A journey through Sicily’s historic castles

Castello di Caccamo, near Palermo

Castello di Caccamo, near Palermo

To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.       - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

German writer, philosopher and statesman von Goethe had got right already in 1787, and so many other famous personalities celebrated Sicily with glorious quotes – just to mention a couple: Guy de Maupassant, Leonardo Sciascia, Roger Peyrefitte, Giovanni Pascoli, Giosuè Carducci, Alexis De Tocqueville.

Italy’s largest island conquers so many admirers thanks to its striking nature, cultural mix and history, which also have a positive impact on its gastronomy, lifestyle and local activities. In fact, throughout its history, Sicily was controlled and inhabited by a number of different powers, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Spanish and the Bourbons!

The innumerable changes between the 8th century BC - when Sicily was colonized by the ancient Greeks, and 1861 - when the island was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy, have created a distinct culture and unique melting pot that is quite evident in all the aspects of the daily life. One of the most immediate testimonies of the past, which any visitor can identify and appreciate right away upon arriving in Sicily and throughout the journey, is the architecture.

Baroque churches, gothic buildings, Spanish neighborhoods, medieval hamlets… the list is never ending. But in today’s post we would like to focus on some of the most magical remains from the past: castles! Built initially as unconquerable fortresses to defend the cities, nowadays they conquer the hearts and imagination of tourists and even of the locals.

There are more than 200 castles across the island, but we have selected some of the most striking, that are also ideal locations for fantastic family & friend reunions, weddings, foodie trips and corporate occasions.

Castello di Milazzo

Castello di Milazzo

Starting from the north-eastern tip, Castello di Milazzo and Cittadella di Messina dominate the sea that separates Sicily from the Italian mainland. The former was probably built by the Arabs around 840, and was subsequently modified by the Normans, the Swabians, the Aragonese and the Spanish. In the early 1600s, the ancient Milazzo Cathedral was built inside the castle, which also features Neolithic necropolises! The latter, the pentagon-shaped Cittadella di Messina, was built by the Spaniards in the 1500s and later changed by the Bourbons, and became one of the most important fortresses of the Mediterranean.

Fortezza di Aci Castello

Fortezza di Aci Castello

Proceeding our journey clock wise along the Sicilian coast, we reach Europe’s most active volcano - the majestic Mount Etna, which has had an impact on many local buildings… including the Fortezza di Aci Castello, our next castle. This fortress was built with dark volcanic rock, and is perched on a cliff on the sea. It was used as a fort since Roman times for its strategic location; in 1072 it was conquered by the Normans, and in 1126 it became a property of the Bishops of Catania, who brought the relics of Saint Agatha to reside in the building. After even more changes of ownership, in 1797 it became a prison under the Bourbons.

Castello di Paternò

Castello di Paternò

In the countryside near Mt. Etna and Catania, there is one of the most remarkable monuments built by the Normans, specifically by Roger I of Hauteville. Castello di Paternò is a massive, 34-meter high parallelepiped with dark-stone walls and Gothic-style windows in white limestone.

Our next stop is south of Syracuse, at Portopalo di Capo Passero, where the beautiful Spanish Fort was erected to fend off pirates attacks. It is of Swabian-Aragonese origin, and its gate features a stone coat of arms representing an imperial eagle.

Turning around the southern corner towards western Sicily, we bump into Ragusa and its charming Castello di Donnafugata. Contrary to what the name suggests, the building is not an actual castle, but a lavish noble dwelling of the 1800s. It has a façade in neo-gothic Venetian style, and is surrounded by an 8-hectare park with a small temple, artificial grottoes and a unique stone labyrinth.

Castello di Donnafugata, Ragusa

Castello di Donnafugata, Ragusa

We proceed our trip and reach the city that is famous for the Valley of the Temples, Agrigento. Nearby is the Castello di Naro, built in the 1300s by the noble Chiaramonte Family. Located on a hilltop, this solid building features a square tower, added by Frederick II of Aragon, and massive surrounding walls that alternate cylindrical and square towers.

Leaving the coast and exploring the Sicilian hinterland, we can reach the Castello di Mussomeli, near Caltanissetta. It is a masterpiece of military architecture from the XIV and XV centuries, and is probably one of the most inaccessible forts of the island. Built by Manfredi III Chiaramonte, it looks like the building is fused with the calcareous rock on which it stands. The façade is decorated with gothic elements. Inside, there are majestic halls with vaulted ceilings, but also macabre places like the "Prison of Death", where the condemned were lowered through a trapdoor and drowned.

Castello di Mussomeli

Castello di Mussomeli

Back on the road trip, let’s finish crossing Sicily diagonally and reach the unique, breathtaking Castello di Erice (also known as the Castle of Venus). It enjoys a location that is beyond panoramic, on Mount San Giuliano, from where you can admire Trapani, the Egadi Islands, Mount Cofano and the coast. It was built by the Normans as a defensive fortress in the XII century on the ruins of an ancient sanctuary dedicated to Venus.

Castello di Erice

Castello di Erice

We finish the castle tour around Sicily by reaching the capital, Palermo, which features different remarkable buildings, such as Palazzo Steri and Castello a Mare. But we will dedicate a few words to the largest Sicilian castle, given its particular historic importance and attractiveness: Castello di Caccamo. It was built during the Norman rule, set on a rocky spur overlooking a valley. The views from up here are simply breathtaking. Among the relevant historic episodes that took place here, is that Matteo Bonello and his fellow conspirators found refuge in the castle following the Barons’ Revolt (1160-61). Inside, you can admire the stables, the auditorium of the theater, the chapel, the servants’ rooms, the prisons, the Conspiracy Room and the impressive Arms Room.

If you would like to share your favorite Sicilian castle from this list or from your own experience, feel free to leave a message in the comment box below!

Are you looking for an authentic location where to organize your special Italian occasion? Contact us now and let us help you create an unforgettable event!

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Cooking School of Siena: interview with Chef Lella

Lella Cesari Ciampoli in action - courtesy of scuoladicucinadilella.net

Lella Cesari Ciampoli in action - courtesy of scuoladicucinadilella.net

Today we have the pleasure of sharing an interview with Lella Cesari Ciampoli, owner of Siena’s first school of international cuisine, which she founded in 1996. The mission of her culinary institution is to maintain the tradition of Sienese and Tuscan cooking and recipes.

Lella teaches Italian, Tuscan and Medieval Cuisine, as well as pastry-making, natural leavening dough preparation, and health and nutrition. She is an expert and researcher of antique recipes of Tuscan and Medieval Cuisine.

At Italian Special Occasions, we had the opportunity to chat with Lella about her school and passion.

You are an authority and an expert researcher of antique recipes. In particular, how did you become so passionate about medieval cuisine?

Learning and knowing about where we came from helps us to understand where we are and where we will go. The same applies to cuisine: understanding how food was treated and what we ate in the past centuries, helps us understand the evolution of taste and how to deal with food. From the ‘garum’ (a fermented fish sauce used in Roman times) to the medieval ‘camelina’ (a popular sauce in the 1400s) to today’s tomato ketchup, we have come a long way.

The Scuola di Cucina di Lella offers an impressive variety of courses: for baby chefs, newlyweds, for singles, quick summer cuisine, homemade bread, pastry, the use of left-overs, vegetarian menus, seasonal cuisine, gluten-free dishes, cake design… What is the most requested course by foreigners and what does it involve?

“Tuscan Cuisine” is the most requested cooking lesson by foreign visitors. Usually I hold intensive lessons that go from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the number of participants. They learn about regional cuisine and the Menù Tipico Toscano (a traditional meal from starter to dessert), and create recipes using only fresh local products. At the end of the lesson, dinner or lunch is served with what was prepared during the course, and the meal is accompanied by excellent wines.

What makes your school different from others? What do you try to transmit to your students?

I have the presumption of wanting to transmit to my pupils the passion, the knowledge, the respect for traditions, the pleasure of cooking for the ones you love, for the family. The importance of food in the relations between people is such that, for example, it is at the table where business deals are concluded, where new sentiments come to life, where we share our stories.
Cooking lessons at Scuola di Cucina di Lella - courtesy of scuoladicucinadilella.net

Cooking lessons at Scuola di Cucina di Lella - courtesy of scuoladicucinadilella.net

What ingredients do you prefer to use in your recipes?

The products that I use the most are seasonal vegetables, garlic (which I cook in a way that is digestible to all… it is a small secret of mine…), extra virgin olive oil (EVO) from the Sienese territory or from Tuscany, red Chianina meat, Cinta Senese pork, local poultry and lambs.

What dish do you think that best represents the culinary tradition from Siena?

Certainly the Pappa al Pomodoro (Tuscan soup) and the traditional sweet pastry like the ricciarelli and the panforte di Siena.

When you go to the restaurant, what is your favorite dish and why?

I rarely go to the restaurant, and I do not have preferences because I love everything! But when I do go, I always ask for recommendations from the Chefs – who are usually old friends of mine – or tips from the members of the Siena Chefs Association, of which I am part as president of the Lady Chefs.

On TripAdvisor, the profile of the “Scuola di Cucina di Lella” has been collecting many positive comments and your rating is ‘excellent’. What was the nicest compliment you received from a person who participated in your cooking course?

The recurring and gratifying compliment is that the meals that my students cook and then eat at my school are the best that they have tried all over Italy. Also, the cooking lessons are considered as a proper gastronomic course and remain impressed as one of the best memories of their Italian trip.

For more on Lella, visit her website scuoladicucinadilella.net

Lella's authentic cooking lessons are great for bringing the family closer together, and for fun friend reunions in Italy. If you would like to combine this and other culinary experiences with more unique activities in Tuscany or across Italy for a special occasion, contact us now!

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Florence destination wedding: authentic activities for your guests

Italian Wedding Couture featured on Luxury Travel Magazine

Italian Wedding Couture featured on Luxury Travel Magazine

At Italian Special Occasions we are very happy and proud of the success that the Italian Wedding  Couture program is having. Just this week, it was featured on Luxury Travel Magazine. So, we thought it would be interesting to expand a bit more on other aspects of this program, apart from the ones involving the bride and the groom.

Italian Wedding Couture is an exclusive, made-in-Italy experience that allows you to create your wedding dress with a high-fashion designer (Anna Fucà at her Atelier), visit the loveliest wedding venues in and around Florence, try the most delicious catering services, and turn your dream into a reality. This is the main part regarding the bride, the groom and the bridesmaids.

But the program also has lots in store for the weddings guests, whether they are family or friends. After all, if they will be following the husband-and-wife-to-be all the way in Italy, they also deserve an authentic experience to enjoy the culture and essence of Tuscany! So let us have a look at the activities off the beaten track that your wedding guests can enjoy in and around Florence.

Florence is not only about the Uffizi and about Ponte Vecchio! Of course, a visit to the most iconic and historic places cannot be missed, but there is so much more you can do and see to appreciate the town even more.

Shoemaking lesson in Florence - photo courtesy of StudiainItalia

Shoemaking lesson in Florence - photo courtesy of StudiainItalia

The charming alleys of the Tuscan capital are packed with small artisan workshops, which are ideal for a fashion pit stop. Your relatives and friends can learn how to make handmade shoes, explore the best shops with a fashion expert, visit the Gucci and Ferragamo Museums, admire the Costume Gallery at Palazzo Pitti, and visit the exclusive Vasari Corridor with its unique collections! For a more detailed and dedicated program, have a look at ISO Brochure for One week with fashion artisans in Florence.

On a sunny day, visiting the green areas of Florence will leave you breathless. In particular, a stroll through the Boboli Gardens offers panoramic views of the surroundings, glorious fountains and evocative grottoes. If the group would rather speed up things a bit, lovely vintage bicycles are the way to go!

Boboli Gardens in Florence - photo from planetden.com

Boboli Gardens in Florence - photo from planetden.com

Tuscan cuisine is famous worldwide… and a foodie tour is an all-time favorite for all groups. Learn how to appreciate wine with wine tasting lessons, and try the most famous dishes - such as bistecca alla fiorentina and the ribollita - and even the less popular ones, like tripe and lampredotto. If you are wondering what it is, it is a peasant dish made from the fourth and final stomach of a cow… and if you are wrinkling your nose right now, read this article by American expat-turned-Florentine Georgette Jupe “Discovering that Tripe and Lampredotto can actually be good”.

A visit just outside of Florence will be just as rewarding. Depending on the time of year, it is possible to participate in the harvest of olives and grapes. At any time, groups can visit organic farms and witness the production of Tuscan olive oil at oil mills and of the most famous wines at wineries.

Florence at sunset. Photo by Stefano Santucci, courtesy of tastino0.it

Florence at sunset. Photo by Stefano Santucci, courtesy of tastino0.it

Are you dreaming of a destination wedding in Tuscany? Let Italian Special Occasions provide you with 360-degree assistance in the planning and organization before, during and after this special occasion, for you and your loved ones!

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Canticle Wine Route: history, mysticism and foodie delights in Umbria

Located in the heart of central Italy, Umbria features picturesque rolling hills with poplars and cypresses, and mountains that alternate narrow valleys and dense forests. The region is dotted with medieval hamlets and vineyards, which can be explored with breathtaking itineraries such as the idyllic Canticle Wine Route (Strada dei Vini del Cantico in Italian – its name deriving from the “Canticle of the Sun” poem by Saint Francis of Assisi).

The area produces a range of quality wines, including the Torgiano Rosso Riserva with the DOCG excellence label, and five DOC wines: Assisi, Colli Martani, Colli Perugini, Torgiano and Todi. Let us explore the Canticle Wine Route and its towns!

Wine Museum, Torgiano, Umbria - image from visitperugia.com

Wine Museum, Torgiano, Umbria - image from visitperugia.com

Torgiano DOC and DOCG

Torgiano is considered one of Italy’s wine capitals, and its viticulture tradition is rooted in Roman times, as local archeologic sites and ruins prove through furnaces, amphorae and mosaics. Featuring a defensive tower from the 13th century, the town celebrates its gastronomic, historic, artistic and environmental heritage in the Wine Museum and in the Olive and Oil Museum.

The local territory offers a wide vine variety, including Sangiovese, Canajolo, Grechetto, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot. The area was the first to be awarded the DOC in Umbria in 1968, and also the first to obtain a DOCG in 1990. The Torgiano Rosso Riserva (DOCG) is a rich and complex wine, suitable for long aging.

Todi DOC

The fame of the refined wines from Todi goes back to the 1st century A.D., when Ancient Roman writer Pliny the Younger celebrated its dry and velvety taste. Some of the local attractions include the Palazzo del Capitano and Palazzo dei Priori, which are striking medieval buildings that overlook the alleys and squares of Todi’s historic center. Other towns located in the Todi DOC area are Massa Martana, Collazzone and Monte Castello di Vibio.

Colli Perugini vineyards - image from umbriatasty.it

Colli Perugini vineyards - image from umbriatasty.it

Colli Perugini DOC

The hills near Perugia have been busy with wine production activities since Etruscan times, and some ancient varieties of autochthonous vines are still present, such as Mostiola, Tintarolo and Pecorina. Umbria’s capital, Perugia, offers a cosmopolitan atmosphere: it includes extensive museum collections, two universities, and also hosts international expos. Other towns of this DOC area are Marsciano, Fratta Todina and Monte Castello di Vibio, the latter being famous for the Teatro della Concordia (the smallest theater all'italiana in the world).

Colli Martani DOC

Located on the left bank of the Tiber River, this area produces wines that are particularly suited for long aging. The local vineyards gently extend through the towns of Bettona, Cannara, Montefalco and Bevagna. Most villages here are surrounded by Etruscan or medieval ruins and buildings, and many are included in the list of “The most beautiful villages in Italy”. Art lovers will particularly appreciate Bettona, which features paintings by Pietro Perugino, Dono Doni and Fiorenzo di Lorenzo in its Pinacoteca, and also hosts a series of paintings from the School of Giotto (1394) in the Oratorio di S. Andrea.

Infiorata: preparation of a flower carpet on Spello's streets - image from stradadeivinidelcantico.it

Infiorata: preparation of a flower carpet on Spello's streets - image from stradadeivinidelcantico.it

Assisi DOC

This area was the last to join the DOC club in the late 1990s, but like the rest of the region, its vine cultivation history is traced back to the Etruscans and the Romans. Two cultural, religious and artistic jewels are the absolute protagonists here: Spello and Assisi.

If you are traveling to the area you might want to match your trip with a traditional event that takes place in Spello: the Infiorata involves the creation of over sixty flower carpets in the historic center to celebrate the Corpus Domini Feast. The town is also famous for the striking Baglioni Chapel, frescoed by Pinturicchio in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Finally, the itinerary reaches the soft-pink granite stone walls of mystical Assisi. Here you will find not only the Churches that thousands of pilgrims visit every year, but also other monuments such as a Roman amphitheater and the Temple of Minerva.

Cycling in the vineyards, Umbria - image from visitumbria.com

Cycling in the vineyards, Umbria - image from visitumbria.com

Activities: vineyarding and a lot more

This mesmerizing wine route is ideal for enjoying all that the vineyards and wineries have to offer! Apart from visiting them, you can actually learn everything behind the production of wine, from harvesting to labeling the bottles in an eco-friendly way. Make the most out of your wine experience by enjoying a picnic out in the vineyard, and a delicious dinner with local products inside the winery. And it should go without saying, but just in case: wine tasting sessions are a must!

Other activities that can be combined with your exploration of the Canticle Wine Route are: visits to local olive oil mills and olive oil tastings, cooking lessons, cultural tours, horse riding, cycling. And for the ultimate thematic spa experience, make sure to book and unwind with a wine treatment in the wellness center!

The garden at Orto degli Angeli

The garden at Orto degli Angeli

Where to stay: hidden gems suggested by Italian Special Occasions

Orti degli Angeli: Located in Bevagna, this elegant residence is set in a historic building from the 1600s. It overlooks the ruins of an ancient Roman temple and theater, which are harmoniously integrated with the property’s beautiful and peaceful gardens. The Orti degli Angeli (angels’ gardens) feature colorful and scented wisteria, jasmine, clematis, rose beds and lavender. Some of these are used in the delicious desserts served in the restaurant, which specializes in ancient recipes from Umbria.

Palazzo Seneca: A unique property in Norcia, located between the Canticle Wine Route and the Marche region. The charming residence from the 16th century fuses design and tradition, and is owned and managed by a family that has been in the hospitality business since 1850. After a long day out exploring Umbria, you can retreat in the evocative wellness center, which features ceilings with barrel and groin vaults and old stone floors.

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Roman Castles: a princely corporate retreat near Rome

A view of the Pope's summer residence and Lake Albano, Castel Gandolfo. From ncronline.org

A view of the Pope's summer residence and Lake Albano, Castel Gandolfo. From ncronline.org

“For a lot of employees, corporate retreats are dreaded events. And for good reason: At a bad corporate retreat, you might end up singing Kumbaya in the woods with your boss or falling backwards into the arms of a coworker to “build trust.” But it doesn’t have to be that way.” - Oyster.com on Business Insider

Indeed, it does not have to be that way and we at Italian Special Occasions can prove how! In today’s post you will learn about one fantastic destination in Italy that really has everything a corporate meeting and team building trip could possibly need and wish.

The Roman Castles (Castelli Romani in Italian) consist of a set of small towns scattered on the Alban Hills, just 15 to 25 km away from Rome’s ring road. This area distinguishes itself for the green hilly landscape and beautiful lakes, for the delicious local food, and for its important and rich history.

The towns that form the Roman Castles are: Frascati, Ariccia, Castel Gandolfo, Grottaferrata, Monte Porzio Catone, Monte Compatri, Colonna, Rocca di Papa, Rocca Priora, Albano Laziale,  Lanuvio, Genzano di Roma and Nemi.

The ancient Roman noblemen chose the area as a summer destination because of its fresher climate, a tradition that the Popes continue still today (the village of Castel Gandolfo hosts the Pope’s summer residence). During Medieval and Renaissance times, many noble and princely families owned castles and villas there.

Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati. From italiainfoto.com

Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati. From italiainfoto.com

In fact, one of the most mesmerizing cultural activities that groups can enjoy in the Castelli Romani is to visit these villas and their beautiful gardens. Just to name a few: Villa Andobrandini, Villa Falconieri and Villa Lancellotti in Frascati; Villa Mondragone and Villa Taverna Borghese in Monteporzio Catone; Villa Grazioli and Villa Muti in Grottaferrata.

The area also hosts archeologic sites and ancient ruins. Among these are the Terme di Caracalla (also known as Cellomaio Baths), a Roman imperial bath complex that was later transformed into a stronghold during medieval times. Another interesting site is the Barco Borghese, which features a monumental tufa fountain, a Renaissance wall and panoramic views of the Roman countryside.

Paragliding in the countryside near Rome. From visitlazio.com

Paragliding in the countryside near Rome. From visitlazio.com

The nature and landscape that embraces the Castelli Romani are ideal for open-air sports, including trekking, cycling, horseback riding and paragliding. The volcanic Lakes of Albano and of Nemi allow for kayaking and sport fishing. And for a unique team-building activity, what about some golfing inside the crater of a volcano? That’s right! At Castelgandolfo Golf Club – designed by Robert Trent Jones Senior – there are 18 holes in what was once the crater of an active volcano and then a lake called Laghetto di Turno.

Ask any modern Roman what the main reason is for him or her to visit the Castelli Romani today. Most Romans will answer “per bere e mangiare” (to drink and eat)! In fact, the area is renowned for producing famous and quality wine labels as well as exquisite local products.

Foodie team-building activities include the exploration of the Wine Routes of the Roman Castles, which are itineraries dedicated to vineyards and wine production. With Italian Special Occasions, you can discover special gems that are off the beaten track. We can take your group to unique places such as Castel de Paolis, a wine estate located on the ruins of a medieval Roman fortress. What’s so authentic about it? The barrels with red wines for ageing are located in the ancient cistern from Roman times, where you can also enjoy wine tasting!

Wine-aging barrels in an ancient Roman cistern. From casteldepaolis.it

Wine-aging barrels in an ancient Roman cistern. From casteldepaolis.it

Local delicacies include the porchetta (roasted pork), fresh mozzarella and Lariano Bread (made with whole-wheat flour, 00 flour and natural yeast – and cooked in a wood oven with chestnut tree bundles). The best places to savor the local cuisine is in the rustic 'fraschette', where an informal and lively atmosphere will give you a taste of the Roman countryside and lifestyle!

The proximity to Rome makes the Castelli the ideal place for corporate trips: business meetings can be held in the Italian capital on one day, and on the next day you can be enjoying other corporate activities – sports, enogastornomy, history & culture – in the hilly area nearby. Contact us now and let us help you create the perfect itinerary for your corporate meeting!

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