Off the beaten track in Sicily
Unless you’re a keen hiker, you’re likely to be amongst the many visitors to Sicily’s shores who head for the beaches and completely overlook the Madonie mountains. But the mountainous reserve is alternative Sicily at its best, offering almost year round walking and a string of captivating medieval villages.
The Madonie was the second nature reserve to be established in Sicily, located at the centre of the north coast of the island and extending over 35,000 hectares. Skiing takes over in winter but during spring, summer and autumn, the network of paths through the mountainous region are popular with walkers.
Best of all, there’s no need to choose between a holiday in the mountains or on the coast. The Madonie nature reserve is just a short drive from several of our villas in and around Cefalù, including the seafront villas of Casa Turchina and Villa Carlotta.
How high are the Madonie?
The impressive range comprises some of the tallest peaks on the island, with the highest peak at Pizzo Carbonara standing at 1979m and six of the mountains at over 1500m. At the ski resort of Piano Battaglia, at just over 1500m, it’s hard to believe that you’re still only 10 miles from the coast!
So why visit the Madonie mountains? If a holiday for you means chilling by the pool and sea swimming, it’s hard to beat a relaxing stay at a luxury villa like Arte Mare Blue. However, if you love exploring medieval villages with maze-like cobbled alleyways, winding lanes and pretty churches, a day trip to the Madonie ticks every box.
Gangi boasts the title of ‘il borgo più bello d’Italia’ (Italy’s prettiest village), as well as sweeping views of the valley from the Belvedere del Duomo piazza. And from the town’s medieval Castello dei Ventimiglia, you’ll get views as far afield as Mount Etna on a clear day.
Other must-see villages include Polizzi Generosa, Petralia Soprana, Petralia Sottana, Castellana Sicula and Isnello, variously boasting captivating medieval centres, historic Arabo-Norman churches, piazzas and dazzling views across the surrounding hillside.
Castles, towers and churches
Many of the villages are characterised by imposing castles and towers. The best known is undoubtedly the 14th century castle of Castelbuono, with its impressive staircases, ancient clock tower and square towers at each corner. Today the castle houses the town’s Civic Museum.
You’ll find historic towers in Gangi and Petralia Soprana. Gangi’s imposing Norman Ventimiglia Tower, a former watchtower, dates back to 1337 and, attached to the façade of the Chiesa di San Nicolò, now serves as a bell tower. In Petralia Soprana, the two bell towers on the Chiesa di San Pietro e Paolo, divided by a magnificent 18-column porch which leads into the church, date back to the 15th and 18th century and are extraordinarily beautiful.
You’ll find an extraordinary number of churches to visit in Gangi, and Petralia Soprana where the Church of Santa Maria di Loreto is crammed with paintings and provides some spectacular views. In neighbouring Petralia Sottana, the most charming of the many churches is perhaps Santa Maria della Fontana.
Gastronomic traditions in the Madonie
Culinary traditions in the Madonie are firmly rooted in the territory and deeply protective of the land. Indigenous plants include the Badda bean and the ‘pipiddu’ pepper, both endangered varieties that are still being grown locally. Olive oil, mushrooms, hazelnuts and fresh ricotta and pecorino made with ancient methods, shape the culinary landscape, alongside salami and sausages.
You’ll even find some rivalry between the villages for the best local speciality of ‘sfoglio madonita’, cake made with thin pastry filled with ‘tuma’ (unsalted local cheese), candied pumpkins, sugar and pieces of chocolate. And in Castelbuono, iconic Fiasconaro produces some of the best panettone and Easter ‘colombe’ you’ll ever taste.
Of course, the nature reserve is a wonderful place for anyone who likes to get out in the great outdoors. Hillsides are covered in evergreen holm and cork oaks, beech, oak and holly trees. At Piano Pomo, a cluster of giant holly trees, each the size of a birch tree, is a remarkable sight.
During the spring months, hillsides are sprinkled with wild flowers, including over 60 species of orchids, red poppies, mimosa and red and white peonies.
Not surprisingly, horse riding, hiking and cycling are amongst the most popular activities. Choose from a selection of guided walks or, if you’re looking for some more adrenaline busting activities, there’s the option of quad biking, mountain biking or a selection of adventure experiences and jeep trails. If you’re holidaying with the kids, they’ll love the Parco Avventura Madonie, a woodland adventure park complete with rope ladders, tree climbing and open air experiences in Petralia Sottana.
For more villas close to the Madonie mountains, please visit our collection of villas in Cefalù.