Castello Aragonese

Lonely Planet review

Head for the elegant 15th-century Ponte Aragonese, which connects the town to Castello Aragonese (insert pracs), a sprawling, magnificent castle perched high and mighty on a rocky islet. While Syracusan tyrant Gerone I built the site’s first fortress in 474 BC, the bulk of the current structure dates from the 1400s, when King Alfonso of Aragon gave the older Angevin fortress a thorough makeover, building the fortified bastions, current causeway and access ramp cut into the rock.

Further up lie the sunbaked, stuccoed ruins of the 14th-century Cattedrale dell’Assunta, which collapsed under British cannon fire in 1809. The 11th-century crypt below features snippets of 14th-century frescoes inspired by Giotto. Better preserved is the 18th-century Chiesa dell’Immacolata, with its Greek-cross plan and dome studded with curved tympanum windows. Commissioned by the adjoining Convento delle Clarisse (Convent for Clarisse nuns), it was left in its minimalist state after building funds ran out. When the nuns’ own lives expired, they were left to decompose sitting upright on stone chairs in the macabre Cimitero delle Monache Clarisse, as a grisly reminder of mortality.

Carry on until you reach the elegant, hexagonal Chiesa di San Pietro a Pantaniello and sombre Carcere Borbonico, the one-time prison for leading figures of the Risorgimento (the 19th-century Italian unification movement), such as Poerio, Pironti, Nusco and Settembrini. Don’t miss the Museo delle Torture, a small museum of medieval torture instruments, or the 15th-century tall tunnel. While you are strolling around, you may want to counteract all that darkness surrounding the castle’s history with a touch of fairytale romance: in the 1500s, the castle was home to Vittoria Colonna, a poet-princess who married Ferrante d’Avalos here before becoming closely linked with Michelangelo. The great artist wrote romantic poetry dedicated to Vittoria and sent her a painting, the Crucifixion , for her private chapel.