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GREAT ESCAPE Sicily

Buckle up for the Italian road trip of a lifetime, starting with ancient history in the southeast, before soaking up the vine-striped countryside of the west coast. Next, drive to Palermo for infectious street life, and then hike into the sky-high Madonie mountains to see Mount Etna far from the well-trodden tourist trail.
MAP ILLUSTRATION: KATE SUTTON

Take a stroll through time in the Baroque cities of Modica, Ragusa and Syracuse

ON A BACKSTREET IN FRONT OF A THICK OAK DOOR, GUIDE Sabrina Tavolacci is on the brink of revealing one of Modica’s greatest secrets. Slipping a cast-iron key from her pocket, she turns the lock and beckons her guests to follow one-by-one into the inky darkness. ‘This was only discovered 30 years ago,’ she whispers, her footsteps echoing down the stone corridor as she moves inside. ‘Modica is famous for two details. Churches and caves. And here we have both!’

Inside, the reason for Sabrina’s excitement becomes clear. Within a few steps, the temperature cools and the corridor opens into a dimly-lit chapel, the Chiesa Rupestre di San Nicolò Inferiore, carved into rock and covered by a beautifully-painted Byzantine fresco. Silence falls and necks crick. On the apse, above a limestone altar, a faded mural depicts Christ in a rich indigo cloak, holding the gospel and supported by saints with golden halos. ‘It’s incredible such history was hidden for so long,’ she says. ‘But it’s everywhere here. Look! There are unexplored tombs beneath your feet.’

Known as the town of 100 churches, Modica is full of such surprises. Home to one of Italy's ecclesiastical masterpieces, the Duomo of San Giorgio, it is blessed with both magnificence and mystery. Baroque palaces loom over the old town, while ornate convents and cathedrals stop passers-by in their tracks. The sleight of hand is that the majority were rebuilt after a devastating earthquake shook eastern Sicily to its bones in 1693. But in catastrophe there was opportunity, and the result means the city has enjoyed Unesco protection since 2002.

The Old Town of Ragusa Ibla with the Baroque Church of the Souls of the Purgatory seen in the centre

Today, people flock north to Ragusa for similar drama. Usurping Modica as capital of southeast Sicily in 1926, the hilltop town remains a time-capsule of churches and palm avenue gardens, all connected by a Snakes and Ladders board of rock-hewn staircases. Gossip flits between flower-framed balconies, and the bell-clanging Duomo of San Giorgio disturbs visitors in the piazza trying to grasp Ragusa's topsy-turvy soap opera. After Carthaginian rule, the city fell into the hands of the ancient Romans, before the Byzantines fortified it from invaders. Next came the Arabs, the Normans, the kings of Spain, then the Sicilian nobles. Now, luxury hoteliers have moved in.

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