Modica: A sweet spot for an ancient remedy

Harriet O'Brien finds a surprising history among the lemon trees and chocolate shops of the Sicilian city

The tangy aroma of lemons hung in the air as we gazed over a panorama of churches and rooftops. From the cliffside garden of the town's philosopher Tommaso Campailla, the best outlook in Modica lay before us. Signor Migliore smiled and reached into a burgeoning citrus tree. This, he said, as he presented a lemon to me, is a small souvenir of the town – and of Sicily. He nodded and then headed back indoors, where we continued our talk about syphilis.

As the curator and owner of the house of Tommaso Campailla, Signor Migliore knows a thing or two about syphilis, along with early 18th-century thinking. Born in Modica in 1668, Campailla was an aristocrat who left home to train as a lawyer, returned, and then rarely set foot beyond the dramatically sited house where he was born. There he taught himself astronomy and philosophy, wrote poetry, corresponded with the great and the good, and came to be held in such high regard that the Anglo-Irish scholar and bishop George Berkeley made a trip to meet him. As something of a sideline he also devised a treatment for syphilis – although Signor Migliore was fairly sure that Campailla never suffered from the disease himself.

Any thoughts of maladies, medical history or philosophy had been far from my mind when I had set out that morning from my hotel by the coast of south-east Sicily. I had heard of the Baroque beauty of Modica, about half an hour's drive inland, and had anticipated spending a pleasant day wandering its theatrical-looking streets, exploring churches – and browsing chocolate shops. For the town is famous for its production of chocolate made more or less to Aztec traditions – the method and raw materials were brought to the island by the Spanish towards the end of the 16th century.

Like other towns in Sicily's rugged Val di Noto, Modica was all but destroyed during a momentous earthquake in 1693. And like the other towns in the area, it was rapidly rebuilt in the flamboyant architectural style of the time, the result so striking that it is now a World Heritage Site. So evidently there's a wealth to see. But where to start? Happily, one of the managers at my hotel was a Modica man. He explained how his native town is sharply divided: there are many churches, he said, but two evoke deep-seated passion – if you come from Modica you are affiliated either with San Pietro in the lower town or San Giorgio up on the hill above. They could be the focal points of my trip, he suggested.

First stop was the monumental San Pietro, its ochre-stone façade complete with curvy embellishments, its interior a calming space of white stucco. By contrast, just off the back of the building there's a treat of a little church turned museum: San Nicolo Inferiore was hewn out of the rock face here centuries ago and, in the course of time and earthquakes, became buried. It was rediscovered by chance in 1987. Together with its 12th-century Byzantine-style wall paintings, it remains only partially restored so it exudes a romantically haunting sense of the past.

Next on the agenda: chocolate. A few steps down an alley opposite San Pietro is Modica's oldest chocolate shop. Antica Dolceria Bonajuto is a delightfully creaky place, its wood-panelled walls lined with displays of production techniques – the sugar they add to the cocoa never fully melts and so the natural bitterness of the chocolate is only partially offset by a sweet crunch.

Fortified by a sample of Bonajuto's chilli chocolate, I set off for Modica's upper town and the church of San Giorgio. It was a short walk from San Pietro, zigzagging up stairs and strolling through terrace gardens. Fabulously opulent, San Giorgio left me breathless in every sense. Its four-storey belfry presents a great play of curves, pillars and pediments. Its interior is elegantly restrained, the central feature a great altarpiece depicting scenes from the lives of saints Giorgio and Ippolito.

Aiming for a panoramic viewpoint I continued upwards and found myself in a maze of lanes bearing little relation to those shown on my map. Finally I followed a road back to the lower town, passing Modica's medical museum. The map announced that this was once a centre for the treatment for syphilis, which sounded intriguing, so in I went.

In pride of place in the museum are the treatment booths Tommaso Campailla devised to "cure" this widespread disease. Patients would sit inside these wooden cabins and inhale infusions of mercury, causing them to sweat profusely. Did this really have any effect on syphilis? The museum's receptionist smiled and shrugged. Perhaps I should visit the house where the creator of the booths lived. She pointed back up the hill.

Two hours later I left Modica clutching a lemon, my head filled with images of syphilis treatment cabins, swirling architecture – and superb views.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Harriet O'Brien travelled with Essentially Prestige (01425 480400; prestigeholidays.co.uk/sicily) which offers a range of holidays in Sicily. A four-night break at Relais Torre Marabino, set near the coast and an easy drive from Modica, costs from £444 per person including breakfast, easyJet flights from Gatwick to Catania and car hire.

Catania is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick.

More information

Casa Tommaso Campailla, Via Posterla (ingegnicultura.it), open April to September, Mon-Sat 10am-noon and 4-6pm, €2 (£1.70). At other times open by appointment.

Museo Medico Tommaso Campailla, Piazza Campailla (00 39 0932 763 990; ingegnicultura.it). Mon-Sat 10am-noon and 4-6pm, €2.

Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Corso Umberto I 159 (00 39 0932 941 225; bonajuto.it).

San Nicolo Inferiore, Piazzetta Grimaldi, open daily 10am-noon and 4-7pm, €2.

Modica tourist office, Corso Umberto I (00 39 0932 759 634; commune.modica.gov.it). Mon-Sat 9am-1pm and 3.30-6pm; Sun 10am-1pm.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Day In a Page

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada