Exploring Sicily’s Monti Madonie
Add another dimension to your Sicily holiday with our guide to the walks and landscapes of the Madonie Natural Park.
The custom of la passeggiata – an evening stroll, dressed to the nines, to see and be seen amongst your family, friends, customers and rivals – is woven deep into the fabric of Italian life, perhaps nowhere more so than in Sicily. The ritual is raised to art-form here, a walk that apparently goes nowhere but is filled with subtle public statement, depending on your life stage, gender and position within the local community.
However, the notion of hiking into the hills for pleasure is altogether newer; not surprising perhaps when you consider that anyone over the age of 50 here can remember a time when walking was pretty much the only way to get from a to b outside the cities, and cars are very much a status symbol for younger Sicilians. Yet while the locals may consider – privately at least – that walking is for peasants, the Sicilian tourist authorities are waking up to its potential to attract visitors in search of a more active and authentic holiday experience.
The Madonie Natural Park
Sun-baked Sicily is most famous for its seven UNESCO World Heritage sites (including an active volcano) but it also has four extensive natural parks. The Monti de Madonie reserve lies close to the north coast of Sicily, slightly south west of Cefalu and therefore ideal if you want to combine some gentle hiking with relaxing time at the beach. The park covers almost 400 square kilometres, dotted with small villages and farmland and punctuated by peaks rising to almost 2,000m, including Pizzo Carbonara, the highest mountain on Sicily after mighty Etna.
Snow-capped and spectacular
With three peaks over 1,500m, the mountains here are high enough to host three modest ski slopes, but outside the short winter season the entire park attracts remarkably few visitors, and the sense of space is intoxicating. The mountains are an extension of the Italian Apennine range, more Alpine than Mediterranean in character, carpeted in wild flowers during spring and truly spectacular in autumn when the leaves glow brief and bright as flames. Most days, the air is clear enough that you can see all the way to the Aeolian Islands.
Flora and Fauna
There are over 2,600 recorded species of plants in the Madonie Park, around 20 of which are unique to the area. Of particular note is the Sicilian Fir (Abies Nebrodensis), which is classified as a critically endangered species with just 30 mature trees in the current population. There’s plenty of wildlife in the vicinity too; look out for foxes, porcupines, hares and martens in the hills, or bring your binoculars and you might see red woodpeckers, peregrine falcons or even a golden eagle. The park provides a home for 90 butterfly species, the most interesting being the Sicilian Apollo, which has only ever been seen within the Madonie park area.
One especially rewarding aspect of walking in this park is that people live and work within its bounds. There are 15 small towns and villages nestled into the mountain slopes, and agriculture is still the main employer in a region that has changed very little in 100’s of years. There are medieval churches and castles to explore, and lots of lovely local produce to enjoy. Be warned: on the stroke of midday virtually everything closes for an extended lunch break, including many restaurants, so be sure to pick up your picnic early or ask around to find out where might stay open for lunch.
Walking routes in the Madonie
The parks authority provides quite a range of routes, from straightforward 2-hour hikes to 3 or 4-day itineraries designed for those who are good with a map and at least averagely fit! Here we highlight a few of the routes that we have enjoyed ourselves.
The Sicilian Fir trail: starting at Polizzi Generosa, this 8km circular route takes you past several specimens of the critically endangered Abies Nebrodensis trees, which are clearly labelled so you can’t miss them.
Pizzo Carbonara: This route is only around 7km long, but you need to allow around 3 hours at there is about 300m of ascent. You begin and end the walk at the small ski resort of Piano Battaglia, reaching the summit of Pizzo Carbonara in around an hour and a half. On a clear day you can see the coast and as far as Mount Etna.
Rocca di Sciara Geological Path: This short, out-and-back route starts at Caltavulturo and takes about an hour in total. The route was devised as part of a local school project, and provides a good introduction to the complex geology of the area.
For more detailed walks in the area, we recommend the Sunflower walking guides series, or, if you can read Italian, visit the Parco delle Madonie web site for alternative routes.