Moun­tain­top view in Si­cily

El­e­va­tion of­fers a qui­eter way of life in me­dieval towns bound by tra­di­tion and rugged ter­rain

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel - Story and photos by Cain Bur­deau

GANGI, Si­cily — Far from the packed beaches of Si­cily’s busy coast­lines, there’s a qui­eter and wilder world in its high moun­tains.

In more dan­ger­ous times, this was where much of Si­cily’s pop­u­la­tion set­tled, build­ing cas­tles, towns, monas­ter­ies and churches on steep slopes and the tops of moun­tains as pro­tec­tion against in­vaders and pi­rates.

This his­tory of trea­sured iso­la­tion is stun­ningly re­vealed in the Madonie Moun­tains, a set of dra­matic peaks dom­i­nat­ing Si­cily’s north-cen­tral coast where the in­hab­i­tants live in towns that nest­ing ea­gles would be fond to call home.

When night falls, these moun­tain­top towns, lit up by the glow of lights, hang in the sky, com­ple­ment­ing the con­stel­la­tions and shoot­ing stars that can be seen here, a rare spot in Italy where light pol­lu­tion isn’t a prob­lem.

One of these hang­ing towns is Geraci Siculo, built with vis­tas of the Tyrrhe­nian Sea and, far off over moun­tains, Mount Etna, Si­cily’s smol­der­ing vol­cano.

To reach Geraci Siculo from the coast means tak­ing a snaking high­way up past vine­yards, olive or­chards, small gar­dens, live­stock and the lively, me­dieval town of Castel­buono be­fore climb­ing again through cork tree forests to reach 3,600 feet above sea level.

But the ver­ti­cal as­cent is not over. Reach­ing the pi­azza and the ru­ins of a me­dieval cas­tle in­volves an as­cent on foot up nar­row stair­cases and streets, past quiet houses and bal­conies, em­bel­lished with an abun­dance of flow­ers in the warmer months.

In­side a shop, Gio­vanni Paruta, a 48-year-old butcher, is slic­ing veal for a client. “It’s the good air,” he said about what makes his town spe­cial. “The peo­ple, they are so wel­com­ing.”

He han­dled the slices of veal care­fully, and then added: “The wa­ter. The wa­ter of Geraci has a lot of min­er­als in it. It’s wa­ter that ar­rives straight from the moun­tain.” The town bot­tles this min­eral-rich wa­ter and sells it, and it gushes year-round from public foun­tains.

Many lo­cals leave their doors open and say they en­joy life’s sim­ple plea­sures. “We don’t have a lot of needs up here,” said Gra­ziella Puleo, a 57-year-old school bus driver and town vol­un­teer in Pe­tralia So­prana, another dra­matic moun­tain town.

For her, and so many oth­ers, grow­ing a gar­den is one of those plea­sures. Point­ing to rows of veg­eta­bles, Puleo listed them: “Green beans, zuc­chini, eg­g­plants, pep­pers. They’re bet­ter than what you can buy in the

store. I put noth­ing on them but wa­ter and a bit of an­i­mal ma­nure.”

Tra­di­tions carry on too. There are shep­herds, whose flocks of sheep of­ten slow traf­fic on smaller roads. Fam­ily-run shops sell de­li­cious lo­cal cheeses, breads and sweets. And every town has its ar­ti­sans and tin­kers, who can make and re­pair any­thing it seems, from an old pair of shoes to a watch that’s stopped work­ing.

“I fix any­thing,” said Rosario Scan­car­ello, a 71-year-old handy­man in Geraci Siculo, work­ing on a bro­ken toi­let float ball. Prov­ing his point, he pulled out a high­lyprized ac­cor­dion he’d pre­vi­ously re­stored.

The Madonie Moun­tains are also a place where a bounty of in­gre­di­ents found in the wild — mush­rooms, mint, fen­nel, truf­fles, oregano, berries, chest­nuts — are cher­ished by lo­cals who for­age for them in the moun­tains.

Wildlife is found here too — a rar­ity in Italy. There are ea­gles and fal­cons, wild pigs, foxes, deer,

wild sheep. There are places where the sounds of hu­mans fade away, re­placed by breeze, an­i­mals and si­lence.

De­spite the bu­colic set­ting, not ev­ery­thing is rosy here, many res­i­dents said. Why? No jobs, which has, for decades, led to em­i­gra­tion.

“When I was born, there were be­tween 150 and 200 chil­dren born a year,” said Santo Sot­tile, a 57-year-old high school math­e­mat­ics teacher in Gangi. “Now there are maybe 30 born a year.”

Gangi is an an­cient the­ater of hu­man ac­tiv­ity pre­cip­i­tously ar­ranged on a hill­side over­look­ing a vast plateau of rolling hills and cone-shaped peaks. This is the in­te­rior of Si­cily, once a bread­bas­ket for the Ro­man em­pire.

But in the mod­ern world, “there is no work. The kids are forced to go away. This will in­evitably lead to a de­cline,” Sot­tile said.

He looked around the cafe, where he sat alone read­ing the news­pa­per on a Satur­day af­ter­noon.

Out­side on the main street, foot traf­fic was light.

“When we were young, there would have been hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of peo­ple” out and about at the height of sum­mer, he added as the cafe owner nod­ded.

“The Madonie,” Sot­tile said. “What re­mains? Cer­tainly the his­tory.” With that, he got up and went over to the Saint Ni­cholas Church, a fab­u­lous ex­am­ple of ro­coco art.

Where to start? It’s filled with paint­ings, can­dles and dan­gling lights, stat­u­ary of saints, gold, a crypt with mum­mies, his­tory. A gi­gan­tic paint­ing of the Last Judg­ment by Giuseppe Salerno, a 17th cen­tury Gangi painter, soars up to the ceil­ing in a back cor­ner.

The Madonie also cast a spell on those who have left: Every sum­mer, they re­turn for re­li­gious pro­ces­sions, fam­ily meals, evenings spent among friends at bars and pi­az­zas, soak­ing up food and cus­toms.

That’s the case with Mimma Sot­tile and Roberto Di­nolfo. They were at­tend­ing Mass at the Sanc­tu­ary of the Holy Spirit, a church the faith­ful flock to since mir­a­cles were at­trib­uted to the site in the 14th cen­tury. They live in a city but they were born in Gangi.

“You can’t take it out of us,” said Mimma Sot­tile.

Gangi is high up in the Madonie Moun­tains of Si­cily, a world away from the crowded beaches and bustling coast­lines dur­ing the sum­mer.

Gio­vanni Paruta, left, works at his butcher shop in Geraci Siculo, tucked into the Madonie Moun­tains. Rosario Res­tivo, a bas­ket-maker, dresses as a tra­di­tional moun­tain farmer at a wheat-mak­ing ex­hibit in Gangi.

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