Nature Explorers Sicily mostly operates in the Madonie Park. The Madonie Mountains are located on the northern coast of Sicily, about 70 km east of Palermo. They belong to the Sicilian Apennines, like the Nebrodi and the Peloritani Mountains. The main mountain, the Carbonara Massif (1979 m above sea level), is the second highest peak in Sicily after Mount Etna.
In 1989 the Sicily Region created the Madonie Natural Park to protect the area. Indeed, the place is extraordinarily rich in biodiversity and is of huge geological interest.
But there is no need to be a scientist to catch the Madonie’s beauty: its impressive landscapes, colourful flowers, delicate butterflies, giant trees, medieval villages and welcoming locals can touch everyone’s heart.
The Madonie Park is the richest place in Sicily regarding biodiversity and one of the richest ones in the whole Mediterranean area. Regarding flora, more than 1600 vegetal organisms have been found in the Park’s 40,000 hectares.
Why such a concentration of biodiversity in such a small territory? Above all thanks to geography factors:
- the Park includes areas located from the sea coast to nearly 2000 m in altitude, offering a wide variety of climate conditions
- when temperatures rose at the end of the last glaciation, nearly 10,000 thousand years ago, the top of the mountains remained "thermically" isolated and many species developped in such a specific way that they became endemic*
- Sicily's crossroads position between Europe, Africa and Asia reflects in the local biodiversity
Many endemic species grow in the Madonie, like the Madonie fir (Abies nebrodensis) which only lives in the Vallone della Madonna degli Angeli and nowhere else in the world. This endangered tree has become the symbol of the Park. There are about 30 of them left in nature and they are now protected.
Other interesting endemic plants include Cupani broom (Genista cupanii), Madonie astragalus (Astragalus nebrodensis), Madonie violet (Viola nebrodensis), Helichrysum nebrodense, Iris pseudopumila, Boccone thistle (Jurinea bocconei), Stipa sicula, Alyssum nebrodense,Dianthus cyathophorus subsp. minae, Armeria nebrodensis and Sternbergia sicula.
The Madonie are also very rich in wild orchids with 65 species and varieties, including Ophrys pallida, Orchis brancifortii, Ophrys oxyrrhynchos and Neotinea commutata. The best period to observe them is April at low altitude (see our Wild flowers trail excursion) and May in the mountain areas.
The Madonie shelter a lot of monumental trees. In Piano Pomo, there is an entire wood of giant hollies. They nearly reach 20 metres high and are considered unique in the world. A few kilometres away, the Macchia dell’Inferno’s oak, about 1000 years old, quietly watches over the surrounding forest.
Other relevant centuries-old trees include maples, beeches, ash trees, olive trees, hawthorn trees as well as wild pear and apple trees. They are disseminated in many areas of the Park.
The Madonie Park hosts all the mammal species living in Sicily. Fallow deer and boars were reintroduced some years ago and are rather easy to see during hikes. Porcupines, wild cats, martens, weasels, foxes and rabbits are usually more discreet.
Many species of birds can be seen. Raptors include the red kite, the peregrine falcon, the kestrel, the buzzard and a few couples of golden eagles. Griffon vultures might be reintroduced soon thanks to an ongoing project. Corvids include the red-billed chough, the big raven, the Eurasian jay, the jackdaw and the hooded crow.
Invertebrates are well represented too; they include rare species of butterflies (e.g.: Parnassius apollo siciliae and Polyommatus daphnis pallidecolor, both endemic to the Madonie) and coleopters (e.g.: Rosalia alpina, Osmoderma cristinae and Gnorimus decempunctatus, which saproxylophagous larvae feed from decaying monumental trees).
As there are still traditional shepherds in the area, many sheep, goats and cows pasture freely, as well as donkeys and horses.
The Madonie are composed of sedimentary rocks, above all limestone, sandstone and clayey rocks. Some of them are particularly old and were formed more than 200 million years ago.
The area is of great geological interest and the Madonie Park belongs to the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network.
Sea fossils up in the mountains
In the past, the Madonie rocks were sea beds. They rose up a few million years ago due to the movement of tectonic plates. This is why sea fossils can be seen in many places. Cefalù’s old town is partly paved with a local stone called lumachella (which means “small snail”) full of gastropod fossils (nerinea and rudists). In Piano Battaglia (1600 m), you can find amazing coral and sponge fossils.
Stones carved by the water
You can observe interesting examples of karst in the Madonie’s limestone: caves, sinkholes and gorges created by the dissolution of the stone in contact with water. Some examples of local karst are easy to reach, such like Grattara’s cave near the village of Gratteri, Battaglietta’s sinkhole and the Gorges of Tiberio on the river Pollina. Others, like the Abisso del vento cave (Abyss of the Wind, one of the largest caves in Sicily) are only accessible to speleologists.
Other places of the Madonie Natural Park with geological interest include the Anfiteatro di Quacella, Monte Ferro and Portella Colla.
Old men take the sun on the benches, play cards or chat in the bars. Linen dries on the balconies. Local mammas cook exquisite food for the whole family. Yes, the towns and villages of the Madonie are typically Sicilian, but they all have something more in common: architecture and art can be quite similar, as well as local traditions and a special sense of hospitality.
Geography and, above all, history, are probably the roots of this “Madonitan” identity: the area was indeed ruled for centuries by a unique and powerful noble family, the Ventimiglia, which left a visible and long-lasting influence.
The following towns and villages have at least part of their territory included in the Madonie Park: Cefalù, Castelbuono, Collesano, Isnello, Gratteri, Pollina, San Mauro Castelverde, Geraci Siculo, Petralia Sottana, Petralia Soprana, Castellana Sicula, Polizzi Generosa, Caltavuturo, Sclafani Bagni and Scillato.
The town of Gangi is not included in the Madonie Park, but is historically and culturally considered as part of the Madonie.
* endemic: native and restricted to a certain place