Caltagirone is one of the towns in Sicily that I remember most vividly: the bright blue and yellow colours of the ceramic tiles that decorate its pavements and walls, the interesting Arab influences, and the stunning views of the surrounding plains.
The town’s history predates the Greek settlements in Sicily– necropolises found nearby are from the second millennium BC. Evidence of terracotta production in the area dates as far back as the Iron Age, when the Italic Sicel tribe lived here.
Its name derives from Arabic, underlining the influence of the ninth century Arab settlers who also introduced new ceramic production techniques, such as glazing, which still characterise the local style.
Nowadays its architecture is mainly baroque, the way it was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1693. As a result it is included in the UNESCO World Heritage site “Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto”.
My day out here was special for several reasons. First of all, I had the excitement of seeing “La Scala”– the 142 steps covered in different ceramic patterns.
It’s quite a strenuous task to reach the top, so I took several breaks and spent some time examining all the different patterns on each step.
Here’s the first design I spotted. The middle tile displays the image of an eagle–representing freedom– which is also found on the coat of arms of Caltagirone. It is holding a bone, and symbolises the liberation of Caltagirone from Arab rule. To the left is an image of a warrior slaying a dragon. which may represent St. George. Based on my research, the cross of St. George, a symbol of Genoa, was incorporated into Caltagirone’s coat of arms after troops from Liguria led by Byzantine general George Maniakes attacked the Arab castle here around 1030.
Next I admired the many pretty and exotic animal and flower patterns in subsequent tiles. These included lions, mice, peacocks and other birds.
At the top of the steps, I came across this interesting maiolica panel depicting the “Moving of the bell of Hauteville to Caltagirone”. The Normans, led by Roger of Hauteville, conquered Sicily in the 11th century, taking over many towns that were previously under Arab rule.
The church of Santa Maria del Monte, at the top of the steps, was unfortunately closed and seemed quite run-down. That was a bit of a disappointment after walking up 142 steps! So I headed back to look in one of the many ceramic shops of the town. Here you could buy your own tile similar to those decorating the steps. There were also many examples of the ceramic “Moorish heads” of Caltagirone. These are a local tradition linked to a strange and gruesome story told in many different ways but usually related to two lovers and at least one beheading! They now come in all shapes and sizes and are used as decoration, flower pots, vases, candlesticks and egg holders.
While I was walking around the town I also spotted this incredible graffiti inspired by the heads of Caltagirone.
There are many other interesting spots to see in Caltagirone, including the civic museum in the ex-Bourbon prison. Here we were given a free guided tour where we saw some of the scary remnants of this 18th century prison, and some wonderful paintings, including this one of the “Madonna of the Refuge”, which particularly struck me for its beauty. This was painted by Giovanni Portaluni in 1627.
Although parts of the town appear to be crumbling and in need of serious renovation, it is still a lovely place to spend at least half a day. Once you have seen the sights you can have a prosecco, and don’t forget to admire the interesting architecture and the stunning views, especially at sunset.
I visited in March, but I hear that May is a particularly good time to see the steps in Caltagirone, because locals adorn them with beautiful flower patterns. Then in July they cover them with a stunning lantern display. There is more information on that here. Here’s some details in Italian on this year’s flower design, and a picture.
I’m hoping to go back for either the flower or lantern festival. Hope you also make it to Caltagirone too darlings!