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Walking in Sicily's mountains

BY Anna Walker

28th Apr 2023 Travel Stories

Walking in Sicily's mountains

Anna Walker traverses the peaks and towns of the Madoniemountains on the picturesque Italian island

In the back of the jeep driving us to the village of Gangi, I have a problem. A typical British tourist, I’d thought I’d be able to get by on our walking tour of Sicily with just slithers of Italian: grazie, per favore, più vino.

Failing that, I think, yawning and stretching flight-tired limbs, my partner – fluent in Italian – can make up for my shortcomings. But as he attempts to launch into easy banter with our driver, it’s clear the Sicilian language is a beast all its own.

"The hospitality on this trip is some of the sincerest I’ve ever encountered"

“Is the dialect in Gangi closer to Spanish than Italian?” We’re met with a wry chuckle.

“More like Arabic”.

As it turns out, my thin grasp of the language won’t matter. Sicilian warmth is unimpeded by a lack of common tongue – the hospitality on this trip is some of the sincerest I’ve ever encountered.

Hitting the road, analogue-style

Orange groves flank the road, with a view of Etna, the "king of Sicily" in the background

As we drive through fields of flushed orange groves and squat olive trees, towns begin to emerge on the mountainside. A distant summit looms into view and our driver nods reverently. “There is the king of Sicily.” We won’t see Etna again until the final stop in our trip, which will take in the hilltop medieval towns and leafy forestry of the Madonie Natural Park, in the northern half of the island.

We’re visiting through slow travel tour operator InnTravel, who have provided a dossier of maps and advice to guide us. In the age of Google Maps, there’s something refreshing – and a little terrifying – about hitting the road analogue style.

Our first destination, Gangi, has a population of just over 6,000. We’re staying at Villa Rainò, a handsome family-run agriturismo where the welcome is warm and the food relentless. We’re served course after hearty course, exhaling in dismay as we realise, seven dishes in, that we will need to walk this off in the morning.

"We’re staying at Villa Rainò, a handsome family-run agriturismo where the welcome is warm and the food relentless"

Day one of hiking begins with spectacular views across rolling peaks. We’re aiming for the medieval town of Geraci Siculo and the weather is perfect. We’re kept company by stout, shiny dung beetles toiling hard under the glare of the sun.

Part way through the day we happen upon a pasture of horses. Their owner pats their shiny coats, calling to his children who have gathered, shyly, to watch us. Hiking isn’t a popular pastime in Sicily, so we make for curious figures with our sticks and backpacks. He invites us to pet some of his prized steeds. He’s rearing them for dressage and knows of InnTravel, nodding his approval at our maps.

As we stride on, cow bells tinkle on the wind like distant church bells. They wander everywhere on this part of the island, unmanned and drowsy, nonplussed as we nervously sidestep their hulking frames.

Oven-fresh focaccia and sparkling beer

The wonderful view of Etna and Gangi, as seen from Petralia Soprana

As we reach Geraci Siculo – which dates to 550BC when Greeks first settled in the Madonie – a storm begins whipping the trees. We dash through the town’s labyrinthine lanes, past ornate churches, and shuttered shopfronts, to dinner.

We’re dining at Vulture, a modern restaurant with a tasting menu thoroughly unexpected in this ancient-looking town. We have the place to ourselves and as the rain drums down, we replenish walk-weary stomachs with oven-fresh focaccia, sparkling beer, and the region’s speciality – pork with apple.

Drowsy, content, we pull the shutters closed in our hotel, Notti O'Tunn. We’re told that our room has spectacular views, but we wouldn’t know. The outside world is now entirely encased in a cottony sheet of fog and rain.

We wake to bad news. The storm has called off our hike and the mist is now so thick we can barely see 10 feet in front of us. Thankfully, InnTravel’s detailed notes help us to plot an alternative. We skip the hike and taxi directly to our next destination. Petralia Sottana’s quaint rooftops peek through scattered storm clouds as we approach – at 1,147m above sea level, this is the second highest village in Sicily.

"Gay couples, migrant workers, and locals young and old mingle. For a town of just 2,700 people, it’s surprisingly diverse"

A drizzly day spent exploring the village offers a welcome change of pace. Steep winding roads lead to the orange roof of the cathedral, Maria Santissima Assunta. It’s hard on the calves, but locals scurry about like the incline is nothing. We’re frequently lapped by Sicilians in their seventies, eighties, who could seemingly scale the city’s sharp streets in their sleep.

For dinner that night at our hotel, Albergo Il Castello, we’re served pesto pizza, orange pumpkin pasta and pistachio cheesecake. The restaurant’s staff (all members of the sprawling Calderaro family) pack us chunky calzones for lunch the next day.

Full, but not sleepy enough to retire, we duck into a bar. The football is on, Roma is winning, and we sip generous pours of limoncello. A group of animated boys chant in Sicilian – “he who arrived last will pay for all!”

Gay couples, migrant workers, and locals young and old mingle. For a town of just 2,700 people, it’s surprisingly diverse. We shuffle off into a crisp evening. The rain has stopped, and the mist has cleared.

Hundreds of deer in every direction

A stag on the hike to Castelbuono

The most demanding hike of the trip takes us from Petralia Sottana to Castelbuono. For nine hours in the heart of Madonie Natural Park, we don’t encounter another soul. Surrounded by holly trees, we scramble up and down peaks, hearing nothing but the trickling of streams and distant snuffling of wild boar.

Three hours in, stark against the sky, we see the outline of a fallow stag. When we turn the corner, we’re astonished to find he isn’t alone. There are hundreds of deer, in every direction. They sit grazing on berries or throw their heads back, throaty bellows echoing across the valley. Fawns with white spots dart across our path, and in the distance territorial stags lock antlers and rattle down the rockface.

For hours we walk among them. Just once we lose our path, retracing our steps until we spot the familiar paint marker on a tree trunk – InnTravel’s regular “you’re going the right way” symbol, and breathe a sigh of relief.

Over dinner that night at Agriturismo Bergi – a charming farm and hotel in the town of Castelbuono – we’re both quiet.

Tomorrow, we put away the maps and compass, and return to the world of screens. It’s been a challenge, relying on nothing but manual navigation to traverse the mountains of Sicily, but in disconnecting, we’ve reconnected with something forgotten – the wide-eyed wonder of nature and the warmth of human connection. Some things transcend language.

Self-guided trip

Inntravel (www.inntravel.co.uk, 01653 617000) offers The Mountains of Sicily self-guided walking break from £925pp based on two sharing, including 7 nights’ B&B accommodation, 7 dinners, 3 picnic lunches, luggage transfers between hotels, and walking route notes and maps. Available 15 April 2023 - 30 June 2023 & 22 August 2023 - 31 October 2023. Flights (to Catania or Palermo) and airport transfers are extra.

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