Mt Etna from Taormina's Amphitheatre (Julio Aprea)
Article Words : Paul Morrison | 01 February

Between fire and water in Sicily

Join Paul Morrison as he explores the little-known corners of Sicily, the looming landscapes dominated by Mount Etna and the simple local of life

“Last year I lost ten kids, taken by eagles,” he exclaimed. “But this year none... so far!”

His childish features gave a guarded smile as his words were translated for me. The young goatherd, who gave his name as Pepe, had appeared atop a limestone crag, silhouetted with his dogs, as we reached the upper slopes of Rocche del Crasto. The dogs barked warnings but kept their distance as we approached, and as we reached the top a man appeared – Nunzio, the boy’s uncle, who was tending a flock of scraggy sheep a short distance away. They eyed us suspiciously at first, but relaxed as we shared some food and talked some more.

“Last year an eagle took a ten-kilo lamb from right beside him,” Nunzio declared, pointing to Pepe, who lowered his head. The boy had clearly learnt a lot since.

An hour before, I had been marvelling at the sight of golden eagles soaring overhead, and squinted through binoculars at a nest set high on a ledge in a massive wall of limestone. Griffon vultures had once lived in these mountains until they were exterminated by poisoned meat left out for foxes. The eagles’ fate is more secure thanks to their legal protection within the park, and I was so impressed by the sight of the great birds that I had not considered that the possibility of people less than enamoured with their presence.

Nunzio had tried to get compensation from the council for the lost lamb, but gave up under the amount of paperwork required. So now they just keep a tighter vigil.

“Sometimes the eagles work together,” said Nunzio.

“Sometimes they will drop a rock on people to frighten them away,” offered Francesco, our guide from the town in the valley, provoking looks of disbelief from the rest of us.

Whatever the truth, life in the mountains is certainly no picnic for the transhumance herders, but theirs is an ancient lifestyle disappearing in the modern age. For centuries people have grazed their livestock in the Nebrodi Mountains of Sicily during the summer months, fattening them on the grasses, scrub and wildflowers, before driving them down towards the coast when the weather turns.

“I like what I do”

Pepe told me he enjoyed his work, proud of having his own goats to look after. He and Nunzio are typical of mountain people, I was told later, wary of strangers until they get to know what they want. But I suppose we passed the test. “By the way,” the youngster called as we left, “My name is not really Pepe, but Calogero.”

I’d forgive everyone in Sicily for being suspicious of strangers, given their history of invasion by virtually every civilisation and nation that passed through the Mediterranean.

“Everyone came to Sicily – the Greeks, the Arabs, the Normans, the Spanish, the Romans. So we’re a mixture.” declared Tullio, a born and bred Sicilian clearly proud of his melting pot of chromosomes. He runs a tour company devoted to opening up an area of the island so neglected by travellers that few guidebooks devote more than a passing reference.

The Nebrodi Mountain Park was established in 1993 and encompasses a green mountainous area in the northeast of an island otherwise characterised by sunburnt fields and the arid slopes of Mount Etna.

The smouldering volcano is visible from the Park, but its lava soils are a stark contrast to the woodlands and pastures of Nebrodi – a region termed ‘an island within the island’ by the Arabs. The highlands above the treeline, such as where we had met the herders, are exposed limestone outcrops rich in wildflowers during the long summer, and carpeted in snow in winter.

Parts of the region are reminiscent of the Lake District, and like that English National Park, Nebrodi has towns and villages within its borders – 21 in all. It is these, as much as the landscape, that define its character.

Castell ’Umberto is a well-ordered town, made to look older than it is. By Nebrodi standards it is modern, built a century ago when the inhabitants of the nearby ancient settlement of Castania were persuaded that the threat of landslides made a move essential. A family feud sparked the initiative – the Scurria family spearheading the move, which they knew would undermine the power of the old landowners, the Di Vincenzos. And so the new town was built, and the people moved en masse.

In a corner store the shopkeeper showed me a photograph from 1922 that his father took of the whole town carrying the statues of the saints to the new church – a truly symbolic action that finally transplanted the heart and soul over the hill.

Tullio lives in the new town...

He is of the family that led the move – the Scurrias – and he recounted the tale as we sat at a streetside café sipping coffee.

“You see that old house,” he said, pointing to a stone building next to the cafe. “The last of the Di Vincenzos lives in there. A 70-year-old woman, she never goes out.”

I detected no gloating in his voice, the tale is a matter of history, though the next day he announced with a hollow laugh that he had dreamt of the old Duke Di Vincenzo in the night. “I was fighting him!”

Late that afternoon we walked along the narrow, cobbled streets of the abandoned town. Fig trees had sprouted through the roofs, and vines smothered the walls. There seemed to be as many churches as homes, and the ruins of the monastery at the edge of town looked to have suffered far more than a century of neglect.

We walked past the crumbling walls of the Duke’s castle, and as the sun sank we sat on a stone bench in the little piazza once known as vucceria – ‘chattering square’. Tullio pointed out the ‘seat of shame’ where debtors were obliged to sit on the cold stone with their trousers around their ankles.

The town had existed for centuries, perhaps as far back as the Greeks, and its monastery was a destination for pilgrims from all over the region. Now it lay in quiet abandonment. “There’s doesn’t seem to have been a landslide after all,” I commented to Tullio.

“No,” he replied, with a shrug.

There are towns such as Castania that have survived the centuries, perched on mountainsides and gazing down the tree-lined valleys around the Nebrodi. In the charming town of Longi we sat munching brioche with icecream one afternoon as the town emerged for the end-of-day passeggiatta.

Families strolled around the streets in no particular direction, while clusters of men gathered around tables to watch and play briscola – a card game with a vague resemblance to bridge, but using a deck of 40 cards and requiring much more animation. I tried to get grips with it, but the effort required to remember the value of the cards (“An eagle is worth 11?”) left little brainpower for bluffing.

It was October when I visited Sicily, but the sun shone as strongly as a June day back home. Tullio was keen to show off the attractions of the Nebrodi, and especially its walking trails. We followed the ancient strazzere regia – routes used for centuries by traders and transhumance farmers – along mountain slopes and through oak woodlands, to high lakes and spectacular lookouts.

Reminders of the island’s history lay around us – ruins of ancient settlements emerging from the bracken, and the mysterious Tholos of Raccuja, a perfectly preserved stone building that predates the Greeks but whose purpose and origin is pure speculation.

The nearby town of Raccuja is equally alluring, one of the prettiest I saw with its twisting streets, pantile roofs and restored castle. It was in this town, in an anonymous restaurant just off the main square, where our walking was effectively finished for the day by a five-course lunch. After a few days in Sicily I had come to the conclusion that the purpose of walking was to build up an appetite for the next meal. For the food was quite simply as fantastic as it was abundant.

It’s probably another legacy of the multi-cultural influences upon the island that makes Sicilian cuisine so sublime. It’s not showy, in fact could be justly classed as simple, but it uses the finest ingredients and the utmost care resulting in a perfect blend of flavours. Down by the coast seafood is the speciality, and an antipasto di mare leaves little room for what follows.

As a vegetarian I feared I would be living off a monotonous diet of spaghetti in tomato sauce, but I needn’t have worried, for an array of exquisite chargrilled vegetables and tasty side-dishes were laid before me at every meal. The thought of the plate of chargrilled porcini mushrooms dressed in virgin olive oil that greeted me at my first lunch still makes my mouth water.

The porcini hadn’t travelled far...

It was mushroom season in the mountains. One morning we went for a walk in Bosco Mangalaviti – a woodland of beech and oak that was shrouded in mists after the rains of the night before. In an eerie silence, punctuated only by the rustle of feet through the leaf litter, I caught sight of ghostly figures shuffling through the woodland, their heads bent to the ground. When four men in bright raincoats and wellingtons came into view we greeted them and moved forward to peer into their wicker panniers. They were loaded with magnificent mushrooms – great boletus, parasols and porcini – specimens that a London restaurateur would kill for.

“I had a friend who was a great chef,” whispered Tullio, “but he died from eating a poisonous mushroom.”

I wasn’t put off; having tasted the chargrilled delights the day before I was ready to take a chance. And besides, I already had evidence of my good fortune on the island.

On the first evening, after doing battle with a pizza the size of a parasol, I was clutching my stomach in the back of Tullio’s minibus when some bright lights prompted us to pull over. Stepping out, the sound of a brass band playing La Bamba signalled a party in full swing. It was the Festival of Maria del Rosario in the little town of Sinagra, and the population were readying themselves for a weekend of entertainment.

Tullio identified the top man in town and the rosy-cheeked mayor promptly led us to a large tent populated by bleary-eyed men propping themselves up on wooden benches. Plastic tumblers of local wine and dishes of olives were thrust into our hands, before we attempted to communicate with the happy throng.

It was midway through the third tumbler of wine when a fellow traveller popped his head through the tent flap and called out:

“You’ve got to see this – rabbit roulette!”

Outside a crowd was gathered around a circle of ten boxes, each with a number on. The mayor gave me a ticket with my lucky number seven on it, and so I joined the faces watching as the ringmaster picked a big white rabbit out of a cage and let him loose in the centre of the ring. The bewildered bunny hesitated for a moment, then hopped purposefully into box number seven. Faces looked around for the winner, and I hesitantly held up my winning ticket, prompting a cheer as I moved forward to collect my prize. Enough money for a few beers, I presumed, but instead of a cash reward the star rabbit was hoisted up and thrust into my arms.

Alas, there was no way my furry friend could accompany me back home, and so I presented him to a Giuseppe – a gap-toothed youth who had followed us from the wine-tent.

“Look after him, I’ll be back!” I called as we made to go. Giuseppe gave me a reassuring smile, flashing his mangled molars as he doubtless pictured his Sunday lunch. Still, you never know. Stranger things have happened in Sicily.

When to go: Though accessible year-round, the park is at its best in spring (late March-June) and autumn (Sep-Oct). Winters are cold, with snow in much of the park.

Further information: Nebrodi Mountain Park is located in the north-west of Sicily, with access from the coast or inland roads.

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