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 Cefalù (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 Castlebuono 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 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.