A Walking Trip in the Sicilian Countryside
Published: May 2009
By Roxana Robinson
A walking trip in the Sicilian countryside -- and along the coastal paths of the Aeolians -- turns out to be more than just a test of stamina. Roxana Robinson discovers that there are unexpected pleasures in hanging with the girls
Last year I was invited on a seven-day walking trip in Sicily. It sounded sensational: up to 10 miles each day through that fierce and ancient landscape. We'd spend two days near Syracuse, on the southern coast; two in Taormina, in the east; and three in the Aeolian Islands, the archipelago just off the Sicilian coast. We'd climb through desolate gorges, across the broad flanks of smoking volcanoes, and up steep wooded mountains rising from the sea. That was the adventure part. For luxury, there were comfortable hotels, two local guides, and vans for the luggage. Plus we'd be in Sicily, where you can't get a bad meal.
There was another interesting aspect to the trip: it was all-women. I'd never traveled with a passel of females before, and I wondered what it would be like. Would we talk differently?Would women alone act like men alone—turn loud and bawdy, like guys on a hunting trip?Without men, would we wear makeup and jewelry to dinner?I was curious. I accepted at once.
Country Walkers, our outfitters, planned everything and sent meticulous instructions. I was told to pack light, to bring only hiking boots, rain gear, sweaters, shorts, long pants, T-shirts, hats, a walking stick, and clothes for dinner. Light?The night before my departure found me, as usual, surrounded by piles of clothes, half-filled suitcases, and random pairs of shoes; myself immobilized by indecision and the whole scene overcast by the brooding mystery of which essential object I would forget this time.
On the first day, my suitcase crammed with ill-chosen things, I arrived at the Catania airport. We were to meet there by midday, and on our way to Syracuse we were to stop for a hike through the Pantalica, a wild gorge.
We met our two guides. Alex Gullo, of Sicilian descent, was in his thirties, slight and olive-skinned, with jet-black hair, soulful brown eyes, and a wide white smile. He was easygoing and gregarious. Paul Blanchard, an American living in Florence, was in his forties, quiet, knowledgeable, and articulate, an artist and a guidebook writer. The two shared a vast love and knowledge of Sicily.
The first afternoon tested them: storms delayed incoming flights, the last member of our group arrived without her suitcase, and the battery was dead in one of the vans. Hours behind schedule, we thought we'd miss our walk. But, at twilight, our resourceful guides had us on a beach near our hotel outside Syracuse. For an hour we strode through the soft salt air, across rough headlands beside the wide turquoise sea, the lights of the harbor glittering across the darkening water.
That night, at a trattoria, we sat down together for the first time. We ordered wine and began to talk. I knew only three of the women, though most of them had traveled together before. We were nine: Susan and Kathy, the organizers; Galen, Stephanie, two Judys; Mary, Leila, and me, all from New York and its environs. I won't say we were middle-aged, because that's a phrase used only about other people, but our ages did cluster gracefully around the 50-year mark. We'd all been married at least once. We all loved walking; we all were fairly fit. No one had trained specially for the trip.
We talked. We talked about packing, which we all hated. Someone said that, in the throes of it, she'd almost called Kathy and then declared, "No. I'm fifty-four years old and I'm not calling anyone up to see what she's wearing." She sounded triumphant, as though she'd ended years of servitude. We talked about our first husbands and our second husbands. With great animation we talked about childbirth. At this I looked at Paul and Alex, who were eating silently, their eyes on their plates. It already seemed we were different from guys. I couldn't imagine this conversation on the first night of a golf trip.
the next morning we were to set off promptly at nine. Promptness, I learned, was one of the trip's two rules. The essential object I had forgotten was a clock, and that morning I was running late. At nine I was searching frantically for my sun hat, but instead of the sympathetic responses for which women are so famous, I received stony stares and silence. More like guys.
Our first climb was into Sicily's great canyon, the Cava Grande di Cassibile. The 820-foot descent was difficult: down steep switchbacks with loose wet stones underfoot. But at the bottom was a ravishing blue-green river overhung with trees and widening into pools. The gorge was hundreds of feet deep, but wide; it felt secret, but was full of light. As we reached a broad, beautiful pool, we noticed that Paul and Alex had fallen tactfully behind. We stripped down and plunged in, some suited, some not. The water was black and cold—crystalline and delicious. We had lunch on the rocks, surrounded by waterfall, sunlight, and birdsong. Later, when we reached the top again, generous Kathy produced a bag of sweet chewy pastries called "esses," after their shapes. We ate them in the lowering sun, looking out on a wild landscape. Across a broad chasm, mountain goats teetered unconcernedly round the cliffs.
That night at dinner we talked. We talked about our dogs, and how we hated leaving them. Mary had made a recording of her voice for her dog, which her husband was playing every night of her trip. Several of us, myself included, confessed to having talked to our dogs on the phone. Are we nuts?I thought about the guys on the golf trip.
We spent the next morning at the archaeological museum in Syracuse, where Paul was an informed and enthusiastic guide. He showed us a lyrical statue of a big, full-bodied woman nursing two blissful infants. Paul described an ancient matriarchal society where men were warriors and consorts who held no property or titles. Eventually, he said, the men rebelled at this unfair treatment.
Up until then, our group had been a quiet and courteous audience, but this story seemed to stir us up.
"How many hundreds of years did it take them to figure that out?" someone asked rowdily, and everyone laughed.
"When was this, exactly?" I asked.
"Those were the Good Old Days."
Paul waited patiently for our hilarity to subside. I wondered if this was sexual harassment. Were we acting like guys?It seemed suspiciously close.
That afternoon had been left free for shopping in Taormina, but we requested instead the walk we had missed on our first day, in the Pantalica. This was eight miles into another river gorge, with an abandoned train track running along it. We followed the railbed through wild meadows and eerie black tunnels bored into the hillsides. Then we climbed among lavender cyclamen and bright yellow crocuses to a prehistoric grave site. The necropolis was unimpressive—small, ruined limestone caves—but the view was spectacular. Climbing in a place makes you feel that you somehow own it, and we gazed out on Sicily's rugged landscape with proprietary exhilaration.
Taormina is a famously charming town, sprawled across a hillside overlooking the sea. Its scale is medieval: low stone buildings and narrow cobbled streets. The main thoroughfare is reserved for pedestrians, and it opens into broad piazzas overlooking the glittering sea. Because it's so famously charming there are always tourists there—us, for example—even off-season, but they spoil nothing. The town absorbs them, imperturbably.
We spent two nights at the elegant Grand Hotel Timeo. My roommate here was Kathy—we had different roommates at each place, and we were to sit between different people at each meal. This was the second rule. I was impressed by this careful attention to group dynamics; I wondered if the guys on the golf trip would have considered it.
At dinner, at the small, chic Maffei's, we were given a dismal table indoors. (Because we were women alone?) We resisted absolutely, and after much muttering they seated us in the pretty walled garden, lit with candles. It turned out that we did all dress up for dinner: a little makeup, a little jewelry. After dinner, Susan tried to teach us a soft-shoe routine, but only Judy One managed to learn it.
In the morning, we took an early walk around the Greek amphitheater, one of the best in ancient Greece. From the high seats we looked down at the stage where Sophocles' plays were once performed, and at the breathtaking cerulean bay beyond. That day we hiked Mount Etna, though we couldn't reach the summit because the volcano was inconveniently erupting. Etna does this often, emitting clouds of smoke and streams of sullen black lava, which is inexorable but slow. Etna's slopes are broad and gentle, and we followed a dirt road past open meadows, dappled beech groves, and bleak lava jumbles. Lunch was at a stone rifugio (shelter), with an outdoor stone table and seats, like the seven dwarves'. Alex magically produced a white lacy tablecloth and we spread out our best meal yet: tomatoes, figs, bread, olives, pecorino, salami, Parma ham, basil, peaches, and pears. Everything was ripe, sweet, and local, including, of course, generous Kathy's esses.
The next morning we set off for the hydrofoil to the Aeolian Islands. Our last three days would be spent on these beautiful and romantic volcanic islets, named for the god of wind. This is where Aeolus lived in Homer's Odyssey, and, approached from the water, the islands do look mythic and unreal; they're so steep and solid, so majestic, and rise so suddenly from this misty blue sea.
We disembarked at Vulcano, named for the Roman god of fire. Here there is an active volcano, which constantly emits plumes of pale sulfurous mist. No lava, however: unlike Etna, Vulcano is "stopped"—pressure will build up in its caldera until it explodes. The most recent eruption, in the 1880's, spewed red-hot boulders high into the air. The mountain rises forbiddingly above the port, from which we set out. In half an hour we were on the volcano's bare flank: dark scree and red clay. We staggered up the steep side, beneath shifting waves of noxious fumes. Gaining the rim, we walked along its narrow shoulder, the long slide of red clay on the outside, the flat-bottomed caldera far below, on the inside. Huge clouds streamed from one pale yellow stretch of rim, but before we reached it we stopped at the summit, two-thirds of the way around. Generous Kathy produced our reward: the world's best macaroons. Would guys have brought pastries to the top of a volcano?
Continuing past the summit meant braving the thickest curtains of sulfurous smoke, and already our lungs were burning. Paul warned that if we stopped on the stones our rubber soles would melt. Some of us turned back, but this was too weird for me to resist. I picked my way slowly down the steep slope toward the dead yellow fields. As I approached, the clouds turned denser, billowing toward me, closing me off from the others and from the world. It was like hell: sulfur permeated my lungs, smoke blinded me. I inched my way across this strange pale crust, hot and sere. Steam poured out copiously from its cracks, hissing beneath my feet. On this heated, unnatural earth, ominously fragile, I stepped gingerly. At some moment Vulcano will erupt. Probably not because of a clumsy footstep, but because of something, and who can say what the consequences of our acts will be?
Later we took the ferry to Lipari. The largest of the islands, it is lush and green, with a gently mountainous silhouette. The town looks like a Mediterranean village from the twenties: a small fishing port with cobblestoned streets, low whitewashed buildings, few cars. Everywhere there are stone archways and carved doorways, pots of blue-flowering plumbago, bougainvillea, and great clouds of jasmine throwing itself in shawls across the walls.
Our hotel was the Villa Meligunis, simple and pleasant, though modern. Leila was my new roommate, and our room was clean and airy. Before dinner, Susan and I explored the archaeological museum. It was exactly as a museum should be: small and intimate, full of exquisite objects quietly displayed. We ambled through the whitewashed rooms, past the great banks of amphorae and the small funeral figurines, feeling a strong sense of an ancient, vanished place, vivid lives.
next morning, it was pouring rain. country Walkers go out wet or fine, so we set off on our hike along the western coast. The Aeolians are less populated than Sicily, and the landscape is more lighthearted here, even in a downpour. We passed wild fennel, broom, and caper bushes. We stopped at a tiny stone complex, the oldest thermal bath in the Mediterranean, where Alex smeared a dollop of the pale mud on his cheeks. The rain lessened. We crossed grassy windswept bluffs, past stone walls pierced by white-leafed artemisia, pungent pink-blossomed mint, and tiny wild orchids. The rain increased. Two and a half hours later, sodden and freezing, we reached the village of Quattropani, where we had lunch in a warm, steamy restaurant, slowly thawing. No one walked back.
Dinner was at the Kasbah Café. The weather had cleared, and we sat in a narrow garden under lime trees and lighted flares. The Kasbah specializes in fresh pizzas and a rum drink that sounds like "Me, too." We drank rum and talked about whether your birth order determines your place in the hiking line: Susan, an oldest child, is always first up the mountains. After dinner we walked back through the quiet, darkened streets, our footsteps loud against the old stone.
On our last day, we took an early ferry to the island of Salina, to climb an extinct volcano, the densely wooded Mount Fossa delle Felci. We landed on the east coast at Santa Marina Salina. The town is small and beautiful, the light radiant, the houses low and whitewashed. We walked out into the fields and up the lower slopes of Mount Fossa.
This was our most difficult hike. The trail quickly turned steep, the air cold and damp. Susan (oldest child) disappeared at the head of the line. Alex and I (a middle child) climbed together, pausing once at a meadow where we could see the sea. "Remember to stop and look at the view," he told me. "It helps you climb." After an hour and a half of steep, steady climbing, we reached the top, in a thick cold mist that turned to rain. We waited for the others, shivering. There was a stone hut, but it was unwelcoming, windowless and dank. Two men in green uniforms drove up, talked to Alex, and vanished. Freezing, we wondered how long we'd be there. The men reappeared and spoke to Alex. He translated. "They've built you a fire." The green men—park rangers—had transformed the hut, turning an old oil drum into a fireplace. We ate lunch, warming ourselves blissfully before the flames. Kathy produced both esses and macaroons, and the green men brought us chestnuts to roast.
For our descent we took a different path, on the west side of the mountain. Halfway down, Alex, Susan, and I left the others to let them catch the three-o'clock ferry from Rinella. We'd walk around the southern flank of Mount Fossa, and get the six-o'clock ferry from Santa Marina Salina. It was to be an adventure: Alex had hiked only part of this route, and didn't know if the trail went all the way. Moreover, the six-o'clock ferry was the last of the day.
We waved good-bye and took the new trail back up the hillside. Soon we were high above the coast, on steep, red sandy bluffs. This part of the island was empty, and below us was only scrub and brush. The sun lowered steadily, and the trail continued to climb, instead of descending toward the southeast. We passed a tiny rifugio, barely big enough for our three bodies. "That's where we'll spend the night," Susan announced. We kept clambering upward, through the red landscape, until Alex finally said we'd have to turn back. We could still make the last ferry from Rinella.
"Wait," said Susan. "There's a fork ahead. Let's see if the trail turns down there."
We were in desolate terrain, high and barren, with a steep plunging drop to the woods. Below, the ocean crashed onto the rocks.
"Are you nervous?" Susan asked Alex. "Being on this unused trail?"
"No," Alex answered jauntily. "I have you to help if anything happens to me."
"Together we're a hundred and two," Susan warned. "Is this the woman you want in charge of saving your life?"
We climbed crest after crest, hoping, as we scaled each one, to see the white buildings of Santa Marina on the other side, but finding only waves of uninhabited forest. When we reached a wide wooded valley, with no sign of the trail, Alex said, "We're heading down to the coast here, no matter what." A faint path led through wild scree into intermittent clearings, and at last we saw houses. A family was coming in from the vineyards with baskets of grapes. Alex asked where the ferry dock was; his face fell. We weren't in Santa Marina, but in the next village over, Lingua. It was five o'clock. My knees were trembling; we'd been climbing for about seven hours. We hurried into the village and asked about a bus. There was one, but no one knew when it would arrive. We asked a woman for a ride, but she wasn't going to Santa Marina. We set out bravely but hopelessly on the main road. It was now 5:30, and Santa Marina was several miles away: we couldn't possibly make it. A car came by. Alex waved firmly, and it slowed. Alex leaned in and spoke to the elderly driver. The man looked at us, then nodded gravely. We caught the ferry with seven minutes to spare.
at our last dinner, we all felt festive, and the food, as usual, was wonderful. We talked about the trip, already reminiscing. We had hiked up and down volcanoes, through pouring rain and sulfuric mists, through gorges and amphitheaters. We felt strong and successful and proud.
Leila told us about her conversation with her dentist.
"You're taking a vacation," he'd said, "where are you going?"
"Hiking in Sicily," she'd answered.
"Oh," he said, "then you're still quite active."
Leila laughed so hard her eyes watered. It made us laugh, too, but everything made us laugh that night. We asked Susan and Judy One to do their soft-shoe routine. Finally they stood up, side by side, and began gaily shuffling and kicking in unison, accompanied by Susan's half-sung, half-spoken "Steppin' Out with My Baby." We cheered and clapped: we found it charming. We found everything charming, that night, and everyone found us charming, or at least this was what we felt.
More and more companies are offering walking tours. Here, the author's choice and a few others to consider.
Country Walkers 800/464-9255; $2,595 per person for the outfitter's standardized Sicilian trip.
Abercrombie & Kent 800/323-7308. In addition to visits to the country houses of Scotland and the medieval villages of the Dordogne, A&K offers walking safaris through Kenya and Tanzania.
The Wayfarers 800/249-4620. Specializes in walks through the European countryside, and has also added the United States and New Zealand to its itineraries.
Mountain Travel Sobek's La Dolce Via 877/773-6523. This adventure company is launching its first walking trips in May, primarily through Italy and France, with an emphasis on regional food.
Butterfield & Robinson 800/678-1147. Walking trips through Europe and Southeast Asia, as well as customized tours.