Southern Castles between Syracuse and Ragusa
When we talk about castles, we immediately think of the classic fortress built on inaccessible heights, a magnificent structure surrounded by giant walls… But what if they weren’t all like this?
There are more than 200 castles in Sicily, all different in age and style. So let’s explore the best-preserved fortresses in the south of Sicily!
If you are coming from the north-east or from the Etna area the first stop on your journey is Augusta (Syracuse). The Castle of Augusta is set on the small peninsula known as ‘Terra vecchia’. The medieval fortress was probably built on top of an already existing watching tower. The construction of the castle was commissioned by Emperor Frederick II of Swabia in 1232. The stop in Augusta also includes Forte Vittoria, which is another little fortification you can visit. If you search for it on the map you will notice that it is…. surrounded by the sea! Forte Vittoria (together with Forte Garcia, now closed) is set on a small island and you can only reach it by boat. This fortification was built at the end of the 16th century as a defence against pirate attacks. The castle is open every day, but to visit it you would have to send a request to the Augusta Harbour Office and make a reservation within ten days before the date of the visit.
Let’s move on to Syracuse, our next stop is Ortigia. The historic centre of the town is a small island. The impressive Swabian Castle, better known as Maniace Castle, is located on a strip of land overlooking the Porto Grande of Syracuse. Also this castle was built by Frederick II of Swabia between 1232 and 1239, but the name ‘Maniace’ derives from George Maniace, a Byzantine general. The city in 1038 AD was under Arab rule and Maniace reconquered the town. According to some, Maniace began the fortification of the area; according to others, the name of the castle comes from the two bronze battering rams that Frederick II placed at the entrance (and that Maniace brought with him on his expedition). The castle recalls Arab architecture models, it has a massive structure of 51 metres on each side, is about 12 metres high, and has four towers at the corners. On the west side is the entrance gate, with a beautiful ogive arch depicting zoomorphic figures. You must take the opportunity to go inside and wonder through the huge halls of the building, which are impressive, to say the least.
Let’s get back on the road and head for the southern point of Sicily: Portopalo di Capo Passero. Here we’ll visit another fortress surrounded by the sea, it’s the Fort of Capo Passero, set on the same-name island. The castle was originally owned by the Spanish Crown, it was built as a military outpost against pirate attacks in the late 1500s. Why not put yourself in the shoes of the ancient Saracens, board small boats that leave from the mainland (there are many organised tours) and go to conquer the Fort! There’s an enchanting path leading to the fort, while walking you will see an amazing sunny terrace surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea (on the other side, invisible and silent, there is Africa). Events and shows take place in the fort sometimes. You might even be lucky enough to witness something truly unique!
Let’s move north again, towards Modica. As we walk through the narrow Baroque streets of the city of chocolate, we will see that the Castello dei Conti dominates the entire avenue. For centuries the castle has been the centre of political and administrative power of the town and it was a real fortified citadel, but what remains today is a polygonal tower (14th century), a section of embankment and a mullioned window embedded in a 19th century structure. In the courtyard, you can visit the medieval prisons, the Church of the Madonna del Medagliere (built on the ruins of the older Church of San Leonardo), the ruins of the Church of San Cataldo (the private chapel of the Count and of the Governor) and finally three bell niches, where the bells rang to announce the hours to the city.
Now the time has come to step inside… a movie! Let’s discover the magnificence and elegance of the Castello di Donnafugata, so fascinating that it has been chosen for several movie sets (from Visconti to the Taviani brothers, but also for the TV series Il commissario Montalbano. The Castle is a wonderful aristocratic mansion from the late 19th century, it covers an area of approximately 2500 m2. On the main façade you can see a stunning Gothic-Venetian loggia, with eight pointed balconies; each one gives access to the large terrace below the loggia. The three-storey mansion has 122 rooms, about 20 of them are open to the public. As you enter, you will feel as if you have stepped back in time, to the era of “The Leopard” ( Il Gattopardo ) . Outside the palace, there is a huge and monumental park of 8 hectares with more than 1500 plant species and amusements. Guests were entertained in the circular temple, or in the coffee house, they could visit some artificial caves with fake stalactites or playing in the famous stone labyrinth, built with dry-stone masonry, typical of the Ragusa area. If you would like to search and discover other castles, you can continue towards the centre of Sicily or straight to the west.