To reach either half of Ragusa, the old town of Ragusa Ibla and its newer counterpart Ragusa Superiore, requires you to descend into the deep ravine of Valle dei Ponti, and then clamber back up endless flights of steep stairs worn by the passage of time and countless feet. There is no better example of this than the Salita Commendatore, stairs that wind through the 18th century heart of Ragusa Superiore, crossing hairpin bends of the winding road and passing under stone arches as you climb.
Breathlessly, we arrived at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Scale, St Mary of the Stairs, a 13th-century Gothic church given a Baroque makeover after the earthquake of 1693 which flattened much of the original city. The climb to the church is worth the effort when you turn around. I challenge anyone not to be wowed by the superb views across to Ragusa Ibla and over the surrounding countryside. Once you reach the small square next to the church, the good news is that it’s all downhill back to Ragusa Ibla.
Like too many churches on our trip, St. Mary of the Stairs wasn’t open. You have to time your visit well to arrive when churches are open in Sicily, even the cathedral in Ragusa only opens for limited periods. We started our descent on the road, but occasionally dived down narrow stairways or cobbled alleys to explore the nooks and crannies of this fascinating place. There are tremendous views to be had between the tall houses as you tumble downwards to reach the Church of Santa Lucia.
The small square in front of the church offers panoramic views, some of the most iconic in Ragusa. The blue dome of the Church of Santa Maria dell’ Itria prominent against the cityscape. From this vantage point you get a sense of Ragusa Ibla’s layout and its place in the landscape. We spotted metallic figures of people climbing a nearby hill, a nod to a local legend that claims the treasures of the town were buried on a hilltop to stop them falling into the hands of the invading Arabs. Treasures that have yet to be found.
This part of Ragusa Superiore was built following the 1693 earthquake that destroyed the ancient town of Ragusa Ibla. The devastation was almost total and a decision was taken to build a new town on the hill opposite the original town. A new cathedral and grand palaces were built, and that might have been the end for Ragusa Ibla, except the local aristocracy couldn’t bear to see the town fall into ruin. Instead, they decided to rebuild their former palaces, churches and houses in the Baroque style.
Ragusa Ibla dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and was a thriving urban centre during Roman and Byzantine times. It continued to be an important economic hub during the 200-years of Arab occupation before the 11th century conquest by the Normans, after which it was a provincial capital in the Kingdom of Sicily. This epic history can still be glimpsed as you wander the streets of Ibla, or more conveniently in the archeological museum.
We made our way back into Ragusa Ibla, and wound our way around the streets to the Piazza Duomo and then to the scenic public gardens at the bottom of the town. The gardens have a lovely avenue of palm trees, three attractive churches (none of which was open), and, best of all, sweeping views across the countryside. We sat on a bench in the shade and watched the world not go by, before heading back into the maze of Ibla. Unbeknown to us, we had timed things well because all the churches suddenly seemed to be open … finally.