Modica is an attractive historic town in south-eastern Sicily, one of the area’s UNESCO-listed Baroque towns. Modica is particularly famous for its chocolate, and it is an appealing destination for food-lovers, making a good holiday base or day-trip destination. Modica is situated in the dramatic landscape of the Monti Iblei, a range of high ground divided up by deep valleys and surprisingly populous towns. Important in Medieval times, Modica was rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1693 and now boasts fine late-Baroque architecture as well as a medieval old town.
Modica is built around a junction of steep valleys, with the oldest part of town, Modica Alta (‘Upper Modica’) on a ridge in between. Modica Bassa (‘Lower Modica’) is the more recent (though still historic) district along the valley bottoms. Rivers once ran down Modica’s valleys, lined with buildings, but after a terrible flood in 1902, when they burst their banks, they were covered over. The town’s main street, Corso Umberto I, follows the course of one of these rivers, in the valley to the west of Modica Alta. Nowadays the busiest part of the town centre is at the junction of two valleys where Corso Umberto opens into Piazza Municipio, overlooked by an eighteenth-century hilltop clocktower.
Modica is a large and busy, authentically Sicilian town. As well as Modica Alta and Modica Bassa, there is also a third part of town, Modica Sorda, a modern suburb detached from the historic part of Modica. There is a helpful tourist information office on Corso Umberto, Modica’s valley-bottom high street, which is also the location for the town museum, its chocolate shops and a good proportion of its restaurants and cafes. This street, lined with worn, elegant buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is the place tourists are likely to spend the most time, and it’s a reference point for exploring the town.
This lower part of Modica, Modica Bassa, is busy, heavily-trafficked and thriving. Up steep slopes lies the upper town, the old medieval quarter, Modica Alta. Parts of the old town still retain the decrepit down-at-heel charm of a Sicilian village in years gone by; other parts are smartly renovated and restored. Narrow lanes, alleys and staircases climb up the slopes on both sides of Corso Umberto, towards the upper town and up the hillside opposite. Cars whizz perilously up and down these lanes, wing mirrors skimming the walls. I saw an old lady turning off Corso Umberto, stopping her car, taking a deep breath, reversing as if to take a run up, then zooming up an impossibly steep narrow lane.
Modica has a remarkable number of impressive churches, including two grand Baroque cathedrals. Up a flight of steps from Corso Umberto, the Duomo di San Pietro was originally built in the fourteenth century, but destroyed by earthquakes in 1613 and again in 1693 before being rebuilt in the Baroque style in the eighteenth century. The church dominates this stretch of Corso Umberto, and its steps are ornamented with large statues of apostles and saints.
Higher up the slopes towards the old town perches the theatrical Duomo di San Giorgio, Modica Alta’s cathedral and the town’s most remarkable building. Like most of the area’s great architecture, it was created in the local Baroque style after the 1693 earthquake destroyed the previous building. The grand façade rises up into a curved central belltower. The twin staircases climbing to the church are attractive with little half-wild gardens swarming with roses, wisteria and palms. The church interior is decorated with gilding and pastel blue stucco, and contains a number of interesting sights including a statue of St. George carried around town in the saint’s festivities, a rich silver altarpiece and an old, worn marble stoup, also featuring St. George. Look out for the solar meridian line across the transept, with a small hole high up to let in the required ray of sunlight. On the left of the church is the elegant Baroque Palazzo Polara.
Climbing upwards to the left of the church the tourist can explore a steep maze of village-type dwellings; some ruinous, some well kept, some for sale. At the top is the Belvedere Pizzo, a good viewpoint with benches and views over the Modica valleys. Along the street from here is another imposing church, the nineteenth-century Chiesa di San Giovanni, with another grand staircase and extravagant façade.
Corso Regina Margherita is a sloping street leading down from the heart of the upper town, lined with lovely old palaces, many of them crumbling, some inhabited with flower-bedecked balconies. This old town feels significantly less cosmopolitan and modern than the lower town, with old-fashioned shops, and elderly residents positioned at windows, doorways and gates to watch the world go by. Modica’s historic castle complex dominates the end of the ridge overlooking the heart of the lower town, a site with a long history, archaeological remains, old prisons and passages leading down to the lower town, but closed for restoration and redevelopment at the time of writing.
There are various ways to descend into Modica Bassa. Walking down Via Castello by the castle, you can branch left to enter Modica’s eastern valley, where there are some intriguing cave dwellings built into the rockface. Look out for the church of Santa Maria di Bedlem, which has a pre-earthquake relief on its external side wall which still bears traces of paint. Inside the church is a fifteenth-century chapel. After the grand churches of Modica, visitors should seek out something very different: a historic cave church. The Chiesa Rupestre di San Nicolò Inferiore was “found by chance” in 1987, and contains Byzantine wall-paintings.
Travellers with an interest in antiquities shouldn’t miss the town museum, the Museo Civico. Its collection originated with a local collector, and ranges from fossils to majolica ware. Displays include Greek and Roman ceramics, and grave goods from the Modica area including the archaeological site of Cava d’Ispica. The museum’s prize exhibit, which would be worth the admission fee on its own, is a bronze statuette of Hercules, 22 cm high. Found in a river bed in 1967, the statue is Hellenic in style and probably dates to the 3rd century BC. Hercules stands poised, his weight on one leg, in a little masterpiece of dynamism and elegance.
The Chiesa del Carmine is a charming church just off the high street in the lower town. Damaged by the big seventeenth-century earthquakes, it nevertheless still retains its Gothic doorway and a rose window, beneath a later extension to the upper façade. The interior is rather sweet, decorated in white and gold, with red hangings, a statue of the Madonna breast-feeding (Madonna del Latte), old carved wooden confession booths and a late-Gothic chapel with some traces of fresco.
Once visitors have toured the sights listed above and visited a few of Modica’s gourmet destinations, they’ll have seen the best of the town. If you have longer, though, there is still more to explore, including picturesque lanes, an unfinished church (Santuario della Madonna delle Grazie), a ruined chapel and stray blue-eyed cats. Visitors with an interest in Italian poetry may want to visit the birthplace of twentieth-century poet Salvatore Quasimodo, the Casa Quasimodo, near the castle. The town hall is housed in a former Dominican monastary. Within the public courtyard area are the steps to a 16th-century frescoed crypt where important corpses were once mummified. Shamefully, given its location, this crypt was locked up and abandoned when we visited; hopefully future visitors will be more fortunate.
Fans of Sicilian TV detective Inspector Montalbano (Il Commissario Montalbano) will be happy to spot locations from the TV series around Modica, including a doorway and balcony below San Giorgio where he was sworn at by a foul-mouthed old woman.
Modica chocolate is rich, dark and crumbly, produced in a traditional method imported from the New World by Sicily’s Spanish overlords. It can be melted, or eaten solid. The most famous chocolate-maker is the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto but there are several other good manufacturers in town. There are free samples available in the town’s shops and it is easy to turn a tour of Modica into a gastronomic pilgrimage. One speciality you might want to try (but vegetarians beware) is the ‘mpanatigghie. This nearly-unpronouncable delicacy is a kind of minced-beef-and-chocolate sweet. For savoury snacks, try the local scacce, a kind of focaccia with stuffings such as broccoli, aubergine and tomato.