The Madonie Mountains :: Sicily’s finest landscapes
Ma-do-ni-e: four syllables not three, the final two vowels being pronounced as separate syllables: ee-ay. Or in Sicilian it is somewhat simpler: they are known as the Li Marunìi. But whichever version you prefer, the name is derived from the Madonia Estate of the Crescimanni family, of Norman origin, who probably arrived in Sicily along with Roger 1 in 1060.
They are not a very extensive range of mountains and could more or less fit in a box measuring 30km along each side. In area, they cover less than the Nebrodi, the Sicani, the Iblei and perhaps even the Peloritanti but nevertheless they constitute the highest summits in Sicily after Mount Etna.
They are not “peaks”, as in the Alps or the Pyrenees. And with rounded tops, rather than jagged upward points, from the distance there is nothing hugely spectacular about them.
Flying in to Catania from the north, and looking down on them from the right hand side as the plane makes landfall over Sicily’s northern coast you would think of them more as hills: not unlike the Fells of northern England or the tors of the South-West. Yet, the view from above distorts the sense of scale.
Driving north along the motorway from Enna, in the direction of Termini Imerese, one is aware of the high ground to the East, but it appears more like arable uplands than the foothills of a mountain range.
Almost on the plan of a medieval castle, their outer circumference is built as if a bailey to defend the keep that rises in the middle. But in the same way that if you are standing directly beneath the castle wall, the view of the keep is obscured, so too, from the near distance, it is impossible to see the mountaintops of the Madonie.
The best distant views of them are afforded in winter time from the direction of Palermo, in the afternoon, as the sun moves toward Sciacca, and the snow-covered tops of Pizzo Carbonara and Pizzo Cervi sit like giant white pillows on the throne-like mass which lords over the plain of the Himera valley. In the summertime though, from the same vantage point, they are all but invisible: hidden by the haze that builds from the sea.
But drive the road from Campofelice to Collesano or from Lascari to Gratteri, and you feel the increase in torque you need to pull the car up the road. From the edges of hairpin bends you glance down at the coast receding into the distance. Then onward from Isnello, you notice the moisture on the road, the lichen on the trees and the changing foliage. Eventually, from Piano Zucchi the temperature starts to drop considerably. Snow poles appear by the side of the road and if you were driving in the winter you would almost certainly need chains. By the time you arrive at Piano Battaglia you are just over 1500m – higher than any mountain in the British Isles. And yet, you have come only just over ten miles from the coast, where in the summertime, the temperature on the beach can frequently reach 40˚C.
These are the Madonie. In an hour’s drive you can be away from the coast and lost in a landscape that could belong to a different part of Europe.
Predominantly, the Madonie are formed of calcareous limestone, pushed up from the sea-bed around 20 million years ago. But despite their deceptively homogenous appearance, to the trained geologist, there is also enormous variety within them. Around their perimeters and especially on the northern edge, there are also patches of clayey-sandstone. The central massif – that around Pizzo Carbonara – is a vast expanse of karst limestone, dotted with sinkholes, and suspended above a huge system of caves. And it is for this very reason, around Piano Battaglia, just beneath Pizzo Carbonara, it is possible to find fossils of sea-shell and coral.
At its southern reaches, beyond Petralia and stretching South towards Gangi and the monti Erei, the limestone gives way once again to clay-like soil stretching into Sicily’s interior.
It is this calcareous bedrock that affords so many species of flowers, and in particular orchids – to which the Madonie are home to over sixty species. In the Spring, one can delight in finding the long-spurred, butterfly, variegated, pyramid and bee orchids in abundance.
The Madonie are no longer heavily forested. Such trees as there are tend to be short in stature, scythed by the wind in winter. The most forested area is the drive up from Piano Zucchi to Piano Battaglia and there are forested areas on the slopes of Pizzo Caterinaci, and also Monte Quacella. But otherwise, vast areas of the Madonie are upland grassland.
Holm (or Holly) Oak and Cork oak – both evergreen – are abundant everywhere, but we also find the European oak more familiar to many of us. Beech and holly are also extensive. And there are two great arboreal highlights in the Madonie: the first of which is at Piano Pomo.
However you arrive at Piano Pomo – whether you have toiled up through the woods from Rifugio Crispi or whether you have arrived by the longer, more exposed route from Pomieri, to come across the pagghiarru – or thatched shepherds’ hut, is always cheer-filling. But through the small gate in the adjacent fence and at less than a hundred paces away is one of the most extraordinary surprises: a veritable basilica of giant holly trees, each the size of a mature birch tree. If you arrive in the summer, when the foliage is to be expected and the red holly-berries are not yet formed, you would even be forgiven for mis-identifying them. But on closer inspection: the smooth battleship-grey bark of their trunks and the lustrous, bottle-green leaves remove all doubt. At their perimeter, the interstice between two trunks creates a giant portal through which you are invited to enter. Once inside, as your eyes adjust to the darkness, your gaze is drawn up to the branches grown into the fan-vaulting of this natural cathedral. Through the leaves, the dappled sunlight edges through the rose window to the East. Exiting again into the sunlight, you look around for other evidence of holly and are surprised to find none. It makes the miracle of this unique arboretum even more remarkable.
Just before we leave Piano Pomo, we should also elaborate on its name. “Piano” here refers to an upland pasture and anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of French will be able to guess the derivation of “Pomo”. Sicilian has adopted this Gallic word into its dialect and the name refers to a small wild apple tree bearing fruits about the size of a cherry and which grows extensively roundabout.
The other unique arboreal highlight in the Madonie are the thirty or so fir trees – Abies Nebrodensis – that survive on the slopes of the Vallone degli Angeli. These rare specimens – indeed, the only examples of their species – in form, like the perfect Christmas tree, are now fenced off and are closely protected, but the walk to find them is an exhilarating one.
This lack of tree-cover perhaps explains why the Madonie is not the paradise for bird-watchers one might expect. Nevertheless, for the patient and long-sighted there can be rewards. In particular, the larger raptors are predominant. Golden and Bonelli’s eagles are regular sightings – especially so if you know where they nest and where to look. Though I have not seen one, I am told the Gryphon vultures breeding in the Nebrodi also now make visits to the Madonie. A “carneificio” – a pit where carcasses are tossed to attract them has been created just below Piano Farina. Last summer too, I caught sight of an Egyptian vulture, a sighting later confirmed by a friends of mine who requested the location be kept secret.
In the cork oak forests between Piano Zucchi and Piano Battaglia, roe deer are common. Wild boar have become almost commonplace – in particular in the valley beneath Pomieri. Pine Martens exist but they are hard to spot and I am told there are also wild cat – though I have never seen one. Foxes are also not uncommon. And hares and rabbits can also be seen. Occasionally one will find the needles of porcupines, but they are not common. But there are no wolves in Sicily – the last wolf was shot by hunters in the Madonie in the 1950s. Flocks of wild goats are not uncommon, often looking down on you from some high crag.
Since the area was declared a Regional Natural Park in 1989, it has been forbidden to build within its confines and the regulations are enforced vigorously. This is the reason why the boundary of the park meanders widely round towns – so that Castelbuono, and the area towards Isnello are excluded from the park. Hunting is naturally forbidden as are planting new trees or making fires. The landscape is very much left to evolve on its own. “Wilding” is the term that is nowadays used for the experiment, but it has been in place in the Madonie since the late eighties.
Shepherds are about the only ones who eke out a livelihood here – with their flocks of sheep, goats or cows. In the past, this area of northern Sicily was known for its transhumance lifestyle – meaning that the shepherds and their flocks would migrate to the upland pastures in the summer, and to an extent it still carries on today.
If you come here in the Spring, when the ewes are lactating, and are lucky enough to meet one of the shepherds, you might well be offered a taste of their fresh ricotta.
Walking through the Madonie is perhaps the best way of all to enjoy it, though it is not always obvious how it should be tackled. There is no continuous footpath and certainly nothing that is easily broken into day-long chunks between refuges or mountain hotels.
It is also almost impossible to get hold of a map (and even more rare is a map that might actually have footpaths marked on it).
Also, as a Regional Natural Park, it is not possible to camp in the Madonie, and such accommodation as there is, is not easily paced. Furthermore, in the summertime, water can be a problem as there are few opportunities to fill up a water bottle. In the winter, the snow makes much of the Madonie inaccessible. Even with a will and good equipment, as the paths are only marked by blotches of red paint on the ground-rock, they are all but invisible.
It is therefore difficult to plan walks in the Madonie. But despite this, books such as the Sunflower guide, do a good job of describing day-walks – such as the one up to Piano Pomo from Rifugio Crispi.
Towns and villages
But walking is by no means the only reason to come to the Madonie, since the area also contains some of Sicily’s prettiest villages: Isnello, the two Petralie (Sottana and Soprana), Geraci Siculo, and two towns, although not within the park, bordering on it: Gangi and Castelbuono.
Each of these towns and villages is unique and would deserve a separate article at another time, but suffice to say now that they contain some of the most interesting churches and buildings in Sicily. Even to those without any religious interest would be compelled to investigate them for they contain some of the finest artwork in Sicily.
The most unlikely story concerns a painter – or rather two painters – for the unkindly named “Zoppo di Gangi” (zoppo in Italian means ‘lame’) was in fact not a single artist but two: Giuseppe Salerno (1575-1632) and Gaspare Vazzano (1565-1624). The relationship between them is unclear but it is likely they worked as “master” and “apprentice” in the same workshop. In almost every village of the Madonie, tucked away somewhere in the church is a work by one of these early seventeenth century masters. To my mind, the finest is the vast canvas of the Last Judgement taking up almost the whole right hand wall of the chancel in the mother-church in Gangi.
The Madonie were something of an incubator for fine artists. The other well-known name in the Madonie is Fra’ Umile – a sculptor who carved many of the wooden crucifixes of the Madonie.
But the great treasure hidden away in the Madonie must surely be the beautiful late-fifteenth century triptych by the Dutch painter Rogier Van de Weyden hidden away in the church at Polizzi Generosa. How it came to be here is unknown but it is suspected that its intended destination was actually Palermo.
The noble presence much felt in the Madonie is that of the Ventimiglia family. Originally a family from the Liguria region, they settled in Sicily in the middle ages and most of the castles in the region once belonged to them: Gangi, Geraci Siculo, San Mauro, Pollina and, most notably, Castelbuono. In fact, the story is told that Giovanni I Ventimiglia had built his castle at Geraci, but a few years later moved down the valley to the present day Castelbuono because the winters were too inclement at Geraci. His new keep at Castelbuono implied it to be the “good castle” and by inference, that at Geraci was perhaps the “bad”.
Just exploring these towns and villages can easily fill up a week of one’s time. And especially so since the other characteristic of the Madonie is the scarcity of roads. Getting from Petralia to Castelbuono, for example can easily take most of the afternoon and without your own transport is practically impossible. But nevertheless, the drives are breathtaking and there is usually little traffic on the roads.
The story of the world’s most historic motor race is not, perhaps, one might expect to be superimposed over the same landscape that I have been describing until now. But indeed it is so.
It was founded in 1906 by automobile enthusiast Vincenzo Florio and one of the illustrious Florio family around whom so much of turn-of-the-century Sicilian history revolves. In a circuit consisting of three laps of the Madonie (around 277 miles), it was one of the toughest car races in the world. Apart from the appalling conditions of the road – the frequent hairpin bends and the uneven surface, the hazards were many. Not least, one of the problems was running out of fuel and competitors’ teams hid jerry cans of petrol behind trees along the route. This led to the subterfuge of finding and stealing your opponents’ fuel. Furthermore, to save valuable time, the cars were often refuelled on the run and frequently caught fire in the process. At least once, the eventual winner of the race crossed the finish line in flames.
The other great hazard were the spectators – usually none other than the peasants and farmers who tilled the local land – who would gather on hairpin bends to cheer the drivers, quite unaware of the danger they were putting themselves in. Deaths were frequent – both among drivers and spectators and eventually in the 1970s the race was wound down.
These days the race is commemorated on signs mapping the route as you drive around the Madonie. Struggling ever to get beyond third gear on some of the roads, you really wonder whether the Targa Florio might not just have been a dream.
For those who are curious, there is a fine museum on the Targa Florio at Collesano.
Products of the Madonie
There are at least two local specialities which ought to be mentioned:
In the Raffo quarter below Petralia Soprana is a working salt mine. Though the salt pans of Marsala and Trapani are famous, this is the only place in Sicily where rock salt is mined and it is possible to visit the mines on a Saturday. Though I have not seen them myself, I am told there are fantastic sculptures carved in the salt in the mine down below.
The other product is manna produced in the area around Castelbuono. The Manna Ash – Fraxinus ornus – is a flowering ash native of southern Europe and easily identified in late Spring by its abundant creamy-white inflorescences. It grows abundantly in the area either side of the road between Pollina and Castelbuono. The “manna” is produced from the sugary extract of the sap, obtained by making incisions in the bark and is then used as a flavouring in confectionary (for example in the excellent panettone produced in Castelbuono) or else for pharmaceutical purposes as a mild laxative. Its name “manna” derives from a tradition in the middle ages linking it to the biblical manna.
It is referenced, of course, in the toponym Gibilmanna – the name of the sanctuary above Cefalù – derived from the two words jebel – Arabic for “mountain” and manna. Hence Gibilmanna: the mountain of manna, an appropriate name since it is indeed surrounded by a forest of Fraxinus ornus.
In the past charcoal was produced on Pizzo Carbonara (hence its name) and this probably goes part way to explaining the scarcity of trees at its summit.
When to visit
The Madonie is a treat at any time of year. In the Spring the rewards are obviously the wild flowers and especially the orchids. It the summer, it can be a respite from the heat of the rest of Sicily. In the Autumn, one is often lucky to get the pick of the weather. But on a crisp Winter’s day the views from the top of Pizzo Carbonara are like none other and extend from the full archipelago of the Aeolian islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, to the Nebrodi and Mt Etna in the East, to Monte Cammarata, Rocca Busambra and Sutera in the West and as far South as Agrigento.
Whenever you chose to visit, to walk through the Madonie is, to my mind, one of the greatest pleasures in all Sicily and affirms what it is to be alive.
Esplora Travel run a week’s walking holiday in the Madonie mountains.