Every town and city in Italy has its own Saintly patron or protector which has its own dedicated festa or celebration during the year with associated religious processions and events.
In Sicily alone, there are three hundred and ninety town halls which means many lifetimes of Saint day celebrations.
Apart from the religious celebrations, the locals take pride in celebrating the grandness of their particular Saints miracles and the intimate connection with their specific town. The statues of each Saint is a work of art, and the parades are filled with music, prayer and colour. The locals take their saints seriously and try to keep up the traditions.
Sicily’s nine major provincial capitals each have big celebrations which have been practised uninterrupted for centuries, and today each is a significant event in each cities calendar filled with holiday markets, art exhibitions, food preparations and epic fireworks.
Some towns have more than one Patron which means several celebrations throughout the year. While other cities whose Saints celebration happens in the dead of winter, so they have decided to have a summer version of the festa for visitors to experience too.
Here is a list of the important Patron Saint-day celebrations of the main cities in Sicily (Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Syracuse (Siracusa) and Trapani.
To round the number up to an even ten I’ve included an extra location at Cefalu where the festivities feature the Saint’s statue being loaded onto a boat, the procession continuing out into the sea, something which is common for many celebrations around the island particularly with coastal towns.
The festive season is always a beautiful time of the year to visit Sicily as it is filled with the colours, tastes and sensations of a traditional Sicilian Christmas.
A Yuletide Sicily offers visitors a unique way of experiencing the island which is inhabited by less tourists and is ultimately a more authentically Italian celebration.
December in Sicily is about traditions based around the nativity, Christmas markets with a little decadence thrown in.
These events are regular features of the Christmas season on the island, dates and times may vary.
I Presepi di Acireale (The art of the Nativity)3rd December – 6th January Acireale (Catania)
The Christmas Nativity has always been a font of inspiration for folk artists who choose to represent the manger scene every year as part of the festive celebrations. Italian’s often put up their Christmas trees together with a home-made nativity and this art form is also reflected in the ancient art of the nativity construction in every form (from ceramics, papier-mâché, to theatrical representations of the scenes surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ)
Every year at Acireale there is the Itinerary of the Nativity in the Chiesetta della Madonna della Neve, which is an exhibition dedicated to depictions of the nativity dating back to the 1700’s. A series of churches display these traditional pieces of art, the nativities are displayed in the Church of San Rocco, the elaborate Neapolitan Nativities and high art nativities are in the Basilica Collegiata di San Sebastiano.
The feast day celebration of Santa Barbara Paternó (Catania) 3rd, 4th and 5th December and 11th December
This colorful Saint day celebration begins gradually over the month of November and reaches its climax over a three day pageant celebration filled with formal ceremonies, processions and fireworks over the 3rd,4th and 5th of December, officially coming to an end on the 11th of December with the procession of the Saint’s relics around the town.
The style of the Santa Barbara celebrations at Paternó is reminiscent of the bigger celebration of Sant Agata at Catania in February, in fact, both Saints are loved by the locals and both have saved their cities from a major eruption of lava from the Mount Etna volcano in 1780.
Natale a Catania 8th December – 31st January
The festive season brings the best out of the major cities, for example, the historical centre and squares of Catania are filled with the vibrancy and colours of many events including Christmas markets, theatrical shows, art exhibitions, street performances and nativity displays.
The 8th of December is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception(Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione), the Madonna is also a patron of the city and the main celebrations in the Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi is filled with pomp and ancient religious traditions.
Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione: Termini Immerse (Palermo) 8th December
The celebration of the Immaculate Conception is an important celebration throughout Italy and other predominantly Roman Catholic countries, here in Sicily it is a public holiday and is filled with suggestive religious celebrations.
The most elaborate celebrations happen in towns where the Madonna of the Immaculate Conception is the patron saint, for example at Termine Immerse in Palermo province the Concezione della SS.Vergine Madre di Dio Maria has been worshipped since 1624. In almost all the churches of the city, the icon of the Madonna is decorated with floral offerings including the first known wooden sculpture in the city dedicated to the Madonna, made in 1799 by Palermitano sculpture Francesco Quattrocchi. The sculpture is housed in the main church in the piazza Duomo and is the focus of religious processions and celebrations all around Termini.
Presepe Vivente Termini Immerse (Palermo) 25th – 6th January
Also at Termini Immerse there is the performance of the Nativity where the whole town participates to recreate biblical times and scenes from the birth of Jesus. It is a suggestive tradition which sees the entire community celebrate the central story at the heart of a Catholic Christmas. It also sees many old houses and palaces which are usually close, open up to display many folk traditions such as music and art.
Festa Immacolata Concezione: Caltagirone (Catania) 8th December
Another big celebration dedicated to the Immaculate Conception is in the famous ceramics city of Caltagirone which hosts a colourful Medieval procession and a Sagra food festival (dedicated to the Muffuletta a traditional bread made with fennel seeds), besides the usual religious celebrations.
The Corteo Storico del Senato Civico dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries and includes a procession in traditional costumes, flag throwing and drumming.
Natale a Longi e Sagra del Suino Nero: Longi (Messina) December 8 – 5th January
Christmas in Sicily is also dedicated to food, so the usual succession of Sagra food festivals are filled with the Sicilian’s rich source of culinary delights which are indeed never-ending.
One suggestive mountain town in the province of Messina organises a series of traditional and fun wintertime events over December. There is something magical about celebrating Christmas up in the mountains, around bonfires, surrounded by the sounds of traditional music, church services, processions, christmas carols and the promise of sipping a warming grappa liquor after a rich meal in a local Trattoria.
The Suino Nero dei Nebrodi, is a famous breed of pig which is perfect to taste in a hearty sauce in home-made pasta but also in hand-made salami hence making it perfect as the focus of this little village’s annual Sagra celebration.
For lovers of fine chocolate the series of stands dedicated to the delicate preparation of the ancient recipe of Modican chocolatiers in the splendid historical centre of this Baroque town.
This world-famous high-quality chocolate is showcased in this celebration organized by the town of Modica and is filled with many events including guided tasting tours, demonstrations, exhibitions and other cultural events.
This Chocolate Show is dedicated to local chocolate artisans and seeks to showcase this local Sicilian product and the entire culture of the town. Many of the museums are opened during extended visiting hours, special concerts and shows are organised and local restaurants prepare special dishes and menus which show off the taste of their special chocolate.
Festa di Santa Lucia: Syracuse 13th – 20th December
The feast day of Santa Lucia is one of the biggest saint day celebrations in Sicily, along with St Agata of Catania, St Lucy is a native of Sicily which makes her a focal point in the local historic and religious culture.
The celebrations for Santa Lucia patron Saint of Syracuse (Siracusa) with the traditions honouring the celebration of lights associated with other northern European celebrations for St Lucy day together with theFiera di Santa Lucia (markets of St Lucy).
Saint Lucy was born in Syracuse at the end of the third century and her celebrations include processions of her holy icon from the Cathedral (Duomo) to the Church of Saint Lucy’s tomb (Sepolcro), the procession is made up of a carriage from the 17th century, with people in traditional dress.
The celebrations in honour of Santa Lucia are one of the most ancient on the island, so seeing and participating in these rituals you are witnessing a truly unique and authentic piece of islander heritage and tradition.
Tourism in Sicily is an exciting and constantly developing industry to be involved in with many new companies coming up with new ways in which to experience the island.
Recently one exciting new company has been founded by two Sicilian sisters born in Sicily. Francesca and Giovanna have returned to their island home after several years of education and work in the USA they have returned to help people discover their beloved homeland.
Sicilian Sisters is an online travel boutique which offers dream vacations to Sicily and Italy. Based on a unique connection to the island, the two sisters and best friends want to share the beauty of their heritage to the rest of the world.
Francesca and Giovanna kindly agreed to answer a few questions in a recent interview:
Tell us about Sicilian Sisters Travel. How did it come about and what’s your philosophy about Sicily?
We were born and raised in Sicily. Our Papa’ is Sicilian, our Mamma Sicilian-American.We were born in a bi-cultural, multilingual home. This defined immediately the course and rest of our lives. We welcomed and entertained international visitors in our home in Sicily from an early age and traveled often to the USA and around the world to visit family and friends.
In 1997, we moved to the USA to pursue higher education and spent 18 years there. Until this year (2016) when, longing to indulge in the beauty and slow paced lifestyle of our beautiful native island (Sicily), we decided to move back to our home here. Whether we had planned or not, it was always our pleasure to advice, suggest, accompany visitors around our island and slowly throughout all of Italy.
Travel is in our DNA and through the years, we have been fortunate and grateful to be able to travel the world, develop a sensibility towards the needs of the international traveler, learn a few languages and expand our portfolio of connections.
We are delighted, honored and truly happy to be able to share our love, passion and knowledge of all that our island and country can offer to the senses of all embracing visitors!
What services do you offer?
We can work with clients in a number of ways: you can either join one of our group tours….or we can design a journey especially crafted for you, your family, business, etc…..or if you have already booked a few services (for example flights and hotels) we can assist in the planning of all other additional travel services such as cooking classes, wine tastings, Italian language courses, private guides, entrance tickets, train tickets, lunches, dinners, pastry demonstrations, tastings, cycling, sports, wellness experiences…..we are really creative and flexible and can assist really in anything related to travel in Sicily and Italy to match your exact wishes and desires and budget.
Why should someone come to Sicily for their holiday?
Many people know or have traveled to Italy already – and though it’s a country of immense beauty, of poets, artists, musicians, ideal for foodies and wine lovers as well as scholars of the expressive Italian language and it will always offer peculiar experiences to its visitors (….and we can help you in the design and planning of your first time or a returning journey to Italy by the way with our connections throughout the boot)……we were born and raised in Sicily, it’s our native island and it has been a personal commitment through our entire lives to simply share the most beautiful and unique layers of our island with others.
We believe that Sicily is the “island of a thousand scents and colors.” It is an island whose complex and extraordinary natural beauty mixed with a multitude of dialects and traces left from many civilizations has created a kaleidoscopic culture, people, history, language and cuisine.
Our island functions on “island time” and to best understand it, we always recommend that you have a different “tempo” when you come here to allow yourself to be immersed in its layers, to get a glimpse of a powerful history, to have your palates ignited with a “gusto” developed over centuries and your eyes filled with colors and senses inebriated by natural scents such as jasmine, orange blossom, pistachio, honey, pomegranate, prickly pears….
To travel to Sicily means to be exposed to Sicilian hospitality and generosity, to live a few days like Sicilian kings and queens did in extraordinary noble palaces or villas, to soak in the Sicilian sun and sea, and lavishly be reminded of the meaning and significance of eating well and feasting together around the dinner table, to learn about a rich archaeological and cultural history and much much more….
What are best things to do in Sicily in each season? Could you break it down for us, what should we be doing in a visit in the summer, fall, winter and spring?
We will answer this question in reverse.
Sicilian summer lasts from about May through October so in these months, we certainly recommend planning a vacation that focuses on a location by the sea in one of the numerous stunning beaches around the island or in its surrounding islands (Aeolian, Aegadian, Pelagian, Pantelleria) – and intertwine cultural as well as other fun experiences.
In our late fall (October and November) – you will certainly enjoy partaking in vineyards visits, wine tastings, cooking classes, pastry demonstrations and Italian language courses perhaps….always a must are cultural highlights as well.
In winter and spring….slower tourist season here, you would enjoy “living like a local,” travel is cheaper, the weather still so pleasant – the perfect time to enjoy all of the above at slower pace, with tourist attractions less crowded.
What is your own personal favorite site to visit?
This is a very difficult and nearly impossible question to answer because we appreciate all seasons and all destinations for their uniqueness and diversity……but if we had to highlight a few “musts” while in Sicily…..you must visit at least once in your lifetime: Taormina, the Baroque corner in South Eastern Sicily (Modica, Noto, Ragusa, Scicli, etc.), you must taste pastries and street food in Catania, you may enjoy a romantic sunset walk in the idyllic ancient city of Ortigia, also salute Mount Etna, learn about the history of Sicilian Kings and Queens in Palermo, visit the magnificent Valley of Temples in Agrigento, deepen your knowledge of Sicilian wines and cuisine, and take a few extra days to explore the Aeolian Islands – one of our favorite destinations in the whole world.
What is your favorite taste of Sicily?
This is another very difficult question because our Papa’ was a Chef in the USA and our Mamma is an incredible cook…..we love fresh seafood prepared in a number ways, we love eggplants and fresh basil, tomato sauce made with Pomodori from Pachino, we enjoy a good glass of Nero d’Avola or Shiraz or dessert wines like Zibbibbo and Passito, we adore ricotta and pistachio and honey, we love almond or lemon or prickly pear “granita” (Sicilian ice) for breakfast in the summer.
What is your favorite off the beaten track destination or experience?
We love to share the picturesque fishing village where our maternal grandparents were born: Brucoli. It is literally a three street village but so restorative for a day out: enjoying some time at the beach….lunch in one of the few delicious seafood restaurants overlooking the Mediterranean Sea….. a refreshing mid afternoon granita…..and an aperitivo by the water at night………….Mt Etna at a distance, the entire Bay of Catania before your eyes. It is a very simple, tranquil yet idyllic destination.
Francesca, tell us about ‘My Sicily’ …
In 2012, my first book “My Sicily” (255 pages) was published in the USA. It is written in English with a few Sicilian proverbs, extracts of language. It was a travel memoir where I intertwined personal childhood memories and cultural, culinary, identity, linguistic notes on my favorite places around the island. Sicily is not mine, it belongs to the world and all those curious or interested in learning more about our culture and island….and to all the sons and daughters of Sicilian immigrants worldwide. I entitled the book “My Sicily” because I narrate “my” personal reflections as I associate them with each individual place. Thanks to the book, I enjoyed traveling across the USA on a 55 stop book tour, was invited at the Sicilian Festival in San Diego, received two Sicilian Literary Awards (in 2007 and 2013), met extraordinary people and learned even more about Sicilian culture and identity in the USA. During the journey, I launched a blog to document it and through the years it has grown to welcome almost 39,000 followers worldwide who follow my writings and literary experiences. I am so grateful. My sister who has a passion for photography and her own business (https://giovannamignosa.smugmug.com/) designed the book cover, map of Sicily and entire book. There are a few literary projects brewing at the moment, but I can’t reveal them just yet. I invite anyone interested to follow my facebook page: Francesca Mignosa Author or my blog https://francescamignosa.wordpress.com
How would you describe Sicily in one sentence ….
“Sicily is the island of a thousand scents and colors” (My Sicily, 2012) when you think you know all of them….its charisma will show you a few more….we look forward to sharing and discovering more with all of you. Grazie.
There are many ways of exploring Sicily, from visiting the bigger cities and tourist centres, food and winery tours or seeing the major historical sites from Greek temples to endless museums.
Logistically moving around Sicily is difficult simply because of the mountainous landscape, bad infrastructure, lack of reliable public transport and really confusing or absent signage. Rather than attempting to see the entire island in one weekend (which I assure you is impossible), the best thing to do is simply break the island into smaller pieces and explore a smaller part of it.
It is easy to hire a car from any major airport and together with a reliable GPS, a guidebook, a little research and some Italian, you can easily negotiate yourself around a particular area.
One trip or vacation to a concentrated part of the island is a perfect way to soak up the culture and colours associated with each of the nine different provinces (Palermo, Catania, Messina, Siracusa, Ragusa, Enna, Caltanissetta, Agrigento and Trapani.)
Western Sicilyfor example includes Trapani, Marsala and basically everything west of Palermo from Castellammare del Golfo around to the Aegadian islands, down the coast to Mazara del Vallo, if you want to be particularly challenged you can make it down as far as Agrigento (but I think Agriento deserves more time to be savoured and is best to be grouped together with central Sicily).
Sicily can be sliced down the middle from Palermo into its heart to Piazza Armerina, Enna, Caltanissetta down to Agrigento which is filled with much history, archaeological sites and festivities during the year.
Then there is North Eastern Sicily which can be done by car from Palermo along the coast towards Messina and can include visits to places like Cefalù, the Aeolian Islands, many small coastal and mountain towns around to Messina and the resort town of Taormina.
If you decide to arrive at Catania airport you can start from there and explore along the coastline as there are many fascinating fishing villages and resorts all the way down to Siracusa and Ragusa.
A few days to explore the Val di Noto towns inland from Catania will give you the chance to experience the eight Baroque treasures of south-eastern Sicily: Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli, were all rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and are filled with ostentatious architecture, breathtaking scenery and equally rich culinary landscape to taste.
From Catania it is easy to catch the Circumetnea a historic railway which takes you leisurely around the base of the Mount Etna around to the picturesque seaside town of Riposto. From Catania airport it is simple to explore Etna itself and the endless small towns near and around the Mount Etna regional park, this area also boasts world-class wineries, restaurants, historical sites endless farm stay or luxury bed and breakfasts, spas and a golf course.
Sicily is a multifaceted place with endless things to explore, simply do some research into whatever you may be interested in and see if you can explore the island through your hobbies and passions.
There is something for everyone Sicily is a paradise for people interested in hiking, mountain biking, nature photography, snorkelling/diving and windsurfing.
Sicily boasts some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean, if your family is originally from Sicily you can visit the town of your origins, foodies will have endless things to taste with a succession of Sagra food festivals throughout the year and the island has some of the best wine in the world.
There are literary parks to explore Sicily through its greatest artists, if you are after a luxury holiday there are many five star hotels and resorts, you can take a helicopter ride around the island, sail around the coast and hop around the surrounding islands, take archaeological tours around the most well preserved Greek temples outside of Magna Grecia, immerse yourself in the thousands of museums, palaces, castles, markets, religious or food festivals, squares, do an inspector Montalbano, Mafia or Caravaggio inspired tour.
The possibilities are endless simply break off a piece of Sicily and have a taste.
I am constantly sitting down and planning out trips to do through Sicily. Often I don’t do everything on my list as I run out of money but I am generally happy if I do one of the trips every year as they are based on my experiences living here on the island.
Sicily is so rich, there are endless itineraries you can complete if you search on google but these are the things I’d recommend to my own friends and family.
The island can be terribly uncomfortable in July/August so I suggest do some of these in June as the weather is warm without being too humid or if the summer holds out as it usually does September is a perfect time to visit the island, with a lot less tourists too!
These ancient islands off the north-eastern coast in the province of Messina make gorgeous day trips and are easily reached from Messina and Milazzo.
The ‘seven sisters’ as the islands are colloquially known are a series of wild and volcanic archipelagos surrounded by a deep turquoise colored sea. Alicudi, Filicudi, Lipari, Panarea, Salina, Stromboli and Vulcano were the home of Aeolus the mythological guardian of the winds who populated these islands with his family.
You can usually pair up a couple of the larger islands for a leisurely day (Lipari/Vulcano or Salina/Lipari) or be more adventurous and hike out to the more distant rocky islands (Filicudi/Alicudi). If you shop around there are mini cruises and sailing trips to the four main islands (Vulcano/Lipari/Panarea/Stromboli) and night time cruises to see the volcanic eruptions on Vulcano.
I am always going on about how easy it is to experience Sicily by road and I urge people to hire a car from Palermo, Catania or Messina and plan out a trip.
I’d grab a hire car from Messina and head along the coast towards Palermo stopping at which major coastal city may tickle my fancy. Do you research and see if there are any food festivals (or sagras) on the way to stop and taste. I’d stop at Milazzo for some great seafood in the summer, browse around the ceramic stores at Santo Stefano di Camastra, see the Norman Cathedral at Cefalu’, spend the night at Palermo be sure to visit some museums, the Teatro Massimo which is known as the La Scala of the south and if you want to be impressed there is the Duomo, the Palazzo Normanno which is the seat of the regional government and both decorated by golden mosaics left behind by the golden age of Norman rule in 12th century Sicily. A day trip from Palermo is the Abbey of Monreale a magnificent arab/norman cathedral built by William the II in the 1100’s.
I encourage people to keep heading west along the coast and visit the cities of Marsala and Trapani filled with delightful beaches in the summer, fine food all year round, museums and towns to explore.
The central provinces are seldom explored by tourists so I would pack a lunch and head out to the belly button of the island for a new experience.
I’d go straight to Piazza Armerina, outside of the town is the Villa Romana del Casale which is one of the most well-preserved archeological sites from the late Roman period and allows you to walk through an aristocratic Roman villa filled with elaborate mosaics which have recently been restored.
Enna, Caltanissetta and Agrigento are easily reached from Piazza Armerina and are filled with rich historical sights and festivals depending on what time of year you visit.
For the lovers of the Baroque a fascinatingly rich part of the island is the Noto Valley (Val di Noto) which is a UNESCO world heritage site and includes many towns in the south-east of the island.
I’d meander my way down the coast from Catania and stop off in each of these towns who were all rebuilt in the Sicilian baroque style after a major earthquake in 1693.
Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli represent a considerable collective undertaking which created an amazing architectural and artistic achievement.
Further down the coastline from the Val di Noto in May and June every year there are performances of ancient Greek Classics in the Greek amphitheater at Syracuse which give world-class performances in this suggestive ancient location.
A fantastic way to experiencing the depth and breathe of the Mt Etna volcano is to take a trip around its base thanks to the Circumetenea railway (Ferrovia Circumetnea) which goes from Catania stopping at most small towns around Etna and ending up at the coastal town of Giarre (perfect for lunch and museums dedicated to ancient times).
You can also stop at Randazzo which is a suggestive small town that connects the provinces of Messina and Catania in fascinating dark lava historic center.
If you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus out to the station and head either towards Catania or Giarre for the day.
You can plan an entire trip to Sicily simply by going from museum to museum which can be an effort. I suggest choosing a couple of major museums and trying to fit in other cultural activities such as the theater.
I’d defiantly check out Teatro Massimo if you are staying at Palermo, their 2015 season is filled with orchestral concerts, ballets and opera. This elaborate historical theater can be visited during the day with regular tours.
The same can be said of the Teatro Massimo Bellini at Catania.
Rather than rushing through Taormina during a hot summer rush with the rest of the tourists why not take in a show during the Taormina Fest and spend the night in this beautiful town which will no doubt be unforgettable.
If you want to book tickets I suggest you try to get these done early to avoid disappointment.
The cultural element in Sicily is best explored towards the end of the summer even better in September.
Enjoy your summer or early autumn/fall in Sicily and be sure to let me know how it went.
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 amajestic 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.
Daphne’s house: Giardini Naxos, Castelmola and Taormina
Taormina is a beautiful town to explore but it is terribly touristy and there are many other things to see in the vicinity.
Be sure to visit Casa Cuseni an historic house which became like a real character in one of the best books around about Sicily by the late great Daphne Phelps titled A House in Sicily. The book is a wonderful love letter to this Sicilian villa which became Daphne’s home after she inherited the grand old house built and designed by her talented Uncle, painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson from 1905 to 1907. It has been converted into a luxury bed and breakfast and museum.
Be sure to see a show at the Ancient Greek amphitheater at Taormina as it is one of the most famous postcard views of Etna and it will be an unforgettable memory to see an open air summer show of contemporary music or opera depending what may be on offer. Take the chance to do this now as the Taormina festival is suffering some major cuts in funding.
Be sure to explore the nearby towns who are just as beautiful as Taormina and with a lot less tourists Castelmola is above Taormina with positively vertiginous views. While Giardini Naxos below on the coast near Taormina, easily reached by cable car with some great beaches and cute little ‘Trattorie’ restaurants who offer great seafood at more reasonable prices than the tourist traps at Taormina!
Three Sicilian Cathedrals: Monreale, Palermo,Cefalu
If you love churches in the grand Norman style I suggest you do a mini tour of three of the most amazing cathedrals you will ever see.
The Cathedral of Monreale, outside of Palermo has the most spectacular mosaics including a giant depiction of Jesus Christ which covers one Dome of the grandiose church, filled with precious stones and gold.
The Palermo Cathedral is a mixture of Norman,Gothic,Baroque and Neoclassical styles with extensive mosaic decorations and art treasures.
The Cathedral- Basilica of Cefalu’, dates from 1131 and was originally built-in the Norman style. The building was erected by Roger the second the King of Sicily after he escaped from a storm sheltering on the Cefalu beach. The fortress-like character of the building, which, seen from a distance, rises above the medieval town and is a powerful statement of the Norman presence in Sicily.
Along the theme of mosaics is the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina which is an ancient Roman villa so well preserved you can walk through the different rooms and marvel at the beautiful mosaic decorated floors. It has recently been restored and as of 2006 there are new archeological excavations underway.
Visiting Piazza Armerina will give you an opportunity to explore the belly button of Sicily which has its own unique character, be sure to take a drive around the ancient towns like Enna, Piazza Armerina,Nicosia and Mistretta which will give you a sense of the timeless quality of Sicily.
Santo Stefano di Camastra
The most spectacular souvenir to take home from Sicily are the ceramics. There are many tourist traps around the island who claim to sell authentic pieces but you really cannot go wrong visiting the ceramic factories at Santo Stefano di Camastra.
Stores in the town vary in price and style but if you stick to the big warehouses on the other side of the town away from the autostrada exit you will be buying directly from the producers, with wholesale prices and international shipping!
Castello di Maniace (or Castello Nelson) is in the fertile countryside between Randazzo and Bronte.
An historical English property which was given to Admiral Lord Nelson as a gift after he rescued the Bourbon king of the two Sicilies, after Nelson helped him to escape certain death during a revolution in Naples in 1796.
I have blogged here about this places history before but to be honest and I am yet to make it out to see its beautiful grounds and museum, but can’t wait to get there this summer!
All tourists who visit the island must go to Mount Etna!
There are many ways of experiencing the volcano and the national park that surrounds it, from taking a tour bus from Catania to see the more touristy spots closer to its peak or take one of many walking tours.
You can go up via cable car, riding on four-wheel drive buses or on Sicilian donkeys. For the less adventurous types there are many places to explore away from the main peak like old extinguished craters and shopping at higher altitudes for retail therapy.
If you are staying at Catania a wonderful day trip would be to catch the Circumetnea railway which takes you from Catania around the base of Etna all the way to near the coast at Giarre or if you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus and see the landscape in the opposite direction towards Catania. It is a wonderful way of seeing Etna (here is some great information on TripAdvisor.)
I’ve always loved Randazzo at the foot of Mount Etna, it is a beautiful town made of suggestive lava stone, filled with historic buildings, castles and museums.
On Sundays there is a hug market which I love to visit with a bit of everything from local cuisine, antiques, to fashion.
My favorite gem at Randazzo is the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. It’s exterior is a contrast between intricate white lace and charcoal lava stone while inside is filled with art and the most outstanding stained glass windows.
The Aeolian Islands are a popular way of passing the summer at the beach. There are seven islands along the Tyrrhenian coast in the province in Messina, all of volcanic origin including: Alicudi, Filicudi, Panarea, Stromboli, Salina, Lipari and Volcano.
Lipari and Volcano are the most popular and biggest islands with great beaches and spas to explore even if food and drink can get costly as everything is imported from the mainland.
The smaller islands are less touristy and just as spectacular. There are many mini cruises available to explore them even if it can get uncomfortable in the summer humidity, it is defiantly worth the trouble.
Ancient Tyndaris became a Greek colony in three hundred and ninety-six B.C but had been settled during the Bronze age in about fifteen hundred B.C. Its strategic location looks out on to the Bay of Patti along the northern coast stretching up to Cape Milazzo which made it a perfect post to maintain control of the waters between the Eolian Islands and Messina.
The Basilica of the Madonna of Tindari is modern, work on it began in nineteen fifty-seven after the old church was unable to cope with the influx of pilgrims to the site. The main attraction is the miraculous statue of the Black Madonna. The sculpture itself is quite modest yet history has given it a mysterious past and has bestowed upon it many colourful legends.
According to the tradition it was brought to Tindari by a cargo that ship was returning from the east filled with precious merchandise and treasures. The statuette had been salvaged from the Iconoclastic wars which saw the destruction of many religious icons. As the ship sailed through the Tyrrhenian sea its journey was interrupted by a powerful storm, which forced the ship to stop in the Marinello bay near Tindari.
It is said the statue chose it’s own home, the ship remained trapped in the bay and became free only after the sculpture was unloaded.
The statue has a magnetic quality to it. The whole church draws you towards the sculpture and it is the main focus for pilgrims. For me it is its ancient quality that creates an undeniable mystique and well worth the trip to this somewhat isolated spot along the coast from Messina.
During the summer the road up to Tindari is closed but there is a bus every ten minutes or so and there are loads of souvenir shops all the way up. If you want to buy religious items like rosary beads the first shop directly next to the church is run by the religious community and profits go directly to the church.
Messina is a lovely place to visit, in the summer it is not as chaotic and confusing as other Sicilian metropolises and there is always something to see and do. There are many museums and art galleries to visit and it is easy to stroll around the historical centre and discover many churches and beautiful palaces. I recommend climbing the bell tower near the Duomo, visiting the permanent exhibition downstairs in the Duomo which features wonderful historical artworks and treasures associated with the church and the celebration dedicated to the Virgin Mary which has a particular strong attachment with the city.
Messina is friendly for pedestrians and there is a tram service through the main part of town. Piazza Cairoli is an oasis in the confusion of peak hour traffic and is also the best place to rest and do some high-class shopping, the boutiques begin in the square and continue either side of the tramline. Don’t forget to visit the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele which is practically next door to the town hall for a surprising glance at an original fresco by Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso depicting the myth of Cola Pese on the theater’s inner dome.
The best bookstore in town is Libreria Ciofalo on the other side of the Town Hall (municipio) and has a tempting array of Sicilian travel, history and literature.
It’s also easy to catch a ferry over to Calabria to explore Reggio Calabria and the main continent of Italy. Catching the ferry back over to Messina during the night is a magical experience.
Val di Noto
A wonderful way to while away your time in Sicily is to simply get out on the road. Why not hire a car and explore southeastern Sicily visiting the eight baroque cities which make up the Noto Valley. Create your own itinerary through Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania,Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli who are all UNESCO world heritage sites.
I’m a huge fan of the do it your self road trip and this area is easily enough navigated by car and there are endless resources online for suggestions on what to see. I suggest to do your research and try to book local bed and breakfast for memorable experiences as b&b owners will give you the best advice on what to see and where to eat. I have recently discovered Airbnb a great site with links to locals from all over the world who rent out rooms, houses and apartments to visitors which is a wonderful resources for travelers.
Another great idea for those who love theatre is to check out the summer program at the Syracuse ancient greek theatre, every year they offer a wonderful array of ancient greek classics, this year for example there is a lavish production of Verdi’s Aida.
Yet another UNESCO heritage site in Sicily is The Valle dei Templi or Valley of the Temples it is an archaeological site in Agrigento in southern Italy and contains outstanding examples of ancient Greece art.
The archaeological park and landscape of the Valley of the Temples is the largest archaeological site in the world with some 1,300 hectares.
The Valley includes remains of seven temples all in Doric style including: the Temples of Juno, Concordia, Heracles, Accra’s, Zeus, Castor and Pollux, Vulcan, and Asclepius.
The best way to experience The Valley of Temples is to buy yourself some local delicacies like cheeses, bread, olives, fruit and vegetables and a nice bottle of red wine and enjoy a rustic picnic beneath these wonderful ruins of the ancient world.
The western coast of Sicily is filled with wonderful seaside towns to explore from Trapani with it’s windmills and salt producing artificial lakes, to Marsala where the dark sweet wine of the same name originated, up to the mountain top castle like fortress town of Erice. From the hills you can glimpse the Egadi Islands, Tunisia and Africa.
This part of Sicily is an agricultural region filled with grape vines, olive trees, wheat and cotton fields which dominate the countryside and the coast provides salt, tuna and mackerel for consumers all around the world.
Summertime is the perfect time of year to explore this part of Sicily, enjoying the sea air and sipping mildly chilled Marsala.