If you’re looking for somewhere in western Sicily off the beaten track, make your way to the stunning hilltop town of Caltabellotta. Read on to find out more!
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In hindsight, perhaps the idea of visiting one of the most densely populated islands in the Mediterranean was not such good one, when you’re someone who favours off the beaten path travel. Especially not in the month of June, when it felt like the entire population of Italy were also on holiday there. Probably because it’s too damn hot to travel anywhere during the height of summer, in July and August.
Even the beaches in Zingaro Nature Reserve — beaches that can only be reached by paying your entry fee to the Reserve and hiking along the seven-kilometre coastal trail within it (or, if you’re feeling rich — by boat) — were packed with an uncomfortable number of other tourists.
And although the ruins of Segesta and Selinunte had offered us some respite from the crowds of Palermo, Trapani and Marsala, they still sat firmly under the umbrella of ‘popular Sicily tourist attractions.’ We wanted to visit somewhere that hadn’t been properly ‘discovered’ by tourists yet; somewhere that still remained a little under the tourist radar.
For us, the hilltop town of Caltabellotta turned out to be that place.
Caltabellotta is located in the Agrigento district of western Sicily, in a stunning position on top of Mount Kratus, almost 1000 metres above sea level. The town is surrounded by the three peaks of Monte Pellegrino, Monte Castello and the Gogala cliffs, which means that you’ll be treated to some spectacular mountain views in every direction!
Over time, Caltabellotta been inhabited by the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs and the Normans, each leaving its own trace. Even the town’s modern-day name is taken from the Arabic ‘Qal ‘at ballutt,’ which means ‘rock of oaks‘ — presumably because oak trees once grew in abundance on the rocks up here.
Nowadays you’ll see as many almond trees scattered across Caltabellotta’s dramatic natural landscape. Almonds are an essential ingredient in the town’s traditional ‘froscia,’ which is a type of frittata prepared with bread, eggs, almonds, ricotta cheese, milk, fried asparagus, and herbs.
You’ll find the main monuments and panoramic viewpoints in the northern part of Caltabellotta, but that doesn’t mean you should miss a simple wander through the town’s jumble of ancient streets. Just don’t forget to drop a pin before you leave, so that you can find your way back to where you started!
Whilst we only spent a few hours here exploring Caltabellotta, and we did arrive during the Italian ‘siesta’ period (usually somewhere between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m.), we could probably count the number of other people we encountered on one hand. There were no souvenir shops, no restaurant touts, no entry fees to any of the sites we visited; this was exactly the sort of Sicily off the beaten track we wanted to find.
Sicily off the Beaten Track |How to Get to Caltabellotta
Visiting Caltabellotta — or, in fact, visiting anywhere in Sicily off the beaten track — is a lot easier if you have a car. We booked our rental with Expedia via Quidco, in order to get 6% of the total cost paid back to us in cashback. Using cashback sites like Quidco and Top Cashback is one of my favourite money-saving hacks, so if you’re not yet signed up to either of them, make sure you remedy that by doing so here or here.
From the main SS15 highway, you’ll need to turn off at Sciacca, on to the SP37. It will take you around 30 minutes from there to make your way to Caltabellotta; that’s just half an hour to drive from sea level to 949 metres above it! So, as you can imagine, the road is steep, with quite a few hairpin turns. Make sure you’re a confident driver before attempting it.
If you’re coming from the Agrigento direction, there’s a turning just after you cross the Fiume Verdura (a river), on to the SP36. From there, it’s a 22 minute drive. We drove up from Sciacca and came back down this way, as we were on our way from Marsala to Agrigento when we visited.
Along Dusty Roads have published a very helpful guide to driving in Sicily, if you’ve not done so before.
If you don’t have your own transport, you’ll need to make it to Sciacca (pronounced ‘Shakka’) in order to catch a Lumia bus. There are five daily Monday to Friday and four on a Saturday. You can view current timetables and prices for buses between Sciacca and Caltabellotta, to help you plan your trip.
Sicily Off the Beaten Track | Things to Do in Caltabellotta
When we first arrived, we’d just punched ‘Caltabellotta’ into the Sat Nav, so Google took us through all the almost-too-narrow-to-drive-a-hire-car-through streets in the town, leaving us feeling rather glad that the place was as quiet as it had been and that we hadn’t met any oncoming traffic along the way. I’m not sure there’s any way of avoiding driving through these streets completely, but it may help if you punch a specific location in as your destination. At least you’ll end up where you need to be rather than trying to figure this out along the way, whilst simultaneously trying not to dent the hire car!
You’ll find parking spots close to all of the things to do in Caltabellotta, mentioned below.
1 | The ruined Norman Castle
Don’t come here expecting an actual castle; this is very much a ‘ruin.’ But it serves as an interesting feature in foreground of all the stunning photographs you’ll shoot of the views from up here.
We arrived to huge signs warning of ‘work in progress’ at the start of the trailhead up to the castle (location on Google Maps below).
But, as the gates were unlocked and open, we saw no reason not to pass these warning signs, and follow the trail ahead of us.
It’s a little overgrown in places and when we visited it wasn’t possible to get to the very top due to the fact that some rather bulky construction materials had been strategically placed across the path. However, we could still climb most of the way without too much trouble. Keep an eye out for snakes though, and wear proper shoes rather than walking sandals or flip flops.
2 | Cathedral of Maria Santissima Assunta
Also built by the Normans in the 11th century, the Cathedral of Maris Santissima Assunta, unfortunately, wasn’t open when we visited (on a Thursday), but we still loved having look around the grounds and climbing the hill just behind it for some pretty impressive views of the town and surrounding countryside.
3 | Monastery of San Pellegrino
Initially this was the location of an Arab fort, and subsequently an ancient Norman building, but the current Monastery of San Pellegrino has existed here since the 17th or 18th century.
Below the church lie a series of caves — known as the ‘Dragon’s Caves’ — where a mythological dragon is said to have lived, feeding on the children in the village below. When Saint Pellegrino appeared on the scene, he slayed the dragon and every year, on the 18th of August, this occasion is celebrated in Caltabellotta.
Although it is apparently still possible to visit these caves (inside are some beautiful frescoes), we didn’t find a way in or anyone around at the monastery to ask. It may be that you have to book a guided tour to gain entry to them.
4 | Ruins of the church of San Benedetto
Almost nothing remains of the Church of San Benedetto except for a few walls, but you’ll recognise this spot by the large metal cross that now resides here; a symbol of the building which once stood in its place.
It is from here that you’ll also be able to admire an incredible panoramic view of the whole town, including the Monastery of San Pellegrino.
Sicily Off the Beaten Track | Where to Stay to Visit Caltabellotta
Caltabellotta can be easily visited in a morning or afternoon, so it’s not really necessary to stay overnight. But, if you have the time then there are some unique (and very affordable) accommodation options to be found here — not to mention the incredible views you’ll wake up to. I think it’s also a more fulfilling way to experience Sicily off the beaten track — by staying overnight well away from the big cities and major tourist hot spots.
Alternatively, if you’d prefer to use somewhere larger as a base and travel to Caltabellotta as a day trip or en route to your next destination (as we did), then you may want to check out accommodation in Marsala or accommodation in Agrigento.
I absolutely adored our little (actually rather spacious!), centrally-located room and wonderful hosts at Casa Marsalia in Marsala. We were having trouble finding somewhere to park the car (there is a free car park just steps from the accommodation, but it was full) when we arrived so Aurelio walked with me to where Stu had temporarily parked, and showed us where we were and weren’t allowed to park. He even offered to move his car so we could have his space in the car park! Both he and Anna were absolutely lovely hosts who took their time to show us all the facilities in the room and recommend places to visit/eat. We had coffee/tea making facilities in the room and sweets/biscuits (which were replaced once we’d eaten them all!). There’s also a cute little courtyard to sit out in/dry washing.
If you’re planning an overnight stop in Marsala, definitely check availability here. They only have two or three rooms, so they get booked up pretty quickly — especially considering the price (we paid just £104/€125 for two nights for two people, in June 2022).
Where to Eat in Caltabellotta
We didn’t stop for food here, but I’ve since discovered that Mates is regarded as one of the top restaurants in the whole of Sicily.
It’s housed in an old oil mill and has been restored in a way that respects the building’s traditional roots. Mates is a small, family-run establishment that serves authentic Sicilian food in cosy, rustic surroundings, at very reasonable prices. If I’d known about it beforehand, I would totally have come here for a Sicily off the beaten track dining experience.
Address: Vicolo Storto 3 | Website: https://www.matesonline.it/ | Email: email@example.com | Phone: +39 055 1234567
If it’s just a drink or light refreshments that you’re after, we saw numerous cafes scattered around — one just by the steps up to the monastery, one on the road just below the Church of San Benedetto ruins, and a few in the town centre itself — but, unfortunately, we didn’t stop long enough to try any. If you find a café you love in Caltabellotta, please let me know its name and location in the comments below, and I’ll add the information to this post.