When people consider a holiday in Sicily, most of them think about sun, sea and beaches.
The interior of our sunny island has great attractions too, such as the magnificent Madonie Mountains in the north. Don't worry! You don't need mountaineering skills to explore and appreciate them. If you prefer, you can just drive from one fairytale village to another, enjoying the views and the food!
When Sicilians say "Madonie" they generally mean the "Parco delle Madonie", which is Sicily's second largest nature reserve. At 40,000 hectares, it is just a bit larger than La Gomera island in the Canaries, so it offers a vast area of unspoiled countryside for hiking.
As the examples below will show, there are heaps of things to see and do.
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You could spend weeks exploring the Madonie and still not see all of it. We suggest you begin with a quick tour by car, to get a sense of the size and character of this beautiful stretch of countryside. Unfortunately there are no buses or trains which can take you around this area.
On the map (above) this tour itinerary is marked in blue. We suggest short "round trips" or detours at Gratteri (red markers 1, 2 and 3), Scillato (red marker 10) and Sclafani Bagni (red markers 11 to 13). These are indicated with green lines. You can zoom around this marker on the map to see in better detail.
The tour begins at the "Buonfornello" junction of the A19 road and ends 20km south at the "Scillato" junction. If you have based yourself to the south of the Madonie for your holiday in Sicily you can, of course, start the tour in Scillato and follow the whole route in reverse.
Flowery in summer and often dusted with snow like a Swiss mountain village in winter, Gratteri offers a pleasant stop for refreshments on your driving tour of the Madonie.
It has shrunk in size from 3,000 inhabitants to just 1,000 over the last century – like many other inland towns in Sicily – yet it is most certainly not a community in decline.
The town is livened up with processions and festivals throughout the year, open air concerts, and other events. The inventive and energetic citizens have even created their own independent Internet TV channel. The Wikipedia article on Gratteri is more detailed than the article on the much larger unofficial "capital" of the Madonie, Cefalù.
If you want to stretch your legs, try climbing up to the impressive "Grotta Grattara" cave, where there are wonderful panoramic views of the Madonie. After this, stroll to the Abbey of San Giorgio: the path to the abbey also provides another sweeping view of the mountains and sea.
Piano Zucchi forms the heart of the Madonie. Piano means plain, and from this level stretch of ground you can reach the mountain peaks which surround it. It is the perfect spot to settle down for a relaxing picnic lunch or a barbecue. Try some Madonie pork called Suino Nero, which all Sicilians will tell you is the best pork in the world! Lots of butchers in the Madonie region turn it into delicious sausages.
Just a few years ago the brand new "Area Attrezzata Piano Zucchi" was opened by the Sicilian Forestry Administration (marker 4). Area Attrezzata means a fully equipped picnic site with tables, chairs, toilets and built-in barbecues for the public to use, all free of charge. The Piano Zucchi picnic area has 86 tables, 344 seats and 10 cooking zones.
The "Rifugio Luigi Orestano" mountain refuge, opened in 1910 by the Sicilian Alpine Club, has a hotel with a restaurant and bar alongside it. The Rifugio itself is currently closed for refurbishment.
The Forest Administration maintains picnic sites or Aree attrezzate all over Sicily. They are ideal focal points for people who want to see something other than the sea and beaches on their holiday in Sicily, and those in the Madonie are among the most appealing.
This map shows the location of all Sicily's picnic sites.
There is a dramatic cliff face in the Madonie, known as Piano Farina (marker 5). From its northern face you can look out over a sheer drop of 200 metres and enjoy the most spectacular views anywhere in the Madonie Nature Reserve. Rare Golden Eagles make their nests here.
The valley below is called "Vallone Canna" (vallone means deep valley). For the best views, go to marker 7 (on the map above). Vallone Canna continues along the foot of the cliff until it narrows into a canyon (marker 8 on the map) with the evocative name of "Orrido Canna". Orrido means ravine, but it also means scary!
Yet what is scary for us offers safety for the Golden Eagles (Aquila Reale). The walls of deep ravines are ideal nesting places for these rare birds, giving their chicks safety from predators whilst the adults find the ideal conditions for hunting.
If you want to try to get a better look at these magnificent birds, the Forestry Administration has built a hut for bird watching on Piano Farina (marker 6 on the map).
If Piano Farina didn't feel adventurous enough for you, drive a short way down the road and you'll find the biggest adventure park in Sicily. This is where adults and children alike can pretend to be Spiderman on Europe's longest zipwire, all in a nature reserve which teaches exemplary respect for the region's ecology.
Its most famous activity is the vast selection of assault courses for all sizes of people, including children of 1 metre in height and above. The courses are built from ecologically friendly materials high up in the pine trees. You can fly over a swamp on 300 metres of zip wire, jump from logs suspended in the air, and even spend the night up there staying in tree-top tents. Your modest ticket price includes hire of a safety harness and helmet, insurance and full training.
If you're afraid of heights, you can try some of the other "eco sports" such as mountain biking, orienteering with a map and compass, archery, or simply relaxing walks in the beautifully scented pine forest.
You don't even have to be sporty at all to enjoy this place. There are picnic tables and barbecues throughout the forest clearing, and a bar which offers refreshments. There is also an open-air restaurant under the shade of the trees in the peak summer season.
The Parco Avventura Madonie is open daily from July to mid-September. In the off-season, the gates are open at weekends. For more information on adventure holidays in Sicily, see the Parco Avventura Madonie website.
The Archeodrome in the Madonie is a centre created to teach archaeology and the skills of prehistoric life. It promises to provide "experimental archaeology" for all.
Visitors can learn how to build a fire the Stone Age way, how to make tools out of flint, bone and wood, some prehistoric cookery, weaving on a handmade loom, and the first agricultural techniques. The experiments in early metal processing and the origins of writing are particularly interesting. The centre covers a time period ranging from the Palaeolithic to early Antiquity.
You will need to book your day at the Archeodromo in advance, and the centre only accepts groups of 10 or more people. For more information, visit the Archeodromo delle Madonie website.
Whilst the last two activities needed a little advance planning, your visit to Sclafani Bagni can be entirely spontaneous. This delightful mountain town is full of steep winding streets, with a main piazza overlooking a spectacular mountain range .
The small town of Sclafani Bagni sits on a large rock in the west of the Madonie. It was founded as a military fortress by the Normans in the Middle Ages during their ten-year guerilla war to snatch Sicily from the North Africans. Their castle on the rock gave them the chance to scan the surrounding country to great distances, as well as a place to store supplies safely.
The settlement of Sclafani Bagni gradually built up around the castle. Although the castle is now a mossy ruin, you can still see its original structure and it provides an interesting landmark and focal point. Signs around town guide visitors through the picturesque streets and up to the old castle.
Sclafani Bagni also hides a small, almost forgotten gem - a mineral water spring. It lies at the foot of the rock (markers 12 and 13 on the map above). You will be able to see the source itself (marker 13) and the now-abandoned spa building which gave the town its name: bagni is the Italian word for baths.