Your Italian Travel Tips – Visit Ragusa, Sicily, and Experience Centuries of Culture

Sicily Ragusa Ibla
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! For October, I would like to share details of my recent visit to the ancestral hometown of my Occhipinti family,  which is called Ragusa, and is located high in the mountains of the southeastern tip of Sicily.

If you’ve been following my activities through my Instagram posts on Conversationalitalian.french,  or through my Facebook group,  Conversational Italian! you know that I was thrilled to spend 7 full days in Ragusa just last month.

About once a month, I have been re-blogging a post about lesser-known sites or places to visit in Italy under the title “Your Italian Travel Tips.” I’ve been featuring travel bloggers in this series, but this month I will use this feature to show a bit of what I’ve just experienced in Ragusa in “travel blogger style,” with my own emphasis on language and history.

And remember Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you need a compact, lightweight pocket guidebook to take on your next trip! Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.


 

Learning Italian
with
Commissario Montalbano

 

Before starting our virtual blogging tour of Ragusa, it should be mentioned that, due to the popularity of the BBC series Detective Montalbano (Commissario Montalbano), based on the detective novels of the brilliant Andrea Camilleri, who the world lost this past July 17, 2019,

the ancient Baroque towns of Ragusa and nearby Scicli and Modica, along with many places along the coast of Southern Sicily, have come into the forefront once again.

Yes, it is true. I am a HUGE fan of the Detective Montalbano series! Over the years,  this BBC series has helped me to gain an understanding of how people really use common Italian expressions (most of which, of course are not found in textbooks, and which I try to focus on in my own books and blogs).

Anyone who has attended even one of my Italian lessons has heard my recommendation for using the Detective Montalbano series as an aid to learning Italian. Listen to the characters as they interact, pick out the phrases you understand and focus on how these phrases are used.  Some characters will be easier to understand than others, just like people in real life.  One caveat—don’t try to understand the character Catarella, who speaks his own version of Sicilian/Italian that even the other characters often mention they do not understand!

Actually, it is amazing that I waited until this late in the blog to mention that I visited many of the locations where the Detective Montalbano series is filmed!

If anyone else is a fan of the Detective Montalbano series, you should know that the entire set of the Montelusa police station is now on permanent exhibition in the city of Scicli and that the Montalbano character’s villa at Punta Secca is now a tourist attraction, along with the restaurant Enzo da Mare a little further down on the beach. There are even “Detective Montalbano” tours on the internet.  If you’d like to create your own tour, simply download the sites of interest from the Ragusa Turismo Site on the internet.  

You will need a car to visit the sites outside of Ragusa, though, as the train is not very efficient in Sicily (or so I am told).

 


 

Particulars of Visiting Ragusa

Transportation (or lack of it) to your hotel:

Ragusa Ibla, or the historic, older section of Ragusa, is an ancient city, carved into the side of a mountain, with narrow, winding cobblestone streets that are interconnected by many steep and just as winding stairways.  As such, most of the city is protected by a limited traffic zone. Tour buses and city buses, along with a train station, are located in lots at the base of this mountain city. So, practically speaking, the first thing to do once you have booked your hotel is to contact the hotel before you arrive (either over the phone or through the Internet), the best way to get from those lots to the hotel front door!  Many hotels will send a porter to help with luggage, and many drivers know also that it will be necessary for them to get out of the car and to walk with luggage to get their guests to their hotel door.  It is always better to arrange this beforehand to eliminate confusion and any hidden fees.

Sicily Ragusa Ibla
Ragusa Ibla (old Ragusa) as viewed from the boarder with Ragusa Superiore (new Ragusa). Maiolica roofed bell tower of Santa Maria dell’Itria and Chiesa Anime Sante del Purgatorio are in the foreground.  The dome of the Baroque cathedral of San Giorgio is in the background.

 

*************************************

Where I’ve stayed:

Given the size and age of Ragusa Ibla, it should be noted that accommodations are provided mainly through bed and breakfast style hotels.

The exception is the San Giorgio Hotel, which is literally built into the side of the southern part of the mountainside of Ragusa Ibla. I did stay at this hotel in 2016, and found the staff so pleasant and accommodating (the  concierge actually took it upon himself to help me find the location of my great grandfather’s home) that I would recommend this hotel for those who want a more formal stay. Some of the rooms do not have windows, though, given the location, so I would ask about this if it is a concern. Otherwise, the hotel furnishing were modern, the hotel itself was clean, breakfast was lovely, and as I’ve mentioned the staff were wonderful, and even overly concerned that I enjoy my stay, some even mentioning their cousins with the Occhipinti name.

I have to admit that I chose the bed and breakfast I stayed at just recently for my 7 day trip based mostly on photos of the breakfast selection I found on the internet!  After several evenings of searching, I came upon the breakfast room of the lovely Hotel Sabbinirica, and chose to stay in the guesthouse around the back of the main hotel.  The guest house was spacious and clean, with a small courtyard, although it did not offer a view of the city.  And the breakfast did not disappoint! Every day the owners were on sight to make fresh espresso drinks to order and the breakfast table was laden with fruit, many varieties of Sicilian pastries (with new ones to try each day), Sicilian cheeses, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, toast and cold cuts. Juices, as usual throughout Italy, were freshly squeezed.  And the breakfast room was charming, a mixture of the old and new, built into the side of the mountain.

Sicilian Pastries from Hotel Sabbinirica Ragusa Sicily
Sicilian Pastries from Hotel Sabbinirica in Ragusa Ibla

 

Sicilian Pastries from Hotel Sabbinirica

 

Breakfast room at Hotel Sabbinirica, Ragusa, Sicily
Breakfast room at Hotel Sabbinirica, Ragusa, Sicily

 

The owners came to pick us up from the parking at the foot of the mountain in a motorized golf cart and drove us to the entrance of the bed and breakfast, showed us our room, and very kindly gave us directions on how to reach the main piazza (which was not far away) with the restaurants for dinner. At the reception were pamphlets that held suggestions for tours, both group and private and notice of a bus schedule to the surrounding town. To the side of the reception area was a small boutique filled with handcrafted Sicilian pottery and embroidery.

After our check-in, it was a long walk up the stairs each evening to reach the Hotel Sabbinirica from the taxi station at the Piazza Repubblica, or an even longer climb from the parking lot below. But, once reached, the hotel is on the same level as the lively main piazza that is lined with most of the shops and restaurants in town and hosts the largest church, San Giorgio at its far end. In the morning and evening, the hotel entrance boasted spectacular views of Ragusa Superior, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at this hotel. 

Stairway to Hotel Sabbinirica, Ragusa Sicily
Stairway to Hotel Sabbinirica, Ragusa Sicily
Walking to the Piazza San Giorgio, Ragusa Ibla
Walking to the Piazza San Giorgio, Ragusa Ibla

 

There are many charming bed and breakfasts in Ragusa Ibla.  If you have a favorite, please share your experience!

 


Where to eat for a special night:

There are many restaurants in Ragusa that offer local specialties, from pizza to formal dining with all courses (antipasto, primo of pasta, secondo of fish or meat, and dolce). When traveling, I usually choose the restaurant where I have dinner on the spur of the moment, based on the location I end up at after I finish exploring for the day (side street not main piazza), the menu (no pictures, local specialties) and the clientele (locals).

While I was not in Ragusa every evening, so I cannot give an exhaustive list of restaurant recommendations, I did dine at MareDentro twice for dinner, and loved their fresh seafood and preparation of traditional Sicilian dishes.

I also had one special dinner with my traveling companion at the Duomo restaurant of Chef Ciccio Sultano.  The webiste Great Italian Chefs  says: “One of Sicily’s best-loved chefs, Ciccio Sultano has traveled as far as New York to hone his craft. Now back home, Ciccio’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant Duomo is the standard bearer for Sicilian haute cuisine, attracting diners from far and wide to the city of Ragusa.”

My experience truly lived up to the hype. Despite the fact that we had only ordered a primo and secondo course, we were offered so many “special” treats that the chef “would be so pleased for us to try” that I was truly dazzled. Not only by the number of offerings abut also by the style of the chef. I don’t usually take photos of the food while I am out dining, so I guess we will just have to go with this description of my meal from the Great Italian Chefs website:” It only takes a cursory glance at Ciccio’s food to see that these dishes are unmistakably his. His playful, artistic flair is always on display, and his plates are a unique combination of his avant garde character and his love and respect for the food of his home.”

Then I found this description of the restaurants in Ragusa from The Thinking Traveler:

“The restaurant “Duomo”, in Via Capitano Bocchierei, 31, is double Michelin-starred and considered one of the very best restaurants in Italy, while La Locanda di Don Serafino and La Fenice both have 1 Michelin Star… Is Ragusa the gourmet capital of Sicily?”

 


Oh, and by the way… gelato:

This is an easy one. Both gelato shops on the main piazza in Ragusa were fantastic, with unusual flavors I have not seen in other parts of Italy.

Ragusa Gelato flavors
Gelato in Ragusa, Sicily

 


 

Short Historical Tour of Ragusa

Before the city of Ragusa was called Ragusa, it was founded by the indigenous people of Sicily and known in the world of ancient Greece as Hybla Heraea.  The Greeks colonized much of southeastern Sicily and flourished, especially in Agrigento along the southern coast and Siracusa along the eastern coast.  Southern Sicily in antiquity was considered a center of learning, with Archimedes (the philosopher and mathematician who discovered that 3.14… is pie), one of its most brilliant minds. Ragusa, however, remained independent from the Greeks, only to be overtaken by the Romans in the middle of the third century B.C. After this conquest, the city fell under the rule of many different peoples, but was finally given the name “Ragus” when under Arab rule. After the Norman conquest in 1060, the name was changed to Ragusa, which the city has carried to this day.  In 1860, Garibaldi added Ragusa to the newly united Kindgom of Italy.

Here is a short synopsis of how the Ragusa the visitor sees today came to be from The thinking Travaeler:

“Essentially Baroque, the Ragusa you will see today dates almost entirely from 1693. Indeed, it was in this year that Ragusa, along with its neighbours, NotoModica, Scicli and Catania, was razed to the ground by a terrible earthquake that hit most of the eastern side of Sicily.”

“Public opinion on where to rebuild the town was divided, and so a compromise was made. The wealthier, more aristocratic citizens built a new town in a different site, now Ragusa “Superiore”, while the other half of the population decided to rebuild on the original site, on a ridge at the bottom of a gorge, now Ragusa Ibla. The two towns remained separated until 1926 when they were merged to become the chief town of the province, taking the place of Modica.”

The town Ragusa Ibla is part of the Val di Noto UNESCO Heritage site and 18 of its buildings are protected by UNESCO patronage.

 


 

 Short Walking Tour of Ragusa

A visit to the Commune Ragusa website yields a list of churches and buildings for a UNESCO walking tour of Ragusa, and in particular a tour of Baroque architecture, or the Barocco tour.  There is a trolley that will take you on a tour as well, circling around the outer perimeter of the mountain to reach many of these sites.

Baroque architecture is said to have originated in Italy in Rome in the early 17th Century, and then to have spread into other parts of the Italian peninsula and Europe. By the mid-17th century, this highly decorative style was used to create churches with frescoes covering every inch of their walls and ceilings, which were held up by colorful, spiraled columns. The exteriors of government buildings and private homes were decorated with ornate, heavy balconies supported by heavy, statuesque corbels and framed by undulating ironwork to show wealth and power.

Baroque balcony in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily
Baroque balcony in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

 

Ragusa is just one town in a group of nine towns of medieval origin located in the Val di Noto, or southeastern Sicily that were rebuilt in splendor in the new Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693 devastated this region. The other towns are: Caltagirone, Militello, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ispica and Scicli.

On the first day of our stay in Ragusa, we visited the cathedral of San Giorgio and the  Later, we decided to follow the large, brown street signs from our hotel on the border of Ragusa Ibla to Ragusa Superiore.  Below are some images from our tours of Ragusa to enjoy.

Baroque cathedral San Giorgio in Ragusa, Sicily
Baroque cathedral Basilica di San Giorgio, completed in 1775

 

Portale San Giorgio, Ragusa Sicily
The door of the original San Giorgio church in Ragusa, the only surviving portion of the church built before the earthquake of 1693.

 

Giardino Ibleo, a public garden in Ragusa Ibla
Giardino Ibleo, a public garden in Ragusa Ibla

 

Entry to the main piazza in Ragusa
Entry to the main piazza in Ragusa

 

Walking toward Ragusa Superiore
Walking toward Ragusa Superiore

 

Walking to Piazza Repubblica
Walking to Piazza Repubblica

 

Map of a walking tour of Ragusa at the info center
Map of a walking tour of Ragusa on a wall at the info center

 

Via Scale steps from Ragusa Ibla to Ragusa Superiore
Start of via Scale staircase to cross from Ragusa Ibla to Ragusa Superiore

 

Looking back on Ragusa Ibla while crossing to Ragusa Superiore
Looking back on Ragusa Ibla while crossing to Ragusa Superiore

 

Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore
Ragusa Ibla from Ragusa Superiore

 


 

Sites of Interest

in and around

Ragusa

Church of Santa Maria delle Scale: location offers spectacular views of Ragusa Ibla. and is the oldest church in Ragusa. Occasional site of filming to use Ragusa Ibla as the backdrop for scenes in the Detective Montalbano series.

Palazzo Casentini—late 1700’s Baroque style

Palazzo Bertini—late 1700’s Baroque style

Church of San Giuseppe—Baroque church that houses many Baroque works of art; San Giuseppe is the patron saint of Ragusa, while San Giorgio is the patron saint of Ragusa Iba

Hyblean Archeological Museum—along the outskirts of Ragusa. Can’t believe I missed it this time around!

Shopping in Ragusa Superiore—My favorite shop for women’s fashion, Louisa Spagnoli is in Ragusa Superiore along the main shopping boulevard.  More casual styles than the Louisa Spagnoli shop by Piazza del Popolo in Rome.

Castello di Donnafugata (means “source of health” in Arabic; when translated into Sicililan sounds similar to the Italian “donnafugata”, but does not mean “the woman who fled”)—large estate with villa with origins in the 14th century, but current style in each room preserved as a museum is from the 19th century. Occasional site of filming for Detective Montalbano series.

Marina di Ragusa—Loved walking on the boardwalk along the beach at Marina di Ragusa one evening. This is where the Italians vacation with their families and after dinner is the time to “fare una passegiatta” (take a leisurely stroll). If you like people watching, this is the place, as everyone is dressed in the latest summer styles to “fare una buona figura” (make a good appearance). There is a large boulevard along the boardwalk and across the street are many apartments for rent for a week or more, a few hotels, and many restaurants large and small catering to Italian tourists. Maybe for my next trip?

 

Your Italian Travel Tips – It’s Ferragosto! Let’s Party Like the Romans

Ferragosto on the beach from "Take Me Home Italy" blog
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! For August I would like to share a blog from “Take Me Home Italy,” written by Marilyn Ricci, a friend who has recently moved to Italy and has been sharing her experiences with us through her writing.

About once a month, I have been re-blogging a post about lesser-known sites or places to visit in Italy under the title “Your Italian Travel Tips.”

And, what better way to explore Italy and provide travel tips than to live there?  Marilyn has been able to experience first hand the important August celebration of Ferragosto.  To Italians, Ferragosto is a very important family and religious celebration, with roots that date back to Roman times.  Over the years,  the meaning  of Ferragosto has changed, but its importance has not diminished, and to Italians, it is still a very special holiday family get-together and summer fun, which brings the same excitement as the Christmas season later in the winter months.

Marilyn writes:

Have you heard of Ferragosto? Ferragosto is officially a holiday on 15 August. Yet, for Italians, it is typically more than one day of celebration.

What IS Ferragosto? Where did it come from and why is it such a huge national holiday?

Back when Augustus was the Roman Emperor, in the year 18 B.C.E., he instituted the Feriai Augusti, a day of rest for the Emperor and his people. The day was dedicated to the Roman god of fertility and of the harvest. It was a time to celebrate and be fruitful as only the Romans could do.

Click on this link to read the full blog: It’s Ferragosto! Let’s Party Like the Romans

 

And remember Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com if you need a compact, lightweight pocket guidebook to take on your next trip! Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel Italian.com.

Fathers Day Saying from Dante – Father of the Italian Language

Dante Alighieri Duomo in Florence

Fathers Day Saying from Dante

Il 16 di Giugno

Buona Festa della Papà!

Happy Father’s Day!

Auguri! = Best Wishes

a tutti i padri, nonni, e bisnonni del mondo!

Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Fathers Day saying from Dante? Why? Well, I have to confess that the famous Italian poet of old, so famous that we all have come to know him by just one name – Dante –  has crept unexpectedly into my life.

I have recently been reading  Dianne Hales book La Bella Lingua, a little bit each night.  The subtitle to this book is, “My love affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language,” and I would encourage every serious student of Italian to read this book to discover just how the Italian language we love so much came about.

In this book, we relive the “story” of the adoption of Italian by Italians as told through Dianne’s experiences in Italy; she discovers the facts of history, bit by bit, directly from scholars she interviews as well as from the  families that she meets every day during the many months of the year she spends in Italy.

The third chapter is dedicated to Dante, who was born into an educated family for Florence as Durante degli Alighieri in 1265.  At the beginning of Dante’s life, Latin was the language of scholars. Diane explains Dante’s genius as a poet in the Italian language that had been developing for hundreds of years before his time.  Dante’s three volume Commedia (The Divine Comedy) was the longest serious work written in Italian up to that point, and earned him the title  “Father of Italian.” The Renaissance developed in Florence as Dante was writing this book in the early 1300’s.  Italians still study Dante in school today; his rhyming story-line of one man’s journey from hell to paradise, and the different characters he meets along the way,  still  permeate the culture in many ways.

After I discovered Dante’s history and place in Italian life, I decided I had to learn more. So, I went to an Italian website, and found several of Dante’s most famous phrases. I’ve reprinted his verse that includes a phrase about true love for everyone to enjoy this Fathers Day.

When I first read this verse written so long ago, it made me think of the type of love that can be shared by families even today.  The type of love that parents show their children to let them know that they believe in them. The type of love that my father showered on his two daughters when he was alive, and for which I will always be grateful.

Do Dante’s words remind you of a loved one?
Leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you!

Happy American Fathers Day!

I

L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle:

«Alla mia grande capacità di immaginazione mancarono le forze;

ma Dio, l’amore che fa muovere il sole e le altre stelle,

faceva già girare il mio desiderio e la mia volontà,

come una ruota che gira con moto uniforme».

The love that moves the sun and other stars is verse 145 of the XXXIII canto Paradise of Dante Alighieri and the conclusion of the entire Comedy .  Paraphrase:
This verse at the conclusion of the work is dedicated to God, and today used to refer not only to the greatness of divine love, but also to the love that all of humanity is capable of.

 

If you would like to read more famous phrases by Dante, here is the link:

Frasi di Dante

Venice, Dad's favorite city
My father enjoying a gondola ride in Venice, his favorite Italian city, with me and my children in 2013.