Vendicari Nature Reserve Sicilian Nature

Vendicari is an extraordinary example of wetland’s ecosystem, great habitat for migrating birds and an archeological site with traces of ancient Mediterranean civilizations.

       Vendicari Nature Oriented Reserve is the 8 km long stretch of coastal land located near Noto (famous Baroque City in south-eastern Sicily).  

Although administratively the reserve is located between Eloro and San Lorenzo, in a wider sense the coastal area of touristic interest extends from Calabernardo to Marzamemi – two small but charming villages correspondingly at northern and southern sides of the of the park. 

Compared to other Sicilian Nature Reserves like Zingaro, Cavagrande, Alcantara or Pantalica known for their dramatic sceneries marked by mountains, cliffs, gorges, canyons and rushing rivers – Vendicari’s landscape is rather flat. Not surprisingly, at the first look from “outside”, Vendicari seems to be a “boring” place with nothing to offer to adrenaline seeking visitors. Well, the reality proves how our initial perceptions can be misleading.

     The truth is that Vendicari Nature Reserve despite its relatively flat topography is one of the most interesting nature parks in Sicily. While it does not have “classic” breathtaking scenery characteristic for mountains, fjords, waterfalls…  it has its own unique richness to offer to visitors. 

Vendicari Nature Reserve: Map

   .... but the spring is already coming to wetlands

 ..... in a full spectrum of fresh colors

Vendicari is a paradise for birds

Fresh "life" on the dunes....

       Vendicari, despite of its relatively small area (altogether 1236 hectares of which only 575 is strictly protected) combines various sceneries and habitats. Wetland dominated by large swamps makes significant part of its territory. To make it “more interesting” – some areas and marshes have high level of salinity, while some represent fresh-water habitats. The coastline consists of narrow strip of dunes and rocky stretches dotted with promontories, lagoons and sandy beaches.   Such hostile environment created a very unique ecosystem with flora adapted to sand, rocks and salinity. 

Vendicari is an extraordinary example of an environment where the living nature (plants and animal organisms), “non-living” elements such as soil and water with their chemical and mineral composition and “external factors” (like temperature, humidity, sunlight…) formed an ecosystem of “mutual dependence” (symbiosis). In other words, it’s an environment where existence of species strongly depends on fragile equilibrium between all mentioned components.

Vendicari it is also a great habitat for migrating and nesting birds and so a paradise for birdwatchers. 

And as if it this is not enough – Vendicari is also an archeological site with traces of all ancient Mediterranean civilizations. The remains of ancient Greek, Roman as well as Byzantine and Medieval structures are still visible within the perimeter of the park adding one more level of attractiveness for tourists.

Vendicari's wetlands

Dunes overgrown by vegetation

      Certainly, Vindicari is not for those looking for high level of adrenaline (unless some sharks decide to show-up near the beaches). Vindicari is a perfect place for those looking for peace, quietness and privacy (especially on the beach). It is for those enjoying long walks along the coastline trails, for those loving nature, those interested in Sicilian history and obviously for already mentioned birdwatchers.

Talking about the beaches – Vindicari Nature Reserve has some of the best beaches in Sicily and interestingly, even in high season they are not crowded (possibly because you cannot reach them by car).

Recognizing the uniqueness of local environment, in 1984 the Sicilian government protected the area by establishing the Vendicari Nature Oriented Reserve. 

Marshes

      The central part of the reserve includes large pools of mainly salty water separated by dunes from the Ionian Sea. These are Pantano Piccolo (Small Swamp), Pantano Grande (Big Swamp), Pantano Roveto also called Vendicari (Roveto/Vendicari Swamp), connected to it  Pantano Sichilly (Sichilly Swamp) and the smallest one – Pantano Scirbia (Scirbia Swamp). The first two do not have any more natural connection to the sea, while Roveto and Sichilly swamps are connected to the sea by a narrow passage between dunes called Foce del Pantano Sichilli. It’s a seasonal link; at low water level the “mouth” connecting swamps with the sea  is buried in sand. 

The swamps are very shallow, with the average depth of about 30-40 cm (11-16 inches) and deepest spots barely reaching 2 meters (6 ft). The level of water greatly depends on atmospheric conditions and rises in wet season due to rains or as the result of high sea during storms (winter and early spring).  On the other side - at the end of hot, dry summer, swamps are disappearing due to evaporation. The only exception to these rules is the Small Swamp (Pantano Piccolo). Throughout the whole year it is fed by underground sources of salty water, keeping its level almost unchanged.  

On the northern side of the park (next to Eloro) one of two major rivers in the province – Fiume Tellaro empties into the Ionian Sea. 

Pantano Grande (Big Swamp)

Big Swamp

Tonnara.

       Throughout the centuries the swamps were used as natural salt-pans. Filled with salty water through natural connections with the sea, swamps were evaporating during hot summer months leaving easy to collect thick layers of salt. Due to abundance of fish in the Ionian Sea and inexpensive salt available from the swamps (in the past salt was necessary for food processing), Vendicari became a center of “fish industry”. The remains of fish tanks carved into rock next to the Big Swamp and fragments of jugs for “garum” (fermented fish sauce) found in ruins of ancient Greek settlements within the area of Vendicari park confirm that “fish business” was ran here since the antiquity.

Tonnara

Big Swamp: Not long ago the Vendicari area was a center of fish industry....

Just for gourmands – “Garum” was a very popular condiment used in ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine cuisines. Fish (mainly blood and intestines) were macerated in salt, kept for few months exposed to sun for curing and then fermented. The “liquid” (sauce) resulting from the fermentation process was then separated by a strainer.   The end product known as “garum” was used to enhance the flavor of dishes, but also diluted with water as a drink. 

The “unpleasant” part of garum production is the “stinky” smell so usually the whole processing cycle was carried out outside of cities.

The ancient fish industry (or rather whatever survived “dark ages” after collapse of the Roman Imperium) got new boost in medieval times when the “fish trap” (Tonnara) was established next to the Vendicari swamp. The nearby Tower Sveva built in 15th century as a defense against pirates proves that it was probably a very lucrative business. In 18th century, the primitive fish plant was replaced by “industrial grade” tuna factory. The ruins visible today near Roveto (Vendicari) Swamp are actually remains of the modern fish processing plant built in early 1920’s. The factory was operating till 1944, then due to the collapsing post-war economy it was closed. 

Recently, Tonnara’s ‘ruins” were renovated (as strange as it sounds) to protect them from farther disintegration and now are part of Vendicari’s “archeological” exposition as a testimony to millennia old fish business.

Swabian Tower

Swabian Tower (Torre Sveva)

       At first, the presence of a huge defensive structure in the “middle of nowhere” (as it seems today) may look strange. But the massive tower is the strong evidence of prosperity of local fish business.  It was built in the middle of 15th century, most likely by Peter of Aragon (duke of nearby Noto and brother of Alfonso V of Aragon – King of Spain and Sicily).  Some hundred years later, the tower was enlarged at the orders of Juan de Vega (Viceroy of Sicily) getting its current shape.  At that time the tower was equipped with artillery.

It became not only a military outpost and lookout point protecting the area from pirates but also a sort of storage space.  Freshly renovated it is now one of the most important symbols of the Vendicari Reserve.

Birds' observation cabine

  .... and there is a lot of birds to see

Paradise for birdwatchers

Flamingos

Wildlife

       The very unique ecosystem provides an excellent habitat for residing and nesting birds as well as a preferred stopover for migratory birds on their long journeys between Africa to Europe.  

Among migrating birds the most often seen are spoonbills, grey herons, pink flamingos, glossy ibises, wild ducks, pink gulls, little egrets and black-winged stilts (chosen as the emblem of Vendicari).  White and black storks and cormorants can be also spotted in the park. 

Wooden huts placed in “strategic locations” allow birdwatchers to get close look at unsuspecting human presence wildlife (binoculars and/or high-zoom cameras are essential in this “mission”!).   Because most birds are migratory, the best time for “camera” hunting is from late autumn (November) to early spring (March) – the period of time when birds are embarking on challenging journeys…

Vendicari also gives shelter to many mammals (like foxes, rabbits, garden dormouse, hedgehogs, pygmy shrews, porcupines…), amphibians and reptiles (green toads, grass snakes, leopard snakes, green lizards, marsh turtles…. ). Unfortunately, with exception of turtles, they may not be as easy to spot as birds (some may say “fortunately”, because facing a snake even if not poisonous is always scary).

And finally – Vendicari with its crustaceans, arachnids and insects is really birds’ friendly offering them abundance of “free snacks”… Note that an Italian word “mosche” (meaning “flies”) is present in local names like Cava della Mosche or Callamosche not accidently but clearly for the valid reason). 

Wetlands 

Marshes during the winter....

Flora

      Diversified ecosystem including sand, rock, fresh and salt water marshes and soil with high level of salinity led to similarly diversified world of local plants.  

For example these growing on sand (dunes) belong to species of Psammophilous plants. They developed ability to resist drought and wind-blown sand thanks to small surface of leaves limiting evaporation of water and “profile” exposed to wind. An example is prickly juniper, ephedra and rosemary but also grasses consolidating dunes.

The other group of plants known as Halophylous species adapted to salty soil conditions.  They can “remove excessive salt” and accumulate in their tissues the reserves of freshwater necessary to support the life. These are for example a tamarisk and saltwort.

Thin layers of soil on the rocky stretches promote thyme, sea fennel, dwarf palms wild olive, myrtle and thorny burnet. 

 Outside of the strictly protected area (but still within the limits of the Nature Reserve) there are large swaths of cultivated land (citrus and olive groves, vineyards and vegetable gardens interleaved with sections overgrown by Mediterranean bush. 

Main Entrance to the park

Walking rails - "crossroads"

Boardwalk

Trail after spring rain.....

   ... otherwise you can walk "comfortably"....

Trails

      Park has four entrances – all accessible by narrow secondary roads branching out from the Strada Provinciale SP21 connecting Noto and Pachino. The tourist information point is only at the main entrance known as Vendicari.  Northern entrance is located in Eloro next to the coastline, from the west there are two entrances – one near the Cava delle Mosche (leading directly to the beach Calamosche) and the second one – the main entrance leading to the beach Vendicari , Swabian Tower and Tonnara. The southern entrance is located near the Casa Citadella and leads to Byzantine archeological sites.

Beaches in the area of the Vendicari Nature Reserve

Cala Bernardo (Bernardo's Beach)

Beach Lido di Noto

Vendicari beach

Possidonia (Ocean Fruits)

Beaches

      The park includes five beaches – all in pristine unspoiled state of nature. Starting from the north they are correspondingly: Eloro, Marianelli, Calamosche, Vendicari and Maccari.  Out of them, the sandy beach Calamosche hidden in a little bay sheltered by two rocky promontories is the most beautiful one.  Due to strict park regulations these beaches can be reached only by foot. For the same reasons park does not have any bars, restaurants, entertainment centers while beaches have neither booths nor umbrellas. But the best news is – there are no crowds. Here you are on your own! It’s just a pure nature and “silence” filled with sounds of crashing waves from time to time disturbed by wildlife….

Like most Sicilian beaches, Vendicari ones collect fruits of marine plant “Posidonia Oceanica” abundant in Mediterranean waters. Although their shapes, colors and external structure closely resemble fruits of kiwi, they are known as “olives of the sea” (understandably, given that fact that they gained this name long before kiwis were “introduced” to the Western World). 

Slightly outside of park limits are few more beautiful beaches including Calabernardo and Lido di Noto (to the north) and San Lorenzo, Punta Bove Marino and Marzamemi  (to the south).  All of them are accessible by car and most of them have services. The first one is beautifully shaped by the mouth of Calabernardo River winding across the sandy beach before emptying into the sea. 

Beachgoers will certainly find out that colors of the Ionian Sea displaying full spectrum from green through emerald to dark blue add another dimension to otherwise boring sunbathing!

Archeological Sites

     The area of Vendicare was inhabited since antiquity and certainly since Greek colonization of the island. As it can be expected – after more than two millennia remains of Greek presence are not in an impressive state.  The archeological site in Eloro attests Greek presence from their early stage of colonization of Sicily. Known as Helorus, the city was founded by Syracusans in 7th century BC at the mouth of the Tellaro River (Fiume Tellaro).

Although not much survived the time, weather and human “aggression”, the size of nearby quarries (latomie)  suggests that at the time of its peak (probably 4th-3rd century BC) Eloro was a prosperous city with temples and monuments (one was probably dedicated to the goddess of harvest – Demeter).  Pottery including vessels for very popular “garum” and mentioned earlier fish tanks points out that the fish business was one of the sources of prosperity. Traces of 4th century Greek road “Via Elorina” also confirm the importance of the area and large commercial exchanges with the main Greek colony in eastern Sicily - Syracuse.

On the southern side of the park there are remains of the Byzantime complex called Citadel of the Maccari. Its most important surviving structure is the basilica Trigona from the 6th century AD. It’s a square structure with three apses and typical in Byzantine sacral architecture – central dome. Amazingly it is still in pretty good shape. Remaining parts of the old Byzantine complex (small church, catacombs, dwellings … ) are in ruins. 

The time of prosperity of Vendicari settlements ended with the collapse of the Roman Empire. The subsequent chaos, arrival of Vandals and constant dangers coming from the sea forced the population to move to safer places like almost inaccessible Pantalica. 

Not far from Vendicari Nature Reserve there is a 4th century AD Roman Villa “Tellaro”. Although much smaller than the famous Villa Romana del Casale next to Piazza Armenina (Province of Enna), Villa Tellaro contains similarly remarkable floor’s mosaics.  

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