It’s the 8th century BCE. Colonists have arrived in Sicily from Corinth, a city-state between Athens and Sparta, to establish settlements. On this southeastern part of the island, across the Ionian sea from the motherland, rises the great capital city of Syracuse. Allied with Corinth and Sparta, Syracuse will one day help dominate Magna Graecia, growing as large as Athens in the 5th century BCE.
In 664 BCE, the nearby settlement of Akrai is founded. It’s one of the Corinthians’ first colonies, located near the modern city of Palazzolo Acreide. Located high atop Pinita hill, Akrai’s strategic location offers it great potential for prosperity and growth, and makes it ideal as a defensive point for Syracuse. Some time during the third or second century, a Greek theater will be built overlooking the lands below, further establishing Grecian culture in Sicilian lands.
As all things come to pass, Akrai fell to the Romans after Syracuse’s defeat in 211 BCE, then was completely destroyed by the Arabs in 827. Nature reclaimed the site and the city was left undiscovered for the next 800 years. It wasn’t until Sicilian scholar Tommaso Fazello identified the location in the 16th century did people take notice of the site once again.
One garners an appreciation for the small Sicilian town of Palazzolo Acreide through the lens of its history. Archeological discoveries are therefore a top attraction in this city. The aforementioned Greek Theater of Akrai (Teatro Greco di Akrai) still stands and is used today for modern theater, music, and dance performances.
The Archeological Area of Akrai (Area archeologica di Akrai) also features the remains of Aphrodite’s Temple (Tempio di Afrodite) and the Pinita Necropolis (Necropoli della Pinita), among other vestiges, though you ought to do your research or get a guide before visiting, as there’s little on-site indication of where they are. The archaeological area is a relaxing place to visit on a hot Sicilian day, as the temperature cools significantly in the presence of the caves.
Just as profound are the Holy Men (I Santoni), a series of impressive reliefs carved into the rock face. Both the ancient city of the Akrai and the Holy Men are about a 20-30 minute walk from the city.
The modern city of Palazzolo Acreide has a fair amount of historic offerings as well. Of course, as this is Italy, there are a good number of beautiful churches. A good place to start your adventure is at the Church of St. Sebastian (Chiesa di San Sebastiano). A grand piazza, the Piazza del Popolo, sits here surrounded by numerous bars and restaurants.
The principal churches to visit first, aside from St. Sebastian, are the Church of San Paolo (Chiesa di San Paolo), the Church of St. Michael (Chiesa di San Michele) and the Mother Church (Chiesa Madre).
To expand your knowledge of the ethno-archeology of the region, the Archeological Museum of Palazzo Cappellani (Museo archeologico di Palazzo Cappellani) and the Antonino Uccello House Museum (Casa Museo Antonino Uccello) should provide enough artifacts under two roofs. For a look into Sicilian history, there’s the Museum of Travelers in Sicily (Museo dei Viaggiatori in Sicilia) in Palazzo Vaccaro.
Stepping outside, the city offers a sprawling garden of 30,000 square meters (98,425 square feet) called the City Garden (La villa comunale). A more quiet retreat includes the Monumental Cemetery (Il cimitero monumentale), a veritable garden in itself of white stone.
But you are in Sicily, and when one visits Sicily, one stuffs one’s face. It’s impossible to talk about Palazzolo Acreide without mentioning Antica Pasticceria Corsino, the best pastry shop for cannoli and arancini. The granita con brioche (ice dessert served with brioche — try the pistachio) is also very good. I could seriously eat here every day.
Other pleasant finds are Pasticceria Caprice (pastry shop) and Bar del Corso Infantino (savory foods) located along Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The service at both of these locales is exceedingly friendly. For a big Sicilian dinner, be sure to check out Trattoria del Gallo, a local favorite for local dishes.
Palazzolo Acreide is a great example of a small town that seems much larger given its immense history. It’s a wonderfully peaceful stay for those hoping to explore nearby historic cities like Ragusa, Noto and, of course, Syracuse. And be sure to time your visit, if you can, so that you’re also in town for a sagra (religious festival). You’ll be surprised by how big these small cities can party.