanks to a series of elevated walkways, tourists are able to see them from above.
Getting to Villa Romana del Casale in central Sicily from the south of the island proved to be a bit testing (it was around a three-hour drive each way), but it was worth it. Yet my friends and I were surprised to learn that the ruins of a smaller Roman villa with restored floor mosaics could be found closer to our vacation home.
The Villa Romano del Tellaro is just a short drive south of Noto. The villa dates to the late Roman empire, and its ruins were discovered in 1971 and opened to tourists in 2008.
The mosaics of Villa Romano del Tellaro don't in any way measure up to the sheer quantity at the Villa Romana del Casale, but they certainly stand up in terms of quality. Particularly amazing was the visual depiction of a hunting party wading through a river, and a tiger leaping through an elaborate geometric pattern.
With my own tastes drawn more to art and history, I thought some of my friends were a bit batty to take a trip to the city of Modica just for a famous artisan chocolatier. Many guidebooks sing the praises of Antica Doceria Bonajuto, which still uses some Aztec new world recipes brought over to Europe from 16th-century Spanish explorers.
The confectionary has been in the same family for more than six generations and is found at the bottom of Modica, a baroque city situated around a massive ravine.
Rather than drive directly to the shop, our group opted to park near the top and soak in the atmosphere as we scampered down a series of winding footpaths and stairs through the city. The views from the steps of the baroque church known as the Chiesa di San Giorgio were particularly impressive, and it was fun to run into placards mentioning buildings used for filming of "Inspector Montalbano" (there are actually tours for fans of Andrea Camilleri's books and the Italian detective TV series in the nearby city of Ragusa).
The chocolate did not disappoint, and it certainly helped that Antica Doceria Bonajuto offered dishes of bite-sized samples of different flavors for tasting. Compared to modern day chocolate, the texture is much more grainy since the sugar doesn't entirely melt away in the confectionary process.
Though Sicily wasn't at the top of my list of other world-renowned Italian city-states to visit, the island's mix of lesser-known ancient sites and beautiful baroque architecture was an entrancing discovery all the same. And of course, it helps to be among good company when you're splitting the costs -- and sharing chocolates -- with good friends.