Halfway between the metropolitan poles of Palermo and Catania lies a forgotten territory that captures all the beauty, tradition and soul of Sicily’s “entroterra”, or vast rocky interior. The Parco delle Madonie, a mountainous natural reserve that spans 35,000 hectares, is brimming with wildlife and home to some of the most beautiful villages in Sicily. High up above verdant valleys, with near mystical views of Mount Etna, these hilltop towns sit suspended between land and sky.
Many of these small towns are part of the I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia, The Most Beautiful Villages In Italy, a network aimed to safeguard culture and tradition while promoting tourism to areas that lay off-the-beaten-path. Here are a few of the most beautiful villages you shouldn’t miss.
Perched high above a valley with sweeping views of Mount Etna in the distance, Gangi is a picturesque hilltop town that looks towards the future. Voted the most beautiful village in Italy in 2014, it was among the first to sell its abandoned homes for the symbolic price of €1 in an effort to spur a social, cultural and economic revival in the town. The scheme has generated interest from around the world and is being replicated in small villages across Italy to bring life back to areas that face depopulation and risk losing their traditions.
Gangi’s medieval centro storico is home to under 2,000 people and here, time seems to stand still. Its tiny stone alleyways are dotted with cheerful flowerpots, delis and butchers – and noteworthy art lies hidden within its many churches. Don’t miss admiring the town’s masterpiece, an arresting 17th century painting of the “Giudizio Universale” by local painter Giuseppe Salerno tucked within the Church of San Cataldo, and more contemporary works by Sicilian painter Gianbecchina inside Gangi’s small archeological museum.
For the best of Sicilian hospitality, look no further than Villa Raino, a 19th country home owned by the delightful Conte family and bursting with heart. Aldo and his wife Nina are gracious hosts who serve excellent home cooked meals, like baked eggplant rolls stuffed with spaghetti and ravioli with ricotta and pumpkin, and will help you arrange the best experiences in the area.
Ranked the most beautiful village in Italy in 2018, Petralia Soprana is home to an incredible concentration of churches and a must-see for art lovers visiting the Madonie Mountains. On one end of town lies the 18th century Santa Maria di Loreto church, a replica of the Basilica della Santa Casa, a famous pilgrimage site in the town of Loreto in Le Marche, while the town’s central Piazza Duomo serves as the main gathering point for local celebrations and events. The square is marked by an elegant portico and is the site of the annual Il Ballo della Cordella, the Sicilian version of a maypole dance, each summer.
The artistic soul of Petralia Soprana extends beyond its architecture and paintings to creative works of art made with unexpected materials. Near the town lies a 6 million-year-old salt mine – one of the largest in Europe – which houses the Contemporary Art Museum SottoSale within it. Here, contemporary sculptures are carved out of salt 400 meters below the ground. The Madonie Mountains also boast important culinary traditions and local cheesemaker Pardor produces the best in the region. In addition to producing mouthwatering provola, scamorza and ricotta cheeses, they collaborate with cheese artists who make edible works of art by adeptly shaping fresh cheese into animals including deer, doves and horses.
Best-known for being the font of Sicily’s purest drinking water, Geraci Siculo is equally impressive for its traditional folklore and ancient archeological sites. Originally a Greek settlement, Geraci’s name probably derives from the Greek “Jerax” meaning vulture, as these birds inhabited the town. Over time it was conquered by the Romans, Saracens, Arabs and Normans until the noble Ventimiglia family arrived in the 13th century and built a castle in the town. You can walk around the ruins today to enjoy 360° views of the countryside. For a taste of local cuisine, stop by Yerax – Il Bel Mangiare, a contemporary trattoria that reinterprets Sicily’s rustic flavors, and enjoy a refreshing sip of the town’s famous water flowing out from the ornate fountain down by the Bar Al Bevaio.
The popular beach resort of Cefalù is located at the foothills of the Parco delle Madonie Mountains and is one of the most alluring cities in Sicily. One of the founding towns of the Borghi Più Belli d’Italia, Cefalù is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Arab-Norman architecture, together with Palermo and Monreale. In the center of town, the Norman-style cathedral towers over the main piazza of Cefalù and houses remarkable Byzantine mosaics within it.
The town’s main draw is its long sandy beach and crystalline water: it was the arrival of Club Med in the 1960s that first put Cefalù on the map and it has remained a favorite summer destination for international travelers over the decades. It’s worth hiking up to the Rocca di Cefalù for a panoramic view of the town and taking a stroll along the lungomare (waterfront) where you can admire the whitewashed houses set above the lapping sea. For aperitivo, head over to the Le Petit Tonneau, a charming little wine bar built into the side of the mountain. The enoteca has a small balcony out back with three little tables that look out onto the water and is one of the most beautiful places to enjoy the sunset in all of Sicily.