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Caltagirone: For centuries, Italian town has been known as the city of ceramics

It is sort of a stairway to heaven.

You climb its 142 stairs from a rather plain Sicilian street and end up at a 12th-century church with a beautiful “Madonna with Child.”

But what really makes this staircase in Caltagirone special is that each step of the Scala Santa Maria del Monte is decorated with hand-crafted ceramics.

Built in the early 17th century, the stairs connect the lower town, the seat of government, to the upper town, the city’s religious center. It was not until the 1950s that the steps were decorated with their tiles.

The tiles are colorful and painted with a variety of motifs. You can see knights, lions, birds, flowers, kings, hunters, geometrical patterns and more.

Every year on July 25, the city celebrates St. Giacomo’s (St. James) day, honoring the patron saint. In the evenings of the 24th and 25th, the stairs are illuminated with thousands of colored lanterns to create a magnificent design.

Caltagirone has been a center of pottery-making for tens of centuries, and each of the cultures that passed through here — Greek, Roman, Spanish and Norman — has left its mark. But perhaps no one more than the Arabs, who introduced a tin-glazed pottery called majolica, and gave the city its name, Qal’at-al-ghiran, derived from an Arabic word meaning the castle or fortress of the vases.

If you doubt that they take their pottery seriously in Caltagirone, check out the Ponte San Francesco (St. Francis Bridge), which is also decorated with tiles.

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Shops selling locally-made ceramics and other colorful pottery typical of Sicily dot the city. Even if the upper town, with the Santa Maria del Monte church, was the religious center of the city, the lower town is full of churches, including the duomo — cathedral — with its tile-clad dome. Other churches worth noting are the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi and the Church of San Francesco di Paola. And you can watch Sicilian life pass by at the Piazza Umberto I, the city’s central square.

An earthquake devastated the town in 1693. Most of the public and religious buildings were then rebuilt in Sicilian Baroque style.

On the other end of the city center are the public gardens. After climbing stairs, sightseeing and shopping for ceramics, the gardens are a place to cool off in their abundant shade. But there are two things to see here, too. One is the ornate 19th-century music stage with its glass roof and adorned with the ceramics the city is known for. The other is the Museum of Pottery, where the local history of pottery manufacturing is traced through the centuries.

Getting there

Caltagirone is about 32 miles west of Sigonella on route SS 417, or 46 miles from Catania. Ignore the Caltagirone-Sud exit and head on to the Nord exit and then follow SS 124 into town.

There are parking garages and lots near the center and some free parking on the streets for up to two hours.

Food

There are pizzerias and cafes, some in the buildings on the stairs, for a bite to eat downtown, and a couple of kiosks in the park that sell snacks and drinks.

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