A walk on a sunny morning immediately thrusts you into a world of art and beauty, with the domes and towering bell towers, the facades of the numerous churches and palaces, silent testimony to an illustrious past, more like the European court than a fiefdom of the Sicilian backcountry. Everything makes more sense when you look at its history, starting from the name, which some think comes from Militum tellus (Land of Soldiers), in reference to some Roman soldiers who found refuge in these lands from the malaria of the lake, Biviere, in Lentini.
Yet the most interesting historical period from the historical-artistic point of view is undoubtedly the period from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, during which the city, which was already a fief of the powerful Barresi family, came to possess the Branciforte princes. Above all, it was Francesco Branciforte, who the granddaughter of Emperor Charles V, Joan of Austria, had married, who made the place grow in splendour and power.
This is a monumental tour with dozens of palaces and over twenty churches, largely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693, which hide surprising treasures, starting from the Church and former Abbey of Saint Benedict, the third most important Benedictine monastery in Sicily for its size, which preserves magnificent furnishings and sumptuous altars in polychrome marble. Proceeding along Corso Umberto, our route meets the cathedral, Chiesa Madre San Nicolò – SS. Salvatore, a jewel of Baroque architecture. The façade, the bell tower and the dome, one of the first made from reinforced concrete in Sicily, make it imposing and majestic. Inside, paintings and stuccoes of the Serpottian school and other valuable works are preserved, including a statue of the Palermo Bagnasco. Nestled in the vast crypts below, you’ll discover the priceless Museum of Sacred Art.
A little further on, in the square, the chapel, Oratorio della Madonna della Catena, a very elegant church, which is notable for being all feminine, as it is adorned by 13 statues in stucco and gold, dedicated to the most venerated virgins in Sicily.
Continuing along Corso Umberto you’ll also find the churches, Chiesa del SS Sacramento al Circolo and, in front, the Chiesa di San Domenico dei Frati Predicatori, used as an auditorium and the former convent, where the Archive, the library and the Civic Museum are located.
At the end of the route, you’ll find the church, Santuario Madonna della Stella, in the square, which was rebuilt from scratch after the ruin of the ancient church of Santa Maria della Stella. Some very important works were transferred from the original church to the new one, including the Nativity in glazed pottery, commissioned for the Florentine Andrea della Robbia and the sarcophagus of Blasco II Barresi made in international Gothic. The bas-relief of Nicolò Speciale by Francesco Laurana and the Triptych attributed to Antonello da Messina are kept in the Museo del Tesoro inside the same religious building.
The list of churches and palaces is even longer and more fascinating. Each building has something that makes it unique and different from the others, such as the church dedicated to the Guardian Angels, which is decorated with a beautiful eighteenth-century majolica floor, or the confraternity of the Holy Souls of Purgatory, dedicated to Saints Gregory and Vitus, with its rich altars and its magnificent view that sweeps over the landscape outside.
Of course, it doesn’t end there, as there’s something special around every corner, like the Zizza’s 1607 Fontana della ninfa inside the courtyard of the fourteenth-century Castello Barresi-Branciforte. Two cylindrical towers, the chambers of the trappeti (the mills where olives were pressed) and the southern rampart, still remain, just at the end of the picturesque Via Porta della Terra. It’s also full of surprises and dotted with magnificent Palaces, like the Principi di Bellaprima and the Majorana della Nicchiara, ancestors of the famous scientist, just to name a few..
When it comes to castles, we immediately think of intrigues, brutal murders and bloody struggles for power, and the home of the Barresi Branciforte is no exception. Here, drama took place in 1473 involving a woman, Aldonza Santapau, strangled by servants because she was unjustly accused of adultery, and her alleged lover, Piero Caruso, known as Bellopede, who was thrown from the castle tower. Stories of poisonings, parricidal and suspicious deaths, like the death of Fr Francesco Branciforte, buried in the former abbey church of Saint Benedict.
But the most unique monument is the ancient church, Santa Maria la Vetere, founded by the Normans in 1090 and then damaged by an earthquake in 1693. Today, it’s possible to admire the right aisle and an extraordinary entrance, topped by a carved bezel, probably by Antonello Gagini, in late Gothic style and by a canopy with columns resting on the back of lions. The building, which is located in a very interesting valley, both from a landscape and archaeological point of view, has several crypts with Templar crosses, testifying to its role as a rest stop for pilgrims who went from the north to the Holy Land.
The centuries-old competition between the two main festivals, Madonna della Stella on 8 September and of the Saint Salvatore on 18 August, as well as the wonderful pageant of Holy Week and the many minor festivals, testify to how the inhabitants of Militello are linked to their religious and folk traditions, expressing strong sentimental values on these occasions, in an climate that is always mild.
To complete our travelling experience in Militello in Val di Catania, don’t forget to taste the local specialties and – why not? – make some purchases to take home with us: the Cassatelle della zia monaca, baskets of shortcrust pastry stuffed with almonds, jams, liqueur, cinnamon and cloves, prickly mustard, both dry and fresh, celebrated in all its forms in the famous Mustard and Prickly Pear Festival, and also fasciatelli, pipirata, muscardini, ricotta cannoli and savoury scacciate stuffed with wild vegetables and the Sicilian red oranges. Here, the almond or lemon-flavoured granita is still made like it used to be.
It’s useless trying to describe everything, these exclusive local delights deserve a try, as does a visit to the city and the sunny countryside that surrounds it, which guards little pieces of paradise, like the cascatelle dell’Oxena waterfalls, the river that crosses the territory. All this deserves a leisurely visit, taking your time and enjoying it, as well as all the priceless spots in Sicily, even if they’re outside the traditional and most famous tourist circuits.