Noto is a town that tends to bring out the superlatives. It’s a small place of only twenty five thousand people, but it punches well above its weight. Following the devastating earthquake of 1693, which laid waste many towns and villages across this region, Noto lay in ruins. It was decided to abandon the old medieval town and start again on a hill about 10 kilometres away. Some of the finest architects of the age were employed to design the new Noto, and what emerged from disaster is a masterclass of early-18th century Baroque town planning.
Walk down the town’s main street, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and you’ll soon see why Noto is known as the ‘Baroque Capital of Sicily’. The street – pedestrianised – is flanked by utterly magnificent palaces, imposing churches and small squares, all done in a riot of Baroque architecture. We arrived in the town in the mid-morning, but it seemed like things were still just getting going, that included other tourists, who were noticeable by their absence.
As we wandered down Corso Vittorio Emanuele it seemed like every building had little Baroque flourishes: balconies supported by lions or mermaids, sublimely carved capitals on top of fake Ionic columns, and ‘goose-breast’ wrought iron balconies, vie for attention with grotesque masks and cherubs on ornate facades. We started our day at a small cafe with coffee and traditional Sicilian brioche – sweet enough to dissolve teeth – in a small square bathed in sunlight and watched as the town came to life.
We could see the imposing dome of Noto’s most extraordinary building, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas of Myra. Itching to start exploring, we paid our bill and headed to the bottom of the stairs that lead to the Cathedral’s immense facade. It has the effect of making you feel pretty small and insignificant, a impression that only gets stronger as you climb the stairs to the huge doorway into the cavernous interior. The views across the valley from the entrance are wonderful.
Completed in 1776, the cathedral is a Baroque delight, but it has only survived into the 21st century with a lot of help. In 1996 the huge cathedral dome collapsed, largely as a result of failing to properly fix damage from an earthquake in 1990. It took a decade to repair the dome and reopen the cathedral, they’ve taken the opportunity to clean the exterior walls for good measure. The highlight of the new interior has to be the lovely frescoes by Russian painter, Oleg Supereko.
We emerged back into the brilliant Sicilian winter light and made our way to two more exquisite examples of the Baroque. The simple but imposing Church of San Francesco d’Assisi was very plain inside, and we soon found ourselves climbing the many stairs of the Church of Santa Chiara to reach the rooftop terrace with views over the town and the valley below. It was magnificent and gave us a real sense of the size and scale of the cathedral. It’s pretty obvious from up here why the town has UNESCO World Heritage status.
Despite the many steep staircases you’re required to climb, the central part of Noto is easy to get around on foot in half a day, although it’s the sort of place in which you can imagine spending several slow days. We managed to reach the Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata before they closed for lunch, and went on a self-guided tour of the public parts of Baron Nicolaci’s former palace. It gives a glimpse of the extravagant lives of Sicily’s old aristocracy, but has nothing on the average French chateau.
We spent a little time exploring Noto’s step and narrow streets before deciding to skip town for lunch on the Noto coast. We’d been told by some people we’d met in Syracuse that there was a pleasant fishing village south of Noto that did excellent seafood, and it was to Marzamemi that we headed to sample yet more delicious fresh seafood.