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Our Top 11 must-see castles in Sicily

THE HISTORY OF SICILY

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It should come as little surprise, given Sicily's dramatic, bellicose history, characterised by wave upon wave of invading super powers, that the island is full to brimming with strategically positioned, impressively imposing castles. Defensive ramparts dominate the seafront of many coastal towns and villages, while in the mountainous hinterland, fantastical fortresses rise skywards from towering rocky outcrops, seemingly natural extensions of the island's jagged geology.

We've chosen a few of our favourites, scattered around the island so that no matter where you may be staying, you will be able to visit one or two. They all have a fascinating history and most played important roles in Sicily's most momentous events.

1. Il Castello di Mussomeli

In Sicily's heartland, mid-way between Palermo and Agrigento, the castle of Mussomeli rises atop a large limestone crag at over 700 metres above sea level and towers over the valley below, effectively controlling all who came and went along this important pass. Built by Manfredi Chiaramonte (a descendent of the Manfredi Chiaramonte largely responsible for the castle in Caccamo) in 1370, the castle was built into the rock and is impressively impregnable thanks to the precipitous drops on most sides, the thick crenelated walls and narrow windows. Access is via a long, winding, shallow-stepped path which hammers home just how isolated and elevated the castle is. Inside are some impressive vaulted halls, a dank dungeon and plenty of architectural elements of interest, such as ogival arches and double-lancet windows.

Opening times*: from 25th April every day except Mondays from 9.00am to 12.00pm and from 3.00pm to 6.00pm. In the winter the castle is open on Saturdays and Sundays only.

2. Castello Maniace - Syracuse

Situated on the tip of the tongue that is Ortigia, Siracusa's ancient island heart, Castello Maniace was commissioned by that great castle-builder, Emperor Frederick II 'Stupor Mundi', in 1240. It takes its name from the Byzantine general who was so instrumental in ousting the Arabs from Sicily during one of the Norman's earliest invasions in 1038. After serving as a royal palace for the Angevin kings of Sicily, the castle spent most of the 15th century as a prison, before returning to its original function as part of the town's defensive structures. After undergoing an extensive restoration, Castello Maniace is now open to the public.

Opening times*: every day except Mondays from 9.00am - 1.00pm

3. Il Castello di Caccamo

Driving along the motorway between Palermo and Cefalu and exiting at Termini Imerese, you can head south, away from the sea, and up into the mountains. After several kilometres of winding road, ascending to over 500 metres above sea level, you will arrive at the pleasant mediaeval town of Caccamo, whose castle is one of the most spectacularly positioned in Sicily. Built in the 12th century by a Norman knight Matthew Bonellus, it was subsequently enlarged and reinforced by Manfredi Chiaramonte in the early 1300s. It offers all the characteristics one expects of a 'classic' castle, including square towers topped with 'swallow-tailed' battlements, thick stone walls and, thanks also to its position on the top of a precipitous limestone outcrop, a sense of impregnability. It's a great day out for adults and children alike and there is also a good restaurant below, called A Castellana.

Opening times*: every day of the week from 9.00am-1.00pm and from 3.00pm to 7.00pm

4. Castello di Venere - Erice 

Erice is one of Sicily's most delightful towns, situated in an incomparable position on top of a mountain and offering stunning 360-degree panoramas of most of western Sicily, the sea and the Egadi Islands. Arguably the best views are from the 12th century Norman castle, Il Castello di Venere, so called thanks to its having been built on the site of an ancient Temple of Venus. Some impressive crenelated perimeter walls survive (along with a few internal areas) and it is possible to walk around these marvelling at the sight of Sicily and its sea way down below and stretching into the distance. Just 100m away, is Erice's second castle, the Torri Pepoli, which comprises a series of monumental towers. It is now the site of a hotel and restaurant.

Opening times*: every day from the end of March to the end of October from 10.00am to 6.00pm, 7.00pm or 8.00pm depending on the time of year. In the winter months the castle is only open on Saturdays and public holidays.

5. Il Castello di Aci Castello

The east coast of Sicily, between Catania and Taormina, is home to a series of pretty fishing villages, one of which is Aci Castello. As the name implies, the town's history is inextricably linked to its castle, one which, on a cloudy, rainy winter's day would not look out of place on the Cornwall coast or sitting above a Scottish loch! Most of what remains dates back to the late 11th century, when the Normans re-built an existing Byzantine fortification on what was a towering lava stone sea-stack. A subsequent eruption of Mount Etna in 1169 filled in the sea separating the castle from the coast thus making it accessible on foot from the mainland. There remains a rectangular tower, once the dungeon, a chapel and a couple of rooms, one of which is home to a small museum, but it is the position that really enchants.

Opening times*: every day from 9.00am to 1.00pm and from 3.00pm to 5.00pm, 7.00pm or 8.00pm depending on the time of year.

6. Il Castello di Donnafugata

Il Castello di Donnafugata is situated in the south-east of Sicily, between Ragusa and the sea. It is not one of Sicily's truly historic, battle-hardened castles, however, but rather a sumptuous, architecturally eclectic aristocratic residence that was frequently changed and enlarged between the 17th and 20th centuries. Most of what you can see today is the work of Baron Corrado Arezzo de Spuches, who owned the castle for most of the 19th century. Recently restored, the castle's clean lines and creamy stone exterior create a kind of blank canvas onto which have been applied Normanesque double-lancet windows, a pastiche Venetican-Gothic loggia and a series of decorative crenelations that hark back to the mediaeval period. It is a huge building, boasting 120 rooms spread over three floors, and is surrounded by large formal gardens, planted with numerous exotic and Mediterranean plants and featuring a couple of grottoes, a neo-classical tempietto and even a small labyrinth. Inside, visitors may look around part of the first floor, the piano nobile, and get a real insight into the Baron's playful imagination.

If you're a fan of the Montalbano detective series, you may recognise Il Castello di Donnafugata as the highly impressive abode of one of Montalbano's arch enemies, the Mafia boss Balduccio Sinagra. You can find out more about the stunning locations of the hit TV series in our guide, 'On the trail of Inspector Montalbano'.

Opening times*: generally speaking every day except Monday from 9.00am to 1.00pm and from 2.45pm to various times in the afternoon, depending on the time of year and days... Best to check before going!

7. Il Castello di Caltabellotta

About 20km inland from the fishing port of Sciacca sits the town of Caltabellotta. Its name, deriving from the Arabic Qalat al Balad, meaning 'castle in the rock', efficiently sums up the town's major attraction. Perched at over 900 metres above sea level surveying the valley below from on high, Caltabellotta's strategic importance was not lost on the invading Normans, who launched an attack on the Arab garrison there in 1090. After razing the existing fortification to the ground, they set about building their own castle into and around the rocky spur that still today is the fulcrum of the town. In 1282 the castle was the setting for the formal end to the Sicilian Vespers, whereby Federico III was recognised as King of Sicily. Alongside the castle, the Normans also built several churches and a monastery, but very little remains today apart from a few evocative ruins and a sense of drama stemming from the unparallelled views, which take in vast swathes of western Sicily, the Mediterranean and even (on a clear day!) the island of Panetelleria, far to the south.

Opening times*: n/a - the site of the castle is may be visited at an time.

8. Il Castello di Milazzo

The hilly headland of Milazzo pushes out over 3km into the Tyrrhenian Sea, a crooked finger pointing the way to the Aeolian Islands. Its strategic position appealed to the Arabs who began work on a fortification there. Then, as was so often the case, the Normans took over and enlarged it considerably before Emperor Frederick II 'Stupor Mundi' developed it further, transforming it into a citadel whose imposing walls would later enclose a cathedral (1616), a Benedictine monastery and a series of other buildings. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Aragonese rulers added bastions and round towers. Thanks to the variety of architectural styles (think square Arabic tower, Norman walls, Frederickan ogival portal, Spanish towers) Milazzo castle offers a neat synthesis of many of Sicily's varied architectural styles.

Opening times*: every day except Mondays from 8.30am to 1.30pm and from 3.30pm to 5.30pm

9. Il Castello di Sperlinga

Where the Castle of Sperlinga begins and where the mighty rock into which it is built ends is never quite clear! Nestling in the southern slopes of the Madonie and Nebrodi mountain ranges, the little town of Sperlinga is what you might call 'off the beaten track' and only those with a passion for exploration will experience the considerable rewards its magnificent castle has to offer. The town surrounds an enormous sandstone spur which, way back in prehistoric times, was excavated as a necropolis by the area's first inhabitants. Fast forward to the Norman arrival in Sicily and the excavations continued, but this time for rather grander architectural designs: the creation of an impregnable fortification. Sperlinga castle has an ingenious and fascinatingly complex design, incorporating not only classic mediaeval towers, mullioned windows and crenelations but also hidden food silos, reservoirs for catching rain water and secret passageways all carved out of the rock. Parts of the castle emerge from the sandstone but, rather like an iceberg, much more is hidden below, unimaginable to the innocent observer.

The most famous event in the castle's history took place during the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. As the Sicilians rose en masse to oust (and massacre) their Angevin oppressors, the townsfolk of Sperlinga gave refuge to a few surviving Angevin soldiers in the castle. Remarkably, they survived for a year, a demonstration of the castle's impregnability. The kindness of the Sperlingans is testified to in an engraving on the wall near the castle's entrance: Quod Siculis placuit sola Sperlinga negavit (Sperlinga alone refused what pleased the Sicilians).

Opening times*: every day from 9.30am to 1.30pm and from 3.30pm to 6.30pm

10. Il Castello di Castelbuono

A great day trip for anyone staying in the Cefalu area on Sicily's north coast, is Castelbuono, one of a series of charming mediaeval towns in the Madonie Mountains. The main attraction of Castelbuono (though there are also some great restaurants there!) is undoubtedly the impressive castle. Commissioned by the powerful baronial Ventimiglia family in 1316, the castle is a classic example of how, even after more than 200 years since the end of Arab rule, their architectural style was still incorporated into many Norman-Swabian constructions. Indeed, the very shape of the castle - an imposing cube - recalls the great Mameluk buildings of Cairo and other north African towns. Meanwhile, the square towers, battlements and other architectural features are of evident Norman extraction, while the more rotund towers are pure Swabian. The interiors, spread over three floors, include a grand chapel (an addition of 1684 by the Serpotta brothers), numerous lofty-ceilinged halls and living quarters and the obligatory dungeon! The views from the upper floors confirm the strategic position that the castle occupies, overlooking the large central valley of the Madonie Mountains. The castle is also home to the town's Civic Museum.

Opening times*: every day except Mondays from 8.30am to 2.00pm and from 2.30pm to 8.00pm

11. Il Castello di Carini

Situated in the centre of Carini, a hill-top town just west of Palermo, Il Castello di Carini dates back to the 11th century, when the remains of an Arabic castle were transformed into an imposing fortress by a Norman knight who had followed Roger I to Sicily. Over the centuries, the castle has been expanded and updated many times, though most of what we see today is of the 12th and 13th centuries. 

The Castello di Carini is perhaps most famous for a bloody event that took place on 4th December 1563. Rumours of a romantic affair between the Baroness of Carini, Laura Lanza di Trabia, and a certain Ludovico Vernagallo, were bringing shame upon the Baroness's family. Her father took matters into his own hands, restoring his family's honour by murdering his daughter and her presumed lover. The exact circumstances of the tragedy are unknown, but the event might well explain why the Castello of Carini is haunted, especially on 4th December each year!

Il Castello di Carini is open to the public and since 2017 has been home to MOON, a contemporary art gallery and education centre hosting conferences, workshops and temporary and permanent exhibitions of art from all over the world.

Opening times*: every day except Sundays from around 10.00am to 2.00pm and from 4.00pm to 8.00pm


*Opening times correct at time of writing. Please check before visiting as times can and do change.

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