Sunday, March 27, 2011

Noto in Sicily - Breathing New Life into an Ancient City

Noto is a small, picturesque village in the hills of southeastern Sicily that is defying the odds. Many of its young people remain in the town and open small businesses rather than move to bigger cities. Its birth rate is on the upswing, while in the rest of Sicily the rate is below zero. In 2009, Noto’s population grew by 3,000.

What is causing this? Look no further than, of all places, Noto City Hall. In a country where positive things often occur in spite of those in government, Noto is governed by courageous visionaries. Its present Mayor, Corrado Valvo, has a distinct plan in mind:
focus on a particular type of traveler rather than create a mass tourist destination. This deliberate and courageous decision is serving Noto well. The city has become a favorite of cultural voyagers and a haven for painters and artists of all types. Hotels and fattorie operate year round, not just in tourist season. It’s one of the few Italian cities where museums stay open until midnight. Museum staff speak five languages, including Chinese and will soon add Japanese. Noto’s atmosphere is creative and forward-thinking while keenly preserving its past.

As it happens, this is not the first time Noto has been reborn. Mentioned in works by Cicero and Pliny, legend holds that Dedalus stopped here after his flight over the Ionian Sea and Hercules rested in its arms after his seventh task. In the following centuries Noto birthed artists, composers, intellectuals and architects. In 1503, King Ferdinand III dubbed it “the ingenious city”.

This ingenuity would be sorely tested in 1693 when Noto was leveled by a devastating earthquake. It was impossible to rebuild in the same location (now referred to as Noto Antica), so its surviving inhabitants moved about 4 miles south and settled on the left bank of the Asinaro River. Here, a reimagined Noto took shape and is now considered a jewel of Sicilian Baroque architecture. Some of the most famous architects, masons and sculptors of the time joined together to resurrect the city. Its meticulously carved historic buildings are made of local yellowish, honey-colored stone. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the organization bestowed this distinction because Noto “represent(s) the culmination and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe… successfully carried out at a high level of architectural and artistic achievement…(and) depict(s) distinctive innovations in town planning and urban building.”

Another earthquake hit Noto in 1990, destroying public and private buildings and causing serious structural damage to the cathedral. In 1996, the duomo roof collapsed entirely. Recently restored, the cathedral is just another example of a town that refuses to give up.

I visited Noto recently with the Italian Government Tourist Board ( and Sicilia Natura, an organization dedicated to preserving Sicily’s environmental heritage. Noto is located close to the spectacular Vendicari Nature Reserve and Marine protected area. The city recognizes the value of the natural beauty of its surroundings and is willing to fight to keep it. Sometimes, it opposes powerful economic interests. For example, Noto recently fought a plan to build a factory in its midst, despite the jobs it would have created. The factory was considered incompatible with the quality of life and aesthetic the city is working to enhance.

Annually, on the third Sunday of May, Noto is transformed during the manifestazione dell’infiorata, or the Festival of Flowers. The city is carpeted with stunning works of art painstakingly created with petals, seeds and unfettered imaginations. By its nature, this colorful blossoming lasts for only a few days before it disappears, awaiting the next festival to be invited to bloom again. Somehow, this seems to be the perfect festival for Noto, a city whose destiny seems so closely tied to destruction and rebirth.

To learn more about Noto and plan a trip, click here.