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 was a good lookout point into the sea. The town of Milazzo, which is snuggled at the base of the peninsula, has a wonderful port that 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, and a lookout was established on top of the hill overlooking the town, which could see far out into the sea to the east and to the 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, including the Battle of Mylae between the Romans and Carthaginians in 260 BC, during the First Punic War, and the Battle of Milazzo in 1860, in which 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.
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 who were jockeying for power in the Mediterranean. After the Arabs came the Normans. After the Normans came the Swabians (Germans). After the Swabians came the Spanish. Via the Spanish monarchy, Sicily passed into the Hapsburg family domain. After 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.
After Garibaldi 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 was used as a prison – the views would have been stunning, but the wind off the sea would have been chilling. When the prison was 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, and for the next eleven years the castle was rebuilt, repaired, scrubbed, painted, and made presentable for public consumption.
Honestly, you’d never expect such a turbulent history from such a cute little town. On this side of Messina, Milazzo is the place to be. It’s full of things to do. There’s a lovely promenade which the locals frequent for their passeggiata (pah-seh-jah-tah), the evening stroll, which offers the opportunity to get some fresh air, eat some gelato, and meet with friends. The main street is lined with high-end shops. The restaurants offer some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever tasted – I recommend the spada (spah-dah), or swordfish, which is the local delicacy. The nightlife is hopping. Storefronts that were closed during the day throw wide their doors after 10:00, revealing some of the liveliest clubs and bars around.
And over all of this sits the castello, which for thirty years 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, especially in the dark, the views from the top at sunset are some of the best you’ll see.