The Borgo of Montalbano Elicona
A few thousand inhabitants and a rising spiral of narrow streets and lanes crossing and unfurling through the town: welcome to Montalbano Elicona, an ancient village that shines with its own unique splendor.
Nestled high in the mountains like the petals of a daisy, the borgo overlooks the spectacular panorama of the sea and the Aeolian Islands.
From first to last, the houses here look upwards, gazing with respect at the true lord of the borgo, the castle of Frederick of Aragon, towering majestically above them. It is an elegant castle, with its crenellated walls rising over the town, reverently embracing the piazzas and the little churches scattered through the village. This mountain top jewel is wrapped protectively in the fragrant woods of Argimosco which surround the town, ancient custodians of legendary tales of old.
If you think that Sicily is only beautiful in summer, think again! Montalbano Elicona is always splendid: with rich reds and yellows in autumn, the pale white candor of winter, the blossoming pinks and greens of spring, and the vivacious, sparkling colors of summer. Every season, every brush stroke of nature, adorns this borgo with a new and unique beauty.
The historical events of Montalbano Elicona are intertwined with the history of Sicily and all of Southern Italy. Because of its strategic position, over the centuries it was a center of great interest, for better or for worse.
The origins of Montalbano Elicona probably date back to the period when the Saracen Turks governed Sicily. The influence from the period of Arab domination can still be felt in modern day Sicily, in fact, it is thought that the etymology of the name Montalbano is derived from the Arab, “Al” “Blank”, meaning ‘excellent place’ or alternatively, “Mons Albus” because of the snowy heights in which the town is located.
Elicona was added during the Greek era: “Helikon”, and was the name of the village when the Medeival borgo of Montalbano was founded.
The Turkish presence in Southern Italy was a worrisome issue for the Pope, who was quick to ask the Normans to intervene, and they promptly agreed to his request. Sicily was conquered by Ruggero d’Altaville of the Normans, who began in Messina and headed for the valley of Elicona, destroying cities and villages. Despite the initial brutality, his reign led to a wave of growth for the territory. In fact, in this period, Montalbano became a regio demanio, a royal estate, and was strengthened with a defensive system.
Upon the death of Ruggero d’Altavilla, Sicily’s throne passed into the hands of his son, Ruggero II, who was merited with encouraging religious tolerance, creating a climate of social integration. This situation changed dramatically after his death, when the whole island united in discontent against the Muslims, who began to be persecuted and sometimes killed. Traces of this intolerance are still visible today, especially in the countryside, where you can see the cùbburi, the huts where the persecuted took refuge.
The Norman dynasty ended when the kingdom passed to Henry VI and then to his son: Federico II of Swabia. During this period, Montalbano must have been a small but important center. Federico II set to work with limiting injustice and abuse against the population and encouraging agricultural development while maintaining a substantial division between the upper and the lower classes. Despite, or perhaps because of his reforms, he did not meet with favor from the Pope or the Sicilian nobles, who soon began to create conflict for the Swabian ruler. Various Sicilian cities joined the rebellion against Federico II, including Montalbano Elicona. The borgo was divided between supporters of the King and his opponents, but when Federico got the city back under his control, he came down ferociously on the insurgents. He destroyed the houses of the town and even the castle, forcing people to take refuge in neighboring villages, or remain and become slaves. It was these “slaves” who rebuilt Montalbano, with the assistance Federico II himself, who despite everything, recognized the importance of the borgo, particularly as a commercial hub.
With his death, the loss of the Holy Roman Emperor Federico II created a vacuum, and the grappling for power that followed led Montalbano to become a feudal fief, if only for a brief period. The Pope intervened again, this time asking the Angevins to help him depose the Swabian reign. They defeated Federico’s son Manfredi and imposed a ruling class that created discontent and revolts among the population.
In this context, Montalbano’s fortune is linked with another Federico, Federico III of Aragon, who without much difficulty was able to take control of the Kingdom of Sicily.
Federico of Aragon had a special fondness for Montalbano Elicona, because he had spent pleasant holidays there as a child. The reign of Federico III represents the most splendid period in the borgo’s history. The Aragon king did his best to strengthen the defensive structure and soften the features of the castle, transforming it into an elegant royal residence. He loved spending his holidays there, and would frequent the thermal springs a few kilometers from the town.
Montalbano’s good fortune did not last long however: in 1312, new conflicts arose in Sicily, and in 1336, the King of Sicily, Federico III passed away, without having realized his dream of making Montalbano a “royal city”.
At this point in history, a slow decline dragged the borgo through a period of dynastic power struggles, loss of privileges, and the continuous passage of ownership from one feudal lord to another, none of whom had a minimal interest in the welfare of the people they ruled.
Today, Montalbano Elicona is a small borgo, but it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in Italy, which is why so many visitors come here every year to discover the magic and historic charm of this authentic Medieval town.
For centuries, the castle was the political center of the borgo, and still today it is the fulcrum around which the life of the Montalbano Elicona revolves.
Eternally majestic, it towers over the houses of the town, distinguished by the elegant grandeur of its crenellated walls.
The history of Montalbano Elicona is closely linked to this castle, which stands on the ruins of a fortress. The previous structure was not destroyed by neglect or natural catastrophes, but by the blind fury of Emperor Federico II of Swabia who, deeply offended by the uprisings against him by a a rebellious faction of the population, practically raised the entire borgo to the ground. And it was Federico himself, together with the surviving inhabitants, who rebuilt the town and the castle.
A few centuries later, Federico III of Aragon, King of Sicily, transformed the Castle of Montalbano Elicona into a royal residence, destined to host the Aragon ruler and his descendents.
The castle is built in the form of a square, with a central courtyard. It has two levels: the lower level is fortified and decorated with mullioned windows, and the upper level is distinguished by crenellated decorations.
The different environments in the castle are still recognizable today, distinguished by a marked difference in the rooms used by the sovereigns and those used by their servants.
Inside the castle there is also a Palatine Church of the Trinity where the Royal Chapel is located. It holds a stone sarcophagus which is believed to contain Arnaldo da Villanova, Federico of Aragon’s trusted friend and physician.
Basilica minore di Santa Maria Assunta and Bishop San Nicolò
Where the main Church of San Nicolò now stands, there was once a small church with a single nave, the Church of San Pietro e Paolo.
Later, in the first half of the twelfth century a larger church was built, which incorporated the smaller church within its walls. In 1646, during restoration and enlargement interventions, a bell tower was also constructed.
In 1997, Pope Giovanni Paolo II raised this church to the rank of Minor Basilica.
The main façade of the church faces the public square of Piazza del Duomo. The interior holds several important works of art, such as a carved wooden crucifix from the 1400’s, a statue and a Tabernacle attributed to the artist Giacomo Gagini, and a painting of ‘The Last Supper’ attributed to the school of Guido Reni.
The Natural Reserve of the Malabotta Woods
Montalbano Elicona is one of towns included in the territory of the Malabotta Natural Reserve, a botanical oasis of peace and quiet, immersed in the purity of nature.
The reserve is characterized by a forest of oaks, beeches, chestnut trees, poplars, hazelnut trees and holly, with an underbrush of hawthorn and wild roses. There is also a wide range of wildlife typical to a wooded environment. As you walk along the trails of the reserve, you may run into wild cats, hedgehogs, foxes, field mice, weasels, wild boars and porcupines. And as you look up through the trees, it is not uncommon to see hawks and eagles in flight, as well diverse species of owls.
The festival of Santa Maria della Divina Provvidenza
The cult of the Holy Virgin Mary has animated Sicily for centuries. In Montalbano Elicona, Santa Maria della Divina Provvidenza is especially venerated. As often happens, the devotion of the faithful is inspired by the prodigious miracles the Madonna performed in the borgo, which are often stories linked to legends and fervent popular belief.
Thanks to the miracles attributed the Madonna, the Church of San Domenico was elevated to the rank of ‘Santuario di Santa Maria della Divina Provvidenza’.
The festivities in honor of Santa Maria della Divina Provvidenza are celebrated every year on August 24, when the village becomes a place of pilgrimage for the faithful in all the neighboring towns.
The procession of the Madonna is particularly impressive: the statue is adorned with sacred gold and decorated with hundreds of flowers, and is carried through the streets by the ‘smanicati’, members of the faithful who walk barefoot to honor a vow made to the Madonna.
Late in the evening, another procession is made, this time by torchlight, carrying the Madonna back to her original place, and for the faithful, this is the most heartfelt moment of the entire festival.
This festival in honor of the Madonna has been held devotedly since 1522, but for the last few years concerts and various shows have accompanied the religious celebrations, which is attracting more and more visitors to the borgo every year.
Whoever arrives in Montalbo Elicon in the second week of August will think they have travelled back in time, because at this time of year, the Sicilian borgo abandons the modern world and returns to the Middle Ages.
Federico of Aragon, King of Sicily, was particularly attached to Montalbano Elicona and his castle, and the citizens of the village are still especially fond of this historical figure, so every year they pay homage to him with the “Aragonese Festivals”.
For the occasion, the streets of the town burst into an joyous explosion of sounds and colors, as hundreds of participants in period costumes animate the borgo with Medieval songs and dances.
There are Medieval games, juggling shows, choreographed flag wavers and historical reconstructions of places and events, but the true protagonist of this extraordinary festival is the King of Sicily, Federico of Aragon himself, who nobly accepts the adoration of his people as they shower him with gifts: in keeping with the tradition, the representative King of Sicily receives two mountain falcons, fresh produce from the local farms, and finally, the keys to the city, with which he retires to his castle, the ‘ regia aedes’, after saying goodnight to his loyal subjects and renewing his appointment for next year’s festival.
The Legend of Marta
A deep forest of tall trees and thick leafy branches creating plays of light and shadows and a fascinating archeological site where the fairies of the woods are said to have danced, this is the setting for an ancient legend of Montalbano Elicona: the Legend of Marta.
Marta was a young shepherdess in the first bloom of youth, and so exquisitely beautiful that a passing knight fell in love with her, but his feelings were not reciprocated. To escape the man’s flattery, the girl took refuge in the Argimasco woods, but the ardent lord was not daunted and hired fifty-one knights to search for her. Even though the men knew every path and every corner of those woods, no one could find the girl.
At a certain point, one of the knights, Don Olindo, decided to give it a rest and go back to town, but as he was leaving the woods, he found himself before an enormous stone in the shape of a woman, with her hands clasped in the act of prayer. Don Olindo was certain that the enormous boulder had not been there before, which his companions confirmed. It was so unbelievable, so absurd, that it seemed like a dream: completely unreal. Everyone immediately thought of Marta, the girl no one was able to find and who seemed to have transformed into a huge rock.
The megalith referred to in Marta’s story is known by all as “the Orante”, and it is part of an archeological complex called “the Megaliths of Argimusco”, which are quartz sandstone boulders sculpted by the force of the wind and the incessant impact of the falling rain.
The legend of Marta and the “Orante” captured the imagination of the Sicilian writer, Melo Freni, who made his debut in Italian historical literature with the novel entitled, “Marta d’Elicona”
The Live Nativity Scene
Montalbano Elicona presents one of the most important ‘live nativity scenes’ in Sicily, consecrated in the year 2000 as the most beautiful on the entire island.
For the occasion, the Serro district, one of the most ancient neighborhoods in Montalbano, is completely transformed: typical settings from ancient times are recreated in the uninhabited houses, and hundreds of people in period dress interpret the ancient artisanal professions that were an integral part of Montalbano’s history. There are shepherds, potters, wood-cutters, and weavers, and craftspeople of all kinds, and as the strident notes of the “cornamuse”(a type of Medieval bagpipe) meld with the angelic voices of the Medieval choir, a path leads you to Christ’s manger, recreated in a cavern, where year after year, the miracle of the birth of Jesus Christ is relived and renewed in the hearts of the faithful.
Arnaldo da Villanova
Arnaldo da Villanova is a mysterious and fascinating character, whose death left a long trail of doubts and questions.
He was born in Spain in 1240, probably near Valencia, and later moved to Paris to study medicine.
He was a learned physician of great renown, so much so that he frequented sovereigns and popes, and above all, the King of Sicily, Federico of Aragon, to whom he was a trusted friend and confidant.
He also had a reputation as a skilled alchemist, and it is said that, for the benefit of Pope Bonifacio VIII, he actually transformed simple objects into pure gold rods.
Even though he was in great favor with the Holy See, in 1305, in Catalonia, the Spanish Inquisition banned his writings, because in one of his publications he maintained that the world would end in the fourteenth century, with the coming of the Antichrist.
In the last years of his life, Arnaldo returned to the service of King Federico of Aragon, and on behalf of his sovereign he undertook numerous diplomatic missions in Italy, France and Africa. But no amount of diplomacy can convince the ‘Grim Reaper’, and he passed away on one of those diplomatic trips.
After his death, in 1316, the Inquisition of Tarragon burnt his writings and banned their circulation.
For many years, no trace could be found of Arnaldo di Villanova, not even his mortal remains. Only when an ancient sarcophagus was found during the restoration of the Chapel of the Castle of Montalbano Elicona, did we finally discover where the learned doctor was probably buried.
The cuisine of Montalbano Elicona is a perfect reflection of the character of its inhabitants: humble people whose livelihood comes from working in the fields and pastures. And it is the farmers and the shepherds who furnish the main ingredients for the traditional dishes of Montalbano Elicona.
The local women transform the durum wheat flour into busiati: fresh pasta made using a “ferro delle calze” an iron rod similar to a knitting needle, but thicker, which is similar to maccheroni but with a wider hole. The busiati are served with a sauce made from fresh tomatoes and pork. Pork is a popular ingredient in the traditional cuisine here. Pork rind is added to enrich the flavor of pasta and beans, but it is also used in the traditional dish sutta e suvra, along with lard.