Best things to see in Augusta, the Imperial City

Augusta is an Italian town of 35.745 inhabitants of the free municipal consortium of Syracuse in Sicily.

Augusta owes its name to its great past as an imperial city, founded in the fourteenth century by Frederick II of Swabia, the emperor-intellectual of the German Empire who loved the wonderful landscapes of southern Italy more than German court life. Located on the south-east coast of Sicily, a few kilometers from Syracuse, Augusta is a splendid port city where history made of an incredible variety of peoples and cultures that have crossed the island has merged perfectly with the natural landscape.

The city was founded it in 1232. Federico called it Augusta Veneranda and became one of his favorite places. The city was rebuilt after the 1693 Val di Noto earthquake. In the Second World War it was one of the main bases of the Royal Navy, and was one of the landing ports for Anglo-American forces.

The city is part of the Syracusan provincial area and overlooks the Ionian Sea. The historic center is an island, obtained from the cut of an isthmus in the 16th century, connected to the mainland through two bridges, one of recent construction, 20th century, named after the founder of the city, Frederick II of Swabia, and one dating back to the Spanish domination, delimited by an arch called Porta Spagnola. Augusta hosts two ports: Megarese and Xifonio.

The municipal territory includes three administrative islands: two are enclaves in the municipality of Melilli (Place Monaco and Fondacazzo), the third is a coastal territory between the municipality of Melilli and the sea (former San Cusumano fiefdom). In turn there is a Melillian enclave (Tufoli).

Today Augusta is a very important tourist center, second only to Syracuse in the area, and offers the opportunity to get in touch with Sicilian history, culture, art and gastronomy in one of its most authentic expressions. In this guide we will discover the must-see destinations and the most interesting attractions on a trip to Augusta, the imperial city preferred by Frederick II.

Let’s start our tour in this glorious city!


Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Adonai

The sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Adonai is located near Brucoli and is part of the diocese of Syracuse. According to ancient testimonies, also taken up by writers of the 16th and 17th centuries, the sanctuary would be an early Christian oratory, as attested by the Hebrew epithet of the Madonna Mater Adonai, or Mother of my Lord.

The Sanctuary of Santa Maria Adonai in Augusta is composed of a cave with a masonry forepart.

Inside, a fresco is venerated on a rocky wall depicting the Madonna and Child holding a cross.

The work seems to date back to the third century although some dates place it in the Byzantine era.

The cave with the fresco was discovered in the 16th century, from here the small rural church was built; in 1693 the building was destroyed by an earthquake that hit the area.

Tradition has it that the cave is used as a welcoming place for a 3rd century Christian community. The place later fell into disuse but was rediscovered in the 1500s.

The sanctuary as we see it today is the work of the mid-eighteenth century and was used as a hermitage. Since the death of the last hermit in 1950, the place fell into disuse. Since 1993 it has been managed by the Parish of Brucoli.

The sacred image of the Virgin of the Adonai is a Black Madonna perhaps dating back to 1000 AD. However, scholars have so far failed to establish a certain dating. The Madonna is depicted sitting on a wreath of clouds with the child in her arms holding a cross with her right hand, while with her left she rests her scepter on the world. As for the tradition of the black virgins, in the first three centuries of the Christian era there was an increasing impression that an adoration of the Great Goddess could establish itself as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, which would even have incorporated the cults of Mithra and Sol Invictus. The worship of the Great Mother had dominated from east to west under a large number of names before the Hellenes arrived in Greece or the Romans in Italy. Later, despite the formalism of worship of the emperor and official religion, a wave of popular devotion was now taking her back to the pre-eminent role she had enjoyed before the advent of the Olympian religion. In Christianity, the feminine principle was represented by the black Madonnas. As Christianity became established, the grandiose bronze and marble statues of the pagan gods were destroyed. Smaller domestic images or votive offerings survived, hidden in the earth, in the crevices of the rocks or in hollow trees, especially in the most remote countryside locations. Some were lost, others, perhaps, continued to be visited as mythological trees and stones, long after their true nature had been forgotten. The black virgins of Christianity are sometimes identified with Isis, the Great Mother, Cybele and Demeter.


Castle of Brucoli

The Castle of Brucoli was born with the function of supervising and protecting, first of all against the Turkish-Barbary raids, the port and shipper of Brucoli existing at least since the end of the fourteenth century, in the bay that opens between Capo Campolato and the coast at north of it. In the eighteenth century the castle, from which a large part of the Gulf of Catania is dominated, was used as a guard and sighting post with a military garrison under the nearby Augusta stronghold.

The original nucleus of the fortress was a rectangular construction (15 x 12.60 meters), compact and robust, with several floors, about 20 meters high, with the long sides oriented north-west / south-east.

The castle of Brucoli, a small jewel of military art, was wanted by King John II of Aragon as a gift to Queen Giovanna. The latter, in 1468, entrusted the task of building it to Giovanni Cabastida, Governor General of the Royal Chamber of Syracuse, a devoted chamberlain originally from Barcelona, ​​who had it under concession for three generations.

The motivation that pushed the far-sighted King John II of Aragon to build such a fortified work was mainly to protect himself against the worrying growth of Turkish power. In the century following the construction of the castle, the barbarian raids from the northern coasts of Africa were added to the incursions of the Turks, to which the legend of the patron saint is linked.

The fortress was built at the mouth of the canal-port not only for defensive purposes, but also to control maritime trade and protect its grain reserves. So for the protection of those trades and the small village that stood at its feet, the castle assumed a role of fundamental importance.


Santa Croce Lighthouse

In 1856, the Bourbons built a tower with a lantern, to facilitate and protect navigation along the coast of Mount Tauro. This maritime beacon was built in the Sant’Elena district and was called Faro di Santa Croce, after the name of the homonymous Cape stretching out over the Ionian Sea, on which it watched. The name of the Maritime Chief and that of the Contrada, which includes the entire vast suburban area of ​​Sant’Elena, both derive from a single and particular legend.

According to this tradition, the ship that in 324 carried the Empress Elena of Byzantium, mother of the Emperor Constantine, returning from the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and carrying a precious cargo containing relics of the Holy Cross on board, was forced by a violent storm to land on the southeast coast of Monte Tauro. It was precisely in this place that the Empress, as a sign of thanks for the narrow escape and the relative rescue of the remains of the Cross on which Jesus Christ died, built a small church dedicated to the Holy Cross and also raised a large cross. In fact, since ancient times, there has always been talk of the existence of a cross, located right near this lighthouse and destroyed in the second half of the nineteenth century, due to the weather. Although these indications lead us to believe that the event concerning the future Saint Helena is more a local belief than a fact that really happened, since then this end of Mount Tauro took the name of Capo di Santa Croce.

Later in the centuries, some hermits, after the Empress Elena had already been sanctified, in memory of the miraculous escaped shipwreck, erected in this area a small hermitage with a church, dedicated to the cult of Saint Helena: the presence of this modest settlement religious, gave the name to the whole area which, precisely, became the current Contrada Sant’Elena. Over the years, this part of Mount Tauro has become a very popular area, thanks above all to its natural ‘coupled’ represented by the presence of varied and shady vegetation and a vast and welcoming cliff.

The first allows you to live in the midst of a pleasant environment full of luxuriant and fragrant vegetation, while the cliff, reflecting on a splendid and blue open sea, offers the possibility of taking refreshing and healthy summer baths. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, after long years of continuous decline, both the hermitage and the small church, kept in the last period of their existence by Friar Giuseppe Scarpato, were abandoned because of their precarious conditions of stability. Purchased by private individuals, the former sacred building was transformed into a civilian home, mainly used as a summer resort. The area, a splendid bathing place, is also known in later years as “u faru i Sant’Elina”, due to the presence of that maritime signal wanted by the Bourbons, a few years before the unification of Italy took place.

In addition to defensive military purposes, the fortress was built at the mouth of the port-canal to control maritime trade and protect the grain supplies that flowed into it. So to protect those trades and the small village that stood at its feet, the castle assumed a fundamental protective role.

According to authoritative studies, originally, the structure of the castle consisted of only the central square tower, which is still visible, but which probably stood taller and more imposing than the current one. Next is the rectangular defense wall, at the corners of which are four imposing circular towers. Among the many overlaps present in the castle structure, worthy of mention are the two sentry boxes, probably built in the seventeenth century.

Inside there were several rooms, such as the castle house, the guesthouse, the chapel, the armory, the kitchens, the stables and the prisons.


Church of Santa Maria Assunta

The church of Santa Maria Assunta or mother church is the main church of Augusta and is located in Piazza Duomo with elevation facing east. In 1700 it was the only existing parish in the city. The current church is the one rebuilt on the ruins of the church which collapsed with the earthquake of 1693.

The prospect is articulated on a double order, connected by large lateral volutes. The lower floor has three openings which give rise to the respective aisles. The choir window opens on the main entrance. The belfry is composed of three small openings with wrought iron balconies, the work of a local craftsman. A tympanum with frame and indentation closes the top of the building. The interior has a Latin cross with three naves and a barrel vault supported by pilasters adorned with pilasters. Once inside the church, go clockwise:

In the south wall of the left nave there are four altars dedicated respectively to San Filippo Neri, to the Madonna del Rosario, to Santa Lucia and to saints Pietro and Paolo; also there is the statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

In the western area, the following are distinguished: the Sacramento chapel which is bordered by a wrought iron gate, the apse and the crucifix chapel.

The apse is accessible via a large central staircase, at the top of which, on both sides, there is a transept in neoclassical style; in the lateral parts the wooden choir and four canvases, two on each side, depicting episodes from the life of Mary, which, in view of the restoration of the church, have been removed; in the central part, at the top, there is the canvas depicting the Assumption of Mary. The main altar is in marble; in the front are bas-reliefs: at the bottom we see: on the left the cross, a symbol of faith, within Jesus with the two disciples of Emmaus and on the right the anchor, a symbol of hope; above are depicted: left and right two altars, in the center the sacrifice of Isaac.

In the north part of the right aisle there are four altars dedicated respectively to the sacred heart, to the nativity of Jesus, to Saint Anthony of Padua and to Saint Dominic; in addition there are the baptistery with a majolica bas-relief depicting the baptism of Jesus, and, below, the baptismal font with a hemispherical shape with an octagonal border.

In the upper part of the two lateral naves there are ten lunettes with historiated bellies, illustrating various episodes from the life of the Madonna; those in the left aisle represent: the announcement of the Angel to Mary, the visit of Mary to Saint Elizabeth, the marriage of Mary, the birth of Jesus and the Holy Family; those in the right aisles describe: the loss and the finding of Jesus in the temple, the miracle of the wedding at Cana, Mary at the foot of the cross, Mary and the apostles in the upper room and finally the Dormitio of Mary. In the side aisles there are also six confessionals, three on each side, of fine workmanship. In the central nave and precisely on the left side, located almost in the center of the church, there is a wooden pulpit carved in the last century by the Augustan master Stagnaro; a little further on there is the organ with choir, probably from the 1700s. On the right side of the nave, in front of the organ, there was once the “senatorial bench”, as testified by the two marble plates placed in the arch. Above the entrance you can admire another stained-glass window, in which Mary with the Child is represented.


Spanish Gate

In the city of Augusta it is possible to admire an entrance door to the city, also known as the Spanish Gate,  a historical monument dating back to the seventeenth century, testimony to the three hundredth Spanish dominion in Sicily, which took place from 1412 to 1713.

Its construction began in 1681, on a project by the engineer Carlos de Grunembergh, by order of the viceroy Benavides, count of Santo Stefano, who had it built, at the expense of the Augustans, to defend the whole Christianity of the island. It was, in fact, the main entrance to the city, which was reached via two drawbridges, installed after the cutting of the isthmus wanted for military security reasons and to avoid attacks from the north. Modified several times over the centuries, it has kept intact only the upper part.

The Gate testifies the Spanish domination for three hundred years. It represented the main gateway to the city, has been modified several times, only the upper part has remained unchanged.

The Gate has two rampant griffins at the top, which support a cornice, surmounted by the crown of Charles II of Spain. The coat of arms of the viceroy D. Francesco Benavides is carved in the box delimited by the Golden Fleece. On the door there is a plaque which testifies to the strategic importance of the port of Augusta, a plaque on which we read: «D.O.M. Carolo II Hispaniarum ac Siciliae rege imperante, Siciliae prorex D.Franciscus Benavides Comes S.Stephani, in many portus litori muniendo non solum Siciliae, sed totius Italiae et Cristiani nominis incolumitati consultant extimavit MDCXXCI ».

Today the Spanish gate no longer delimits the entrance to the city but is simply a point of architectural interest.


Airship Hangar

It is precisely in the Syracuse province that you can admire the grandeur and majesty of this huge building built in 1917: the Augusta Hangar. You can admire it from any observation point, in the distance, placed on a small hill, but have we ever wondered what its history is? What its high concrete walls hide is a story of almost a century, having lived through the first and second world wars.

The hangar was in fact built by Eng. Antonio Garboli in 1917, on the advice of the French allies, to counter the German attacks. Its use consisted of hosting large airships to make possible the training of its pilots within the area of ​​Augusta, an important port city. Unfortunately, the Hangar was not used during the First World War, as its construction ended only in 1920, thanks to the labor of many Austrian prisoners who lived camped in the Granatello district. After the 1920s, although the number of Italian airships was reduced to a few units, the use of airships in Augusta was still useful thanks to its great flight autonomy. The fate of the city began to emerge from then on to become an important support base for the naval team. Thus began to host different types of airships in training, such as that of Umberto Nobile, pioneer and innovator in the aeronautical field, of which we remember the famous history of the airship Italy.

In 1926, it was decided to establish a new base for military seaplanes in Augusta, making it possible to strengthen the Italian defense. The hydroplane was therefore inaugurated on March 28, 1926 with the name of the pilot Luigi Spagnolo, who died during the First World War and, with its construction, many service structures inside were modified and transformed into rooms intended to host airmen, warehouses, offices and recreation rooms.

However, the military history of the hangar ended in 1943, during the Second World War, with the landing of the Americans in Sicily who managed to occupy all Sicilian cities from German rule. In August 1943 the British occupied Augusta, the area of ​​the Simeto river and the whole province of Catania and for this reason the hangar became the seat of the Royal Air Force, or of the United Kingdom Air Force forces, until 1946.

The hangar, after the end of the Second World War, was abandoned by military forces in the training of airships and only in 1965 the structure became the headquarters of the Air Section of the Guardia di Finanza. Unfortunately, following the transfer of the Air Section to Catania in 1991, the hangar will be permanently abandoned and subject to vandalism, earthquakes, atmospheric agents that will lead to degradation, both inside and outside the structure.

Thanks to the contribution of the Hangar Team, in 2005 the reclamation and restructuring works of the dangerous areas were undertaken, making the hangar a meeting place for everyone thanks also to the creation of the adjacent park, today a meeting place for school groups and sports groups .


The Salt Pans of Augusta

The salt pans of Augusta are a protected natural area with European Community legislation, falling on the municipal area of ​​Augusta, in the Italian province of Syracuse.

According to some documentation, the salt pans of Augusta date back at least to the 16th century. The salt marshes were cut into two parts following the construction, at the end of the sixties of the nineteenth century, of the tracks of the Catania-Siracusa railway open to traffic on January 19, 1871. Once very active in the collection of sea salt, they represented a significant economic resource until, following the construction of the petrochemical complex, they were closed.

Due to the proximity to one of the three (unclaimed) Syracusan petrochemical sites, the Augusta salt pans were considered to be at high environmental risk and for this reason, despite the special protection given to them by the European community (area of ​​Community interest and special protection area), the site was included among the names of the Special Office for High Risk Areas of Environmental Crisis in Sicily, an organ set up at the Regional Department of Territory and Environment .

Today, the sites of the former salt marshes have had the recognition of the European Community as a protected area “Natura 2000 Network”, an area of community importance and social protection. There is  hope that the Superintendency for Cultural and Environmental Heritage, in collaboration with the Sicilian Wildlife Authority, will continue to supervise these important naturalistic areas which each year allow the nesting of many species of migratory birds, offering visitors a unique show.

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