Thursday, 18 April 2013

A long walk in the Madonie

Here's somewhere beautiful and seemingly remote you can reach without a car. One hour's train journey from Palermo along the coast to heavenly Cefal├╣ (more on which anon) and then a 40 minute bus journey will take you into the Madonie mountains. I was especially chuffed later to learn that they mark the southernmost extension of the Italian Apennines, stretches of which we've walked from Eric Newby's Crinale above Parma via the Abruzzi to the Pollino National Park in Basilicata. Only the Sila in Calabria remains for us to join the dots.

Our only snag was that we set out on the one vile day of our week - 'l'ultima colpa della coda dell'inverno', the paper called it, 'the last blow of winter's coda', and indeed two young men were drowned in a small boat off Palermo. So we arrived in amiable Castelbuono in buffeting winds and heavy rain.

Our agriturismo was three normally easy and pleasant kilometres' walk from there, but undoable by us wusses on that day. So we hung around in the only open lunch place waiting for the gusts and downpour to abate before giving up and calling our hostess to ask about a taxi. There's wasn't one, she said, but she came and picked us up.

Like other 'agri's we've stayed in, this of course was foodlovers' heaven: tutto produtto biologico e locale. Dad farmed and mum baked; the four daughters, including Laura who'd studied in England but felt the pull of home, worked hard in various capacities. No wonder we opted for the four course meals on each of our three nights. Our experience of Sicily's very distinct cuisine deserves another entry, but there's no harm in a quick tour of the farm's sizeable estate on our sunny second morning, when it was warm enough for me to wish that the pool had been filled. So of course we have lemons

 and blood oranges in abundance, glasshouses full of vegetables, olive groves and the baby spring green of budding trees

and a nicely planted sloping garden with handsome strelitzia

as well as the ubiquitous prickly pears, from the 'flowers' of which the family makes one of their many jams.

Plus of course a menagerie including yappy but affectionate dogs Whisky and Maia and a slightly unnerving cat.

Clearly there were paths in all directions, but we wanted to ascend on our first full day, and mamma, showing us a book with pictures of wild and wonderful trees, recommended Piano Pomo. The daughters protested that you had to have a car, but we blithely said we'd walk it. And in truth the best solution would have been to drive to the Rifugio Crispi at 1197 metres and stride the heights from there. Even so, the route from Castelbuono and through villaland was not without interest in the strange mix of sun overhead and constant light rain (a mountain weather front was clearly reluctant to shift). We began to look down on the town

and up towards the Milocco ridge.

At this level there were quite a few flowers, though generally the locals think it's too early. We saw cyclamens and a solitary orchid

before officially entering the park zone. The signs all have pat slogans: the first declared 'silence, listen: nature is in concert' to the accompaniment of a rampant chainsaw. But soon we did enter the natural concert of a strong wind in the ilexes as we ascended towards the Piano Sempria and the Rifugio Crispi. Solitary mossy oaks began to dominate the wooded scene

and we saw neither human nor vehicle until a bus-load of yelling schoolchildren overtook us. It soon transpired that they were from Palermo, bound for a couple of days in the refuge which hardly seemed big enough to contain them. As the rain had now begun to pelt and the air was conspicuously colder, we were glad of the retreat, and even more delighted when a vegetable risotto was proposed, which we consumed in a cosy room with a welcoming fire apart from the hooligans.

As we'd already walked much further than anticipated, it would have been easy to turn round and go back down. But fortunately the guys running the hostel told us the Piano Pomo was only another quarter of an hour's walk, and am I glad we continued. Not least for the rainbow in the valley

and the sudden change of treescape as we neared the high meadow: the reddy-oranges of beeches beginning to leaf, the tall shapes of giant hollies. The sign for Piano Pomo told us we'd climbed 1071 metres, from the agriturismo at 282m to the mountain plateau at 1360m.

There's a shepherd's hut, the Paghiaru, which must be used as a lodge for walkers in season

and the grove of trees - I can't identify this splendid specimen -

is high enough for patches of snow

as well as reluctantly emerging snowdrops. As the rain had stopped I thought we could go a little higher towards the Croce dei Monticelli, which gave us views not only over Castelbuono but out to the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Even bigger oaks stood gnarled in glades, presumably the Quercus pubescens or downy oak of which a placard spoke, though clearly not as grand as the ones 800 years old in the Macchia d'inferno further down.

Then we began our descent, back past the creepy smashed up hotel which we later learnt had been plundered by folk from all round Sicily the minute its owners closed down. Still we saw not a single fellow walker; the ones I thought I could see ahead turned out to be cows,

the great bells hung on wooden halters round their necks clanking as they wandered.

At the junction with the road back to Castelbuono, zeal outstripped common sense: never liking to retrace the route already taken, I decided we could take footpaths around the southern ridges to reach home. It was a beautiful way, to be sure, the valley and the opposite range including the village of Geraci Siculo shining in the late afternoon sun.

The vegetation, too, changed dramatically, with aloes and cork trees lining the way as we took a path down at Santa Foca towards the Saraceno which was more of a river.

Then, at a lush fork glancing back towards the Pizzo Canna,

it all went a bit pear-shaped. I still maintain the problem was to do with the scale of our map (1: 50,000): there has been none specifically geared to the walker for 50 years, and though paths are marked, when there's more than one turning you will only be given the biggest one. So I knew we were taking a risk by branching off past orchards on a well-defined track. Confidence rose at the sight of habitations. Football playing youths, presumably with the best intentions, told us that if we just descended, we'd reach our agriturismo in good time. But I began to doubt this, especially as it was getting too late to experiment, and in the gloaming asked another homeowner cleaning his car.

With Pietro we struck gold. In fumbling Italian, I told him I thought we'd gone wrong, and after expressing disbelief that we'd come down from Piano Pomo - not possible without a car, he said - he laughed and told us the agriturismo was a good six kilometres away, albeit less as the crow flies (ie no direct paths).

Having pointed out the sights we'd already walked to, clearly not crediting our tale, the good Pietro then drove us all the way back. He'd been born and raised in Castelbuono, lived near Stuttgart for 30 odd years running a pizzeria and gelateria, and now he was back with his 97 year old mother. She was down there in the town, and he was just fixing up ther summer retreat. What, only a few kilometres from home? Well, the air was better up here, and Castelbuono got noisy and traffic-filled in August, so why not?

He also told us the sorry story of the smashed-up hotel. And then there we were at the drive of the agriturismo. Could we give him some money for the petrol, buy him a beer, we asked? No, he replied, it was out of friendship and he had to be getting on. And with that heartening conclusion to our 25 kilometre walk, we headed towards a shower and supper.


Catriona said...

I hadn't encountered agriturismo before, so I looked it up on Google. I've had a look at some of the properties in Aosta. The descriptions are most enlightening. Thank you, David, for introducing me to a whole new art form.

David said...

An art form, or at least a whole new culinary experience, it is, Catriona, though I'm sure they vary. I can't recommend too strongly L'Uliveto in the Maiella, with views of the range from every room.

We went twice, paid 36E each a night for bed and full evening four or five course meal, including as much as you wanted to drink (the prices have no doubt increased, but surely not hugely). The family were delightful, improved our Italian by sitting with us (most welcome) at supper. Locals came just to eat of an evening ('si mangia bene all'Uliveto', we were told everywhere).

And as it was May, the most beautiful time in the Apennines, every night we watched fireflies (luciolle) flit and heard nightingales sing. If that isn't heaven on earth I don't know what is.

Susan Scheid said...

So beautiful! You are intrepid, walking all that way, even if not entirely intentional. Lucky us, getting the benefit from our armchairs--though of course it's not a patch in the real thing, in the end. We learned of agriturismo from a trip to the Peloponnese one April. Monemvasia. Just wonderful, and what we remember above all was walking among huge and profuse wildflowers. Your posts of Sicily make me long to be able to travel abroad this time of year, but alas, unlike in her old post, the Edu-Mate doesn't have a 2 week break like she used to, so we're out of luck for the moment. At least, however, spring is beginning to break through here. The daffs are finally out.

Laurent said...

Such athletic endeavours 25 KM walk I am impressed but then youth has its privileges. I would have opted for the chauffeured car.

David said...

Ah, Monemvasia! I was reminded of it in Cefalu, if only because of the 'acropolis' rock rising above the old town - but Monemvasia is much more mysterious once the day-trippers have left, didn't you think? We didn't have long enough. But it was spring, and orange blossoms scented the drive all the way from Gythion to Sparta.

It's truly spring here too: a day again of brilliant blue, and the blossom on the prunus in the back is very nearly out.

Laurent - the only trouble is a chauffeur is no use for the secluded high places of the world. At least in this case the car could have brought you closer than usual. But, hello - 50 young? Pur-lease!

Susan Scheid said...

Re the day-trippers, by sheer luck, we landed there the week prior to the beginning of the season, so we had the place practically to ourselves. We had no idea until then how packed out it could get.

On the subject of age, seeing the previous exchange, you might be amused to know that my friends who are in their 80s periodically comment on my age of 64, "oh, you're just a baby." I now have a stock reply that you should feel free to borrow: "There are no babies here. Not anymore."

David said...

I used to hate being called 'young man'. After all, it's a patronising form of power-play, isn't it? Now, when it happens (less often, I admit), I laugh.

Susan Scheid said...

I'm afraid I blathered on a bit too much over on TAD, so please forgive! I was particularly struck with your commentary on the Simpson piece, not only with regard to how pieces start, but also that you don't read the program notes beforehand. I'm always afraid to do that in the event I'll be totally lost, but I do think you're right that one can also be sent down a trail of the mind that the ears don't hear when listening to the piece, if that makes any sense.

David said...

Not at all, Sue, I'm as always genuinely honoured by your involvement; if I don't reply there, it's because I save my darts for occasional comments on other pieces (they don't like contributors popping up too often).

I stopped reading the notes first because I felt so many reviews during my Guardian days simply regurgitated the intentions stated in the new work rather than engaging with what it might actually have achieved (many still do). I might look at the movement titles, though, and the expected length, just to get some idea of the structure I was supposed to be hearing.

Rather sour grapes yesterday because a select few known contemporary-ites among the writers got given scores by Boosey and I didn't. Not that I'd use one for the performance, but it's often useful, again, to consult afterwards to see how a particular effect was achieved.

David Damant said...

The cuisine deserves another entry you say.....for this foodie, it certainly does

The cat - just like the Cheshire Cat in the Alice book where the eyes were the last part to disappear - with this picture one can well believe it

David said...

Indeed - I was amazed, looking in the cookery section of a Waterstone's, how many Italian cook books there are, including two very thick, expensive and surely over-lavishly illustrated for kitchen use, on la cucina Siciliana.

Something strange about that cat.

Susan Scheid said...

That's a bit off, about the score, I'd say. Of course that didn't stop you from delivering cogent comments about the piece. Glad to know my babbling brook was OK--I have to remember it's not the blog! And, BTW, I wouldn't expect a reply over there, so don't give that a second thought. I'm just glad that, when there is something I'd like to comment on, the comment actually goes through, which wasn't clear (the submission always looks like it "hangs up," but turns out it's not the case).Anyway, this is well off the beaten path of your delicious post here--was just looking at that risotto just now and would like to leap in and have a taste--so I'll echo David D on perhaps an entry on the food at some point!

David Damant said...

I read somewhere that there is always a market for yet another book on cookery....however many there may be already

David said...

I think the agriturismo's spaghetti with fresh asparagus and those edible borage flowers should look rather colourful when I get round to putting up the picture. Alas, I didn't photograph the pane cu' la meuza (spleen in a bun) which neither looks, nor exactly tasted, good. At least I tried it. Don't think that's one for the glossy Sicilian cookbooks.

wanderer said...

How ever do you do it? I know - practice, practice, practice. Such energy and perseverance brings the rewards you so deserve, and while we really only get a hint of the depth of the experience (no discredit to you - but the feel of the body and it reaches some limits, the breathless glory of the altitude and its air, the elevation in spirit from the aloneness in the greatness, et al, are reserved only for those who dare), it fills me with much envy now those days I fear have all but left me.

And especially that you do it together, which hardly needs to be said I know.

Only last year, walking an easy level few hundred metres through the gardens of Schloss Nymphenburg, K was heard to quip "If I'm not careful I might lose some weight".

I could live on Risotto.

David said...

Thank you for your eloquent praise as ever, wanderer, but the together-roving was not ever thus. I remember our first Xmas together in Assisi, where half way up from the town to the monastery on Xmas day, J panted and thundered 'you're trying to kill me'.

He was a heavy smoker then. How times have changed. Now we are true to our ayurvedic types/Chinese signs: I zoom up mountains but lack the long-term energy; he is 'dogged as does it' and once wound up, could probably walk for days.

Catriona said...

David - interested that you don't read programme notes about new works. Although I do read the programme notes for operas, I try to avoid the pre-performance publicity interviews with the director, the stars, the conductor, the designer and so on, where the 'vision' is set out and explained. I don't want to be told that the (nineteenth century) opera is set in a looted Baghdad museum (for example). If I can't work that out for myself, then surely the production has failed?

David said...

Well, I do read them, Catriona, but only after I've heard the piece, for reasons given above.

Quite right about operatic concepts. As Strauss wrote to Hofmannsthal, it's all very well explaining what you intend, but it's dangerous if that isn't clearly embodied in the action. Royal Opera Nabucco the latest casualty (only the photos in the programme went any way to explaining some of the obscurities).

Susan Scheid said...

Spleen in a bun, oy! Sounds like something that might be served in Newfoundland, along with the cod cheeks (no offense meant re Newfoundland; I'd like to go there someday and try the cod cheeks). Off to NYC now for The Ring, starting later this week. If you don't hear from me for a bit, it's because I'm lying down in a darkened room catching my breath between performances. Perhaps climbing a couple mountains would get me ready??

David Damant said...

I would argue that there is something very seriously wrong with most - even all - opera and ballet programmes ( and press releases etc) Not the story lines, but most of the rest. Francis Bacon ( the philosopher, of course, not the artist) gave the rule - "Hyperbole is comely only in love". Yet in a few lines we have such words as powerful production, powerful staging, sublime, delightful, brought vividly to life, exquisite melodies, unforgetable etc etc - On and on. Like a loyal local newspaper.
Apart from these exhausting exaggerations, the making of everything sublime means that there is no variation in the descriptions.

David said...

Sue, when you next come to London and we finally meet, I must take you to St John, celebrated 'nose to tail' eatery, where you may enjoy pig trotters and cheek, all kinds of offal and even squirrel. Their Eccles cakes are fabulous, too.

David, I guess you're knocking programmes' tendency to overpraise an 'unjustly neglected work', for they don't usually praise what, or whom, you're about to see. But how's this for overkill, taken from a blog I visited today: 'London desperately needs a first-class performance of this wonderful work'. The work? Wagner's first opera, Die Feen. I've now heard it in action. Not without interest, it's still not 'wonderful' by any stretch of the imagination. And it doesn't need a staging.

David Damant said...

No, my comments apply to nearly all opera and ballet programmes, advertisements etc. And even if the performances are indeed sublime, wonderful etc Bacon's rule still applies......the language is not comely. Just have a look at the websites. "most exciting" "acclaimed" It is exhausting and rather like toothpaste advertisements ( which set out not to be comely). But maybe everyone else just lets this sort of thing wash over them

As a particular example. Britten's Death in Venice (ENO) is indeed "much admired". It is tedious to say so.

David said...

Well, I probably use the words 'wonderful' and 'fabulous' too much, but there's so much to wonder AT. Selectively, of course.

David Damant said...

The Cat

I have concluded that that cat is in fact an extra-terrestial being, taking the form of a cat as a disguise whilst recording the activities of the human race and transmitting the observations to another world. What they will make of two young men who walk for 25 kms when mechanical transport is easily available I cannot imagine

David said...

You rib me twofold, Sir D. The human 50 is clearly young in cat years...and the feline well understands that there are places (like trees and mountaintops) where the machine cannot go.

wanderer said...

D D's speculative take on the cat is most amusing (I'm trying to be relatively adjective and adverb free, not easy) and similarly the aliens will be fascinated to see bipeds who call themselves masters picking up the excrement of once-were-wolves. But I really wanted to note that Die Feen and the other two of the early three will be getting an outing in the (hyperbole and adjective alert) apparently truly hideous Oberfrankenhalle just before the Festspielhaus season. Pass.

David said...

Am I being dense in not getting the 'excrement' comment?

wanderer said...

Of course you aren't being dense. It's the sentence that's being dense. It was to paraphrase, badly, what has been well said before (Woody Allen?) - an outsider watching a human dutifully picking up his dog's sh*t would likely form a different opinion about who is the master.

David said...

Now that's good! I thought we must have done something on our walk akin to wolf-trailing...

David Damant said...

I see Wanderer's point about what we do for dogs, but on the whole dogs have masters whereas cats have staff - or as Churchill said ( I think quoting someone else) " Dogs is inferior, cats is superior, pigs is equal" His private secretary Jock Colville who frequently watched Churchill dressing ( Churchill worked in bed a great deal) said that when in his vest he looked like a rather nice pig.