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Ispica is a town on a hill in the south-eastern corner of the island of Sicily, at about 200 meters above sea level and six kilometers from the coast. The immediate region around Ispica is most visited for its prehistoric caves, or of course the nearby coastal resorts such as Santa Maria del Focallo and Ciriga.
Although Ispica is especially well known for the extensive prehistoric cave system it also has a couple of churches and palaces that are interesting from the artistic point of view so we suggest you start your visit with them.
Basilica of Santa Maria
The Basilica of Santa Maria was re-built after an earthquake in 1704. The first financial contributions for the rebuild came from the Prince Francesco V Statella (1654-1710), to whom Ispica owes much of the reconstruction of the city and other churches.
The façade of the basilica is of great importance, with Corinthian pilasters and two bell towers influenced by the Baroque style. The artistic value of the church comes from the 13 large panels of stucco that decorate the nave, transept and chapel.
Dating from the 18th century these stucco works are probably the most significant work by Giuseppe Gianforma (active between 1740 and 1770).
Also of interest in the church are some oil paintings such as the 'Annunciation' and the 'Adoration of the Magi". We should also mention the picture of "St. Andrew Avellino", attributed to Caravaggio (1571-1610), and the 'Annunciation’.
The Mother Church of Saint Bartholomew
The ancient church of Saint Bartholomew was probably built after the Norman conquest. In 1547 it was rebuilt by Isabella Caruso, then rebuilt again after the earthquake.
Outside it has a double staircase and the façade has late-baroque and neoclassical motifs, while inside there are three-naves divided by pillars of the Tuscan order. An art work of importance in the church is the substantial "San Bartolomeo".
Palaces in Ispica
Among the civil buildings of note in Ispica note in particular the Bruno Palace, designed by Ernesto Basile (1857-1932) and in the liberty style, but using motifs from the Gothic style.
In the center of Ispica there are also several other palaces, the oldest of which is thought to be that of the Statella family, again built after the earthquake - you can see the main entrance with its two columns.
From the first half of the 18th century are the Favi Palace, which was damaged by the earthquake of 1727, and the Alfieri Gambuzza Palace, with some frescos by Francesco Sozzi (1732-1795).
Further palaces were built in the late 19th century in the neoclassical style by Carlo Di Gregorio (1836-1899), while others were built in the early decades of the 20th century in the Art Nouveau style.
Prehistoric caves at Ispica
Ispica is well known for its extensive prehistoric monuments, which are the main attraction in the region. See also Ispica history and etymology.
Among these is the famous 'Cava Ispica', 13 kilometres long and with evidence of occupation during various times in history: there are caves that were inhabited by the Sicules in the Bronze Age; the Christian catacombs of the late Roman Empire (4th-5th century AD); the rock frescoes of the "Grotto of the Saints"; and the ruins of the Byzantine church of St. Pancrati.
The catacomb of Larderia is also remarkable, an underground cemetery which contains over 400 graves. Along the valley there are hundreds of natural caves carved into the rock. Many of these caves are close together and linked by tunnels in the rocky walls.
Also famous and of historical interest is the so-called Sicano Castle, built into the rock and a veritable fortress carved into a limestone cliff that plunges steeply down over 30 metres. It presents a series of excavations of prehistoric, early Christian and medieval rock art, although partially destroyed and difficult to read.
In particular you can distinguish two large rock clusters located at both ends of the valley, spread over several levels along the rock walls and connected by winding roads that follow the rocky wall.
These are in a zone with easier access and a greater presence of water, with lush vegetation fed by springs that flow into the river “Pernazzoni”. At one time these were used, through canals dug into the rock, to irrigate the vegetable gardens and citrus groves of the valley.
To the north of here is the so-called Cave of Ispica while to the south is Spaccaforno: this 'complex' includes a residential block and an inaccessible tower called the 'Force'.
In the low Ispica Cave is the Fortilitium, or the ancient 'castle of the Statella'. This rocky outcrop was the site of the residence of the important Statella family from the 14th century onwards. Next to the castle stood the ancient village of Spaccaforno, which was destroyed, together with the Fortilitium by the earthquake of 1693.
The area around the Cave also has lush vegetation and is home to several species of birds, and has considerable importance for naturalists.
Also close to Ispica: Ciriga and Santa Maria del Focallo
The region of southern Sicily around Ispica has quite high winter average temperatures and fertile land, so for an extended season you can enjoy the famous beaches of Santa Maria del Focallo and Ciriga, and the natural oasis of “Pantano Longarini”.
Indeed, you are more likely to be staying at one of the nearby resorts on the 10 kilometres of beaches and visiting Ispica and exploring the scenery as a day trip from there. Ciriga in particular has some very lovely coastal scenery with white cliffs and rock formations in the sea and the whole coast has easy access to long sandy beaches.
While sampling the local produce don't overlook the renowned "carrots of Ispica", which have known worldwide success because of their early ripening, color and flavor and are now an important export from the region.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.