On 20 August 1535, after three long days at sea, Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, landed in Trapani: this is the date of the start of the voyage that led him and will lead us on a journey into the interior of Sicily.
The city of Trapani had around fifteen thousand inhabitants and was defined as the 'key to the kingdom': its port was teeming with people, business, commercial and military exchanges. Walking around the port area, one can still hear the sound of a port in full activity and the soul of a rich and vital city that draws its profits from the sea.
The emperor stayed for a few days, and that’s how long we allow ourselves: we visit the Pepoli Palace, where our protagonist stayed, and the Cathedral, where the confirmation of privileges to the Trapani community and individual citizens took place.
Leaving Trapani, Charles V reached Alcamo, a populous feudal town, and spent two nights in the imposing 14th-century castle. From here we could also choose to set out to discover the castles of the west.
For now, we continue in the footsteps of Charles V, and set off for Monreale, a small town of four thousand inhabitants that revolved around the abbey and the cathedral, resplendent in the gold of its mosaics and the grandeur of its apses.
The stop was to prepare for the arrival in Palermo: the triumphal entry into the city took place through the medieval Porta Nuova, decorated for the occasion with garlands and inscriptions celebrating the sovereign and his military victories. Let’s follow the route: with our backs to Porta Nuova, let’s go down Corso Vittorio Emanuele, known as the Cassaro, and reach the Cathedral; let’s look around almost as if we were searching for the red and yellow drapes that adorned the noble houses, decorated for the occasion. At the height of the church of Sant’Antonio Abate, the procession made its way through the heart of the mercantile city to Piazza San Francesco, the centre of the magnificent ceremony.
The building that welcomed him was the Spanish Palazzo Ajutamicristo, one of the most sumptuous buildings in the city. During his days in Palermo, he had many political engagements, but this did not prevent him from living like a Sicilian, visiting the monuments, getting to know and being impressed by the customs of a seductive and cosmopolitan city, participating in jousts, tournaments and shows interspersed with audiences at Palazzo Steri.
According to legend, he visited the convent of the Church of the Martorana and to make up for the lack of fruit that usually grew in the convent’s lush garden, the nuns created the famous martorana fruit to celebrate the happy guest.
The crowd greeted him jubilantly from Porta Termini and the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio when he left the city after a month’s stay.
Before reaching Messina, according to tradition, he stopped to bathe at the thermal baths of Termini Imerese, whose therapeutic properties were already known at the time: let’s take a break, too, because we have a long journey ahead of us. But don’t worry, there will be no shortage of opportunities for wellness and relaxation. As you know, the whole of Sicily is an open-air spa.
To get to Messina, it was possible to take the sea route or the mountain route. The presence of pirates and brigands along the coast obliged him to take the mountain road: the difficulty of the journey was rewarded by a visit to the towns of the Madonie such as Polizzi, Petralia Soprana and Gangi, where the local people welcomed him.
His stop at the convent of Gangi Vecchio is commemorated by an imperial coat of arms on the main entrance. Let’s stop to photograph it and immortalise his and our presence (and speaking of selfies, here are the most incredible and curious places in Sicily where you can immortalise your best smile!)
In Troina, a small and prestigious town, history is intertwined with tradition: it is said that three knights on horseback rode along the narrow Corso Ruggero, packed with crowds, holding flowers in their hands and on their shoulders a saddlebag full of nougat with almonds, sesame and honey cut into small pieces, known as cubbaita, throwing them gallantly at the ladies on the balconies. Let us savour these treats and recall those moments.
Charles V headed for the small and distinguished Randazzo, stopping first at Maniace Abbey.
Let us go to the ancient Aragonese Royal Palace and stop to look at the walled window: from there, the emperor greeted the jubilant crowd with emotion, uttering the phrase “you are all knights!”. No one after him was allowed to look out of that window, freezing that gesture in a fragment of eternity.
The journey of the imperial procession then descended along the Alcantara valley and near one of the small lakes, in Sicilian known as a gurna, he killed a duck: since then this place has been called the Gurna of the emperor. Let’s immerse ourselves in the wonder of the place, walking along it with the amazement that only nature can offer.
Next stop: Taormina. It is hard to imagine the Taormina of the past, enclosed within its medieval walls, its splendour as unmissable today as it was then. From Taormina to Messina, the journey up the steep slopes of the Peloritani was not an easy one, so much so that “…the robust villagers flocked around him… and served as escorts along the rugged and steep paths of the island”.
It will be easier for us to travel along it, but not before we have stopped, south of Messina, at the Monastery of San Placido Calonerò, where the emperor himself stopped, probably exhausted by the exertion of the journey: the abbot had a bust made in his honour, which still exists today.
We have now reached the final destination of our journey, in wealthy Messina, one of the most populous cities in Italy at the time. For his arrival, Polidoro da Caravaggio and the mathematician Francesco Maurolico had three triumphal arches made with the symbols dear to the emperor: harmony, peace and victory, and triumphal floats accompanied him to the cathedral.
Our journey with the emperor ends here: as he crosses the Strait, he will have brought with him the joyful noise that the lively population of Sicily was able to give him, a comforting joy in anticipation of the imminent battles.