Sicily has a plenthora of festivals throughout the year. Whatever time of year you’re visiting, there will probably be something to get involved in.
The first of the festivals to take place each year are the carnevale. Often taking place in February, a number of towns put on traditional carnivals with big processions taking to the streets in Sciacca, Acireale, Termini Imerese and elsewhere. Carnivals are bright, colourful affairs. Huge floats and larger than life papier mache figures parade through the streets. Each town’s carnival has its own slant on the tradition – the carnival in Termini Imerese tends to satirise figures from the political and entertainment world whilst the papier mache creations in Acireale tend to be more grotesque, imaginative creations.
In Catanira, the carnival coincides with the Feast of Saint Agata. At this celebration, a ‘fercolo‘ – a sedan chair containing the saint’s relics – is processed through the streets, followed by hundreds of devotees all dressed in a traditional white tunic, black cap, white gloves and scarf.
In Novara di Sicilia in Messina, the traditional carnival celebrations are accompanied by a rather unique competition. The Race of the Maiorchino (a local cheese) sees local shepherds competing in a cheese-rolling race down the slopes of the village. The race ends with a chance to taste this particular delicacy, together with ricotta and tuna.
Many of the festivals take place around Easter when thousands of worshippers take to the streets to mourn the death of Christ. The piety and importance of religion in Sicily is certainly most apparent in the masked processions that take place at this time, all of which are moving expressions of Sicilian religious culture, and can be found in towns all over Sicily including Pietraperzia, Caltanissetta and Marsala. Probably the largest and most famous of these takes place in Trapani, where a funeral procession parades through the streets and twenty wooden ‘Vare’ sculptures are carried through the town. However the longest parade in Sicily actually takes place at the same time in Enna. The procession here is over 3.5 kilometres long, from the duomo to the cemetery and back. It is performed by approximately 3000 religious brothers, all hooded and each carrying a torchlight. They also carry on their shoulders the statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus as well as silver cross which is believed to contain one of the thorns from the crown that Jesus wore. The parade is largely carried out in silence giving it a very eerie but striking feel. The parade ends after the brothers have returned the statues to their original places – the statue of Jesus is returned to the Cathedral and the statue of the Virgin Mary is returned to the Church of Sant’ Antonio.
In addition, every town and village has its own patron saint who is celebrated on their Saints Day with processions, fireworks displays, all washed down with plenty of food and drink! Two of the most famous and spectacular are those in Palermo and Catania, where the deeds of Santa Rosalia and Sant’Agata respectively are remembered with enormous celebrations. In Palermo, on the night between 14 and 15 July, to mark the liberation of the city from the plague in 1624 and to celebrate the Feast of St Rosalia, thousands gather along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in the city to witness the descent of the Holy Cart culminating in an incredible fireworks display.
But, celebrations are by no means constrained to saints. Food has an incredibly special place in many festivals in Sicily. Cerda celebrates the humble artichoke, in Bronte it’s pistachios, in San Vito Lo Capo it’s cous cous, in Sortino it’s honey and in Caccamo it’s sausages. These food festivals, known as sagre, offer a chance to sightsee whilst consuming the most amazing food!
Instead of celebrating their patron saint or their local delicacy, other towns and cities have festivals that pay tribute to their rich history. Piazza Armerina, for example, celebrates its history with a Norman-Arab jousting tournament. Held every August, the event lasts 3 days and consists of processions through the streets wearing full historical costumes and culminating in the Quintana del Saraceno when the four districts of Piazza Armerina – Canali (in red), Casalotto (in green), Castellina (in blue) and Monte (in yellow) – compete in a series of jousting events.
Other wonderful festivals include the kite festival in San Vito Lo Capo and the most beautiful Infiorata (flower festival) in Noto. Held in May each year, the Via Nicolai in Noto is transformed into a flower carpeted walkway, with parades and stalls creating a carnival atmosphere. Work to build the petal masterpieces starts on the Friday ready for the weekend but, if you have children, you may want to choose to visit early on the last day (Monday) giving you a chance to view the impressive masterpieces before your little ones can join the other children of the town in scattering the petals and destroying the temporary artworks until they are re-created the following year. Also worthy of a mention is ‘La Scala Illuminata’ held on 24 and 25 July and 14 and 15 August when, following a centuries old tradition, thousands of candles are placed on the 142 steps of the staircase of Caltagirone. Connecting the newer, lower part of the town with the older upper part, the stairs lead directly to the church of Santa Maria del Monte. These steps are beautiful at any time of year, as they are colourfully decorated, but the addition of the candles make them even more incredible. This isn’t the only time of year that the steps receive a makeover… during the last 2 weeks of May, the stairs are covered in flowers as Caltagirone holds its own infiorata.
For those with a love of the arts and music, there are plenty of music festivals to enjoy too. Taormina hosts an International Arts festival in the Greco-Roman theatre across the Summer months. The event includes a number of musical genres from pop to opera to classical, with both solo artists and full orchestras performing. It also includes a film festival, screening films from around the world.
Not to be outdone, across 3 days in August, Erice hosts a festival devoted to Renaissance and Medieval music, whilst Castelbuono has a jazz festival as well as a festival dedicated to all things rock, indie and electronic.
Another more unusual festival including music is the Buskers Festival, a unique event held every October in the Ibla district of Ragusa. For a four day period, street performers, musicians and artists of all shape and form converge on the town’s picturesque streets and alleyways to perform their acts. It’s a particularly popular event with families with children. From jugglers to tight rope walkers and from violinists to fire breathers, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
And there is just as much on offer for those with an interest in the performing arts too. The Ciclo di Spettacoli Classici (Cycle of Classical Plays) is a festival held between May and July each year and consists of a series of plays performed in the incredible Greek theatre in Siracusa.
The calendar of festivals in Sicily ends with the living nativity. In Trapani, in the caves of Custonaci at the foot of Mount Erice, hundreds of people take part in bringing the nativity to life. It’s a touching and beautiful re-enactment.