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Sicily’s hidden gem Villa del Tellaro is not yet mentioned in guidebooks, but deserves to be

by Chiara Beghelli

In the late summer, this corner of Sicily that almost feels like Africa exudes a rarefied ambiance.

Looking out at the horizon, you can see the outline of the city of Noto, with its baroque buildings listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites; the town overlooks a plain full of lemon trees, fronting onto one of the most beautiful natural parks in the region, the Vendicari reserve.

Hidden amid these trees is a gem that is not yet mentioned in guide books, but would deserve to be. Just listen to the comments from tourists who visited it. Ironically, we must be grateful to the grave robbers, those illegal diggers of archaeological sites, for bringing to light in 1971 the Roman villa and its beautiful, sleek mosaics.

The Villa del Tellaro was named after the river that flows through the plain: the ancient Greeks called it Eloros river. The villa's foundations and the layout of some of its rooms, three of which are decorated with mosaic floors, are all that can be seen today of this villa dating back to the 4th century AD.

Most likely a luxurious and elegant building, probably the home of a senator, the villa stands in the middle of a large landed estate and is based on the more famous Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina, in Palermo, dating back to the same time period and since 1997 also a World Heritage Site.

After the discovery, the “official” excavations began, but the task was made extremely difficult by the fact that over the villa a now run-down 18th- or 19th-century farmhouse had been built, and that the Superintendence of Syracuse, that is responsible for the site, also wanted to preserve that building, typical of the area's rural architecture.

The excavations lasted over twenty years, and the hardest part was recovering and restoring the floor mosaics, that according to some, for the sophistication of their designs and their vivid colors, are even more beautiful than the mosaics in Piazza Armerina. The magnificent depiction of the weighing of Hector's body, taken from the Iliad, has a cat that looks almost real, but also the craters full of fruit and the great hunting scene with lions mauling gazelles, animals plodding through a swamp, untamable horses, a female figure representing Africa, climaxing in a detailed banquet scene.

The mosaics are now sheltered under a metal and glass structure, and, as in Piazza Armerina, you can view them from a special walkway. According to archaeologists, the Villa probably fell into disrepair as a result of the arrival of barbarians to the island, and certainly because of a serious fire.

This magnificent but small site would, however, need more care, starting from security: this summer the ticket office was robbed several times, after which it was decided to make admission free.

Fresh funds are needed to continue with the excavations, since only a small part of the villa has been brought to light. Many projects are seeking to spark interest in the Villa del Tellaro: for example, a nearby farm organizes very popular dinners with Ancient Roman dishes taken from Marcus Gavius Apicius's “De re coquinaria” and made with local produces; educational archeological workshops for children are also offered.

Moreover, inmates from the Noto penitentiary often clear the site from weeds and brushwood. Precisely because of the villa's hiddenness, visiting it provides for an intimate and exciting feeling.

Let's hope, however, that it will soon be necessary to queue up at the ticket office in order to see those beautiful faces dating back to 1,700 years ago.

Villa del Tellaro, Nature Reserve Wildlife Oasis of Vendicari, 96017 Noto (SR) Info: +393389733084