Step back in time and enjoy the delights of Polizzi Generosa, a charming town with a spectacular hill-top location, which has a long, fascinating history from the Greeks to today. Located in the scenic Madonia Mountains of northern Sicily, it also offers magnificent views and extensive walks and hikes nearby. Whether you are into good, locally produced food, the beauties of nature, mountain walks, history or architecture, Polizzi is a wonderful place to unwind and enjoy the life style of an earlier era.
These are the Top Ten things to see and do in and around the town:
1. Renaissance Artistic Gem
Probably one of Sicily's most illustrious paintings – and alone worth the trip to Polizzi Generosa -- is the beautiful triptych of the Madonna and child in the town's Chiesa Madre (Via Roma) which is attributed to the famous 15th century Flemish artist, Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1467). In his time van der Weyden was better known and more influential than his contemporary, Jan van Eyck. The painting arrived on Sicily's shores in the late 15th century, following the shipwreck of a vessel taking it to an unknown destination in the Mediterranean. After two centuries in a Jesuit monastery near Termini Imerese on the coast, it was installed in Polizzi's Chiesa Madre in the late 17th century, following the church's Baroque restoration.
2. The Chiesa Madre, Santa Maria Maggiore
The triptych is housed in the town's interesting 'mother church', originally of Norman origin. The church was rebuilt in the 14th century and fully restored in the Baroque style in 1690. Elements of the earlier history of the building are visible on the right-hand side, in the form of the Norman portal and two long, narrow windows.
As well as Rogier van Weyden's masterpiece, the church houses other interesting paintings, including Giuliano de Matta's the 'Slaughter of the Innocents', 'The Martyrdom of the 10,000 Martyrs', and a triptych by the same artist, 'The Visitation', all from the mid-16th century. There are also paintings by Zoppo di Gangi and a statue of the Virgin of 1508, by Giuliano Mancino, located by the altar
In the chapel of San Gandolfo, Polizzi's patron saint, there is partly preserved marble sarcophagus made by Domenico Gagini. The remains of San Gandolfo are now located in a spectacular silver urn, kept in the Treasury, where he also kept a valuable silver monstrance of Nibilius Gagini of 1586
3. Town Hall and Museum
Located on the main street, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, is the impressive Town Hall (Comune), built in the 17th century as a Jesuit college. Walk up the imposing steps and through the windows by the reception you can look down on Greek ruins from 400BC. You will also see a full-size reproduction of Rogier van der Weyden's famous triptych on the wall. On the north-east corner of the building, by the small Piazza Gramsci, is the largely unused Jesuit church, San Girolamo, with its interesting octagonal tower and lantern, which can be seen from afar. Its imposing Baroque stone portal is one of the most beautiful pieces of stone sculpture in the town. On the left-hand wall of the church, in Piazza Gramsci, is a fascinating piece of social history – a plaque from 1872, following the unification of Italy, which sets out all the modern decimal measurements of distance, area, weight and volume, alongside the old local measures, to help people make the conversion to national standards.
To the left of the main door to the Town Hall is a small door, with a sign for the Archaeological Museum (Civico Museo Archaeologico). Downstairs, in its extensive vaulted rooms, the museum houses many interesting Greek remains, excavated from the ancient necropolis nearby, including beautiful Greek vases and figurines.
4. Santa Maria delle Grazie
Tucked away on a side street (corner of Via Carlo V/ Via Monasteri) south of the Chiesa Madre is the lovely church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, built in 1499, with its simple all-white interior. At one end is an interesting upper gallery, with an elaborate wrought-iron screen. However, the church is dominated by the staggeringly ornate Baroque alter-piece from 1697 by the sculptor Petro Bencivinni, from Palermo, which is carved in wood and lacquered in gold.
5. Ruins of the Chiesa della Commenda
On the east side of town, down a cul-de-sac (Via Garaffo) off the main SS643, which circles the town, are the picturesque remains of the Church of the Commenda (now called simply La Commenda) dating from 1177, it is one of Polizzi's oldest churches and was the first important structure to be built outside the city walls. The church, commissioned by Roger d'Aquila, was owned by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and had the task of protecting the pilgrims and provide assistance to the sick. In its time it was one of the richest such Commendas in the whole of Sicily, but now its ruins offer lovely vistas and photo opportunities.
6. Water Features
At the east end of town, at the junction of the SS643 to Castellana Sicula and the SP119 which offers visitor access to the Madonia mountains, are two historic features related to Polizzi's all-important water supply. Most prominent are the four remaining arches of the aquaduct built in 1476 to bring water down to Polizzi from the mountains above; and alongside it is a fountain, dating from the mid-19th century, donated by a local Duke, to provide fresh, unpolluted mountain water, following the severe cholera epidemic that struck Sicily in the 1830s.
7. Vistas of the Mountains
Due to its location on a rocky ridge at 917 metres, Polizzi offers unparalleled vista of the spectacular Madonia mountains to the north and east and the Himera valley to the west. The two best locations in town to enjoy these views are (i) the Via Giovanni Borghese (named after the famous 20th century Italian writer, who was born in Polizzi) which joins the SS643 at the east end of town; and (ii) the belvedere at Piazza XXVII Maggio, at the western end of Via Giuseppe Garibaldi.
8. Walks in the Mountains [unfinished]
Polizzi is probably the best town in the Madonia mountains for accessing its idyllic hiking trails, both long and short. The surrounding mountains are wonderful to walk in, and are surprisingly green and verdant. Paths are well marked and the walking is sometimes steep but relatively easy on well-marked trails. Close to Polizzi on most of the mountain tops above 1500m (5000 ft) are the most southerly beech forests in Europe, providing 10,000 hectares of cool, shady woodland. In Spring and early summer the air is thick with the perfume of prolific wild flowers, and the Madonia is home to over half of Sicily's species of flora, including 70 species of orchid. You will also see a wide range of birds and animals, making these mountains a glorious excursion for nature-lovers and naturalists, as well as hikers and walkers.
Among the notable sites to visit are:
- A visit to Vallone Madonna degli Angeli to see one of the rarest fir trees in Europe, the Nebrodi Fir (abies nebrodiensis) – there are only 30 carefully protected specimens still growing in their original habitat.
- A hike to the Madonna del'Alto – a scenic convent, used only for part of the year, which is perched on a steep precipice, with spectacular views eastwards to Mount Etna.
- A walk up to Piano Cervi -- a beautiful plain below Monte Cervi, surrounded by glorious beech forests.
- A hike to the top of the impressive limestone dome of Pizzo Carbonara (1979m/ 6400 feet), the highest mountain in Sicily after Etna, from the picturesque bowl of Piano Battaglia.
Information on these hikes and more, with detailed maps and directions, can be found in a brand-new guide in English, Seven Varied Hikes in the Madonia Mountains Close to Polizzi Generosa, written by part-time resident of Polizzi, Carl Gardner. This can be downloaded at this page or printed copies can be obtained free from the Tourism Office in Polizzi.
9. Weekly market/Food Culture
The people of Polizzi Generosa are rightly proud of their food heritage and culture. They really care about food -- its taste, its quality, where it comes from and things such as who has the successful tomato or olive crop this year. The town’s shops display locally made cheeses, organic seasonal vegetables and fruit, wonderful cakes made in the bakeries at the back of several shops and bars, locally made ice cream, ricotta from the sheep herds on the hills and locally produced meat and sausages. Everything is seasonal: oranges in the winter/spring, porcini in the autumn, beans, apricots and dark cherries for amarena ice cream in spring, almonds (for cakes) in summer.
For the winter months, local families make their own tomato salsa, sun-dried tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes, along with bottled olives and olive oil. They are highly resourceful in their use of local ingredients, collecting such food items as mushrooms, wild asparagus, chestnuts and berries of various kinds from the local woods. If you are lucky, and it’s the right time of year, you may be served these delicious local delicacies in the town’s restaurants.
Every week there is a market on Wednesday mornings, one end of which is dedicated to food. Experience local Sicilian life by joining the animated queues for the parmesan, meat and inexpensive and delicious fruit and vegetables.
10. Home-made ceramics
Historically, bricks for houses were made in the area in huge kilns, and today the traditional skills with clay live on but have been re-invented for the 21st century, in the form of more delicate ceramic ware. Local ceramics can be bought at two shops in the town, and you may be able to arrange a visit to a ceramics studio. The ceramicists use vivid colours to decorate everything from lamp shades to dinner plates and from wash basins to flower vases, using contemporary design but with a very local twist.