From Salerno on the Amalfi Coast we caught a train all the way to Catania in Sicily. When the train reaches the coastal port of Villa San Giovanni, it simply rolls straight onto a ferry and, after the crossing, off at the Sicilian port of Messina to continue its journey. You don’t even need to change trains.
Catania is Sicily’s second largest city, with a population of just under 300,000. It’s a thriving, gritty city with an interesting and dynamic historic heart. Many of its old buildings were built of lava rock from a massive eruption of Mount Etna in 1669 which engulfed the city.
The composer, Vincenzo Bellini was born in Catania. His most famous opera, Norma, gives its name to one of Sicily’s most well known pasta dishes (pasta a la Norma) and Catania’s opera house, inaugurated in 1890, bears his name.
The central piazza even has a cute elephant made of black lava rock which dates to Roman times.
With Sicily’s reputation for fabulous produce-driven food, it was no surprise to find that the food markets were packed with quality fresh produce. Catania’s fish market was one of the best we’ve seen in Europe, and around the markets there’s lots of places to eat, from sit down restaurants to stands where the fresh food vendors will cook it in front of you.
From Catania, we headed two hours by car up into the mountains for our walk in the north east corner of Sicily from Montalbano Elicona to Taormina.
Montalbano Elicona is a medieval town dominated by its castle, which was built in 1233 by Emperor Frederick II and embellished in 1300 by Frederick III to become his royal residence.
We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and all was quiet. We were staying in a restored stone apartment, and after wandering around the village we went looking for somewhere to buy a bottle of wine.
That’s usually not a challenge in Italy, but nothing seemed to be open. On Wednesdays, the supermarket opens only in the morning, and the only other general store doesn’t open at all. A group of older gentlemen was sitting in the square chatting and one zoomed over and asked what we were looking for. There was a fair bit of mime involved, but once he understood, he marched us up the street to a hole-in-the-wall cheese shop.
He barked something at the owner, who was sitting across the street enjoying a cigarette, and the owner hurried inside. After a minute or so, he emerged with a 1.5 litre water bottle filled with red wine, which he sold to us for the princely sum of €3. Cash transaction, no receipt, well wrapped in opaque plastic.
We were impressed. We knew the Sicilians were devout, but we didn’t know they’d perfected the miracle of turning water into wine.
We stayed two nights in the town and loved it. In 2015 it was voted most beautiful village in Italy. A lot of work has been done to renovate the stone buildings within the ancient walls, and it’s a delight to wander around.
Day 1 – Agrimusco and Bosco di Malabotta
Next day we did a walk in the local area.
On the Agrimusco plateau above Montalbano is a group of megaliths which locals have dubbed ‘the Stonehenge of Sicily’. They don’t look anything like Stonehenge, and they are naturally occurring, not a creation of man. But like Stonehenge, the stones were a sacred site for pre-Christian local people. It has also been speculated that they were used in prehistoric times for astronomical observation.
The rocks have been shaped by wind and water erosion over millenia, and with some imagination – in some cases, a LOT of imagination – forms of animals, humans and fertility symbols can be seen.
It was a magnificent day. The air was incredibly clear, despite Mount Etna quietly smoking away in the distance.
A guide took us around the site describing the rock formations. She first pointed out this one – which was considered a fertility symbol in ancient times as it is said to look like a phallus and a vagina facing off.
We didn’t have the heart to point out that if you really want to see rock formations that look like phalluses, you should go to the aptly named Love Valley in Cappadocia, Turkey. Here’s a photo we took there some years ago.
And if you were wondering how big they are ….
Anyway, back to Agrimusco. To be honest, a lot of the images were rather obscure, so we’ve added arrows to assist.
This one is said to resemble a hooded monk.
And this one is the profile of a woman praying.
This one could be a bird of prey or a cobra looking over it’s shoulder. (Do cobras have shoulders?)
And this one is an eagle rising to flight.
Images in rocks are always subject to the cultural references of the viewer. We thought this one looked like the Sydney Opera House, but our guide had no idea what we were on about!
We spent an hour or so at the site, then went on to the nearby Bosco di Malabotta (Malabotta Forest). The 2,900 hectare forest has been a source of oak wood and acorns for centuries, its continued existence guaranteed by a circle of 14 ancient oaks known as ‘the circle of the 14 witches’, left by the tree cutters to self seed in order to produce new plants.
Total walk distance: 12km
Day 2 – Montalbano Elicona to Floresta
Leaving Montalbano we followed an ancient path descending to the river.
After crossing the almost-dry bed, the path climbed steeply up through hazelnut groves and then open farmland with views of surrounding villages.
On the hills there are many wind farms.
And then toward Floresta, we saw several tholos. Local shepherds were building these dome shaped stone houses as early as 2,000 BCE. Comprised entirely of stone, there is no cement-like substance holding them together. It’s all in how you fit the stones together.
Floresta is a sleepy village with a delicious secret. It’s in the centre of an area for the farming of the Sicilian black swine (‘suino nero di Nebrodi’). Free ranging through the oak forests of the Nebrodi region gives these pigs a distinct and very delicious flavour. The pigs are used for salumi, sausages and cuts for grilling.
We slept in a quaint hotel with our very own antique piano in our room, above a salumeria owned by the same family. Here we had the best meal of our time in Sicily. Which of course featured a lot of local pig.
Total walk distance: 15.7kms
Day 3 – Floresta to Randazzo
Today’s walk was mostly through woods interspersed with some farmlands. Mount Etna was belching away quite energetically in the distance.
We followed a river valley all the way to Randazzo, known as the Black Town because historically it is almost entirely constructed of volcanic lava.
Total walk distance: 17.1km
Day 4 – Mojo Alcantara to Castiglione di Sicilia
This was an interesting walk. It started through the Tornatore vineyards which thrive on the rich volcanic soils which produce the Mt Etna DOC wines.
Then we fought our way through something else that thrives on the rich volcanic soils. It was more than head high and we are not sure what it was, but it caused great clouds of pollen which filled our lungs, eyes and clothing.
Back on track, we passed the Church of Santa Dominica built between the 7th and 9th centuries, and aptly nicknamed La Cuba. It’s quite small and, to our inexpert eyes, fairly unremarkable. However a plaque outside the church informed us it ‘is probably the most important example of Byzantine architecture in Sicily’. Unfortunately it didn’t tell us why.
The track wound down to a river and followed its course, boulder hopping along the bank.
After reaching and crossing a road, the track climbed steeply up to the gorgeous hill top town of Castiglione di Sicilia.
The Greeks built a fortress here in the 5th century BCE. The town was later occupied by the Romans, the Arabs and the Normans. During the Norman period, the town’s impressive hilltop Castle of Roger of Lauria was built. The town has some pleasing architecture, narrow winding lanes and a quiet atmosphere.
Total walk distance: 8km
Day 5 – Piano Provenzano: a hike around Mount Etna
Mount Etna is the highest mountain in Sicily, and indeed the highest in Italy south of the Alps. With a basal circumference of 140km, it is the largest of Italy’s three active volcanoes by a big margin – two and a half times larger than the next largest, Mount Vesuvius. It is also one of the world’s most active volcanoes. The last major eruption was in 2002, but there have been several smaller eruptions since then, including as recently as December 2018.
For this walk we were driven from Castiglione di Sicilia over to Piano Provenzano, on the slopes of Mt Etna at 1,800 metres elevation. From here, the walk crosses the old lava field, with views up to the smoking top.
A detour from the main path goes to craters called ‘bottoneria’ (buttonholes) created during the 2002 eruption. Lava flowing down the mountain cooled more quickly on the outside, insulating warmer lava inside and creating a tunnel. Gases build up in the tunnels and constantly explode, causing small craters.
Back on the main track we continued over the old lava field. It’s an immense area of black rock. In the distance, horse riders on this incredible landscape looked like something out of Lord of the Rings.
Back in Castiglione di Sicilia, we had a beautiful sunset view of Mount Etna from our hotel room balcony.
Total walk distance: 13km
Day 6 – Castiglione di Sicilia to Mitogio
Leaving Castiglione di Sicilia, we initially followed the road down, offering a different perspective of the town.
We then followed a track through the hills with more villages tucked into their folds.
We walked through the tiny village of Grava and down a very degraded track roughly following the banks of the Alcantara River to Gole Alcantara, a natural canyon with walls up to 50 metres high and between two and five metres wide. Sadly, the path down into the gorge was closed so we headed on to our accommodation in the countryside outside Mitogio.
Total walk distance: 10.4km
Day 7 – Graniti to Castelmola
Crossing back over the Alcantara River we started heading up on a wide, exposed track through scrub and small fields. After a long, steep climb to the top, we could see all the way to the coast.
We followed a ridge line and then, after more up and down, a panorama of the Ionian Sea appeared, with glimpses of Taormina.
And then we could see tiny Castelmola, perched on a crag high above Taormina.
The village is built around the remains of a Norman fortress, with steep cobbled lanes creating a little labyrinth of ancient homes, tourist shops and a few restaurants and cafes.
Total walk distance: 11.8km
Day 8 – Castelmola to Taormina
From Castelmola, a footpath leads down to Taormina. It was once a mule path, but now its mostly paved or steps. It’s a lot more direct than the road which also ribbons down the hill.
The path passes the Church of Madonna della Rocco (Madonna on the Rock), built around 1640. According to legend, a shepherd boy sheltering from a storm saw a vision of a lady in blue who reassured him the storm would soon be over. Afterwards, he reported the vision and townspeople claimed to see an impression of a figure of the Madonna on the rock where the vision appeared. Accordingly, a church was built on the site, using stone from the cave for the walls and roof.
Between the church and Taormina, sculptures of the Stations of the Cross have been erected. One of the local cafe owners has found a way to use these to good effect.
The Greeks built a theatre in Taormina in the 3rd century, which was later enlarged by the Romans. If you got bored with the show, you could always look at the view.
Taormina is an elegant, lovely city.
Until a cruise boat arrives…
Which reconfirmed our view that the best way to see a place is to walk through it. We saw no other hikers on our walk, just the occasional locals out walking or working. The countryside was dry, being late summer, but very pretty. And the food was marvellous – hardly a surprise, it’s Sicily after all!
We arranged the walk through a local operator, Sicilian Experience, and were very happy with them. Highly recommended!