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Piana degli Albanesi



Latest Update:   14 June 2012 in Places to Go in Sicily

Over the centuries, many different invading forces and ethnic groups have played a part in Sicily’s history. The legacies of most – like the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Saracens and Spanish – are clear for all to see. But one immigrant nation settled, and remained, in one specific area. They were Albanians, and they’ve lived in Piana degli Albanesi for more than 500 years.

 

How they came to be there goes like this. As the Ottoman Empire expanded and they started to invade more and more of the Balkan states in the 15th century, many Albanians fled their homeland. One group hired boats from the Republic of Venice and made their way to Sicily where they wound up in camps close to Palermo.

 

In the late 1480s, Sicily’s ruler John II of Aragon granted permission for the Albanian community to settle permanently. They ended up here at Piana degli Albanesi, or to be more precise, they ended up at Piana dei Greci, because that was the original name that was used till 1941. The Greek (Greci) part of the name was used because those who settled were members of the Greek Orthodox Church and they were allowed to carry on practising their religion. They also continue to speak the Albanian language and use it for road and shop names, although the town is officially bi-lingual.

 

In many ways the Albanians were very lucky to get this place! The location they were given is beautiful, in a steep hilly valley close to a lake – well reservoir. The Lago di Piana degli Albanesi is actually man-made for generating electricity but it’s still quite pretty.

 

The town is surrounded by four lofty mountains and sits within the Serre della Pizzuta nature reserve. As well as visiting the town, this region is popular with tourists because it’s great for a variety of outdoor activities like hill walking, mountain biking, horse riding, paragliding and canoeing.

 

As for the town itself, well it’s nice enough with a cathedral dating from 1590 and several other churches. These are worth having a look around to see how they differ from the traditional Sicilian Catholic places of worship. The rest of the place is largely a maze of narrow streets built in the late medieval period, apart from the main avenue that divides the town in half.

 

The main reason tourists come here though is not to see the town but to see the townspeople, who still preserve and carry out religious festivities from their Albanian homeland, according to the Greek Orthodox calendar. The ceremonies are carried out in full traditional costume and the women’s outfits are particularly ornate and precious. They get handed down through the generations and are made from velvet that is heavily embroidered with gold.

 

The ladies drag them out of the wardrobes on extra special occasions - so every year on Easter and Epiphany and also for weddings. The two religious days are the tourist highlights in the town as a major procession through the streets takes place after the religious ceremony. The celebrations are also accompanied by chanting of sacred songs in Greek and Albanian.

 

You can buy examples of the intricate specialist embroidery work in tourist shops. The town is also renowned for its mosaics and there are goldsmiths who use the skills passed down to make decorations for the costumes to produce some very fine jewellery.

 

Piana degli Albanese is not too far from Palermo (about 24km) and you’ll find it on the map due south of Monrealeand its famous cathedral. Due to its lofty mountain position buses are the only public transport to and from here and they run regularly from Palermo Centrale.