The Byzantine Trail
Length: 5.5-6.00 Kilometres
Time: 3.5/4.0 hours
Meeting point: on the Sant’Elia River, in the Pirara Papala locality, at 8.30 a.m. Visit to the Santastasi Byzantine fresco, maximum time 45 minutes.
The archaeological area is about 100 metres square, surrounded by a provisional metal railing.
The construction of the little church we find here, eight metres in length and about four wide, goes back, according to the experts, to around the year 1000, a time when many hermit monks from Greece and Turkey found refuge and places of meditation in this area. The apse contains three niches, two lateral ones of about 50 centimetres in width and 130 centimetres in height each, while the central niche 110 centimetres in width and about 150 centimetres in height. The two side niches contain clearly visible traces of frescoes portraying male figures, presumably icons of saints belonging to the Byzantine rite brought here by the Basilian monks. A red-tiled roof, supported by four iron poles, protects the ruin from rain. The fresco on the right and the one best preserved is an image of St. Anastasias or of Christ the Pantacrator, is about 35×45 centimetres in size conserved over time in the upper, slightly concave part of the small apse. The niche on the left, in far worse condition, shows only a stylised figure with curved lines from the base to the top of the niche. In the central niche, the most ruined of the three, we find only vague traces of a blue sky dotted with small white stars. The lower part, which has crumbled, has been repaired as best it could be, with material found on the spot, stones of the same colour and type as those used in the rest of the building.
Behind this ruined aedicule stands the Trappitu [Oil mill] belonging to the Crea family, inside of which can be seen some old machinery now covered in rust: a screw press,operated by the Trappitari [oil-millers who used the strength of their own arms to turn the press’s iron worm gear] and the white vertical millstones used as crushers, supported by a stone construction called a schedha. The millstones, on a central axis driven by animals, a cow, a donkey or a mule, with their rototranslatory movement, crushed the olives; then, the pastaccio [the crushed-olive mush] this work produced, was transferred into cylindrical containers made of hemp, called sporte [baskets], and then pressed down using the man-powered torque or press. By turning la pressa [the press] this paste was compressed to produce oil and sludge, murga, which were separated by means of a process of decantation. As the specific weight of oil is less than that of water, the oil floated to the top of the tubs, tinedhi, and was easily transferred to the bumbuluni [large vats] using a micagno [scoop], containing about two and a half litres.
As we climb, the view of the Fossato Valley begins to unfold, revealing all its grandiosity. On the left, the hamlets of Frazione Serro, Rovere and San Luca appear, as well as the historic centre of Fossatello.
At 9.15 am the trek begins. We walk uphill to the Ramundino locality along the cart track, which while having a considerable gradient, allows us to take some rests on the bends. We cross through some first-class olive groves, from whose fruit an outstanding olive oil is obtained, the organoleptic properties of which are excellent, its flavour fruity and its acid content very low.
At Ramundino, turn right and continue up to Puntu d’Argentu [Silver Point] the excursion’s highest point, so called because, in winter when the cold air is particularly clear and there is a full moon, this peak takes on a particularly silver hue. The light of the moon, reflected on the whitish-green olives groves seems softly silver.
From Puntu d’Argentu, the easily manageable, slightly sloping road brings us up to the Fasulari locality, once full of vineyards which produced a much-appreciated, full-bodied red wine with an alcohol content of about 14 proof. These vineyards have now been replaced by young olive groves.
The road, which now leads downhill, takes us swiftly to the townland of Santalena. On the right, the view from here embraces the whole of the Straits of Messina, dominated by snow-covered Mount Etna, the majestic monolithic Santalena Fortress [Rocca di Santalena] and the mighty Fortress of Pentedattilo. To the left, the view sweeps along the coast and its hinterland as far as Bova Marina.
Our arrival at Rocca di Santalena is foreseen for 11.30 am, followed by a break for refreshments and a chance to enjoy our natural surroundings, the green fields, the colour of which stands out against the dark shades of the area’s many rock formations. An ancient legend narrates that the Rocca di Santalena once housed, in one of its innermost hollows, a hen and her chicks, which laid golden eggs, secreted away in an inaccessible recess deep down inside the monolith. In vain, it is told, the locals have gone in search of these golden eggs, never to find them. Below the monolith, to the right, stand several pinnacles of limestone rock. Over time, rain and wind have eroded them, producing medium-sized cavities. On stormy nights, the fury of the wind, blowing into these cavities makes a distinctive sound resembling human mumblings, so that these formations are called the speaking rocks.
From here, take the road leading downhill and through the village of Santalena. Then, proceed until you reach the bridge over the Sant’Elia torrent that takes you to Montebello to admire, from above, the Canyon of the Montebello Straits. You reach the river bed and enter the canyon and walk through it for a few hundred metres, admiring its sheer cliff walls, at times, as much as 80 metres tall.
From here we return to Fossato following the course of the stream, full of water even in summer, and, after about one kilometre, we reach the Nunziata locality. Despite the place’s altitude of about 400 metres, and probably due to its microclimate, some first-class bergamot grows here. We now follow a small trail which takes us to the church of the patron saint, Our Lady of the Annunciation [Nunziata] which gave its name to the place. Lush citrus groves and vineyards, which in the past produced an excellent Niredhu, were the area’s most profitable crops. The church of the Annunciation, built in the mid-eighteenth century by the Manti di Montebello family, is located on a small plateau overlooking the green, luxuriant countryside.
Every year an ancient religious tradition, involving the populations of Fossato and Montebello, is celebrated. A procession, on foot, along the banks of the torrent, sees the faithful of Montebello carry a picture of the Annunciation to Fossato and its faithful, who bring it in solemn procession to their church. Mass is then celebrated to pray for a good harvest. Up until the late 1950’s, an important livestock fair was held here.
At about 500 metres from the church of the Annunziata we reach our cars and drive up to the village of Fossato. Here we can view Palazzo Piromallo, from the outside only, alas, because the inside cannot be visited as part of the roof has caved in. The courtyard, once full of exotic plants and flowers, shows how it has been neglected by its owners who obstinately leave it in this state, thus making it impossible to apply for funds for its restoration.
The end of this excursion brings us to the parish church dedicated to Santa Maria del Buon Consiglio [Our Lady of Good Counsel]. Devotion to Our Lady of Good Counsel was introduced to Fossato by the Piromallo Barons originally from Capracotta (Isernia, Molise). Built between 1752 and 1758, the church became that of a parish in 1772. Restored at the end of the 1990’s, it was enriched with numerous superbly crafted mosaics. The feast of the patron saint is held on the 8th of September, when the local faithful and many of those who have left Fossato, take part in the celebrations.
Presidente: Mimmo Pellicanò cell. 328.4295358
Vice presidente: Fabio Macheda cell. 320.6926592