Palio dei Normanni
Between the 13 and 14 August, you wouldn’t guess Piazza Armerina was a sleepy sort of place; one chiefly known for its Roman mosaics, which are – it must be said – incredible examples of Roman mosaics (more on that later). No, the Villa Romana del Casale, which houses these ancient artworks, is thrusted firmly from its pedestal as the most-loved attraction in the area, replaced – unabashedly – with a celebration centuries old. Recalling the capture of Piazza Armerina from the Saracens (Boo! Hiss!) by Conte Ruggero in the 11th century, costume-clad locals, parades and re-enactments of the victory’s most important moments come to the fore. The grand presentation of the city keys; a fierce jousting tournament; people pretending they’re peasants: what’s not to love about Italy’s (and more importantly Sicily’s) unique approach to celebrating its colourful history? Grab your feathered hat, tuck into the finest gruel, and prepare to be transported to times gone by – Palio dei Normanni’s coming to town.
Palio dei Normanni: history
Where did this rip-roaring event come from? Well, the root may not have been in Piazza Armerina itself, but the locals don’t give a damn when they get to celebrate anyway! It all centres around Conte Ruggero (or Count Roger – not quite so swish now huh?), who came over to Sicily back in 1061 to give his brother Roberto a hand. The pesky Sacarens had been bothering the Pope for some time, and he’d sent Roberto over to sort them out. Armed with a flag of the Madonna and the baby Jesus – well, Ruggero was always going to win... He later gave this to the town as a thanks for their help, but it wasn't till the '50s that the Palio dei Normanni itself was born.
Palio dei Normanni: parades
Today, tourists and locals don their finest period dress (or worst, depending on who you’re playing) and take part in a huge parade on August 12. The ‘Gran Maestro’, who would have been the historical leader or elder of the town back in medieval Sicily, leads the way – complete, of course, with a very serious face. The troupe makes its way to the cathedral, where a mass is held, but there’s a difference of course: knights are blessed from each of the city’s four historical ‘contrade’, Canali, Castellina, Casalotto and Monte.
Palio dei Normanni: palio
The next day on August 13, everyone makes their way to the cathedral again – but this time they wait at the piazza, where the Gran Maestro awards whoever’s playing Count Roger with the city keys. After all, he did defeat 35,000 of them brigands. It’s not until August 14 that the main event – the Palio – takes place. And boy do they still hate the Saracens. Four events make up the roster, including hitting a Saracen’s shield with a lance, hitting it with a flail, launching a spear through a Saracen's ring, grabbing a Saracen’s ring with a lance… Think lots of pointy objects, lots of rings, and hating Saracens.
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Palio dei Normanni: when it’s all over
And what happens after all those Saracens have been trampled (don’t worry – it’s only cardboard icons that they pummel!)? There’s a victory procession, of course – Italians sure know how to parade down a street. Those teams with the most points are awarded the winners, and given a standard of Our Lady of the Victories. Well, only till next year, and it’s kept in a local church at that. But what else to look out for before it’s all over? Make sure you glimpse the actual banner given by Ruggero to the town (it’s in the cathedral), and partake in the general feasting, dancing and music that characterises the colourful weekend.
Palio dei Normanni: when it’s all over
Before you rush home after the excitement of the Palio, wind down while exploring Enna. It’s a province Sicily can truly be proud of, what with its ancient, archaeological towns like Morgantina, its castles like Castello di Lombardia (the biggest on the island) and spots of incredible natural beauty, like Lake Pergusa. From here, it’s only an hour’s drive to Catania and the coast, where the Ionian Sea glitters in the sun. Oh, and remember those Roman mosaics? Yeah, you should probably check them out: housed in one of the most luxurious Roman villas known to us today, they make up the richest and best-preserved collection in the world.