Sicily: falling in love with bandit country

A hiking, cycling and climbing adventure in Sicily’s wild Madonie National Park.

“Oh stop!” I yelled, wincing.

We’d explored much of Sicily’s wild Madonie National Park that day, mostly by accident. Our map was a work of fiction, we’d decided, cross, hot and lost; we weren’t atuned to the enigmatic ways of Sicily’s dark interior, yet. Then, halfway down yet another switchback lane, we were dealt a lesson in it.

The road led us straight through a farmyard, past one of those Mediterranean houses that make you hold your breath, both in case they fall down and in admiration that they have clearly stood there forever like that; the ones that look half reclaimed by the landscape, with patched, peeling shutters perfectly fitting into hand-shaped wonky windows.

On the other side of the road sat the old man, watching his goats in the pasture below; looking peacefully over the surrounding patchwork of soft olive, forest green and clay-coloured felt that was draped over the rolling hills, cliffs and mountains.

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We were so busy looking at this zen-like figure – we’d barely seen a soul that day – that we nearly didn’t spot the ball of fluff curled up enjoying a hot dust bath inside a pothole.

The car screeched to a stop and I leapt out into the dust cloud, hoping it wasn’t dead, whatever it was. Finally I spotted two pairs of liquid brown eyes looking at me: the indignant ones of a dusty border collie puppy, and the surprised ones of its owner, craned round in surprise at the fuss.

As the car ticked down, along with my heartbeat, I proffered a question in that nonchalant tone Brits use when totally lost: “Mi scusi, dove è la sorgente naturale?”

The man pointed to his truck and smiled in that good-humoured way Sicilians do, implying he had all the time in the world for us, and would show us. Looking less friendly, the puppy’s eyes plotted revenge from behind hairy ankles and espadrilles.

“That’s Sicilian friendliness right there,” said Damien, reversing.
“I thought you said they were all lazy bandits who can’t draw accurate maps?”
“HE’S probably not. You’re just generalising.”

Three bends up the road the farmer braked, got out into the dust storm he’d created and pointed down a path with a humorous bow: “Prego.”

A short walk later, I stared open-mouthed. We’d been looking for a natural spring to wild camp by. On our map it was a little fountain symbol. This, however, was a hot thermal spring cascading into a rockpool in the middle of nowhere. A natural hot tub with a mountain view.

This was typical of Sicily, where things are rarely as simple as they appear. On the surface we often found the Med’s largest island disarmingly open and friendly; then it usually tangled us up in chaos when we were least expecting it. Once we were sweaty, frustrated, and perhaps bleeding, it charmed us back to square one.

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When we’d first arrived on Sicily, the lowering ferry ramp had revealed bedlam under a red evening sky, as a heady cocktail of hot late night air, petrol and noise rose up. The capital city of Palermo gatecrashes all your senses, including your sixth sense for impending car accidents.

I’d stared at a motorbike speeding the wrong way down a dual carriageway; a child perched in front of the rider, chin casually in hands, elbows resting between handlebars. Dark hair flowed: no-one wore helmets. Cars surged ever-impatiently forward, turning junctions into haphazard Tetris games.

Later, in a city square, a smiling waiter offered to lead us to a garden table. Sitting down we realised it was a different restaurant entirely: he’d cannily poached his neighbour’s clients.

Now, an hour inland from Palermo, we’d found a slower pace of life deep in the Madonie National Park. Much slower. The next morning, in the region’s main town of Caltavuturo, men were busy putting the world to rights. Dressed in flat caps, shirts and chinos, they clustered everywhere, talking and drinking. Rows of brown eyes followed us curiously.

Where were the women? As I looked round, an old lady watching the world from her window ducked at the sight of us, revealing an inch of white parting above her chestnut bun. She tweaked a net curtain across and peeked, wide-eyed.

We jangled through a string curtain. Inside even this tiny cafe a barista played a huge, gleaming coffee machine like a grand piano. Men holding espressos gathered round. Sicilians are the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Perhaps too friendly, sometimes.

Eyes twinkling in a weathered face, one man pointed to me, then his ring finger. “No,” we laughed, signing that we weren’t married. Pointing to my face and legs, he gestured that Damien should reconsider my assets.

Before Damien got talked into swapping me for a goat and a bag of olives, I suggested a walk. At the top of town we found a tumbledown castle swallowed by woodland on a promontory; the setting sun casting black tree shadows set in pink onto its remaining limestone wall.

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Below us the whole town was laid out: terracotta roofs cascading over impossibly steep and narrow cobbled streets. Like many Sicilian towns and villages, Caltavuturo is stacked precariously right on the cliff-edge of a hill-top.

It’s not surprising if Sicilian’s are particularly defensive, underneath the friendly exterior. Palermo is dubbed The World’s Most Conquered City. Sicily has been claimed by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish and Bourbon over its history. Then the Mafia underworld took the law into their own leather-gloved hands.

Remnants of all these periods scatter the island, making bizarre walking targets. Meanwhile, the hill-crowning villages and towns make exciting road-biking targets, complete with silky-rich €1 cappucinos as rewards.

I gathered snapshot memories while pedalling. A wizened man wearing only dusty shorts moved in an olive grove: with a hand up to shield the sun he’d resembled the trees he tended. Ruined farm buildings cracked at the seams, opening towards the sun like flowers. Golden cows wore wide, cream leather collars fastened with thong-and-duffle buttons. There was a peaceful sense of human life and nature entwined.

Then, lost in my poetry, I swerved to avoid a pothole, wobbled over tarmac that had blistered in the sun like a volcano, and crashed.

In Palermo a mechanic agreed to fix my bike immediately and chatted like an old friends while flamboyantly wielding tools. What a service! But the next day we realised he’d fitted the wrong part; jammed it in so I’d need a new wheel.

So instead of cycling we tackled Pizzo Carbonara (1979m); not an Italian carb-fest but the second highest peak on Sicily after famous volcanic Etna. In fact, the Madonie National Park guards six of Sicily’s highest peaks.

Hiking above Carbonara’s tree-line we emerged on a bald mountain top scattered with limestone boulders. Strong-smelling goats stared at us over them, while we stared out at the view. We hadn’t seen any other people.

The higher land in the Madonie is cooler and forested; lush with streams tumbling down and wild flowers everywhere. The glorious reds, greens and yellows cloaking the mountains contrasts beautifully with the dry, rolling agricultural plains spread around their feet.

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A circuit of Carbonara’s plateau was marked on our map. The path was at first obvious, but once it gained our confidence it grew faint and, once it was too late to turn back, vanished. We scrambled on through huge boulder fields and dense prickly forest.

An experienced mountaineer, Damien had to get used to getting lost on Sicily. It grew so late we were forced to enjoy sunset from the mountain-side. The sky was vivid red; the sun dipping into a low band of bright purple clouds so dense they looked like magical trees. Beautiful, enigmatic Sicily.

Climbing area Cabeci – the largest of several sport crags in the region – provided a similar challenge. The guidebook described an easy 15-minute walk in. An hour later we were torn, tattered and wishing for a machete on a path overgrown to head-high prickly bramble. Our reward? Fifty sports routes for all tastes on soaring cliffs, and no-one else in sight.

Later, after a moonlit hot tub session, I reflected that in some ways Sicily is a caricature of Italy. Removed from the mainstream mainland, the coastal cities are even more unruly and chaotic; the inland villages ruled by ancient Mediterranean traditions and surrounded by untamed wildernesses. Either way, it’s not a place where things get done quickly. It is, however, the perfect setting for an adventure, really off the beaten track.

Then a rustling in the bush behind our tent made me stare, wide-eyed.

“You get scared outside in the dark, don’t you,” comforted Damien. “Just remember, it’s all the same things here as when it was light.”

He thought for a moment, then added: “The main predators to be scared of in Europe are big cats. In the 70s it became illegal to keep them as pets, so some people just released them. They found each other and bred.”

A cow mooed balefully in the dark. I jumped. “You wouldn’t feel it though, if you were attacked by a leopard,” he added helpfully. “You’d be pumped with adrenalin. More pasta?”

Lying awake that night, I finally heard paws padding past, then a hungry tongue slurping and rattling a metal camping bowl. I froze, terrified. Then I guessed who it was. The puppy from the farm below us, come to get revenge!

Gently, I lifted the fabric and peeked. Spines glowed in the moonlight. A tiny porcupine, the sound of its tiny lapping tongue magnified by the silent hillside. Beautiful, enigmatic and wild; unexpected, charming and well-armed with prickly defenses. It left me a quill as a fitting memento of the Madonie National Park.

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