Francesco and Franco enlightened me a little about Sicily, its history and its unique character. They explained that hiking is actually not very popular with Southern Italians at all; Francesco joked and said that Sicilians like to drive up to their destination, not walk there. While climbing around the rocks we talked about the mafia and Sicilian mentality. Francesco described Sicilians as individualistic and fatalistic, an interesting combination of traits.
A corral for the goats with Mount Etna in the background
My tour guides also educated me about the plant life up here at an altitude of about 2000 m: the tree cover consists of hazelnut, chest nut and cork oak trees, all of which have commercial applications. In addition, they showed me a corral for goats that was made of stone. Franco explained that the goats get herded into these stone enclosures at night which incidentally keeps them safe from foxes and other predators. Shortly after we indeed ran into a huge herd of goats, all of whom looked at me kind of funny when I started snapping pictures of them.
The goats are eyeing me
Another 20 minutes or so by car later we had arrived at our second destination: Montalbano Elicona, a typical authentic Sicilian mountain village that is perched on a hilltop. We parked our vehicle and started walking through town. The main square opened up around a big church, and on this Monday afternoon, dozens of people were sitting next to the church, in the patios in front of various bars and on benches surrounding the square.
Village scene in Montalbano Helicona
Now this was a real Sicilian town without tourists. According to time-honoured Sicilian traditions, the older men sat together on the side of the church, younger women sat on the front steps of the church, children were playing together on the piazza, and older women were hardly to be seen.
Church in Montalbano
We walked past the main square to take a little walk through town through narrow cobble-stoned streets that led us up to an ancient castle and old churches. Most of the streets were very quiet and many streets were so narrow that they would be impassable for a vehicle. Back on the main square we ourselves sat down to grab a few refreshments.
An “arancino”, a delicious little rice ball with mushrooms
I was a bit hungry, and the bar we chose had a display case of local fast foods, so I ordered an “arancino di funghi” – a rice ball spiced up with mushroom bits that has a crunchy orange-coloured crust. This little morsel was actually very tasty, and I could have definitely enjoyed a second one, but decided to restrain myself.
Sitting on the steps of the church
Ever since I have arrived in Sicily I have been fascinated by these authentic mountain villages that always feature large groups of older men, many of them wearing berets, and animatedly discussing topics of interest, which probably include soccer and politics. So far I had been to shy to take pictures of them, but I asked Francesco to make a request for photos on my behalf.
Sure enough, with his Sicilian charm, he explained that an Austro-Canadian traveller was requesting to make some photos of these unique characters and they complied. Some of the gentlemen actually did not want to be photographed and hid their faces behind their neighbour’s head, but the vast majority of them was game and even gave me a smile for my pictures. After finally having snapped some pictures of authentic Sicilians I was very happy and we started to head back towards Milazzo. The sun was already setting and the country houses were bathed in golden light – a fitting ending to an interesting excursion.
The kids are playing on Montalbano’s main square
At 9 pm my tour guides dropped me off at Laboratorio Linguistico’s apartment and I settled in for a quiet night, getting ready for my last full day in Sicily.