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The city of Ragusa, capital of the province of the same name, is located about an hour's drive from Syracuse, the nearest large city. Ragusa's population falls a shade short of 70,000. For most visitors, Ragusa and its province are off the beaten path. However, this factor also has an advantage since the area is one of the more tranquil and thus more "authentically" Sicilian of the island's nine provinces, and while the province of Enna can make the same claim, landlocked Enna doesn't have any beaches while Ragusa has. Consequently, the dearth of tourists here makes the beaches of the province of Ragusa some of the cleanest and affordable and least crowded to be found in Sicily. Though we would not place Ragusa and its surrounding area on the must-see list of Sicilian attractions, if you are traveling from Syracuse to Agrigento or vice-versa, Ragusa and its Baroque churches are worth seeing.
Ragusa is really two towns combined into one municipality in 1926. Lower Ragusa, known as Ragusa Ibla, or simply "Ibla," was the ancient city, rebuilt after suffering heavy damage due to the infamous 1693 earthquake that devastated southeastern Sicily. Upper Ragusa, or Ragusa Superiore, is the main part of the new city built on the ridge across from the old city of lbla after the earthquake. Due to the fact that upper Ragusa was built in the early 1700s, most of its churches and main buildings were thus constructed in the Baroque and Neo-Classical Styles. Most of the city's history deals with the old city of Ibla.
Lower Ragusa was populated by the indigenous Sikels in ancient times and was called "Hybla Heraea," from which the name Ibla is derived. The town was the major native center in southeastern Sicily, and rapidly became Hellenized after coming into contact with the Greeks, established in nearby Syracuse, around the 5th Century BC. In 258 BC, the city was conquered by the Romans, and soon lost the importance that it had previously enjoyed as a conduit for trade between the coastal Greek colonies and the interior native population. The town's decline continued through the Byzantine and Arab periods. In 1091, after the Norman conquest, Count Roger de Hauteville consolidated Ragusa and the surrounding area and gave the unusually large fief to his son, Godfroi. In 1296, Baron Manfred Chiaramonte took possession of Ragusa, and then joined it together with Modica and Noto, thus creating one of the largest feudal holdings in Sicily.
Ragusa Ibla's best-known church is the imposing Basilica of St. George (shown here), whose entrance is reached by climbing a spacious set of elegantly decorated curving stairs. The majestic dome of the church towers above the town and dominates the Piazza del Duomo and its neat rows of palm trees beneath it. The basilica was built in 1738 by the noted architect Rosario Gagliardo, who was responsible for designing several churches in the area, especially in Noto. This basilica is considered to be Gagliardo's baroque masterpiece.
Continuing past down the Corso 25 Aprile, you will pass the Church of San Giuseppe, another baroque jewel. "Giardino lbleo" or lbla Gardens, offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, said to be some of the most scenic in Sicily. The Church of San Giorgio Vecchio is near the park entrance, and although the church was restored after the 1693 quake, the structure still retains some elements of its original 15th Century Catalan-Gothic construction. The Church of San Domenico is located inside the Gardens; this church is noted for its bell-tower decorated with Maiolica ceramic tiles from Caltagirone. There is another church in the vicinity of the park which is called the Church of the Cappucini Vecchi, noted for several paintings by the noted 16th century Sicilian artist Pietro Novelli.
Crossing into Upper Ragusa from Lower Ragusa, you will encounter the Church of Santa Maria delle Scale (St. Mary of the Stairs) on the Via XXIV Maggio (29 May Street). The Church was restored in the 18th century and contains some sculptures attributed to the Gaginis. It is noted for the 242-step staircase that leads up to it. The Cathedral of Ragusa is a large domed Baroque structure.
The Archaeology Museum has a good collection of ancient artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age "Castelluccio Culture" through the Sikel, Greek and Roman periods. Some of the more noteworthy items are fragments of mosaic floors and wall panels from a Paleo-Christian church, Greek vases from the 6th century BC, and various statues of ancient Greek and Roman deities.
Mount Casale is 910 metres above sea level, Mount Arcibessi is 907, and Serra Brugio stands 870 metres high --all unremarkable by Sicilian standards.
As in Sicily's other mountain ranges, the Hybleans are predominantly limestone, though with some volcanic features. There are woodlands in some areas. Pantalica was probably a Sicanian necropolis. In addition to Ragusa, places of historical interest include Ragusa, Modica and Palazzolo Acreide. Cava Ispica is a spectacular canyon.
One of the region's more interesting culinary specialties is Modican Chocolate. As its name implies, it is made in the town of Modica. This delicious confection is based on a recipe dating from five centuries ago.
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