Discovering authentic Sicily between the ears of a horse

The sound of the horses feet along the rock makes a rhythmic sound that reminds me of a heartbeat. Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop….

I am trying to balance my weight to help my equine companion, lifting myself from the saddle in a standing position – pretty difficult to maintain. I look ahead to give the horse direction, and also down to guide it through the trickier sections. When the trail gets really difficult, I rely on its experience from hundreds of treks on these mountains – the horse knows what to do. 

Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop….

Suddenly a cry tears me away from the peaceful synergy I’m experiencing with my horse, I look around and a few meters up, one of my mates stands still, motionless, staring at something I cannot see, hidden beyond the rocky ridge above us. I hurry the last few steps to catch her up, and when I reach her…My breath is taken away.

I stand quietly with Zelda, my bay mare, gazing at the magnificent vista in front of us. As if to guide my gaze, the horse slowly turns her head from right to left, framing with her ears the 360-degree panorama that surrounds us from the height of Pizzo Carbonara’s 1,979 meters. I see everything: there are the rocky peaks of the Madonie Mountains, the perfect cones of the Aeolian volcanoes in the blue sea, the golden outline of the coast, with the characteristic promontories of the Palermo area as far as the eye can see.

I want to shout too, but I am out of breath. All I can do is reach out on the horse’s neck to pet her and whisper, “Thank you, Zelda.”

For the past three days, this beautiful animal has taken me on a discovery tour of some of the most beautiful, unknown and surprising places in Sicily: the mountains and towns of the Madonie Park. 

This large, protected area encompasses a beautiful slice of northern Sicily, stretching from the beaches of Cefalù to the highest peaks on the island behind Mount Etna.

We passed through beautiful trails characterized by incredible variety. Paths that seem difficult to walk on horseback, Zelda and the other horses in the group tackle easily.

These are strong and proud animals, local breeds whose hooves have been accustomed to walk the Sicilian terrains for centuries. But credit goes also to the skilled and passionate man who trained them, Paolo.

Paolo and Selene, his partner, have a lot of experience with tourists and they want to assign each rider the right horse. 

They give us a little introduction to the taming of their animals and the riding style they require. They ask us what kind of experience we have on horseback, and I can feel them studying our responses. 

They know that these animals are able to read your soul: with that knowledge they can enhance your characteristics and skills…or take advantage of them to do their own bidding. 

So this process of matching is a very strategic one.

In the four days we will spend together, I will discover how well our hosts do this matching: the horse each of us is riding is a perfect reflection of our personality.

In perfect single file we begin to ride the trails of the Madonie Mountains: we cross the valleys and mountains between the villages of Collesano and Petralia, discovering landscapes and places still unaffected by tourism. 

We explore Gratteri, an enchanting village enclosed in a natural rock amphitheatre, and we are told the surreal story of how its inhabitants dismantled the castle with their bare hands, to build yet another church with its stones. 

We go on a discovery tour of Castelbuono: we admire the clock tower, a spectacle of precision mechanics; we visit its castle, now owned by the people of the town, who bought it at an auction through a crowdfunding campaign. Finally, we become friends with Carmela, a lovely donkey that takes care of collecting the recyclable waste of the town.

Day after day, step after step, we discover the stories behind the names of places we visit: Piano Battaglia, Pizzo Carbonara, and endless mountains and valleys.

As the elevation increases, we understand why these areas are called the “Sicilian Dolomites”. The landscape here is rugged and mountainous. We are moving from sea-view valleys to green landscapes that look like Switzerland, walking in the presence of looming giant rock monoliths.

We go on climbing and classic Mediterranean scrub gives way to beech, oak and fir forests. As we climb over 1.000 meters, the scent of wild thyme fills our nostrils. We play guessing the names of plants and flowers, enjoying the colours of spring in these areas: it is an explosion of green, yellow, purple and a thousand more.

Meanwhile we look for the precious “basilisk”. Around this plant that looks like wild fennel grows a delicious and rare mushroom. For this reason it is known as the “white truffle of the Madonie”. You can enjoy it raw or cooked, and if the sheep feed on its leaves, their milk (and the ricotta cheese made from it) acquires a unique flavor.

Every few meters we also encounter the park’s diverse wildlife. Wild goats, boar and countless deer, so many that after a couple of days we hardly lift our cameras to take pictures of them anymore.

And a special mention goes to the food.

This tour is not about frugal and quick meals. After all, good food is a staple of Sicilian hospitality!

Forget uncomfortable tents and ham sandwiches: discovering Sicily on horseback like this means sleeping in beautiful farmhouses and enjoying the best local delicacies. 

Dinners are all about good taste and the discovery of typical flavours: from locally raised prime meats to the tastiest seasonal vegetables. 

Not to mention the typical desserts, such as Testa di Turco, a delicacy made with milk and cinnamon. Or other dishes flavoured with manna, a local sweetener that ash trees produce only in these valleys, thanks to the specific climate and the characteristics of the land.

But the moment I look forward to most every day is lunchtime: this is not a standard picnic, mind you! These guys take its concept to the next level, as they set up tables every day in a different meadow, laden with delicacies.

Simple but tasty dishes await us when we get off the horses: cured meats, cheese, vegetables and the ever-present ricotta cheese from producers nearby. Sometimes you may even stop at one of the many màrcato, the ancient dwellings of the Madonie shepherds, with stone walls and thatched roofs. Here cheese is still produced the traditional way, and you can taste simple but tasteful local recipes like pasta with tenerumi (which are the leaves of the typical long zucchini).

What you experience on a Madonie horseback tour is true “experiential tourism”. Here, every sense is stirred     : there is the soft hair of the horse under your fingers and the scent of Mediterranean plants. You hear the sound of the laughter of fellow travellers and enjoy the taste of fresh ricotta cheese and good wine.

And best of all, there are amazing 360-degree panoramas framed between your horse’s ears.

There is no better way to discover Sicily than horseback.

Discovering authentic Sicily between the ears of a horse

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