After a hot summer, today we finally leave for a weekend to visit two small villages in the province of Palermo
We leave almost at dawn with eyes still muddled with sleep but with great enthusiasm for this new adventure, and after about three hours of driving and a coffee break, we arrive in Alia.
Alia rises on the south-western side of the Madonie , between the valley of the Torto river and the Feudi, known as “Garden City” or Land of the “ghiuttena” (ittena) that is to say small walls in the shape of seats, typical of rural areas.
Waiting for us is Vincenzo, chef of the family farm and expert in the area, who welcomes us together with his faithful friends, two puppies of only 91 kg to be pampered with, despite their tonnage: in this case, we could say that the appearance deceives.
After a chat and another coffee to recover from the trip, we begin our visit with Vincenzo, starting from what he defines as the small “village” since it cannot be considered a real country, much less a village.
Here we are in “Marcato Bianco”, a fraction of Castronuovo di Sicilia, inhabited by very few families, all related to each other and where the bar is represented by a vending machine located in the main street. There is no bakery or supermarket but everything is still close at hand and the inhabitants are really happy with this lifestyle.
In this “village” of a few souls, everything is prepared at home as it once was: from bread to pasta, to the cultivation of vegetables, to cheese, to the production of local meat, where everything – as Vincenzo says – it’s at 0 meters!
We begin our tour by visiting Signora Filippa’s dairy, a family-run dairy where we witness the making of fresh ricotta and tuma cheese , accompanied by an explanation of the process of its processing. Of course, we could not escape from tasting these fresh products of the day and it is really difficult to explain in words how good they were. We can only say that their genuineness has managed to touch all our senses! But to confirm it, you will have to go and test yourself!
Between a chat and a mixture of ricotta, Filippa puts on the table other cheeses always of own production: a primo sale and a pecorino covered with black pepper, whose conservation technique we will keep secret.
We feel so much at home that we find it hard to resume the journey, but other destinations await us, and therefore, after saying goodbye to Filippa and her children, we set off towards the car.
Before getting back in the car, however, we quickly visit the ancient church dedicated to the Holy Crucifix.
Then we move to the Grotte della Gurfa, a real monument of rock funerary architecture in which man has created a series of environments, deriving them from the hollowed-out rock.
The Caves date back to the Bronze Age with Arab settlements from which the name derives, which brought wheat, vines, and olive trees here, still among the main crops. Immersed in the green, already from a distance, the many openings regularly arranged on two levels of the rocky ridge, reddish and pitted, emanate a certain charm. For centuries they were then used as granaries by farmers and in 2010 this site was registered as a place of heroes for the myth of Daedalus and Minos, king of Crete.
Inside the caves, you can visit a first room called “torture”, where a macabre ritual took place: the bravest had to lower themselves with ropes through a hole dug in the rock and remain seated among the dead and the tortured people, and then try to go up to the upper rooms. Those of them who succeeded in the enterprise were acclaimed and venerated by the people. All this represented a kind of simulation of the transition from the world of the dead to the world of the living. Finding yourself inside this room and listening to this story gives you chills!
Continuing, we enter the “Bell cave” defined as the largest temple of light in the Mediterranean. Here a particular suggestion is created, thanks to the two openings, one on the roof and one on a wall of the cave, from which a ray of sunshine enters: every year, with the arrival of the vernal equinox, a ray of sunshine hit exactly a corner covering with light anyone who is inside it in a specific point. But the summer solstice, which has always been one of the most important moments for agrarian populations is no less important because it marks the rebirth of nature – at noon the sun enters from the small hole that is located above and it hits the center of the room – and the winter solstice when the sun enters the small hole and hits the wall of the room. Two important moments for the populations of the time, to mark the seasons and help them in sowing and harvesting.
We go up to the top and arrive in the defined barter room: here particular natural acoustics are created, but only for the male voices that echo like music. In fact, we tried too but nothing happened! While Vincenzo’s voice echoed outside the caves, ours remained imprisoned in the room. Incredible!
We return to the farmhouse for lunch with an all-Sicilian flavor, served under a lush pergola of plants during which we can enjoy the company of Vincenzo’s family and the many kittens that roam freely in the courtyard. To complete the picture, the unexpected visit of a family friend who joins us for lunch, willingly accepting the invitation to stay.
And so, amid chatter and laughter, Vincenzo begins by saying: “Would you mind if he joins us, do you? As my grandfather said “A tavula è trazzera” (“The table is a shortcut.” The trazzera, in fact, is a country lane, a shortcut. The Sicilian proverb teaches us that at the table it is easier to get closer, to establish business relationships, to know each other better, to shorten distances). Obviously, we immediately said that it would not be a problem because this is the welcome that we like!
Let’s start lunch with cheeses, salami, black and white olives, a very good caponata cooked by Vincenzo’s father, worthy of the award received, and we try to let us reveal the traditional recipes. We continue with a grilled pork and lamb chops and a side of tomato salad, onion, and mountain capers. It goes without saying that everything is delicious and that we are full (as always), but we cannot give up the freshly prepared ricotta cannoli. It is sublime !!!
After lunch, and before continuing our tour, we take a tour of the farmhouse immersed in a context of peace and relaxation, suitable for those wishing to spend a stay in contact with nature and Sicilian genuineness.
In the afternoon Vincenzo takes us to visit the center of Alia and we arrive at the upper part of the town called “Rabatello” (which in fact means the upper part), to immerse ourselves in the countryside and then arrive at the heights where we open to our eyes a wonderful panorama: from this position you can admire the Sicani, Etna and on clear days you can also see the Aeolian Islands. In this corner of paradise, you feel the masters of the world and you just want to lie down to enjoy the light breeze, the silence, and the smells found in nature.
Despite ourselves, however, the working day is not over yet, and so we get back in the car to reach Sant’Ambrogio, a few kilometers from Cefalù. After about an hour driving, we arrive at the Borgo: just enough time to arrange the bags, a quick aperitif, and run to bed to recover energy.
The next day we wake up early for a special breakfast overlooking the north coast of Sicily. The Borgo of Sant’Ambrogio is, in fact, on a hill just 5 km from Cefalù, very close to the sea, easily reachable on foot thanks to a staircase that starts right from the village.
After breakfast and a few shots, we meet Giovanna, our host, who invited us to introduce us to this place very dear to her.
Thus begins the visit to the Borgo during which Carmelina, a friend of Giovanna, Australian by birth but of Sicilian origins, also joins us. She is an expert in this territory and has lived in Sicily for over 15 years, transforming it into her own land.
We immerse ourselves in well-kept alleys and alleys, small vegetable gardens wisely cultivated with cherry tomatoes, pumpkins, vines, olive trees, and other types of vegetables, and then arrive in a small lane that takes us to a ridge of rock from which you can admire a breathtaking view of the whole coast: on one side the sea, on the other the Madonite mountains, all really suggestive!
In the Borgo, meeting the elderly sitting outside the door is not difficult at all and during our walk we see a small group of women chatting, sitting right in front of their homes. We spend some time with them asking them to tell us some anecdotes of their youth and it is wonderful to see how life here flows in a totally different way from ours… And suddenly a Sicilian saying comes out from these parts that says: “Cu va a ‘menzu a vià su’ nsi vagna nun si ni va” (those who go to the river if they don’t get wet can’t leave), born from the fact that when in their youth they went to do the laundry at the common wash-house, one of the girls of the village had the bad habit of splashing the others.
We say goodbye to the ladies and move to Giovanna’s family oil mill, where upon entering we are catapulted back in time. Here, she tells us with passion about the work that her great-grandfather, her grandfather, her uncles, and her father carried out for years in this place, where everything seems to have remained intact: from the machinery for milling the olives to the work tools.
Photos and books tell of the processing stages, from the small sprout of the olive tree to the ripening of the fruit, to the harvest, to the milling, to the tasting of this versatile and precious food with many properties.
After these few notes related to the history of the family, a rich-tasting of local products awaits us to accompany the oil tasting, the main reason for our visit: couscous with seasonal vegetables, olives, dried tomatoes, aged cheese, and caciotta smoked with jams.
After the oil mill was closed, the family no longer personally took care of oil production, and, thus, Giovanna made us taste three different qualities of olive oil from her trusted producers.
But the highlight of the day is the possibility of making a personal blend with our hands, flavoring with spices and aromatic herbs some excellent extra virgin olive oil, to take home in a glass jar. We love this experience and we are sure that those who propose it will also like it! So we immediately get to work and, between aromas and personal tastes, each of us creates her own flavored oil.
After our experience at the oil mill, we go to visit Pollina, known for the production of Manna.
Manna is a sugary substance, Slow food presidium, and is obtained from the solidification of the elaborate sap that comes out, during the summer season, from the incisions made on the trunk and main branches of some species of Ash. Manna has many beneficial properties: is used as a sweetener, in beauty products, in pharmaceuticals, and also promotes gastrointestinal well-being. In fact, it has represented for centuries an important resource of the local economy and is unique for its nutritional and organoleptic properties.
It would have been nice to be able to witness its harvest but the season is already well advanced and, among other things, this year the climatic conditions were not very favorable, so we will have to wait until next summer to try this unique experience!
A stroll through the alleys, and even in Pollina the view leaves you speechless, especially in its outdoor amphitheater with stone steps overlooking the mountains, creating a suggestive and majestic natural setting, especially at sunset!
This is also the meeting place of the “wives”, the women of the village who take advantage of this open-air courtyard to enjoy the cool summer evenings in the shade of a tree and in good company.
Time flies as always and it’s time to say goodbye. Tired but satisfied with all the discoveries of this weekend, we thank Giovanna for her wonderful welcome, with the promise to see her again soon.
Our weekend was really intense and full of good news and good acquaintances, but it didn’t end there! Before returning home, one last stop awaits us in Terrasini to attend a tourism fair aimed at Sicilian operators. Full speed ahead!
We are ready to live a new experience … and you?