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I Borghi più belli d'Italia - Sicily, Montalbano Elicona
Lightbox (15) Tags: architecture borghi-piu-belli-ditalia europe history italy sicily Posted: Dec. 15, 2011 by Vassilik
Location of "The most beautiful villages in Italy" in Sicily
From left to right (Click on map markers for details): Cefalù, Geraci Siculo, San Marco d'Alunzio, Brolo, Montelbano Elicona, Novara di Sicilia, Savoca, Castelmola
View over Montalbano Elicona and the castle of Frederick II (Sicily, Italy). Media credit: Erm67 (Wikipedia, Montalbano Elicona), License details
Date licensed: Dec. 6, 2011
Panoramic view of Montalbano Elicona (Sicily, Italy). Media credit: Bdsklo (Wikipedia, Montalbano Elicona), License details
Date licensed: Dec. 6, 2011
Montalbano Elicona is a small town in the province of Messina (Sicily) located about 93 miles (150 km) east of Palermo and about 31 miles (50 km) southwest of Messina. Its population is about two and a half thousand people and declining since early 20s of the last century. When the "I Borghi più belli d'Italia" club was born in 2001, Montalbano Elicona became quickly one of its proud members.
The ancient history of Montalbano Elicona is obscure, and we can only assume that it went through the same historic developments as the rest of Sicily. The origins of the borough's name are also not clear; some point to the similarities in pronunciation between the Latin "mons albus" (meaning "white mountains") and Montalbano; others link the name to Arabic "al-bana" (meaning "excellent place"). I am thinking, why not to combine for a change both Latin "montem" (mountain) and Arabic "al-bana" - then, we would get something almost identical: monte(m)-al-bana!
Anyway, the first mentioning of the town in written sources comes from Arab geographer al-Idrisi who met with Roger II, King of Sicily in 1138; consequently, this meeting resulted in an extensive geographic study and exploration of the whole world. It was finished in 1154, and its results were assembled in a book often referred as al-Kitab al-Rujari or "Roger's Book." Not surprisingly, the best part of both map and text, accurate and detailed, dealt with Sicily itself, and that's where some places like Montalbano Elicona appeared for the first time as written knowledge. Buy the way, the striking work resulted from the combined efforts of an unusual at that time Christian king, a great intellectual itself and a promoter of science and arts, and a distinguished Muslim scholar is a fascinating story by itself. It goes well beyond the scope of this writeup, but if you are interested in the history of Sicily and scientific discoveries of the time, I recommend reading this wonderful article "Al-Idrisi And Roger’s Book" by Frances Carney Gies, Saudi Aramco (trust me, you will not regret).
The most significant architectural historical element of Montalbano Elicona is the castle that dominates the whole place. There are reasons to believe that it wad built on existing Byzantine and Arab structures. Though what seems to be an established fact is that In 1211, Frederick II (1194 – 1250, called sometimes Frederick II of Swabia after the family's southwestern Germany ducal origin who became a Holy Roman Emperor and the head of the House of Hohenstaufen) gave the fortress as a gift to his wife Costanza of Aragon and presumably modified and enlarged the castle. Another significant transformation of the castle took place at times of Frederick II of Aragon who used the castle as his royal residence during the first period of his reign (Frederick II of Aragon, 1272 – 1337, regent and from 1295 the King of Sicily; the second Frederick II in Sicily is called sometimes Frederick III to stress the line of his ancestor's ordinal - Frederick II of Swabia was in fact his grand grandfather). After the restoration in 1980s, the castle reacquired its former beauty and is used for exhibitions and other events.
The churches of Montalbano are among structures that reflect the history of the village and contain various works of artistic interest:
The month of August is the usual time of various celebrations taking place in Montalbano Elicona; they are known as "Feste Aragonese" and focus on recreating the medieval atmosphere of the 14th century at times of Frederick II (or III) of Aragon. Specific schedule may change from year to year (check the municipal Web site ("Turismo" section) for more details), but it seems that the most interesting part of the festival involving reenactments, parade in costumes, competitions (Palio dei quartieri) takes place on the weekend before August 24 (see below). The whole festival starts at the beginning of August with various events and performances taking place almost every day.
August 24th is the date of the "Festa del 24 agosto", a festival in honor of the Virgin Mary of Providence (Madonna Maria Santissima della Provvidenza), regarded with great respect by the faithful in Montalbano and its neighboring villages. The event originates from the 17th century; it involves a procession with the wooden statue of the Madonna covered with jewels and carried around the town.
For those interested in nature, staying in Montalbano Elicona can offer interesting excursions and hikes. Many of them go through the natural reserve "Il Bosco di Malabotta" (located about 2.5 miles / 4 km south from the village). Another target of your nature explorations can be Argimusco, a plateau within the boundaries of the communes of Montalbano Elicona and Roccella Valdemone. It is known for numerous megaliths attributed by local tradition to a prehistoric human activity (though considered by the scientific community as being produced by wind erosion as no signs of prehistoric human presence have ever been found around the presumed monuments).