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GENERAL INFO ON PARKS AND SURROUNDINGS

Protection of Nature in Sicily.

Sicily has 5 Natural Parks and 77 Nature Reserves. 14% of the island is protected. Not too many regions in Europe has that.

Madonie, Nebrodi, Etna Parks General Introduction.

Geology.

Madonie, called the “Dolomites of Sicily”, are formed by carbonate limestone. Till the XVIII century the MADONIE were part of the NEBRODI. Was the French scientist Deodat de Dolomieu, who discovered the special limestone of the mountains in the Alps that had from him their name, that saw the analogies between the limestone of Madonie with the Dolomites of Alps and the huge difference between Madonie and the rest of Sicilian mounts. Madonie are the oldest rocks of Italy. They came out first from the bottom of an ancient ocean and they are formed by enormous quantities of fossils of ancient sea creatures. Madonie are divided in three main mountain complexes: Mount Carbonara, Mount Cervi, and Mount Pizzo di Pilo. The highest mountain is Carbonara with his 1979 meters. This Mount is characterized by very many depressions (doline) formed by the action of snow with limestone which is slowly dissolved in spring when snow became water. Looking at the Carbonara from a helicopter it looks as was bombed by war planes for the hundreds of these natural depressions existing. On the bottom of “doline” there is a very particular micro-clime that permits the life of many species of endemic plants. All water collected by doline goes inside the mountain through some fixtures in the rocks called “swallowers” (Inghiottitoi) and it is saved by a complicate system of underwater lakes and channels that give water in hundreds of springs at lower altitudes all year round. That’s why in the Madonie villages there is always plenty of source water all year round.

Madonie are high, sharp, steep, and rocky. Nebrodi Mountains, instead, are sedimentary rocks much younger. They are round, not as high, not as steep and stony. The terrain is a lot softer, and they host many natural lakes, ponds, creeks and rivers. On Nebrodi Mountains the high presence of water depends by the different soil. Water of melting snow is trapped during spring in many ponds of any dimension with a diameter of few meters, called “Margi”, or in lakes like the Biviere, Cartolari, Tre Arie, Zilio, and Maulazzo.

Etna is the biggest volcano of Europe. It is active but is like a “bottle of champagne without cork”. Majority of his pressures goes out from the 4 summit craters. When these pressures are infiltrating lava along the sides of volcano, sometimes starts an eruption with lava flows coming down. Etna volcano is monitored by a huge net of instruments connected by satellite with the Institute of Volcanology of Catania. Nowadays volcanologists see a lot before the signs of a probable eruption and they can activate safety measures closing the access to the areas of volcano that can be involved in the eruption. In the last years from 2002 the Volcano has done only some pretty frequent, short, eruptions of lava from the summit craters, very spectacular but not dangerous at all for the enormous distances existing from the craters and the villages and our trails. All last lava flows went all inside the lonely Bove valley, the enormous caldera of the very ancient volcano Mongibello. All sort of outdoors are normally done on Etna all year round till 2700 meters (Etna is 3300 m. high). Above this altitude (or lower) outdoors are forbidden when volcano is in a possible active phase. The eruptions formed a great varieties of lateral craters, lava flows, morphologies created by the erupted lava like “rope lavas”, “megathumulus”, “dammusi”, open sky lava channels, lava tubes, “Hornitos” all of that can be seen during our itinerary.

The Alcantara valley is crossed by the Alcantara River that forms a long stretch of gorges that cut the basaltic lava of an ancient eruption. The Gorges cannot be visited on horseback. There is only one entrance accessible on foot but not reachable on horseback due intense car traffic. That’s why we decided to do not go down to Alcantara valley as was done the first year of operation.

Botany.

Few people know that before the Romans conquered Sicily it was covered for 92 % by primary forests. Deforestation started with the Romans during the three Punic wars with Cartagine. They established two navy ship yard on the coast down the still existing villages of Caronia (Nebrodi area) and Pollina (Madonie area). They used the centennial oaks and beeches to build the ship bodies and the very tall Abies nebrodensis (Fir of Nebrodi) for the mast trees of the war boats. They cut this fir almost till extinction. Only 22 of them survived in a narrow and secluded valley of Madonie. Nowadays the Abies nebrodensis is reintroduced in the Nebrodi and Madonie by the Sicilian Forestry Service (Azienda Foreste Demaniali). Nebrodi and Madonie are covered variously by woods made by five different species of oaks, higher (above 1.500 meters) start the almost continuous blanket of beeches woods. Madonie has the higher and richest botanic bio-diversity of Italy with the presence of more than 5.500 of the 6.500 present in all Italy. There are many endemic species and, inside the doline, some very little endemic plants with a cycle of life very short. More than 200 are the species of orchids. Along the trails used is easy to see many interesting or endemic plants like Genista cupani, Astragalus, Cystus, Crocus, Primula, and so long.

On Nebrodi, around Biviere Lake area, it is easy to see the Taxus baccata a coniferous that has plants 25 meters high. All over there are very many single plants or groups of centennial trees of oaks and beeches. On Mount Soro there is the oldest and biggest Beech of Italy. It is 850 years old. Being so young they have only one endemic species of plants: Petagna, to be found in a very few locations. Most f Nebrodi mountains are covered by the most ancient and wide forests of Sicily.

On Etna, plus the species of trees of the other Parks, there is the Betula aetnensis, endemic specie of birch that arrived in Sicily during last ice age and survived only on Etna, assuming specific characteristics. The botanic wonders of Etna are in the species able to colonize the lava. There are numerous endemic or interesting species like Astragalus siculus, Senecio, Cerastio, Rumex, Saponaria sicula. The most spectacular is the Genista aetnensis, the first “big” plant able to colonize lava with his roots able to break it. It can be 15 meters tall and in summer it is entirely covered by yellow smelling flowers. The long process of colonization of lava by the plants takes centuries. Along the trails on Etna is possible to see directly all stages of this very long process.

Wildlife.

There are not big differences between the wildlife living in the different Parks of Sicily. On

Madonie were reintroduced deer, absent in other Parks.

The best is in the sky with nesting couples of King Eagles, a colony of Vultures (Gypsus gypsus), Peregrine falcons, many species of smaller hawks. Before the institution of the Parks was almost extinct the Sicilian partridge (Alectoris graecae whitakeri) that now is back in good numbers and easily seen on Madonie and Nebrodi. In the lakes of Nebrodi are easily seen many species of ducks and the endemic Sicilian water turtle.

People and Traditions.

Sicilian mountains were used by the man from the Palaeolithic times. In Madonie there are some grottoes that show signs of their use as temporary summer hunting home by the men from those times. They were reaching the mountains in spring to hunt big game (bear, lynx, deer, and elk) and collect wild plants and wood. The activity of breeding sheep for milking and meat started from the High Neolithic times without interruption. Before the huge emigrations to Americas and Australia after the world wars, were bred on Madonie more than 100.000 sheep! Nowadays are around 10.000, goats included.

On Nebrodi the main activity is the breeding in the mountain pastures of cows, sanfratellano horses, and the little black pig of Nebrodi, very specific specie of small pig). The number of sheep/goats is very small. On Etna the breeding activity is really ended up today.

Till 20 years ago the life style of the mountain Sicilian shepherds did not changed too much from the Neolithic times. The same was the hut used by then (called Pagghiaru) made by a circle or a square of stones 1-meter-high, then a roof made with trunks of oaks and branches. The same was the organizations of the shepherd work place (called Marcatu) constituted by some huts, then the stone corrals for the sheep, the corral for the lambs, the working area to make milk. Before the arrival of 4x4 cars the shepherds were living in summer up in the mountains for long periods, going home only a couple of days some weeks. In Nebrodi, in the mountain farms there are always stony round pens with a pole in the middle to tame Sanfratellano local horses. Today the breeding of cows, sheep, and goats to make meat and cheese and horse breeding are still very important in the economy of Madonie and Nebrodi. The principal traditional cheeses made are: “Pecorino” (with sheep milk), “Caciocavallo” (with cow and goat or sheep milks), “Ricotta” (from cow or sheep or goat milks) and some goat cheeses. The method it is the same from centuries, using the dried and cured interior of the intestine of a lamb as “cheese maker” and the same very ancient traditional tools made with some specific woods. On Etna volcano breeding is gone. Agriculture is very important with the cultivations of D.O.C. grape to make ETNA ROSSO wine, the pistachio in the north side and with lots of apples. One of them is specific of Etna, called “Puma gelata cola”. Mountain people are very gentle, hospitable and hard workers. They are used to live traditionally, especially in the most isolated villages as Isnello, Polizzi, Petralia Soprana and Gangi, on the Madonie; Capizzi, Floresta, Sanfratello and Cesarò on the Nebrodi; Maletto and Bronte on Etna volcano.

History.

After Sicani and Siculi people, Phoenicians started to reach by ships the coast of Sicily to trade and to build some colonies on the west side. In the VII century B.C. Sicily was colonized by the Greeks that founded their first colony (Naxos) on the lava cape of nowadays Giardini Naxos. Following the course of Alcantara River they went inside the interiors of Sicily discovering their mountains covered by primary forests and very rich in wildlife and minerals as iron, gold, copper, silver. The Rock of Cefalù (Madonie territory) was always inhabited by people, as Taormina Cape, MIlazzo Cape and all the mountains were used mostly in summer for hunting, logging and plants gathering. Greeks started a light colonization of interiors. Were the Romans to start to build real towns on and around the mountains to cut wood for ship and houses building and then planting fields of hey and cereals (Sicily was the “granary of Rome” and homes of Rome, all in wood, were built with trees from Sicily and Calabria). They also start to exploit mines almost industrially (very famous the sulphur mines of the centre of Sicily were thousands of slaves died). Adranon (today Adrano) was the first big town on Etna volcano. Already in 737 B.C. Tucidite, the Greek historian and General, described one eruption of Etna and others philosopher and historians the others occurred in 477 e 427 A.C. Practically all major eruptions of Etna were describer from those times till nowadays.

After the fall of Roman Empire, the Sicilian Mountains remained under the Bizantinian till the conquest of Sicily by the Arabians (started in 827 A.C.). On the mountains were founded by them very many villages with Arabian names. In 1061 started the conquest of Sicily by the Normans. Some very important battles happened in Cerami and Troina, on the foot hills of Nebrodi, and on Piano Battaglia in the high Madonie. After the Norman conquest, all Etna was surrounded by Norman castles and cities. Randazzo, Adrano and Paternò became really important along the very ancient trade routes of the Alcantara River on the North and Simeto River on the South. It’s with the Normans that in the Nebrodi Mountains arrived (with the wife of Roger II°) a colony of people from Lombardy (North of Italy) with their horses. These horses are the ancestors of the nowadays Sanfratellano horses, one of the 3 breeds of Sicilian horses (read below).

In the Madonie Mountains, is very remarkable the history of the Ventimiglia family that, from the XIV century, established a sort of Kingdom inside the Sacred Roman Empire of Frederic II°. They were the only Feudal Lords allowed to make their own coins and they founded the very first Horse Academy of history: the “Academy of the Star”. All Madonie villages still have castles (o remains) of the Ventimiglia. One big change was done up in the mountains by the Bourbons (Spanish) in the late XVIII century. They were the first to build real dirty roads to connect the biggest cities. They were called “Regie Trazzere” (King’s roads) and large 12 meters to allow the movements of big herds of cattle in the mountains. In the following years these mountains roads were restricted by land owners, many were covered by asphalt, many simply disappeared but some of them still exist and we use them in our trips especially on Nebrodi Mountains. The typical Sicilian wagons all painted with bright colours and with stories of ancient knights, came only in the late XVIII and in the XIX centuries. Before all major movements of goods and people was done by boat. On land were used only pack trains of mules and horses. Before the Spanish roads there were not used wagons in long travels on land, the nobles were travelling in small sedan chairs (wagons without wheels with room for 1 or 2 travellers) that were put with two poles between two mules or horses in one line and guided by a man on foot along the narrow trails of the time.

The ancient Sicilian horse culture and the 3 Sicilian horses.

Not too many people know that during the ancient Greeks Olympic Games, the majority of equestrian games were won by the Horses of Syracuse. Greeks were the first to import in Sicily high quality horses. They were all Orientals coming from Mesopotamia, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria regions. In Sicily these horses found a very good environment very similar to their original but with a better soil (lots of limestone with calcium) and grass. So they fortified their bones becoming stronger and bigger.

The oldest horse race known is done every year in Sicily in Agira (in the centre of Sicily) along the road that was going from the Greek village up to the Agorà on top one high hill. This race it is held every year from that times till nowadays. The Romans imported and breed in Sicily the Eques italicus, the breed developed by them for their cavalry and they mixed with local oriental horses forming a quicker and most endurance battle horse. When Arabians invaded and conquered Sicily for three centuries, they imported more than 10.000 Berber and Arabian horses followed by the Norman’s battle horses arrived with the heavy cavalry of the Normans army. After their conquest, new horses came with a group of Celtic speaking language emigrated from the North Italy that had permission to settle in the nowadays Nebrodi mountains founding the village of Sanfratello. They took with them their black, strong horses that became the today “Sanfratellano” Sicilian horses, always living free up in the mountains. The Ventimiglia family, in the XIV century, established in their Manor in Castelbuono the Academy of the Star, the very first horse academy in history, long time before the schools of Naples and Versailles. They were making carousels with hundreds of riders, theatre on horseback and forming a top level military cavalry corp.

A very important moment of the Sicilian horse culture was when Ferdinand II°, King of Two Sicilies Kingdom, moved the Capital of the Kingdom from Napoli to Palermo after a revolution that forced him to leave the city. He loved in life only two things: women and horses. So in Sicily he opened another huge horse breeding farm after the one opened in Naples: Ficuzza, not far from Palermo. In this facility the best local Sicilian horse mares (all with Oriental and Arabian blood) were breed with Andalusia stallions to develope a new light cavalry horse: smaller, faster, endurable and overall really beautiful also to parade. When the English build the English thorough bred they came to Palermo to buy 100 mares of this “Sicilian indigenous horse” that was developed there.

Unfortunately, when Ferdinand II° died, his brother Ferdinand III° was not interested at all in horses and so closed Naples and Ficuzza breeding farms and sold all horses! An enormous genetic patrimony was going to be disrupted. Luckily few Sicilians noble families bought some of these stallions and mares maintaining some of that blood lines but the most of the Sicilian indigenous were sold to anybody and they were mixed with any kind of other horses. One of these families that bought that Sicilian indigenous and still is breeding that ancient blood lines is the Salomone family from Tusa. Nowadays they have the best samples of what was and still is the original Sicilian indigenous. 12 years ago was formed the Association of the Sicilian indigenous to re-establish the guidelines to have again alive the breed. Our horses are mostly Sicilian indigenous (some more, some less pure). The third Sicilian horse is the Sicilian Pure Oriental (Puro Sangue Orientale: PSO). In 1876 was established the stud book of these horses imported by the Italian Cavalry in Catania after a trip of a Colonel to buy top stallions and mares from the area of Jordan/ Syria/Lebanon. These horses were used to improve the blood of the horses of the Cavalry and to be breed in purity. After so many generations breed in purity on Sicilian soil, this horse became a specific Sicilian breed. There are now only around 190 horses left. They are under the UNESCO protection. Comparing the forms of oriental horses imported by the Greeks and drawn on vases and coins of the time now in museums, we can see that head and proportions are exactly the same of the nowadays PSO. Genetic studies found that the DNA of PSO it is coming from one only haplotype so without the “crazy” mix of different Arabians bloods that there are in many Arabian horses of today made by the man to enhance “necks and noses” as the actual fashion want (American Arabians has 18 different haplotype). Some of our horses has PSO father.

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