Montebello Jonico stands at 425 metres above sea level. The historic centre has a Mediaeval layout, characterised by narrow streets, consisting, at times, in flights of steps. The village was reconstructed practically from scratch after the earthquake of 1783, but the ruins of its ancient Mediaeval castles have remained intact.
As if to justify its name [literally meaning Mount Beautiful] the town provides a series of splendid and highly interesting panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
A number of artisans who make wrought-iron artefacts operate here as well as the odd shepherd who produces cheese and ricotta exclusively for the home market.
The most important local activities are the production of cereals, fruit, olives, bergamot and grapes, as well as sheep and goat rearing.
An important hamlet belonging to Montebello Jonico is Saline. The salt flats, which give this hamlet its name, belonged to the Abbey of Santa Maria di Terreti from the eleventh century on. At the end of the ninth century these flats were the scene of a miracle carried out by Saint Elia from Enna, who ordered a disciple of his to throw a psalter into the water; the object was found unharmed when he returned to retrieve it later. The area, now containing a silted port and a giant factory no longer in operation, is home to cormorants, coots and even flamingos.
Some claim that the name derives from Mons Bellus, a compound of the Latin word for hill or mount and the Italian adjective “bello” [beautiful], indicating its geographical position ; others hold that it comes from the Latin Montis Belli, “Hill of War”.
TOWNLANDS, HAMLETS AND LOCALITIES
Fossato Ionico, Saline Joniche, Masella, S. Elia, Stinò.
Montebello, and its satellite hamlet Fossato, were probably fortresses built to protect the road linking Reggio to Bova county. Part of the San Niceto barony, it was annexed, after the destruction of the latter, to the fiefdom of Motta San Giovanni from which it was detached in 1505 to become the property of the Abenavolis, and, later on, in 1531, of the Ruffos di Sinopoli. Purchased in 1549 by Giovanni Faraone di Messina, Montebello was sold the following year to the Guerreras who owned it until 1585, when it returned to the Abenavolis who held it until 1686. Then came the Lavagnas, the Barones (1757), and, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Piromallis.
EXPLORING THE HISTORIC CENTRE
Montebello Jonico has maintained its Mediaeval layout and its historic centre is characterised by small, narrow streets and flights of steps.
The small parish church contains one of the first Latin-matrix sculptures ever introduced into the Graecanic area: Our Lady of the Presentation [Madonna della Presentazione] a fifteenth-sixteenth-century work attributed to a French sculptor, a pupil of Francesco Laureana. Between the 14th and 15th of August the village commemorates the Death and Assumption of the Mother of God. On the evening of the 14th, a procession headed by the Icon of the Virgin Mary, leaves the proto-papal parish church for the cemetery where it rests overnight. On the following morning, it is brought back to the church, where a mass is celebrated according to the Greek-Byzantine rite.
Also of considerable interest are the caves of Lamia situated in the San Pietro district of the hamlet of Fossato. According to the legend Lamia, one of Zeus’ lovers found refuge here when, to punish her, the jealous Hera turned her into a monster, together with her only living daughter: Scylla.
In the Masella vicinity we find the Rocche di Prastarà [The Prastarà Fortresses]: rugged limestone grottos inhabited from Prehistoric times. Between the ninth and tenth centuries, prayers were offered up from these caverns to heaven by Saint Elia lo Speleota [the cave dweller], Saint Elia of Enna, Saint Arsenio and many other contemplatives who sought God in utter solitude and silence. From the caves there is a wonderful view of two identical ponds, near the coast of Joniche Saline, a hamlet belonging to Montebello.
Also worth visiting: the ruins of the Monastery of San Giovanni e Sant’Anastasio, the Piromalli Castle, the Lamia Grottos, the Prastarà Fortresses and Saline Joniche’s natural salt lakes.