This is Palazzolo Acreide. The first impression you get of the noble, ancient town and its stones is that it was forged by the wind alone with the help of some strange, creator deities.
The rocky complex in the area known as “I Santoni” does indeed seem to suggest this. It's dedicated to the worship of the eastern, Phyrigian goddess Cybele who is identified with the mother goddess.
At the top of the city there's an impressive archaeological zone: the remains of ancient Akrai, founded by the Syracusans in 664 BC. There's a small Greek theatre, where the plays of classical theatre took place, and other important remains of sites of worship, burials, rock prisons known as 'latomie' and an ancient decumanus.
Leaving Piazza del Popolo, you come face to face with the amazing grandeur of the Chiesa di San Sebastiano. This church was rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and its spectacular staircase adds to the allure of its three-tiered façade. During the festival in honour of the saint, Cudduri, traditional bread rings are cooked and given as an offering together with laurel. The Palazzo Comunale is from the early 1900s; it’s neoclassical in style with touches of Liberty.
The province of Siracusa was discovered early by the great Italian directors and Palazzolo has itself also featured in many films. The neorealist Carmine Gallone was much taken with it and wanted to film some scenes from Cavalleria Rusticana here in 1953; Luigi Zampa set Gente di Rispetto [The Flower in his Mouth] here in ’75 and Franco Zeffirelli set his version of Cavalleria Rusticana here, while Antonio Albanese used it for the initial scene of La Fame e la Sete [Hunger and Thirst] and Ficarra and Picone for the hilarious Nati Stanchi [Born Tired].
In addition, the small town, whose former opulence can still be glimpsed, is well-known for its festivities. These include the Baroque festivals of San Paolo, at the end of June, San Sebastiano in August and San Michele at the end of September, not forgetting the traditional Carnevale, one of the most captivating in this area of Sicily, perennially in competition with the more famous one in Acireale.
Along Corso Vittorio Emanuele the Baroque buildings are a reminder of the town’s noble families and its prominent, and far from provincial, figures. These include the palazzo of the archaeologist Ludica from the late 1700s, the 17th-century Palazzo Pizzo, and the Chiesa dell’Immacolata, formerly the Santa Maria di Gesù. This church houses a Renaissance masterpiece of the Dalmatian Francesco Laurana, a Madonna with Child (1471). Then there’s the Chiesa San Michele Arcangelo and soon after the Casa Museo Antonino Uccello, a museum created by this Sicilian ethnologist in the 18th-century Palazzo Baronale Ferla-Bonelli. In the lower town, there are still more marvels, large and small, to amaze you: the Chiesa Madre San Nicola, and the Basilica of San Paolo, with its characteristic three-tiered tower façade with pronaos.
The Festa di San Paolo, on the 29 June, involves the u giru ro pani, in which a cart goes round the town collecting bread donated by the town’s inhabitants.
We finish the tour of the “lively” town with the wonderful Sicilian Baroque façade of the Chiesa dell’Annunziata. The church’s paired, spiral columns are so heavily decorated that they look like the Sicilian marzipan sweets known as ‘frutta martorana’. The Annunciation of Antonello da Messina, now kept in the Museo Bellomo in Siracusa seems to have been commissioned for this church.
Finally, there are the old patisseries, with their secular tradition, providing something “sweet” for the palate: cakes made with almonds and walnuts from Palazzolo’s broad valleys, combined with pistachios, Hyblaean honey, praline with coffee and walnut liqueur and candied orange peel ‘lunettes’.
One product typical of Palazzolo is ragusano DOP, a stretched-curd cheese produced with cow’s milk, and you must try crispelle, a Christmas dessert made of durum wheat semolina flour, yeast and fennel, flavoured with either sugar and cinnamon or honey and cinnamon.
Take a last look at Palazzolo. The “insaredde”, the coloured strips “fired out” for the festivals, are truly dazzling, as is the opulent Baroque architecture. At the top, on a small palazzo, there’s a plaque in memory of the writer and journalist Giuseppe Fava who was born here. Above, there’s the remains of the towers of the Norman castle which used to soar over the Anapo Valley, a reminder of this region’s long history. Contemplating the countryside with the sound of a horse’s hooves in the background as you pass along the bridleway leading from Palazzolo Acreide to ancient Noto will be an unforgettable experience.