If you love magnificent architecture, beautiful landscapes and golden sandy beaches then Noto will not disappoint you. This small town located in the south-east of Sicily and just 40 km from Siracusa is the symbol of Sicilian Baroque, a pearl of this artistic period that delights all who visit. Rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake, today it is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto”.
Noto’s townscape is not what it used to be, fault of the above-mentioned earthquake that in 1693 completely destroyed the ancient town and caused almost 60.000 deaths, something that none of the various invaders had managed to do thanks in part to the high walls that surrounded the town, parts of which are still standing. The Sicels founded the Netum settlement during the Bronze Age on Mount Alveria, about 8 km from the present site. Legend has it that Daedalus and Hercules stayed in the city though It was definitely a colony of Siracusa under Hiero II. The Romans recognized its status by signing a peace deal in 263 BC. The Arabs arrived here in 863 AD and invested the town as the capital of Val di Noto, one of the three major administrative districts in which they divided the island. Under the Normans and during the Middle Ages, the town grew to be one of the main cultural, economic and military centres of South-eastern Sicily.
After the earthquake, the city was rebuilt in a position nearer to the Ionian Sea. Thanks to the work of the Marchese di S.Alfano Landolina, who designed the towns new grid system, and to the architects Rosario Gagliardi and Vincenzo Sinatra, Noto returned to life with a whole new imprint, becoming the jewel in the Baroque architectural movement.
Corso Vittorio Emanuele is Noto’s main street, the heart of the city that holds the essence of the Sicilian Baroque. You will come upon several imposing mansions, magnificent churches and beautiful buildings along this street, the result of the ingenious work of the architects and engineers that rebuilt the town. The starting point of the journey is the Royal Gate, a neoclassical monumental gateway built for King Ferdinand II’s entrance to the city. Here too is the Villa Comunale, the town’s public garden festooned with the colourful bougainvillaea climbers.
Passing through the gate, the first sight you will encounter on your walk will be the church of San Francesco. It was built by Rosario Gagliardi and Vincenzo Sinatra between 1704 and 1745 and it is located at the top of a majestic flight of steps. The façade has a portal with Baroque columns and three niches, while the interior has a single nave and several valuable artworks, paintings and funeral monuments dedicated to some of Noto’s noble families. Next, there is the church of Santa Chiara also designed by Gagliardi, it has an elliptical shape as many of the Roman churches had and is held up by twelve columns, while the interior has numerous decorations and stuccoes and houses a sculpture of the Madonna with Child dating back to the 16th century.
On the other side of the Corso and next to the Monument to the Fallen in the Great War, there is another fine example of the Baroque style, the church of San Carlo. You can find the baroque influence in the concave façade with the Doric, Ionic and Corinthians columns. Its interior has a longitudinal plan and three naves covered by barrel vaults and defined by half-columns. It contains several works from different epochs. Climbing up the bell tower and reaching the top, you get outstanding views over the town and its buildings.
Proceeding from east to west, you encounter the piazza XVI Maggio, a well-designed square housing the Fountain of Hercules, the Vittorio Emanuele III Theatre and the church of San Domenico. This magnificent church dominates the entire square with its impressive curved façade, and it is considered a perfect example of the Baroque style in Noto. The interior has three naves full of white stucco and polychrome marble altars. There are several artworks within, remarkable that depicting the Madonna of the Rosary to whom Saint Dominic was devout.
Piazza del Municipio, in the middle of the Corso, holds a jewel amazing for its beauty: the Cathedral of San Nicolò. Standing atop an imposing flight of steps, the mother church incorporates the essence of the Baroque combined with eclectic elements. This can especially be found in the impressive façade incorporating some neoclassic details. It was designed by Gagliardi, and building began a few months after the earthquake though it was only completed in 1776 under the supervision of Bernardo Labisi.
The Cathedral has a Latin cross plan with three naves divided by tall pillars. The exterior is in yellow limestone with Baroque motifs, while the interior is minimalist, simply whitewashed. The first chapel at the end of the right nave contains the remains of San Corrado, the patron of the city, in addition to a 16th-century “Holy Ark” made by Claudio Lo Paggio from Lyon. The dome collapsed in 1996 after structural weakening caused by the 1990 earthquake. The restoration work was completed in 2007; among the works and the artists involved, it is noteworthy to cite the Christ Pantocrator by Bruno d’Acervia located in the apse. In front of the Cathedral, there is Palazzo Ducezio, the Municipal Hall inspired by 17th-century French architecture. We also suggest you visit both buildings at night when floodlighting creates sublime effects over their stones.
Near Piazza del Municipio, you’ll find via Nicolaci, which is famous for the “Infiorata”, or flower festival: each May, artists cover the entire street with flower petals creating colourful mosaics, some original, others reproducing famous paintings. The festival is the city’s main event and attracts many tourists from all over the world. In the same street stands Palazzo Nicolaci, a fine expression of the Baroque opulence that permeates the town. The palace well gives an idea of how the local nobility conducted a luxurious lifestyle.
The local beaches
Noto is just not art and architecture, but also offers leisure activities to its visitors. Even though it is located at the foot of the Iblei Mountains, it is near the south-eastern coast and it is quite simple to reach some of the most popular local beaches.
Lido di Noto is, in fact, the main beach destination for the locals and full of life during the summer. It has a fine sandy beach and is served by bars and beach clubs, highly suitable for families with children and seaside outings.
Another well-loved beach destination to the south of Noto is the Calamosche beach which can be reached after a 30-minute walk through the Vendicari Nature Reserve and it is also near the ancient Roman remains of Villa Romana del Tellaro. It is a little sandy bay between two rocky headlands immersed in un-spoilt nature. It is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in Italy, ideal for those who want to enjoy a peaceful swim in a relaxing natural context.
And if you love the outdoors, you will surely want to visit the Cavagrande Oriented Nature Reserve, an uncontaminated area to the north of Noto which surrounds the canyon formed by the Cassibile river. This nature reserve has a 1,7 km pathway that leads to the suggestive pools located in the gorge where you can bathe and refresh after the long walk. So, if you plan to visit the reserve, bring water, food and some sensible shoes, the walk is long (about an hour) and presents some obstacles, but it is a walk that will repay the effort.