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The Sicilian way of life is fascinating. Being the biggest island in the Mediterranean, with close connections to Italy, Sicily has acted as a gateway to travellers for many centuries. This mix of cultures has left behind a medley of architectural styles, a colourful variety of cuisine and an array of unique traditions.
With baroque palaces, fine beaches and Mount Etna, the Ionian coast is home to most of the island’s crown jewels – underpinned by glorious local food and drink. Light reflecting off churches and palaces, views of craggy mountains and blue sea, smells of orange blossom, oregano and mint … Sicily is an inspiring place, particularly for northern Europeans. “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all,” said German writer Goethe in 1787.
I have been to Italy many times, especially northern Italy with its iconic locations of Florence, Milan and Venice, where I can promise you the grandest experience. In the south, however, you will enjoy a more calm and rustic rural lifestyle and your first impression will be the sense of community and food, which is slightly different. This leaves me wondering what the island of Sicily will be like.
I head south of Sicily, through the rural landscape with a majestic backdrop view of Mount Etna. And suddenly, I have a momentary crazy thought of the ancient town of Pompeii being destroyed by Mount Vesuvius during Roman times. Yet, this tall, pristine volcanic mountain looks beautiful. As the car rounds the bend, and I get my first glimpse of Ragusa, it really is an impressive sight with houses perched on a hill-top and spilling over, clinging to the cliff-face.
In the maze of little streets and baroque churches of Ragusa Ibla, you can find Locanda Don Serafino, one of the finest hotel restaurants in Sicily. Ragusa Superiore, in the south of the Hyblaean Mountains, is the elegant capital of the region of the same name and one of the many towns and villages rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1693, on the hill chosen by some of the survivors. Others, however, stayed in the original location for the town and rebuilt Ragusa Ibla. Both have wonderful examples of Baroque palaces and churches, 18 of which are listed together as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s worth allowing a whole day to wander these enchanting streets and to admire the rich architecture.
After two hours journey from Catania airport, it’s time to stretch my legs and to be greeted by the staff at Locanda Don Serafino, which is a part of the Relais & Chateaux family. Established in 1954, Relais & Châteaux is an association of more than 550 landmark hotels and restaurants operated by independent innkeepers, chefs, and owners who share a passion for their businesses and a desire for authenticity in their relationships with their clientele.
Relais & Châteaux is established around the globe, from the Napa Valley vineyards and French Provence to the beaches of the Indian Ocean. It offers an introduction to a lifestyle inspired by local culture and a unique dip into human history.
Relais & Châteaux members have a driving desire to protect and promote the richness and diversity of the world’s cuisine and traditions of hospitality. They are committed to preserving local heritage and the environment, as encompassed in the Charter presented to UNESCO in November 2014.
The hotel is near the ramparts of the lower section of the city, it is housed in the former barn of the palace, under the high vaulted ceilings of exposed stone. 2-Michelin-star chef, Vincenzo Candiano, sources his ingredients exclusively from the island, yet draws his inspiration from well beyond the Mediterranean to elevate Sicilian cuisine with his own style. Just a few streets away, the rooms of unrivalled charm, and partially carved into the rock are located in a building from the 19th century.
The bedroom was well appointed with a mix of modern and traditional style. Recent renovations have allowed an extended new floor above and the luxurious bathroom has its own opulent bathtub, which I am very much looking forward to diving in later on. The bed is situated near the small Juliet balcony overlooking the rolling hills of Ragusa. All bedrooms are provided with minibar, safe, Sky TV, telephone, early 20th-century fittings with handicraft wooden furniture, Simmons Privilege mattresses and much more. It seems like a treasure in your own bedroom.
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There is one very special suite, the ‘Luxury Suite’. Hidden among the rocks, the Luxury Suite offers a unique experience with its own private garden and mini pool in the heart of Ragusa Ibla. The suite is an exclusive space of about 60 square metres. A distinctive trait of the Luxury Suite built inside the rock invites the curious visitor to experience an intimate environment where every detail has been created with special eyes. As a guest of the suite, you can also enjoy an exclusive breakfast in the dining room of Locanda Don Serafino restaurant – all coming together to give you an ultimate experience to remember at Ragusa Ibla.
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One of the most exciting elements of this property is the 2-Michelin-starred restaurant – a charming, elegant spot in a delightful, and most unusual setting (part of the restaurant occupies a cave!). The flavours of Sicily dominate the cuisine, which is both creative and imaginative. You are sure to find exactly the right wine from a range of more than 1000 wines and spirits and, if a good cigar is your idea of the perfect final touch, ask to see the cigar list from the excellent sommelier. The La Rosa family propose a match between the culture of territoire and local flavours, a natural proposal to select the excellent raw materials that the head chef, Vincenzo interprets with craftsmanship. My meal, a menu devised by the chef, begins with a selection of delightful, yet creative food in presentation and tastes divine. Let alone the pairing wine which is particularly delectable to me. Now I wonder how many more courses yet to come?
If you are spending a night or two, I would recommend you try and visit some of the attractions in Ragusa. I had already heard a lot about the town and I was eager to explore. First stop was the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer (Vincenzo Ferreri). This Dominican church, by the entrance of Ibla Gardens, with its characteristic sundial on the facade, has an asymmetrically positioned bell tower topped with colourful mosaics. As I entered, I was pleasantly surprised to find an interesting art exhibition but I couldn’t linger for as long as there was so much more I wanted to see. The wealth of baroque buildings are an intrinsic part of this historic town.
Ibla Gardens, laid out in 1858, is a wonderful green space on the south-eastern part of a rocky ridge overlooking the Irminio Valley. Walking through the grand entrance gate is like stepping into another world as a magnificent avenue of palms stretches out before you as if you own a garden with a stately home nearby. From the gardens, I head south down Vai dei Normanni to see the 15th-century Gothic side portal of the original Church of St. George (San Giorgio Vecchio). This is all that is left of the once huge church. Though very worn, above the doorway you can still make out St George on horseback slaying the dragon and much of the intricate detailing around the arch. This has become the symbol of the town of Ibla.
Moving on, I visit the iconic building, commonly known as St. George’s Cathedral and listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which is the symbol of Sicilian Baroque. Its appearance today is the result of three centuries of reconstruction, following the disastrous earthquakes that struck Modica in 1542, 1613 and 1693. The latter, which was especially devastating, struck the south-eastern end of Sicily, commonly known as the Val di Noto. This reconstruction, more sumptuous and magnificent than ever before, was entrusted to the famous architect Rosario Gagliardi from Syracuse, who had already designed St. George’s Cathedral in Ragusa.
Look out for the rolling hills – I could easily discourage you by saying that the steps leading up to the top of Ragusa Superiore are a real killer, but the view is so totally worth it that I would have to take back my words and, instead, tell you that this is a photo opportunity not to be missed and probably one of the most Instagrammable views around. Now, where is that gelato I have been waiting for…? Oh, it’s back at the bottom of the hill, darn!
Locanda Don Serafino, a four-star hotel located within a reach of Ragusa, Italy. Catania airport is about 100 km away from hotel Locanda Don Serafino and is 90 min. away by car / Comiso airport is 29 km away and is 35 minutes away by car. Rates from £79.50 for a double room on a B&B basis.