On the northern coast of Sicily, there’s a long, skinny peninsula that juts out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Where the peninsula meets the mainland, there’s a town. In the town, there’s a hill. And on this hill, there’s a castle.
Once upon a time, people realized that this rocky promontory would be a good lookout point into the sea.
The town of Milazzo, snuggled at the base of the peninsula, has a wonderful port. It has a long history of different industries, including fishing and trading, which date back to the days of its being occupied by the Greeks. With such valuable trade comes danger, however. The town established a lookout on top of the hill overlooking the town. From this lookout, sentinels could see far out into the sea in three directions: north, east, and west.
As the town of Milazzo grew in importance because of its trade, so did its peril. In fact, its prime location has caused it to find itself smack in the middle of several important battles. Perhaps the most famous is the Battle of Mylae between the Romans and Carthaginians in 260 BC, during the First Punic War. Less well known, but still important, is the Battle of Milazzo in 1860. In this battle, Giuseppe Garibaldi (joo-sep-eh gah-ree-bahl-dee) defeated the troops of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, gained free access to Messina, and sealed the deal for Italian Unification.
Fortification and Land Grabs
Somewhere between those two events, people decided that it would be a good idea to fortify the hilltop lookout. Just in case. The first known fortress walls on the hill date from the time of the Greeks, but the foundations of the fortress that stands today date from the Arabic occupation in the 9th century. After that, the successive occupiers of this region of Sicily have added to, rebuilt, and generally improved the fortifications of the Castello di Milazzo (cah-stel-oh dee mee-lah-tso).
Sicily has always been a rather attractive place, which has had the effect of making it the object of many a land-grabbing spree. Its fertile soil and prime location on many trading routes between Europe, the Middle East, and Africa made it especially attractive to money-hungry rulers jockeying for power in the Mediterranean. After the Normans came the Swabians (Germans). Then, came the Spanish. Via the Spanish monarchy, Sicily passed into the Hapsburg family domain. Hot on the heels of the Hapsburgs came the Bourbons. After the Bourbons came the swashbuckling Garibaldi, on a mission to unite the Italian peninsula under one republican government, just like in the glory days of the Roman Empire.
Once Garibaldi had succeeded in uniting Italy under one ruler, there was very little use for the castle on the hill in Milazzo. Between 1880 and 1959 it served as a prison. The views would have been stunning, but the wind off the sea would have been chilling. When the prison closed in 1959, no one really knew what to do with the castle, and it fell into disrepair.
In 1991, a major restoration project was approved. For the next eleven years the castle was rebuilt, repaired, scrubbed, painted, and made presentable for public consumption. The bar for that was quite high. Milazzo is the cultural hotspot on Sicily’s northern coast. It’s full of shops, restaurants, clubs, and the like, and people come from all the nearby towns to partake of the fun.
And over all of this sits the castello. For thirty years it sat as a dilapidated local oddity up on the hill. The massive restoration project, however, brought the castle back into its own, and helped to match it to the town the surrounds it. If you visit the castle today, you can:
- walk along the ramparts
- duck into the old cathedral (which sits within the fortified walls)
- wander through art galleries and historical exhibits
- and climb to the top of the keep.
I would highly recommend this last. As much as I dislike medieval staircases, the views from the top are some of the best you’ll see.
Visiting the Castello di Milazzo:
Getting there: Take any train to the Milazzo station. From there, you can take a bus to the port, where you’ll find the promenade, a walkway around the peninsula. Along the promenade, you’ll find signs pointing the way up the hill to the castle. If you’re following a GPS, enter Salita Castello.
Admission: Tickets cost €5 for adults, €3.50 for concessions.
Opening hours: The castle is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM to 6:30 PM. It’s closed on Mondays.
Good to know:
- The castle has limited handicap accessibility.
- Guided tours are available on Sunday afternoons with prior notice.
- Visit the website here.