If you walk along Via Roma, you come across the ruins of the 15th-century Palazzo Salamone and the Chiesa di Maria Santissima del Carmelo, originally from 1185 and rebuilt in 1934–36. This has an interesting portico as its small doorway contains inlays from the Ràbato’s mosque. On its right, there’s the small convent of 1664, the location of the Museo della Civiltà Contadina. It has three naves and houses the Madonna del Soccorso, a 1503 marble masterpiece by Bartolomeo Berrettaro of Carrera commissioned by the Salamone family, whose sarcophagi adorn the chapel to the right of the choir.
If you continue along Via Carmine you arrive in Rabato, the district at the end of the village founded by the Arabs around 860 AD and the evocative Christmas location of the famous live nativity scene The Rabad was a collection of closely-packed, plaster-walled houses, narrow alleys, steep staircases, timbers and terraces. The Arab village can still be seen, particularly from the top of the mountain. There are old roofs of Sicilian tiles and intricate streets typical of an Arab kasbah. This was the origin of the single-storey Sicilian peasant’s house, the dammuso, with its single loft room made of plaster. The Arab settlement is buried under the various building layers: Baron Giovanni Chiaramonte erected the Chiesa Madre di Santa Maria Assunta in 1370 over the mosque built around 875. The church was restructured in 1585: it has an elegant Renaissance doorway and a marble baptismal font from 1495. The church still has some of the mosque’s architectural features: these protrude from an upper wall and the four niches in plaster masonry.
Catch your breath and climb the 183 steps from the Piazza del Carmine to the 812-metre-high Monte San Paolino.
Giovanni Chiaramonte had the Santuario di San Paolino erected on the terrace on top of the castle’s buildings in 1370. The church is flanked by the small 18th-century convent of the Philippine Fathers; there’s a canvas by Filippo Tancredi, the Madonna in Trono fra i Santi Damiano e Cosma, and two amazing reliquary urns, examples of ancient Sicilian goldsmithing. One urn, from 1498, contains the bones of San Paolino; the other, from 1649, by Francesco Rivelo of Palermo, is a magnificent example of Baroque goldsmith’s art and contains the bones of Sant’Onofrio.
The small hill, known as rocca spaccata or jacca, “split”, has two sides separated by a void and tradition has it that the rock split with the last breath of Jesus on the cross. You can now take an easy path on the plateau of the hill of San Marco to see the figureddi, Byzantine-style frescoes which depict the four Evangelists, the Madonna and San Paolino. They’re probably the work of the Basilian monks who arrived here between the fourth and sixth centuries.
You can find out how the skilful artisans weave lu panaru, a basket made of branches of olive trees, and sometimes from willow or elm.
What should you eat? Simple food made with olive oil and locally produced cheeses. If they’re in season, try the fava bean dish ‘u maccu di fave, and li virciddata, biscuits made with walnuts, figs and almonds. These are now covered by an official regulation which promotes the typical products of Sutera under the brand Sutera Città Presepe De.Co.
Finally, don’t miss pitirri, a vegetable soup.