Militello in Val di Catania

 “Sicily is the country of oranges, whose fragrance fills the air in springtime….But what constitutes, above all, a land unique and most interesting in this world, is that it is, from one end to the other, a strange and divine museum of architecture” (Guy de Maupassant)

This quote by Guy de Maupassant seems to fit perfectly for Militello in Val di Noto.

This beautiful town, which has preserved the original name – then replaced by Militello Val di Catania – until the Unification of Italy, cloaks you with the charm of its outstanding, monuments route. Not for nothing it is in the UNESCO World Heritage List  among the baroque cities of the Val di Noto.

Palazzo Liggieri ex Corbino-Reforgiato sec XVIII - ph Gianluca Garufo Photography

Liggieri ex Corbino-Reforgiato Palace 18th century – ph. Gianluca Garufo Photography

A walk in a sunny morning, takes us immediately into a dimension full of art and beauty, surrounded by domes and high towers and countless churches and palaces facades, silent witnesses of an illustrious past, more suited to a European court than to a fief of the Sicilian hinterland.

Everything becomes more understandable looking at its history, starting from its name, which for some scholars comes from Militum tellus (land of soldiers), owing to some Roman soldiers who sought refuge in these lands during the outbreak of a malaria epidemic in the swamp of Lentini.

Santuario Madonna della Stella - Sarcofago di Blasco II Barresi (1465) Militello

Sarcophagus of Blasco II Barresi 1465 – ph. Gianluca Garufo Photography

But the most interesting period, from the historical and artistic point of view, is undoubtedly the one going  from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, during which the city, formerly a fief of the powerful Barresi family, became the possession of the Princes of Branciforte.  It was under Francesco Branciforte, who had married the niece of the emperor Charles V, Donna Giovanna of Austria, that the city grew splendor and power.

Former Abbey of San Benedetto – ph. Mario Sibilla Guzzone

A monuments route with dozens of palaces and over twenty churches, largely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693, some  of them hiding unexpected treasures, as the Church of San Benedetto,  a former Abbey, that keeps magnificent furnishings and sumptuous polychrome marble altars  and lays in Piazza del Municipio, the third most important square in Sicily, after those of Catania and Monreale.

Going on along Corso Umberto, our path meets the Chiesa Madre San Nicolò – SS. Salvatore, a jewel of Baroque architecture. Its façade, bell tower and dome, one of the first to be made in reinforced concrete of Sicily, make it imposing and majestic. Inside it , beautiful paintings and stuccos belonging to Serpotta’s School  and other valuable works, including a statue of Bagnasco from Palermo. Housed in the vast crypts below, there is the precious Museum of Sacred Art.

Chiesa Madre San Nicolò SS. Salvatore – ph. Mario Sibilla Guzzone

A little farther on, after  Vittorio Emanuele Square, there is the 16th century Madonna della Catena Oratory, which survived the 1693 earthquake. A very elegant church with a feminine cult: 13 statues in stucco and gold, dedicated to the most revered Virgin Martyrs of Sicily.

Madonna della Catena - ph

Madonna della Catena Oratory

Continuing along Corso Umberto we find the Church of  SS Sacramento al Circolo and, just in front of it,  the Church of San Domenico of the Friars Preachers,  now used as an auditorium, and the former convent which today houses the Archives, the library and the Civic Museum.

Natività in ceramica policroma (Andrea della Robbia) al Santuario Maria Santissima della Stella

Glazed ceramics Nativity by Andrea della Robbia

At the end of the street, in the large square, we find the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Stella, rebuilt from scratch after the ruins of the old Santa Maria la Vetere. Some important works were moved from the first church to the second one, such as the glazed ceramics Nativity, by Andrea della Robbia from Firenze and the sarcophagus of Blasco II Barresi in international Gothic; the bas-relief of Nicolò Speciale by Francesco Laurana and the Triptych attributed to Antonello da Messina, are instead kept in the Museo del Tesoro inside the same religious building.

Sanctuary of the Madonna della Stella – ph. Antonio Maugeri

The list of churches and palaces is still long and fascinating. Each  building has its own particular feature that makes it unique and different from any other, such as the church dedicated to the SS Angeli Custodi, with its beautiful eighteenth century majolica floor, or the Church of Anime Sante del Purgatorio, dedicated to the Saints Gregory and Vito, with rich altars and a magnificent view that sweeps over the landscape outside.

chiesa confraternale delle Anime Sante del Purgatorio (1613) - ph. Gianluca Garufo Photography

Church of Anime Sante del Purgatorio (1613) – ph. Gianluca Garufo Photography

And that’s not all: in every corner a curiosity, like the Fountain of the nymph Zizza dating back to 1607, laying in the courtyard of the fourteenth-century Barresi-Branciforte Castle, of which we can still see two cylindrical towers, the rooms of the oil mills and the south rampart, just at the end of the evocative street Porta della Terra. This is also full of surprises and littered with magnificent palaces, such as the ones belonging to the Princes of Bellaprima and to  the Majorana della Nicchiara, the ancestors of the famous scientist, just to name a few.

Fontana della Zizza - ph. Nunzio Boccadifuoco Photography

Fountain of the nymph Zizza (1607) – ph. Nunzio Boccadifuoco Photography

When it comes to castles, fantasy flies to intrigues, brutal murders and bloody struggles for power, and the Barresi Branciforte’s  Residence is no less so:  in 1473 it was the theatre of the drama of Donna Aldonza Santapau and her alleged lover, Piero Caruso,  known as Bellopede. Unjustly accused of adultery she was strangled by her servants while he was launched from the Castle tower.  Stories of poisonings, parricides and suspicious deaths, like that of Don Francesco Branciforte, buried in the church of San Benedetto, the former abbey.

Atrium of the castle – ph. Mario Sibilla Guzzone

But the most singular monument is the ancient Church of Santa Maria la Vetere, founded by the Normans in 1090 and then damaged by the earthquake of 1693. Today we can admire the right aisle and its extraordinary entrance portal, surmounted by a sculpted lunette, probably by Antonello Gagini, in late Gothic style and by a canopy with columns resting on the back of lions.

Santa Maria La Vetere - ph. Massimo Calcagno

Church of Santa Maria la Vetere – ph. Massimo Calcagno

Not only the two main festivals in honour of Madonna della Stella, on September 8th, and of SS. Salvatore on August 18th, always in competition between them, but also the evocative rites of the Holy Week and the various minor feasts, testify how the inhabitants of Militello are attached to their religious and folk traditions, and such occasions give them the opportunity to express their feelings and beliefs, in an always mild climate.

Sagra della Mostarda - ph.

Festival of Mustard and prickly pears

Our travel experience in Militello Val di Catania, cannot end without having tasted the local specialties and, why not, without some shopping to take home:

Militello sweet specialties – ph. Mario Scibilla Guzzone

the Cassatelle della Zia Monaca, shortbread cookies filled with almonds, jams, liqueur, cinnamon and cloves;  the prickly pears mustard, dried or fresh, celebrated in all its variations in the famous Festival of Mustard and prickly pears, and still the “fasciatelli“, the pipirata, the “muscardini“, the “cannoli” filled with ricotta cheese, the “scacciata” (a sheet of fragrant bread dough stuffed with wild vegetables, olives, sausages or other ingredients) and the red oranges of Sicily. Here the almond or lemon flavored granita is still made as in ancient times.

Cascate del fiume Oxena - ph. Massimo Calcagno

Cascades of the river Oxena – ph. Massimo Calcagno

Needless to describe everything, these typically local delights deserve a taste, as well as the visit of the city and the sun-drenched countryside that surrounds it as a guardian of corners of paradise like, for example, the cascades of the Oxena, the river that crosses the territory. Take a time for a slow visit, give yourself the opportunity to enjoy it, as well as all the precious places of Sicily, that well worth a visit even if outside the traditional and most famous tourist circuits.