Castanea delle Furie (English version)

Imagine this: clean air, a mild climate, green rolling hills, and countless shades of blue – from the azure sky to the turquoise sea. Light always blesses an enchanting, ever-changing landscape. The Sun, a bright hot disk, shines over the majestic Etna and the grumbling, thundering Stromboli. It rises between Scylla and Charybdis right across, and then plunges into a mirror-like swath of sea, caressing these wind-swept lands.
Traditions, art, history, scents and flavors, together with the warm hospitality of a thousand-year old community, make the town of Castanea a location well worthy of its place in the magical Island of Sicily.
The ancient town of Castanea delle Furie is located just a few miles away from Messina, along the main ridge of the Peloritani mountains, sprawling down towards the coast.
It occupies a strategic position, nested on a promontory overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, embraced by the superb Dinnammare Mountain on top and stretching down to the coast on the bottom, between the towns of Rodia and San Saba.
Its history – the kind books are written about – starts between the 13th and the 14th century, setting aside the prehistoric settlements found in the nearby Ciccia Mountain area.
The town of Castanea, given its proximity to ancient Zancle, was certainly influenced by the presence of the Hellenic settlement, and later on by the brave children the She-Wolf, not to mention all of the later dominations that followed one another in the city on the Strait.
The local people have always been loyal to their agrarian and pastoral vocation. They are deeply respectful of their close connection to the land, natural events, climate changes. They are attuned to the constant fight for daily survival. As a result of this, a fruitful dialogue between Heaven and Earth – between Human and Divine – is deeply rooted in the psyche of its inhabitants. This becomes apparent, as an echo from afar, in the inner workings of lives based on a solemn, yet often subconscious, respect for tradition. This informs many daily gestures and rituals.
A tiny plot of land – a box measuring a few thousand square meters, at some point was the home of as many as 24 churches and three monasteries, spread out among the bucolic rural area surrounding the center of town. These places of worship were once bitterly contended between two century-old parishes. One of them belonged to to the Messina Curia, while the other to the Priory of Malta. The latter was a constant source for fights and vexed the local population. The controversies came to an end only at the end of the 18th century, when clear-cut borders between the two sides were established, splitting the village into two parts. The town had to wait until the end of the 20th century for a reunification of these two parishes.
This long period of bitter contention kept tension high on the one hand, but increased the wealth of both sides on the other. Sumptuous constructions were built, tasteful works of art of a certain refinement. Up until the 1980s, the most antique among the local religious edifices, i.e. the Church of Portella (6th – 8th Century AD) was still standing. That was one among the many chapels built in strategic locations, to be used as a defensive bastion against assaults from invading armies.
At the town’s gates, facing the torrent streaming down to the coastal area, another Church can be found: it is the Church of Saint Cosimo. Further down, the elegant Church of Saint Catherine was built on a hill overlooking the Western side of town.
Walking down towards the coast, one then finds the imposing Mother Church; this was built on imposing walls, with a tall bell tower overlooking the Gulf of Milazzo, on a plot of land which allows control over the ancient road leading down to the sea. This church was built thanks to the population’s effort, and with their contribution, in the 16th century. It is coffer-like shrine, where one can find works of art, including its decor, high quality paintings and sculptures, handwoven fabrics with invaluable embroidery, as well as etching engraved in its stones which evoke a past enshrined in mystery. Its inner sanctum, according to a legend, was home to a sorceress who fed on children.
Some buildings which later became places of worship were initially conceived as “sentinels”- i.e., in order to warn people against imminent danger coming from the sea. These include the Church of the Annunciation, the Church of Saint Nicholas, the Church of Our Lady of Graces, and Our Lady of Loreto (no longer standing), as well as Saint Rosalia, the Tonnaro Church, and, last but not least, the oldest one, just a few yards from the sea, i.e. the Church of Santa Maria del Bosco, with its adjacent guest residence (12th-13th century AD).
There is no shortage of signs of ancient traditions in Castanea. The touch of the Madonna, on the one hand, and of her nemesis, the Devil, on the other, is still visible along the dirt roads leading down to the coast. Indeed, the tradition of devotional practices or propitiatory rituals can still be witnessed all over, in particular in dedicated shrines set up by local people along these roads, or inside their homes, during the Novena of Saint John, which coincides with the Summer Solstice. Likewise, locals have never abandoned the ancient practice of treating a wide range of ailments, from sciatica to “evil eye,” via special prayers and rituals.
The same ancient wisdom is fully preserved in the field of farming, from the seeding stage to all of the steps necessary for a plentiful harvest. Recently, a group of local young people has been working to combine the experience of a bygone era with the contemporary tenets of organic agriculture, following the principles biodynamic agriculture.
In May and October, the sky above Castanea is crisscrossed by many breeds of migrating birds; you will see large flocks of birds glide, pushed by ascending currents as they cross the Strait – a unique, ever-changing spectacle.
All of this happens, day after day, within the framework of the incomparable dance of the Sun rising and setting – the majestic show it offers is never the same. Its beauty as seen from these lands is such that in the 19th century, Emperor Willem Il of Germany chose Castanea when visiting the area; he spent time in town, as a guest in one of the many noble residences.
Those who want to fully immerse themselves in the lives of these people should not forget to visit during the Feast of St John, the Patron Saint. In this occasion, the sacred and profane come together, creating a truly surreal experience. Prayers, hymns, chants, and cries resound within the Church, while in the privacy of people’s homes, in hiding, propitiatory rituals are performed.
Last but not least, the Live Nativity Set, over the Christmas Holidays, fully expresses the joy of a people who honors meticulously kept traditions dating back over a thousand years. Such traditions shine through in the skill of the craftspeople in the many stalls, the serenity of the elderly, and the enthusiasm of the children involved.
To finish off, we can turn our gaze to everyday life in town, when families often still gather around the dinner table every night to share the fruits of their land, creatively turning the harvest from their fields into tasty dishes. Recipies are still closely connected to the peasant tradition. By doing so, with a perfect mix of authentic flavors and deep-rooted knowledge, the smells and nourishment from their beloved land end up returning into the bodies of these lucky diners.

(Traduzione a cura di Lilia Pino Blouin)