I’ve recently had the chance to visit the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, in the province of Catania, on a trip with dad to meet some long-lost relatives and needless to say, it’s been a true feast for the eyes – and the belly!
Perched on three hills between the Erei and the Iblei mountains, Caltagirone is famous for its millennial ceramic tradition and is one of the eight towns known as the “Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto”, collectively included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. That is because after the devastating earthquake that destroyed this area in 1693, most buildings had been reconstructed in the architectural style of that time, which was Baroque.
Nowadays the town is divided into a modern area with trendy shops and brand new apartments, and an historic center full of old churches and elegant palazzi. We based ourselves in a cute B&B in the old part of town, surrounded by a labyrinth of cobblestone streets where surprises await you around every corner: the smell of fresh bread coming from a traditional bakery, a little piazza lined with orange trees, a greengrocer arranged in the back of an old car, and even an ordination procession of monks!
The main square of the old town is Piazza Umberto I, where elderly gather to chat on the benches under the warm sunlight. Here we visited the Cattedrale di San Giuliano, with a dome covered in light blue tiles. Just around the corner lies Caltagirone’s most famous spot, the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, a monumental staircase connecting Piazza Municipio to the Church of Santa Maria del Monte, in the upper part of the town. What makes this staircase so unique is the fact that each of its 142 steps are covered with a different set of hand-painted tiles, creating an impressive chromatic effect. The Scalinata is sandwiched between old palazzi and ceramic workshops, and is the set of many cultural events throughout the year, especially on 24/25 July when Caltagirone celebrates its patron saint San Giacomo with thousands of lanterns decorating the steps, and during the Scala Infiorita festival in May and June, when the steps are covered with colorful flowers recreating beautifully intricate patterns. I walked all the way up to the top of the staircase to visit the Church of Santa Maria del Monte (quite an athletic accomplishment I must say…), but to my disappointment I found it closed. My fault, I should have remembered that most churches and shops here close between midday and 4pm.
From Piazza Municipio it’s a short walk to reach Via Roma, the town’s main street that features some of Caltagirone’s prettiest sights. One of these is the 17th-century Ponte di San Francesco, a beautiful bridge decorated with colorful ceramic tiles overlooked by the imposing facade of the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi. Further along via Roma the public gardens offer a relaxing break, especially in spring and summer when trees and flowers are in full bloom. There are a number of pathways leading to an open area with an elegant art nouveau pavilion which, sadly, looks a little bit neglected these days. Adjacent to the public gardens is the Ceramics Museum, a must-see for all ceramics lovers, with over 2,500 pieces on display.
Walking on the eastern edge of the old town in search for the house where my dad was born (I know, the trip got very sentimental at some point…), we stumbled upon the the Church of the Capuchin Friars. It’s nothing special from the outside, but once you step inside and you are shown around by an enthusiastic 89-year-old monk telling you all about the artistic treasures hidden behind these walls, well trust me that it’s impossible not to fall in love with this place. Underneath the church there’s also a crypt with a fascinating nativity scene that depicts key moments from the life of Jesus. It’s amazing to see the perfection with which the local potters have recreated such scenes and the enchanting display of lights and sounds.
Other interesting spots in the old town include the Church del Carmine on a side street off la Scalinata, worth a look for its huge terracotta nativity scene; the Church of San Pietro with its neo-Gothic facade decorated with majolica tiles; and the Museo Civico, housed in the old Bourbon prison, where you can admire some interesting paintings by Sicilian artists and the huge litter of San Giacomo.
But let’s talk food now. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Sicily is a heaven for foodies, but Caltagirone exceeded all our expectations! We had some huge, delicious arancini (rice balls) and mouthwatering calzoni (kind of a bread roll filled with spinach, sundried tomatoes and other stuffings) at Bar Judica e Trieste, a charming little café near Piazza Umberto I which is perfect for a quick lunch break. They also have a pretty serious selection of sweets but my stomach raised the white flag and I didn’t taste them. We also tried the Planet at lunch time, a risto-pub on via Roma offering traditional dishes at affordable prices. I still remember their gnocchi al pistacchio…
Our base for dinner was Anima e Core, a simple family-owned trattoria in Piazza Marcinnò, where you can taste authentic local food in a cosy atmosphere. If you go there don’t miss their antipasto rustico (a colorful plate of mixed vegetables cooked in different ways) and their famous filetto in crosta di cipolla (a beef steak covered in sliced onions).
On our last day in town, with some time on our hands before flying back home, we decided to explore the surroundings of Caltagirone and drove to Piazza Armerina, about 30 km north (better to have a rental car, as public transportation is pretty limited). The weather was gorgeous and it felt amazing driving through the open road, surrounded by fields of artichokes and prickly pears with beautiful views over lush green hills. Piazza Armerina boasts a picturesque medieval centre and is often referred to as “the town of 100 churches”, due to the extraordinary number of religious sites that can be found here. We also managed to visit the Villa Romana del Casale (about 5 km from Piazza Armerina), an exceptional example of Roman country retreat with some of the finest and best preserved mosaics in the world (no coincidence that this place has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site).
Useful tips for Caltagirone
We stayed at Il Piccolo Attico, a cute B&B right in the heart of the hold town and only a few steps from the famous Scalinata. All rooms have been recently refurbished and are spotless, but the true gem of this place is its owner: Signora Rosa Maria will do everything she can to make your stay unforgettable – starting from the scrumptious, generous breakfast that is served all year around on the terrace, with magnificent views over the city and Mt. Etna.
Looking for a unique souvenir? Then enter one of the many ceramic shops dotting the town and ask for a Bummolo Malandrino, a jug of ancient origins used to serve water or wine while keeping them cold. What’s so great about it? Well, unlike normal jugs, this one is filled from the bottom through an ingenious system that keeps the liquid inside when you put the jug back on the table. I bought mine at Sil.va Ceramica, a shop in Piazza Umberto I whose owners realize fantastic pieces of pottery.
Unfortunately Sicily’s public transportation system is not great, therefore I strongly recommend renting a car at the airport. Caltagirone is just about an hour drive from Catania, roads are fine and the route offers some nice views of Mt. Etna and the Sicilian countryside (Comiso airport, served by Ryanair, is about the same distance).