Stretching from the northern Sicilian coast to some of the island’s tallest peaks lies the Madonie Park, an impressive geographic range supporting the greatest biodiversity in all of Sicily and even, some say, the entire Mediterranean. The park is dotted with fifteen Madonita villages that feel stuck in another time–or perhaps a hodgepodge of other times, really, with their medieval stone walls side-by-side with Arabo-Norman churches and Baroque-era buildings. The area is often overlooked in favor of Sicily’s more popular destinations, but little do travelers know that in their well-worn trek from Palermo to Catania, they’re bypassing one of the island’s lesser-known but most breathtaking regions.
Like many other regions in rural Italy, Madonie has lost its younger generations to the big cities, though a number of people remain, fighting to preserve the zone’s rich, lively biocultural heritage. My friends and I were lucky enough to join this group at Serra Guarneri, a bed and breakfast and environmental education center straddling the sea and rocky hills of the Madonie. Our friend Giuseppe, who runs Serra Guarneri, is one such passionate individual, and his love for the region he calls home is matched only by his passion for making everyone else feel right at home too. Accommodations at Serra Guarneri are rustic, given that the B&B is nestled in the protected forests of the Madonie, but if you like splitting your own wood and plucking veggies for dinner straight from the garden, then you’ll fit right in. In total, we spent three weeks at Serra Guarneri, two in December and one in March, and throughout our stays, we found that Giuseppe’s passion was contagious. In no time at all, we fell in love with the region too.
Our forays into the Madonie began in Cefalù, located a short hour’s train ride (or drive) from Palermo, the Sicilian capital. Most know Cefalù as a picturesque town facing the sea, but for our purposes, it was the gateway to the rest of the Madonie region. If you choose to visit Cefalù yourself, I recommend that you get there early: there’s so much delicious food to enjoy. Luckily, just three minutes on foot from the central train station you’ll find both Pasta e Pasti, a no-frills trattoria specializing in fresh pasta dishes, and L’Angolo delle Dolcezze, a favorite pasticceria of the locals, which serves gelato in the summer and typical Sicilian treats all year round (don’t miss their cream-filled, airy cartoccio).
Cefalù’s vibrant old town merits a generous bout of destination-less wandering, but if you do need to type in a location or two on Google Maps, be sure not to miss Ceramiche La Maga (a family-run ceramics shop), the town’s medieval laundry pools, and the Duomo, an astounding feat of Arab-Norman architecture from the 12th century. If you’re already at the Duomo, you might as well stop for a moment in the piazza and order a gelato con brioche at Duomo Gelatieri dal 1952. Depending on the time of day, your sweet treats can be accompanied by a cappuccino or an Aperol spritz–though in Sicily, it’s really never too early to indulge in the latter. While there’s of course plenty to do in Cefalù, the best way to embrace the laid-back, easygoing philosophy of the town is to linger right there, savoring the flavors of Sicily and basking in the gentle hubbub of the piazza as the golden sun shines down.
If you’re in need of some walking to work off all the delicious foods Cefalù has to offer (i.e. make room to eat more), hiking routes are in no short supply: head to the Sentiero sugli Scogli to scramble over the rocks lining the coast and explore the quieter side of the town, or, for Cefalù’s most iconic path, try to reach the Rocca di Cefalù, the unmistakable, omnipresent rock formation that frames the town. If you’re prepared for a decent uphill hike, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the town below as you ascend, as well as the opportunity to come face to face with the medieval Castello di Cefalù and other ancient ruins. If, instead, you’d rather head straight to the beach, swing by FoodSicily first for a cold beer, antipasti, and sandwiches filled with the best local meats and cheeses–the perfect fixings for a picnic by the sea. If you’re looking for a less-crowded spot to hit the beach, head to la spiaggia di Sant’Ambrogio, only six kilometers from Cefalù. This tip will be particularly useful in summer, when the temperatures are highest and the crowds biggest. As a general rule of thumb, you’ll have to leave the well-traversed touristic streets of Cefalù and head inland to find the real gems of the Madonie.
After Cefalù, our first stop in the hinterlands of the Madonie was the town of Castelbuono. The town’s name comes from the medieval castello de buon aere, or “castle of good air”, a well-fitting title. On the day we visited, the air was crisp, a sharp wind lapping at our collars, as we approached the namesake castle. We took deep breaths of the sweet Madonita mountain air. The first stones of the castle were laid in 1316, and with its four impressive, stout towers, it is the archetypal example of a medieval protective fortress. Today, it houses the Museo Civico, which showcases a collection of prehistoric and natural history artifacts from Madonie.
Of equal interest in Castelbuono was the bakery Fiasconaro, renowned throughout Italy for its inimitable panettone and colombe. Every year, Fiasconaro collaborates with Dolce & Gabbana to encase their pastries in opulent boxes, whose bright colors and enchanting patterns are emblematic of Sicily’s traditional ceramics. But one of the most fascinating aspects of Fiasconaro is its work with local producers of manna, a tree sap found only in the region of Castelbuono. Between July to September, knowledgeable producers harvest a liquid sap from the Frassino ash tree, which quickly hardens under the intense Sicilian summer sun and forms crystals of sweet manna. In doing so, they maintain a tradition which dates back eight centuries. The tree sap boasts numerous health benefits, including detoxification, digestive, and diuretic properties. As a natural sweetener in a number of Fiasconaro’s pastries, it reduces the need for added, processed sugars and lends its unmistakable flavor–mysteriously sweet and sour, always urging you to come back for more.
With ample amounts of panettone and crema di manna filling our bellies, we hit the road again. Via the winding mountain roads, we drove an hour south of Castelbuono to Gangi, a town sometimes called the borgo più bello d’Italia—the most beautiful village in all of Italy. The ancient city, founded in 1200 B.C., perches precariously on the side of a promontory, and as we drove ever closer, we leaned out the open car windows, wind streaming in as we stretched to snap photos in hopes of capturing the town’s beauty. We stopped for lunch first, grabbing sandwiches of freshly sliced prosciutto crudo, bresaola, and toma cheese from Macelleria Scavuzzo Attilio, before enjoying them in the piazza Belvedere del Duomo, which offered sweeping views of the serene valley below. We walked off lunch by getting lost in Gangi’s impossible maze of streets. As long as you’re going upward, toward the town’s medieval Castello dei Ventimiglia, you’re going in the right direction—the views only get better and better from this village on a hill and on a good day, you can see as far as Mount Etna!
After thoroughly exploring the town, we headed to the outskirts of Gangi to visit the farm Bio Madre Terra, run by ancient grain advocate Giuseppe Dongarrà. Today, the tradition of heritage, small-scale grain production in Sicily is at risk due to climate change and the spread of industrial cultivation. Yet, according to Dongarrà, it’s precisely these varieties, with their particular regional adaptations, that stand a chance against the changing climate. Dongarrà has reclaimed a dark Sicilian ancient grain from the brink of extinction and today cultivates over thirty hectares of Nero delle Madonie and other grains. While we chatted, he assured us that his stone-milled grains retain both their flavor and nutritional benefits when ground into flour. The proof was in the pudding, or in this case, the flour: we left with bags of busiate pasta made from Nero delle Madonie, which, after cooking up that evening, convinced us that these grains were unequivocally worth protecting.
As we neared the end of our time in the Madonie, we planned a trip up into the mountains. Though the park is home to a number of lofty mountains, many snow-capped even in March, we opted for a gentler excursion within the midst of the gorgeous peaks: il Laghetto di Mandria del Conte. Located between Piano Zucchi and Piano Battaglia at 1,100 meters, the lake of the “Count’s cows” is named after the Mandria breed of bovines, indigenous to the Madonie. On a good day, you might even witness one of the peaceful, namesake creatures approach the water for a drink. The lake is human made, but that does little to detract from its beauty: the Laghetto is a veritable emerald gem set in the tiara of Madonie mountains.
We went to the Laghetto on the verge of spring, winter breathing its last and dutifully giving way to budding trees; to the wild primrose, violets, dandelions, daisies, and miniature succulents that dotted the land; and to the brooks burbling over with snowmelt, busily chattering about the arrival of the new season. Here, a thousand meters above sea level, ringed by the serene mountains, the commotion of Cefalù felt worlds away. After pausing in solemn wonder to admire the lake, we wandered away, following one of its tributaries uphill into the woods. There weren’t any fixed trails and so we wandered, stopping when hunger got the best of us to lay out a checkered blanket and the provisions we’d gathered: pesto from wild greens gathered at Serra Guarneri, goat and sheep cheese made in these very mountains that we’d picked up on our way to the lake and, of course, some Sicilian pastries to round out the meal and our wonderful time in the Madonie.