Sicily in the winter: the Madonie Natural Park

Madonie Natural Park

Better known as a beach destination, Sicily has plenty to offer in the winter season. This year, I decided to spend the last days of 2015 and the first of 2016 surrounded by nature in the wonderful Madonie Natural Park. Here’s what I’ve discovered and a few tips to explore the area.

The Madonie Regional Natural Park

Il Parco delle Madonie is a natural reserve in the North of Sicily, very close to the town of Cefalù. It includes some of the highest mountains in Sicily (up to 1,979 metres), and some of the best hiking trails in the island. As well as being a protected area, the park is sprinkled with dozens of little villages and small medieval towns, all worth a visit!

Things to see

Rare forests and plants

Let’s start with the natural wonders. The Madonie Natural Park is known for its massive forest of beech trees (the most southerly in Europe), which are found at 1500 metres and above. Lower down, you’ll find forests of holm oak, downy oak and cork oak, as well as the rare manna ash. But the most unique thing you’ll see in the park is the so called Sentiero degli Agrifogli Giganti (the giant Holly trees). In this magical path in Piano Pomo, some 300 year-old Holly trees have grown up to 15 metres tall and developed  weirdly shaped trunks that resemble the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. In the winter, these mystical trees will welcome you in all their flourishing splendour.

Madonie Natural Park
Sentiero degli Agrifogli Giganti

Ancient towns

Castelbuono is a lovely medieval town, famous for its monumental 14th century castle (Castello di Ventimiglia), which often hosts art exhibitions. A stroll through the  town centre will take you back in time and reveal a series of highly-rated restaurants, including Nangalarruni,  Il Castellaccio and La Lanterna, and the historical patisserie Fiasconaro. In the summer, the town is home to the Ypsigrock festival, featuring indie-rock bands from all over the world.

Castelbono - Madonie Natural Park
Castello Ventimiglia, Castelbuono. Photo by Bill Anderson

Only a few kilometres away, up a stomach-rattling road, sits the village of Gangi; another medieval gem in the Madonie. Voted the most beautiful village in Italy for its artistic qualities, culture, local handicraft, traditions and good food, Gangi is definitely a must-see if you’re visiting this area. Warning: walking up the streets may cause you a heart attack (at least if your fitness level is as low as mine…).

Gangi - Madonie Natural Park
Gangi – view from Piazza vittime della Mafia

If you’re up for some more time travelling, pay a visit to Sperlinga. This village is famous for its troglodyte caves, which apparently were inhabited by the locals up to the 1960s. The monumental castle that overlooks the village is partly built into the rock and extends over several levels. Unfortunatly, the caslte has been closed for a year due to a building collapse, and thanks to the slowness of Sicilian bureaucracy they’re still not sure when it will reopen…

Sperlinga - Madonie Natural Park
A troglodyte cave in Sperlinga.

If you ever get bored of the mountains, fear not – the sea is only a few kilometres away. The town of Cefalù will welcome you with its beautiful Cathedral, the romantic promenade and some lovely craft shops. If you find yourself in this town, don’t forget to stop for a glass of wine with sea view at Enoteca Le Petit Tonneau. The lovely host will help you find the perfect wine match for your palate, guiding you in an adventurous tasting experience.

Enoteca le Petit Tonneau – Cefalù

Things to do 

Hiking and skiing. If you love nature and physical activity, you’re in the right place. Grab your trek boots and water, pick your hiking trails and off you go! If you’re lucky enough to get some snow, head to the newly reopened ski-resort in Piano Battaglia.

Food and local produce. The Madonie region is well known for its rich gastronomic tradition and locally sourced products. Sausages, salami, cheese, olives and mushroom are all excellent, while some of Sicily’s best wine is produced nearby.

A uninque and ancient tradition in Castelbuono is the production of manna, a sweet resin that drips from ash trees when the bark is cut. It is often left to flow and creates stalactitic forms before being collected. Believed to have curative properties, is mostly used  to sweeten local delicacies. Check out the video below to find out how manna is produced and hear the amazing story of Giulio Gelardi.

Adventure park. If you’re travelling with kids, they’ll surely appreciate a stop at Parco Avventure Madonie. Tree climbing, horse riding and orientering are a great way to rediscover nature.

Volunteering and environmental education camps. If you’re looking for a more meaningful experience, there’s plenty you can do. Check out the organisation Palma Nana in Serra Guarneri  and get involved (the website is only in Italian, but you can reach out to them via email and ask for information).

Looking for more things to do in Sicily? Check out my West coast and East coast initeraries.

Featured image by Marek Lenik

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