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Local artisans, shepherds, cheesemakers, and farmers are opening their doors in a lesser-known area of Sicily to create a new way for visitors to experience their island.

Rolling hills covered in wheat fields and peppered with wind turbines stretched as far as the eye could see. A stone village would occasionally appear among them, terraced along the hillside or perched atop a ridge overlooking the ochre-and-gold landscape.

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The scenery could have been from Val d’Orcia, the Tuscan region made famous by The Gladiator and The English Patient. Except that it wasn’t. I was in Sicily, in the little-explored Madonie mountain range on the Italian island’s northern coast.

This inland region is undeniably not what you’d expect to find in Sicily. The largest Mediterranean island usually conjures up images of turquoise waters and opulent Baroque cities, sandy beaches and postcard-perfect coastal towns. The Madonie, with its rural, agrarian topography, couldn’t be more different. But that’s exactly why a group of people recently launched The Heart of Sicily, a new travel experience devoted entirely to it (THOS).

The project, which began during the pandemic, aims to highlight this little-known part of the island through a series of immersive itineraries and activities that connect visitors with both the territory and the local residents.

It also wishes to assist in reviving the fortunes and community ties of the Madonie’s villages, which, like many borghi (small towns) throughout Italy and the historically impoverished south, have long suffered from chronic depopulation.

Fabrizia Lanza, director of the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, a Madonie-based culinary hub that has been teaching international students about Sicilian food and farming practises since 1989 (it was founded by Lanza’s mother, Anna), is at the helm of the project.

“When we went into lockdown and I had to suspend my classes,” she explained when I paid her a visit at Regaleali, a 200-year-old working farm and country estate.

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“For the past 20 years, I’ve been working with truly incredible small producers, artisans, and farmers – people who know and adore the Madonie but rarely have the opportunity to share their skills and stories,” she explained. She proposed to a few of them the idea of creating a series of travel experiences to shed light on their home.

“This is a treasure trove of cultural, historical, natural, and agricultural treasures,” Lanza said. “The hope is that by bringing them all together on one platform, this entire area can become a destination in its own right. It possesses all of the necessary characteristics.”

THOS currently has six hosts, including Lanza, who have each created unique itineraries centred on their expertise, ranging from food production and agriculture to craftsmanship, environmental walks, and archaeological excursions. THOS collaborates with farmers, shepherds, and artisans to provide everything from stays to meals while highlighting the local communities.

You could learn how to make ricotta with shepherd Filippo Privitera, who milks his 300 sheep by hand every morning; collect wild herbs with Porto di Terra, an eco-driven organisation that organises treks around this highland area; or visit ceramist Giovanni D’Angelo’s studio and furnace, where he has been crafting tiles for more than three decades. There are also opportunities to participate in seasonal olive oil production on an organic farm, as well as learn about wheat collection and composting.

The ultimate goal is for visitors to truly understand this remarkable region.

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“All of the activities we’ve planned are intended to promote the local community and its right to be the protagonist of THOS,” explained Roberta Billitteri, president of THOS. a host who took me on one of her tours. “Everyone involved in this project, including myself, has a job or their own business. We are opening our doors and making this land more accessible by connecting with one another and, as a result, visitors.”

Billitteri’s trips for THOS begin in her home village of Polizzi Generosa, a fairy-tale village. The hamlet is perched on a cliff (the name “Generosa,” which means “generous,” was given to it in 1234 by King of Sicily Frederick II, who appreciated the richness of its territory), and features an assembly of elegant stone buildings and meandering cobbled lanes, ornate churches, and quaint piazzette (small squares). It’s breathtakingly beautiful. 

Billitteri and her husband moved here in 2009 to start farming and promote sustainable agriculture. She cultivates the Badda bean and the pipiddu pepper, two Madonie-native plants that have been designated as Slow Food Presidia (a marker applied to small communities dedicated to preserving agricultural products at risk of extinction, safeguarding native breeds and following the principles of agroecology).

She also runs a food workshop in which she makes preserves from locally sourced ingredients and introduces THOS participants to the Madonie’s flavours and agricultural heritage through tastings and demonstrations.

“Our goal is to protect and, hopefully, raise awareness about Madonie-native products,” she explained as she showed me around the workshop. “They’re clear evidence of how Our territory is unique.”

All of the activities she’s created for her programmes highlight the area’s rural and gastronomic aspects. Visitors are led on walks to explore the many plants, trees, and fruits of the Madonie, eat at family-run restaurants featuring Slow Food ingredients, and stay at country residences such as Agriturismo Cuca, a hillside cottage and organic farm.

Visitors can meet the owner, farmer, and arborist Pietro Genduso, who grows more than 40 varieties of endangered Sicilian fruits.

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 “The local biodiversity is nothing short of incredible,” he said as we sat in the shade of a mulberry tree during my visit. “I believe many residents of the area, particularly those whose livelihoods are so inextricably linked to the countryside, strive to be custodians of this ecosystem,” he continued. “There is a love for the land that is being lost in other parts of Sicily.”

Genduso hopes to share his appreciation by partnering with THOS, beginning with his own orchard, which guests can visit. “It provides all of the fruits and vegetables we use to prepare dinner for our guests,” he boasted.

Giovanna Gebbia, a naturalist guide and another THOS host whose itineraries I sampled, is also proud of the Madonie’s biodiversity. Her programmes revolve around the sprawling Parco delle Madonie, and it’s there that we meet for a four-hour hike.

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