On to the Madonie regional park

In Sicily what had started out reasonably well, was  about to get decidedly better. It was time to rent a car and explore the mountains and hills above  Cefalu. If it hadn’t been for my Lonely Planet guide to Sicily, we may never have discovered the Madonie  regional park. The title sounded pretty prosaic, but the reality certainly wasn’t.

The Madonie moutains are the highest range in Sicily outside of Mt. Etna complete with ski areas and dotted with medieval villages. I think we arrived at the perfect time of the year (April). It was pleasantly cool and mountain sides were all green.

From  sea level Cefualu we ascended quickly (15 kilometers and over 2600 feet) to the Santurario di Gibilmana, a beautiful hillside shrine dedicated the Virgin Mary. The fresh air and views were splendid as well as the interior of the church

Santurario di Gibilmanna
Santurario di Gibilmanna
From the steps of the Santurario looking toward the sea
From the steps of the Santurario looking toward the sea
Mountain view from the front of Gibilmanna
Mountain view from the front of Gibilmanna

 

Interior of the Santuario di Gibilmanna
Interior of the Santuario di Gibilmanna

From Gibilmanna we zigzagged another 18 KM to Castelbuono, a charming medieval village where we finally found a good meal at Bistrot Restaurant.  There were no crowds Styrofoam or plastic dinnerware there, but still a few Germans to remind us we were not alone. The pasta con ” funghi”/mushrooms really tickled my taste buds.  

An after lunch stroll took us to The Castello Ventimiglia. Here we encountered an inviting piazza and more stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The interior of the castle housed a museum and  an ornately decorated chapel on the top floor.

 

Entry portal to the main piazza of Castebuono, Sicily
Entry portal to the main piazza of Castebuono, Sicily
Church in the piazza of Castelbuono
Church in the piazza of Castelbuono
Il Castello Ventimiglia, Castelbuono, Sicily
Il Castello Ventimiglia,
Castelbuono, Sicily
Mountain view from the piazza in Castelbuono with patches of snow on the high spots
Mountain view from the piazza in Castelbuono with patches of snow on the high spots
Chapel in the Castello Ventimiglia
Chapel in the Castello Ventimiglia

 

Grated window, interior of Ventimiglia Castle
Grated window, interior of Ventimiglia Castle

We left Castlebuono and continued our zigzagging through the switchbacks through green pastures and wooded glens. Never did I think Sicily could be so green. We wound our way through the hills and past the hill towns. Finally although we had plenty in the tank, we “ran out of gas” and high tailed it to the free autostrada and back to Cefalu. Someone explained to me that many parts of Sicily were too poor to pay tolls.

Sicilian hill town in the Madonie area
Sicilian hill town in the Madonie area

This day was one of the most pleasant I have ever spent in Italy.

 

 

 

“Sicilia Bedda”

“Sicilia bedda”  is dialect for “Sicilia bella”. Perhaps when you think of Sicily, you picture old ladies dressed in black shuffling across ancient cobblestone streets in villages surrounded by bleak and dry rocky hills. That was the image I had after seeing a couple Godfather films.  My wife and I traveled there in April of 2012 before the heat and crowds of summer.

The images I had of Sicily were illusions and I was ready to experience a different reality. I found a cheapo flight (its a little more than an hour) from Rome to Palermo . We couldn’t  believe we got all our bags on with little extra charge. It must have been because Gianni our surrogate nephew and gate agent for Delta helped us check in.

There is a rail spur at the airport that connects to Palermo’s main rail station. Considering our load of bags and the pitfalls of navigating a large city, I had decided to sidestep Palermo. After wrestling the bags on and off the airport train and running to get the connecting train to Cefalu,  a couple of fellow travelers helped us heft the bags on board. We found seats on the steps at the end of our car. Yikes! that wasn’t fun.

Cefalu old town
Cefalu old town
Cefalu overshadowed by La Rocca (The Rock)
Cefalu overshadowed by La Rocca (The Rock)
Sea View from our studio apartment
Sea View from our studio apartment

Cefalu is a picturesque medieval town of about 14,000. Its a well known and well trod tourist destination, but it was just the right size and place for our first Sicilian stop.  We found a sea view studio a few steps from the old town center.

La Rocca, a massive rocky hill of over 900 feet, towers over Cefalu.  I climbed it a couple of times. It is a perfect place to escape the more crowded town. Most folks lack the ambition or motivation for such a climb. The views of the town, sea and coastline are stunning. Remnants of a Norman citadel cap the top and there is a Temple of Dianna ruin on the way up.

Cefalu from atop La Rocca
Cefalu from atop La Rocca
Temple of Diana (4th or 5th century)
Temple of Diana (4th or 5th century)
Cefalu and coastline from atop La Rocca
Cefalu and coastline from atop La Rocca

 

If the sights and atmosphere of Cefalu  with its narrow lanes and beautiful piazzas charmed us, the same could not be said about the restaurant scene. We didn’t find one that really pleased us. We ate off Styrofoam plates with plastic silverware at Trip Advisor’s top rated restaurant. The owners were friendly, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was being hustled.

Lonely Planets’ Sicily guidebook warned me that the place was pretty touristy.  We didn’t encounter any Americans, but
Germans were everywhere, large groups, small groups, couples and singles. What the Germans failed to do militarily, they have  accomplished economically. Outside of the Germans we encountered a smattering of French and English folks.

 

Cefalu's cathedral. 12th century Norman construction
Cefalu’s cathedral. 12th century Norman construction
Cefalu, typical street scene
Cefalu, typical street scene

The most outstanding landmark within Cefalu is the cathedral, a Norman  construction with outstanding mosaics within.  Like most Italian towns,  the piazza outside is the main open space and a very pleasing site. Considering its charms and picturesque settings its no surprise that the director of Cinema Paradiso chose Cefalu to films some of its scenes.

Old town street scene
Old town street scene
Cefulu old town bordering the sea
Cefulu old town bordering the sea

 

A couple of days was plenty to see and explore Cefalu. At this point I rented a car and we  were ready to explore the surrounding countryside.

 

Who needs a hotel?

Before the internet changed all the rules, you made a hotel reservation by phone, through a travel agent, or just showed up. Cancelation was a simple phone call. The choices were limited.

Nowadays things are not so simple. Choices and deals abound, but so do the pitfalls. I recently lost almost 50,000 frequent flyer miles because there  was  no cancellation option for a hotel reservation I made with miles on the internet.

Over the recent years, we’ve made quite a few trips, but with few or no stops in hotels. You might be wondering how we managed that. The answer is simple, the vacation rental apartment or house. There are quite a number of sites on the internet offering vacation rentals. My favorite is www.homeaway.com. There are many others including VRBO – vacation rentals by owner.

There are several advantages to renting an apartment or house. It can save you lots of money. Apartments and houses are almost always larger than hotel rooms and always include kitchens.

We usually rent one large enough to accommodate guests as most of our stays include visits from  family or friends.  Having a kitchen and being able to prepare meals, not only saves money, but  gives the stay new dimensions. Continually eating in restaurants is expensive and can become monotonous. Shopping for groceries puts you in the shoes of a local.

Instead of dealing with a large impersonal organization, most often you contact the property owner and develop a one on one relationship. I’ve never had a problem with a property owner in all the time we have been renting this way. Down payments are usually high, up to 50% with the remainder due upon arrival. If there is a delay in arriving you can lose a day or two of the rent. Remember its essential to deal with a reputable website.

For the budget minded, there are dozens of house exchange sites on the internet. Also one can find a place to stay for free in exchange for caring for the owner’s pets. Try trustedhousesitters.com.

This type of travel is truly independent. In many cases renting a car is necessary. If you are not comfortable driving look for something in a city or near public transportation.

We’ve stayed in a sea view house in Costa Rica, a language school in Panama (room with private bath @ $25 per night),  a 2 bedroom apartment in Palermo neighborhood in Buenos Aires, a Trullo (renovated rustic farm structure) in Puglia, Italy, a Scuderia (renovated stable) in a villa just outside of Florence, a huge 4 bedroom, 3 bath house in Umbria, a third floor walkup with  of view of St. Peter’s dome in Rome to name some of the more memorable.

If you want to immerse yourself in the local culture and or practice a foreign language, this is the way to go.

Language school in Boquete, Panama'
Language school in Boquete, Panama’
Dome of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome from our rental apartment
Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome from our rental apartment
Rental house in Samara', Costa Rica
Rental house in Samara’, Costa Rica
Twilight storm clouds over the Pacific Samara', Costa Rica
Twilight storm clouds over the Pacific
Samara’, Costa Rica

 

 

Rental Trullo surrounded by olive and cherry orchard in Puglia, Italy
Rental Trullo surrounded by olive and cherry orchard in Puglia, Italy