Sicily 2019: Villa Romana del Casale, Ragusa, Modica and Noto

On our way to Ragusa, we stopped at another big highlight attraction in Sicily, found among the rolling hills and farmland: Villa Romana del Casale.  In fact, as we started our visit, I distinctly remember hearing the cow bells on a neighboring farm, interrupting the otherwise peaceful serenity of being away from civilization.  Villa Romana del Casale was the palace of a wealthy Roman who chose to build outside of town, and it is the best and largest collection of Roman floor mosaics ever to be found relatively intact.  In fact, it’s one of the few surviving Roman sites in Sicily, as so many subsequent invaders/rulers came after and looted or rebuilt in the cities.

Historians don’t know who owned the palace, but many theorize he was a senator (or other wealthy aristocrat) who also imported exotic animals, as one of the floor mosaics depict the hunt and capture of elephants, tigers, ostriches and even fish. As I toured the palace, I thought of writing a historical fiction novel about the owner, his business and his family.  How fun would that be?!

Villa Romana del Casale’s courtyard.
The Gymnasts. Rick jokes in his guidebook that “there really is nothing new under the sun–apparently, women in bikinis were popular even 2,000 years ago.” Just another reason we go back to Rick’s books each time we travel!

Below is a larger view of ‘the gymnasts.’  Note the upper left corner–the gymnasts were an ancient home improvement project, laid overtop an existing mosaic floor!

Full view of ‘the gymnasts,’ which was actually depiction of women’s athleticism.

The 200-foot-long mosaic floor shows the capture of many wild animals, which is what makes historians think the owner of the palace may have traded these animals as a business. It’s hard to tell in the photos, but the mosaics are incredibly detailed, down to shading of the mens’ clothing and adding texture to animal skin.  Seeing a floor of that length done in mosaics telling a story was truly impressive.

‘The Great Hunt.’

The recreated dome of the basilica is where the owner would have received guests.  The floor is laid with precious stones and marble instead of mosaics.  Again, taking into the size and opulence of this palace, the owner would have been incredibly wealthy and powerful.  This is actually where the idea came to me to write a book about him…

The Basilica of Villa Romana del Casale.

We proceeded to Ragusa that evening and got in just in time to head out for a late dinner at 9:30.  Unsurprisingly, or perhaps not, diners continued to arrive well beyond 10 p.m.  It was Friday night, after all.

Ragusa was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake, and the wealthy decided to rebuild up on the hill in a more ‘modern’ fashion (i.e. grid street patterns).  The lower city was eventually restored as well, maintaining its more ‘ancient’ charm.  Ragusa is now made up of both towns, one lower and one upper, neither of which has a flat spot at all!  Nowhere did I wish for my belly band like I did in Ragusa!

We awoke to blue skies and this beautiful view of Ragusa Superiore from our balcony:

The view of Ragusa Superiore from Ragusa Ibla (the lower town).

The lower town is where its at, so to speak, so I’m glad our little apartment was there and close to the main square. Andrew and I did the Rick walk to get oriented, and even toured the Palazzo Arezzo with the son of the current owner.  It was neat to see his (very large) family tree, and he was happy to tell Andrew how excited he was to be expecting his second daughter next month.

Piazza Duomo, with the Cathedral of San Giorgio at the top.

We’d planned to do our laundry while in Agrigento, but we got a late start that morning and decided to put it off until our next stop.  Well, it turns out that there aren’t any laundromats in Ragusa’s old city, and besides, they’d be closed on the weekends anyway.  Insert shrugging emoji here. 🤷‍♀️🤷‍♀️🤷‍♀️🤷‍♀️

However, in a stroke of genius (if I do say so myself), I remembered our balcony and bright, sunny day.  If we could only get our hands on some clothespins, we could use the detergent I brought with us and wash our clothes in our little kitchen sink!  Well, yet again we were stymied by European operating hours and the little shop in town was CLOSED in the afternoon.  There would be no taking advantage of the fresh air to dry our clothes today.  So, with smiles on our faces we ran back to the room to simply wash and hang our unmentionables to dry.

Andrew does laundry on vacation! Always bring a Tide packet. And check out that yucky water–gross!

Later that afternoon, we made the trek (248 steps plus an uphill walk) to Superiore.  Rick says ‘fit’ travelers can do it in 20, those taking a slower pace and stopping for photos need 45.  We did do it in about 45, and I’ll blame Andrew’s picture-taking instead of being pregnant… Check out the elevation change:

Plus, in all honesty, the (relatively?) direct route up multiple sets of stairs was NOTHING compared to the MANY times we got lost trying to find our apartment after parking the car.  Each time we got lost = more unnecessary steps UP.

View of Ragusa Ibla from Superiore. It was quite a walk!

The next day, we visited Modica for chocolate!  When visitors from the New World returned with cocoa beans, and Antica Dolceria Bonajuto‘s been producing chocolate–without fat–for more than 150 years.

The ‘sampler buffet’ at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto in Modica.

Our next stop was Noto, mostly because I watched a Chef’s Table episode on Netflix that featured the longtime owner of Café Sicilia and his famous granita. (Just kidding–Andrew already had it in our itinerary.)

We arrived in time to catch the end of what appeared to be a mountain-bike race and walked the busy main drag with all the other locals.

Granita and brioche at Café Sicilia in Noto.
Teal doors and matching cars in Noto.

Noto was also destroyed in that 1693 earthquake, and was rebuilt just a few miles to the south with more of a ‘master plan’ that included wider (and straighter!) roads and harmonious architecture.

We made a quick stop at Donnafugata Castle, which is really just an excuse to see a mix-and-match farmhouse-turned-Neo-Gothic castle.  It’s totally missable, but Andrew and I enjoyed walking the (overgrown) gardens and the stone maze.

Donnafugata Castle outside of Ragusa.

The next morning, we decided to make a quick stop in Modica for breakfast on our way out of town. So glad we did, as I had THE BEST CHOCOLATE CROISSANT EVER.  Instead of the traditional chocolate filling, the chocolate was literally ROLLED INTO THE LAYERS. I can’t even stress how delicious it was.

Chocolate croissant and cappuccino in Modica.

Up next: Siracusa, followed by a nerve-wracking pit-stop in Catania!

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