Although my grand tour of Sicily was pretty much along the coastline, I decided to add a short detour to the mainland to visit the homeland of hand made ceramic: the city of Caltagirone.
The city is located on the top of a rocky hill, overlooking a large valley disseminated with olive trees and vineyards, approximately 50 km from the coastline. I drove to Caltagirone from Modica, thus it took me approximately 1.30 hours. The route is nice and almost straight. There is no highway there but a fast road with two lanes per each side. I entered the city from the modern side, then, while keeping on driving, the old town appears, laying on the hill, showing all is beauty, its homogeneus colours and an immense variety of ceramic decorations on every balcony.
I easily found a parking here!!!! Wow!!! that’s almost impossible in Sicily. As temperature were so hot, most of the visitors choose to stay on the coastline, thus if they got too warm they could access a beach in few minutes and have a bath. Therefore there were very few visitors in town and I enjoyed roaming around freely.
The first and most impostant attraction of the City is the famous Staircase of St. Mary of the Mount (Scalinata di Santa Maria Del Monte). It was originally conceived in the 1600s as a set of stairs to connect the lower section of the city to the upper one, while in 1800s the various sections were unified into a 146 steps straircase. It is very monumental. Each step is decorated with different ceramic tiles from the area, thus the place became not only the emblem of the city but also the main tourist attraction.
Every year in July the monumental staircase is illuminated with millions of coloured candles, placed in a way to form artistic sketches, mostly flowers and baroque decorations. In those days public electricity is switched off along the street so the show is more impressive. You can find useful info about the event on the municipality website
Everything is about ceramic in Caltagirone, You see several shops around every corner. Even the dome of the Cathedral is covered with green and yellow ceramic tiles as well as the clock tower.
Even the town hall is decorated with ceramic objects. Beside the three flags that are shown on the facade of every public building (the Flag of Italy, the Flag of the European Union, the Flag of the Region and the Flag of the City) the town hall of Caltagirone displays some tall ceramic candelabra where, in every other places you would see a statue.
About ceramics: there is an immense variety of ceramic objects, all of which are hand made in the city (you will see several workshops where crafters do actually make their own products), however among this incredible show of human creativity and ceramic mastery, you will get to see, very often, two particular items: the Moorish heads and the Pine Cone.
There is a story to tell here to understand why the Moorish heads are so beloved by the locals and why you see so many around.
Legend dates back to the muslim domination of Sicily when a girl in Palermo was used to spend her days in her own home, singing softly and taking care of the house, until one day a Moor walked down her balcony, and madly feel in love with her at first sight. He knocked on the door, entered the house, reached the balcony and swore he would love her till the end of times.
The girl surrendered and gave herself to the Moor. A few days later she discovered that he was on the edge of leaving the city to go back to his homeland, where he was actually married to another woman. The Girl went mad at him and waited patiently for the night to come and get her revenge.
While he was sleeping she took a sharp knife, she cut his head off and placed it on the balustrade of her balcony to advice anyone who planned to do the same to another girl that women’s revenge would be terrifying. She planted some flowers in the head of the Moor which grew up marvellously and everyone stopped at her balcony to admire those beautiful flowers. From that moment on, tradition started to make Moor looking ceramic heads to be used as flowerpots.
It’s just a legend, although there always is some truth behind every legend.
The second Item is the Pine Cone. There is no legend behind it but symbolism. In the old greek and Roman tradition, the Pine Cone was a symbol of fertility and good luck. That is why, still today, on wedding day, couples receive a ceramic Pine Cone (or several) as a gift, to be displayed at the entrance of their new home or on the balustrades of their balcony.
I bought a small one because Ceramic can be pretty expensive. The reason is that producing a high quality ceramic item takes quite some time, especially the hand painting process. You will see an incredible number of ceramic shops in the city centre: although quality is pretty good everywhere, you can find better prices at small workshops in the old town, far from the main tourist attractions.
I found this little workshop run by one guy only, called Daniele Patrì, who makes his own ceramics for a good price. He is located in Via dei Greci, 26/A just opposite the School of Arts.