In the past, Militello Val di Catania belonged to the Valley of Noto, and it once proudly carried that name, until a reclassification brought the municipality of 8,000 inhabitants into the valley of Catania. How could that have happened? I have no idea.
Militello Val di Catania (Militeddu in Sicilian) is located in the northern foothills of the Iblei Mountains, 40 km from Caltagirone and 54 km from Catania. Its inhabitants are called militellesi or millitellani. In 2002, the UNESCO recognized the Val di Noto as a World Heritage Site, and with it the towns of Palazzolo Acreide, Caltagirone, Catania, Modica, Noto, Ragusa and Scicli and Militello in Val di Catania, which is odd because it is no longer in the Noto Valley. I confess that I have not studied this in depth, so there may be a simple reason for it and leave it at that.
Why are the Sicilians called jealous?"
In 1473, the castle of Militello was the scene of a crime passionel. Donna Aldonza Santapau was accused by her husband the Baron of Militello, Antonio Piero Barresi of adultery with the ´light-footed´ Pietro Caruso. Pietro was nicknamed ´Bellopiede´ because he could dance so beautifully. Both were horribly murdered by the jealous husband. The story of the murder soon took on a life of its own and is now seen as the origin of the proverbial "jealous Sicilian" on which, among other things, the famous novella Cavalleria Rusticana by Giovanni Verga and the opera of the same name by Pietro MascagnI are based. (A reader made me aware later that this is not a proven fact, and it could also be that another murder in another town was the inspiration.)
An earthquake caused a rebirth of the Val di Noto and the Val di Catania
In 1693, an earthquake destroyed most of the towns in the Valley of Noto, which also caused the town of Militello to lose most of its churches, palaces, and homes. In fact, the town began its second heyday in the following 18th century, and because the area was fairly prosperous, dozens of churches and palazze soon emerged in the style of the time, which we refer to as Baroque. Until the unification of Italy, noble families ruled the region and the churches and monasteries provided for the welfare of the citizens and the sick.
All went reasonably well with the town, there were many economic activities besides agriculture such as the production of gunpowder, silk, salsola (potassium salts for the preparation of soap), glue; tanning of hides (this employed 10% of the population); milling of grain (all the mills along the waterways were owned by the marquis); processing of tobacco, like snuff (this is where the brand "Tabacco Branciforte" originated). Most of these activities came to an end after the unification in 1861 when churches and monasteries were forced to stop many of their activities. Like most other towns in the region, it went downhill fast and only the agricultural sector remained. In the last few decades, a lot of attention has been given to upgrading the tourism industry.
The Festa of the prickly pear in Militello Val di Catania
And this brings us to the reason why I am writing this story: the ´feast of the prickly pear´ or as it is called in Italian, the fig from India ´fico d´India´. The area around Militello in Val di Catania is literally overgrown by bushes of fichi d'India and the ripe fruits cover the winding roads and fields that you are driving through.
The Festa del Fico D'India e della Mostarda in Militello in Val di Catania started in 1987 and takes place every year during the second weekend of October (except during Covid), but the highlight is always the Sunday, when, in addition to stalls, music and tastings of local specialties are everywhere, there will be the inevitable flags and banners, marching bands and a parade of Sicilian carts. Down at the bottom of the hill, in the old center of Militello you will see a sea of stalls (bancarelle) selling all kinds of things. Of course there are crates, bags and trucks full of fichi d'India, but there are also olives, cookies, ceramics, plants and even a flea market.
Colorful carts of Sicily
Unlike the ´mostarda´ we know from Cremona, the Sicilian version is a rather firm and compact mass. I wouldn't try to make it myself, because processing prickly pears is a nasty job, because before long you will get the little thorns in your fingers and it takes hours to scrub them away.
The best part of the celebration is the parade with the Bersaglieri, the elite troops of the Italian army, who run into the square in army uniform with their traditional, black-plumed hats under a loud blast of trumpets. Following immediately after, at least twenty beautifully preserved Sicilian carts with their wonderfully harnessed horses, some will have a few musicians on board.
What to see in Militello Val di Catania?
The most important monuments are
- the castle Barresi-Branciforte, built by the Normans and destroyed completely by an earthquake in 1693;
- the church of San Benedetto Abate, built in 1616, with one nave and three decorated chapels;
- the mother church of San Nicolò e del SS. Salvatore, built in 1721 on the ruins of the ancient church dedicated to San Nicolò, with three naves and a Latin cross plan it contains amazing masterpieces created by some of the most important local artists in the 18th century;
- the Santuario Santa Maria della Stella, founded in 1722, it displays impressive works of art created by the Tuscan artist Andrea della Robbia in the 15th century.
- The town is listed as one the most beautiful villages in Italy.
Where and what to eat in the area
The location has recently been renovated as well as rejuvenated, characteristic are the vintage stone millstones, the kitchen is managed by the renowned chef Vincenzo Messina and is synonymous with quality and attention to detail.Via Principe Branciforte, 125 - 95043 Militello In Val di Catania CT