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Chiaramonte Gulfi

THE BALCONY OF SICILY

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Some nicknames are more fitting than others and Chiaramonte Gulfi’s is perfect. Known as Il Balcone di Sicilia (the Balcony of Sicily), the town rises to the northwest of Ragusa at about 660m above sea level and offers some of the most extensive and impressive views anywhere in Sicily (and there are many rivals). Chiaramonte Gulfi is not just about panoramas, however, but also history and precious gastronomic traditions.

Founded by Greeks from Syracuse in the 7th century BC, Chiaramonte Gulfi would change both its name and location during the course of its history. It was variously called Akrillai by the Greeks, Acrillae by the Romans, Gulfi ("place of pleasure") by the Arabs, and Chiaramonte for several hundred years. Finally, in 1881 it assumed its present name.

This changing name provides evident insights into the town’s history. It fell to the Romans in 231BC and to the Arabs in 827AD. It passed to the Normans and then to the Angevins, who were ousted in 1299 by Manfredi Chiaramonte during the Sicilian Vespers.

A day exploring Chiaramonte Gulfi would be incomplete without tasting the treasures of its ancient gastronomic traditions.

Under the auspices of the new Aragonese rulers, Manfredi relocated Gulfi to a higher, more strategic position, built an impregnable fortress, and gave the town his family name. Finally, in 1693, after being destroyed in the same terrible earthquake that battered the towns of the Val di Noto, Chiaramonte was rebuilt once more.

The town is a pleasure to discover, and most of the buildings in the historic centre are in a modest but attractive baroque style. There are exceptions, however, and these include the 14th century Arco dell’Annunziata, an arched entrance to the mediaeval quarter, the late 15th-century Gothic Basilica di Santa Maria la Nova, and the similarly aged Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista. In total there are eight churches and, a little outside town, two more in the Santuario di Gulfi and the Santuario delle Grazie. All are of interest, thanks both to their architectural stratification and the works of art within.

As we mentioned at the beginning, Chiarmonte Gulfi is worth a visit for its views alone. To the south, vast vistas sweep out, taking in the Valle dell’Ippari with the towns of Vittoria and Comiso, the Gulf of Gela, and a wide arc of the Mediterranean Sea. To the west is the 900m-high Monte Arcibessi and the raised plateau and peaks of the Monti Iblei, while to the north, some 75km away as the crow flies, is Mount Etna. The best spot from which to admire this splendid panorama is arguably the public gardens at the western end of Corso Umberto I.

A day exploring Chiaramonte Gulfi would be incomplete without tasting the treasures of its ancient gastronomic traditions. There is a good selection of restaurants and small food shops where you can taste and buy the local specialities, which include a superb DOP extra virgin olive oil, salamis, sausages and wine. These products are celebrated throughout the year in a series of sagre (food festivals) devoted to, amongst others, olive oil (usually the end of November/beginning of December), sausages (during Carnival), focaccia (August), and gastronomic traditions as a whole in the Sagra del Gallo ai Sapori Chiaramontani (the middle of August).

Finally, if you wish to get a greater understanding of the town and its traditions, head to its most impressive aristocratic home, Palazzo Montesano, which hosts a museum dedicated to a variety of themes that include olive oil, art, ethno-musical instruments, ornithology and Liberty Style design (including pieces by Renè Lalique, Legras, Calderoni, Ernesto Basile and Carlo Zen).

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