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Acireale totals a population of 52,000.
THE TOWN CENTRE
Piazza del Duomo – The central square, once called Piazza del Cinque d’Oro (the square of the golden five) with reference to playing cards reflecting the arrangement of a platform surrounded by four small flower-beds that occupied it. Here musical and theatrical events were performed at one time. This beautiful piazza is surrounded by elegant baroque buildings, namely the Duomo, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul – featuring a fine asymmetric façade with a single belfry – and the Town Hall, dated 1659, with wrought-iron balconies supported on richly decorated brackets bearing masks and gargoyles.
Slightly set back, at the beginning of via Davì, sits the 1600’s Palazzo Modò having two beautiful balconies with brackets decorated with ugly creatures; its façade bears the name – Eldorado – of the theatre that occupied the premises in the early 1900’s, crowned with a large mask.
The Duomo – Dedicated to SS. Annunziata and Venera, it has a two-tone neo-gothic façade, by Giovan Battista Filippo Basile (1825-1891), who designed the Teatro Massimo in Palermo and was father of praised Ernesto Basile, a master of the Liberty style. Standing between two belfries with majolica spires, the front is enriched with a fine portal that goes back to the 1600’s. Inside, between the transept and the chancel are interesting frescoes by Vasta. The floor in the transept is occupied by a 1800’s sundial by Sertorius and Peters.
The Basilica di S. Sebastiano – It is located on corso Vittorio Emanuele, near Piazza Duomo, on the right hand side. A statue-topped balustrade crowns the Baroque façade of the church, combining columns, pilasters, niches and volutes. The transept and the chancel, inside, contain frescoes by Vasta depicting scenes from the life of St. Sebastian, the patron saint of the city.
Piazza S. Domenico – At the end of via Cavour. It is a tiny piazza adorned by the omonymous church with a fine baroque façade, the Palazzo Musumeci (17th century) with wrought-iron balconies and rococò windows. At a short distance, is the Biblioteca Zalantea, the town library, annexed with an art gallery. Here reside the plaster modello for the statue of Acis and Galatea (now in the gardens of the Villa Comunale) by Rosario Anastasi, and a bust of Julius Caesar known as the Busto di Acireale (1st century BC).
Villa Belvedere – North of the city, at the far end of Corso Umberto I. These nice and peaceful gardens are complete with panoramic terrace offering breath-taking views of the Etna and the sea. Here is the mentioned statue of Acis and Galatea. At the entrance, at left, is a reproduction of the platform once ornamenting Piazza del Duomo.
Terme di S. Venera – South of the city, entrance off SS. 114. The thermal baths date back to 1873. They were built at the behest of the Baron Agostino Pennisi di Floristella, in a neo-classical style (his castle is still visible behind the baths, near the old railway station). They are fed by sulphurous water which is channelled from a spring about 3km inland, south of Acireale, in the district of Reitana. Here were discovered the remains of the Roman spa of Santa Venera al Pozzo consisting of two barrel-vaulted rooms, presumedly served as Tepidarium and Calidarium.
OUT OF TOWN
Off the SS. 114 to Catania, a left turning leads to the village of S. Maria La Scala. Along the way, the Church of S. Maria La Neve is signposted.
Grotta del Presepe – The Grotto of the Crib, next to the church, is a winding lava ravine that bandits and fishermen used as a refuge, as far as the 18th century. Successively, it was transformed to represent the Cave at Bethlehem. In 1752, a crib was arranged here comprising 32 life-sized figures with wax faces and dressed in sumptuous clothes (notably the Magi).
S. S. Maria della Scala – It is a picturesque village grown around the 1600’s Mother Church, overlooking the sea. It has a nice little harbor. Return to the SS 114 and follow in direction of Catania; take the left fork for Capomulini. Abouth 100m along this road lies the Museo dei Pupi dell’Opra (the Puppet Museum) on the via Nazionale to Catania.
Museo dei Pupi dell’Opra – The Turi Grasso Puppet Theatre displays a collection of traditional puppets (some dating from the 1800’s). These are evidence for the high skill and craftmanship involved in the making of the puppets and their costumes. A small working theatre is also housed inside (ask at the museum for details of performances).
THE OTHER ACI-CITIES
The towns of Aci Catena and Aci S. Filippo are almost natural extensions of Acireale. The small city of Aci Catena, owing its name to the cult of the Virgin of the Chain, has a nice centre developing around the Piano Umberto square onto which view the beautiful Town Hall and a number of 1800’s and 1900’s attractive palazzi. There also lie the 1700’s Mother Church and, next to it, the Palazzo Riggio, unfortunately reduced to a poor condition.
Aci S. Filippo – At the heart of the city stands the Mother Church, with a fine Baroque façade dating back to the 18th century, and, on one side, a campanile with a stone lava base.
According to legend, the life of Santa Venera, the patron saint of Acireale, was closely related to the thermal baths of the city. In fact, before being martyred, the saint would have worked as a nurse at the baths.
The city preserves a number of beautiful Baroque buildings erected following the 1693’s earthquake ravaging many cities in the Eastern Sicily. The heart of the town is occupied by Piazza del Duomo, that is crossed by the city thoroughfare corso Umberto I. The latter, becoming corso Vittorio Emanuele to the South, is bordered by elegant buildings, shops, boutiques and ice-cream parlours that do honor to the fame of the local ice-cream. Acireale is a renowned spa thanks to the sulphurous water gushed by springs south of the town, where are the Terme of S. Venera, documented since Antiquity.
The city is also famous for its Carnival, with processions of allegorical floats, some of which bedecked with flowers, and masked revellers streaming through the main streets. Another attraction of Acireale is the Teatro dei Pupi (the Puppet Theatre) that puts on animated interpretations of the most poignant and bellicose scenes taken from the French chansons de geste, especially from the Chanson de Roland. The shows are still performed in the Museo dei Pupi dell’Opra, just off Acireale.