Western Castles between Palermo and Trapani
When we think about castles our imagination is suddenly taken back to ancient times. Sicily has more than 200 castles and it would be almost impossible to visit them all. But if you feel like exploring some of them, in the next tour we will climb up hills, look out from the impressive walls and imagine that we are the lord of the surrounding domains. Are you ready to discover the castles of western Sicily?
Whether you are arriving from the east or from the centre, the first stop on our journey is the Ventimiglia Castle in Castelbuono. The manor is surrounded by an amazing natural landscape of woods, streams and mountains. The construction of the castle started in the early decades of the 14th century, but different architectural styles have varied over the centuries: some features are Arab, others Norman, while others are based on Swabian military constructions. Inside its Palatine Chapel, we find the Sacred Relic of the skull of St Anne, who is the patron of the town. The chapel is also finely decorated with stuccos by the brothers Giuseppe and Giacomo Serpotta, and the decorations are among the most wonderful examples of Sicilian Baroque. Today, the Castle houses the Civic Museum, where you can see an interesting permanent collection, a full schedule of temporary exhibitions and cultural activities. You will be amazed by such beauty!
Let’s now move westwards to Caccamo. Its castle is one of the largest and best preserved Norman castles in Italy. The manor dominates the charming maze of alleys, houses and churches of the town, as well as the wonderful valley in which the San Leonardo river flows. Nowadays the river is barred by a dam Rosamarina Lake. The view of this emerald green stretch of water running through the mountains is breath-taking. The first records of the fortification date back to 1160. After a failed attempt of subversion ( the so-called ‘Conspiracy of the Barons‘), Matteo Bonello, an enemy of King William I, used the castle as a refuge. The king’s traitor received a terrible punishment. Since then, it is said, the traitor continues to wander through the rooms of the castle… And if one ghost isn’t enough, during nights where there is a full moon, the ghost of a young nun, holding a pomegranate can be seen. She’s the main character of a love story without a happy ending. According to popular legends, whoever manages to eat all the pomegranate seeds will find enormous good fortune; if not, he will be forced to wander around the castle for eternity. Scared? Don’t be: these are just legends! If these stories have been too frightening for you, just walk through the beautiful halls of the palace and look out of one of its many windows to enjoy the breath-taking views.
Let’s get back on the road and head into the heart of the region’s capital: Palermo. One of the most important Sicilian castles is just outside the centre of the city: we’re talking about the Zisa Castle. It was King William I ‘Il Malo’ who began its construction in 1165, later completed by his successor William II (known as ‘Il Buono’). The palace was conceived as a summer residence for the kings and is one of the best examples of the combination of Norman art and Arab engineering. The building faces north-east, towards the sea, to make the most of the mild breezes. These winds became humid as they swept over the large fish pond in front of the palace; the pond was built for the purpose of keeping the inside rooms cooler. You can go in and get lost in one of the most significant places on the Arab-Norman itinerary, recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.
A few kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of the city is Carini Castle. The manor was built during the 11th century and is still impressive and perfectly preserved. Its fame is related to the legend of the famous Baroness of Carini, that was told for centuries by Sicilian storytellers who travelled all over the island. It is said that on the anniversary of the baroness murder (4 December), her handprint appears on a wall of the castle. If you’re of a superstitious nature, it maybe best to avoid this date. But ghosts aside, the castle continues to fascinate visitors with its two floors full of frescoes, statues, marble portals and wooden ceilings.
We now return westwards and stop at Alcamo. Here, on the wide Piazza della Repubblica, stands the Castle of the Counts of Modica. Built around 1350, it takes its name from the Counts (the Cabrera family) who owned it from 1400 to 1800. Today the castle houses the Ethnographic Museum and the Regional Historical Wine Cellar, and is open to the entire town community.
We are now ready for the last stop on our tour of the castles of western Sicily. To reach it we have to travel till Erice. Here on in, you will see a breath-taking view at the top of Mount Erice, here stands the Castle of Venus, a 12th-century Norman mansion. The castle was built where once was the temple of Venus Erycina, the goddess of fertility. She was worshipped since 1300 BC by the people who lived in this area ( Elymians, Punics, Romans). Today, inside the fortress, it is possible to admire a number of finds that bear witness to the centuries-long history of the site: from the Roman baths to the well of Venus, from the remains of the temple to the medieval walls and the Bourbon prisons.
If you still want to go in search of new castles to explore, try heading back east, towards the centre, towards Etna or heading south.