From Milazzo to Novara di Sicilia

DAY 2 (05/08/2017) – Around Sicily in Eighty Days

Leaving the turquoise waters of Cape Milazzo behind we venture inland to visit Cannistrà, a village where people are dreaming of a brighter future, before taking on the first serious climb of our journey: 20km up the northern slopes of the Peloritani mountains to Novara di Sicilia.



Should you look for tourists around Cape Milazzo in the summer, you are more likely to find them by the natural pools at Punta Messinese, where we ended our Day 1 itinerary, than cooling off in the cave where Saint Anthony of Padua allegedly sought refuge in 1221 in the midst of a storm.

Whether it was in fact the saint himself or a hermit devote to him who spent some time there, we do not know, but the cave became a place of worship and even a pilgrimage destination. In 1575 a wealthy local family had it turned into a sanctuary: the cave ceiling remained as it was, whilst the walls were decorated with marble and a new altar built.

Though you are unlikely to become a saint or end up shipwrecked in Milazzo like old Anthony, a visit to the cave will still reward you with a singular experience. Not only does its rustic feel evoke the tranquility of a simple life of spiritual fulfilment, but also, like it often happens with religious buildings, its location affords you memorable vistas of Cape Milazzo’s western shores.

As a sicilian knows very well, spiritual fulfilment is scarcely attainable on an empty stomach. On our way to retrieving the bikes with our local host, Carmelo Isgrò, we make frequent stops to gorge ourselves on wild prickly pears. His knowledge of how to safely peel them using one of the same plant’s big thorns is, needless to say, particularly welcome. Equally welcome was his offer to let us stay at his place last night: he even gave us a copy of his excellent ‘Guide to the nature of Cape Milazzo’, which we would recommend to any visitor interested in things natural.

Leaving Milazzo behind, we proceed west along the coast, headed towards Novara di Sicilia, our final destination for today. By the time we get to Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto, we pick up a call from Mr Tonino Privitera, who is renewing his invitation to Cannistrà, a village located approximately 4km up in the hills. We get there only at the price of taking on the first serious climb of this journey. “It’d better be worth the hassle”, I tell Tonino’s sister as she greets us upon entering the village, half in earnest, half in jest.

An agricultural village dating back a few hundred years, Cannistrà was home to famed artist Nino Leotti, who often hosted expressionist painters of the likes of Giuseppe Migneco and Renato Guttuso. Regrettably, neither traditional agriculture nor arts are likely to produce enough income for small, isolated communities like Cannistrà to survive. That’s not to say, luckily, that all hope is lost: this is what Tonino wanted to show us.

There’s reality, on the one hand, and, on the other, there’s the realm of possibilities. Things change when people want them to change.” I’m interviewing Tonino sitting next to him on one of the steps of the ‘staircase of the dreams’: it is only one of the many pieces of art peppered around the village.

The Staircase of the Dreams.

Initially, I led a group of volunteers who set out to clean the whole village up every Saturday; then we got people to do what they could to make it beautiful, from putting out in their front yards braids of tomatoes to dry to reviving their balconies with flowers; then we got artists to decorate the townt; we set up film screenings and poetry recitals. And we’re not done yet at all!”.

As well as our artistic vocation have to leverage on our local culture and traditions to have a chance: olive oil, dried cherry tomatoes, embroidery and wicker baskets weaving. We are also hoping to convert the two-hundred-years-old century olive oil mill into an academy where young people can learn languages, software programming and leadership skills”.

Bidding farewell to Tonino and his family after they had us over for lunch leaves us with great hope that change is possible, wherever there’s a will strong enough to bring it about. Back on our bikes, we are also hoping for a significant drop in air temperature as we head towards the start of our 20km climb from Terme Vigliatore to Novara di Sicilia.

The SS185 road begins with a mild uphill, leaving the Mazzarrà brook valley to our right. We pause for a minute to check our devices and to inspect an old electric substation. About four kilometres after the town of Mazzarà, the gradient increases forcing us to proceed at an unnerving 8 km/h.

As we gain altitude and the road gets windier, we glance over our shoulder in between the switchbacks. Looking southward, the Aeolian Islands are wonderfully framed by Cape Milazzo, to the East, and Tindari to the Eest. In front of us, the Peloritani mountains’ irregular shapes cut through the afternoon sky in front of us: the Salvatesta rock hovers above the town of Novara di Sicilia at 1340 metres. Tripi, an interesting town located presumably on the site where the legendary city of Abacaenum once stood, sits on a ridge on the opposite side of the Mazzarrà valley. This, by the way, is one of the most thrilling roads to ride a motorcycle in the whole of Eastern Sicily.

We are not exactly feeling thrilled, as we enter Novara di Sicilia, dripping with sweat and having had a taste of what may lie in front of us on the mountainy sections of this ambitious journey. Sweating and swearing notwithstanding, it certainly feels like an achievement once we lean our bikes with their fully loaded racks against the wall by the Bar San Nicola. Filippo Scuderi, the owner, pops out of the front door: “Benvenuti!”. By virtue of his bar’s location, Filippo’s ever-smiling face has welcomed thousands of first-time visitors to Novara di Sicilia, including myself.

After dinner, he offers to drive us up to a field where we can set up the tent and spend the night. At 900 metres above sea level, it’s getting chilly. The Rocca Salvatesta, visible in the moonlight, disappears in the clouds above us as we zip our tent closed and lay down on a remarkably uneven ground.

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