Situated between the towns of Ispica and Modica, this great fissure some 13km Iong, is stacked with abandoned troglodyte dwellings, small sanctuaries and necropolises. The earliest signs of human occupation in the area date from Neolithic times. The hollows studding the walls of the gorge are a natural phenomen in karst rock, they came subsequently to be modified and adapted by
humans according to their requirements.
A tour of the gorge comprises two parts. The northern section between Ispica and Modica is open to the public via the Ufficio di Sovrintendenza (follow signs for Cava d’Ispica); this first highly-accessible part is fenced off. The second half of this site lies further north and encloses a more disseminated series of “monuments” which are difficult to find and less-accessible. The best way of orientating a visit, therefore, is to follow a guided tour.
The second separate area, known as the Parco della Forza, is located outside Ispica; this automatically caters for organised tours.
Cava d’Ispica – The actual Cava d’Ispica harbours the Larderia (from the word ardeia – with abundant water) which consists of a paleo-Christian catacornb (4C-5C) lined with an impressive number of burial chambers (464). The original entrance was at one time located at the opposite end of the corridor that is now used, off which branches the “main nave” that extends 35.6m. The two lateral passageways were added later.
La Larderia – The tour follows the contours of a rock wall. Beyond the Church of Santa Maria
(high up in the cliff on the left) and the Camposanto or Holy ground, is located the Grotte Cadute which comprises a residential cornplex on several levels. Holes in the ceiling and steps cut in the walls below enabled the residents to move from one level to another with the aid of poles and ropes that could be pulled up in times of danger.
Opposite the entrance to the fenced area, on the far side of the main road, another road leads to the rock-hewn Church of San Nicola and the Spezieria, a little church perched on a sharp rocky outcrop. The name, corrupted from the local dialect, is linked to the mythical existence of a monk-cum-apothecary who prepared herbal remedies. The church interior is sub-divided into two parts: a
nave and a mis-aligned chancel with three apses.
Return to the car and drive up the main road to the first turning on the left.
Baravitalla – On the plateau, now scattered with dry-stone walls, stand the ruins of the Byzantine Church of San Pancrati (on the left, fenced off). It was beside here that vestiges of a small settlement were recovered. A little further on, a path leads left to an area with other points of interest (difficult to find without a guide): the Tomb with decorative pilasters has a double front entrance, and the Grotta del Santi which consists of a rectangular chamber containing fragments of
fresco along the walls (the haloes of the figures depicted can just be discerned).
Back on the main road, continue towards Cava d’Ispica, before looking and finding (if accompanied by a guide) the Grotta della Signora which shelters a spring considered sacred since ancient times. The walls bear traces of graffiti dating from prehistoric or paleo-Christian era (swastikas and crosses).
Meanwhile, in the opposite direction further towards Ispica, the central part of the gorge conceals the so-called Castello, an enchanting residential complex several storeys high (see above).
Parco della Forza – Located at Ispica. This, one of the earliest areas of settlement, has been occupied since Neolithic times, abandoned in the 1950s (very difficult to reach: for directions, ask a local guide). During the Middle Ages the plateau above the gorge was fortified with a citadel. This was raised around the so-called Palazzo Marchionale, the basic layout of which may still be made out. Some rooms preserve fragments of the original floor covered with painted fired lime tiles.The small fortress also contained several churches including the Annunziata which has 26 graves inlaid into its floor.
The cave known as the Scuderia, so called because it accommodated stables in medieval times, bears traces of graffiti horses. An idea of just how considerable this settlement was may be gleaned from the known number of people residing there: before the earthquake in 1693, approximately 2000 people lived within precincts of the actual citadel, while an additional 5500
people inhabited the nearby gorges.
Perhaps the most striking feature is the Centoscale, an extremely long stairway (consisting of 240 steps cut into the rock) which descends 60m at an angle of 45° into the side of the hill to emerge on a level with the valley floor, below the riverbed. It is not known when exactly the passage was made, its function was to ensure a water supply even in times of drought. One hundred slaves (hence its name) were positioned along the length of the stairway to collect the water as filtered down from the riverbed (at its deepest point, the passageway was 20m below water level); having been collected it was passed up in buckets to the surface. Outside the actual park stands Santa Maria della Cava, a little rock-hewn church containing the fragments of fresco in successive layers (for access, permission must be sought from the custodians).