The Borgo of Castroreale
Castroreale is a treasure chest of rare jewels encased in the Paleoritani mountains, set over the expanse of the sea and the surrounding mountain ranges.
The ancient narrow streets and lanes scramble up and down through the borgo, in a climbing and descending path of discovery through this deceptively small village, full of culture and traditions.
Our starting place is the Cathedral, or Duomo, of Castoreale, which faces the Piazza delle Aquile, the most important public square in the town. Buzzing around these two central points, the lively citizens of the borgo go about their day.
In Piazza della Moschita, the arch of the ancient synogogue remains, and if you listen closely, you can hear the timeless stones whispering stories of the Jewish community that once lived here.
Walking through the historical center is like embarking on a treasure hunt: everywhere you look there are traces of its long and eventful past. Along these streets, you follow in the footsteps of Frederick of Aragon, whose castle brought this little town to life. Today all that is left of the castle is the proud circular defense tower at the top of the hill, and the church of Candelora, which was the ancient chapel of the castle.
Castoreale is a concentrated dose of wonder, a distillation of simple beauty in its purest form.
The history of the first urban settlements around what is now Castoreale has been lost in the corridors of time and legend. It is said that a king from the Middle East decided to found a city here, which he named Artemesia, in honor of his daughter. Later, Artemesia’s husband also founded a new urban center: Krastos.
Ancient myths aside, historians consider the date of the foundation of the borgo to be 1324, the year that Federico III of Aragon rewarded the people of Castroreale for their loyalty by building them a new castle, which some historical sources maintain was built over the ruins of the ancient city of Artemesia. Over the centuries an urban center developed around the castle, which took the name of Castro, and then Castroreale, which soon became one of the most important hubs for the defense of the Milazzo plain and the Ionian coast.
Castoreale never became a part of the feudal system, remaining under royal control, which allowed it to enjoy special privileges and flourishing economic development. The primary beneficiary of these advantages was the Jewish community, who were an influential presence in the borgo until the fifteenth century.
The first setback in Castroreale’s development came with the earthquake of 1693, which destroyed a large number of buildings, successively reconstructed with a Baroque imprint. In 1783, almost a century later, another earthquake devastated the town, and the population decided to abandon the borgo in the hills and move the community along the coast.
Today, Castroreale is a lively, busy little town, full of beautiful monuments and enthralling views of the surrounding landscape.
In the 1400’s, during the initial period of Spanish domination in the South, the Aragon rulers chose Sicily as the springboard for the conquest of the Italian territories. During this period, the village of Bafia was founded by a group of sheepherders who stopped near a Greek dye-works. In fact its original name, Bafeus, means ‘dye-works’ in Greek.
Today, Bafia is a hamlet of the borgo of Castoreale, with the center resting between two hills that form the shape of two crossed horseshoes.
The history of Protonotaro is veiled in uncertainty, but there is evidence of a farm complex from Protonotora in the Val Demone dating back to the eleventh century.
The borgo is historically linked to a square tower from the 1500’s which still exists on a rocky promontory.
Today Protonotaro is a hamlet of Castroreale, located just over 7 km from the main town.
Duomo di Castroreale, the Cathedral of Castroreale
The Cathedral of Castroreale is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta and was constructed in the first half of the sixteenth century. The exterior is graced by a majestic portal in marble and a bell tower with a square base and clock face on high, rising on the right side of main architectural body. The portal is distinguished by magnificent carvings in Baroque style.
On either side of the portal there are two columns which support statues of two angels, who are looking up at Santa Maria Assunta, positioned higher up in a niche.
The Cathedral of Castroreale is one of the most beautiful churches in the province of Messina, and is the custodian of an enormous heritage of sacred art. The interior is in a basilica layout, with sixteen columns dividing the space into three naves. Everywhere you look there is priceless artwork, such as the marble statues created by Antonello Gagioni, Andrea Calamech and Rinaldo Bonanno. There is a marvelous inlaid wood choir box, and an organ carved in walnut.
Of particular interest is the sundial installed in the floor of the church. It was created in 1854 by Professor Nicola Perroni Basquez, one of the seven sundials constructed in Sicily between 1801 and 1896, and currently the only one still functioning.
The Church of Candelora
The Church of Candolara is located along the ancient via Artemesia. It is thought to originally have been the chapel in the castle constructed by Federico II of Aragon, and has conserved the typical features of fifteenth century religious architecture.
The church has a single nave and four altars, with a cupola on high surmounting the apse.
The church of Candelora was once full of prestigious pieces of art, such as the altarpieces and sculptures in papier-machè, and a mosaic floor from the 1600’s. Unfortunately, in 1908, the structure was devastated by an earthquake, with heavy damage to the artistic heritage of the church. It was only a century later, in 2003, that the church was reopened to the public after restoration.
Today, the most important piece in the church is the inlaid wood Tribune, attributed to Giovanni Siracusano, made in the eighteenth century and entirely covered in pure gold. It is decorated with six columns with tablets depicting the worship of the Virgin and the story of the blessed candles.
Le piazze di Castroreale, the public squares of Castroreale
The public squares of Castroreale are the nerve centers of the borgo, home to the most important monuments of the city and narrators of the history of the town.
There are three main piazzas: the Piazza della Aquile, where the main church is located, the Piazza della Mosquita, where the synagogue and the Jewish quarter once stood, and Piazza del Peculia, which today is called Piazza Pertini.
Piazza del Peculio took its name from the peculio frumentario, or grain bank, located there, a building constructed in 1668 as a storehouse for grain and agricultural products, which also guaranteed a price cap, stabilizing prices so that grain was affordable even during periods of famine, when the general prices of food usually skyrocketed.
In 1924, a building in Liberty style was constructed in the area of the frumentaria, and the Municipality offices are currently located there.
Another important institution from the past is on this piazza: “Il Monte della Pietà”, a charitable financial institution founded by the confraternity of San Leone with the aim of protecting the poor from profiteers and loan sharks. In fact, Monte della Pieta granted loans in a similar manner to pawn-shops, with no suffocating interest rates.
A fountain a little further on is linked to this building. It was created in 1873 with the inscription “In this place the ancients have given us Monte della Pietà and a well: one takes away hunger, the other, thirst”.
In the Piazza della Mosquita, among the ruins of the Jewish quarter and its synogogue, you can also see the tower built by Frederick III of Aragon, the last remaining element of the ancient castle he constructed in the 1300’s.
La Giudecca, the Jewish Quarter
The historical presence of a Jewish community in an Italian village always arouses curiosity and a thirst for knowledge.
In Castroreale, history recounts a lively, thriving Jewish quarter that benefited from the advantages of being in a demanio regio, that is, a borgo not subjected to feudal tariffs, instead ruled directly by royal powers, which guaranteed substantial economic growth to local economy.
The history of the Jewish quarter of Castroreale came to an abrupt halt in the fifteenth century, when the Jewish community was exiled from the Sicilian village.
Today, all that remains of the borgo’s Jewish population are the names of the streets and the piazza where the synagogue was located, with perhaps some traces left in the surnames of the citizens and little more.
Many of the buildings in the Jewish quarter changed their original function, as exemplified by the Monte della Pietà, a Christian-inspired pawn shop.
Today, only one arch of the synagogue is still standing, but the fascination for the community who once lived here remains: one of the most ancient religions and peoples on the planet, forced by history to wander the globe.
U Signori Longu – “Il Cristo Lungo”, the Long Christ
The citizens of Castroreale are particularly zealous about celebrating the holiday of U Signori Longu . As often happens, the history of “Cristo Lungo” is linked to an ancient miracle, passed down to us through time by the voice of the people, undoubtedly embellished by fervent religious sentiment and the vivid colors of legends and myths.
Our legend takes place 1854, when a terrible epidemic of the Plague hit Messina, causing more than three thousand victims.
Many of those who were not infected chose to take refuge in the countryside or in the neighboring villages. Among the them was Signora Giuseppina Vadalà, the wife of Orazio Nicosia, who was from Messina but lived in Castroreale for work. By the time the woman arrived in the village, she already had obvious symptoms of the disease, and this threw the whole community into a panic. To prevent the epidemic from spreading in Castroreale, the population put their trust in the power of prayer and the divine intervention of ‘Cristo Lungo’. On August 23, 1854, a procession filed through the streets of the town, bringing the statue of Christ under the balcony of the Nicosia family. Signor Orazio left his dying wife’s bedside and went to kneel before the statue of Christ, imploring him for a miracle. When he went back inside, he found his wife sitting up in bed, with no remaining signs of illness. That year, the Plague took no victims in Castroreale, and ever since, as a sign of eternal gratitude, the procession is repeated every year on August 25, attracting an even greater number of visitors than usual to this village in the territory of Messina.
The festival of U Signori longu lasts three days. It opens on August 23 with the procession of the statue from the Church of St. Agatha to the Cathedral, where it remains until August 25, when it is carried back. The procession itself is the most important event of the festival, because the statue of Christ on the cross is life-size, but it is placed on an extremely long pole, until it becomes 14 meters high, towering above all the buildings of the historical center except the Cathedral.
This U Signori Longu, the ‘Long Christ’ is carried in the procession through the streets of the town, kept in balance by a series of poles, with the people holding their breath in suspense at every ascent and descent. For this reason the procession moves extremely slowly, and for the same reason, is one of the most beautiful and evocative rites in the South of Italy.
Carmelo Aliberti is a poet and literary critic, born in Bafia, a hamlet of Castroreale, in 1943.
He has taught literature at the high schools of Castroreale and has been an expert of literature at the University of Messina.
He has published numerous collections of poems and publications of literary criticism, and founded the magazine ‘Cultura ‘Novecento’.
In 1990, the President of the Republic presented Carmelo Aliberti with the award “Benemerito della scuola, della cultura e dell’arte” for his literary and cultural contributions. In 2008 he won the national award for literary criticism, the “Giorgio La Pira” award.
Giuseppa Iolanda Menichelli began treading the boards of Italian stages in 1907, with the stage name, Pina Menichelli. She was born in Castroreale in 1890, from a long line of actors.
Her career began with theatre in 1907, but in 1913 she began acting in films.
Her character and her sensual appearance led her to be known as the quintessential Italian diva of silent movies, soon becoming a star of the silver screen.
After playing “The Second Wife” (1922) and “The Woman, the Man and the Blonde” (1923), she renounced her career as an actress to dedicate herself to her husband and children.
Despite Pina Menichelli’s dazzling splendor and success as an actress, the public has slowly forgotten her.
She passed away in 1984 at the age of ninety-three.
Traditional desserts: Black Rice and the Abbess’s biscuits
Traditions in Castroreale have a sweet taste and ancient origins. There are two desserts that distinguish this borgo of Messina: Black Rice, ‘riso nero’ and the Abbess’s biscuits, ‘I biscotti della badessa’.
– 1 kg of rice:
– 400gr of almonds;
– 1 kg of sugar;
– 200 gr of dark chocolate pieces;
– Powdered Cinnamon as needed;
– Candied fruit, ‘cotagnata’ (stewed quince compote), silver “confettini d’argento” (silver coated almond candies) as desired.
Boil the almonds in a terracotta cooking pot until they become almost black, and then chop until you obtain a creamy, homogeneous mixture similar to jam.
Boil the rice until it is ‘al dente’, then add: the kilo of sugar, the almond mixture- with a little of the water from the rice, the chocolate, and a sprinkling of cinnamon and cook for ten minutes. When it is ready, the rice concoction can be placed on a serving plate and sprinkled again with cinnamon. As a garnish you can add the candied fruit, strips of quince compote and the silver almond candies.
This is a traditional Christmas dessert, and the scent of toasted almonds cheers the hearts of the people of Castroreale, announcing the approach of one of the most beautiful times of the year.
Biscotti dell Badessa or “castrensi” biscuits are only made in this Sicilian borgo, and the recipe is jealously guarded by the bakers and pastry chefs of the town.
These cookies were invented by the Clarisse nuns, who lived in seclusion in the Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli until 1866.
Little is known about the ingredients, except that the recipe does not contain milk or eggs. There are two variations, the first is served soft and warm, with a jam or chocolate filling; the second is drier, suitable for dunking in hot milk or lemon ‘granita’.
These biscuits are sold in traditional food shops in Castroreale, and every year in August the traditional festival, the “Sagra del biscotto castriciano” is held, an event not to be missed for anyone who loves this local delicacy.