A new stage of our virtual journey in Sicily: Palazzolo Acreide, in the province of Siracusa, on the Iblei Mountains.
A nice article on the history of a location a bit off the beaten touristic tracks, which over the centuries saw a succession of populations, dominations, and cultures, and today shows signs of many phases of its history.
Il Teatro di Palazzolo Acreide PJ (Margherita Montoneri)
«Acre and Casmene were founded by the Syracusan: Acre seventy years after Syracuse, Casmene about twenty years later. The early colonization of Camarina is also to be ascribed to the Syracusan, about 135 years after the founding of Syracuse; Dascone and Menecolo were appointed "ecisti [the "ecista" was the expedition leader, chosen by a group of citizens for the colonization of a territory, n. d. t.] of which.»
Acre, from the Greek that means “top” but also "citadel", according to Tucidide was founded about in 664 b.C. (70 years after Syracuse) by the Stracusan themselves. Located in a strategic position on the hill of Acremonte that divides the Valley of the river Tellaro from that of the river Anapo, this colony grew in importance enough to be mentioned by several authors as a protagonist of various events that have marked the history of the island.
The Greek Akrai was beautiful, in a territory that, at that time, had to be rich in woods and springs, and it was strong since it was in a position to control the inward lines of communication as well as the southernmost borders of the large Syracusan territory, and it was wealthy, rich from commerce and being a Hellenisation core for the Sicilian inland population.
But, as the destiny of each Sicilian city, over the centuries it saw a succession of populations and dominations, in a continuous, ever-changing transformation: from Akrai, it became Acre, then Balansùl, Palatiolo and finally Palazzolo [=Little Palace, n.d.t.], to which was added Acreide only in 1892. And then Sicilians, Romans, Byzantines followed one another over the centuries. Akrai maintained a certain autonomy and importance also under the Romans, capable of minting its own coinage, and in Byzantine time became an outstanding Christian center, but ultimately it was the Arabs who in 827 with the destruction of the city completely destroyed also its memory.
Hence for hundred of years, all traces of the ancient city of Akrai was lost, a blanket of oblivion and earth laid down on its ruins and no one was longer able to indicate its exact location. Akrai, the wealthy and beautiful Syracusan colony was no more, Calvinian "invisible city" lost in the ripped pages of the History.
Abitazioni Preistoriche, a Palazzolo Acreide PJ (Margherita Montoneri)
The new medieval “Palatium” was built on a safe, underneath spur of rock, where probably there was an Imperial Palace, from which it took the name and where the Normans built an impenetrable castle. The small town has since grown from this original nucleus so that it might have the current urban structure already in 1500.
But the year 1693 marked the end of what had been the small city: the terrible earthquake which that year struck the Sicily, did no spare Palatioli, crumbling its churches, its monuments, the time-honored Norman castle, crushing the houses and taking away books and artworks, devastating the surrounding countryside and killing at least 700 inhabitants.
So, also this got lost in the maze of history, another invisible city that we can only imagine. However, this time it was rebuilt, house-to-house and church-to-church: 1700 was the year of rebirth, the century of the rebuilding of an even bigger city, even more beautiful and lavishly decorated, in the late- baroque style that characterized the Sicilian towns of the time and which earned Palazzolo Acreide the inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Until World War II it was a flourishing center, rich in culture and in skilled and polished artists and craftsmen, from literature to the carving art, from the liberty style furniture to the painting.
Yet, today it's not a tourist destination of primary interest of the Val di Noto, perhaps due to the vicinity of the more emblazoned city of Noto or of the amazing Necropoli of Pantalica.
I used to go to Palazzolo to visit a school friend who was from there, rather than for tourism, but, as usual, the curiosity and the readings of my mom make us discover its secrets, looked since the XVI century, when historians and archaeologists started wondering where was located the ancient Akrai, of which Greek and Latin texts were talking about. They sought high and low for it until it was founded in the district named "Palazzo", which saw its first excavations in the early XIX century, thanks to the farsightedness of the Baron Gabriele Iudica.
Palazzolo Acreide: 1) Tomba a baldacchino 2) Iscrizioni 3) Strada Ellenistica PJ (Margherita Montoneri)
He is how we now can enjoy the Archeological Park of Palazzolo Acreide. Unfortunately, it's somewhat abandoned to itself, but with a very special appeal (perhaps because of that taste of wilderness and of discovery that can still give us). In this park come back to life the invisible cities, the ancient Akrai, and Acre and Bansulum, all in fragments and all indissolubly linked one to the other, so that sometimes it's hard to decipher where one begins and the other ends. What catches the eye at first is certainly the theatre, built ingeniously situated on a natural slope. Dated to the III/II cent. b. C., the tradition maintains it dating to the reign of Gerone II, heyday of the Greek Akrai. Small in size, because it was built in a city already saturated with buildings, it was remodeled by the Romans, but above all by the Byzantines who made it some kind of miller warehouse (!). After the destruction of the city, from Arabs, vegetation and nature had taken the place over again, swallowing the theatre in their embrace without memory, where it remained until 1824, when was brought to the light by the Baron Iudica.
A narrow gallery links it to the Boulaterion, the “meeting room” of the Senate of Acre. Near the theatre, there are the Aphrodite Temple remains and of an urban road, identified as the Decuman [the route along the East-West axis of the Roman cities, n.d.t.].
It is then the necropolis of Intagliata and of Intagliatella [Intaglio= Rock Cutting, n.d.t.], the funny names of which remember how, initially, they were quarries, later reused. This is where the park becomes wilder, and, in the tall grass, you get into the cavities carved into the rock wall, among dust and cobwebs, to find Hypogeums, Roman and Christian tombs, Byzantine cave-dwellings, in a chaotic historical-archeological“cocktail”, as well as it would have been the transition between the various domination and the various lifestyles.
Through these cavities, you can see some squares carved in the rock, inside of which there were bas-reliefs celebrating the cult of the heroes. A few examples of which survived the passing of centuries is at the entrance of the Intagliatella. Both the Intagliata and the Intagliatella show important burials with inscriptions, arcosolia, and burial tombs canopy: a kind of intricate maze, full of surprises at every turn, a "playground" of immense historical valence yet, sadly, here too, not exploited as it deserves.
An example of this are the wonderful "Santoni" [Santoni = Holy Men, n.d.t.], located a little further down, at the foot of the hill. Even if rough and greatly damaged, these 12 bas-reliefs carved on a limestone wall of 30 meters have a great historical valence, being one of the few remaining testimonies of worship of Cybele. I can vaguely remember them, as barely sketched-out and almost unrecognizable figures, that, unfortunately, when I get back there, two years ago, were no longer open to the public. I have heard that are going to be restored, and I wish that this resurrected Akrai won't go back to being an invisible city, living only in my fading childhood memories.
Palazzolo Acreide is in the province of Syracuse, on the Iblei Mountains.
Within easy reach of the crag of Canicattini Bagni, it's also at a short distance from Modica, Avola, Brucoli, Lentini, and from the other climbing spots in the province of Catania.
The two national roads that link it to the coast and to the interior of the island are the SS124 e la SS287.
The SS124 links Palazzolo Acreid on one hand to Syracuse, on the coast, and on the other to the interior of the island, towards the city of Enna, and toward the routes of communication thet link it with the highway from Catania.
The SS 287 links Palazzolo to Noto, and, from there, to Modica and Ragusa.