Before describing Montalbano Elicona, in the province of Messina, something should be said about the meaning of its name. There are two possible explanations. According to the first, the name derives from "albanus" meaning white mountain, perhaps referring to snow, since the village is more than 900 metres above sea level. According to the other school of thought, the name comes from the Arabic "al-bana", that is, "excellent place". In fact, Montalbano Elicona really is an excellent place, starting with its castle, located on top of the hill, which you can reach through the historic centre's narrow alleys
The castle is a good place to start: it overlooks the town centre and was originally a fortress. Built during the period of Swabian Aragonese domination, it underwent several modifications over the centuries, until Frederick II of Aragon turned into a real royal residence in 1300, with lavish external decorations and treasures within.
Visit the beautiful Byzantine Cappella Reale and the two museums, one devoted to hand-to-hand combat, with an exhibition displaying all the armaments of a valiant, chivalrous knight, and the other devoted to medieval musical instruments with an almost tangible atmosphere of those ancient courts.
Along the medieval streets which lead to the castle, it’s worth stopping at the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. This church’s Romanesque façade is in contrast to the very unusual combination of different styles within, from Catalan architecture to Renaissance decoration. The marble statue of Santa Caterina, attributed to the Gagini school, is particularly worth mentioning.
The Duomo, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta and San Nicolò Vescovo, is an impressive building which looks out over the piazza across a spectacular staircase. Inside, you can admire the marble statue of San Nicolò, with a relief on its base showing the saint’s life, a work by the sculptor Giacomo Gagini. The most important works include a wooden cross from the 1400s and a depiction of the Last Supper, by the artist Guido Reni. The original Duomo building dates back to the 9th–10th centuries but the cathedral has undergone various modifications, both structural and stylistic. The bell tower, for example, is later, and the subdivision of the church into naves was not part of the original plan. Pause and take a look at the beautiful roof trusses and rose windows, and the friezes which enliven its façade.
From the castle, walk through the historic centre’s streets and alleys and get to know the village, its traditions and its gastronomy.
Taste its typical specialties, such as the fava bean soup, fave a maccu, and the macaroni. Then there’s the cheese: fresh ricotta, the saltier ricotta salata and baked “infornata” ricotta, and provola cheeses, including those in the shape of animals, i cavalluzzi di tumma. There are simple dishes to try: pasta and beans with wild fennel and scurcilla (pork rinds) or with u sutta e suvra (meat and lard), and macaroni in a pork sauce with baked, grated ricotta cheese.
The ricotta-based desserts are a real treat, but so are the artisan-made hazelnuts desserts. I biscotti cu ciminu are aniseed biscuits with a strong, distinct taste which are part of the Easter festivities.
The traditional disk for the mid-August feast is pasta ‘ncasciata flavoured with a veal and lamb sauce, crumbled meatballs, aubergines, egg and breadcrumbs. Another typical dish, known by the wonderful name of lempi e trori (thunder and lightning), is prepared with boiled and seasoned beans, wild peas, corn, lentils and wheat. There’s the excellent frittuli, mixed pork with lard, boiled with the pork rinds, belly, lungs, heart and liver of the same animal.
Next, you should visit Sicily’s Stonehenge. The Argimusco plateau is a magical, mysterious place near Montalbano, on the northern border of the Bosco di Malabotta. A group of large quartz sandstone rocks, with strange, evocative shapes, stand here over a thousand metres above sea level. Some popular beliefs associate this site with the celebrated Stonehenge and ancient ritual activities related to astronomy. Others, however, assert that the origin of these megaliths is completely natural: wind erosion and other atmospheric events have produced the curious symbolic and human forms. Whatever the truth is, it’s still worth venturing out for a walk in this breathtaking natural environment.
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If you find the idea of exploring the unknown face of Sicily fascinating, the There’s more to Sicily than sea: Raccuja, Floresta and Montalbano Elicona route is just the thing for you!