I got a taste of Baroque Sicily well before my plane touched down on Italian soil. The buzzed-about southeastern portion of the island, best known for its exuberant architecture and throat-tickling olive oil, is also possessed of a certain...je couldn’t care less. I discovered this while planning my itinerary. Emails to hotels and restaurants were met with coy silences or suggestions that I call somebody’s cousin or the night guard. A friend of a friend managed to track down a resident of Noto, the area’s most fashionable town, who offered to go by foot and visit a few establishments on my behalf. The following day he proudly reported that his dealings had been successful and attached the contact information for the proprietor of a hotel: a screen grab of a single phone number beneath a photograph of two handsome men with their shirts unbuttoned down to there.
And yet I only found myself more determined—and possibly a little intrigued—by a land that evinced so little interest in winning me over. Perhaps it sensed that it already had my devotion, which traces back to my twenties, when I discovered Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri’s books about Inspector Montalbano, an existentialist foodie detective who roams and three-hour-lunches his way through the region. Fast-forward to my thirties, when I took the advice of a well-meaning colleague at the fashion magazine where I worked and rebranded my look as “Sicilian princess” (this enterprise involved a reliance on organic fabrics in creams and blacks and styling my hair with a severe center part). I finally made it to Sicily last summer and spent three heady days in the capital, Palermo, falling for the real Sicilian princesses, as well as the stray cats, with their pagan-god faces.
The Noto Valley, a walnut-shaped region that stretches from industrial Catania through Noto to the towns of Modica and Ragusa, has become a destination for in-the-know Europeans and the American magazine editors who travel like them. The latter scatter bread crumbs on Instagram—an ancient bust here, a stunning stone archway there. The mania intensified in September when it played host to the wedding of mega-popular Italian fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni, aka the Blonde Salad, and elaborately tattooed rapper Federico “Fedez” Leonardo Lucia (they are Italy’s answer to Kim and Kanye). “It’s welcoming, but it’s private” is how Italian Vogue writer and part-time Ragusa resident Angelo Flaccavento explained the region. “Everything happens behind a closed door. You just need to find somebody to open it.”
While the area has long had a certain cachet among these insiders, many of whom were drawn to the small-town-Sicily feel and the Seven Rooms Villadorata, a gorgeous, culty hotel set in a wing of a Baroque palazzo, now others are following suit. A scattering of new hotels is keeping to the area’s quiet charm, wearing luxury with an understated elegance—or, in the case of French interior designer Jacques Garcia’s new place in Noto’s foothills, with unapologetic opulence.
The streets were dark when my husband, Ben, and I pulled into Noto. I stepped out of the rental car to the sound of live piano music and applause spilling from the balconied windows of Palazzo Nicolaci, and I was overcome with the sense that the palace— one of several in town—was not only alive but greeting us. “Oh, that must have been the costume party!” said Bruno, the manager of our bed-and-breakfast, San Carlo Suites, the next morning. “Everybody there was dressed up in eighteenth-century attire,” he added matter-of-factly, and peered out the window. I joined him and saw that it had rained overnight, and Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the town’s main street, was cast in a dreamy glaze. But it was the light that struck me, and would compel me to spend the next week scribbling potential metaphors in my notebook: lemons, heat, magic.
Ben and I threaded through the streets and soaked up the majestic sights: the Cattedrale di San Niccolo, perched above an enormous set of steps that serves as a prime hangout spot; the Civic Theater, which looked like a child’s music box. Drifting farther from the center, we found ourselves playing a game of Chutes and Ladders, sweeping up and down dead-end streets and sudden stairways.
The town owes much of its splendor to a single catastrophe. The 1693 Sicily earthquake reduced Noto to rubble and inspired an enormous do-over, resulting in buildings with an unrestrained aesthetic that was all the rage back then. Adorned with squiggles and scrolls, sphinxes and gargoyles, the palazzos and churches are a perfect match for Fedez’s sleeve tattoos. That more-is-more spirit lives on in the latest wave of developments. Garcia purchased a former monastery in Noto five years ago and built around it three villas, each with a pool and furnished with antiques, religious curios, and some seriously sexy art. Garcia’s friend, Jean-Louis Remilleux, a French TV producer, bought the massive Palazzo di Lorenzo del Castelluccio in 2011 and refurbished its 105 rooms in (mostly) historically appropriate style—think gilded thrones and frescoed ceilings. It’s now part museum, offering private tours, and part personal movie set, where Remilleux entertains when he’s in town.
“I call it Baroque-shire!” said interior designer Samuele Mazza with an impish smile over dinner. The self-identified “mayor of Noto” runs a business flipping homes that he sells to a hungry clientele of French, English, and northern Italians. We were at Anche Gli Angeli, a centrally located restaurant whose thick stone exterior conceals its status as one of Noto’s most bustling spots. Over ilocal specialties (fried sardine “lollipops,” cubes of seared ruby-red tuna, followed by blanco mangare, a pillowy flan made with milk of the region’s insanely sweet almonds), Mazza expounded on the area’s renaissance. “It’s very bohemian and very snobbish—in an understated way,” he said with a shrug, offering me a tiny glass of Zibibbo, the glorious amber-tinged dessert wine, which I credit for my peaceful nights of sleep.
The following morning, Ben and I drove half an hour up the coast, past sunbaked farmland and the occasional factory, to the ancient Greek settlement of Ortigia, the historical center of Siracusa as well as the mythical birthplace of Artemis. Here, the streets were narrower, the buildings older, and the Baroque craze no more contained—the façade of the Cattedrale di Siracusa called to mind a lavish Broadway set. Across the square, a couple posed for their wedding pictures. The bride, a tattooed bombshell in the mold of Amy Winehouse, puffed on a cigarette while a girl wearing a chiffon dress twirled around in bored-happy circles. It was lunchtime, and Ben and I were still smiling over the scene when we arrived at Fratelli Burgio, an old-fashioned delicatessen abutting Ortigia Market.
A slightly longer drive west from Noto, through a rugged, heart-stoppingly beautiful landscape of stone walls and knobby olive trees, will deliver you to Ragusa. After the 1693 quake, most of the city moved to a new settlement, where Baroque and Fascistera buildings now coexist. Some 700 residents (and 70 chapels) remain in the old section, Ragusa Ibla. It was here that Ben and I spent our final nights in Sicily. With its quiet piazza at the foot of the sumptuous Cattedrale di San Giorgio and a public garden where young mothers nursed in the shade of palm trees, it has the feel of an eerily grand ghost town.
Arturo Arezzo, the dapper owner of our bed-and-breakfast, Iblainsuite, and the descendant of one of the area’s noble families, grew up in a stately house overlooking the piazza, where his parents still live. With their imperial brass knobs at eye height, the home’s olive-green doors looked onto the square like an impassive face. Behind them sat a living monument to a lost time. Antique books and family trees rendered in fading calligraphy lined the walls. Arezzo told us that his ancestor Francesco Arezzo was one of 18 men who founded the social club Circolo di Conversazione in 1830, a place that, to this day, functions as a cultural meeting place for its current 235 members. Our host made a phone call, and soon enough another set of doors opened for us. Within the club, the grand ballroom, with its red silk walls and marble floors, made a fool of every Disney fantasy. Best of all, though, was the “women’s room”—a haven of marble and crystal and gleaming silver tea sets that puts the Wing to shame (women were allowed membership in 1974).
On our final day, we headed south for an afternoon trip to Scicli, a beloved Baroque town closer to the Mediterranean. The scent of the sea hung in the air as we climbed a staircase to an abandoned church overlooking a spread of weather-beaten terra-cotta roofs, and then headed back down to the main drag and into a municipal building. In addition to the mayor’s office, it houses a fake police office that serves as the set for the television series based on my beloved Inspector Montalbano books. Our tour guide let me pose for pictures at a desk with a stack of case files and a telephone receiver at my grin.
Later that evening, we made our final passeggiata through Ragusa toward Duomo, the Michelin-starred restaurant of Sicily’s most celebrated chef, Ciccio Sultano. We were about to eat what was hands-down the best meal of our lives (savory caviar cannoli, mushroom and oyster “cappuccino,” candied pistachio “couscous” scattered atop celery sorbet), but I didn’t know that yet. I was stuck on the sky’s glow, which lent a nearly psychedelic cast to the scene before me. Just outside the door, a young girl on Rollerblades traced figure eights and sang to herself with abandon. She and I locked eyes, one Sicilian princess to another.