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The rock-cut dwellings of Nicosia

The old town.

The old town.

Nicosia is among the most central cities of Sicily, being not far from the central provincial town of Enna. Only about 100 kilometres from Catania, it is full of history and important monuments, yet few tourists visit it.

Though like any Sicilian town it has its fair share of outstanding churches and noble family homes, it is best known for the many rock-cut dwellings that include an exceptional castle in the next city of Sperlinga, churches and other important constructions.

When the Arabs divided Sicily in three ‘valleys’, it was in the beautiful high hills of this city that they met to decide how to administer it. It was mainly settled by the Greeks (hence the name), but all the various conquerors of Sicily passed through here and created more beautiful heritage, thanks to the numerous important noble families.

It was known as the ‘City of the 24 Barons’ and they left behind them enormous palaces (most of which are empty today) and great works of art. Since 1778 it has a Bishop.

Like any self-respecting Sicilian town, it has two major churches that have always ‘competed’ against each other on which is the more important. This is quite a normal feature in Sicily but here the ‘fight’ for attention is not between the Cathedral of D. Nicolo and the Santa Maria Maggiore churches, both jewels that have to be seen, but between the two major crucifixes in these churches.

The Mariani and Nicoleti have since the early 17th century argued about which is the more beautiful. The two main processions were in fact the two Good Friday ones but in the 1950s the Archbishop put a stop to this and the processions are now held on different dates. But the most artistic work of art, the wooden roof of the cathedral, is hidden away and rarely seen because it has been covered up.

Sperlinga Militello.Sperlinga Militello.

The whole system of rock-cut dwellings is indeed a must-see. People lived in grottos cut out into the rock, sometimes quite high up. Today most of them are private houses or have a stone facade added on, but the grottos are still there. (The latest tourist brochure does not mention this at all but gives importance to the local San Felice).

Up to some time ago these rock-cut dwellings were not considered important but rather the abodes of poor people. Today some of these dwellings have been beautifully retransformed and you can actually sleep in them, a sort of smaller Matera but not quite the same. The Castle of Sperlinga, eight kilometres away, is to be visited: it is all rock-hewn except for some parts of it and is truly impressive. There are  numerous churches and also, as always in Sicily, various links with Malta.

It is one of those cities that have maintained very strong links with the landscape around it, which is truly impressive. It is a paradise for nature-loving tourists, another corner of Sicily that is really worth a visit.

Some visitors are scared when looking at the map, but it is in fact quite easy to find, as the highway goes to the next town of Agira; Nicosia is then next in line and easy to find. GPS is recommended, however.

I stayed at both the Balio San Pietro, which is a beautifully restored old mansion, and the central Hotel Promenade (which is extremely cheap). If you just want to visit the town, three days are enough, but there is a lot to see close by, including one of the best furniture factories in Sicily and a luxury outlet supermarket.

The food here is beyond excellent and worth a visit even just for the good restaurants. One of the major cultural events related to Good Friday is La Casazza, which can be seen in all the streets.

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