Nothing like a Sicilian zampognari playing holiday tunes from an Arab-Norman castle with a view to cure our post-holiday food coma yesterday. While the Sicilian bagpipes were the real excuse to visit this spot, turns out Calatabiano's castle is a great place to experience even without the added folklore of zampognari.
First of all, to reach the castle you can opt to take a special 'ascensore', which I found to be more of a tram than an elevator as the person manning the ticket booth/gift shop called it. Both the ascensore and castle are visible from the A18 Autostrada, and until yesterday I always wondered what that strange looking contraption going up the side of the mountain was. Certainly makes the ascent a dramatic experience and may have been the best moment of the day for the 3 year old.
Once you reach the castle, you will surely be impressed by the lovely views from the top: all that coastline, the tantalizingly nearby peaks of Taormina and Castelmola, bright green terraced hillsides, and even the rushing speck of the Alcantra River below.
Turns out the the ascensore, along with the excellent walking paths and numerous interesting outdoor/indoor spaces you will find in the castle, are all the result of a restoration project that was completed about a year and half ago. The castle is not that large, but there is plenty to explore including some excavated finds, the remains of a tower, lots of castle windows, each framing its own unique view of the surrounding landscape, as well as a glass-enclosed cafe (with great unobstructed views) and several conference rooms. In fact, reading the castle's website it is clear that one of the goals of the restoration was to make it into a vibrant cultural center. Free tours are offered every Sunday and there are other events like the bagpipes for the holiday season, such as classical music concerts, an evening lecture series on astronomy, and even a new year's eve gala dinner. I don't mean to go on and on about this little castle, it's just that only rarely are cultural heritage destinations so appealing on this island of Sicily. While I love castles even when they are just isolated empty shells perched on craggy hilltops, someone envisioned that this particular one could be so much more, and somehow that vision has become reality for the town of Calatabiano.
P.S. others have been writing about zampognari too, read Jann's post here.