The road is narrow and winding, with holes and depressions. Challenging, like most of the Sicilian roads. So I decided to walk the last bit, letting the old walls and the green profile of the hill unfold alongside me.

The ruins of Netum on the hill, as seen from Road 64

Very little remains of Ancient Noto, that Netum which, up to 11 January 1693, was a prosperous city, with thousands of inhabitants – artisans, traders, peasants, some noble families – and not less than 34 churches and about twenty convents and monasteries. On that day, a disastrous earthquake, one of the most serious catastrophic events that occurred in Italy in historical times (it has now been estimated to magnitude eighth on the Richter scale), destroyed an area of hundreds of square kilometers, basically all of South-Eastern Sicily, killing thousands of people.

A map of Netum before the earthquake (ph. Davide Mauro, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The site of Netum had been carefully chosen, about a thousand years before Christ, by the Sikels (one of the first populations in Sicily), and was always inhabited because of its excellent position, easily defensible thanks to the steep rocky walls on all sides except one (where in fact the castle was built which, in part, is still standing). The city grew and became a Roman Municipium, it was Byzantine and Saracen (the Arabs designated it “head” of the south-eastern territory of the island, still known as Val di Noto), then Norman. In 1503, Ferdinand the Catholic gave it the title of Civitas Ingegnosa (ingenious city), to acknowledge the number of eminent scientists and scholars who were born or lived here.

The door in the walls of Netum

You enter the city through a high door in the thick walls, surmounted by a marble plaque reminding us that Netum was never conquered by force. Only the earthquake could drive its inhabitants away. On the other side a long dusty road unfolds, every now and then there emerge the remains of ancient stone slabs. It was the main artery, on the ancient maps you can see it cross the town from one end to the other, unraveling among houses, churches, convents, palaces, widening into squares and crossing other sinuous streets. On the left of the gateway, a plan of the city shows the sites still recognizable with red dots.

The main road

Before taking the road, I stopped at the castle, built in the 11th century and by far the building that best withstood the earthquake. A circular tower and shreds of sturdy, variously chipped walls remain. Younger visitors nimbly climb the ruin to get a view of the sweeping panorama from up there. Not far away, the floor and remains of columns and other elements of the Church of San Michele appear among the bushes.

A couple of visitors climb the ruins of the castle

In many parts of the ancient city, vegetation has now completely covered the ruins. I passed by the old tanneries, the Jesuit church, the Palazzo Landolina. There is also an area that archaeologists identify as dating back to the Hellenistic era of the town, with a gymnasium and heroa, sites intended for the worship of deceased ancestors. Unfortunately, precise indications lack and so, without a guide, it is not easy to get an overview of the place. The tourism office of Noto comes to our aid, with the recent initiative of guided tours with virtual reality viewers. Thanks to the latter, one can “see” what the old city must have been like.

There were few of us that day in Noto, I was not alone. I met some other visitors, mostly foreigners, who wandered like me among the old stones and the invasive, sometimes fairly Amazonian vegetation. I had the feeling of being in those sets recreated by computers to imagine “the world without us” or “after us”. A place where human beings are no longer the masters and have to contend for space with insects, birds, snakes, and above all with plants that grow lush and careless, covering everything. A good lesson, one must say.

SP 64 is the road leading to Noto Antica. The site is always open, the admission is free. To book a guided tour, with virtual reality viewers, you can call the Tourist Information Office of Noto at 339 4816218. The cost is 10€ per person (groups of at least six).