Orange plantations covered the valley plain, replaced by olive groves and cacti as we climbed uphill.
Vincenzo our driver and likewise the Operations Manager of Wishing Sicily steered his comfortable van on narrow roads by stone cottages and quarries. From above a view of the fertile valley with the city of Catania beyond all dwarfed by the imposing volcano Etna, the caldera wrapped in clouds. Barely an hour out of Catania we stopped in a small hill side town. Under the canopy of two enormous pines local guide Grazia Manuele began to tell the story of Militello. The town like many others of South Eastern Sicily had been devastated within four minutes in the 1693 earthquake, the largest in Italian history. Built on two different kinds of rocky underground the Northern part fared better, hence the rebuilt town had moved North.
In the early 17th century, before the quake, Marquis Francesco Branciforte had made it his mission to give Militello importance. He invited most Catholic denominations to build churches and monasteries in town, resulting in twenty churches and several monasteries, some of which we would explore. Today others have been repurposed. Making our way to the top of the Villa Communal Park we pass a small pillared building marked Anno VI. Like many other megalomaniacs the year 6 indicates that it was built in the sixth year of Mussolini’s fascist reign. Above the room now used as storage stand a column adorned by a soldier in memory of those who died during the World wars.
We wander along Via Umberto I and stop at a fruit and vegetable truck in the shadow of the imposing Chiesa San Benedetto Abate for a literal taste of the fruit of the earth. The juices of the best mandarin I have ever tasted are nectar. Next stop at the foot of the stairs to the towns Cathedral Chiesa di S. Nicola - SS Salvatore. Instead of entering the imposing baroque church we go below into the crypt where stairs and corridors take us by religious artifacts collected from several of the town’s churches into this one museum. Wooden statues, stone inlays, silver and gold artifacts, paintings, stone cuts, furniture and one particular altar of both historic and more recent significance as Pope John Paul II prayed there during a visit.
Returning to daylight we cross Piazza Vittorio Emanuele filled with men basking and chatting in the sun. We climb the stairs to the intimate Chiesa Santissima Maria della Catena. The intimate church is adorned with a dozen female saints along the walls. All are white stucco works but only St. Appolonia still bear traces of leaf gold. Once they were all gilded but during a pest outbreak it was believed that the gold transmitted the decease and hence they were all either painted over with white or had the gilding removed.
A need for Paracetamol (not Corona virus related…) give us an excuse to peek into the historic Farmacia Campisi. We step over brass letters hammered into the by feet polished white marble stoop to enter the ornate pharmacy. Mission completed, we leave eyeing the massive eagle adorning the façade. Before seeing the last church of the day it is lunch time and we are seated at Bar Art Café with a view of the former Franciscan monastery now the Town Hall. A selection of large Sicilian sandwiches and cookies including “Mostarda” made from prickly pears are served up and corks to bottles of red wine pop. The town’s mayor come by and greets us (albeit without handshakes) with an invitation into the lobby of the city hall.
Well-fed and happy we head for the last church of the day, Santuario di Santa Maria della Stella at the far end of the downward sloping street. Impressive stairs end at the Sicilian Baroque facade with a separate belfry. The interior in 18th century white and gold contrast against some of the older artifacts recovered from the earthquake razed previous church. As we leave a father and son plays a game of football against the church stairs, a comforting sign of normalcy. After a quick coffee at Bar Di Lorenzo one of the few open cafes we say goodbye to our guide Grazia who showed us a piece of UNESCO world heritage.
This trip took place just a few days before all public activity was cancelled in Italy as a result of the Corona virus outbreak. It was made possible by the dedication of:
Vincenzo Salvatore Inferrera who runs a family owned tourist transport and guiding company www.wishingsicily.it
Grazia Manuele walked us through the town and brimmed with history knowledge firstname.lastname@example.org