Castiglione di Sicillia

Castiglione di Sicilia, the Sicilian jewel in Alcantara Valley

Castiglione di Sicilia is a medieval Italian town of 3.089 inhabitants in the metropolitan city of Catania in Sicily.

The town is part of the circuit of the most beautiful villages in Italy and the territory of the municipality of Castiglione di Sicilia has been declared of “considerable public importance”.

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Named “il quastallum” (the castle) by a well-known Arab geographer, Castiglione di Sicilia stands on a hill located in the middle of the Alcantara Valley and the Etna Park, offering, to anyone who decides to go there, breath-taking landscapes and views among lush orchards, citrus groves and lava flows.

Dominated by the Arabs before and became the royal city of Normans and Swabians later, the village is renowned for two particular honours conferred on it: the bronze medal for civil merit relating to its participation in the Second World War, and the possibility of competing for the title of village most beautiful in Italy. Its beauty, in fact, meant that a regional decree of 1994 declared the town as a place of considerable public importance.

Before the arrival of the Greeks, who arrived in Sicily in 734 BC. to found Naxos, the whole island was inhabited by peoples that historians call Siculi or Sicani. These had an advanced civilization, lived in villages, knew pottery, worshiped, and buried corpses. Some archaeological excavations in the San Nicola district near the Alcantara river, as well as numerous other sporadic finds, including tombs, millstones, forts … show that the entire valley was densely populated in the Neolithic and especially in the Bronze Age. Many caves dug into the sandstone were used as dwellings or tombs, such as those in the Pietra Pizzicata district, where a prehistoric village of the ancient Castiglionesi who had to move to the hill of today’s town threatened by other peoples is still visible, and founded a new village.

In 710 BC, the Greeks went up the Akesine river and encamped in the Tirone district. Later they arrived in the village of the Castiglionesi, which they occupied as a fortress. Around 705 BC they left for Randazzo. In Roman times the city was occupied at the foot of the hill as a camp and afterwards it was occupied by the Greeks-Byzantines and the Arabs who raised crocodiles in the Akesine river.

Castiglione has obtained, in addition to the recognition that has led it to be a permanent presence in the list of the most fascinating villages in Italy, also another recognition: this urban reality is known as the “City of wine”, both because it is an obligatory stop in the beautiful itinerary of the Etna wine route, both because it is one of the Sicilian towns that fights most to promote this local excellence.

Let’s start our tour in this unique and splendid Sicilian medieval town!

 

Castle of Lauria

The Castle of Lauria develops on two levels of sandstone rocks with horizontal positions, whose natural conformation has been exploited for the defence. Some arches overcome the vertical fractures of the boulder to give continuity to the curtain and the buildings that lean against it. A large staircase, once completely carved into the rock, leads to the ogival entrance door. It is dug directly into the rock and the rest is made of regular ashlars of local stone (sandstone and lava). The keystone, in the shape of a lozenge, is in lava stone.

After this door opens a hall, completely dug into the rock, on the roof of which there are two circular holes, or machicolations, used to throw stones, hot oil and water from the latrines to enemies who were able to go beyond the entrance door . A small staircase carved into the rock takes us to the courtyard, where we immediately find ourselves in front of the large limestone boulder that represents the highest and oldest part of the castle. At first glance, you notice a large cavity carved into the rock, what remains of the rock church of Santa Barbara, perhaps the first artifact of the manor. Unfortunately, today the stairs that were to lead to the small church and some frescoes that probably decorated the small apse are no longer observed. Originally probably a ‘laurel’ of a hermit, the church later had an important religious function in the life of the Castle, so much so that it is tradition that even San Filippo d’Agira stopped there to pray in passing.

Two roads branch off from this sort of central courtyard, one on the right leading to a sort of panoramic terrace overlooking the town, and the other on the left, leading to the ancient stables and the cliff above.

The exploration of this extraordinary place starts by taking this ‘road’ to the left, and climbing another staircase carved into the rock, which leads to the highest level, we reach the isolated quadrangular tower (called Solecchia), dated, with uncertainty, to Norman times. Of this building, which has a quadrangular plan, about a third of the original structure is preserved, clearly showing the gashes caused by the earthquakes of 1693 and 1908. It is believed that this tower was the mint where coins were minted, also if there are no documents to support this hypothesis, it could also be the place where the feudal lord sheltered himself from the sun after having almost entirely completed his vast fiefdom (hence the name Solecchia).

It is certain that even today the construction of this tower is shrouded in mystery, perhaps only an excavation and a more in-depth study could lead us to the dating and to reveal its secrets. The value of a watchtower is however a more than accepted thesis.

 

Cuba of Santa Domenica

The so-called cuba of Santa Domenica is a rural chapel located in the countryside near Castiglione di Sicilia, not far from the Alcantara river. Hastily attributed to the Byzantines and erroneously associated with Basilian monasticism, a dating between the seventh century and the ninth century had been fantasized throughout the twentieth century, but an accurate observation of the building technique, of the spatial, structural and conceptual composition , together with the analysis of the territorial context, it grants a more opportune and reasonable temporal collocation to the historical period between the Islamic and Norman domination, between the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Whatever its origin, due to its uniqueness, antiquity and beauty, the building was declared a national monument from 31 August 1909 thanks to the study of the ruin carried out by Sebastiano Agati.

Also called «’a cubula» by the locals, it has long been thought of the cuba of Santa Domenica that it was the most important Byzantine cuba present in Sicily. However, the structural and conceptual proximity to the church of Santi Pietro e Paolo d’Agrò today suggests that the building is a reduction in the square of the basilica, a hypothesis supported by the presence of three naves, a transept and apsidal chapel constituting the typical “tau” shape of the longitudinal churches, according to the Latin rite, in fact constituting a unicum that cannot be associated with any well-defined architectural typology, like most of the medieval cult buildings present along the Alcantara Valley.

The material with which the church is built is varied: limestone and metamorphic rock, lava blocks, mortar, and terracotta materials. Internally it must have been rich in Byzantine-style frescoes, now lost. The roof and flooring would have been in terracotta.

The rigidly geometric building is based on essentially cubic forms in which the typical elements of the longitudinal structures are enclosed. So Santa Domenica has a Latin cross with a square plan, dome and an apse, whose light comes from has a mullioned window facing east so that, according to tradition, during the Easter vigil the light of the full moon entering the building through the opening began Easter.

The interiors develop around a single almost central cubic body closed by a pseudo-muqarnas vault, supported by a wave of sails, forerunner or inspired by the vaults of Islamic architecture, partly covered by minimal traces of the plaster originals that highlight the shapes, which may have justified the local name of cubula (perhaps, from the medieval Latin cupula, barrel), grafted onto a quadrangular body, leaning against the facade on the west side and supported by two mighty pillars on the opposite side with a capital with simple (bull) pseudo-Tuscan molding.

 

Alcantara Gorges

The Alcantara Gorges, also known as Larderia Gorges, are in the Alcantara Valley in Sicily where the Peloritani mountain range ends between the municipalities of Castiglione di Sicilia and Motta Camastra.

They are gorges up to 25 meters high and 2 meters wide in the narrowest points and 4-5 meters in the widest points. The natural canyon has been dug over thousands of years by the water that has gradually brought to light the lava body, with typical vertical cracks.

The Alcantara river flows between lava stone which forms its characteristic riverbed. On the territory of Motta Camastra in the locality of Fondaco Motta there is the most impressive and famous gorge of Alcantara, more than 6 km long and easily accessible for the first 3.

The peculiarity of this gorge consists in the structure of the walls, created by basaltic lava flows (poor in silicon but rich in iron, magnesium, and calcium). The lava then cooled very quickly creating pentagonal and hexagonal prismatic shapes, which recall the molecular structure of the materials that constitute it.

The appearance of the river in the section of the Gorges is believed to date back to the magma flows of the last 8,000 years. The most recent theses identify three successive flows from cracks and openings in ​​Monte Dolce, in the lower-middle Etna side; the flows appear superimposed along the left wall of the river.

The oldest flow is the one that reached Capo Schisò, on the sea. The columnar basalts visible in the Gorges are those of the less ancient flow and would be the product of the rapid cooling caused by the presence of river water; they form prismatic structures of different configurations, like a “stack”, a “harp”, with a radial course. The vertical, “organ pipe” formations in some cases reach 30 m.

Since 2017, two new trails have been planned to discover the wonderful Alcantara Gorges: the first is the Eleonora’s Path which begins in the Botanical and Geological Park, where the beautiful views of the canyons follow one another for over 600 meters. This route includes the descent to the beach by lift. The second is the Path of the Mediterranean Garden, which starts from the Path of Eleonora, crosses a luxuriant Sicilian citrus grove, and leads to the Phyto depuration basins, where you can learn everything about the natural water purification system.

 

Etna Park

The Etna Park, the first to be established among the Sicilian Parks with the Decree of the President of the Region of March 17, 1987, with its 59,000 hectares has the primary task of protecting a unique natural environment and the extraordinary landscape that surrounds the Europe’s highest active volcano and to promote the environmentally friendly development of local populations and communities.

With its woods, paths, unrepeatable panoramas, typical products, the historic centres of its municipalities, the Park is a captivating invitation for travellers and lovers of nature, food and wine, sports in every season of the year. outdoors in unrepeatable scenarios.

The Park is a magnificent area of ​​eastern Sicily, which aims to enhance and protect at the same time this truly unique environment in the world that highlights the strength of a mighty nature, which however can also be very generous with the overflowing fertility of its land , with the meekness and generosity of the “Muntagna”.

The territory has been divided into four zones, which correspond to different levels of protection, as established by the legislator. In the “integral reserve” area (zone “A”), nature is preserved in its integrity, limiting human intervention to a minimum; in the general reserve area (zone “B”), protection is combined with the development of traditional economic activities: it is characterized by small agricultural plots and is marked by splendid examples of ancient peasant houses, very significant examples of rural architecture; in the area of ​​”controlled development protection” (pre-Park) consisting of zones “C” and “D”, which is considerably anthropized, an economic development compatible with respect for the landscape and the environment is pursued.

At the center of the ecosystem of the Park is Mount Etna, with its lithological boundary of 250 km, the height of about 3350 m. and an area of ​​approximately 1260 square kilometers. Twenty municipalities fall within the Park territory (Adrano, Belpasso, Biancavilla, Bronte, Castiglione di Sicilia, Giarre, Linguaglossa, Maletto, Mascali, Milo, Nicolosi, Pedara, Piedimonte Etneo, Ragalna, Randazzo, Santa Maria di Licodia, Sant’Alfio, Trecastagni, Viagrande, Zafferana Etnea), with a population of about two hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants.

 

Church of SS. Apostles Peter and Paul

The church stands within what was once a medieval defensive system located at the top of the hill on which Castiglione di Sicilia stands. The tower, which at the top houses the spire of the bell tower and whose lower part forms the apse of the church, was probably once a keep, belonging to one of the four castles built by Roger II. It shows as the original element of its construction the apse and the mighty tower in lava and local sandstone blocks which, with its band of tubular hanging arches and floral tiles scattered in disorder on the walls, testify to the time of its construction that goes from Norman period to the early Swabian age, although a tombstone, now disappeared and local historical details, bore the date 1105. Many benefactors have worked over the centuries to enrich the Matrix with precious objects, sacred furnishings, vestments and works of art.

Upon entering the main door, four large canvases, placed on the side altars, immediately catch your eye. The first depicts the Gospel episode of the Mother of Zebedee who asks Jesus to have her children, James and John, sit in the Kingdom of Heaven, one on her right and the other on her left; the second the Conversion of Saint Paul painted in 1917 by Paolo Leonardi; the third the bishop San Biagio; the fourth the Immaculate Conception. In the two arms on the right and left are the chapels of the SS. Crucifix carved in a single piece of orange in the seventeenth century, the second of the fact that Christ is preserved there in mystical species in a golden tabernacle, dominated by an expressive figure of the Redeemer.

Above the arch of the central nave, however, in 1951 a large fresco by G. Licata and F. Contraffatto was created, which depicts Jesus Christ in the act of delivering the keys to St. Peter, while the apostles including St. Paul, the they make circles.

Finally, in addition to the baptismal font due to the archpriest Gioeni, the valuable portraits of the archpriests and the most illustrious priests of Castiglione, placed in the sacristy above a valuable eighteenth-century piece of furniture, and the sundial, the only one existing in the valley of the Alcantara, built by the Palermo astronomer Temistocle Zona in 1882.

 

Basilica of the Madonna della Catena

Its construction began in 1655, following a landslide that affected the ancient church dedicated to the same saint and located just outside the village along the stream of San Giacomo, within which the devotion of the Madonna had flourished since the 11th, which arrived in Castiglione almost immediately after the miracle that occurred in Palermo in 1392.

But it was only starting from 1612, following the miraculous sweat of the statue, which occurred while the citizens worked hard for the redemption of the mere and mixed empire, that his devotion was consolidated.

This small construction was, between the end of the seventeenth century and the middle of the following one, enlarged and embellished with a monumental Baroque facade, built by Baldassarre Greco, who was also responsible for the statue of San Filippo from 1744, placed in the niche right. The statue of San Giacomo, on the left, is due to Tommaso Amato, who made it in 1709 shortly before the mosaics of S. Antonio Abate.

Between 1860 and 1880, the only nave of the church was transformed into a Latin cross and crowned by a large and imposing dome. At the beginning of this century, however, it was again modified and enlarged, assuming the current shape of a Greek cross. Given the great importance that it has assumed for several centuries for the popular devotion to the Madonna, in 1986 it was elevated to a minor basilica, for which the archpriest Don Gaetano Cannavò and above all Msgr. Gaetano Alibrandi, apostolic nuncio of Ireland.

Inside, there are valuable works of art. Firstly the statue of the Madonna of the chain stands out, in white marble, weighing about seven quintals. The author is uncertain, but he certainly belongs to the Gagini school. The documents and the hypothesis all focus on Giacomo and Antonio, sons of Antonello. The singular grace of the work, the refinement of the faces of the mother and child and the body of the mantle, suggest a Michelangelo influence. Giacomo Gagini, in fact, was a disciple of the great Florentine artist for a few years.

In honour of the Madonna, a sumptuous feast takes place every year, which is one of the most heartfelt in the high Alcantara valley. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it took place the day after that of San Giacomo, that is, July 26, while from 1784 it is celebrated on the second Sunday of August. In 1809, following a lava flow that devastated part of the municipal territory, after a public vote that provided for an annual fast, the so-called votive festival was born, which was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter, but which since 1848 , we do not know for what reasons, it was moved to the first Sunday in May.

Among the other works of art that the church preserves are a wooden Crucifix from the 18th century, a S. Margherita Maria Alacoque from 1890 by Pietro Vanni, a San Marco Evangelista and a Pentecost made in 1779 by Francesco Gramignani.

The stuccos are also valuable, due to Giovanni Pannucci di Bronte who created them between 1886 and 1889.

 

Church of Sant’Antonio

It rises in one of the most characteristic and oldest quarters of Castiglione, that of the Cameni. It was begun to build in 1601, when the old church, which stood near the San Giacomo stream, was ruined by a landslide. Lacking the means to achieve it, the rectors thought of resorting to the contributions of devoted people and above all of the members of the brotherhood of the Holy Souls of Purgatory, which had been founded on 20 October 1605 with a privilege of the archbishop of Messina F. Bonaventura, patriarch of Constantinople.

But the brotherhood also known as the Bianchi or the Trentatrč because it could only have such several members chosen from among the aristocracy, was soon dissolved and constituted that of Sant ‘Antonio abate.

At the end of 1600, the church was embellished and enriched above all with mosaic marbles made by Tommaso Amato and with canvases by Tuccari, a painter from Messina.

The concave façade, ennobled by classical mouldings, gives the whole a harmonious touch of lines and shapes that are not affected by the excesses of the Baroque, perhaps because it was due to local craftsmen who made use of Roman models. The bell tower, delimited in the architectural structures of lava stone, stands out with its bulbous dome compared to the rest of the church, very well suited to the frontispieces of the buildings surrounding the madwoman, giving the architectural complex lightness and grace.

The interior of the church, with a single nave, with a side chapel offers a serene, luminous, and harmonious overall vision. Among the polychrome mosaics, beautiful and expressive is the high altar, in which the medallion of the frontal depicting Saint Anthony the Abbot, the stupendous tabernacle, the twisted columns and the lateral pilasters, in addition to the two small shelves placed on its sides stand out. the one on the left sketches a parrot devouring fruit, the one on the right a hunting scene.

Some, canvases, represent the life of the holy anchorite. In the first on the left, Saint Anthony and Saint Paul the hermit appear seated at the entrance to a tomb carved into the rock, in the second the Saint tempted by the demonic is depicted who appears in the form of a woman, in the third the Madonna protects the journey of two friars. Two other canvases depict the Archangel Michael defeating Satan and a guardian angel holding a child by the hand.

Among other noteworthy works of art is certainly the wooden statue of Saint Anthony, due to Nicolō Bagnano.

The confessional wooden pulpit decorated with many friezes and engravings is also valuable.

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