Other than exploring the street food scene of Palermo (post coming soon, I swear) the region of Sicily we were most looking forward to exploring was the UNESCO listed Val di Noto. This region, destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1693, was carefully rebuilt in what was to become the world famous Sicilian Baroque style. Today it contains not only some of the most beautiful and remote cities in Sicily, but in the whole of Italy.
Our initial intention was to stay in the most well-known city in the Valley, Ragusa. However, after finding little accommodation in our price range, we decided to stay in the nearby lesser-known town of Modica. This turned out to a fabulous decision as Modica is a near-perfect base for exploring the region – plus it is an amazing city in its own right!
Feeling much smaller than its reported population of 55,000 people (owing to the fact that many live in “new Modica” just a short distance away), Modica’s old town is situated at the junction of two valleys and split into alta and bassa (upper and lower). As such, the city has only two main streets that run through the small valley bottom, while residential homes and even the city’s large cathedral are built up into the steep hillside. The city’s compactness coupled with the seemingly unending supply of narrow back alleys and secret staircases make the town a new adventure every day.
If you ask any local, they will tell you that Modica is known for two things – chocolate and churches – and this suited us just fine.
Often referred to as the “city of 100 churches” – despite our best efforts we could not confirm nor deny this, but it’s probably true – Modica has some stunning churches, many of which are built into the city, surrounded on all sides by traditional Sicilian stone houses and small shops and seeming to almost disappear into the background. In a city with so many churches, only a small handful really stand out – in particular the large Cathedral of St. George (San Giorgio).
With a majestic curving 250-step staircase leading up to it, the Duomo di San Giorgio is the epitome of Sicilian Baroque splendour, and quite possibly the most beautiful Cathedral we saw in Sicily. Rebuilt following the earthquake in 1693, it stands as a true marvel of engineering, built into the side of the ravine with roads and alleys weaving their way around its enormity. Inside, soft tones made it feel light and airy – a nice change from the hectic interiors found elsewhere in Italy.
After fully exploring the city, from lookout points high in the hills to the compact centre below, and it’s beautiful churches (at least the ones we could find) we were ready to shift gears – the perfect excuse to sample some of Modica’s famous chocolate.
From the first bite we knew there was something different about this chocolate – it was definitely not Purdy’s*. Still made in the traditional Aztec method that was brought to Sicily during it rule under the Spanish, the chocolate is gritty and a definite surprise the first time you bite into it. This is due to the fact that no fats are added and the chocolate is never heated over 40 degrees Celcius. Because of this, the added sugar never dissolves and remains as granules. In fact, the only ingredients you will find in Modican Chocolate are the cocoa beans, sugar, and the flavouring being added.
Many of the best Modican Chocolatiers add ingredients found on the island or traditionally traded products, and thankfully they all seem to provide as many samples as you can handle! Some of our favourites included salt from the Trapani region, orange and lemon peel, chili and white pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg, and Marsala wine.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the chocolate, and the one that the locals probably love the most, is the fact that it DOES NOT MELT. This is probably nice when it’s 40+ degrees in those summer months and you need a quick pick-me-up.
It was definitely in Modica that our feelings and opinions on Sicily began to shift. While some minor annoyances still bothered us on occasion, we were definitely finding our stride in the Sicilian lifestyle.
Logisitics: Modica is served by buses only (for the most part) from many of the major centres around Sicily. The “old city” is really just one main street surrounded by countless alleys and sidestreets. It would be prudent to have some solid directions, or (like us) have your host meet you! Nearly everything you need can be found on the main street (Corso Umberto 1). The bus “station” can be found on the far “Ragusa” end of Corso Umberto.
*Purdy’s is a Canadian Chocolatier based out of Victoria – if you are EVER in British Columbia you should pick some up!