Sicily in a Week: It’s Highest Village and Cefalu

Breakfast next morning at Agriturismo Cuca was a relaxed affair, more wonderful fresh  figs, homemade jams and honey, bread.The room itself felt like stepping back in time.1950s women’s magazines piled in a corner, very faded old prints and family photos, traditional furniture. Said goodbye to our very nice host (we found people throughout Sicily to be very friendly and welcoming.)

PETRALIA SOPRANA

The cloud was hanging very low as we drove to our first stop, the village of Petralia Soprana, the highest in the Madonie at 3,700 feet. I was expecting a tiny medieval hamlet but it was a sizeable modern town with a very small older core. But the main Piazza with its church was very beautiful and so atmospheric, swathed in mist.

As we wandered along a narrow little street lined by attractive houses , church bells began to peel. The air was cool and clammy, mist blocking out any views of the countryside and giving the village a ghostly feel, as if it existed on top of its crag with nothing else around.If I’m honest, it also blocked out the modern sprawl below us.

Stopped for coffee in a local café in a pretty little piazza. As always, a bead curtain at the entrance, pulled to one side. Inside, it was crammed full of older men, chatting to the bar staff. We sat outside, braving the damp mountain air. A very enjoyable stop.

Our route now took us to Piano Battaglia, Sicily’s Ski Centre at over 5,000 feet. The mist had cleared and we now got a good view of the mountains. They are around 6,000 feet in height, offering pleasant scenery. There was a lot of nice high pasture up here, the only sound the tinkle of cow bells as the animals ambled across the meadows.With the mountain restaurant we’d hoped to have lunch in closed , there was nothing for it but to make our descent down the other side of the mountain range, towards Cefalu.

Bar Smeraldo

The landscape really took off on this side of the Madonie, especially as we approached the beautiful little village of Isnello.

Lots of stops to admire it all. Hungry by now, we spied a big collection of cars parked outside a small roadside restaurant –  the Bar Smeraldo. Well, if it was good enough for the locals….

What a gorgeous location. Sure enough,  a big family lunch was underway but we got a seat on the outside terrace, nicely shaded and with lovely views. Food was good – a tasty platter of cold meats, cheeses and pickles with nice bread; then pasta with wild boar sauce for me and steak for Chris. Mine was very tasty, though Chris found his steak was tender but a bit lacking in flavour.However, with a good helping of tasty, thinly sliced saute potatoes, it filled a space nicely. All washed down (for Chris, I was now driving) with a carafe of red wine.

Now the fun began as I took over the driving! A complete nightmare getting used to the wrong side of the road and right hand gearstick on the winding mountain roads! But off I drove, painfully slowly and very nervous despite being a confident driver. What made it worse was the road surface. I’m not sure if it was tree roots which were buckling and breaking the tarmac but I had to dodge the worst of them or creep over them slowly. Not so good on a blind bend if you had to swerve a bit to avoid damaging a tyre and someone was doing the same thing the other way. Luckily the road was quiet but it was a relief when it was over. Plenty stops too, to admire the scenery.

CEFALU

Parking was easy in Cefalu, sitting in a grand situation below a crag. On a hot, sticky Sunday afternoon , it was going like a fair. It was much more modern than I expected, the beach packed with blue sun umbrellas and the ice cream cafes were busy. A short stroll took us into the tiny core that comprised the old town, essentially a jam packed very narrow main street, lined with tourist tat shops and fast food outlets. Not quite what I’d imagined but – the cathedral was an absolute beauty. Stunning, another Arab – Norman gem.

Inside it was glorious with beautiful mosaics (a smaller version of what we were to see in Palermo), really quite awe inspiring.

After a stroll along the harbour, we headed west by the coast to our next accommodation in a very upmarket area above the coastal town of Aspra, which a guidebook describes as part of the ‘fascinating village of Bagheria’. This ‘village’ turned out to be a sprawling, litter strewn, graffiti scarred town (I had also heard it was a Mafia stronghold) as fine an example of ugly urban blight as you could imagine, but a few minutes drive away sat beautiful villas and gardens above a rocky, cliffy coast. The contrast was incredible.Our bungalow was part of a small development amongst the Umbrella pines, behind a security gate (seemed to be a common feature) and was an absolute delight (and a relief) to arrive at. It was very spacious and pleasantly decorated inside with an enormous outdoor dining terrace.

I love that dry, warm scent of pines by the sea, so evocative of the Mediterranean and bringing back memories of many lovely trips to the South of France. A walk through the wildflower strewn grounds took us to steps which had been cut into a low cliff, winding their way down to a rocky bathing area beside very deep water. It was all a bit TOO deep and rocky for me in terms of swimming there, but the views along the coast were truly beautiful.

I was so glad we’d booked here for 2 nights – what a haven to return to after a busy day tomorrow exploring Palermo and Monreale.

ASPRA

A 5 min drive and we were in Aspra itself, a small seaside resort with a very popular Lungomare – a long pavement beside the gravelly beach, popular for the famous Italian ‘passeggiata’ of an evening. There were colourful, picturesque fishing boats but after strolling the front for a while, it lost its appeal very quickly. The shoreline was litter strewn and dirty, full of makeshift stalls selling cheap tat and sweets. Disco music blared out from cafes. Across the road, were countless takeaways and not hugely appealing restaurants. My heart sank – the views along the mountainous coast towards Palermo were great but this was depressing. However, the very young teenage population were obviously having a high old time, good on them, thriving in the thumping disco beat blaring from every bar, strutting their stuff on the passeggiata or lounging on the outside terraces of the bars.

We had a few things for tonight which we’d picked up in a small shop in Cefalu – bread, butter,  tomatoes, crisps plus wine though we had hoped maybe a takeaway pizza might have appealed but neither of us was really hungry after the big lunch.

So back to our lovely quiet apartment amongst the pines. Cicadas chirruping rhythmically as it grew dark but apart from that, silence. A glass of Prosecco for me, Chenin Blanc for Chris, munching on crisps then grazing on a light supper of the various things we had on offer. I was avidly reading, for the umpteenth time, the guide book on Palermo and checking the train times from Bagheria station. I’d read so much about the city in terms of its poverty and litter and traffic chaos, but the World Heritage Sites of the Cappella Palatina and Monreale meant it had to be braved.

Previous Days: SICILY IN A WEEK: Syracuse and Ortygia  Sicily in a Week: Noto, Modica and Marzamemi   SICILY IN A WEEK: Ragusa, the world’s finest Roman mosaics and the Madonie Mountains

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