In my last week on Sicily, I potter along the northern coast. The S113 runs close to the shore, criss-crossing the railway line, which does the same, providing wonderful views out to sea and occasionally I can spot the volcanic Aeolian Islands. However, I manage to drag myself away from the coast and venture inland to the mountains where the Normans erected some pretty impressive castles.
The first of these dominates the town of Caccamo. Built in the 12th century, it is a memorial to the art of defence. Thick walls, steep approaches, plus twists and turns all combine to confuse would-be attackers. Not to mention the boiling oil, sling shots and arrows that any invader would have to face if they did get that close.
Captives were slung into the prison cells where they doodled on the plaster walls until they were freed or, more often, killed. There’s also an oubliette for those unlucky enough to be forgotten and left to starve to death in the dark hole.
On the scenic terrace above is a plaque which details the story of two prisoners who escaped the hangman’s noose by using sheets as parachutes to jump from the walls. One died and the survivor, badly injured, was put back into the prison until the lord of the castle felt that he should be freed for his bravery, or perhaps his stupidity!
Most of the rooms are decorated with period pieces, such as furniture, clothing and arms. They are also being used to exhibit artwork by Sicilian artists.
In the small chapel I learn of another gruesome tale. Undesired guests were brought here believing they could pray, but when they knelt at the altar, a trapdoor opened and they fell onto spikes in the chamber below. It is commonly known as the ‘Trick Room’.
Leaving behind the medieval torture tales of Caccamo, I head back to the coast and the town of Cefalu, which sits below a rocky promontory known as La Rocca. I’m here to see the cathedral, built by Roger II in gratitude for his safe landing during a violent storm. The 12th century Duomo features an apse with a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, much like the one in Monreale, but overall I’m disappointed with the visit.
More interesting is the Saracen lavatoio, a stone wash house near the beach which I arrive at just before a large school party of Palermo teenagers.
I head back into the mountains to see the beautiful castle of Castelbuono, although it’s not actually that beautiful and, after Caccamo, is a real let down. Even the fact that the chapel on the top floor houses the skull of St Anne is not enough to hold my interest.
Luckily, the 14th century Church of Matrice Vecchia charms me. The interior is not that special but a trip down into the crypt causes my jaw to drop. The walls are covered with amazing 16th and 17th century frescos depicting Christ’s life from the Last Supper to the Resurrection. They are so vibrant in colour that I find it hard to believe that they haven’t been retouched.
Another charming aspect of the town is its determination to be eco-friendly. Greengrocer trucks selling local produce are parked at the edge of town, a water dispenser offers locals (and me) the chance to recycle bottles and fill them with cheap, clean water (5c per litre) and best of all, donkeys patrol the streets to collect the rubbish. Unlike the 5* hotel at Eze in France, Castelbuono wants to retain these cheap and cheerful animals instead of replacing them with electric golf carts!