Possibly one of the most fascinating relics left behind by Sicily’s many conquerors must be the impressive array of fortresses and castles. These majestic fabrications are not for the faint hearted as they are often located in strategic places high up in the mountains or dotted around the harsh coastal escarpments all around the island. It is easy to fall in love with the idea of these tangible elements of history but at times the difficulty of arriving and the poor maintenance and availability to the public can be off-putting.
Also having visited a few such places I can honestly say the romanticism of Sicily’s castles will quickly ware off as you realise these were areas designated for torture and war and so the ambience is depressing, to say the least. I have felt a visceral sense of disgust particularly in dungeons and specific areas dedicated to torture, they are not comfortable places to visit unless you like horror then you probably will be in your element.
Some memorable and major Sicilian castles are listed below but you will also no doubt stumble across many watchtowers and minor defence constructions all along the coast of Sicily which offers a fascinating insight into the island’s history.
Maniace Castle is situated on the tip of the Ortigia Island off Siracuse. Castello Maniace was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the thirteenth century. Its name comes from the Byzantine general who was instrumental in defeating the Arabs in Sicily. It served as a palace for the Angevin kings of Sicily and was used as a prison for most of the fifteenth century and served as a vital part of the town’s defence.
Caccamo Castle is between Palermo and Cefalu it is reached by taking the Termini Imerese exit heading south, away from the sea and into the mountains. After several kilometres of winding road, climbing up to five hundred metres above sea level, there is the mediaeval town of Caccamo. The castle is spectacular, built in the twelfth century by the Normans and is very much a stereotypical castle with square towers, battlements, thick stone walls and amazing position, it surely was unconquerable.
The Venus Castle and the surrounding town of Erice is a fairytale-like medieval town filled with suggestive views and a sense of timelessness. Perched high up in the mountains it offers stunning panoramas of the sea and the nearby Egadi Islands of western Sicily. The twelfth century Norman castle or Castello di Venere, gets its name from the original ancient temple of Venus which was originally built on the site.
Mussomeli Castle is mid-way between Palermo and Agrigento, built on top of a large limestone outcrop some seven hundred meters above sea level. Mussomeli was also built by the Normans in the fourteenth century, like so many other fortifications in Sicily. The castle looks like an impossible place to conquer with steep drops on most sides and the climb-up along a winding path reinforces how impenetrable it must have been for invaders.
Aci Castello is a small coastal fishing village on the east coast of Sicily, between Catania and Taormina.The town’s history is inextricably linked to its castle which dates back to the eleventh century, when the Normans re-built an existing Byzantine fortification on what was a towering lava stone sea-stack. The 1169 eruption of Mount Etna filled in the sea separating the castle from the coast making it accessible on foot from the mainland. Today there is a rectangular tower, once used as a dungeon, a chapel and a couple of rooms which have been turned into a small museum.
The Donnafugata Castle is in the south-east of Sicily, between Ragusa and the sea. Donnafugata isn’t a typical Sicilian castle but rather is more of a sumptuous aristocratic residence which was frequently renovated between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. The castle’s lines and stone exterior create a kind of blank canvas onto which Normanesque double-lancet windows have been painted together with a Gothic loggia. It is an impressive building with one hundred and twenty rooms spread over three floors, a large formal gardens, a couple of grottoes, a neoclassical temple and small labyrinth. If you’re a fan of the Montalbano detective series, you may recognise Donnafugata as the abode of one of Montalbano’s arch enemies, the Mafia boss Balduccio Sinagra.
Caltabellotta is about twenty kilometers inland from the fishing port of Sciatica, its name, derives from the Arabic Qalat al Balad, meaning ‘castle in the rock.’ Perched at over nine hundred metres above sea level surveying, Caltabellotta’s strategic importance was not lost on the invading Normans, who launched an attack on the Arab garrison in the eleventh century. After razing the existing fortification to the ground, they built their own castle into and around the rocky spur. Alongside the castle, the Normans also built several churches and a monastery, but very little remains today apart from a few evocative ruins and the unparalleled views over the Mediterranean.
The headland of Milazzo pushes out over three kilometres into the Tyrrhenian Sea, a small peninsula which points out to the Aeolian Islands. Its strategic position appealed to the Arabs who began work on a fortification there, then the Normans took it over and enlarged it considerably transforming it into a citadel whose imposing walls would later enclose a cathedral, a Benedictine monastery and a series of other buildings. In the fifteenth century, the Aragonese added bastions and round towers. Thanks to the variety of architectural styles including Arabic towers, Norman walls and Spanish towers Milazzo castle offers a neat synthesis of many of Sicily’s architectural styles.
Nestling in the southern slopes of the Madonie and Nebrodi mountain ranges, the little town of Sperlinga is ‘off the beaten track’ and only those with a passion for exploration will experience the considerable rewards its magnificent castle has to offer. The town surrounds an enormous sandstone spur which, way back in prehistoric times, was excavated as a necropolis by the area’s first inhabitants. Sperlinga castle has a complex design, incorporating classic mediaeval towers, mullioned windows, reservoirs for catching rainwater and secret passageways all carved out of the rock.
Castelbuono is a great idea for a day trip for anyone staying in the Cefalu area on Sicily’s north coast, it is one of a series of charming mediaeval towns in the Madonie Mountains. The main attraction of Castelbuono is the impressive castle commissioned by the baronial Ventimiglia family in 1316. The castle is a classic example of how Arab and Norman styles were combined to create the unique Sicilian Arab Norman architectural style. The cube shape of the castle recalls the style of Cairo and other north African towns, meanwhile, the square towers, battlements and other architectural features are of clear Norman extraction. The upper floors views confirm the strategic position of the castle, overlooking the central valley of the Madonie Mountains.
Castle of Lombardia at Enna was the so-called urbs inexpugnabilis or unconquerable city as the Romans used to call it. Today Enna is known as the navel of Sicily or Sicily’s Belvedere with its astonishing panoramas of the island. The Castello di Lombardia, is on top of the mountains near Enna and is one of the largest forts in all of Sicily. The castle is perched on a rock near the Sanctuary of Demeter and is named after the Lombard Guard of Adelasia, wife of the Norman King Roger I. The castle is a mix of Byzantine, Norman and Swabian elements and was once protected by twenty towers. Of the six preserved towers, the Torre Pisana offers a magnificent view over the province of Enna.
The Castle of Palma di Montechiaro a majestic and imposing, the Fourteenth-Century castle some twenty-five kilometres east of Agrigento and is the only stronghold built by the Chiaramonte family on the coastline of the island. The fortress is dramatically outlined against the beautiful surrounding seaside landscape, it is on top of a steep rock covered with typical Mediterranean shrub, overhanging a lovely sandy beach a visit to this site is quite unforgettable. A Castle’s strategic position made it a key stronghold in the fight against pirates invaders and its chapel is decorated with beautiful marble statue depicting the Madonna di Montechiaro, realised by one of the most famous Sicilian sculptures Antonello Gagini.