Sperlinga

It’s easy to get wrapped up in Island Time on Sicily. Most people recognize the coastal cities with no trouble, which is understandable — the warm Mediterranean beaches are 90% of the reason anybody visits here. However, Sicily is a big island, and it’s possible to find places where it is very easy to forget that you’re on an island at all.

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Not a whole lot out here. If you want to get away from it all, central Sicily is the place to be.

Sperlinga is such a place. Sperlinga is almost two hours by backroads from Catania, and over 50 kilometers from the nearest highway, nestled in the foothills that separate the Nebrodi and Madonie mountain ranges. The best road in from the East follows an old railroad grade, whose abandoned bridges and tunnels remain as a reminder to days past.  Former railroad stations straddle the right-of-way, modest in their day but now grand houses with unbelievable views.

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I could probably live in a converted railroad station without too much trouble, if it meant I could wake up to this every day

The road and the railroad follow each other this way along the tops of the hills, doing their best to find a gradual slope amongst the rolling hills dotted with sheep, olive trees, and rocks. Eventually, though, the road must turn South – and downhill – into the valley where Sperlinga is hidden from the world.

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Sperlinga, and its castle like a great ship brought up alongside the town

Sperlinga today is home to only eight hundred people or so. Once, this town had been the seat of a prosperous barony (the Ventimiglia family), offering families of neighboring towns a house within a wall in exchange for tending the baron’s fields. Even after the Ventimiglia were gone, Sperlinga remained a bustling agricultural town. However, the events of the early Twentieth Century took their toll, and the town started a steady decline after half its population left to fight in the Great War.

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Houses at the base of the castle
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A typical road in a Sicilian mountain town. Foot traffic only.

Today, there are no restaurants, no inns, and very little business in the town apart from simple bakeries and a couple coffee shops. More than half of the houses here stand vacant. Lots of old men lingered idly around town – as is the case with most towns in Sicily – but I was immediately recognized as not Sicilian which afforded more than a few curious looks. I don’t think they see many visitors here.

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This road follows the old castle wall – carved of sandstone, not made of stone blocks – down to the main road through town. It doesn’t see much use anymore now that cars are more common.

The town itself is very charming. Made up of one main street and only two or three others that run parallel, cutting terraces into the hillside. Cross streets are stairs only, except for where the main road winds around the end of town. I stopped and bought a cappuccino, and paid the tourist price… 1.50 Euro. I’m probably the only tourist he’s like to see today.

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This is a house. Not sure if anyone is living in this one, but elsewhere in town there were facades flush with the sheer rock face that I would have thought was just like any other house, until I looked more closely.
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Driving to Palermo on these roads would be an adventure in any era

Though I spent some time exploring town, I came here to see a castle. A friend of mine told me years ago that he’d found a castle in the middle of the mountains. This castle was not built stone-by-stone, but had been carved out of the mountain, its halls and chambers hollowed out of the millenia-old sandstone by hands much older than those that built the Greek temples that are scattered throughout the island.

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A restored portion of Sperlinga Castle

I purchased a ticket and the man at the office – Salvatore – offered to show me around. I asked him if he would have many other visitors today; “not really” was his answer. Salvatore works for the Italian government as a tour guide, and seemed excited to meet someone from Southern California (“That’s where that show with the policeman and the moto is from… ummm, chips?”).  His face lit up when I recognized what he was talking about, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.

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Looking through the third gate
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What was once the stables for the castle itself. The nooks in the wall to the right were once larger, where feed was left for the horses.

We walked up the cobblestone road through where the first three gates were, and up into what was left of the keep. Salvatore explained that the castle was formed out of what was once a settlement or possibly a fortress built by the Sicilians before the Greeks arrived, but has changed hands – and roles – many times since then. Italian Archaeological experts think when the Byzantines arrived, it was definitely converted from a pagan temple into a fortress. By 1100, the rock was converted into something more recognizable as a castle after the Norman conquest of Sicily.

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More stables in the other direction as well. In the 1700s this was converted to a prison. Many of the supporting rock structures have collapsed away, leaving a large hole in the side of the mountain.
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This area was probably converted to a blacksmith’s based on the chimney and other artifacts that have been found here

Sperlinga castle is particularly notable of all the castles in Sicily as it was the last castle to remain under French control during the Sicilian Vespers, when Spain wrested control of the island from their Norman rulers. The French garrison remained beseiged here for thirteen months, surviving on the massive stores of grain kept within the mountain.

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Castle remnants
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This view is of the inside of the grain storage, where they could have kept enough food for a siege lasting years. The colder temperatures of the rock helped keep food from spoiling.
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A glob of iron oxide that formed within the sandstone. As the sandstone weathered away, these strange rocks were left behind. It looks like the world’s largest lychee is hiding in there!

Salvatore showed me photos from a book of what the castle looked like in the early twentieth century. The vast majority of it was still standing even then, but crumbling rock had become a danger to the town below. There was no money to restore the castle then, so nearly all of it was demolished. What stands today is a restoration, but some of the detail remains even so.

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The stairs up to the castle tower. Notice how the sandstone has worn away, revealing veins of harder rock containing iron and manganese ore.

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We climbed up some very treacherous sandstone steps to the tower, the highest point in Sperlinga castle. There, Salvatore pointed in all directions and named off more details than I could keep track of. One stuck with me though: he pointed West, and described the Madonie mounains…

“To the west is Pizzo Carbonara. It is the tallest mountain in Sicily, almost 2000 meters. After that, New York, San Diego, Tokyo, and so on.”

“The tallest mountain in Sicily? Even taller than Etna?”

“Etna is a volcano.”

So it is. I guess most volcanoes in America are asleep, so I think of the two as equivalent. Not so in Sicily.

Regardless, the views from the tower were fantastic. The castle’s occupants would have plenty of warning of any approach.

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Looking West, towards the Madonie mountain range
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East, towards the Nebrodi
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South, towards Enna
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And North, towards the Sambuchetti reserve

There isn’t a whole lot left to the castle as it stands today, but it’s nearly all that Sperlinga has left to offer.

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